Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Revival By Stephen King

By Stephen King
Copyright 2014

Stephen King’s novel, Pet Sematary was billed as “the novel that frightened Stephen King.” The book lived up to its billing and stands as one of his creepiest tales ever. Revival got similar billing.
Supposedly King thought Revival was the scariest thing he’d ever written. He told an interviewer that the novel was so dark, he was glad to be finished with it. Early reviews said the ending was so dark and compelling, it was disturbing.

While Pet Sematary did not disappoint, Revival doesn’t quite live up to its billing.

The story opens with the arrival of a new minister in the small Maine town in 1962. Jamie Morton, just 10, is one of the first to meet the new minister and is immediately taken with him. Rev. Charlie Jacobs, his wife and small son are quickly welcomed and made part of the community.

Soon after Jacobs’ arrival, Jamie gets a notion that Rev. Jacobs might be a pretty smart dude. Jamie’s older brother, Conrad, suffers a throat injury and is left unable to talk. One afternoon when Jamie and Conrad are visiting Rev. Jacobs, he attached some electrodes to Conrad’s throat. With a small charge of electricity, his voice is restored.

Tragedy destroys the Jacobs family and rocks the small Maine town. On their way home from Castle Rock, Mrs. Jacobs and their young son are killed in a car crash. Jacobs is devastated beyond conciliation. He is absent from church for several weeks. When he makes his return, he stands before the congregation and renounces his faith. While many in town still sympathize for him, he can no longer function as a minister. Much to Jamie’s chagrin, Charlie Jacobs packs up and leaves town.

Life goes on for Jamie. He falls in love with guitars and rock and roll. He joins a local band and plays gigs around the area. He gets his first car and his first girlfriend. After a few years, he and the girl drift apart and he makes a name for himself as a reliable session rhythm guitar player. But the life gets to him and he falls into the trap of heroin. In his mid-30s, he finds himself unemployed and living in a seedy Oklahoma motel room. He decides to go to the local carnival to score some heroin when he comes across his old friend Charlie Jacobs.

Charlie is now working as a huckster photographer, using his extensive knowledge of electricity to take elaborate photos of people. He is delighted to be reacquainted with Jamie, but immediately recognizes Jamie’s problem. He thinks he has the solution.

Charlie takes him to a laboratory and hooks him up with electrodes similar to those attached to his brother all those years before and puts an electrical charge through him. Jamie is cured. When Charlie prepares to take his show on the road again, he secures a job for Jamie at a recording studio where he has a friend he cured of disease many years before.

More years pass and Jamie is successful as a recording engineer and producer. He remains heroin free. Meanwhile, Charlie Jacobs has gone back to religion. He is now a revival tent preacher who heals the sick and infirm. Jamie follows Charlie’s career from afar with great interest.

Jamie has strange impulses that can only be explained by Charlie’s treatment. Research online reveals a high rate of suicide or mental illness for those who receive Charlie’s “cure.” Jamie decides to confront Charlie about his cure and its true nature.

Charlie is now mega-wealthy and retired from the tent revival circuit. He is still pursuing his passion for curing with electricity – but not the kind that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison conceived. Through coercion, he enlists Charlie’s help in harnessing the ultimate energy of the cosmos to perform the ultimate miracle. The results are horrific and haunting.

I stated earlier that Revival did not live up to its billing. That does not mean it was not a good novel. It was, in fact, quite good. Just not as good as the reader is led to believe. In Revival, King weaves in Lovecraftian notions of powers and beings beyond the human perception. He pays homage to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein through his transformation of Charlie Jacobs from rational being to mad scientist. It’s all traditional horror brought into the modern age by the modern master.

First person narratives can be tedious to read. As my friend who is an English professor once remarked, reading them can be like sitting with a drunk at a bar who recounts their sad tale of woe. King has written several first person narratives and he is comfortable and capable with the style.

Jamie’s tale is never boring. He’s not given to self pity and there’s just enough introspection to develop Jamie as a character. No sad tales of woe and no digression. The reading was easy and the tale interesting.

The book’s chief weakness was the ending. Although it was not a major letdown on the scale that Dean Koontz sometimes let’s you down, I was looking for more. I expected something dark like Pet Sematary or epic like IT. Instead, King gives his climax a rather vanilla treatment. It is dark to be sure, but not as dark as I expected given Charlie Jacobs’ emotional devolution.

It is also rather silly at times, reminding me of Dean Koontz trying to terrify the reader through description rather than letting the reader’s imagination serve him. King seldom makes this mistake. But in Revival, that silliness – while not ruining the novel's end – detracted from it.

It was enjoyable seeing King revisit the horror genre after the rather dull Mr. Mercedes. We do not know when he’ll visit again as his next published work will be a sequel to Mr. Mercedes.

For those who say they like old Stephen King work, this book will be a treat. It is straight horror without the political agenda, without the commentary on aging, and without the rehashing of major bodily injury. Revival is a fine horror novel that takes the reader back to King’s glory days.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep By Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
By Philip K. Dick
Copyright 1968

It is a common refrain among active readers that the book is always better than the movie. Most of the time, this is true. The written word allows the active exploration of moods, emotions, and motivation. Reading is an active engagement. Movies, on the other hand, are passive. You sit and the action unfolds before your eyes.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the movie based upon it, Blade Runner, are an exception to this. The short novel is a linear story with little character development based primarily on action. The move, however, is a dark, moody affair, bringing to life a bleak dystopia that is the 21st century where men hunt androids and androids are dangerous.

The book opens in the home of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who “retires” androids who escape the Martian colony where they function in servitude. The earth is a bleak wasteland following the last world war and the government is encouraging people to move to the new Martian colony. Many sections of Deckards hometown of San Francisco are abandoned.

On the roof of his apartment building, Deckard cares for an android ewe. In the postwar world, all life is valued since so much of it has been destroyed. Those with status own real animals which are quite expensive. Deckard can only afford an artificial animal, but longs for the real thing.

Deckard and his wife are fighting and she plugs into a mood altering device that links her to the world's leading religious figure, Mercer, to distract herself. He receives a call from a local police agency from who he frequently receives cases. The regular bouny hunter for the northern California district has been wounded by an android he was trying to retire. They need Deckard to hunt down and destroy six Nexus-6 androids. Deckard accepts the case.

Meanwhile, in an all but abandoned apartment building in San Francisco, Rick Isidore leads the droning existence of a man with a low IQ. He is intrigued when, out of nowhere, a woman moves into one of the many vacant apartments in his building. He introduces herself to her and they become acquaintances.

Deckard travels to Seattle where he meets with the head of the Rosen Corporation that manufactures the Nexus-6. He administers an empathy test that is used to determine whether or not a being an android to Rosen’s niece, Rachael. Deckard suspects Rachael is an android and his suspicions are confirmed when she tries to bribe him into abandoning his assignment with the gift of a real owl.

Deckard retires the first two Nexus-6 androids he finds with little difficulty. With some cash in his pocket, Deckard buys a real goat to keep on his roof.

When Deckard retires his third Nexus-6, he has an attack of conscience and begins to doubt his own humanity. He wonders if he, in fact, has any empathy in him when he is able to dispatch his targets with such dispassion. His doubt deepens when he is arrested and forced to escape from a police station staffed entirely by androids. He escapes with the assistance of a fellow bounty hunter who he suspects is an android.

Meanwhile, the three remaining androids have gathered at the apartment building where Rick Isidore lives. They con him into helping them hide from Deckard who is closing in. When Deckard arrives at the building, he finds Rachael there. With his doubts of his own humanity in his head, he makes love with and professes his love for Rachael.

Rachael reciprocates by telling Deckard that she has slept with many bounty hunters to dissuade them from killing androids. Angry at her and at himself, he tells Rachael to go home. She leaves and he resumes his hunt.

Deckard eventually finds the androids holed up in Isidore’s apartment. He dispatches them with little difficulty and leaves. He flees north to Oregon to meditate. There, he finds a toad. Toads are thought to be extinct and are held in high esteem by the postwar’s leading religious figure, Mercer. He discovers that Mercer is simply a drunk in a makeshift television studio in Indiana. He also learns that the world’s leading television host is an android.

He returns home to his wife, beguiled by the toad and convinced of his own humanity. His wife tells him that Rachael has paid them a visit and pushed their goat off of the roof, killing it. The book ends with Deckard’s wife discovering that the toad is artificial.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
was selected by my book club. The theme was “a book that was inferior to the movie.” We watched Blade Runner after discussing the book and we unanimously agreed the movie was superior.

The book, despite its linear plot, was an exploration of what it is to be a human being. Is empathy an essential requirement of humanity? Can machines ever feel empathy? The obvious answer to the second question is no, not as technology exists. If we are to believe that our humanity rests within a soul, then machines will never acquire empathy.

The answer to the first question is much more difficult and the essence of Dick’s challenge to the reader. As we discussed the book, I related it to a real world incident where it would seem that a human being voluntarily divested himself of humanity.

In his defense of his conduct during the My Lai massacre, Lt. William Calley described how the military had taught him that the enemy was not human. It was a being to be destroyed with dispassion. If one reads an account of what Calley and his men did to the people of My Lai, it is apparent that he took that lesson to heart. Did Calley ever possess empathy for his fellow man, only later to have the military drive it from him? Only William Calley knows.

The other real life event that I related to this book was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Four young girls were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church. I recall, as a youngster, seeing an interview with an Alabaman Klansman who said, “When I find a nest of rattlesnakes, I don’t just kill the momma. I kill the babies too.” Obviously this man was devoid of human empathy.

Philip K. Dick, like so many of the science fiction writers held in high esteem today started out writing for the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Pulp writers tend to tell fast paced stories with linear plots. That was what editors demanded and readers wanted. When one reads the works of Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick, this is what one finds. Sometimes, the story suffers for it.

The chief criticism of this book was what wasn’t there. There was little character development an absolutely no subplots. The battle scenes which should have generated excitement, were rather anticlimactic and disposed of quickly, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although Dick tells us there is a meaningful relationship between man and nature after mother nature is nearly destroyed, he did little to explore this relationship.

I’ve not read a lot of Philip K. Dick and this is the first novel I’ve read by him. I’ve been told it is not one of his best. I hope not. While Blade Runner is a visually stunning, exciting chase movie with great battle scenes and an interesting plot twist at the end. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep leaves the reader longing for excitement and just a little puzzled by its ending. But the introspection it generates makes it a worthwhile read.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book to Movie: The Haunting (1999)

Book to Movie: The Haunting (1999)
Screewriter: David Self
Director: Jan de Bont
Based on the novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

First made in 1963, the adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal haunted house story was hailed as a masterpiece of gothic style horror, incorporating all of the psychological elements of the Jackson story and its ambiguity to retell Jackson’s novel on screen the way it should be told. In 1999, those psychological elements were eliminated in favor of CGI, and the results were less than stellar.

Dr.Marrow (played by Liam Neason} plans to conduct a study in group fear. He contrives circumstances to get his subjects to Hill House, believing they are going to take part in a sleep study.

We are given two new characters when Dr. Marrow arrives – a male and female research assistant. The trio arrives at Hill House to find Eleanora – who has fled her family during an estate argument, Theodora who has already established herself as brash and outspoken, and Luke Sanderson who comes across as a mindless dolt when played by Owen Wilson. Hill House shows itself by having a clavet string break, cutting Montague’s assistant and forcing her and the other research assistant to leave.

After the wall banging scene that has Eleanor and Theo clinging to each other, there are out of body haunting scenes and visual manifestations of ghosts that do not appear in the novel or first movie and rob it of Jackson’s ambiguity of the house before the writing on the wall imploring Eleanor to come home.

Later, bloody footprints leading her away from her bed lead Eleanora to a library where she finds the home’s previous owner’s business records as it related to child labor while a childish specter looks on. Eleanor continues to see various manifestations while others do not. Finally, Luke asks her why she stays. She replies, “Home is where the heart is.” She continues her independent research of the family through their books. Eleanor in Jackson’s story was not nearly so motivated to act.

She discovers that the owner of the house, wanting the house filled with the sounds of children, used child labor to build the house and had them locked away. Hugh Crane is still locked in the house she tells them.

At this point, Montague is ready to get Eleanor, around whom all of the hauntings have been experienced, out of the picture since she is disrupting his experiment.

That night before Marrow wants her to leave, she sees herself pregnant in the house and talks to the children trapped within. She chases them and the others find her high up a dangerous precipice, similar to how she was in the book, under only much different circumstances. After coming down, she falls into a demented fugue.

As he discusses with himself how to get the others out of the house, Montague is attacked by a blood spewing statue that pulls him into the pool and tries to hold him down. Meanwhile Eleanor watches as the room slowly disintegrates and falls down around her and manifestations of children and monsters scream at her.

After finding Eleanor trapped to her bed by pieces of wood extending from the ceiling, the group decides that it’s time to get gone from Hill House. They go to the gate and break it open. Buy Eleanor returns to the house, telling the others she’s right where she belongs. She is at home.

Eleanor decides that she’s a descendant of the original Hugh Crane and she needs to stay for the other children. She refuses to leave. The others make a break for it, but they find that the owner plans to keep them as well. Luke defiles the painting of the owner and is cast into the fireplace where he is decapitated by a large pendulum of a lion’s head.

Eleanor runs about the mansion demanding that the spirit of Hugh Crane reveal himself. A giant Hugh Crane emeres from the behind the doors of purgatory just as the rest of the group arrives. Eleanor declares that she is going to stop him now. With Eleanor’s defiance, the souls of the children trapped in purgatory are released and drive Hugh Crane back into Hell. Eleanor joins them there, forever.

The next day, they are released from Hill House, it’s mysteries still unknown and unresolved.

This movie took all of the mystery of the Jackson novel and conjured its own stories to fill in what the script writer regarded as blanks. Losing that mysterious ambiguity ruins Jackson’s story.

In the story, we were never to know if it was Eleanor bringing the house to life or the house bringing Eleanor to life. All we knew was there was a symbiosis. We did not know if it was good or bad. This screenwriter solved that question and spoiled the story.

The end was quite unambiguous. Jackson’s ending, with Eleanor’s final thoughts as she sped away from Hill House in her car made for a much better literary ending and movie endingy as we shall see.

I guess the disjointed house and all that went bump in the night were regarded as too light of fare for modern movie goers. The script had to be brightened up with a gory death and CGI monsters roaming about. Jackson would have had no such nonsense in her movie.

It was a lackluster movie that ended up destroying the story from which it was conjured. If you want to see Jackson’s work brought to the screen the right way, watch the 1963 edition directed by Robert Wise. If Jackson were going to have her book made into a movie, I have to believe she would be impressed with Robert Wise’s treatment.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House By Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson
Copyright 1959

Shirley Jackson’s quintessential haunted house novel, the Haunting of Hill House, is a tale of madness. Madness of a haunted house and madness of a mind tormented by the madness of that house.
Dr. John Montague, a researcher of the supernatural, summons to Hill House, two mediums to assist him in his examination of this mysterious, abandoned mansion out in the country.

Joining him is Eleanor, a woman who once conjured stones to fall from the sky, and Theodora, a medium. Rounding out the party is Luke, a descendant of the house’s owners who insist that they have a representative in the home during the research.

The action centers on Theodora who is neurotic and given to daydreaming. She steals her sister’s car and travels through the country to arrive at the gates of Hill House. There, she is met by the creepy grounds keeper Mr. Dudley who makes a couple ominous statements before allowing her to enter.

Theodora is able to explore some of the house and surrounding grounds before she is joined by her colleagues. Once they are all there, Dr. Montague tells the group of the house’s history and what he expects of them.

The first couple nights pass uneventfully before the haunts show up. One night, as they sleep, something starts banging on the walls. Theodora joins Eleanor in her room as the sounds grow closer and closer to their door. A night later, mysterious writing appears on the wall that bids Eleanor to come home.

Eleanor seems to experience more manifestations than anyone and soon the others suspect that she is precipitating them herself because she desires attention. Eleanor, slightly unbalanced vacillates between anger at the suspicion and friendliness, desiring the friendship of the others.

Later in the novel, the bossy and arrogant Mrs. Montague and her companion Arthur Parker, the headmaster of a boys’ school, arrive to spend a weekend at Hill House and to help investigate it. They, too, are interested in the supernatural, including séances and spirit writing. Ironically, and unlike the other four characters, they don't experience anything supernatural, although some of Mrs. Montague’s alleged spirit writings seem to communicate with Eleanor. Mrs. Montague's lack of social skills provides another source of comic relief in the novel.

Many of the hauntings that occur throughout the book are described only vaguely, or else are partly hidden from the characters themselves.

Eleanor and Theodora are in a bedroom with an unseen force trying the door, and Eleanor believes after the fact that the hand she was holding in the darkness was not Theodora’s. In one episode, as Theodora and Eleanor walk outside Hill House at night, Theodora looks behind them and screams in fear for Eleanor to run, though the book never explains what Theodora sees.

By this point in the book it is becoming clear to the characters that the house is beginning to possess Eleanor. Fearing for her safety, Dr. Montague declares that she must leave. However, Eleanor regards the house as her home, and resists. The others have to practically force her into her car, but she is then killed when her car crashes into a large oak tree on the property. The reader is left uncertain whether Eleanor was simply an emotionally disturbed woman who has committed suicide, or whether her death at Hill House has a supernatural significance.

The Haunting of Hill House was a selection of my book/cigar/scotch club. The topic was The Scariest Book We’ve Read. I and another guy nominated it and it was the consensus of the club that The Haunting of Hill House was not scary.

Perhaps not. Perhaps it was scarier when I read it as a teenager. Still, it stands at the paragon of modern horror novels, serving as the wellspring for most great haunted house novels such as The Shining and Burnt Offerings.

In redefining the subgenre of the haunted house, Jackson draws on the lore of H.P. Lovecraft and his use of odd geography. Especially in his Cthulu mythos, Lovecraft used bizarre geography to disorient his readers. In Hill House, Jackson does the same thing by pointing out that none of the walls are flush. None of them are at right angles. Views are obscured that should not be obscured. It’s an odd place.

We can see Jackson’s direct influence on Stephen King in The Shining. The Shining is a hotel with a unsavory past. Hill House’s past is not necessarily unsavory, but it is tragic and bizarre. In both cases, the main character – in The Shining, Jack and in Hill House, Eleanor, have a connection to the house. The house is a living organism that desires connection with these characters.

In Burnt Offerings, that connection is there as well, except that the entity has an embodiment and its own separate connection to that embodiment in the form of Mrs. Alardyce. The house draws the energy from the heroine as she works to restore it – and presumably Mrs. Alardyce – to their former glory.

Shirley Jackson shows that she’s no horror writing hack with her fantastic use of the English language. Her prose made critics overlook the fact that she’d authored a horror novel which, at the time of its publication in 1959, ranked below science fiction in the literary pecking order.

Consider the novel’s opening paragraph: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Never before in a horror novel has such a brilliant paragraph been woven to set the tone and the atmosphere. As Stephen King say in his essay about this book in his review of horror film and literature, Danse Macabre, a writer’s greatest achievement is a sentence or paragraph that is something greater than the sum of its words. This paragraph does just that.

Jackson establishes the personality of her main character quite well early on in the novel. Eleanor is a darkly dreaming woman. She’s not mentally stable and daydreams about all that is going on around her. Juxtaposed against the baldy, down to earth Theodora, and we see that Eleanor is going to be the house’s victim. Her mind is open. Her personality susceptible. How she will meet her end is the only question.

The Haunting of Hill House is not a particularly scary novel. But it is the wellspring of so much great horror, it’s almost a privilege to visit or revisit it and find where the masters of the haunted house genre drew their ideas. It is a wonderfully written novel with an interesting main character and an end just ambiguous enough to keep the reader thinking long after the novel’s conclusion.

The Haunting of Hill House
was made into a movie two or three times depending on how you count. The first was the 1963 movie, The Haunting directed by Robert Wise. This movie is a nearly straight retelling of the novel and is a highly regarded horror movie. The second, The Haunting 1999 is a less than stellar effort high on special effects and short on story and does not do Jackson’s book justice. I also consider Stephen King’s screenplay, Rose Red to be a retelling of this story. King develops a different backstory for his mansion. But he includes almost all of Jackson’s story elements and closely enough resembles Jackson’s story to be considered a remake. It is better than the 1999 version, but not a particularly good movie.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Circle By David Eggers

The Circle
By David Eggers
Copyright 2014

This dystopian novel, set in the near future, weaves a tale that demonstrates the perils and potentials of open sharing on social networks and Internet retailers.
Mae Holland has just landed her dream job with The Circle, courtesy of her friend Anne. The Circle is an online retailer and social network operator with a sprawling campus near San Francisco that serves all of its employees’ needs. Mae starts in customer service, assisting Circle clients with problems of all types. She excels at her job.

Mae finds it difficult to acclimate to the company culture at first. She is chided for not being more involved in various company social events and in not responding to friends’ and coworkers online inquiries. She is encouraged to like and comment others’ posts in the social network and to post her own thoughts. Each employee is scored based on their social networking quantity and quality. After time, Mae eventually acclimates and excels.

The young go-getter finds herself juggling two relationships. One is with a tech geek working on a microchip implant for children to track them so that they may never be lost or kidnapped. The other is a mysterious employee of the company who manages to elude her most of the time in a company that preaches absolute transparency.

Mae’s new job brings a rift to her family life as he is able to see them less and less. They are brought on board Mae’s benefits plan to take care of her father’s illness and the company expects openness to the rest of the world from the Holllands – openness that as an old fashioned couple, they are not willing to provide. Mae asle encounters resistance from her ex-boyfriend who does not maintain a website for his business making chandeliers out of deer horns. When Mae displays some of his work on the net and creates demand for his product, he shuts her out all together.

The novel turns as Mae finds her life taken over by the Circle. She gives up her apartment and lives in the dormitory furnished by the company. She has another encounter with the mysterious boyfriend who leads her deep into the facility and shows her some of the company’s top secret research before they make love. She is intrigued and excited by him, but is unable to track him down within the company.

She decides to take a few hours of privacy for herself. After an uncomfortable visit with her parents where they refuse to open their lives up on the web for all to see and comment upon and a horrible argument with her former luddite bow who hates what she does and who she works for, she decides to stop at a kayak rental shack along the beach. The facility is closed, but she takes a kayak out anyway and explores a remote island.

When she returns, she is nearly arrested for theft and trespassing. She returns to company headquarters embarrassed and humiliated, quite sure she is going to be fired. She is summoned to the office of one of the three wise men. There they have a discussion about what Mae did. Mae learns her crime is not the stealing of the boats. Her transgression was not recording and sharing her adventure. Members of the Circle are expected to share every aspect of their lives.

Mae agrees to appear on stage with wise man Eamon Bailey for a public discussion of her behavior. There, she wows the crowd with her confession of theft by withholding sharing her experience and how she would do better. She agrees to live an entirely open life. Privacy is theft she concludes.

Mae lives her entire life, sexual and bathroom experiences, in front of a live audience of millions. The phenomenon spreads. Soon, politicians opt for this open life and those who refuse are ostracized. Mae becomes an international sensation for the change she brings to society.

One day, The Circle decides to send drones to find her reclusive, Luddite ex-boyfriend who chooses to live his life off the grid. When the drones arrive, he flees and eventually jumps from a bridge to avoid the scrutiny of the world.

Mae is unfazed by this development. Meanwhile, her family who had cameras installed all over their home to cover her father’s recovery from illness has covered the cameras. They refuse to take her calls. Mae is completely removed from her past.

Finally, the identity of Mae’s mysterious beau is revealed and he implores her to do what she can to stop The Circle from being completed. Mae finally realizes the moral bind she is in and makes her choice. . .

The Circle received tremendous reviews for its social commentary. Yes, while mildly dystopian, it is an accurate assessment of where society is headed in the digital age where some people are compelled to share every aspect of their lives via social media. And yes, it accurately depicts how online marketers snoop into our online activity to market directly to us. With all of this great social commentary, the book should have contained an interesting story. But it didn’t.

There is no character development in the story. To say that Mae and the other characters in this novel were wooden would be an insult to trees. They weren’t even plastic. They had no depth and were not even mildly interesting.

The story had no subplots. It was completely linear. The great mystery of the book – the identity of Mae’s mysterious love – was easy enough to guess because it could not have been anyone else with such linear storytelling.

When I think of writers who mixed social commentary and genre fiction, my mind is immediately drawn to the late, great Ira Levin. Levin didn’t try to veil his social commentary and I’m not suggesting that Eggers should have veiled his. That is pretentious. But Levin could tell an interesting story around his social commentary. Eggers didn’t. I felt as if Eggers was saying to me, “Are you seeing this? If not, let me show you again.”

This could have been a great book with a great story and insightful social commentary. The story could have been broadened, the characters developed more. There could have been a subplot that included a rivalry between Mae and Anna. A red herring or two would have helped.

Instead, what the reader got was a lackluster story and a writer shoving his social commentary down the reader’s throat. I read a book for story. If it includes, social commentary, that is okay. But a good story is a must and this book is not a good story.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes
By Stephen King
Copyright 2014

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective haunted by three crimes that went unsolved on his watch. One was a freeway killer who preyed on women at rest stops. Another was the murder of a woman seemingly by her husband, but the police could not get enough evidence to make a case stick. The third was a ghastly crime of mass murder where an unknown suspect stole a powerful Mercedes Benz sedan and drove it into a crowd of people lined up for a job fair, killing several including a baby.
Hodges is lured out of retirement (and away from suicide) by an online message taunting him over the crime from the presumed perpetrator. He resumes his own, private investigation. It leads him to the woman who owned the stolen Mercedes. She has committed suicide, but Brady falls in love with her younger sister. She hires him to find out who and what drove her sister to suicide.

Brady Hartfield is a computer tech for an electronics retailer. He lives with his alcoholic mother in and has with her a semi-incestuous relationship. Having killed his younger brother many years before, Brady is a psychopath.

Brady is an electronics whiz who has built an electronic device that allows him to steal signals from key fobs. Using this, he stole the Mercedes and slaughtered the job seekers. But he aspires to a larger kill; one that will make him a legend. First, however, he is determined to rid himself of Bill Hodges.

While Bill is attending the funeral of his girlfriend’s mother, Brady plants a bomb in his car. Unfortunately for Bill, his girlfriend is driving his car when it explodes. She is killed and Bill is more determined than ever to find the Mercedes Benz killer.

With the help of his teenage gardener and a middle-aged, mentally ill niece of his recently departed love, he tracks Brady to his house where they find his mother, dead in bed – the victim of an accidental poisoning at Brady’s hand. They learn of his plan to bomb the civic center during a boy band concert. They race against time to foil the plot.

Stephen King has conjured some horrific, non-supernatural villains in his more than 40 years of writing. Annie Wilkes is every bit as menacing as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Roland Dinker, the Nazi general in Apt Pupil and his protégé were as ugly as they come. With characters like that to his credit, it is such a shame that Brady Hartfield is so lackluster.

Brady is not particularly sinister. He’s diabolical, but not introspective. The most significant reason for this is that nobody is afraid of Brady. The aforementioned King villains inspired fear in people. They terrorized their respective victims. Bill Hodges never fears Brady and he and his companions are the only people who know who and what Brady is. Without fear, Brady fall flat as a villain.

King is known for stellar character development. He often delves deeply into the backstory of even insignificant characters to enrich the story. In Mr. Mercedes, his protagonists are every bit as limp and lifeless as his villains.

We get enough backstory on Bill Hodges to make him functional as a protagonist, but King doesn’t develop Janey (Bill’s love interest) at all. When she dies, the reader just doesn’t care that much. We aren’t emotionally vested in her. This was supposed to serve as the emotional turning point in the novel. But without character development, it didn’t work.

Bill’s sidekick is an African-American teenager. Kudos for creating a non-traditional duo. But Jerome is perhaps the most irritating character in King’s career cast. I wanted him to die and he was one of the good guys! Jerome frequently lapses into an irritating, African-American retro slave patois that serves no point except to remind the reader over and over again, JEROME IS BLACK!

Mr. Mercedes takes a while to get going. Actually, it takes a very long time. But once it does, the plot races to a rewarding climax inside the civic center. For all that King does to work against himself and his novel, the payoff at the end is satisfying.

The novel is the first of a trilogy built around Bill Hodge and presumably – given the final paragraph of the novel – Brady. We can only hope that King can develop his hero and his villain sufficiently in the next novel to make it more interesting than the first installment.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent By Robert Caro

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent
By Robert Caro
Copyright 1990

In his second volume chronicling the life of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro explores Johnson's time in the wilderness after losing the special election for the Texas senate seat in 1941.
The period between 1942 and 1948 found Johnson at loose ends and without a power base. His most powerful ally, Franklin Roosevelt would soon die. Vice President Harry Truman had never been a fan of the Representative from Texas. After Johnson betrayed him in the 1940 presidential race, House Speaker Sam Rayburn ceased to be a power base. With little seniority, Johnson had nothing to work with.

Without a power base in the House, Johnson quickly grew bored with his position. Caro notes that Johnson had not introduced any meaningful legislation, nor did he speak on the House floor on any issue of particular importance during his tenure in the House. Instead of legislating, Johnson set out to make money.

Johnson acquired an Austin radio station with low wattage and low profits. Using his influence with the FCC, he was able to get the stationed repositioned on the AM dial and boost its power. It is part of the Johnson family history that it was Lady Bird’s business acumen that led the Johnson telecommunications interests to profitability. However, as Caro carefully documents, it was the hand of LBJ that drove the business.

Lyndon Johnson promised his constituents that, if war broke out, he’d leave his congressional seat and join the fighting. Conveniently, he was able to serve in the military while maintaining his seat in the House. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve in 1942 and Caro dissects Johnson’s scant military career, telling the true story that Johnson often embellished through his political career.

Johnson was recruited by Navy Secretary James Forrestal to inspect navy installations in the Southwest Pacific. Johnson and three other naval officers spent much of their time in Texas and California, staying at the finest hotels and dining at the finest restaurants on the military’s tab. Finally, Johnson and his entourage made their way to Australia and reported to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Johnson was eager to get a taste of combat and eventually got it. The gods of fate smiled on Johnson that day because he was ordered out of his original seat by a Colonel who was also flying to observe the mission. He was forced to board another plane. The plane to which Johnson was originally assigned was shot down and all hands lost.

Johnson’s plane flew out over the Pacific to attack a Japanese base on New Guinea. Johnson’s plane came under attack and was forced to retreat from the mission. Those who flew with Johnson said he displayed unwavering courage as bullets hit the plane, looking out the windows with great excitement. When Johnson returned, MacArthur unceremoniously pulled a Silver Star out of his desk and presented it Johnson.

That Silver Star became a source of immense pride for Johnson. He soon returned to Washington when Roosevelt recalled active duty members of Congress. He wore that Silver Star on his suit lapel every day and would tell the tale over and over again in the cloak room, at dinner parties and in his district, with the tale growing taller with the telling. However, through interviews with those who flew with Johnson as well as documents from the Department of the Navy, Caro is able to document exactly what happened.

Much of the book is dedicated to examining the 1948 Texas Senate race between Johnson and Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. This election, and the circumstances under which Johnson won it were shrouded in mystery until Caro meticulously documents what transpired in Jim Wells County, specifically at precinct 13.

Caro opens this portion of the book with a thorough thumbnail biography of Coke Stevenson. Stevenson was a larger than life figure and the prototype of the mythical Texan. He was a cowboy from birth. He lived on a remote ranch that had no phone. From birth, the man was pure Texas.

Stevenson was known as a no nonsense politician, deeply conservative, and seldom willing to compromise. It would take a man like Lyndon Johnson to bring out the worst in Coke Stevenson, and Johnson managed to do it.

A loss in 1948 would have doomed Johnson’s career in politics. This time, he would do everything to win. Money was no object as the leadership of the Texas construction firm, Brown & Root were footing most of the bills.

Logistics had been a problem in the last campaign. A statewide campaign in Texas required enormous resources. While money could be raised, time was fixed and traveling across Texas to reach remote voters required a great deal of time. To overcome this, Johnson’s campaign leased a helicopter.

In 1948, most people had never seen a helicopter. Johnson’s whirlybird, dubbed the Johnson City Windmill, drew people from far and wide to see the aviation curiosity. Once drawn to the site, they would stay and listen to the candidate. The helicopter also let Johnson speak to the remote farmer or rancher by hovering over his home and shouting to him through a megaphone.

As before, Johnson pushed himself and his staff relentlessly with two advance teams leapfrogging each other to meet the helicopter. Johnson made slow and steady progress in his uphill climb to defeat Stevenson for the Democratic nomination, but was almost felled when he developed a kidney stone.

Caro documents Johnson’s illness with excruciating detail through interviews with those who traveled with Johnson. Johnson worked for two weeks in horrible agony, often doubling over in pain and vomiting right after leaving a public appearance. He lost weight and looked gaunt. Finally, unable to press on, he agreed to examination by a physician.

Johnson was told he needed surgery which would sideline him for several weeks. Instead, Johnson demanded that the stone be extracted by going in through the urethra. The surgeon was reluctant, but agreed. In what must have been an incredibly painful procedure, the surgeon extracted the stone, delving into the bladder two centimeters beyond what was recommended. Back on his feet the next day, Johnson resumed campaigning.

Johnson attacked Stevenson as a liberal and often misrepresented Stevenson’s positions on issues. Stevenson, behaving like a gentleman, refused to address Johnson’s accusations or even acknowledge Johnson. As his lead shrunk, Stevenson’s advisers begged him to challenge Johnson directly. That had never been the Stevenson way. Finally, in the waning days of the campaign, Stevenson went after Johnson, calling him a liar. Stevenson tried to explain his position on issues, but would never come out and say exactly how he would vote. Johnson goaded one of the most honorable men in political history into name calling and waffling.

When the primary election was held, the state Democratic central committee initially certified that Lyndon Johnson had won the election by just 87 votes. Stevenson immediately cried fraud and demanded an investigation – especially in the circumstances surrounding precinct 13 in Jim Wells County.

Caro documents through interviews with participants how John Connally was able to arrange with election officials in Jim Wells County to “find” an additional 200 votes for Lyndon Johnson in the county. The new voters mysteriously voted in alphabetical order and their handwriting was essentially the same. Stevenson demanded that the ballot box be opened and the actual ballots counted. Despite testimony from voters who said they had not voted election day, the party declined to do so and declared Johnson the winner.

Stevenson mounted a court challenge, but thanks to the able legal efforts of Abe Fortas, the challenge went nowhere. Johnson’s name appeared on the November ballot and he won election to the U.S. Senate.

The book ends with “Landslide Lyndon” arriving in Washington as the new senator from the Lone Star State.

This was the shortest and perhaps least interesting of Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. But it was fun reading and exceptional scholarship.

As he did in his first biography, Caro provides extensive biographical information on the subjects who were important in Lyndon Johnson’s life. In this case, his extensive biography of Coke Stevenson not only provided insight into Stevenson’s character and personality, it help cast the 1948 contest as a showdown between principle versus pragmatism. It also was illustrative of the development of Texas as a state at the start of the 20th century.

Caro put a great deal of effort into tracking down and interviewing those who were observers and participants in Lyndon Johnson’s quest for power, In doing so, he’s able to debunk the myth of Lady Bird being the mastermind behind the Johnson telecommunications fortune and, to tell the whole story behind the stolen 1948 Texas senate election.

AS he did in the first volume of what will be a five volume biography, Caro examines the minutia of Lyndon Johnson’s life and in doing so, reveals that Lyndon Johnson was one of the most Machiavellian men in the history of the Republic. The man had no scruples, no conscience, and no morals. He was a man driven by a need to be somebody. As Caro points out, his eyes were already on the presidency.

Caro asks, but does not answer the question, how different would the world be if the Texas Democrats just opened that little black box from precinct 13 and counted the votes?

There’s nothing negative to say about Robert Caro’s exhaustive examination of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the wilderness. He took the least interesting period in Johnson’s life and described it in painstaking detail, giving the reader much greater insight into the man who would shape American foreign and domestic policy long after his