Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Months before finding this classic at my local used bookstore, I had an exchange with an atheist about morality. He’d insisted that children are born with empathy, inclined to share, and, if not corrupted by society, religion, or a sociopath gene, will grow into adults of a similar disposition. I noted that his faith in human nature was both startling and naïve, that parents and society teach children these virtues, and that it’s a circular argument to deny the inherent selfishness and other vices for which humanity has cornered the market and instead relegate bad behavior exclusively to the insane and the religious zealot. Of course, the atheist must additionally dismiss the atrocities humanity has committed toward one another in the name of political expediencies, as well as crimes of passion, cruelty, and the tendency humans have for self destruction in general. Evidently, the atheist reconciles his faith in humanity’s goodness against human history in general by rendering these horrors mere anomalies.

During that exchange, I didn’t refer to this book as an example of what I meant since I hadn’t read it yet. I was familiar with only its plot and theme. Golding wrote that his novel was an effort to show that defects in society stem from defects in human nature. I got some other things out of it, too, probably things Golding didn’t intend.

I couldn’t help but associate the children with certain political parties. Early on, the kids elect a leader who encourages foresight and diligence. Yet before long, human nature trumps reason. The less intuitive ideals are abandoned in favor of more immediate pleasures, and denouncing this shared hope for something yet unseen (their potential rescue) creates the vacuum from which despair feeds. The foregone conclusion to unsupervised kids stranded on an uninhabited island. If only that atheist I debated believed in a higher authority beyond human ingenuity. I can imagine him as that initial leader, insisting on a basic goodness from those who seize the opportunity to exploit it, and, having no source from which to appeal to their alleged empathy, becomes a victim of his false paradigm. Or not. I mean, what do I know?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

Since there’s no plot, no characters to recall, no thesis statement or theme (beyond tongue-in-cheek hostility) to keep track of, this is perfect bathroom reading. Using only one word to describe it, I’d go with sardonic, a word, incidentally, not in this dictionary. Nor is sarcastic, cynical, acerbic, sacrilegious, or amusing. Yet this dictionary is all those things. If you enjoyed Woody Allen’s Getting Even or Side Effects, which I recommend (“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”) or Fran Lebowitz’s Social Studies or Metropolitan Life (“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”), then you might enjoy this book. Some choice selections, truncated:

Birth, n. – The first and direst of all disasters.
Egotist, n. – A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Friendless, adj. – Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.
Saint, n. – A dead sinner revised and edited.
Self-esteem, n. – An erroneous appraisement.
Twice, adv. – Once too often.
Year, n. – A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

You’ll find wittier definitions than these within, but they’re much longer. In several places, a single definition might take up an entire page. A limerick or a poem accompanies some.

Three quarters into the book, I realized why I’d put off finishing it; when it’s not contemptuously funny, it’s still contemptuous. The smirking tone wore on me after a while, and I had to offset the mood it generated with lighter reading. Recommended, but not in a single sitting. Sure, you’ll laugh; you’ll smile; but you’ll grimace too. Approach in high spirits. When spirits falter, bookmark. Rinse and repeat. Treat it as you would garlic or sour cream or chili powder; a little goes a long way.

Friday, November 16, 2012

James Baldwin

I stumbled on James Baldwin by accident. More than 20 years ago. So I neither knew nor cared about his politics or his sexual orientation. All I knew after 30 or 40 pages into his novel Giovanni’s Room was that I’d found a gifted writer. That last detail – the writing quality – is all that matters to me when selecting what books to read. Now, 20 years later, a Wikipedia search reveals all kinds of curiosities about the writer, nothing that changes my impression of his stellar writing ability, but certainly details that must’ve been hardships for him growing up in Harlem in the 1950s. I say ‘hardships’ but it might be just as valid to say ‘catalysts’ for his works. African-American, gay, a Pentecostal preacher who later rejects faith yet never quite affirms atheism, recognizes that religion both influenced his writing and inspired some African-Americans to defy oppression, and yet embraces a lifestyle religion condemns, and so on. As conflicted as his life must’ve been, so are his characters.  

Giovanni's Room is one such example. It reads like both a published confession and an exposé about the societal fringes of Paris in the 1950s, where, incidentally, Baldwin lived for a number of years. In the novel, gigolos are commonplace and desperate people barter for companionship. David, the protagonist, meets Giovanni on something akin to a dare and realizes he has only repressed the homosexual urges he thought he’d outgrown. His letters to his father in Brooklyn don’t generate the sympathy or the financial aid he hoped they would, so David borrows money from Jacques, a middle-aged gay who fancies young boys.

David rarely writes to his betrothed Hella, and when she eventually returns from Spain to be with him, she doesn’t know about his relationship to Giovanni. David eventually breaks it off with Giovanni, sending Giovanni into a quiet rage, later manifested when he kills his gay employer, Guillaume, who’d asked for sexual favors in return for his employment.

Although Hella is more than willing to help and comfort him, David tries to deal with his ambivalence alone. He fails and Hella discovers his infidelity. This makes her mistrust and even despise him. So David finds himself alone, guilt-ridden and haunted with the vision of Giovanni being taken from this world by the executioner's blade.

The Fire Next Time is essentially two substantial essays, exceptionally expressed and stirring. What he describes and the remedies he proposes are both heart-wrenching and insightful. I recently saw him on an old black & white video debating William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University. His eloquence and commentary were poignant throughout. Incidentally, the title of this book derives from a line in a Negro spiritual:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time

Lastly, the Baldwin novel Another Country, as with Giovanni’s Room, is well written but tragic – no real hero, just reckless lifestyles and subsequent regrets. Simple joys lay interspersed throughout an otherwise sad promenade of people struggling with themselves, their races, racism, and their relationships with one another. Yet these moments don’t account for much, generally happening only after that reckoning day when the affair is exposed or confessed to or the suicide demands reflection of those who knew the deceased.

I paid a buck for this particularly old paperback copy at a local used bookstore, later learning this was a “Thirteenth Dell printing – April, 1965”, (five months before I was born). It appeared in mint condition, but once I brought it home, its stalwart shape and sheen turned out to be a mere façade. The yellowed pages, brittle and as dry as expired flour, cracked and broke like frozen butterfly wings. By chapter three, the cover, or the sail as I prefer to think of it, tore away. I grabbed the Scotch tape and did the best I could to extend the vessel’s journey. Yet rounding the Cape of the Final Stretch, as we find Eric naked in his rented garden, watching his lover Yves emerge from the Mediterranean spray below, with my curator-like devotion, I caught the back cover dangling from the spine like a broken rudder and set the boat, capsized fashion, on the top shelf of my closet, where it shall remain a fragile relic of a regrettable chapter in American History.   

I should note that about five particularly graphic sex scenes are contained herein, three of which are homoerotic, namely between men. I generally don’t care for sex scenes, and while Baldwin goes well beyond the mechanics of the act and writes just as much about the mess swimming in the participants’ heads (and I might add in a piercing and emotionally moving way), there were moments when I was tempted to skim. Still, if I run across anything else by Baldwin, I’ll grab it. He’s that good. But I’ll test the copy for durability before heading to the checkout counter.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Trick, Treat, or the Gothic Novel

Halloween came and went without me having to deal with a single child. The candy, the costumes, the high-pitched noisy monsters – none of it interrupted my daily life of self-absorption and misanthropy. Still, I wanted to pay tribute to the horror genre on my blog. Problem is I hate the horror genre. Not too crazy about Halloween either, which is why we left our porch light off and refused to go to the door. Unlike others who see the holiday as their opportunity to be someone else – to play dress up or to shed their everyday skin for an excuse to make fools of themselves – I take the high road by mocking their shameful indulgence and remaining indoors where it’s safe.

I’ve never been a big fan of holidays. The parties are just an excuse to indulge, make yourself sick and do things you’ll later regret. Plus, I never get invited. Besides, I’d rather watch horror movies. And I hate horror movies. I never saw any of the Friday the 13th films or the Halloween series or I Know What You Did Last Summer volumes one through nine. Nor am I a fan of horror novels. But I do enjoy thrillers, ghost stories, and the supernatural. So I guess for me the deciding factor is not the body count. It's the bodily fluids. Blood, vomit, pus, exposed bone just ain't my thang.

I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the novel, not the movie), H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man (again, the novel, not the movies), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (for the last time, not the movies). None of them is gruesome or grotesque. All of them are well written classics and entertaining.

Yet my favorite of this genre would have to be Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Forget those God-awful films, both the black & white abominations and the more contemporary versions, one with Robert De Niro as Frankenstein’s monster, if you can believe that. No, purge your memory of those horrors of a different kind. Not one of them is true to the book.

Frankenstein the novel is one of the greatest gothic tales not because of blood or guts or any other macabre images. Rather, it’s a study in psychological terror. The emotional horror our protagonist Victor Frankenstein suffers throughout is far more harrowing than any slasher film could ever hope to be, and that’s including the movie makers' spare-no-expense CGI and other special effects artistry. Who cares about the chick in act one who won’t put out and gets decapitated in the woods 5 minutes later (a sort of wish fulfillment by the screenwriter who got turned down in high school? I sometimes wonder.) When you can follow the hauntings of a man whose creation kills off all of his beloved friends and family as revenge for having been created, why would you settle for anything less?    

Spoiler Alert: That’s essentially the novel’s plot. A scientist decides to play God, brings life into the world through a series of unorthodox methods, if not morally reprehensible means, and yet horrified by what he has done, or rather by the repulsive appearance of the thing he creates, disavows any responsibility, and allows the monster to flee and fend for itself.

The creature does just that, and as it wanders alone – surviving on nuts and berries in the woods, stealing a pie cooling on a windowsill of a nearby cottage, listening in on a small family and over time learning how to speak and even read, coping with its loneliness and its dejection from nearby villagers – it broods. In time it learns of its creator Victor Frankenstein, and it ponders its predicament. Whether inspired by its sense of isolation, its plight, its despair, the creature ultimately decides to wreak revenge upon its maker, perhaps to teach Victor what it means to be alone. The monster, rather than attacking Victor, slays Victor’s friends and family, gradually, so that Victor has just enough time to grieve over the death of his little brother or his best friend before the creature strikes again.

Over time, Victor begins to lose his mind, tormented by his losses, haunted by guilt for creating the very thing that murdered his loved ones. Eventually, after bouts of depression and physical illness due in large measure to heartache, Victor resolves to kill the creature. He ends up chasing the monster around the world until finally finding and confiding in a ship’s captain in the Arctic Ocean. There Victor dies. The monster appears on the ship and explains to the captain that now he, the monster, can kill itself, since its creator is now dead.

More than a simple horror story (at least of the psychological and emotional kind), this is also a cautionary tale. What responsibility does science have to society? Is there not a moral imperative at issue when playing God? I’m reminded of the pet owner who wanted to have her dog cloned. Did she not realize the pet’s memories are what distinguish that animal from its genetic copy? In the novel and the film Jurassic Park, the chaos theory scientist Malcolm warns the proprietor that simply because he could bring back dinosaurs doesn’t mean that he should’ve.

Critics of the novel tend to lay the blame at the scientist Victor Frankenstein’s boots. And that’s certainly warranted. But some of these same critics excuse the monster’s behavior as the inevitable consequence of allowing the equivalent of an overgrown child full of angst to roam free. A fair point, to an extent, and yet I think free will argues against this. Reminds me of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, in which the recurring theme or message was that criminality was the inevitable result of society’s or government’s apathy toward the poor. The fact that not everyone born into poverty becomes a criminal seems to me a reasonable argument against that theory.

While Frankenstein the novel may seem quaint to the modern reader, the equivalent of a 21st century youngster testing his patience with the film Gone with the Wind, the story is still an entertaining read and a classic. I just might read it again next year while nibbling on my two toned orange and yellow caramel corn candy. With my porch light off again, of course.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Jungle Book 2 by Rudyard Kipling

As I mentioned in a previous post about Kipling’s first Jungle Book, see here, categories and genres don’t influence my reading habits. I’ve read wonderful children’s books and I’ve read some crummy novels that could’ve been written by children. A decent writer once asked, “… if it’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, why should we judge a book by the category stamped on its spine?”

For those not familiar, Kipling’s 2 Jungle Books are fantastic, each a collection of short stories, many of which involve the familiar Mowgli and his animal friends – Baloo, Kaa, Akela, Hathi, Bagheera, and others – surviving in the jungle wilds, and exposed to all sorts of dangers. These tales are interspersed with other stories unrelated to Mowgli and the jungle but just as harrowing and exciting. Stories like “The Undertakers,” an amusing exchange between those who put the survival of the fittest and its amoral realities to the grim test, and one of my personal favorites, “Quiquern,” a story of Inuit life, their dog sleds and their desperate measures to survive harsh winters. Though I enjoyed them all, “The King’s Ankus,” an account of what lengths men go to satisfy their greed, is particularly riveting. All these stories will transport you from the comforts of your reading room to an environment other worldly in its hazards and customs. 

Another aspect I thoroughly enjoyed is the jargon. Unlike the casual prose of the narrative, the dialogue assumes a more measured and stilted form with the use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and other pronouns and structure you might associate with the elevated speech of, say, a King’s James version of the Bible. In “Red Dog,” a dhole (wild dog of India) which travels in huge clans, is hunting in a pack of more than one hundred and killing everything in their path. Mowgli, raised by wolves and now nearly an adult, is told of their movement. Rather than fleeing with the rest of the jungle as the animals advise, he calls for a council where he encourages the animals to rally round him and confront and kill the dhole pack instead. He makes vows and stakes his reputation on their success, etc. until the wolves and other jungle animals agree to his stratagem and await his command. At which point Mowgli rushes off to seek the cunning of Kaa, the python. Kaa initially balks at this news, convinced that Mowgli shouldn’t concern himself with the habits of the jungle when the dhole are in such great numbers. A truncated exchange follows:

Kaa: “Let the Wolf look to the Dog. Thou art a Man.

Mowgli: “It is true that I am a Man, but it is in my stomach that this night I have said I am a Wolf. I called the River and the Trees to remember. I am of the Free People, Kaa, till the dhole has gone by.”

“Free People,” Kaa grunted. “Free thieves! And thou hast tied thyself into the death-knot for the sake of the memory of the dead wolves?”

Mowgli: “It is my Word that I have spoken. The Trees know, the River knows. Till the dhole have gone by, my Word comes not back to me.”

Kaa: “Ngssh! This changes all trails. I had thought to take thee away with me to the northern marshes, but the Word – even the Word of a little, naked, hairless Manling – is the Word. Now I, Kaa, say –”

Mowgli: “Think well, Flathead, lest thou tie thyself into the death-knot also. I need no Word from thee, for well I know –”

“Be it so, then,” said Kaa.

The last story “The Spring Running” finishes the character arch of Mowgli as he realizes he has learned all he can from the jungle, has become a man, and ultimately acknowledges, though not without sorrow, that he must finally go live among the “Man-Pack”. Not quite as poignant as, say, when Travis shoots his beloved dog, now infected with rabies, in Old Yeller, or the last line by Samwise Gamgee which closes an entire trilogy, “He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” but still lump-in-your-throat inducing. The stories, prefaced with clever poems, propelled by high jinx and chases, full of drama and mayhem, are made classic by Kipling’s profundity, wisdom, and humanity. Highly recommended for all ages.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Fistful of Impressions

Childhood and Society, by Eric Erikson. This instructive book started off pretty well. Part one, which dealt with psychoanalysis in practice, offered fascinating case studies and anecdotes about children patients and their individual problems. These problems were successfully diagnosed and often remedied after causes were identified. So far so good. Erikson certainly provided compelling evidence to support some of the views espoused by Freud and his followers regarding this area. Part two exposed many of the psychological factors influencing cultural worldviews. Such Indian tribes as the Sioux of South Dakota and the Yurok along the Klamath River were examined. Opinion was often enlightening. Part three, however, offered more speculation than it did science, but still outlined and expounded on Erikson's famous eight psychosocial stages (i.e. basic trust vs. basic mistrust, etc.), and Erikson took this opportunity to explain the development of the individual in a comprehensive way. Part four, Reflections on the American Identity, was an extreme digression in both content and approach. This part was pure speculation. It seems Erikson simply bit off more than he could chew. In this same section, he makes an ambitious but futile attempt to psychoanalyze Hitler based on excerpts from Mein Kampf. At one point, Erikson went so far as to blame Nietzsche's writings for helping Hitler create his uniformed supermen. Overall, I enjoyed Erikson's speculative work, but I'm not entirely convinced the science (or art) of psychology is always the best response to an individual’s or a group’s ideology.

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. This book is a thought provoking satire dealing with the chain of command in Hell and how demons operate to defeat the human race. Of course I realize that’s abstract, religious, and philosophical. Keep in mind, it’s told both visually and entertainingly. Wicked memos pass from one bureaucracy to another instructing trainees on what methods best lead mankind astray and how to either claim a soul for the sport of Hell or, failing in their instruction, imagining themselves fodder for Hell’s next dinner party. All told with delicious subtlety and wit. Lewis was not only one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, he was a persuasive writer.

O Pioneer! by Frederick Pohl. Slouched between the science fiction shelves at the public library I sampled dust jacket praises from The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review until I thought I’d found a winner. Pohl is the recipient of five Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SN (science fiction) novel. (Selecting books based on these publications goes against my principles, but I was without a literary compass). I vow to never do this again. My brief review: a notch above daytime TV, which is code for entertaining crap.   

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman. Some guy claiming to love both Tolkien’s Rings Trilogy and Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles posted a review online praising a trilogy called His Dark Materials (a phrase borrowed from Milton’s Paradise Lost). Gullible, I sought out book one of that trilogy from the local library. Like the Narnia Chronicles, it’s an exceptionally well-written children’s story, but the similarity ends there. I’ll admit it zooms along like a Sunday at Daytona. But it’s a silly story, trite throughout, and full of shallow characters. No accounting for taste, I suppose, but how someone who loves Tolkien and Lewis can recommend Pullman, or worse, claim he deserves to share a shelf with such greats, stupefies me. Like adding ice to Merlot, drenching sirloin in Ketchup, or wearing sandals with slacks, to confuse transient tripe with truly great work only spoils the park with trailers. I never saw the movie, but I can’t imagine it being worth watching. It’s the writing that’s superb and neither the plot nor the forgettable characters make an impression.      

The Wicked Day, by Mary Stewart. When this story begins, Merlin is already dead. A friend warned me this book pales compared to her Merlin Trilogy, and I agree. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it, probably because I’m a sucker for Arthurian tales. It also helps that Stewart’s a true wordsmith and uses mesmerizing detail to shape a scene or a mood. At the back of her book she mentions the two sources she drew from: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthor. I know of Malory’s version via a synopsis in Time-Life’s legend series, and I agree that Malory’s Mordred wasn’t consistent. Stewart takes a more sensible approach. Since Mordred is the protagonist, we need to empathize with him, so Stewart depicts him as a victim of his mother Morgause’s evil plotting, her pawn, rather than as an evil seed driven to usurp his father out of spite. This makes for a sympathetic protagonist and a more engaging read.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Based on this first book in a five book series, I won’t be seeking out the rest. The overly casual narrative and generalizing descriptions made for dull reading.

Durnik had been right when he’d spoken of frost. The ground was white with it the next morning, and the horses’ breath steamed in the chill air as they set out.

Very little happens and nothing Eddings describes goes beyond first draft quality. Observations like the air was crisp, the sun was hot, and the day was overcast are simply not worth reading.

Their route skirted the edge of the foothills through rolling and sparsely settled country, and the sky hung grey and cold overhead.

That’s as detailed as it gets. And I don’t recall a single simile or metaphor.

Even the plot itself is thin and caricatured. The archetypal villain has no real motivation apart from lusting after a magic object that later maims him, making him only more obsessed over said object.

Eddings devotes lots of attention to a number of different races in his invented world, each race said to possess one trait or to practice one vice that defines that race. One race is dishonest, another is sly, yet another gullible, and so on. Good stories rely on striking personalities and individuals who stand apart. These sweeping generalizations minimize Eddings' storytelling efforts and, incidentally, render his characters cartoon-like.

The dialogue is the type Sol Stein warns against: surface remarks, first draft quality, verbal interaction that achieves nothing. I’ve written about this before in previous book reviews. Reams of common pleasantries, while wonderful in real life, make for yawn-inducing conversations in novels.

None of the characters is particularly interesting, either. The only character to root for is a passive teen left in the dark as to his true purpose or destiny throughout the entire tale. When occasionally thrown a bone about his role, he pursues it with a curiosity uncharacteristic of teens, meaning he accepts the first explanation given by the very people he knows withhold information from him. Not recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan is one of my favorite living authors. He has a distinct voice and it suits his protagonist Tres Navarre for what has become a stellar crime fiction series. If you enjoy following the exploits of an iconic hero throughout an ongoing number of novels – whether it’s Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, or, I don’t know, James Bond – this series is for you. Riordan delivers engaging plots, snappy dialogue, three-dimensional characters, and the rich tapestry of San Antonio, Texas, with a grit and attitude as genuine as real snakeskin chaps. Just wished mine didn’t chafe so much. Would probably help if I wore pants.  

I’ve met Riordan twice at annual Book Festivals in Austin. He spoke each time to a large room filled to capacity. (He used to teach high school, and he's a great, charismatic speaker. Won a Master Teacher Award in 2002.) Many had to stand in the back. The following year they gave him a much larger space. It too was overfilled. Afterwards, he autographed books. The friend I stood in line with had taken an oath of silence and as the heat and the halitosis swelled, I grew progressively impatient. When we finally reached Riordan’s table, he asked how I wanted him to sign my copy of his latest Percy Jackson & the Olympians novel, The Titan's Curse. I said, “If you could just put: ‘We’ll always have that wonderful weekend in Maui.’” His chuckle seemed genuine.

Riordan established his writing credentials many years ago with his debut novel Big Red Tequila. The book earned him both the Shamus and the Anthony awards. He has since won the Edgar award as well. All before he began publishing his young adult fiction, Percy Jackson & the Olympians and his Kane Chronicles, though these latter series have contributed more to his popularity, not to mention showing off his versatility.

Big Red Tequila is told first person by Tres Navarre, a Ph.D. in medieval studies and English, T’ai chi master, tequila fan, and unlicensed P.I. As if the case or the scenes aren’t intense enough, Tres has a smart mouth which frequently gets him into trouble and adds an extra layer of tension as well as humor. The writing is superb and worth your time.

The Widower’s Two-Step is his second novel in the series and another great read. Riordan knows how to make scenes and characters come alive. In a single sentence, he elevates even the most minor character to ‘unforgettable’ status, at least for the duration of the story, and he touches all five senses at least once every few pages. But his most appealing feature is his lean, unobtrusive prose. The book is full of one liners that just make you want to call a friend and say, “Listen to this!”

The Last King of Texas is even better. Riordan’s got a real knack for plot twists and pithy narrative. His economy of words and punchy descriptions are a testament to his craft. Even if crime fiction isn’t your favorite genre (it’s not mine), this guy knows how to hook you in and keep you turning pages. He has a keen eye, a good ear, and incidentally, nice abs. What more could you ask for?   

His first three novels were surpassed only by his fourth installment, The Devil Went Down to Austin. Again, I’m not even a mystery/crime fiction fan and yet I can’t keep away from this guy’s writing. Some quotes…

Lars’ hairline had receded since I’d seen him last, but he still sported the earring, the Willie Nelson beard. His shirt, vest, and jeans were faded to the color of a dust storm, and his eyes gave the same impression – dry and turbulent.

He unzipped his wet suit to the waist, peeled his arms out of the sleeves. The warm neoprene let off its unmistakable smell. If car tires had armpits, they would smell like that.

His hair was a short black cloud that moved in the water the way smoke boils over a petroleum fire.

Cold Springs is a departure from Riordan’s Tres Navarre crime fiction in a number of ways. For one, it’s told third person omnipresent, meaning we hop around inside a number of characters’ heads. I thought Riordan handled this expertly. For two, unlike the lean and quick moving Navarre stories, here the narrative lingers on moods and motivations, exploring the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters more fully. Which I enjoyed. For three, the novel sports a brand new cast of characters, characters more grim than what you’ll find in the Navarre stuff, too.

As usual, the writing is excellent – intense scenes, motivated, broken characters, and a compelling plot. And of course some excellent lines:

Hunter’s face could have been crafted from stealth bomber material – smooth hard contours, bald scalp so dark it seemed to drink the light. His eyes trapped you, studied you, released you only when they were good and ready.

Hunter looked out toward the hills. He sighted a deer over the tips of his combat boots, as if calculating the best shot.

…loading his gun at the kitchen table, pushing nine-millimeter cartridges into the magazine with the care of a pharmacist counting pills.

Riordan understands the importance of visualization so that even his characters’ abstract thoughts are paired with images …

          But it was hard. It was like forcing his hand to touch a hot stove plate.

          …but something about her drew it out of him, like snake venom.

He was going to shake to pieces. He was a test plane at the edge of the sound barrier, the bolts of his wings starting to rattle loose.

Spoiler Alert:

Only one thing bothered me. The primary villain, Samuel, appears in several scenes with a number of characters, and these scenes are told from either their point of view or Samuel’s. Yet near the end of the novel we learn that Samuel isn’t Samuel, that Samuel has been dead for years. The character Riordan had been referring to as Samuel all this time is actually Kindra, Samuel’s sister, a murderous schizophrenic bent on vengeance for what others in the story put her brother through before Samuel was eventually murdered.

If it weren’t for this one gimmick, I’d give the novel five out of five stars. But since at no time during these scenes is Kindra wearing a disguise, standing behind a wall, or augmenting her voice, there’s no reason for Riordan to deceive the reader in this way. The characters who interact with Kindra know they’re dealing with Kindra. Riordan simply omits this fact, conceals it from the reader. I found this plot device disingenuous. It went beyond misdirection. To keep up this pretense only to save it for the big reveal at the end struck me as unnecessary mischief.

I hesitated to mention this after reading comments on Amazon and conferring with a friend who read the novel a decade ago since no one else seems to have had a problem with it. One of the pitfalls to scrutinizing a writer’s artistic decisions is that sometimes our impressions are less than fawning. I won't stop reading Riordan. His writing is too good. And I can certainly forgive this one transgression in lieu of his many other satisfying novels. Besides, if all else fails, we’ll always have that wonderful weekend in Maui.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Living End by Lisa Samson

I consider myself open-minded. My reading habits embrace all genres and a broad variety of authors. But a writer's command of the language is my primary concern. Diction appeals to me more than a particular faith or philosophy. So when a friend gave me a novel by a Christian writer I wasn’t familiar with, I set the book aside. Not that I’m opposed to reading fiction that affirms my faith, but the Christian market, like a lot of genre-based markets, frequently focuses on the creed at the expense of the writing quality. The good stuff is so rare I generally don’t bother. Turns out my reluctance was misplaced. The writing quality was actually pretty good. It was just about everything else I had problems with. 

Samson’s novel is a first person perspective of the protagonist Pearly Laurel, a woman in her mid 50s who never had kids. As the novel opens, her husband has suffered a massive stroke. He dies shortly thereafter and Pearly is so inconsolable, she entrusts the funeral arrangements to a close friend and then flees the familiar environs of their life together to take up shelter in their vacation home elsewhere. This bothered me as a reader and did nothing to help me empathize with Pearly.

Her deceased husband Joey was a devout Christian. Pearly wasn’t even religious, much less devout. The reason Pearly gives for the couple marrying in the first place is that her husband didn’t really subscribe to that whole ‘be not unequally yoked’ verse in the Bible. For those not familiar, as Christians (and I’d extend this to political affiliations, personal philosophies, and health club memberships), if your spouse-to-be takes exception to views or beliefs that you not only cherish but consider paramount to moral, wholesome living, you might not want to tie the knot. After all, marriage is a bond, a union that transcends a physical coupling or a legal document. It’s about a meeting of both the heart and the mind. Not to say all couples share a passion for cats or football, but there’s a covenant made, an intimate, personal expression of giving oneself to another that is supposed to epitomize things like loyalty, trust, commitment, and above all love. So say I, a celebrated bachelor.

After Joey’s death, Pearly rummages through his things and discovers his journal. Reading it, she learns that her indifference toward his religion forced him to keep his personal insights and observations to himself. This angers her but shames her somewhat as well. She also finds a bucket list he’d made and decides to fulfill it. After which time, she tells the reader, she’ll commit suicide since she can’t bear to go on without Joey in her life.

This struck me as odd. First, she rejects the faith the man she loves above all else embraces. Second, so distraught over his passing, she flees their home and refuses to attend the funeral (doesn’t visit his gravesite until toward the end of the novel). Third, though wracked by guilty feelings for disavowing his cherished faith she, rather than choosing to relish what joys the two had together, decides to end her own life … but not before completing his bucket list. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand women, but Pearly’s motivations struck me as wildly contradictory. I found it impossible to root for her.

Over the course of the novel, thanks in part to Joey’s journal, Pearly learns about other people Joey had a positive influence on, some of whom Pearly had never met. After eventually meeting and befriending one such person, Pearly begins to examine her past apathy over her husband’s faith. She grows more comfortable with the precepts and virtues Joey’s faith espouses. Yet meanwhile her decision to kill herself or find a professional to aid her with an assisted suicide doesn’t change.

One of Pearly’s cousins is on dialysis and needs a kidney transplant. Without telling her cousin that she, Pearly, has only one working kidney, Pearly offers to supply her cousin with one of hers. The cousin has reservations but eventually accepts. Pearly contacts a doctor in Switzerland to perform the operation and, unbeknownst to her cousin, later have him administer a dose of something Pearly can ingest to ease her own passing.

The last 20 pages of this 300 page novel are heart-wrenching and a worthy pay-off. However, I couldn’t buy the idea that this woman would’ve resisted her husband’s faith throughout the 35 years of their marriage. For one, she’s intellectually plain for lack of a better description. Had she been an academic type who refused religion based on some modern idea about supposed superstitions or irrational convictions, I’d understand. Had she resisted on some proposed moral grounds – namely the notion that given the religion's long history of abuses or misconduct, she felt the faith had done more harm than good or some such rot, again, I could understand. Or what about the more common and generally denied emotionally charged objections that prevents other non-believers from converting? For example, was Pearly bitter about her past? Did she blame God for obstacles in her youth? Had she considered these pains personal slights directed at her from Providence?

The only thing that comes close is Pearly’s account of her brother. If memory serves me, he suffered from a variant of elephantitis. She tells us her brother was ridiculed and ultimately scorned by both his peers and, to some degree, their father. But again, Pearly doesn’t seem bitter over this. Just the standard fare of regret, pain, and remembered frustrations one would associate with a family braving these hardships. As a result, I couldn’t believe her refusal to convert throughout her marriage to Joey was genuine.

Yes, the story is written first person from Pearly’s point of view, but this shouldn’t prevent Samson from exposing Pearly’s real reasons for rejecting her husband’s faith, assuming there were any. For those who’ve read Nabokov’s Pale Fire or P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie & Jeeves stories, you know first person accounts don’t prevent the protagonist from unwittingly revealing what he might otherwise prefer to keep secret.
  
On the up side, the writing is as smooth as samite. Plain prose throughout. This isn’t a left-handed compliment, either. Simple, clear writing is hard to achieve. You’ll race through the story faster than a movie version could render it on screen. I just wished as much attention had been devoted to the characters, particularly the protagonist’s motivations. I’ll close with my favorite quote from the book. Pearly remembering her husband:

But there were times when he’d sit out on the deck overlooking the gardens, and he’d stare at the sliver of water visible through the next block of houses, and the sun would penetrate the leaves like strips of bridal veil, and he’d look as though he weren’t really there at all.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Philosophy of Language, by William P. Alston

I’ve always been the inquisitive sort. Probably more so than your average kid. I asked where babies come from at four. Never mind that I didn’t listen to the answer. I’m told that I stared at my mother’s mouth throughout the whole birds and bees speech and when asked if I had any questions, said, “Yes. How many teeth do you have?”

I once stumped a hippie couple with a question on metaphysics when, during Sunday school, they told us that God was all about love and that He expected us to love everybody.

I raised my hand. “Does that mean we should love the Devil too?”

Adults know everything when you’re eleven, but they’d hesitated, glancing at each other first as if seeking confirmation or preparing to take a vote. “Yes. I…guess we should.” I wasn’t convinced. 

This questioning has plagued me my whole life. Others call it doubt, cynicism, and annoying. I call it a healthy dose of curiosity. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism, though. I recognize how naïve I can be so I wear this You-Can’t-Fool-Me pin on my breast like a badge of defiance. This habit of wanting to peer behind the curtain is more reactionary than wise most likely, but I blame genetics or something other than myself since I can’t control it. Besides, it’s better than being gullible, misled, and ultimately duped. That still happens. I have yet to find an impenetrable defense against being wrong on occasion. So my brow remains creased and my eyes are forever narrowed. “Convince me” is my motto. Incidentally, it’s also my safe word.

Because this eagerness to understand things followed me into adulthood, it shouldn’t surprise that by the time I was eligible to vote, I’d taken an almost obsessive interest in philosophy. Before philosophy, things like critical thinking, the ability to reason, or how to open a pickle jar in under 20 minutes were unknown to me. Philosophy equipped me with what I like to refer to as the mental tools by which to determine truth. I like to refer to it that way because it makes me sound smart. In other words, prior to learning how to tie a knot, my views were a mess of unraveling ropes and frayed piles of twisted cords. Positions driven, inspired, and maintained by irrational feelings are ultimately laughable. The impassioned adherent is blind to his own foolishness. The Dalai Lama said that. Either him or the guy who does our yard. I often confuse the two. 

In the past, I’d only questioned things. I rarely found answers. But once I learned how to apply some of the things I’d learned from philosophy, once I’d sorted through the emotionally charged claims, salvaged the facts, and extrapolated from what we knew, I finally began to understand some things, such as why I’m such a geek and why hot chicks won’t date me.    

This inevitably led to debates with friends, some of whom found the exchanges lively and insightful. Others found it frustrating and quit inviting me to their parties. Oh, well. The misunderstood genius must press on. At least that’s what I tell myself. The meaning of life, religion, why actors keep getting asked about anything other than their work – all these things weigh on the mind.

Of course one of the most common problems with intellectual arguments that don’t involve throwing food is our habit of assuming we all define the terms we use in exactly the same way. As I’ve often said, no matter how hard I try to express myself the words interfere. Unless you’re a mime or can use telepathy, you know what I’m talking about. One of the problems with communication is that it relies heavily on words. A real obstacle, that. Facial expressions and drawing images on napkins will get you only so far. I should know. Took me forever to negotiate the cost of a beautiful, young Thai woman’s affections for a night. (Her mother who ran the brothel was a tough negotiator.)

Despite our best efforts, despite even the best education, words are often imprecise. Just ask any waiter when you bitch about your order being wrong. It’s best to define our terms before debating an important issue. Never mind what the unwashed masses say. The apathy or indifference of those I delicately and diplomatically refer to as idiots doesn't matter here. What matters is your ability to think for yourself. Notice I didn’t say feel for yourself. Anyone can do that. Thinking is a dying pastime, a lost skill, a forgotten marvel. It wreaks havoc with your texting and sexting and TV viewing. But that’s no excuse.  

If thinking hurts other peoples’ brains, the better for you. Besides, they’re probably doing it wrong. Philosophy is for all who care about being true to both themselves and their convictions. Anything short of that is just pretending or quoting from Jon Stewart. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. You owe it to yourself to think things through. Either that or just agree with everything I think. The world would be such a better place. Plus I’d probably have a better love life.

In Philosophy of Language by William P. Alston, the primary focus is semantics. The book deals with more than just the meaning of words, however. It covers a lot of ground, yet it’s surprisingly user friendly. One of the many interesting points Alston raises is that the more detailed or specific our claim, the less sure we can be about its accuracy. For example, while we might safely suppose that city life carries with it an added anxiety contrasted with country life, when we try to specify the size of such a city and/or the degree to which someone's anxiety manifests, we become less sure. Or consider the fact that pain relievers relieve pain. No one would argue with that. Yet the moment we specify which pain relievers do this and to what degree the pain is relieved, even when backed up with rigorous studies, we become less certain. His point being that claims, stated generally, are impervious to careful scrutiny by mere virtue of their ambiguity. Yet the more particular or specific those claims become, the less sure we can be about their alleged accuracy or truth.

That’s only one aspect to semantics and only a minor point in the book. So it’s not as if I’ve spoiled the experience for you if you decide to grab a copy. One of the reasons some readers avoid these types of books is because unlike with a paperback novel, you may often find yourself pausing, nodding, frowning, tapping your chin, and knotting your brows when thinking about the issues these sorts of books raise. Rolling a particularly tasty, mental morsel around in your mouth before swallowing it takes time. Some simply don’t have that kind of interest or patience or mental stamina.

Before you say critical thinking is for chumps, remember those friends of yours who disagree with you about those silly views you hold so dear. Don’t you want to prove them wrong? Philosophy is a great tool for breaking down confusing and controversial issues and at the very least making better sense of them. While philosophy isn’t for everyone, if you vote or find yourself posting memes on Facebook about the meaning of life or how the other political party is so full of it, you owe it to yourself and others to study some political or moral philosophy. Empower yourself with knowledge and the ability to reason, and quit going for the easy (and let’s face it, annoying) bumper sticker slogans, Thank you. The ability to not only think for yourself but articulate your own position is both a rare and precious skill few regard or appreciate anymore. You’ll certainly have the upper hand. Not that words will always win out. Sometimes you just gotta throw food.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Beware Blurbs Bearing Gifts

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I’m constantly on the lookout for good fantasy fiction. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim. I can count the good ones on my hands and my painted toenails. Wait. That was meant to be a secret. How do I delete? Never mind. Anyway, I’ll grant you that I’m hard to please, but when I fall in love, I fall hard. So it balances out.

Imagine my joy when, after sifting through the fantasy fiction aisles and reading a few pages from a couple dozen novels, I stumbled on one endorsed by Stephen R. Donaldson. Did you just gasp? I sure did. Donaldson is one of my favorite living authors. I’ve read over a dozen of his books, some of them more than once. Reading Donaldson made me want to be a writer over twenty years ago. So I really thought I’d stumbled on a rare find when I saw Donaldson’s blurb on the cover of Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson:  

“My advice to anyone who might listen to me: Treat yourself to Gardens of the Moon.”

Needless to say, I rushed home to begin what I expected would be an engrossing excursion into literary brilliance, or at least a good read. What a disappointment! This book is so awful that after only a hundred of the more than 650 pages, I vaguely remember closing the book, growling like a pit bull, my head mimicking a paint shaker, cussing, and crying a little. I shoved the book in my outgoing bag to be returned to the local used bookstore for credit on other, more worthy reads. Then I ate a half-gallon of vanilla bean ice cream with a ladle while watching clips from the game show Wipeout on Youtube.com.

Life is short, and while I do occasionally read a bad book if only to remind myself what not to do, this book taught me valuable lessons within the first 50 pages.

One habit of the amateur is to accredit the speaker with any verb other than ‘said.’ This is fine on occasion, but when done repeatedly, the experienced reader is likely to email threats to the publisher. Or is that just me?  

“Bugger off!” Sam shouted.
“Dear me!” Ingrid intoned.
“I say,” Greg growled.
“Not on your life!” Matthew mumbled.

The reader shouldn’t have to wait on the verb at the end of each sentence to learn the mood of the speaker. Instead, the dialogue itself should convey the speaker’s tone or attitude. If it doesn’t, rewrite it. Also avoid writing dialogue that does nothing for the story.

“How’ve you been, Pauline?”
“Great, Betty. Thanks for asking.”
“Sure thing.”
“How about you?”
“Me?”
“Yes, you, you old goose.”
“Splendid, thanks.”

I’m exaggerating, of course. But you get the idea. If you’re not conveying information, character, or tension (ideally all three at the same time) then it’s excess. Get rid of it. Otherwise, you’re just inducing your reader to yawn and inviting him to skip.

Another annoying vice the newbie employs is to pretend the speaker doesn’t even realize he’s speaking.

          “The Coin,” she heard herself say, “spins on.”

If she wasn’t in a trance or suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, abstain.

Here’s an especially poor snippet:

The rider arrived. Seeing him up close, Paran took an involuntary step back. Half the man’s face had been burned away. A patch covered the right eye and the man held his head at an odd angle. The man flashed a ghastly grin, then dismounted.

What a mess. A good writer knows better than to reveal a character’s reaction to what the reader has yet to see or experience. At the start of the paragraph, we’re already being told that Paran is seeing the rider ‘up close’ and is creeped out long before the rider even dismounts. Also notice ‘the man’ is mentioned three times within the space of just 30 words. I revised it.

The rider approached and tugged on the reins. The right side of his face had been burned away. An eye patch covered the ruined socket. He hung his head, as if his disfigurement had robbed him of his spirit. When he dismounted and grinned, Paran involuntarily took a step back.

As far as Donaldson’s endorsement goes, my only conclusion is that Erikson has blackmailed Donaldson, or perhaps has kidnapped one of Donaldson’s relatives. This is a sad day for discriminating fantasy fiction fans.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...