10.30.2010

Carrie, by Stephen King

Carrie
Carrie
Just as I like to read irreligious books at Easter, I like to try and read a genuinely scary book for Halloween. My own small Halloween celebration this year was to reread Carrie, by Stephen King. I forget how long ago it was that I first read it and, since I've never seen a film version, I'd forgotten enough of the plot to get really involved in the book again.

Compared to later King novels I've read (and I'll be the first to admit that I'm selective about which King books I read), Carrie has a lot of raw emotional power and is more skillfully constructed than a lot of those later books. Carrie is told in two strands, for lack of a better word. In one, you follow the major characters in the days leading up to the infamous prom. In the other, you get excepts of news dispatches, scholarly books, congressional testimonies, and letters. This second thread lets you know in advance that something terrible is going to happen, though they withhold the details. It gives the whole book an atmosphere of inevitable catastrophe, making it a great tragedy in the full literary sense of the word.

Even without Carrie's latent talents, this would have been a gut-wrenching book. Carrie, modeled on two girls the author knew while growing up (according to the author's foreword in the paperback edition I read), was one of those kids who everyone picks on. She's just different enough and friendless enough that everyone picks on her. Contributing to Carrie's delicate psychological state is her hyper-religious mother. I've long thought that too much religion will warp the psyche, and Carrie and her mother bear our my theory. (I would say they bear it out nicely, but there's nothing nice about this family.) Carrie's mother, Margaret, is so extreme in her beliefs that even churches with a fundamentalist bent are too liberal for her. Instead, she hold her own services. Because she kept her daughter at home except for school, Carrie has been subject to her mother's twisted ideas and violent will since she was a child. Carrie is abused at school and at home, and has no friends or hobbies that can help take her away from that.

...Until the day that a spectacularly cruel stunt at school triggers something paranormal in Carrie. Throughout the book, the secondary sources quoted refer to it as TK--telekinesis. This fluke of genetics gives Carrie what she needs to exact revenge on her mother and classmates. The only kindness Carrie experiences is when a classmate tries to ameliorate her guilt at participating in hazing Carrie talks her boyfriend into taking the unfortunate to the Spring Ball. This boyfriend, Tommy, is a very good boy and does help Carrie have an enjoyable time--until some other students decide to pull one last prank on her.

When I read this book before, I remember disliking Carrie at the end of the book. It was so long ago that I'm not sure why I disliked her. This time, I saw Carrie as a wounded animal, like an abused dog that keeps trying to please its masters but gets beaten down so much that it turns mean. At the end, all she wanted was to hurt the people who had hurt her and could not be reasoned with. While some people were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could still sympathize (a bit) with Carrie. As I said before, Carrie strikes me as a genuine tragedy. Carrie was a flawed human being who managed to turn the tables on her antagonists for a while, then died a death full of pathos.

10.23.2010

On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

On Stranger Tides
On Stranger Tides
I've had this book on my shelf for a while now. I really only picked it up because I watched all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies earlier this week. Interestingly, when I looked the Pirates movies up on Wikipedia, I found out that not only are they filming a fourth movie right now, but that the producers also bought the rights to this book and the fourth movie will be based in part on Tim Power's On Stranger Tides.

When I was asked earlier this week to describe what I was reading, all I could really come up with was pirates messing around with voodoo. The more I thought about it, the more this description fit. After an exciting prologue in which a character tries to retrieve his dead wife Orpheus-style, we meet our protagonist, John Chandagnac. Chandagnac, a puppeteer, soon becomes Jack Shandy when the ship he's traveling on is taken by pirates who have problems pronouncing his French name. Shandy becomes a reluctant part of their crew and is swept up in the pirates' plans.

This book has a great cast of antagonists. More than once, they steal the scene from Jack Shandy.  First, there's Shandy's captain, Philip Davies, who pushes our hero to greater and greater heights of criminal behavior--but who is ultimately Shandy's best friend. There's Ben Hurwood, the would be Orpheus who will stop at nothing, not even the murder of his own daughter, to resurrect his dead wife. And then there's my absolute favorite: Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard. He first steps on to the stage in full piratical rig out, including the smoldering slow matches braided into his hair. Blackbeard is portrayed like a force of nature. Even when he's not actually involved in a scene, he still seems to influence events. When he and Hurwood team up to find and use the Fountain of Youth, it's captivating and terrifying to watch. Shandy just gets tangled up in their plans, but he's the only one who knows what they're up to and has the wherewithal to stop them. The last scene of the book, when Shandy takes on Blackbeard, is marvelous--in the original sense of the word, not the fashionista sense. It truly is a marvel to read.

This is one of the first books Powers wrote and published. I've read his later books and can tell the difference. I really enjoy reading Powers, because he is incredibly skillful in blending history and oddball supernatural stuff together. In Declare, it was World War II and the djinn. In Last Call, it was poker and the Fisher King. In both of these books, Powers steadfastly refuses to reveal more than he absolutely has to. It's like he met an expository character when he was young and formed a violent abhorrence to their kind. In contrast to the later books, there is a lot of exposition in these books. Not only to characters say what they're doing, but they also explain why things work the way they do. It was a pleasant change, but after a while, I found that I missed the challenge of trying to figure out just what the hell was going on.

Still, On Stranger Tides is an entertaining and unusual read. With a full compliment of zombies, voodoo practitioners, and loas, On Stranger Tides is one of the most imaginative books I've ever read. I'm really looking forward to the next Pirates movie, just to see what those writers did with this story.

10.17.2010

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold
Best Served Cold
I've continued my dive back into epic fantasy be reading Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. When I was browsing the shelves at the library, I was looking for something gritty, dark, without any of the cliches or tropes of the fantasy genre. I found what I was looking for in this book. As you'd imagine, Best Served Cold is a revenge tale. By the end, it seems like all the major characters are seeking revenge against all the others.

We begin the book by meeting Monza Murcatto, a mercenary and great general. She's on top of the world and because I have the benefit of foreshadowing and the book jacket blurb, I wanted to warn her. In a scene reminiscent of Kill Bill, her employer tries to kill her. He succeeds in killing her brother and throwing Monza down a mountain. She is cared for by a very creep amateur doctor and, as soon as she gets back on her feet, she immediately starts to plan her revenge on the seven men who tried to kill her. At this point, I was expecting something like a grimmer criminal plan where the protagonist rounds up specialists and puts together an elaborate plan. Only the first part happens, but Monza never really develops a grand plan. A whole lot of people die. Plans are thrown together and almost immediately go to hell. Monza and her employees get very battered and even caught up in a couple of major battles along the way. But then, isn't there an old proverb about how the path to revenge is never a straight line? Or maybe that's a line from Kill Bill.

While revenge consumes many of the characters, they still develop and change throughout the narrative. While they are people you'd never actually want to meet--because they are bastards to man (and woman)--they do seem like real people. Throughout the narrative, Abercrombie includes some very restrained flashbacks at the beginning of each section to show you want Monza's life before her employer tried to kill her. You get to see how she got her nickname as a butcher. As these short, tight flashbacks unfold, you learn the real story and my opinion of Monza and her brother changed. These revelations were really well done. Until I got this part of the story, Best Served Cold was just a bloody revenge story, albeit very well written. The action scenes are some of the best I've ever read. It's cinematic, like John Woo in print. And I have to say something about the humor that punctuates the book. Even though it's very violent, it's also got some hysterically funny moments:
"And what do you think is God's plan is, General Cosca?" "I have long suspected that it might be to annoy me." (p. 469*)
And this one, when Cosca addresses his troops before a battle:
"Brave heroes of the Thousands Swords!...Well, let us say brave men of the Thousand Swords, at least. Let us say men, anyway...My boys, you all know my stamp! Some of you have fought beside me...or at any rate in front...May Mistress Luck be always at your side and mine! She is drawn, after all, tho those who least deserve her! May darkness find us victorious! Uninjured! And above all--rich!" (449-450).
By the end of the book, the revenge narrative turns into something else entirely. In retrospective, I can see the political part of the story developing, but the end of the book is very different from its beginning. I hate to give too much away, but I will say that there is a lot of irony in the ending. There are still some mysteries that I kind of wish Abercrombie had addressed, but I admire the skillful way that he wrapped up all the major plot thread. One of the biggest cliches of the genre is that every story is told in at least a trilogy and sometimes more than three books. But, remarkably, Best Served Cold is a satisfying stand alone novel.

This book is set in the same world as Joe Abercrombie's trilogy, The First Law. I can clearly see some elements of our history in Abercrombie's world: an empire based on Rome, Northern barbarians, an Ottoman-like empire. Monza's country resembles nothing so much as Renaissance Italy, with warring city states and roving mercenaries and a superfluity of poisoners and assassins running around. It's one of the most dangerous and interesting settings I've encountered. Abercrombie does a great job of subtlety writing in the long, long history of this world without letting the action bog down. You really get the sense that this world will keep rolling along after the last page.

* All quotes are from the 2009 Orbit hardcover edition.

10.10.2010

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Name of the Wind
The Name of the Wind
It's been a while since I read an out and out epic fantasy novel. But I've had The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, on my shelf for a while and I finally decided its time had come. I'm glad that I did. The Name of the Wind lives up to its hype, in spite of a few cliches and rough patches in the plot arc. This book is the first in a planned trilogy--what fantasy debut these days isn't?--about a unorthodox hero named Kvothe (pronounced Quothe). We meet Kvothe in an inn in the middle of nowhere, under an assumed name. After a lot of pestering, a wandering scribe and storyteller convinces Kvothe to tell his story. Our hero agrees, but tells the scribe that his story will take three days. The Name of the Wind includes the first day of Kvothe's story.

This book is mostly story within a story, exactly like an extended flashback. Kvothe takes us all the way back to when he was twelve years old and still traveling with his parents troupe of traveling actors, musicians, and entertainers. Because we only get hints about Kvothe's later great deeds, it's a little hard to tell where the story is going. The story meanders all over the place, but you have to trust it because the character is telling his telling his own story. He has to get to the point some time. So, we get to see tragedy strike the troupe, Kvothe being left to fend for himself on the streets of a tough city, Kvothe using his wits and fast tongue to be admitted to the University. Unlike a lot of fantasy novel heroes, Kvothe doesn't just charge off to avenge his family and friends. Instead, he goes to the University to learn more about the literal demons that killed his family. Things would have gone a lot more smoothly, but our hero has about the worst luck of any character in the genre. He is thwarted at almost every turn, mouths off to the wrong people, and otherwise gets caught up in impossible situations. And then, just as Kvothe gets ready to launch into the next big chunk of his story, the book ends and we have to wait for the next book in the series.

I started reading this 700+ page book last Thursday, and got completely sucked into the story. Kvothe is a terrific character: a smart ass with a frighteningly quick mind and a strong sense of honor. I highly recommend this book to fans of big fantasy novels. There are a few problems with the book, but they are fairly minor and pretty common in fantasy novels. It's a little jarring when a character says something's okay or when the main character and his companions sit down to a meal of a whole pig killed less than an hour before. But Kvothe and his story more than make up for these problems. I am really looking forward to the next book when it comes out this coming spring.

10.06.2010

The Devil's Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory

Devil's Alphabet
The Devil's Alphabet
The Devil's Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory, centers on the aftermath of a strange epidemic in a small Appalachian town. Ten years before the events of the book, a disease ripped through the town of Switchcreek. Those that survived had their DNA altered to the point where the scientists don't even think they're human anymore. Apart from some seriously bizarre explanation of where the disease came from (that, frankly, even I don't give credence, too), there isn't much talk in this book of the disease. Instead, this book is more about how the survivors have learned to live with their new bodies and how the world is still learning that lesson.

Ten years after the epidemic, Pax--a skip who wasn't touched by the disease--returns home for the funeral of one of his childhood friends. Once he arrives back in Switchcreek, he gets tangled up in the local politics. It was hard to pick up on an overarching plot. I got the sense of Pax getting caught up in other people's schemes; he reacted for just about the entire length of the book. He is a strangely passive protagonist. I was much more interested in the other characters: the corrupt but hospitable mayor, the gigantic and honest unofficial "chief," Paxton's loopy ex-preacher of a father. If Gregory had chosen one of them to be the main character, this book would have been a lot more interesting.

I read Gregory's previous book, Pandemonium, and while this book shares the same originality, it doesn't have the same kind of intensity. I kept waiting for this book to pick up, to get to the point, but it never got there.

10.03.2010

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader
The Reader
The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, is a remarkable book that manages to present a number of ethical and philosophical dilemmas without sacrificing plot or characterization. The first part of the book introduces us to Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz. Michael is fifteen when he meets the older Hanna. They start a relationship, partly, I suspect, because they are so isolated from everyone else and partly because they "get" each other. Because we get to see the relationship from its genesis, it doesn't seem and strange and, well, illegal as it should. Michael and Hanna settle into a long term love affair with each other, until Hanna leaves.

In the second part of the book, more details are revealed and Schlink brings up some uncomfortable questions and situations. Hanna is accused of (and admits to) being a camp guard at an auxiliary camp at Auschwitz. She's put on trial begins with a bunch of other former guards. Michael finds out about the trial because he was part of a group of law students who made a project of studying trials of former Nazis and Nazi officials. In one of the most civilized acts ever seen in history, these people were given trials to determine their responsibility. Even now, I have to admire the restraint it took to not execute the worst offenders. Further complicating the matter is the inadequacy of the law when the crime are so huge. Meanwhile, Michael asks himself (and us):
What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? (104*)
Michael is right and yet, we have to discuss the Holocaust, if only to keep the memory alive so that it never happens again.

Schlink is a remarkable writer, to ask such difficult and important questions in such a slim book. It would have been easy to let questions like these take over the book but Schlink shows us that, in spite of everything, life goes on, even for former camp guards. As I read the second part of the book, I kept thinking back to the strange love that Michael and Hanna had. Did Hanna deserve to have that love? And as the trial rolls along, I also had to wonder just how much guilt and responsibility Hanna bore for what happened on the death march from Auschwitz back towards Germany. I know she wasn't innocent, but was the verdict actually just?

The Reader is unsettling. There's more than enough here to trouble anyone's ethics. To my way of thinking, making readers think and question and ponder even after the book is over is a sign of a really great book. This is a rare and meaningful book.

* 1997 Vintage International trade paperback edition.