I read this for book club, and am glad I did it--it's not a book I would ever have picked up otherwise. But it's easy to see why it was on the Times bI read this for book club, and am glad I did it--it's not a book I would ever have picked up otherwise. But it's easy to see why it was on the Times bestseller list for so long, back when it was published. It's an amazing feat of imagination (and probably research.) Reading it, I was half-convinced this was an actual incident, or that Crichton was at least closely connected to some WWII-era Italian peasants. I have no way of knowing if all of his details are correct or authentic, but they're convincing. This is a great read, and for a debut novel--amazing....more
A nostalgia re-read. I still remember being a teenager and reading those first few lines... This book had a kind of minimalist, noir quality to it thaA nostalgia re-read. I still remember being a teenager and reading those first few lines... This book had a kind of minimalist, noir quality to it that I loved, and that still stays with me. King's foreword disclaims a bit: he wrote this when he was pretty young, and as he says, it has the flaws of a young man's book. Yeah, it does. Our hero Roland is pretty determinedly one-dimensional, the kind of Shane-like romantic anti-hero that young, emotionally immature dudes will forever cherish. He's too stoic to talk! He has a tortured past! A heavy weight rests on his shoulders! He must forever move on in pursuit of his lonely world-saving goal! Of course, I kind of loved all that junk too. And to some extent, still do.
On the other hand, the inevitable corollary of this kind of character and setup is the Deep Unspeakable Batman Pain of the Fridged Woman, and King falls into that trap liek woah. Not only does this not pass the Bechdel test, I don't think there's a female character in it that isn't basically there to move the plot along by having sex with some man. Usually (always?) she is then punished horribly for doing so. So yeah, young man's book.
I was a little surprised, too, that I got kind of bored in parts of the story. It's a short novel, a very linear plot, but I still felt as though there was a bit in there, about 5/8ths of the way through, that could have been cut. For King this book is practically a haiku, so I guess I shouldn't push my luck. It's also possible that my old-lady attention span is just too short to handle books these days. That's sad.
Weird side note: this book will always make me think of America's "Horse With No Name," and vice versa.
I grabbed this at random off a library shelf, thinking the premise--basically a hard-boiled noir mystery/thriOh, I have bones to pick with this book.
I grabbed this at random off a library shelf, thinking the premise--basically a hard-boiled noir mystery/thriller cloaked in elements of futuristic sci fi--sounded interesting. I was also interested in the Muslim backdrop, in part because I've read a couple of Kameron Hurley's novels set in an alternative Islamic world where women and bug tech dominate, and Effinger seemed like he might be an interesting precedent. I was a little troubled by the formula--everyday gumshoe pursues maniacal serial killer--but every story needs an engine. Also, George R.R. Martin blurbed the book, and various folks love on it for being one of the best cyberpunk novels around.
Plot in a nutshell: We're in an alternate future in which the US and the Soviet Union (Effinger wrote this in 1986) have both disintegrated into disorganized, warring constituent states. Marîd Audran is a petty criminal and jack-of-many-trades living in the Budayeen, a dangerous neighborhood in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. In this world, some people have cranial implants in which they can insert "daddies" (add-ons) and "moddies" (modules). Daddies temporarily upgrade your skills, while moddies modify your entire personality and make you into someone else as long as you wear them.
Audran gets dragged into a complex, Sam-Spade-type mystery involving the brutal killings of a whole busload of people. He's seconded by the local crimelord to find and stop the murderer(s), while skirting corrupt officials and avoiding suspicion, himself. Things escalate until we learn that the killings are motivated by international political intrigue--in other words, this thing goes all the way to the top, kid. Audran finds and stops the killers, but only succeeds in becoming further embroiled in the kingpin's web.
The premise is interesting and solid, in all kinds of ways. Hooray for a book that doesn't assume Western European / Christian foundations for its imaginative culture! The idea of moddies and daddies is maybe a little played by now, but in the 1980s it was fresh, and Effinger does a good job of making the slightly icky moddy/daddy subculture convincing. He takes this notion to another logical conclusion, too--just as people are comfortable changing their knowledge and personality with add-ons, they're equally okay changing sex.
Most of the women in Audran's world are actually men who've transitioned sex. Some of his language around this is maybe questionable--he calls MTF women "changes"--but he refers to them all as "she" and I think overall does a good job of handling gender/sex reassignment as an unremarkable, everyday thing. Audran's main squeeze, Yasmin, was born male, and he almost never thinks of her as anything but a woman. And likewise, Audran's world includes many gay characters, none of whom behave in stereotyped "butch" or "effeminate" ways. His card buddies are an obstreperous gay man and an FTM transsexual--along with a "strictly heterosexual" Christian who's clearly considered the laughable one because of his intolerance and general miffiness. At least within the bounds of the Budayeen, Audran's world is tolerant of all kinds of difference, as well as of many kinds of vice.
So it's sad that this book has so much gender trouble. In following the path of the hard-boiled detective novel, Effinger chooses to go along with the old tropes of fridging women for the purposes of plot and character development. Many of his book's victims are women, many of them killed in particularly torturous, sexualized, and brutal ways. At least one man goes the same way--but that's small comfort. It would be so much more interesting to see a book depart from this tired path. Effinger gives us a few colorful female characters--the Black Widow Sisters are larger-than-life horrors, with poison fangs, supersized breast implants, and a penchant for violence--but none of them is developed and many of them (including the Sisters) die horribly. It seems as though we're just now starting to poke a little more at the idea that a "strong female character" is one who takes some drastic, often violent, action and is then shoved off a cliff (often onto a waiting rapist.) While Effinger does, to his credit, build a world in which women are visible in at least a few different types of jobs, he's not interested in writing women in full story roles. Of his surviving women, the most satisfying roles are those of Yasmin--who exists for sex and occasional clarifying dialogue--and Chiriga, the bartender who pours his drinks and listens to his tales of woe ("Play it again, Sam.") There's even an alleyway scene where Audran roughs Yasmin up and insults her, just to fit the old girlfriend-slapping trope.
So, I'd hoped for better on the gender front. And overall, I wanted the book to be more original in re-interpreting the hard-boiled genre. By the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book, I was getting so tired of watching the story hit its beats (now we are entering the second act, now the protagonist must be forced to make a decision forcing him to abjure his firmly-held beliefs, now the protagonist must be placed in dire peril and his hand forced, now a new source of information must be introduced...) that I almost put the book down. I don't mind a book hitting genre beats if it does it with a sense of playfulness and spirit, but this felt rote to me.
I wanted more from the daddies/moddies premise. Effinger attempts to build a sense of crisis by having Audran deeply afraid of having the implants done--but once the work is finished he functions so easily with them that it's hard to remember he had any ethical or psychic trouble with them at all. There doesn't seem to be any real reason why he opposed having implants, and he easily forgets his opposition once he has them. There's really interesting meta-fictional potential to the moddies, especially since a moddy can give you the personality of anyone, including a fictional character. So Audran, for instance, takes on the personality of Nero Wolfe to try to track down the killer. It's a nice shout-out to the genre, but it begs the question: why Wolfe? Of all the investigators, detectives, and generally smart people in fiction, why pick the armchair-bound aesthete? Apart from wanting to shout out the original work, that is. It's equally bizarre that the killer chooses James Bond as a skin for his work. Bond isn't associated in my mind with cold-blooded assassins, although I guess he could get the job done. He seems more likely to get tripped up dallying with a blonde at the bar, especially in his Sean Connery days.
Worst of all, the rich premise of the moddies--and the potential craft problems that they present for the writer--is pretty much shrugged off, since Audran only uses Wolfe a couple of times, and essentially does nothing with him. The Audran-as-Wolfe sections are confusing and don't seem to accomplish much. Even the big bad daddy, the one that plugs into the "punishment center" in his brain (I'm pretty sure a neurologist would take issue with this book) to make him a raging killer equal to the murderer, disappoints. In one situation it allows Audran to tear a man to shreds--in another, it reduces him to a cringing pile on the crimelord's carpet. The ground rules for this piece of the cyberpunk setup never seem clear. In another book, the moddies could have taken center stage as both a plot and narrative device, with Audran's consciousness and awareness changing in and out according to need. Instead, they come across as a gimmick without much payoff.
Finally, the plot of the novel feels contrived and thin. Effinger's attention is clearly mostly on developing the mood and tone of his Budayeen world--and he does a good job of that. But it challenged my disbelief that the kingpin would spend so lavishly on having Audran augmented to hunt down the killer...surely there are more qualified people available? The motives for the killings turn out to be tissue-thin, and their revelations are either clunky or baffling, or both. By the end of the book I wasn't sure what I was meant to take from the final scene, in which an elderly sex worker reveals to Audran a piece of information that we already know. I think it's the classic let-down of the hardboiled genre--too little, too late. But I honestly don't know. I may have missed something, but I'm not going back to check.
So, all that said...this was not a book that thrilled me. I was excited by its premise and I enjoyed visiting Effinger's underworld, at least for a while. But overall it made me even more glad that Kameron Hurley's Islamic-based sci fi exists--while her world is brutal, it doesn't leave the same sour taste in my mouth. Her characters are violent and imperfect, but they've taken a step forward from our 1980s-era assumptions about sex, gender, and women in particular. Effinger took a few steps in that direction, but as far as my voluntary reading hours are concerned, he just didn't get far enough.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Truth time: a lot of this read strangely like a romance novel to me. There's some serious floridity. People don't just say things, they "jerk them outTruth time: a lot of this read strangely like a romance novel to me. There's some serious floridity. People don't just say things, they "jerk them out" and so on. I somehow never got spoiled for the plot, except vaguely, so the ending was the most satisfying part for me. I call bullshit, however, on the depths of misery and isolation going on. I smell an author piling it onto her characters for pathos. Edith, I love you, but this one isn't my favorite.
Also, I really want someone to write Zenobia's point of view, the way Jean Rhys did for mad old Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea. ...more
This is about the scariest movie ever, in my humble opinion. I've never actually watched it all the way through, and just reading Kermode's appreciatiThis is about the scariest movie ever, in my humble opinion. I've never actually watched it all the way through, and just reading Kermode's appreciation of it freaked me out for a few nights.
I didn't find Kermode's reading of this movie as enjoyable as I found Sean French's The Terminator, but that may be because The Exorcist isn't a movie as near and dear to my heart. Still, it's always interesting to read about the behind-the-scenes bickering and deal-cutting that gets a movie made, and there's a fair amount of that here. The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, who based his book in turn on a real (?) exorcism case that took place in 1949.* Blatty, a Catholic, intended his book to bolster faith by demonstrating the reality of the devil and the possibility of salvation through the Church. Hollywood, of course, had other plans. Blatty served as producer, and alternately collaborated and fought with the movie's director, William Friedkin, over the movie's tone and import.
Friedkin seems to have got his way in most of the important senses, especially since he was the one who oversaw the final edits. Blatty's milder, more hopeful (and less dramatic) ending was sliced in favor of a discordant, uncertain, and eerie finale. (Tubular Bells haunts the childhood of most of us born in the 70s, I think.) Friedkin also managed to cut the movie down from its original four hours down to the required two, in some cases by cutting out scenes that were essential for narrative flow. The weird "blips" in narrative that resulted (Chris reminding Regan about what the doctor told her...when there is no prior doctor scene) seem to me to give the movie an even spookier air, as if we're not keeping up with things and there's no solid footing to be found.
One interesting note is that I think the movie might actually pass the Bechdel Test, in a weird way. At least there are two major female characters and they don't spend the whole time talking about men...they're busy trying to survive demonic possession. So I guess that's good?
There were a few standout stories here for me, but mostly this felt like a big pile of Same. Basically, Joyce Carol Oates likes dark stories of the AmThere were a few standout stories here for me, but mostly this felt like a big pile of Same. Basically, Joyce Carol Oates likes dark stories of the American working class underbelly, heavy on on-the-lam grifters and skeevy predators. No big surprise there, I guess. But I was surprised at how similar her picks were, tonally. After putting the book down I feel like I could have been reading one voice the whole time--and it was Dennis Lehane.
That said, Louise Erdrich's story about a small town's dark past is a bright spot, as is David Rachel's "The Last Man I Killed," which breaks away from the field with a highly educated, crafty, and unreliable academic narrator. Daniel Handler's "Delmonico," which I'd read somewhere else previously, is a clever and atmospheric tale that's neither grisly nor perverse. Hooray.
The rest of the stories in the collection are well-told--in particular, Scott Wolven's "Barracuda" and George V. Higgins's "Jack Duggan's Law" are sharp as knives--but they didn't really grab me. And I was surprised at how little actual mystery there is here. Is "mystery" now code for "crime thriller?" Maybe so, or maybe it was just JCO's tastes skewing that direction.
Speaking of editorial picks, out of a TOC of 20 stories, care to guess how many were by women? Yeah. Two. I guess women don't write or read mysteries, crime fiction, noir, or thrillers. One is by Louise Erdrich, one by Laura Lippman. I counted up the names in the 2007 edition (Carl Hiassen, Ed.), which is the next one on my desk. Out of another 20 stories, three are by women. Care to guess who they are? Louise Erdrich, Laura Lippman. And Joyce Carol Oates.
That's kind of a noir-ish twist in itself, ain't it?
I grabbed this at Book Court during a visit last week, along with a few other quick vacation reads. Book Court is a gorgeous store absolutely packed wI grabbed this at Book Court during a visit last week, along with a few other quick vacation reads. Book Court is a gorgeous store absolutely packed with incredible titles--the kind of place that makes you both soar and weep at the same time, because there's so much good out there and you can never read it all. The NYRB paperback shelf alone makes me want to drop about a thousand bucks and live in a tent for the rest of my life, reading. So these little Puffin reissues of classic kids' books were a little more realistic. Cheap, short, and charming. I've always loved trickster tales, and these are cleverly told, with just slight concessions to a modern frame of reference. The illustrations look classic but I think they're modern. Wonderful pencil (or charcoal?) sketches of rabbits, bears, lions (!), and other critters with faces that are both properly animal and also wonderfully expressive, some of them wearing early American rural clothes as they chase, trick, trap, and bamboozle each other. Good stuff, for kids and grown-ups alike....more
It's late and I'm tired and I won't review this one as much as it deserves. Pulitzer Prize, FYI. A novel in three or four parts, each focusing on a diIt's late and I'm tired and I won't review this one as much as it deserves. Pulitzer Prize, FYI. A novel in three or four parts, each focusing on a different member of the Howland family of the old South, who over generations become landowners, cotton farmers, timber barons, and ranchers. The Howlands are white, but patriarch William Howland takes up with Margaret, a free black woman. From the 1800s through the 1960s, the family heaves to and fro with the race tides of the country and the region. It's a deeply felt and thought book, beautiful in places, maybe a little oversimplified in others--the author is a white woman, and that's always complicated. But it does something I love in novels, shows the course of entire lives and generations and how they change. That's something I think long forms like the novel are well suited to do, and sometimes it teases apart layers of meaning and experience that don't seem likely to come apart any other way. I didn't entirely understand everything about this book, but I loved huge chunks of it and I respected completely different chunks of it. Sometimes both at the same time, which is saying a lot. ...more
This is an interesting book--you don't see a lot of stories about gay teenaged girls at all, let alone gay teenaged girls bad-assing their way aroundThis is an interesting book--you don't see a lot of stories about gay teenaged girls at all, let alone gay teenaged girls bad-assing their way around the world in pursuit of a group of immortal mystical beings. (There should definitely be more of these.) This is a quick read--it ate up a single day for me--and after some hinky pacing at the outset, it settles into a good adventure story. The two main characters, Gilly and Sam, are well-drawn and complex, and they face down very real challenges. There's some sex, minimally described but emotionally complicated, and loads of drugs. Also plenty of bad language. I'm not actually sure this is a YA novel, although I think it's marketed as one. I give this one points for verve and originality, for breaking a little more ground for LBGT stories, and for casting Christopher Marlowe as a kind of immortal pirate king, forever crossing the globe in search of a good, or at least interesting, time. ...more
Oh good lord, whatever you do, don't sign yourself up for a fasting cure courtesy of Linda Hazzard, the kind-of not-really "doctor" who ran a remote,Oh good lord, whatever you do, don't sign yourself up for a fasting cure courtesy of Linda Hazzard, the kind-of not-really "doctor" who ran a remote, isolated spa-type sanitarium in Olalla, WA back in the first decades of the century. Hazzard had one prescription for all her patients: stop eating, take daily enemas, and submit to hard-fisted "osteopathic" treatments that consisted of being smacked and pummeled in an effort to expunge the body's "poisons."
Amazingly, plenty of people signed up. Many of them died. The rich ones were often encouraged to sign over their worldly possessions to Hazzard and her ne'er-do-well husband Samuel before joining the choir invisible. If they seemed to resist that idea, there are signs that Linda and Samuel may have saved them the trouble by forging the paperwork. In a few cases, it's possible that patients who didn't die of outright starvation may have been helped along by various means, including a bullet in the head. Either way, folks who live in the region are matter-of-fact about the human remains that you can still dig up in the ravine behind Hazzard's place. And when Hazzard took over the care (and disposition) of two wealthy English sisters, one of whom died and the other of whom was rescued at the last minute by her elderly nurse, the criminal prosecution that followed seemed to point toward any number of other, similar cases from her shadowy past.
Olsen is a true crime writer, so this is his milieu and he does a good job of bringing the events to life despite the intervening years. Occasionally this rings a little melodramatic, as he recreates conversations and internal ponderings in richly-imagined scenes--and overall there's a sense that he's diligently introducing every possible data point he could find. (It's terrific that he knew what the weather was like on a particular day, but it doesn't always really matter and we don't *always* have to know. In his gracious acknowledgements, Olsen thanks the many folks who helped him do his research, and I had the sense that he included some details because others worked hard to find them for him.) The book is extensively, impressively researched--but it might have been a little less so, and shorter, without much harm.
The story itself is fascinating both for the bare facts of the case--which are strange and grotesque enough--as well as for the perspective it gives on the medical profession. At that time, without any formal medical training, Linda Hazzard could still declare herself a doctor and practice her "cure" because the laws against it were just being formed. For all the red tape and bureaucracy of the medical profession today, it's a vast improvement over a period when any snake-oil saleswoman could hang out a shingle and start (legally) fleecing sick, desperate people of their worldly goods.
It's also interesting from a gender standpoint. Then, as now, the health industry was dominated by authoritarian male voices. When Linda Hazzard's cure was challenged, she cried sexism--and to some extent she was right. There was no scientific consensus as to whether her cure had medical benefits, and there were plenty of other charlatans around practicing electrical, phrenological, and other kinds of quackery. To some extent, Hazzard's cries of sexist persecution ring true.
What's hardest to understand about this story is whether Hazzard herself truly believed in her methods or whether she was cynical and cold-blooded in using them to murder the vulnerable for her own advantage. Her vision of a Kellogg-style sanitarium on the West Coast seems genuine--but her bizarre habits of autopsying her dead patients without medical permission, wearing the clothes of the deceased, and appropriating their possessions, seems vulture-ish and pathological. By all accounts, Hazzard was a magnetic, hypnotic, frighteningly confident and charismatic woman. Her husband, Samuel, is a shadowy figure who played an uncertain part in all of this. And in the end, the courts could not find her unreservedly guilty. Over and over--there was more than one accusation, more than one case--Linda Hazzard escaped full condemnation, and disappeared to reinvent herself somewhere else. Whatever else she was, cold-blooded murderer or misguided, sociopathic medical visionary, she was a survivor. ...more
This might actually pass the Bechdel Test, in the one chapter devoted to the LPGA. There might be some conversations between women there, about golf aThis might actually pass the Bechdel Test, in the one chapter devoted to the LPGA. There might be some conversations between women there, about golf and lesbianism / perceptions of lesbianism.
Sometimes I like to read golf books, in memory of my Dad. Whose book this was, and who probably didn't enjoy it that much because it's pretty crass. I probably should have considered the cover on this one, but it gave me my annual golf lingo fix, so okay. ...more