16 November 2014

Books: Revival By Stephen King (2014)

I’ve been reading King for 34 years and I’ve (generally) enjoyed all his books (Tommyknockers remains one book I’ve never been able to read) and while many just think of him as horror novelist, I think that does a disservice to all his books, but especially the novels he’s released in the last decade and half. King’s greatest gift is that he can convey deep emotion in all his characters (including ones who make only the briefest of appearances) while attempting to scare the wits out of you. It gives the readers a chance to really connect with them –even when they’re put in positions no one ever wants to put in.

The tale is narrated by the easy going, yet damaged Jamie Morton. And King, who is always and forever obsessed with the decades he grew up in (the 1950s and 60s), begins in 1962 when Jamie is 6, and with the arrival of Charles Daniel Jacobs, the town of Harlow, Maine’s new Methodist minister. Jacob’s is happily married to a beautiful woman and has an adorable 2 year-old son. And like many men, he has a hobby, but one that seems unusual (yet not) –electricity. But when a car accident claims the life of his wife and son, Jacob’s loses his faith. But in that hollow part of his heart that was torn asunder by his loss, Jacob’s fixation with his hobby grows. Over the next 50 years, Jamie -who was once devoted acolyte of Jacobs’ but has become a wary skeptical adult- seems to encounter his friend constantly. He sees Jacobs’ go from preacher to carnival huckster, to faith healer to –in the end- a man who is convinced that his secret electricity will give him a chance to see what lays beyond this mortal coil. 

In King’s dedication page, the author lists a number of authors who’ve “built his house.” Those include the obvious ones that have influenced his writing, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, long-time friend Peter Straub and Arthur Machen, who’s The Great God Pan “has haunted me all my life.” It is clear that Revival borrows themes from many of these authors, especially H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. The ending of this wonderful book is perhaps King’s best and his prose, always precise, grows stronger and more meaningful as the story progresses. 

As much as I like Mr. Mercedes from earlier this year, Revival is a stronger book, filled with dead-on details of growing up in the 1960s and images of pain and suffering all of us go through on this journey from the cradle to the grave. And while I for one hope there is something beyond this life, I will hope it is nothing like the nightmare described in the final chapters of this novel.

12 November 2014

Books: You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman By Mike Thomas (2014)

Beloved TV comedic actor Phil Hartman is best known for his eight brilliant seasons on Saturday Night Live, where his versatility and comedic timing resulted in some of the funniest and most famous sketches in the television show’s history. Besides his hilarious impersonations of Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton, Hartman’s other indelible characters included Cirroc the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Eugene the Anal Retentive Chef and, of course, Frankenstein. He also starred as pompous radio broadcaster Bill McNeal in the NBC sitcom NewsRadio and voiced numerous classic roles — most memorably washed-up actor and commercial pitchman Troy McClure — on Fox’s long-running animated hit The Simpsons. But Hartman’s seemingly charmed life was cut tragically short when he was fatally shot by his troubled third wife, Brynn, who turned a gun on herself several hours later. 

This is not the definite biography of Phil Hartman. 

The problem with the story is that Hartman was a bit of that clich├ęd comedian we’ve heard about from time to time, a truly gifted comedic actor (and not a comedian, which seemed to create a problem for him) who seemed only to be himself when he was being someone else. Was Hartman a cipher? Sure, but you gleam nothing new here that could not be found in the pages of People Magazine. And that's the problem here.

And Thomas does a not do a good job in representing Brynn Hartman. He seems more concerned in giving second-hand stories (from notes Hartman himself made) and with friends in describing the women who ended his and her life so shockingly. Many of Hartman’s friends seemed to know little of Brynn, with the exception of SNL alumni Julia Sweeney, who brings the only interesting thing to the story. Sweeney’s perspective (unsettling in many ways) seems to indicate that she was one of few who seemed to interact with the Hartman’s on more than one level. And makes it clear she is on Brynn's side.

So this is not a complete story and it does not solve the mystery of Phil Hartman and what drove his sort placidity as he moved through life, but it also does not solve who Brynn Hartman really was either (I mean, why wait until the end –after she killed Hartman and then herself- to bring in her friends and family?). Author Thomas does not pass judgment here, which is a nice surprise, but he cannot create a narrative that offers the readers nothing new about the conundrum that was Phil and Brynn Hartman. 

And much like the last Lord of the Rings film, the book has too many endings and gives us no update on the lives of Hartman’s two children, Sean and Birgen –who should be in their twenties now. Perhaps that may come off as exploitative, but they’re apart of this story as much as their parents. Maybe, someday, we’ll get their perspective. Until then, this biography feels incomplete.  

Books: Recent History By Anthony Giardina (2002)

In 1961, when Luca Carcera is 11, his father takes him to see the site of their future home on “the Hill,” a new upscale suburb of Boston. For Luca’s social-climbing Uncle John, the Hill represents paradise, the family’s successful escape from the working class. But for Luca, the move will mark the shattering of his innocence. Luca’s father, Lou, is not terribly interested in outward appearances, which becomes clear when he leaves his wife and son for another man, Bob Painter, who works with the grounds crew at the plant where Lou is an accountant. Confused about the change in his family status, Luca is lost. But like many families of a few generations ago, no one knows how to deal with this (and other) earth-shattering events so it’s ignored. But as the years progress and Luca turns from a child into a man, history has a tendency to repeat itself, especially with his mother, who suddenly refuses her suitor’s marriage proposal that could better her life, or Uncle John’s son, and Luca’s cousin, George who returns from Vietnam a damaged man. As Luca ages and sort of sleepwalks through life, the past hangs over him like a anchor and must confront the reality that as his 12-year marriage seems to be falling apart because he’s still confused about who he is and what he should do about it.

In many ways, Recent History feels like an old fashion novel with its simple themes of ones families struggle with social and economic success while dealing with sexuality –both straight and (the more modern) gay. I found the book well written, if not a bit unrealistic (gays seemed everywhere, but since I grew up in the ‘burbs and not a large city like Boston, maybe my views are skewed here). While this a frank discussion of desire and the effects of dishonesty on a family, sometimes author Giardina seemed to want to create dramatic effect for no good reason other than to sway the reader into believing some revelation was about to happen. Otherwise, it’s a well written, deeply moving novel about one families inability to deal with reality.

27 October 2014

Books: Leaping to the Stars by David Gerrold (2002)

Sometimes I feel like an unreliable narrator, especially when talking about my earliest age, most of which existed (obviously) but most of which I’ve forgotten. I know, somewhere in the mid 1970’s I began to read books, but when and what started me on that route is very unclear. But if I read any books, say between 8 and 10, I’m not sure. All I had –until I got a bike for my communion, was the library located within my grade school. The big public library of Schaumburg eventually called my name after I figured out the route to get there on my bike.

I remember reading Jaws back in 1975, but I’m unsure if I understood any of it (and I have never re-read it). And I tried to read a few of the original Star Trek books Bantam published back then, but again, I’m not really sure I read any of them (but my brother collected them and somehow, I ended up with them. Still have them). 

As a youth, I never read The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. For reasons that I also fail to understand, these books held little appeal. Perhaps, at that young age, I was already beginning to like other stuff, the less popular titles like The Three Investigators (which no one seems to remember). I’ve mentioned before that what appeals to me in such arenas as music, movies and books is generally stuff opposite of what is popular. So maybe by liking the little remembered Three Investigators shows my likes for the odd and little read was set long before I understood it.

When I entered high school in the fall of 1977 I discovered Agatha Christie. Here’s another mystery (if you can excuse the turn of the phrase):  I cannot fully comprehend how I ended up reading her stuff. I mean, I went through one book after another of hers during that 1977-78 year and well into 1979, but why I found her books appealing is still a conundrum to me.

But 1979 was a watershed year for me. I discovered fantasy novels. And from then on out, I read a ton of sword and sorcery books, the good, the bad and the ugly. I tried science fiction from time to time, but found I could not figure them out. Part of it was, I felt, that the books philosophical ideas, its metaphors and complex science were beyond me (again, I found no thrill reading the math need to calculate the fuel needed to get in and out of orbit of a planet; I liked the magical aspect of the Enterprise “doing” it, but not explaining the “how” of it). I tried Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein and even Isaac Asimov, but their books never seemed to grab my attention the way fantasy had (yes, the space opera of Star Trek and Star Wars appealed to me, but they were not real science fiction books).

In my first posting about reading the novels of David Gerrold, I pointed this out. But I was determined to read this series, despite the fact that I knew there was going to be passages in the book that explained, in great detail, the why and how of space travel. 

And while I knew science fiction was about setting a story in the near future –close enough to look and feel like tomorrow, but far enough to get away with some technological advances- but the gist of these stories was noting that we human’s problems remain the same as today. For the longest time, this did not seem to appeal to me. I was, I admit, beguiled by Gene Roddenberry’s utopian ideals of the 23rd Century of Star Trek.  

Now, with reading Gerrold’s Dingillian trilogy, I’ve circled back to books I probably should’ve read a long, long time ago.

Leaping to the Stars is the exciting conclusion to the series. We start where we left off, with Douglas, Charles and Bobby (along with Dad, Mom, her girlfriend Bev, and Mickey, Douglas’ boyfriend) agreeing to head off the troubled Luna and leave the moon and the Earth behind forever after they realize that HARLIE, the advanced artificial intelligence device packed into the body of a toy monkey, was the whole reason this adventure began. With Earth now falling to pieces and potentially to never again to regain any status, Lunar Authority has decided they will become the power in the system and that means getting HARLIE (it was here that the boys Dad was killed. I understand Gerrold's choice in this trope -now Charles must fully grow up and achieve everything his Dad wanted, but I thought it was pointless). But the Dingillian’s are a clever bunch and with HARLIE “bonded” to Charles, they board a ship to take them to Outbeyond, one the farthest Earth colonies in the solar system. It sounds bleak and backbreaking, but it gives the boys something they’ve wanted since the start, freedom. 

But, of course, nothing goes as planned. These colonists, in particular Charles, face pressure from Revelationists, a fundamentalist religious group traveling aboard the Cascade to their own colony on the way to Outbeyond. The Revelationists believe HARLIE is evil and must be destroyed, along with Charles and the crew of the Cascade and anyone else that does not agree with them. Still, some of the rhetoric they spout does get the best of Charles, who begins to have some uncertainty about HARLIE's true motives.

The only negative aspect I can really give about the series (and something that I’ve written about with The Expanse series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck -under the pen name James S. A. Corey), is that the villains are pretty cartoonish (yes, religion is good and bad, corporations are always bad). I mean, it’s a fun read and all, but you need to get past the dysfunctional family caricatures to get to Gerrold’s real purpose here, proposing moral and ethical dilemmas and how to work them out. Here Gerrold shines and I enjoyed those discussions. 

It may, in the end, get me to read more science fiction now. But we’ll see. We’ll see.

20 October 2014

Books: Bouncing Off the Moon by David Gerrold (2001)

Bouncing Off the Moon, the continuation of Jumping Off the Planet (literally is begins mere hours after the first book) and the second book in David Gerrold’s Dingillian series, we see narrator Charles "Chigger" Dingillian, his older brother Douglas and younger brother Bobby begin a new life after divorcing their squabbling parents. The Moon is their destination, but before they can really plan the trip, they discover that all is not well at Geosynchronous Station: there’s a new plague on Earth that resulted in social and economic collapse of the planet, with the rich and powerful trying to escape, even if it means doing things illegally. So, with the aid of a Russian money-surfer named Alexei and Mickey, the son of the judge who helped the boys with their legal issues (and now Douglas’ boyfriend), the boys set out in an automated cargo pod bound for the Moon.  Through Alexei, the brothers realize the moon is an unforgiving and potentially deadly environment, but also begin to wonder if several mishaps along the way are just that or deliberate attempts at murder. Slowly, both Douglas and Charles realize that neither Alexei nor Mickey can be trusted but with ruthless interplanetary corporations on their heels in search of a toy monkey that seems to possesses a computer far more advanced than might be required of a toy, they’ll need all their wits to figure out who is their friend and who is their foe.

Once again, Gerrold creates a wonderful, realistic tale of speculative future. And unlike the recent spate of post-apocalyptic future YA books like The Hunger Games, Gerrold’s goal seems to be –as the vintage science fiction books of Heinlein and Asimov used to do- want to create a believable future, one where things play out logically. In the end, Gerrold creates a riveting and engaging story that is equally funny as it is harrowing.