2012年3月29日 星期四

"Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon is Thomas Harris' second book, and the first to feature Hannibal Lecter.  He wrote this book waaaaay back in 1979, when I was only four years old.

I am not an "avid fan" of the mystery/suspense genre, so I don't have a lot of other books to compare Red Dragon to.  Like anyone else who's over 30, and hasn't been living under a rock, I've seen the movie version of Silence of the Lambs, and also the inevitable sequels.  I don't know who you can really credit with making Hannibal Lecter famous - Thomas Harris, Anthony Hopkins, or Jonathan Demme.  The answer, I suspect, is all three.

Red Dragon (in case you haven't already seen the movie) outlines forensic genius Will Graham's attempts to catch a serial killer.  He spends a lot of time investigating crime scenes, and displaying near-telepathic powers of observation.  In the end... well, you've probably already guessed what happens.

It's fine as book-of-the-month-club type books go.  It is quite interesting in the beginning, but the suspense wanes after the killer is revealed early on.  I think it would have been much better if the killer's identity had remained a secret until the very end, or if Will Graham was more believable as an actual, living, breathing human being.  If Harris had given him a bit more dimension, and focused more on Graham treading the thin line between sanity and insanity, this would have been a much better, much more nuanced kind of book.  As it is, one never believes that Harris is actually going to kill of his main character, and so this book lacks any sense of danger.

It is amusing to compare this novel to another, entirely different novel I just read: Graham Green's Journey Without MapsJourney Without Maps isn't even half the length of Red Dragon, and yet I found that the former book took me twice as long to read.  There is a weight to Greene's words that Harris doesn't even attempt, and where Harris uses sentences like toilet paper, Greene takes his time, and says only what he truly intends to say.

This isn't to say that Red Dragon is a bad book.  Thomas Harris obviously did his homework, and this novel is rich in forensic and psychological detail.  It is, however, a somewhat shallow book, and can only be considered light reading.  It's better than anything Dan Brown has ever written, but that's not saying much.

2012年3月25日 星期日

Comic Book Interlude....

And now for something completely ridiculous.

I realize how incongruous it is to review something like Captain America and Bucky in the wake of books like American Tabloid and Journey Without Maps (see below), but I am resolved to include these things in the order I read them.

Last week I managed to get a hold of some American comics.  Here they are:

1. Justice League #5

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Cyborg do battle with a guy that looks a lot like Darkseid.  IS it Darkseid?  I'm not sure.  Some of their costumes have been revamped since 52, and I'd have to say that Superman looks much better without the red underwear.

2. Spider-Man: Marvel Adventures #22

The art in this comic book is horrible.  The story is horrible too.  I'm assuming this was marketed more towards younger kids.  Spider-man fights the Mandarin, but - most puzzling of all - we never actually see Spider-man hit anyone!

3. Captain America and Bucky #626

The art in this one is a bit more stylized than the others, but it still has a journeyman quality that I disliked.  Bucky is evil!  Or wait!  Is it really Bucky?  Maybe it's really an android!

4. Aquaman #6

This is the most politically-correct comic book I have ever read.  Mera walks around the surface world, not doing much, and offers many comments on how inappropriate our society is.  In the end she sucks all the fluids out of some guy - definitely not in the way he was hoping for, I'm sure. The art was terrible.

5. Batgirl #6

Batman and Batgirl take on some girl who can control minds.  In the end they find out that she was the product of a botched mafia hit, so it's really not her fault anyway.  Apparently the fact that many of her mafia accomplices were also the product of violent situations is not worth noting.  They're not girls, after all.

6. Avengers Annual #1

This was the best of the bunch.  Wonder Man goes crazy and beats the crap out of the assembled Avengers, but in the end Iron Man tricks him and reverts him to his "ionic form" (whatever that means).  Reminiscent of The Ultimates, but in a good way.

"Journey Without Maps" by Graham Greene

"Today our world seems peculiarly susceptible to brutality.  There is a touch of nostalgia in the pleasure we take in gangster novels, in characters who have so agreeably simplified their emotions that they have begun living again at a level below the cerebral.  We, like Wordsworth, are living after a war and revolution, and these half-castes fighting with bombs between the cliffs of skyscrapers seem more likely that we to be aware of Proteus rising from the sea.  It is not, of course, that one wishes to stay forever at that level, but when one sees what unhappiness, to what peril of extinction centuries of cerebration have brought us, one sometimes has a curiosity to discover if one can from what we have come, to recall at which point we went astray."

Journey Without Maps was written before the Second World War, though certain passages in this book seem to indicate later revisions.  It is a travelogue, and in many respects resembles Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, also reviewed here.  In this case the subject of discussion is Liberia, and the author's trek through that part of the world.

I saw The Blood Diamond, a movie about the Liberian diamond trade, not long before reading this book.  It is interesting to compare the two images of the place.  In The Blood Diamond one sees a Liberia torn apart by the predations of Western powers.  In Journey Without Maps one sees a much younger Liberia, untouched as yet by the diamond trade, though there are intimations of struggles yet to come.  The Liberia of Journey Without Maps is a nation of freed slaves and tribesman, a place where illness, not violence, is the Thing Most Feared.

Even if I hadn't read The Places in Between or seen The Blood Diamond, I'm sure I would have enjoyed this book.  Greene's writing brings to mind similar travelogues by Maugham, and at times he even echoes sentiments voiced by Conrad, in books such as Lord Jim.  Greene doesn't just draw upon memories of Liberia for Journey Without Maps, but also memories of England, memories of Europe, and a vast body of Western literature.

This book has a dreamy quality that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I can imagine reading it on a beach somewhere, maybe in Thailand or Malaysia, somewhere remote.  I once read half of The Gulag Archipelago while on vacation on Taiwan's Orchid Island, and Journey Without Maps had me thinking not only of Liberia, but also of similar, dream-like books, read in places far removed from home.

This book isn't as immediate or as moving as other novels by Greene.  It is definitely lighter reading.  But it is this very lightness that makes Journey Without Maps effective.  It is a picture of a vanished Africa, located within a vanished time, locked within an imagination that took enough liberties to make Journey Without Maps universal.

2012年3月24日 星期六

"American Tabloid" by James Ellroy

"'Repartee is one thing, Mr. Boyd, and the truth is another.  The truth is that my robber-baron father fucked my movie-star mother and got her pregnant.  My movie-star mother had already had three abortions and didn't want to risk a fourth.  My movie-star mom disowned me, but my father enjoys flaunting me in front of his legitimate family once a year.  The boys like me because I'm provocative, and they think I'm nifty because they can't fuck me, because I'm their half-sister.  The girls hate me because I'm a coded message from their father that says men can fuck around, but women can't.  Do you get the picture, Mr. Boyd?'"

Now THIS is what I'm talking about.  This is Ellroy, and this is a good book.  For sure.  I tell you, after struggling through Dickens' "Christmas Books," this book couldn't have come at a more opportune moment.  THIS, I tell you, is the shit.  This is the goods.  This is the real deal.

And everything that Dickens was, Ellroy isn't.  Dickens was all about love and the power of forgiveness.  Ellroy is all about hate and the power of holding a grudge.  Dickens was all about people helping each other, and good will to all men.  Ellroy is all about people fucking each other over, and ill will to ALL men.  Dickens shows you the beautiful side of humanity, and uses a multitude of words to do so.  Ellroy shows you how sick and despicable humanity really is, and omits all the bullshit.

Dickens only ever wrote a word to offend Victorian sensibilities.  Ellroy, on the the other hand, has words to offend everybody, and I'm sure his books will continue to offend, long after the time in which they were written.

American Tabloid is the first book in Ellroy's "Underworld Trilogy."  It is the last in this trilogy for me.  I read The Cold Six-Thousand, loved it, and then moved on to Ellroy's most recent work, Blood's a Rover.

I thought Blood's a Rover was deeply boring and gratuitous, and it made me wonder why I liked Ellroy in the first place.  I am happy to say that American Tabloid has restored my faith in this author, and I now look forward (once again) to Ellroy novels yet to come.

Like The Cold Six-Thousand and Blood's a Rover, American Tabloid covers crime and political conspiracies in the 50s, 60,s and 70s.  The characters will be familiar to anyone who's read the other two books in this trilogy, and even though there are some inconsistencies between books, the plot of American Tabloid was obviously thought out to the last detail, and Ellroy's knack for both characterization and racial slurs take center stage throughout.  It's a masterful book, and almost backs up Ellroy's claim to be "the American Tolstoy."

I recommend this book without reservation.  It's brilliant.

2012年3月17日 星期六

"The Christmas Books" by Charles Dickens

"External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose."

Charles Dickens wrote The Christmas Books between 1843 and 1845.  The Christmas Books are "A Christmas Carol," "The Chimes," and "The Cricket in the Hearth."  The first of these is the most famous, and is also the most famous story that Dickens ever wrote.

Just about anyone born after 1843 knows the plot of "A Christmas Carol."  I liked this story, but it wasn't a hard story to like.  Anyone who fails to care for the plight of poor, courageous Tiny Tim can probably expect ghostly visitors next Christmas-time.

The other two stories in this collection presented me with some difficulty.  "The Chimes" seemed much too long, much too wordy, and this story reveals Dickens at his most preachy.  It is a story of social justice, and as such is far from subtle.

"The Cricket in the Hearth" was far better, but I also found this story to be too long and too wordy.  There is a smugness in much of Dickens' work, and this smugness is evident here.  It's a good story, but the moralizing grows old.  One also wonders if Dickens really held any affection for these characters, or if he wasn't forcing a love for the Common Man that he sometimes found hard to put into practice.  I can't say.  But this story makes me wonder.

I would recommend "A Christmas Carol" to anyone who hasn't read it.  The other two stories in this book are not as good.

2012年3月12日 星期一

"The Simulacra" by Philip K. Dick

The Simulacra first saw publication in 1964.  This would make it the earliest of the PKD books reviewed here, but not by much.  It is also the fourteenth of his novels that I have read.

After this, I really need a break from PKD.  One can only indulge in so much paranoia.  Or... is that what they want me to think?

Whichever it is, the plot of The Simulacra revolves around the concept of totalitarianism, or the fact that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Something like that, anyway.  There's also a time-travel motif in there, one guy has a pet alien, and there are a bunch of androids (simulacra) running around.  This book resembles The Man in the High Castle, and could be viewed as a continuation of that award-winning book.

 And even though PKD would disagree with me (I believe he considered The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch to be his most "vital" book), I liked this one a lot better.  I can see how the ambiguity of Palmer Eldritch was more in line with his literary aspirations, but The Simulacra is, in my opinion, a much more straight-forward, well crafted work of science fiction.  It's not my favorite of PKD's books - not even close - but it was well thought out and well worth reading.

With this in mind, I'd like to now summarize everything that I've learned from the four PKD novels reviewed on this blog so far.

1. Almost nothing is as it seems.
2. Everyone is working against you.
3. Everything might be as it seems.
4. Nobody cares about you.
5. Women are evil.
6. Time travel is destructive.
7. Women are less evil than men.
8. Time travel is productive.
9. Evil is absolute.
10. God is everywhere.

And if you can make sense out of that, you've probably read as much PKD as I have!

2012年3月11日 星期日

"The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" by Philip K. Dick

"Below lay the tomb world, the immutable cause-and-effect world of the demonic.  At median extended the layer of the human, but at any instant a man could plunge - descend as if sinking - into the hell-layer beneath.  Or: he could ascend to the ethereal world above, which constituted the third of the trinary layers."

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was first published in 1965.  This would put it a year before Now Wait for Last Year, a book which shares many of the same themes.  It is one of the most famous of PKD's books, ranked alongside VALIS, A Scanner Darkly, and other classics.

Sometime in the future, mankind has moved on to colonizing other planets.  This process of colonization relieves population pressures on Earth, where global warming has made presence on the "outside" unpleasant - if not fatal.  Even so, earthlings are reluctant to leave their ancestral home, and membership among the colonists is achieved via a draft managed by the U.N.  Since conditions in the extra-planetary colonies are even more intolerable than those on Earth, most colonists turn to Can-D, a powerful hallucinogen, to escape the boredom of their everyday lives.  Into this situation arrives Palmer Eldritch, with a newer, better drug called Chew-Z, which he claims turns the user into God.

This is a good book, but I think it suffers from a few too many characters.  Unlike Now Just Wait for Last Year, the narrative within Palmer Eldritch is divided between a large group of individuals, which I think diffuses the suspense.  I enjoyed the more "religious" chapters near the end, but this one is a bit slow to get going.  I can understand the popularity of this book, but I think PKD wrote better.  This one, for me, was a bit too clever, and a bit less inspired, that some of his other books.

2012年3月9日 星期五

"Now Wait for Last Year" by Philip K. Dick

"'Then it's Gino Molinari lying there ripped apart by machine-gun slugs.  A primitive, outmoded weapon but it certainly can kill its victim beyond the possibility of even org-trans repair; you see that the brain case has been punctured - the brain is destroyed.  If it is Gino, then where's it from?  The future?'"

"Now Wait for Last Year" was published in 1966.  It is early PKD, and is a lot less WEIRD than later books such as "Lies, Inc."  It reminded me a lot of Martian Time-Slip, which was written at about the same time.

In the year 2055 the Terrans are caught between two warring alien races.  On the one hand there are the 'Starmen, from whom humanity itself is descended.  On the other hand there are the reeg, an insect-like race that has been at war with the 'Starmen for eons.

Caught between these three factions, Dr. Eric Sweetscent and his soon-to-be estranged wife come upon a new drug.  This drug allows the user to travel backward or forward in time, though it damages the nervous system beyond repair, and is completely addictive.  Dr. Sweetscent finds himself in the middle of an interplanetary feud, and his marital troubles are played out against a background of extraordinary minds, in extraordinary kinds of conflict.

The characters in this book are probably the most realistic, most clearly-drawn characters in everything I've read by PKD so far.  Most of the characters in his other books are little more than ciphers, whereas in this instance they seem to think, feel, and breathe in a way that is unusual for Dick's novels.

While I would recommend "Lies, Inc." because it's probably one of the weirdest books you'll ever read, I'm recommending "Now Wait for Last Year" simply because it's a good book.  If Hollywood has half a brain they'll make a movie out of this one.  The screenplay would almost write itself!

2012年3月5日 星期一

"Lies, Inc." by Philip K. Dick

"It means something, he realized.  This thing's ocean-face; its presence at the far end of the tube, at the outer opening where I'm not, that isn't a hallucinated event inside me - it's here for a reason; it drips and wads itself into glued-together folds and stares without winking at me and wants to keep me dead, keep me from ever getting back.  Not my friend, he thought.  Or rather knew.  It was not an idea; it was a concrete piece of observed reality outside: when he looked at the thing he saw this face as part of it: the non-friend attribute came along inseparably."

This story first appeared in 1964.  Back then it was called "The Unteleported Man."  Later on Philip K. Dick added quite a bit to it, nearly doubling the length and adding a new first chapter.  This second, revised edition was published as Lies, Inc., though there are slight differences between early editions of this novel and the latest, more authoritative version.

Lies, Inc. starts out as a fairly conventional sci-fi novel.  A New United Germany runs the world with the sanction of the U.N., and population pressure is relieved by teleporting much of Earth's population to the only Earth-like planet yet discovered.

But then, about half way through, this book takes a left turn and gets WEIRD.  Really.  Even for Philip K. Dick.  I say this as someone who's read ten of his novels so far, Lies Inc. being my eleventh.  This book gets really, truly, irredeemably bizarre.  It's crazy.  It's more than crazy.  It's fucking nuts.

So all in all, I'd have to say that Lies, Inc. is about as far from the conventional sci-fi novel as you can get and still be half sane, or half insane, or at least not institutionalized.  It's a book about Reality with a capital "R," or at least what you think is Reality, or what they want you to think is Reality, and whether anyone can tell the difference.

I would read it if I were you.  But be sure that you're on your meds while you do so.  Otherwise, you might find yourself in need of therapy.

2012年3月2日 星期五

"Battle Ready" by Tom Clancy, Tony Zinni, and Tony Koltz

The back cover of this book implies that it is a work of Military History, rather than something between biography and autobiography.  Most of this book consists of firsthand accounts by Tony Zinni, who led U.S. military forces against Iraq, and who also served as a military adviser during the Vietnam War.

Whatever this book is, it is far from historical in nature.  Battle Ready lacks a bibliography, and the information supplied by General Zinni is taken, seemingly, at face value.  This is not, in other words, a work of scholarship.

This aside, it's not a bad book, and it's certainly much better than many of Tom Clancy's novels.  I liked the first few chapters, and Tony Zinni has some insightful things to say about global terrorism.  The acronyms become annoying after he moves to Europe, and this book is definitely a lot longer than it needed to be, but I would say that overall the strengths of this book outweigh its weaknesses.  I would recommend it, with reservations, if you are interested in US military affairs after 1967.

I just wonder why they pasted Tom Clancy's name all over this book.  He is only one author out of three, and much of this book consists of firsthand reflections by General Zinni.  It had to have bothered him that this book, which is basically the story of his career, was marketed as yet another Tom Clancy thriller.