Tuesday, April 19, 2016


A recent vacation allowed me to catch up on some reading, so you know what that means…book reviewz!


My first book was something of a rarity, since it’s not often I read a book by someone I actually know.  My online pal Mario Lanza wrote several accounts of his experiences watching and writing about Survivor in the show’s early years, and eventually decided (with Richard Hatch-like shrewdness) that he could just collect them into a book and make some cash rather than just publish them for free on the net.  When It Was Worth Playing For covers everything through the first three seasons, when Survivor was at its peak and already semi-sudden decline as a cultural phenomenon.  Mario covers not just the show, but also bigger-picture ideas of what reality TV says about society and how Survivor was such a huge influence on modern pop culture.  If you think about it, even the entire book reflects this theme — the whole idea of gaining any kind of fame by writing about a TV show on a website was a fresh idea in 2000, so Mario himself is a living example.

If you’re a Survivor fan, you really have no excuse for not buying a copy of "When It Was Worth Playing For."  If there's enough interest, Mario will publish another volume about (presumably) seasons 4 through 6 or 7.  This next volume will also, undoubtedly, be dedicated to me as the only person who gives this much of a damn about this show.


I’d be interested in reading an updated Book Of Basketball from Bill Simmons, and by which I mean really just an updated version of his top 96 players of all time.  Written in 2009, the original list is already a wee bit out of date — Simmons himself even admits that LeBron James’ #20 ranking is found to be upgraded by at least 10-15 slots within as little as a year’s time. 

Going by Simmons’ own ‘pyramid’ gimmick for the Basketball Hall Of Fame, the Pantheon Level is limited to just 12 slots, so does that mean that LeBron is in and Moses Malone is bumped down to #13?  Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki get big bumps into the sub-Pantheon level.  Tim Duncan was already seventh on Simmons’ list but by this point, I think you could argue him ahead of Wilt and Bird based on sheer longevity (I can see Simmons putting Duncan ahead of his hated Wilt but not his beloved Larry Bird).

The list is interesting, the rest of the book is still kind of middling.  Simmons devoting several hundred pages to a) letting us know that ‘the secret’ of basketball is (gasp!) teams playing cohesive basketball perform better and b) going at great length to argue that the 1986 Celtics are the best team ever are as mind-numbing today as they were when I first read the book.  On the flip side, actually reading Bill Simmons’ writing seems like a rare treat given how he’s been gone from ESPN for a year and even before he left Grantland, he was contributing at best just one column per week.  Absence makes some of his hackneyed old jokes almost seem fresh. 


J.K. Rowling included insane amounts of backstory and world-building within the Harry Potter books, yet she gradually parcelled it out over seven novels.  The first, say, quarter of The Cuckoo’s Calling is a bit dense since it seems like Rowling (a.k.a. Robert Galbraith) is trying to include seven books’ worth of background into our first 100 pages with Cormoran Strike, her detective.  This guy has more character beats than most books have actual characters. 

Despite this sensory overload, Cuckoo’s Calling develops into such a great read that it ruined a night’s sleep.  I started the book at around 9pm at night, and didn’t put it down until around seven hours later since I was just so engrossed.  It probably *could’ve* (or should’ve) been cut down by roughly 50 pages just to keep it lean and mean, though I didn’t mind the extra details.  There were so, so many scenes of Cormoran interviewing the various characters/suspects yet in hindsight, I’m not sure which ones could’ve been cut since they were all so vividly drawn.  Harry Potter comparisons are inevitable, yet it almost felt like Rowling was again visiting some kind of a magical world full of eccentric characters with weird names and personalities, except this time instead of a wizarding academy, it’s the modern-day modelling world. 


From a relatively new British female mystery writer to the queen of them all!  You could argue that it’s bad karma for me to bring along on vacation not one, but two Agatha Christie mysteries about people being murdered while on vacation.  (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t murdered!  Whew)  I’d read both Evil Under The Sun and Appointment With Death years and years ago in my Christie-reading prime, though I’d completely forgotten how either of them worked out.  Some of Christie’s novels have such singular endings that I’ll never forget them, yet with these two, they were both relatively generic but enjoyable at the same time thanks to their bonkers solutions.  Sad Cypress also had a pretty memorable answer to the mystery — so memorable, in fact, that I suddenly remembered whodunit when I was about two-thirds of the way into the book.  C’est la vie.

Something I never seemed to realize about Agatha Christie books: the romantic pairings.  In all three of these novels, Christie pairs off at least one couple to add a happy ending to the story beyond just Poirot solving a murder and justice being served.  I’m not sure why I never noticed Christie’s tendency for these romantic endings in all my years of reading dozens and dozens of her book, and I can only guess that 12-to-17-year-old Mark was simply more focused on the mysteries than the non-solving story elements.  What an asexual child I was.


While it’s been years since I’ve read basically all of Agatha Christie’s books, there was another re-read that I’d been putting off for a long time.  Catch-22 absolutely blew my mind as a 17-year-old, so much so that I’ve often referred to it as my favourite book….despite the fact that I hadn’t read it since.  This is a dangerous game to play, since how many of your “favourites” from when you were 17 are still that great?  After all, Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness sure as hell isn’t my favourite album of all time.  My favourite meal isn’t Pizza Hut.  The Simpsons isn’t my favourite TV show of….well, wait, bad example.

Anyway, it’s with great relief that I can report Catch-22 still held up.  I didn’t laugh out loud as I did back in the day (I remember almost choking with laughter during Major Major Major’s interrogation scene) but this time just marvelled at the webs of dialogue and illogic that Joseph Heller writes around his characters.  I think I’d also forgotten about the sheer number of characters in this book, since splitting my reading into two different sittings ended up being a mistake; even a few days off caused me to forget a number of the names and references from earlier in the novel, leading to a lot of backtracking.  I should’ve pulled a Cuckoo’s Calling and just blown through the entire thing in a single sitting.  I’ll keep that in mind for my third reading of Catch-22, due around 2032.

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