27 May 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Hard Times", "Under the Banner of Heaven", "The World Without Us", and "John Dies at the End".

Hard Times, Charles Dickens

Dickens had a happy childhood, until his father went to debtor's prison and little Charles had to work in a factory for some time, pasting labels on jars. It was miserable and difficult work that paid almost nothing, and although he was soon rescued from labor by an inheritance, it made a deep impression on him. The sudden whiplash of happiness to drudgery - and the reverse - will be intimately familiar to anyone who's read Dickens, of course. Hard Times is a good example.

The book tells the story of the Gradgrind family, whose patriarch is absolutely dedicated to Facts. Music, art, literature, and any other kind of entertainment is banned as frivolous, and the two children that are central to the book, Louisa and Tom, predictably grow into stifled young people and associate with their father's equally abhorrent friend Mr. Bounderby. The virtuous Stephen Blackpool, a laborer in Bounderby's factory, is held up as virtuous in stark contrast with the soulless proponents of Fact. The thumping great injustices of the book run their course and are partially mended by Dickens' usual sort of denouement, as the villains are sorted and the heroes recognized (if not rewarded).

The book is a perfect example of the wonderful readability of Dickens. He tells us a tale with which we are familiar, telegraphing each step before he takes it, and leaving us in no doubt about the way things will work out. Even the names are always perfectly representative, such as the harsh schoolteacher Mr. M'Choakumchild. His writing is measured and careful, with no great turns of phrase but only a quiet dedication to telling the story. The pacing is one of his greatest skills, as he scrupulously foreshadows, builds to a crescendo, and then cascades down revelations and resolutions.

Read this, and any other Dickens you can find.


Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakaeur

This book, by the author of Into the Wild, is another marvelous work of long-form journalism. Less a story than a careful exploration of the violent roots of Mormonism and the resurgence of that violence in a pair of murderous fundamentalists, Under the Banner of Heaven will force virtually any reader to occasionally pause and let loose with a string of irritated profanities. Maybe it's when Krakaeur relates how Ron and Dan Lafferty killed a young woman and her baby. Maybe it's at the reading of the medieval backwardness of fundamentalist Mormon communities and their dedication to taking advantage of public largess. Or maybe it's at the sheer gullibility of people in the history of Mormonism. But at some point, you will put down this book and say something like, "Okay, seriously, what the hell?"

Too often, journalists like Krakaeur don't write good books. Writing short, snappy things is a very specific art, and sometimes the skills don't translate - the separate chapters might not seem to flow, or the larger themes get lost in smaller points. Krakaeur doesn't have that particular problem, but he does go a little overboard in his narrative dance: he goes back and forth among three plotlines, following the Lafferties on their road to murder, telling about the modern fundamentalist movement, and relating the history of Mormonism. It's interesting and shows us some parallels, but it gets out of hand and threatens to muddy the waters about halfway through the text.

Further, Krakaeur's habit of prefacing every chapter with one or two quotes is also a little too much, as my wife pointed out to me when she read this book ("Why can't authors write their own first two sentences?") They're important excerpts or quotes that work well with the material, and every writer knows the lure of setting the scene just a little bit more. But sometimes, if you can't fit the quote into the organic story you're telling, then you don't need it. Krakaeur's reliance starts to look like a crutch.

Despite its flaws, though, this book is very good, and inspires outrage - which is just what you want from outrageous stories. The Lafferties were murderers and madmen, and the deeply disturbing culture of fundamentalist Mormonism almost certainly spawned their madness and corralled the victims for the murder. Under the Banner of Heaven's tracery of links between Mormonism and astonishing historical excesses of violence needs to be read, if only to help understand a massively influential American group that takes pains to cloak their unpleasant history in ignorance.

I recommend this book; it is good, if not quite as well-written as Into the Wild.


The World Without Us, Alan Weisman

You probably heard a little about this book. It started as an essay about what New York City might be like if people vanished, and then was expanded into this book, which covers the whole world and its fate after the disappearance of mankind. The book is being turned into a movie (or so I hear) and was ripped off by the ever-lowering-itself History Channel into a television show.

The essay was great, and I had been looking forward to reading this book for literally years. Boy, was I excited when I found it!

As it turns out, the rest of the book is just as good as the essay. Unfortunately, it's also almost the same as that essay: detailed, purple with extremities, and relentlessly repetitive.

The details are thorough and fascinating. Weisman spoke with all manner of experts, and as he details the fate of the Panama Canal or nuclear reactors or a Texas oil refinery, he reels off lists of interesting trivia with a fluid pen. In one segment on the aftermath of Chernobyl, the author recites the fate of species after species, digressing into brief mentions of interesting facts (the musk ox is invisible to radar because its coat is so efficient!) while never losing his central narrative. It was exactly this level of detail in the original essay that transmitted Weisman's joy with information into a story that grasps the reader.

Most of this information is about the human world and what we have done to the natural one around us - ironically, considering how people are now scrupulously missing. It's very interesting to consider what might happen to the world if all nuclear reactors were abandoned (as it turns out, about half would melt down, their centers puddling into thick masses of radioactive alloys of slag and metal). The reader is alternately struck with the precarious impermanence of our manufactured lives and with the enduring horror of our most persistent pollution. There are many such horrors. For just one: billions of plastic pellets surf the waters of the world, eternal and deadly - they do not decompose, only remain floating to choke creature after creature, and sometimes ground down into smaller particles until they're as fine as dust and can poison the tiniest creatures of all.

On the other hand, for all Weisman's assemblage of fascinating facts, he also has a tendency to anthropomorphize everything and use the most lurid phrasing possible. Water "seeks revenge." Weeds "erupt with vengeance." While this can be clever and evocative, like when Weisman describes a flock of confused birds circling high-tension lines with "guy wires become the blades of a giant bird blender," the unbroken parade of such purple phrasing begins to seem overwrought.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of all, though, is the relentless repetition. It's one of the reasons the material worked perfectly in essay form but stumbles as a book. There's just... too much. By definition, there are no characters in this book - it's a speculative look at a world without any characters even left existing - and so there's nothing to tie things together or allow emotional investment. Even nonfiction needs a structure, and while there is an organization to the book as it follows different areas or topics in a post-human world, there's no spine to the pile of bony limbs. Just story after story, anecdote after anecdote, horror after horror.

Here is one such story - one of the more succinct ones:

The most stunning avicide of all, just a century ago, is still hard to fathom in its enormity. Like hearing astronomers explain the entire universe, its lesson gets lost because its subject, when it was alive, literally exceeded our horizons. The postmortem of the American passenger pigeon is so fertile with portents that just a brief glance warns— screams, in fact— that anything we consider limitless probably isn’t.

Long before we had poultry factories to mass-produce chicken breasts by the billion, nature did much the same for us in the form of the North American passenger pigeon. By anyone’s estimate, it was the most abundant bird on Earth. Its flocks, 300 miles long and numbering in the billions, spanned horizons fore and aft, actually darkening the sky. Hours could go by, and it was as though they hadn’t passed at all, because they kept coming. Larger, far more striking than the ignoble pigeons that soil our sidewalks and statuary, these were dusky blue, rose breasted, and apparently delicious.

They ate unimaginable quantities of acorns, beechnuts, and berries. One of the ways we slew them was by cutting their food supply, as we sheared forests from the eastern plains of the United States to plant our own food. The other was with shotguns, spraying lead pellets that could down dozens with a single blast. After 1850, with most of the heartland forest gone to farms, hunting passenger pigeons was even easier, as millions of them roosted together in the remaining trees. Boxcars stuffed with them arrived daily in New York and Boston. When it finally became apparent that their unthinkable numbers were actually dropping, a kind of madness drove hunters to slaughter them even faster while they were still there to kill. By 1900, it was over. A miserable few remained caged in a Cincinnati zoo, and by the time zookeepers realized what they had, nothing could be done. The last one died before their eyes in 1914.

It's sad and interesting and well-written. But now imagine a thousand others, laid out in front of you like the pavement to some grim road. It's just too long of a journey to comfortably walk.

This wasn't inevitable. In the essay, he gives a character in the form of New York City, and follows it as time wears on. He tells a story, of sorts. But while he seems to attempt something similar in the book, he instead tells a vast succession of stories with different characters - Chernobyl, floating plastic, art galleries. But in their multitudes, they stop becoming characters and instead become a crowd. The reader gets lost.

I do strongly recommend this book, but I also recommend reading it by the chapter, spaced out over time. If you read it all in one shot, you might find yourself missing mankind by the end, since at least some people would be something different.


John Dies at the End, David Wong

John Dies at the End is a book that is wholly invested with Internet culture. This is not to say that it's about anything even remotely technical; I'm not sure a computer ever even appears in the novel. But from the first page to the last, it is crammed with a love of the bizarre, penchant for meta-commentary, and self-aware puerility.

The novel is a horror story. In that respect, at least, it frequently succeeds. Wong creates numerous monsters and terrifying situations with a keen sense of the genre, and reading the book during a silent night became disquieting at times. He tells a story about a pair of friends who encounter the supernatural, and how they eventually get pulled into a life of fighting monsters and ghosts, all while making jokes about their penises.

“Every man is blessed with his gifts from the Lord. One of mine happens to be a penis large enough that, if it had a penis of its own, my penis’s penis would be larger than your penis.”

But on reaching the end of the book, Wong has a postscript and acknowledgments. He describes how the novel started off as a sort of blog, written in jags between two other jobs after getting a favorable response. And instantly, much about the book became clear to me, and I understood the reason for some things: the disjointed flow and sudden shifts in tone that betray the time-lag between writing sessions, the awkward and unsatisfying conclusion that could have been avoided with a clear plan, and the clever "twists" that I can easily imagine springing to mind after five hours at a daytime data-entry job.

Let's be frank: this book is badly written. Different subplots are crammed together thoughtlessly, with no sense of pacing or dramatic construction. The style is haphazard, with more attention paid to gimmicky tricks of phrasing than to the ordinary sentences that do the actual work of storytelling. Probably the only reason I enjoyed it was that I wasn't looking for anything serious (this is the lightest of light reading!) and I so clearly recognized the spirit of the Internet that lashed every word to the next.

Much of what I call this "Internet culture" comes from my own cohort, males who were growing up as the Internet was taking shape. I would put serious money on the proposition that David Wong is within two years of my age, in fact. It is a world that delights in the bizarre, is very aware of itself, and indulges in adolescent humor.

When I speak of the bizarre, I'm speaking of a particular kind of horror. It's not a monster that stalks the night or a malevolent ghost that haunts a house (or a possessed car or rabid dog or whatever) but rather minute descriptions of creatures that would seem almost goofy if their malevolence wasn't so prominent. One such monster, early in the book, is the "wig monster":

The finished creature seemed to be assembled from spare parts. It had a tail like a scorpion curling up off its back. It walked on seven—yes, seven—legs, each ending in one of those small, pink infantile hands. It had a head that was sort of an inverted heart shape, a bank of mismatched eyes in an arc over a hooked, black beak, like a parrot’s. On its head, no kidding, it had a tuft of neatly groomed blond hair that I swear on my mother’s grave was a wig, held on with a rubber band chinstrap.

What was strange about it, or rather, what was stranger about it was that the two sections of its body—the hindquarters and the abdomen—were not connected. There was a good two inches of space between them and when it turned sideways you could see right through the thing. But it moved in unison, as if they were connected by invisible tissue.

The little monster stood twitching there on the floor like a newborn calf, still dripping with urine.

John said, “Huh.”

The aesthetic sense that gives rise to a wig monster is the same one that is fascinated with giant earth-movers and babies with two heads or the like. It's the aesthetic sense, to give an example, of this Cracked.com article. They are both bizarre - maybe even scary - because they are so out of line with our expectations.

Oh, and did I mention that David Wong now writes for Cracked.com?

Anyway, I recommend this book if you have a few hours and aren't looking to be challenged even slightly. It's fun and sometimes funny and sometimes scary. Maybe take a look.

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