**spoiler alert** Bret Easton Ellis, who rocketed to fame with the Generation-X novel "Less Than Zero", is one sick puppy. I don't base this opinion o**spoiler alert** Bret Easton Ellis, who rocketed to fame with the Generation-X novel "Less Than Zero", is one sick puppy. I don't base this opinion on his aforementioned debut, but on his third book, "American Psycho", a first-person narrative about a 1980s-era Wall Street executive named Patrick Bateman, a raging psychopath who moonlights as a serial killer.
I saw the movie on which the book is based (which stars a pre-"Batman" Christian Bale) before I read the novel. There are severe differences between the two in terms of tone as well as numerous segements that are left out of the film completely, and I have to say I'm grateful beyond measure for that. Notably, omitted from the film are scenes in which Bateman stabs a child at a zoo for no apparent reason, and another where he finds a rather interesting use for a stray rat (don't ask). This is, without question, the most violent book I've ever read. That's not necessarily a criticism; violence, even graphic violence, has its place in literature. In this case, the author's rather creative approach to the genre suggests his possible need for psychiatric help. While reading, I couldn't help wondering how much of it was really necessary. Another big difference is that the movie is, essentially, a very dark comedy, mostly due to Bale's manic performance. The novel is much more raw and direct, and more horrific due to Bateman's indifferent monotone as he describes his acts, casually wondering whether he should cancel a lunch appointment with two friends while his latest victim's severed head sits on his kitchen table. Most of the violence in the film actually occurs offscreen, probably because the violence, as portrayed in the book, would be simply unfilmable.
I know I'm mentioning the movie more than I probably should when I'm supposed to be reviewing Ellis's novel, but I probably do so because the movie (and this is a rare case) is superior to its literary source material. While the theme is the same (an examination of 80s excess taken to wild extremes), the movie improves on the story on almost every level, partly because the violence is muted. It also benefits from cutting down the endless, and meaningless, conversations Bateman engages in with his companions at various exclusive restaurants around Manhattan. The gab sessions in the book go on so long, and seemingly with no point, that I began to wonder wonder whether Bateman's chronicling of these ad nauseum exchanges is another, more subtle, act of sadism on his part.
My favorite points in the book are actually three rather surreal chapters in which Bateman, taking a time-out from making restaurant reservations and stabbing hookers with power drills, extols at length on his love of popular music. He devotes a chapter each to three of the biggest musical acts of the 80s: Genesis, Huey Lewis & The News and Whitney Houston. Bateman meticulously breaks down each artist's career, expounding on the meanings of certain songs and his personal favorite period of that artist's "development". This device is used as a joke in the movie, wherein Bateman quotes these essays (taken mostly verbatim from the novel) to a co-worker, a hooker and an old girlfriend right before murdering them. In the book, it's simply a jarring experience; you get the sense that Bateman gets the exact same thrill from a good song as he does from disemboweling a homeless man in an alley.
(slight spoiler alert here) The ending is somewhat of a challenge: in a segment in which Bateman speaks to his lawyer, there's at least a suggestion that all these killings may have only taken place in Bateman's fractured imagination. I'm still not sure about that.
Overall, I'm not quite sure I can recommend the book. I have to admire Ellis's sheer audacity in writing something like this (he did receive a few death threats after its publication), while the nauseatingly graphic nature of the violent mayhem can turn off even the most jaded of readers. I would advise one to rent the movie version first. Either way, it's a compelling, vivid look inside one man's manevolent mind. ...more
"People who didn't even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about."
This sentence, from Karl Marlantes' superb"People who didn't even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about."
This sentence, from Karl Marlantes' superb novel "Matterhorn", pretty much encapsulates the war in Vietnam for many people, including some who served there. The war as a whole (its origins and machinations) was more complex, as all wars are, but mostly only to the politicians who started and sustained it. Marlantes, who served as a Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam and earned various combat medals, basically ignores the political aspect and concentrates on the experience of the grunt on the ground. There are no discussions about Communism vs. Imperialism or whether Johnson should have reacted as he did to the Gulf of Tonkin incident; there is only the drudgery of endless patrols, jungle rot, leeches, C-rations, etc. occasionally interrupted by a rather intense confrontation with the North Vietnamese Army.
Marlantes, who spent over thirty years writing this book (and could probably cover his house with all the rejection letters from various publishers), centers his story on Lieutenant Mellas, a new platoon commander who has to earn the respect of his men and rally them through the backbreaking work of building new bunkers for Matterhorn, their fire support base that stands just a few miles from North Vetnam. He then has to lead them out after their commander, Colonel Simpson, orders them to abandon it. The company has to trudge through the jungle to relieve another group of Marines who stumble onto them, more dead than alive.
In the climax, Mellas leads his marines through a seemingly hopeless assault to take Matterhorn back from the enemy, again on the orders of Col. Simpson. This is a theme that runs through the novel: the idea that a superior officer you've never met can put your life in severe danger mostly, apparently, for the benefit of his own career. Mellas, a college boy, certainly has an interest in his own career, but that gradually takes a back seat to survival as he sees his marines being shot and blown apart with no clear objective. At one point, he admits to his friend, Lt. Hawke, his desire to bring a medal home that will look good on his resume. Hawke replies: "Look. Everyone wants a medal...It's just that after you've been out here long enough to see what they cost, they don't seem so f**king shiny."
"Matterhorn" runs nearly 600 pages long, and it's well worth the investment of time. It's a stunning epic of a war story, definitely on a par with "Fields Of Fire" by James Webb (another Vietnam vet) and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried". Its moral, as with most great war stories, is simple, best put by the late journalist Michael Kelly: "In war there are winners and losers, and then there are the truly screwed." ...more
"The Secret Speech" is a mostly riveting sequel to "Child 44", about Leo Demidov, a former Soviet secret policeman trying to make amends for his past"The Secret Speech" is a mostly riveting sequel to "Child 44", about Leo Demidov, a former Soviet secret policeman trying to make amends for his past activities - namely, arresting a lot of innocent people for the "greater good" of the revolution before seeing the light.
The title refers to a speech made by Russian president Nikita Khrushchev three years after the death of Russia's psychotic dictator, Josef Stalin. The speech startled many Russians by denouncing Stalin's excesses, and eventually led to amnesty for many political prisoners and the general loosening of repression. Author Tom Rob Smith uses the speech as a device in the novel to illustrate Leo's continuing evolution from a KGB diehard to a decent cop and loving husband.
In this go-around, a woman who was wrongly arrested by Leo seven years before returns to kidnap Leo's adopted daughter in revenge. She proposes a deal: if Leo goes to Siberia to rescue her husband from a prison camp, she'll let his daughter live. This, of course, gives Leo a chance to directly experience life in the same Gulag to which he once sent a number of wrongly accused Russians. Among the hair-raising sequences that result are the near-sinking of a prison ship, and a revolt by the prisoners at Kolyma, a notorious Gulag in Eastern Siberia.
Smith goes a bit too far this time, in my opinion, with a climax in Budapest, during the 1956 Hungarian uprising that is allowed to go on a little too long. Smith also includes some plot devices that seem a bit too convenient, as he did in "Child 44".
Overall, this is another solid effort from a richly talented author. As before, Smith does a superb job of painting a disturbingly compelling portrait of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. This one, while not quite as strong as his previous novel, is still well worth a look. ...more
Detective thrillers are a dime a dozen, but from the opening page, author Tom Rob Smith elevates "Child 44" into the realm of truly special, a relentlDetective thrillers are a dime a dozen, but from the opening page, author Tom Rob Smith elevates "Child 44" into the realm of truly special, a relentless page-turner about a KGB officer who investigates the ritualistic murders of a number of children in the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
Leo, a hero of the Russian war aginst the Nazis, now works for the secret police, arresting "enemies of the state" and extracting confessions of everything from espionage to having anti-Soviet thoughts. He begins the novel as an idealistic drone, committed to the point of diving into a frozen river after a suspected spy. After witnessing the brutal murder of a farming couple by a cold-blooded fellow officer named Vasili, however, Leo begins to harbor doubts about the system and his role in it.
Compounding his uncertainty is the case of a dead boy found near a train station in Moscow with his stomach missing. Leo is ordered to convince the boy's parents that it was simply a terrible accident, and to stop claiming their son was murdered. The idea of a man killing a child for no reason clearly doesn't fit the template of the "perfect" Socialist society in which crimes like theft, rape and murder are rendered obsolete, with no need for police to investigate. The irony of the most heavily policed nation in human history claiming their lack of need for law enforcement probably needs no comment. As the author notes: "Leo had no idea what the real crime statistics were. He had no desire to find out since those who knew were probably liquidated on a regular basis."
After the treacherous Vasili accuses Leo's wife, Raisa, of spying (in those days, the mere accusation of treason was enough to get you thirty years of hard labor in Siberia, or a bullet in the head; you were always considered guilty until proven guilty), Leo refuses to denounce her. He is stripped of his rank and exiled to a small town near the Ural Mountains, where he discovers two more dead children with their stomachs removed. Enlisting his wife's help, he begins to look into the crimes, examining corpses, discovering patterns and generally teaching himself to investigate a killing, something he's never done before. The fact that he's been disgraced, with no resources outside of Raisa and a sympathetic militia officer, and that Vasili continues a very personal vendetta against him complicates this task considerably. His main motivation appears to be his simple sense of justice, and maybe the idea that this is all he has left.
The author's greatest feat is painting a portrait of Leo as a once devoted servant of Stalinism who experiences a complete turnaround as a result of those first seeds of doubt. Smith also excels at depicting 1953 Russia as a country ruled by terror and paranoia, where the average Soviet citizen would be afraid to so much as cough in public, lest he draw undue attention to himself. The book's one weakness (and it's a doozy, unfortunately) is a revelation Leo has near the end, a plot twist that seems right out of "As The World Turns". It's not enough to ruin the story, happily; for me, Smith had already built up a sufficient amount of good will by page 345 that I was able to wave it off. The climactic conclusion seems a little too neatly wrapped up, but I can't honestly say I wasn't hoping for a happy ending.
Since Stalin's iron grip on Russia was grounded purely in fear, he knew he required a certain type of individual to enforce his rule. Consequently, he tried to aquire men who were without conscience, incapable of emotions such as empathy or remorse, who would not hesitate to shoot even a child for disloyalty if ordered to do so. This superb novel suggests that there could have been occasional errors in Stalin's vetting process.
I heartily recommennd this book to anyone, and envy them their first reading. ...more
This is a superb account of events leading up to the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the subsequent race to find his killer, James Earl Ray.This is a superb account of events leading up to the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the subsequent race to find his killer, James Earl Ray.
The author writes it almost like a detective novel, making the familiar story seem fresh. He delves into Ray's extremely weird backstory, and doesn't shy away from describing MLK's various infidelities while still keeping his passion for civil rights and sheer courage intact.
This is about as solid and engaging as non-fiction gets....more
"Gulag: A History" is an exhaustive but still reader-friendly chronicle of the Soviet system of forced labor prison camps that sprang up shortly after"Gulag: A History" is an exhaustive but still reader-friendly chronicle of the Soviet system of forced labor prison camps that sprang up shortly after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, then eventually dissolved after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953.
Author Anne Applebaum breaks the whole story down by category, starting with arrest (one could find oneself sentenced to ten years or more for merely overhearing a joke about Stalin), transit, back-breaking work, starvation rations, eventual release, etc.
Something I, along with the author, found ironic is how the history of Russia's horrific excesses are viewed very differently from those of the Nazi regime, although the two governments were, in many ways, very similar. Applebaum tells of walking along a busy street in Prague, where street vendors were selling Soviet trinkets such as old belt buckles and hats. She comments that most of the people buying were Americans and West Euopeans, who would have been sickened at the thought of wearing a swastika on a T-shirt, but would think nothing of wearing a communist hammer & sickle, although the Soviets, depending on whose numbers you believe, murdered five to ten times as many people as the Nazis.
This irony is made all the more tagic by this fact: while most of the victims of the Nazis were sent to concentration camps expressly for the purpose of killing them, most of the prisoners who died in the Gulag died due simply to Soviet negligence and incompetence. I suppose, however, that this distiction is lost on the dead.
"Gulag" requires an investment of time: its 600 pages are filled with tiny print. It's a worthy exercise, however, for anyone looking to understand the causes and effects of one history's greatest crimes against humanity....more
This book isn't very long (I managed to finish it within a 24-hour time period), but it packs volumes into its 240 pages, a great primer for anyone loThis book isn't very long (I managed to finish it within a 24-hour time period), but it packs volumes into its 240 pages, a great primer for anyone looking at any time in a state or federal pokey.
Written by two criminologists (one of whom is himself an ex-con), "Behind Bars" offers advice on how to conduct yourself from the moment of your arrest to re-entering society after your release. It covers legal pitfalls (don't pay your lawyer everything up front), survival on the inside (mind your own business, but if anyone messes with you, let it be known that you WILL retaliate with force) and finding a job afterward (be honest on your application and try to talk face-to-face with HR immediately).
With the government forever adding to the number of offenses listed as "federal" crimes - not to mention the vast number of draconian drug laws - this could be a valuable tool for you in the near future....but let's hope not. In any case, read it! Its advice could, lierally, save your life....more
Hate to tip over what some consider a literary sacred cow, but this book drove me crazy! Or, at least the central character did. Holden Caufield seemeHate to tip over what some consider a literary sacred cow, but this book drove me crazy! Or, at least the central character did. Holden Caufield seemed, to me, nothing more than a spoiled trust-fund brat, endlessly railing against anybody who isn't him. I gave up about 100 pages in. Very well-written, but but I'd rather be eaten by wild dogs than share an elevator with this little prick for 30 seconds. ...more