2011年2月16日 星期三

"White Jazz" by James Ellroy

I wrote about James Ellroy (at length!) elsewhere, so I'll try to be brief.

White Jazz is the conclusion of a cycle of books beginning with L.A. Confidential. This cycle also includes The Black Dahlia.

White Jazz is definitely one of Ellroy's best novels, though in my opinion it lacks the drama of The Black Dahlia. It features the usual assortment of corrupt policemen, drug dealers, closet homosexuals, minor celebrities from the era, and even a few characters who are all four.

The protagonist, Dave Klein, is a LA detective with a history that goes back to the mobster Mickey Cohen. In his quest to solve a particularly violent B&E, he runs up against Internal Affairs, the FBI, the mob, and by the end of the book you wonder if there's anyone in LA who doesn't have a reason to kill him.

It's a good book, and a lot less repetitious than the last Ellroy book I read, Blood's a Rover. It is also in some respects the beginning of Ellroy's "telegraphic" style of writing. A certain anecdote has it that Ellroy originally submitted a manuscript that ran over 700 pages. His publisher said this was too long, so Ellroy responded by removing most of the verbs, and shortening the book to half its original length.

I'll give this book 9 stars out of 10. Anyone into "noir" writing will love it.

"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

I’ve never really understood why Neil Gaiman is so popular. I tried reading American Gods a while back, but gave up after the first chapter. It just seemed too much like a comic book without the cool art, full of characters with ridiculous names in implausible situations. Yes, the Sandman comics he wrote were great, but those are as interesting for the illustrations as for the writing.

Neil Gaiman has always struck me as a latter-day Clive Barker, and I’m sure he is aware of how similar many of his achievements are to those of his predecessor. Both authors have dabbled in comic books, both are drawn to darker themes, both have written books for younger audiences, and both happen to be British. I think I will always like Clive Barker more, primarily because his Books of Blood were some of the most imaginative horror stories to come along since H.P. Lovecraft.

I’m not, however, trying to say that Neil Gaiman’s books are bad, or that Neil Gaiman is a bad writer. I just think he is over-hyped. When you look at what he has actually produced: Sandman, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, it is hard to reconcile his reputation as a premier fantasy writer with his output to date. For that matter, one could have said the same about Clive Barker at the height of his popularity, as the Hellraiser movies were in their ascendancy. Again, there are many parallels between the two authors, not least of all their status as “the next big thing.”

The Graveyard Book is about a boy saved from a killer by a community of ghosts. It’s an easy read, and could probably be disposed of in an afternoon. New fans of Neil Gaiman will have already read it. Older fans have undoubtedly read and reread it. Fans of Stephen King will probably find it “visionary,” and fans of Clive Barker will be reminded of his Cabal.

If you ask me, I think you ought to go read some H.P. Lovecraft instead. This is presuming you haven’t already. I’ll give The Graveyard Book six stars out of ten. It has some cool illustrations, and as said above, it’s an easy read.

"85 Years of Great Writing in Time"

There is, it would seem, no end to the number of interesting books I can find in my local library. While at first glance the selection at the local library can seem a bit limiting, a closer look reveals that what most libraries lack in depth, they make up for in the obscurity of their selections.

I have no idea why someone at my local library decided to purchase this book, but I am glad that they did. Even though I am not a big fan of the magazine itself (too many pictures, very few words), I find that this overview of TIME from 1923 to 2008 offers a fascinating discussion of many breakthrough events in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

This book is divided into eight sections, covering domestic and international politics, war reports, business, the Arts, science, and of course TIME’s cornerstone feature, the “Man of the Year”. What makes this book interesting is not only the solid writing featured in many entries, but also the outright exoticism of some of the material. A piece on the first successful heart transplant, for example, also points towards some of the early Soviet experiments involving the transplantation of dog heads. A discussion of film photography, to use another example, details both the technology and the slang used to describe a hobby that is now virtually extinct. This book is treasure trove of odd trivia, and what’s more, almost all of this trivia is tied in one fashion or another to an event of “greater” importance.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone, like me, who enjoys reading old encyclopedias and trying to see the world as it appeared to our grandparents. Those who hated History class, however, will probably also hate this book.

This book makes me glad that I visited the local library. With this one under my belt, I am now ready to start reading the REALLY strange books. Scientology? Woodcraft? Satanism? Like the book introduced above, I’m sure they will prove fascinatingly strange.

2011年2月15日 星期二

"The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Friedman

The trouble with writing any book about business, technology, and how they shape the future is that your book is likely to be irrelevant before it is even a few years old. This being the year 2011, and “The World is Flat” having been written in 2004, there are naturally a lot of examples, and counterexamples, that are going to be omitted simply because they didn’t exist seven years ago.

For example, this book was published before the rise of Facebook, before the election of Barack Obama to the office of U.S. President, and also the HUGE depression that the U.S. economy experienced prior to Obama’s election. In short, the world of 2011 is vastly different from the world of 2004, and any book written about business, technology, and the future of both is bound to come up a bit short in light of recent developments.

I didn’t find “The World is Flat” to be a very wise or insightful book, even though it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. A lot of the techonological trends outlined by the author have been ongoing since the late 90s or earlier, and I found myself wondering at the supposed “objectivity” of his reporting. It is worth noting that almost everyone he interviews about the coming of this “Flat Earth” is someone who is a) already quite wealthy, and b) someone who will benefit from it.

The author’s contention is that inventions such as the internet, fiber optic cable, and other modern conveniences all contribute to the “flattening” of our globe, and the breaking of the old barriers between peoples and nations. I would not argue this point. What I would argue, however, is that this “flattening” is not in all cases desirable, fair, and humane.

What, after all, about the millions of people who DON’T benefit from unrestrained free markets? After all, the author assumes that countries such as the U.S., India, and China are participating in these markets under the same rules, when this is far from the case. Shouldn’t the manufacturer in Illinois have some protection against his business moving to China, if the manufacturing in China is done with substandard materials or utilizes unfair labor practices? The author fails to recognize the fact that economic policy and political policy are often one and the same thing, and a country’s pursuit of free market principles does not always mean protection of its citizens best interests.

Besides this, there is also the environmental cost. Nowhere in this book could I find more than the briefest mention of what all this “outsourcing” to countries such as India and China means for the environment. It is beyond debate that many of China’s manufacturing processes and emissions standards lag far beyond those of the U.S., so is it conscionable for the U.S. to outsource to that country? In this case the author is advocating the passing of modernization’s “opportunity cost” to less developed nations, and I cannot see how this is either the responsible or prudent thing to do. Just because they want all those cars, and air-conditioners, and MP 4s - does that mean that we should help them?

I wouldn’t recommend “The World is Flat,” and for more reasons that I have outlined above. I think it is a poorly written, poorly researched book, and there must be something better out there. The author might have chosen a smaller, more manageable subject, and trying to forecast the rest of this century from the year 2004 was a bit premature. I would give him points for trying, but then again I believe that this kind of book causes more harm than good. I shudder to think of U.S. government officials reading this book and thinking, “Trade policy? Who needs it!”