Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Working on a Long, Creepy Book

I'm presently in the midst of reading Drood by Dan Simmons, a nearly 800-page fictionalized account of the last years of Charles Dickens, and his obsession with a mysterious, nefarious figure. As narrated by Wilkie Collins.

So far, it's fantastic, but it may take me a little time to get through it, and I want to save some of it for my red-eye to Pittsburgh this weekend.

So, until next week...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Staving Off the Battlestar Galactica Twitchies: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Though this book's been out for a couple of years, I just heard about it from Bookshelves of Doom, and it sounded like good methadone for The Hunger Games series.

I had no idea it would help me get through the next 24 hours until the series finale of Battlestar Galactica.

Like The Hunger Games, Unwind is set in a futuristic, post-war United States. Only here, the "Heartland Wars," were fought between pro-life and pro-choice factions, who eventually settle upon a highly untidy compromise.

Abortion becomes completely illegal, but when children are between the ages of 13 and 18, their parents or guardians can choose to have them "unwound." Unwinding doesn't end a "life" because, technically, the child's parts are surgically implanted into a living human being - organs, limbs, skin, hair - 99.4% of the kid will wind up somewhere else. Transplanting and grafting have become so technologically advanced that the sky's the limit. Need a lung? They can do that. Want a new arm, a different color eyes, a full head of hair? They can do that.

Kids who get unwound tend to fall into a few different categories: juvenile delinquents, wards of the state, unwanted children, and, children born into certain religious sects, called "tithes."

In Unwind, Shusterman follows a number of these kids on a journey that ought to lead immediately to a "harvest camp," but doesn't. One way or another, the kids here escape, go AWOL, and either through their own ingenuity or the kindness of strangers, end up somewhere quite different. I don't want to say too much more about the book, because it's quite twisty and suspenseful, but this leads us to Battlestar Galactica.

Let's just say that there's a character in the book called The Admiral.

And he's taken it upon himself to shepherd a number of scared, refugee kids slated for certain doom. And he puts them up in a place that's secure, though harsh and physically demanding. And his face is marked with scars, and he has perfectly straight, white teeth, and he is possessed of a demeanor that is stern, yet eminently warm and understanding. He has known great pain and great loss, and is somewhat damaged as a result. He doesn't always trust the right people, but he has an instinct for character.

I could not read Unwind without imagining The Admiral as anyone other than Edward James Olmos, aka, Admiral Adama. And that made the book all the better.

I don't know if Shusterman is a BSG fan, but if he is, this is a great homage (a tribute, and most definitely NOT a rip-off). If he's not, well, then he should be. I think he'd dig it the most.

It's a terrific book that delivers big action while at the same time providing nuanced ideas about where life begins, where it ends, and what it all means.

So say we all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crimes of the Centuries: True Crime: An American Anthology

True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter

Among true crime writers, there are those who pride themselves on their lack of literary flourish and color, and those who sensationalize every gory detail. Some focus on the victims, and others on the perpetrators. Some present a crime story with objective balance, while others are more than willing to serve as judge, jury, and executioner to perpetrator and victim alike.

In True Crime: An American Anthology, literature professor, novelist, and true crime writer Harold Schechter plucks examples from all of these types, and creates a loosely chronological record of American true crime writing over the past 350 years, from Puritan leaders William Bradford and Cotton Mather, to recent pieces from James Ellroy and Ann Rule. The anthology also includes selections from a number of figures you'd never consider to be true crime writers: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Calvin Trillin, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Some of the cases are still well-known today, some have faded from recent memory, and others were obscure and ignored, even in their time. Hurston's piece, "The Trial of Ruby McCollum," about an African-American woman accused of murdering her white lover, a prominent, married physician, with whom she'd had a child, is one of the collection's high points. Hurston focuses on how the black and white communities gradually come to the same consensus about how justice ought to be served (though for very different reasons), and on the show trial that's more about placating the community than uncovering the truth.

Meyer Berger won a Pulitzer for "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street," an account of the shooting spree carried out by a psychologically unhinged man named Howard Unruh against people he believed had "talked about him." The piece is masterfully written, and Berger's minute-by-minute account of the massacre is chilling, especially given some of its similarities to murders committed by Michael McLendon in Alabama this week.

Another excellent piece is John Bartlow Martin's "Butcher's Dozen," about the police investigation of the Cleveland "torso murders," where the murderer was never caught, and most of his victims never identified. Martin, later an ambassador and a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, focuses on police efforts to infiltrate the most poverty-stricken parts of Depression era Cleveland - shantytowns, hobo camps, and clapboard rooming houses - both to find the killer, and to protect the city's most vulnerable residents from becoming victims themselves.

Schechter collects an exceptional range of pieces in this anthology, and some very good, thoughtful, complex writing at that.

Friday, March 06, 2009

I'm on a Richard Yates Kick, Apparently: The Easter Parade

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."

Before I get to The Easter Parade itself, it's worth remarking that Richard Yates is criminally underrated as a writer. And I guess I'm not talking about criminally underrated when it comes to being a master of plot or character or dialogue, though he's certainly good at all of these things. I'm talking about sheer writing technique, and that's not a thing that usually catches my eye, at least to a point where I'd remark upon it.

Nine times out of ten, give me some crackling dialogue, and a story that moves, and I'm happy. But with Yates, I'm happy to sit back and just let the words wash over me, never mind that the stories and their characters are largely steeped in troubles that have lost some of their freshness in the literary imagination.

The Easter Parade is about two sisters who couldn't be more different, but somehow wind up equally doomed. Sarah is the more conventional sister, who falls into a great romantic love affair with an Englishman who looks like Laurence Olivier, settles down with him, and raises a family. Her happiness with Tony seems almost decreed by the Fates themselves. They "meet cute," have a stirring courtship from which the book gets its title, and engage in the endearingly annoying custom of intertwining their arms as they take their first sips from a cocktail. But over the course of the novel, it gradually becomes clear that their romance is anything but storybook.

And then, there's Emily, who fervently strikes out on her own path as a Barnard coed, a burgeoning intellectual, a career girl, and a serial siren. Though Sarah plays a large role, the story is really Emily's, and follows her through her careers and her men, each of which eventually proves to be singularly disappointing and unsuitable.

Sarah chooses marriage and family, and it goes bad. Emily chooses career and romance, and it goes bad. Unlike other books from this period, which have some agenda about what women ought to be doing with themselves to avoid malaise, Yates takes the more interesting view that certain people just aren't cut out for happiness. The happiness part is in the details, and in Yates's universe, characters are very good, and certain, at managing their major life choices, and not so good at making them work out in the day to day.

The last 50 pages of the book are among the most inevitably, quietly heartbreaking you'll ever read.

Which leads me to wonder, if you're sitting down to adapt a Richard Yates novel to film, why on earth would you choose Revolutionary Road with The Easter Parade around? While the former might have been nominated for a few awards, the latter would have swept them. Which is not to say that The Easter Parade is a discernibly better book, just that it'd make a much better movie.

Unlike Revolutionary Road, where you're trapped in a suburban house waiting for the moment when everyone cracks up, The Easter Parade moves around, and gets out in the world a little bit.

And proves that suburbia doesn't have the market cornered on unhappiness.