John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey
the_gneech

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Book Review Time!

A long drive in the car all weekend, followed by a long night of lying awake with food poisoning (bleargh) had the beneficial side effect of allowing me to finish two books this weekend, Gambit by Rex Stout, and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

Gambit, by Rex Stout


Let's just be frank: Gambit is a by-the-numbers formula entry in the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin collection. And while that probably sounds like a condemnation, it isn't really — because the formula is "Take some Awesome, add a dash of WTF and Holy Crap, and mix liberally with ROFL until done."

NOTE: Yes, I know Nero Wolfe would want to actually rise from his chair and throttle me for that description. But I stand by it.

My point is, if you're familiar with the general trend of whodunits, you'll see certain devices coming a mile away. That's a Red Herring. That's a Boring Procedural Detail That Must Nonetheless Be Mentioned. And oh look, the Primary Suspect is the Second Victim! That kind of thing. In fact, there's only one real twist, in the form of a vitally-important clue that's withheld until 2/3 of the way through the book. But the reason that clue is withheld is because knowing it makes the culprit almost immediately identifiable. In fact, Archie even comments on how obvious the answer is once he knows. From there it's all about how they actually catch the miscreant once the identity is known.

That said, it's usually not really the mystery that people come for in a Rex Stout story, it's the characters, and they're all in good form. Nero Wolfe is eccentric and imperious (the book opens with him burning a dictionary because it's "seditious"), Archie Goodwin is sardonic and smartass, and the two of them gleefully go through the book giving each other grief.

In short, if you like Rex Stout, you'll like Gambit, and if you haven't read any Rex Stout, Gambit is a good place to start. It does reference events in an earlier story, and those familiar with the canon will spot the references immediately, but it's not really important to the plot and more of an Easter egg for returning readers than anything else. It's a good book — go read it! :)

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby


I've talked in the past about the concept of "dude lit" (or "bloke lit," as some of my readers prefer), and Nick Hornby is one of the names that comes up. I have a copy of High Fidelity that, if I recall correctly, was sent my way by the generous and lovely huskyteer that's been sitting on my "read this stuff" pile since it go here and happened to bubble to the top.

I will say at the beginning, that this review will sound harsher than I intend it to, because on the whole it's an enjoyable and very readable book. But the problem is that I wanted it to be better than it actually was, and that makes it hard for me to do anything but talk about what was wrong with it.

So, let's get on with what's wrong with it, so that hopefully I can salvage some of the review at the end by talking about what I liked. First off, this book was made into a film starring John Cusack in 2000, which I have not seen. But as I read the book, I found myself wondering the whole time what scenes or plot they must have added to actually make a movie out of it. Because frankly, the story can be summed up by, and there is a SPOILER here: "An unambitious British guy who runs a record shop talks a lot about the women he's broken up with, goes out with a couple of other women, and gets back together with the most recent one when they both realize they're not getting any younger." END SPOILER From looking at the Film Trailer, my guess is they went all Ferris Bueller on it, and I can see that working I guess. Certainly it looks like they got pretty close, even if they choose actors for the various roles that seem way-off-model to my head.

But my problem isn't really so much the "nothing happens" aspect of it. I mean, "nothing happens" in a lot of my favorite stories, and of course 99% of my own Brigid and Greg stories. My real problem is that even with the continuous tone of Veddy British Understated Irony, the book, despite every blurb on its cover, just isn't very funny. There are a few chuckles here and there, and a few items which are obviously meant to be funny but don't fly (the recurring character of the drunkard who comes into the shop, is mean and rude, and has to be shoved out again); but when the cover has quotes like "Made me laugh out loud more than any book I can remember..." you expect to at least giggle a little once per chapter. Or at least I do, and it's my review, so nyah. ;) Most of the time, the tone of the book hovers closer to "snarky whining" than anything else, at least to my ear.

P.G. Wodehouse (yup, you knew it was coming) famously had a maxim of putting "a joke on every page." And when he was writing, if he found two jokes on one page but no joke on another page, he would rearrange the jokes as needed. It may sound mechanical and formulaic, but as I mentioned with Gambit, using a formula is not a bad thing when it's a good formula. After all, five-star chefs use established recipes, don't they? [1]

To get my point across, let me point at the recent movie Ghost Town, which thanks to laurie_robey's Netflix Queue, I also happened to catch this weekend. (It was a big weekend for catching stuff!) Ghost Town stars Ricky Gervais as a grouchy dentist who rather unexpectedly finds himself in the same position as the "I see dead people!" kid and is forced to help various ghosts with the things that have kept them stuck lingering around instead of moving on, including the ghost of Greg Kinnear, whose widow can't let go of him. Now Ricky Gervais is a master of Veddy British Understated Irony that is actually funny. And so, even though Ghost Town is an American film, made in New York City, it still feels like what I was expecting from Nick Hornby. Funny, romantic, charming, occasionally quite silly. Alas, no. High Fidelity, like so many of these other Bloke Lit novels written in first person about bad relationships, boils down to a guy whining that he's not getting any. Or that when he finally gets into a relationship, that he can't help his wandering eye from chasing the next pretty girl that comes along. Pfui.

Like I said, there are things I did like about High Fidelity. Once I got over the idea that it was actually going to be funny (sigh) and just started reading it like any other book, I found some very nice prose and incisive moments. One passage that really jumped out at me:

Women get it wrong when they complain about media images of women. Men understand that not everyone has Bardot's breasts, or Jamie Lee Curtis's neck, or Felicity Kendall's bottom, and we don't mind at all. Obviously we'd take Kim Basinger over Hattie Jacques, just as women would take Keanu Reaves over Bernard Manning, but it's not the body that's important, it's the level of abasement. We worked out very quickly that Bond girls were out of our league, but the realization that women don't ever look at us the way that Ursula Andress looked at Sean Connery, or even in the way that Doris Day looked at Rock Hudson, was much slower to arrive, for most of us. In my case, I'm not at all sure that it ever did.

I'm beginning to get used to the idea that Laura might be the person I spend my life with, I think (or at least, I'm beginning to get used to the idea that I'm so miserable without her that it's not worth thinking about alternatives). But it's much harder to get used to the idea that my little-boy notion of romance, of négligés and candlelit dinners at home and long, smouldering glances, had no basis in reality at all. That's what women ought to get all steamed up about; that's why we can't function properly in a relationship. It's not the cellulite or the crow's feet. It's the … the … the disrespect.


I certainly can't speak for all men, but this particular man knows just what he's getting at here, and to that extent High Fidelity was certainly quite cathartic. At the same time, there are more moments like this in the first fifty pages of The Great Gatsby than there were in the entirety of High Fidelity and you don't see me scrambling to read that again. [2] What I look for in a romantic comedy is, y'know, romance and comedy, not Ruminations on the Tragedy of Guydom. The ruminations can be there, I don't mind them, but they should spice up the romance and comedy, not walk off with the whole book.

So, in a nutshell, High Fidelity is a fairly quick and mostly enjoyable read, with the occasional "Yup, that!" moment, but nowhere near as funny as its cover claims. I may see the film, just to compare; I suspect from the trailer that you'd probably get most of the same experience from it. But in a way, a book that can be adequately translated to film (with the exception of a genre book such as a whodunit) is a little bit of a wasted effort.

-The Gneech

[1] I also happened to catch an episode of Chef! over the weekend. Remind me to expound on the difference between humor and snark sometime, because Chef! has a big problem in that department.

[2] For the record, The Great Gatsby is an incredible book, and I'm glad I read it. But in the words of Slartibartfast, "I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
Tags: deep thoughts, movies, reading, writing
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