Monday, March 28, 2011

CBRIII #8: Eight Lives Down by Chris Hunter

The tagline for this movie – Oops, I meant book, is "The Story of the World's Most Dangerous Job in the World's Most Dangerous Place." Does that answer your questions as to what this book is about?

The author Chris Hunter brings his compelling account of his time in Iraq as an IED disposal operative. Hunter is in the British armed forces and started in England with his experience with the IRA bombers, deployed later in Colombia and Afghanistan, and finally, in Basra, Iraq. His unit in Iraq was constantly being called into the field to investigate potential bombs, defuse IEDs and collect forensic data to track down the bomb makers. In two months, his team managed to successfully defuse 45 bombs. Eventually, word got around about a man with "golden hair" ruining every single plan that the insurgents have, so they started targeting him, taunting Hunter with bombs that made him feel like he was always walking into a trap.

In between the tense accounts of facing combat fire from unknown attackers and crawling through sweltering desert heat in heavy protective gear to get to a bomb, Hunter talks about the camaraderie between the men in his unit, as well as his marriage troubles that come from having a high-risk job.

The writing actually isn't great, but it's personable and honest enough that I can actually imagine certain thoughts going through Hunter's head as he deals with each person, and boy is he a sarcastic, sardonic man. The subject matter is what really elevates the writing – every ride out of the camp seems to end like the final ten seconds before a bomb blows in a movie. It's incredibly exciting to read and really gets your heart rate to overdrive. I also really enjoyed the stories about how the team functioned together and the jobs of different people. I love Hunter's interactions with people who are career soldiers as it gave me a look at the mentality and problems that come with having sustained contact with such a world.

Usually, I try to alternate my books between fun fiction and serious non-fiction. After I got done with this, I thought, "Maybe it's time to read a politics book, because that book was way too much fun to count as serious non-fiction." Seriously, this book was a ride.

If you care to hear more from Hunter, check out this interview with him. I was really surprised by how he looked. This man seems more like a pencil pusher than a bomb disposal operative. Just goes to show, huh.

CBRIII #7: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Everyone but me has read this book, and I'm so glad I finally took the time to sit down and curl up in bed with it. In Cold Blood is a tautly-written account of a gruesome murder that took place in 1959 in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, and the after effects this tragedy had on the townspeople. Weaved in through the present narrative, Truman Capote also deftly and sympathetically retells the histories of the two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

(Funny story: I had actually picked up my copy while volunteering at a company-wide book sale. My job was to sort books into different sections based on subject and I was wandering back and forth between History, Crime and Fiction. My colleague asked if I was going to buy it and before I could answer, she said, "It's so good. Don't read it at night." On my way to a different section, three other people said the same thing, yet could give me no clue as to where I should shelf it. So I bought it.)

In Cold Blood makes it clear from the beginning that this is no mystery. It's not a whodunit or even a thrilling chase for the killers. What makes it so compelling is really the motivations behind the murder of four members of the Clutter family, and how it could manifest in two individuals who – despite being criminals and having served time in the clink – have good, human kindness in them. While reading this, I kept confusing Dick and Perry, and by the end had them fused in my mind as two sides of a schizophrenic killer. Even when I had them straight, each person just seemed so realistic that it made me uncomfortable. Dick who cared dearly for his family and was funny and personable in such a way that everyone who first met him was greatly taken; and Perry was thoughtful and intelligent, and he looked out for his friends and took comfort in their opinions. The fact that these two individuals could come together and brutally kill a family for no clear reason other than that they wanted to "leave no witnesses" confounds me.

Meanwhile, the small town of Holcomb has to cope with the murders. Before it was clear that the murderers were from out of town, the townspeople kept a wary eye out and their front doors locked. One part that stood out for me was when the lead detective of the case, Alvin Dewey, went to the local diner for a meal and a cup of coffee, and he was confronted by a local accusing him of basically not doing his best to find killers. The man said that he wasn't voting for Dewey in the next county-wide sheriff election, and Dewey's response was to throw back another cup of coffee like it's a shot of whiskey (That's how I pictured it in my head). The townspeople are so scared out of their minds that they cannot see reason, cannot even recognize that the Clutter murders have consumed Dewey, pained him and run him down and affected even his family life. I felt so much sympathy for the detectives working on the case because they felt the pressure of these murders more than anyone else in Holcomb.

In Cold Blood was truly a bittersweet experience. It brought me so much pleasure to read and yet also made me so sad. I hated Dick and Perry's actions – hated Dick's manipulation and his constant deriding of Perry; hated Perry's inability to see anyone's point of view but his own, his crippling myopic selfishness – but could also see the good in them. I was sad that they were executed in the end, yet also felt that their reckoning took so long to come. By the end of it, I felt like I was on some weird, emotional ride that actually happened. This is real, this is history... yet it's also fiction. Capote's reporting is impressive but he is a true manipulator. He really is the master of the sleight of reality.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CBRIII #6: Naked Heat by Richard Castle

So I caved and bought the second book that ABC put out for Castle. I got the first book, Heat Wave, a year ago and liked it because the only criteria for enjoying it is that I enjoy Castle the TV show.

I also enjoy Captain Tight Pants.

Naked Heat is pretty much a parallel to the beginning of the third season of Castle. Jameson Rook is being ignored by Nikki Heat and her other detectives because he wrote an article that was overly laudatory of Nikki, and failed to recognize that detective work is a team effort that takes a lot of grunt work. As a result of the article, Nikki has been dealing with the unwanted aspects of celebrity, with people gawking at her when she's trying to investigate a crime.

Celebrity seems to be the theme as the latest murder victim is a Six-Page-style writer that dishes dirt on celebrities. Cassidy Towne is reviled by famous people for her scathing, yet truthful, take downs of them, so Nikki has plenty of suspects on her list when her body turns up in her apartment with signs of having withstood torture. Rook is allowed to ride along on this case again because before Towne was murdered, he was following her to ride an article about the life of a gossip columnist.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a second dead body of a truck driver turns up. The team hits a dead end on this case but, as is usually the case with these stories, the two cases are actually connected.

"I aim to misbehave."

On the personal front, Jameson Rook is not winning any fans in the police precinct. Both the Ryan and Esposito characters (no, I'm not going to look up their names in the book because - what's the point? Same people!) are pissed at Rook for revealing personal, sensitive information about them in the article; and Nikki is pissed that Rook had featured her, and her personal life, so prominently. There's a lot of frosty, punn-y exchanges but of course, in the end, Nikki warms up – or should I say, heats up – to him.

"Oh, I'm going to that special hell..."

Though the plot of this book was better than the last one – and I didn't see the ending coming! – I really should stop reading these Castle books. No, seriously, I need to not buy these books anymore just because I like watching the TV show. Because reading a 200-plus-page book where these characters are mimicked is not the same as watching a silly murder/mystery procedural where Nathan Fillion acts like a complete charming doofus. Sure, Castle is fluffy popcorn, but at least I know it only lasts an hour. With these books, I just feel like I could have had a better experience having actors read lines onscreen versus seeing the back-and-forth being performed stiltedly on page. Some serious TV-watching time was wasted, in my opinion. (For instance, I could have rewatched Firefly.)

Verdict? The plot is good (the writing could use some serious editing though); and the reveal is pretty killer (I'll stop, I'll stop). But it would have still been better on TV. Because everything is better with Nathan's cute smile.

"I really am ruggedly handsome!"