Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Justice, Butcher Bird

Two books that are hard to write about, but for opposite reasons.  Butcher Bird is a fun fantasy, and I liked the way author Kadrey worked with the Christian myths, but other than that there isn't much to say about.

Michael Sandel's Justice, on the other hand, has enough food for thought for more essays than I'm prepared to write, especially because I don't want this to be a blog about my political opinions.  I thought Sandel's exposition of Aristotelian ideas of telos was really clear, as was his discussion of Kant (but I'm not as familiar with Kant, so I can't say if it was correct, just that it was lucid).  I've never been a fan of utilitarianism, so I suppose I can't blame Sandel if he fails to make it seem an appealing philosophy, especially since he doesn't seem to be a big fan either.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Dead Zone

I just finished The Dead Zone and Hollywood Crows.  I don't have so much more to say about the latter; you could see the ending coming from a mile away, and, as I said before, the point isn't really in the plot anyway.

The Dead Zone is more interesting.  In some ways it's the most downbeat King book I've read.  Johnny Smith faces a horrendous moral choice at the end of the book, and the tension is palpable.  But King also has a fundamental optimism that most people will eventually do the right thing.  When Stillson is finally exposed, all the voters turn against him.  In today's political climate, that really seems like a simplistic ending; I can just imagine Stillson going on the talk-show circuit and resuscitating his career.

It's also a very religious book.  King pretty explicitly links Johnny to Jonah, who flees the word of God.  Fate seems to play a role in a few of King's books, but here we see it almost bare.  Johnny has been carrying around a time bomb in his head since he was nine, and what's kept him alive is fate/God's role for him to play in the last section of the novel.  I think it's hard to give Fate/God such a large role and maintain a sense of conflict (if all is pre-ordained, why bother struggling?), and yet this novel is very powerful for all that.

The Dead Zone, Hollywood Crows

Two books that I'm almost done with, though not quite...

I feel pretty confident writing about Hollywood Crows, by Joseph Wambaugh, even though I'm not done listening to it, because it feels like the Dilbert of police stories.  Wambaugh collects incidents from cops, then spices them up a bit and strings them together around something resembling a plot, but the main attraction is the anecdotes, not the plot surrounding them.  Most of the incidents are pretty funny, but I think I'd have preferred to read them individually -- with no real drive to the plot, they don't feel so funny piled on top of each other.

Stephen King's The Dead Zone is a different kettle of fish.  King takes his time developing the story (the major conflict doesn't even begin until about 2/3 of the way through), but it's very focused, more than usual for him.  We follow Johnny Smith as he develops the power to see people's present and future by touching them or objects that they've touched.  It turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing, and King does a great job of developing Johnny believably.  As I mentioned above, the actual plot moves at a glacial pace, but it all feels compelling in any case.

It's got a few touches that make clear that this is an early novel, particularly the incredibly overt symbolism.  (Just for example, the first time we see the adult Johnny, he's wearing a Jekyll and Hyde mask).  On the other hand, there's a direct line between Greg Stillson, the villain of the book, and Daniels, the villain of Rose Madder, but Stillson is the much better-drawn character.  Daniels is almost completely insane from the first time we see him (certainly a sadist with no other character traits than his sadism), whereas Stillson is more believable.  Yes, he's a sadist, but one can also see why he's so appealing and how he can rise up in politics.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rose Madder, Anvil of the World

Consider this a placeholder for Anvil of the World by Kage Baker.  A pretty unremarkable book, not good or bad.  If I ever feel like I have something to say about it, I'll put it here...

Rose Madder, by Stephen King, on the other hand, is both very good and very bad.  It really comes to down to the characterization; Rose, the central character, is very well drawn indeed.  I like the way that different parts of her character can be both a strength and a weakness, depending on the situation (the practical, sensible part, for example, who doesn't like new situations, wants her to stay in an abusive relationship, because at least it's the devil she knows.  But the practical sensible part also protects Rose from some disastrous decisions once she's actually run away.  Her impulsive side is similarly good and bad).

All the other characters, though, are cardboard cut-outs.  This is mostly OK, since we spend 90% of the time in Rose's head, and few of the other characters show up for more than a dozen pages; but it's a terrible problem for Rose's antagonist, her husband.  He's a collection of tics ("I wanna talk to you... up close"), not a character.  The problem is, we spend a fair amount of time in his head as well, and he's just not very interesting.  He's much scarier as an external force, almost a malign force of nature, than when we're listening to his monologues.  He goes off the deep end too early for his fall to be compelling (unlike, say, Jack in The Shining), and his verbal tics ("I'm going to kill you twice") get dull with repetition.

Overall, I liked the book because Rose is such a strong character, but it's probably the weakest King book I've read (and I've been trying to avoid the ones most people consider less successful).