Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hotel Babylon

Hotel Babylon – Imogen-Edward Jones and Anonymous
Hotel Babylon is over a decade of behind-the-scenes gossip, scandal, and excitement in the luxury hotels of London squeezed into one 24-hour shift. Set in the fictional Hotel Babylon with some name changes to protect privacy, everything else in the book, we are assured, is completely true.
Hotel Babylon is told by a man working the reception desk. As the reader, we help check-out all the guests – inspecting all their bills – answer phone calls from mad hotel guests, scan the crowd for goods dealers who supply the hotel with black market wine and caviar, and keep track of anything that could potentially harm the reputation of the hotel – whether it’s prostitutes, homeless people, drunks, or angry guests. We also get to hear the back story of the VIP customers who routinely drop as much in tips as they spend on a night at the hotel, or are so regular at the hotel that it is hardly a shock when they die in their room. We learn the difference between the chambermaids and the house cleaners, why the head chef always acts crazy, and how hotels finally manage to sell all those ridiculously expensive wines that have been sitting in storage for years. Basically, the more money you spend, the more you can get away with, and this book documents all the scandal.
This book is a record of the entire day, and because it is ten years condensed into a 24-hour shift, we see how the dynamic of the hotel changes from day to night. It reads like a journal, and moves quickly from one topic to the next. Whether it is relaying stories of celebrities behaving badly or reporting actual incidents from the hotel, we get it all, and it just keeps coming. It is highly entertaining, often unexpected, and quite a ridiculous look at how people behave so differently when they are away from home and think they have no limits.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless
In the first five books (I discovered in Australia that there is now a sixth book out) of a three-book series (yes, it’s a three-book series – read the introduction), Adams crafts multiple universes where everything is so illogical, or blatantly obvious, that anything is possible. You MUST read these books. I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by itself, but the rest of them I read together in the compiled format of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As a result, I always read them assuming it was one continuous story, but this time, I read them with the intention of seeing each book separately, and I liked them much more. Which is saying something because I already love these books.
The stories follow Arthur Dent, from Earth, Ford Prefect, from a planet near Betelgeuse, Tricia McMillan/Trillian, from Earth, and the first few include Marvin the Paranoid Android and the antics of the galactic president, Zaphod Beeblebrox, also from a planet near Betelgeuse. The series starts off with a bang, literally, as the Earth is demolished to construct a hyperspace bypass. Afterwards, our heroes wander the galaxy for a few stories, accidentally getting themselves out of disastrous and deadly serious situations, eating steak from a cow that asks to be eaten, and saving the universe on multiple occasions. Everything happens haphazardly, with much miscommunication and misunderstanding, and although it seems that the characters blunder around blindly, they always end up in the right place. Eventually, Arthur returns to Earth, Ford returns to wandering, and Tricia/Trillian takes up another career. They all reconvene in a parallel universe in the fifth installment, and plenty of excitement ensues.
Adams is spectacular. His characters are amazingly crafted, and his writing in general is brilliant. He has sharp satire, biting wit, and the physics of his science fictional universes makes perfect sense (as far as I can follow it, that is). His metaphors are so completely unpredictable (“the yellow constructor ships hung in the air exactly the way that bricks don’t”) or his reasoning so blatantly obvious (“the trick to learning how to fly is learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss”) that his universe makes perfect sense even if it doesn’t seem possible. In that way it reminds me of Catch-22 – so perfectly argued with illogic that you can’t make a competent comeback. Adams also creates a world so fantastic that it almost compares to Harry Potter – and that is ridiculously high praise coming from me. Read these books. They are entertaining, unexpected, and will make you laugh out loud.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild – John Krakauer
Into the Wild details the account of Chris McCandless, a college graduate who donated his entire savings to Oxfam, burned the remains of his cash, and took to hitchhiking around the States before he was found dead in Alaska. For two years after finishing college, McCandless tramped around the US, camping, occasionally picking up odd jobs, and meeting other vagabonds. He never stayed in one place for more than two months, although there were a few locations he returned to multiple times. Influenced by Tolstoy and Thoreau, McCandless adopted an ascetic lifestyle, shunning mainstream US culture and beliefs. He was drawn to the wilderness, and told everyone he met that he was planning a grand adventure in the wilds of Alaska. He adopted the name Alexander Supertramp during his travels, but used both names intermittently. After years of hitchhiking, McCandless finally made it up to Alaska, and set out on what he thought was a remote trail to live off the land for a few weeks during the Alaskan spring and summer. Through some mistake or accident, it is thought that McCandless starved to death, and he was found dead at his camp site by some other hikers a few weeks later.

John Krakauer is an excellent writer. He is quickly making it to my list of favorite authors. His pieces are very thorough, well-researched, and always gripping. He paints pictures with his words, and though sometimes I could complain that his descriptions are too detailed, that rarely ever happens. His story about McCandless mostly pieces together his travels before he went to Alaska. McCandless kept a terse journal and had no other communication while he was in Alaska, so one can only speculate about what happened. From interviews and letters, Krakauer retells McCandless’ journeys and his relationships. Krakauer also compares McCandless to other infamous weirdos/hippies/vagabonds who wandered into Alaska and perished, and even tells his own story of stupidity on Alaskan mountains. In the book, Krakauer makes the argument that McCandless was not just another stupid hippie on a trip to lose American society and find himself in the Alaskan wilds, and his reasoning is fairly convincing. Again, it is speculation at most, but it is nice to hear someone give McCandless credit amidst all the accusations of stupidity.

Actually, I am guilty of calling McCandless stupid, reckless, and unprepared. I watched the movie before I read the book, and I thought McCandless was rather callous and selfish in the movie. The book tells a different story. While the movie focuses on McCandless as he drifts towards Alaska, the book brings in his relationships. By talking to the people McCandless met, Krakauer brings in another dimension to the story. I still think McCandless was rather cold in his relationships – he seemed to view the wild not quite as a replacement for human relationships, but as a source of contemplation and understanding that he couldn’t achieve through interactions with others. The wilderness had a higher priority on his list of relationships than other people. He seemed most focused on completing his own plans and not letting others interrupt or deter him. The question is, does that make him cold and self-centered, or does it make him determined and independent? It’s open for interpretation. The whole story is open for interpretation as most of it is speculation. It’s an excellent story, and one of the first I’ve read that I can’t really compare to the movie because it seems like they are different stories – or at least different perspectives on the same story.