Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thinner by Stephen King

[I read this an audio book, in case that makes a difference to you.]

For a few minutes, I thought about marking this as being by Richard Bachman, but it's not like anyone is fooled these days by Stephen King's pseudonym and it makes it easier to find for those who might want to see my thoughts on books I've read by one of the masters of horror.

All told, this is my 11th Stephen King book, and that's not even a third of his total output. It is, however, one of the best I've read, and I think it might just be my favorite now. (Previously, that was held by Different Seasons, closely followed by Cujo. Clearly, I like early 80s King.)

Thinner is the story of attorney Billy Halleck, a man living the American Dream. He's got an amazing job, a sexy wife, and a darling daughter, all while living in one of the most prestigious areas in New England. Not even making an arrogant mistake while behind the wheel can stop him. After all, powerful white men like Halleck have powerful friends, who can help him out when he's in legal difficulty.

You see, Billy Halleck has killed someone, and gotten off scott free because it's only a Gypsy. Who cares, right? They're drifters, nobodies--people who are so far below Halleck and his ilk, they might as well be ants.

Maybe, maybe not. An old Gypsy man cares, and when he takes the law into his own hands, Halleck and his friends find themselves dying in various, hideous ways. Only Halleck, the man with the biggest guilt complex, can figure out why. The trouble is, what can he do about it? Can he convince the old Gypsy to take off the curse, even as he takes off pounds faster than a Photoshopped picture? His time, like his very self, is getting...Thinner.

The book begins in media res, which is a bit different for a horror story but works quite well. As we see Halleck's situation slowly growing worse, we also see inside his mind, as he links his problems to the events of a night in which neither he nor his wife used good judgment. Halleck's mental guilt drives a lot of the horror early on, which might disappoint those looking for a more splatter-filled book. There's quite a bit of build-up going on, even if King splashes a bit of horror here and there. If you want immediate gratification, you're likely going to be disappointed.

Since I am a fan of the horrors of the mind, I found this part of the book to be quite a bit of fun, especially since it stays with us, even as Halleck's desperation leads him to allow very uncomfortable--and bloody--choices to be made on his behalf. Even if they work, Halleck will have a lot to live with for a very long time. The old Gypsy's death won't be the only thing on his conscience, and that fact is allowed to sink in nice and slowly, fitting again with the psychological horror theme.

And oh boy, does this book get some bloody imagery by the end. There are dead bodies, severed limbs, and dripping blood--and that doesn't count the stuff going on inside Halleck's head. Yet none of it feels added on to please those who want blood. Every action in this book, no matter how horrible, relates back to the story in a natural way. Halleck is in the middle of a blood feud, and the results happen accordingly.

One of the things I found most interesting about the book is that the reader should never want Halleck to win--after all, he's guilty as sin--yet they must follow his quest and listen to his perspective. The Gypsies are the wronged party, and King makes that abundantly clear. All through the book, you can see King's social commentary about how rich white people treat those they consider beneath them, especially the Gypsies. Even Halleck comes around to this idea, although far too late to help him.

When the time comes for Halleck to strike back, using his friend Ginelli the Mobster, there is a sense that maybe we are to root for Halleck. After all, Ginelli is built up to be the likable Italian Gangster. However, as he plows onto the scene and starts using horrible means to get his way, both Halleck and the reader learn that no matter how nice, a killer is a killer. King's description of the maniacal glee that Ginelli gets in bringing pain to the Gypsies is just as chilling as his depiction of the curses. Perhaps even more so.

As much as I enjoyed the way in which this story builds, the ending is one of the best payoffs, because it's exactly what you think might happen, if you're following along closely. I like when a book has an ending that meshes nicely with what's come before. Halleck thinks he can be rid of his sins, but our old, seemingly ageless Gypsy antagonist knows better. So do we, and so does King. When we get to the final scene, it hits Halleck worse than the car he used to kill the old Gypsy woman in the first place. The setup and execution are about as well done as I've read in a good long time.

In some ways, this book is more literary than it appears. We have violence, but it's almost secondary to Halleck's reflection on the way he--and many, many others--live our their daily lives. We don't think about how much we have until something causes us to lose those advantages. (Think of how many people out of work now who never gave a thought about the other 5% of the country who are chronically and constantly unemployed.) We try to dismiss that which we cannot control, and ultimately, look to blame others for our problems. We keep our dirty little secrets, and hope like hell they never come to light, all the while hating those who share in them.

Come on, you know you have a few. Don't try to deny it. You can't, and neither can I. By the end, neither can Halleck. That's a commentary worthy of being taught in school, and frankly is made all the more interesting because it contains supernatural elements and bloodthirsty mobsters.

Thinner is a great horror story on its face, with multiple levels of commentary weaved in and out of the descriptions of nightmares and cancerous tumors. It's a tribute to King's qualities as a writer that he can do both without taking away from either one. If you only think of Stephen King as a schlocky master of cheap horror, think again. Try Thinner on for size--you might just change your mind.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Lines of Contention by J.G. Lewin and P. J. Huff

I have fondness for political cartoons, though I find that these days they tend to be a bit less clever than I remember them growing up. I have several books containing political cartoons on a variety of subjects, so when I saw this collection on a recent trip to Harper's Ferry, I jumped on the chance to add it to my shelf.

Lines of Contention focuses on the many political cartoons of the Civil War, a time when all eyes--even those in Europe were on the United States and how a dark horse presidential candidate would deal with a major challenge to the idea of a united country in the face of a significant ideological difference.

These cartoons may be crude and offensive more often than not, but they carry with them the voice of a generation and show that popular opinion was as apt to swing violently then as much as it is now. We may ask for cleaner portrayals, but the shifting sands of opinion, blunt panic or belligerence, and generally weak understanding of details show up just as often here as they do in the cartoons of the week feature in a major magazine.

Lewin and Huff give a strong introduction to this collection discussing the importance of political cartoons (which may have started with none other than Benjamin Franklin) and how we can use them to see what people were thinking. I also like that they discuss the difficulty of mass reproduction, the large number of newspapers in the 1860s (Gettysburg alone had 11, if I am remembering correctly), and that just about every paper had a strong bias one way or the other, which comes out in these cartoons.

The book is structured into several chapters, and my only problem with the way the book is put together is that the cartoons are not always in chronological order. It can be a bit disconcerting, and I am a pretty solid Civil War buff. I do appreciate that each comic is given a context, and figures that might be familiar to a person with a Civil War Preservation Trust member but not to the general public are pointed out and explained. There were a few even I didn't know!

My favorite part of this book by far was that Lewin and Huff searched for less common cartoons to include, staying away for the most part from drawings we've seen a million times in other books. Jeff Davis in drag is pretty familiar by now, but how about Lincoln eating his treasury secretary as a fish? Or Lincoln cowering before the might of the British as a trapped raccoon (with likely double meaning)? There's even one of Congress as a bunch of unruly schoolboys, doodling and feuding during a lesson on the Constitution. I greatly appreciated the chance to see these kinds of commentary, and I think anyone who picks up this book will feel the same way.

If there is one thing I'd have changed, it would be to give a bit more attention to Confederate papers, or at least talk about why there are less of them. Were they too offensive for print? Burned and lost in Sherman's raids? Just non-existent? It's a question that we don't get an answer to, which is a bit of a shame.

Still, Lines of Contention was a great book to read and one I'm happy to own. It fills a gap in Civil War history for many readers, including myself, and really helps show what the public was thinking during the long conflict. If you or someone you know is a fan of both politics and the Civil War, pick up a copy of this book. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Incredible Double by Owen Hill

It's not often that you stop by the new mystery section of your library and find a book that's about a bi-sexual protagonist. So, though there were other books I was interested in, this is the one that came home with me. I probably could have made a better choice.

Clay Blackburn is a man of unusual occupations. He's a book hunter by his tax return, a dying industry in this age of Amazon and E-Bay. That's why he moonlights as an unlicensed private detective, the first of many unlikely things that really kept this one from being a book I'd recommend to others, despite some really cool ideas.

As we meet Clay, money is a bit tight and despite his leftist leanings (he's friends with a man who has quite a few resources on the radical fringe but never gets caught, which I also find unlikely) he takes on a case that involves assisting a Joe Walton-like figure who owns a drugstore chain. His employer practices are questionable, but that's no reason he should meet with foul play, and anyway, the money is good.

When Clay digs deeper, he finds a beautiful woman and a vast conspiracy that combine to give this book its name. She makes him do things most people can't, but will it cost him everything to be with her? With his employer turning against him and his only allies a set of conspiracy theorists, semi-homeless men, and radicals, can Clay survive?

The answer is probably not, but since this book is part of a series, Hill has to put the reader through increasingly unbelievable hoops (and a few total cliches about a femme fatale) to keep Clay alive. I'd have been okay with this had the plot been tighter, but characters roll in and out of the story as needed, ideas are forgotten, and the whole process is just so muddled that even after reading the ending twice, I didn't find a way to make logical sense of the whole thing.

Maybe I wasn't supposed to, and should have just relaxed and enjoyed the ride. I certainly am no stranger to extraordinary tales, and can take a fish story as well as anyone. The problem I had here is that the plotting was so loose, it almost felt secondary to the whole operation. When you are dealing in a genre that bleeds cliches like a character who has been shot with a tommy gun, plot is essential. I'm afraid this book's plot felt like something that needed workshopped a few more times before publication.

There are some good points, which is why I was maddened by the writing itself. Clay's sexuality is taken as a given, as are the other queer characters. A character going through a sex change is treated as normal, and even an object of sexual desire here and there. (Unfortunately, this is marred by some racially tinged remarks that have no place in a book set in the present day.) I of course was geeked at the references to old books and hunting for books, even if I've given up the practice myself. I also enjoyed several of the one-liners and the attempt to have a noir feel to the proceedings.

On the other hand, what worked for a 50s sleuth won't fly today, and I cannot believe the ease with which these characters do illegal things. I feel like Hill should have done more legal research, and not been as blind to modern realities as Clay appears to be. It's okay for your character not to know, but the author, as God-of-the-story, should know much more. I also found a lot of the chapter breaks to be arbitrary and artificially short. This didn't help the flow of the writing any, and led to me feeling like I had to work to stay with things. That's not where you want a detective story to go. The more the reader moves, the less they have time to think.

If you are going to constantly reference some of the greatest detective writers (Clay lives at the Chandler, for God's sake), then you'd better be ready to be compared. Sadly, I don't think this book meets its mark. The Incredible Double really should have been double-checked before it met final publication. There's just too many holes in the plotting and too much stilted writing to be what I was hoping for. Despite some good ideas and respectful treatment of alternative sexualities, I just can't recommend this one to others.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Between the Assasinations by Aravind Adiga

[If that's the kind of thing that matters to you, I read this as an audiobook.]

Sometimes it's good to get outside your reading comfort zone, especially in the realm of fiction. I know there are some folks who think that the best reading comes from reading a particular type of literature only, because you can read almost everything that comes out.

I don't work like that, as a casual glance at my reviews here or on Panel Patter can show you. I prefer to read whatever strikes my fancy, and try as many new things as I can. It doesn't always work, but hey, it's worth a shot.

That brings me to this book, Between the Assassinations, a collection of short stories set in a darker side of India that most would rather not touch. There are lower-caste people, pimps, deranged priests, corrupt cops, and desperate men and women just looking for a way to survive in a world that grows crueler by the minute. These are their stories, and they aren't pretty or polite.

Adiga pulls no punches when it comes to depicting life in his fictional town. There is no attempt to sugarcoat the baldfaced lies, deception, and general despair that haunts just about every character we meet in these chapters. This is both a blessing and a curse: Adiga's characters are refreshingly honest, but most are so unlikable that after awhile, it's hard to want to keep spending time with them.

That was my major issue with Between the Assassinations. I read books for their characters, and so many of his were so unlikable, it made the book drag in places for me. I was moved almost to tears when a little girl must risk the dangers of the street to get her drugged out father his fix. A rogue bookseller, who is tortured for the Satanic Verses, captured my heart. I understood the despair of the newsman who learns that his whole life has been a lie. Even the man who tries to get ahead in life but lets his lust get the better of him is a person who you want to root for, at least for a time.

But so many of the others are just so rotten, like the elderly priest who cannot stand his students trying to live out their impulses, or the punk rich kid who decides to be a terrorist. Their stories felt like they took forever, and I couldn't wait to be rid of them. I had less strong feelings about the boy who opts for a fast life and dies for it or the old communist who opts to turn to lechery when the party's faith leaves him, but they, too, were just not all that compelling to me.

It's not just that they were horrible people. I can enjoy a book about a horrible person just fine. My issue is that they only had one common feature--misery. That's an overwhelming theme of this book, but when you apply it to an unlikable protagonist, the story fails to grab me.

This is not to say that Adiga is not a good writer. His prose is bleak, to be sure, but that's the point. His dialog felt natural for these characters, whether I like them or not. I have a small knowledge of India, but not enough to picture this world on my own. Adiga does a great job of painting the setting, without getting too wordy. This book has an amazing shared universe, and I give Adiga a lot of credit for putting that together.

In some ways, Between the Assassinations reminded me of the noir books I read earlier this year. Like those books, there are ups and downs in here, and that may be enough for some folks to skip this one. I can't say that I'd recommend it, but if you are looking to try something different, and are okay with having a book that's likely to dampen your mood after you read it, this one is worth a look. If you do, I'd love to know what you think.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tried by War by James McPherson

[Listened to this as an audiobook, if that matters to anyone.]

It's been awhile since I've had the pleasure of sitting down with a Civil War book. They tend to be a bit on the long side, and I've not had a lot of time to myself for pleasure reading. I decided to take advantage of my new, longer commute to pick up this study in command by James McPherson.

McPherson is a well-regarded historian who, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, I've never read. There's a lot of Civil War books out there, and by the time I got to McPherson, I was already reading more specialized works on the war.

This book, however, intrigued me because of the subject matter. We all talk about Lincoln as being a great president, but the details as to why don't often get looked at very closely.

In this case, going from Lincoln's pre-inauguration days to the tragedy of his death, McPherson shows the progression of a man who knew about as much on the practice of war as I do on trigonometry when he first took office. By reading books, listening to a wide variety of opinions, reacting to practice, and dealing with the realities of war. In addition, Lincoln had to also juggle political actors, public opinion, and his own personal demons.

Any one of those things would be enough to break a lesser man, but Lincoln, in this rather glowing portrayal by McPherson, rises to the occasion. Honest Abe, despite his doubts, seems to be one step ahead of almost everyone around him, from the crafty cabinet members like Chase and Seward to military minds as diverse as Scott and McClellan.

In McPherson's account here, Lincoln had the right idea all along--he just didn't have the generals to implement the plans, until Grant, Sherman, Sherridan, and Thomas (an odd inclusion) came along. Once that quartet is in place, it's only a matter of time.

Similarly, Lincoln walks the tightrope of slavery here in a way that makes it seem as though the 16th president quickly transitioned from fighting for union to fighting for freedom, despite the displeasure of many around him. Father Abraham is nearly worshiped by freed slaves, and in the process, the struggles black soldiers faced to just get on the field (and be used in a meaningful way) is hidden into the background, with Grant's blatant racism completely overlooked.

True, McPherson does highlight Lincoln's failure with political generals and a few other mistakes, but they are waived away as being beyond Lincoln's control. The problem is that in the process, it looks like McPherson wants us to have it both ways--Lincoln is praised for his virtues, but not shown as being responsible for for his faults. It's a throwback to an earlier type of history book, where heroes are made to look as good as possible. I'm just not comfortable with the level of hero-worship on display here.

I also disliked the way that McPherson ignores the factors on the other side of the field that may have led to some of Lincoln's (and Grant's) successes. Jefferson Davis, despite being a former Secretary of War, was an idiot as a commander in chief. I also think even someone as cautious as McClellan could have won on the field by 1864, when the south's resources just dried up. Yes, the Union had a lot of bad generals, but the Confederacy had a lot of good ones, too. In the name of making Lincoln look better than his generals, I don't think McPherson properly takes circumstances into consideration.

There's also the tricky issue of Lincoln's shaky stance on the Constitution. Lincoln did a lot of things to create the Imperial Presidency, a style of managing that's great when it works, but lousy when the President's plans are less than stellar. McPherson says "other did worse" as the answer to this challenge to Lincoln's legacy, but overlooks that they all did it because *Lincoln did it first.*

Overall, Tried by War was a fun read, because it highlighted just how much Lincoln was involved in the war effort. As President, he acted in ways no one else has before or since, and his keen intellect often had the right idea. Focusing on Lincoln's army stovepipe hat is a worthy endeavor, and those looking to learn more about Lincoln's role in the war could do worse than to start here. I just wish McPherson had been willing to be more critical, or at least acknowledge there was more at play than just the Union side. When you finish Tried by War, I think you'll agree.