Friday, June 25, 2010

Similar Paths, Different Deliveries: Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft

I've spent the better part of May and June with a couple of short story writers, one of whom is an old friend and the other is a new discovery.  I truly enjoyed their writing — and, though it wasn't my intent, I found myself comparing the two.

I approached Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  (Some "scary" books don't settle well with me, a fact to which my husband David can attest.)  I expected to see their similarities and instead discovered their wonderful differences.

I've read Ray Bradbury since I was old enough to visit the library on my own, which was right around grade school.  As a young journalist in the mid-1980s, I was fortunate enough to interview him for an article on the now-defunct Acres of Books in Long Beach, Calif.  That was a glorious hour with a generous writer, and I reveled in every single minute of it.  (I was horrified to discover my tape recorder hadn't captured a single moment on tape, but that proved either Bradbury was magic or I was inept.  I prefer to believe the former, but more readily accept the latter.)  A recent article by Neil Gaiman prompted me to purchase The stories of Ray Bradbury when I nearly wept at the idea of returning the library copy after maxing out my renewals.  I have consumed a story or so a day for weeks, and I've enjoyed them immensely.

H.P. Lovecraft is a recent discovery.  I was introduced to him at Edgar Allen Poe's funeral last autumn ("The Funeral Poe Never Had — Until Now," Hedgehog Lover, October 2009).  Lovecraft fascinated me, both in form and function.  When I asked booksellers and librarians about him, the reactions were the same: reverence mixed with a little fear.  I was intrigued, and picked up a collection of his short stories: The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.  I started with "The Call of Cthulu" and haven't looked back since  (though I have looked over my shoulder from time to time to see what's actually there).

Reading the two authors at the same time has been a fascinating.  The styles are completely different and yet the stories have a similar spirit.  Both men tell tales of horror and sadness, loss and fear.  However, Lovecraft's tells his stories in dusty Victorian homes that have the faint smell of sulfur wafting up from the cellar with libraries of brown-paged books with curling edges and pen-and-ink writing in the margins.  Bradbury's stories are told on porches in small Midwestern town scrubbed and ready to host its visitors in the first decade of the 20th century — or in a 1950s Laboratory with Scientists, with neat notes in pencil on lined paper, or maybe graph paper.

Lovecraft is more stately and formal in his writing, much like a man at the turn of the 20th century.  He reveals the dark side of humanity that dabbles in the sinister and alien.  Many of his stories fold back onto themselves, with multiple references to the same towns and universities — and often to the Necronomicon, a book that can bring unspeakable horror to the people who think they can use it without consequence.  His characters respect learned men in universities, but hold them in equal regard for their disconnection to the real horrors; their reliance on books blinds them to reality (though in one instance it did save humanity).  Lovecraft's stories usually have a surprise ending, with the last sentence offering the Big Reveal of the horror that lurked juuust out of sight, around the corner.  His descriptions of the horrors of his imagination demonstrate our primal fear of the ooky, gushy unknown that lurks under the bed or in the back of the closet.  There are no explanations, just Evil.

In contrast, Bradbury reveals science to be the king.  Science elicits an inherent trust, despite the threat of the Atomic Age and its imminent self-destruction.  His characters cling to it though they teeter on the edge of disaster.  Bradbury's world is rich with spaceships, outer space and men of authority.  These Men (and they're all Men) have their roots in Small Town Middle America, where he takes us time and again to ground us.  The stories unfold with a logic and precision that gives us straight lines without cobwebs or ookiness.  The narrators of every story are similar to each other in that they act and speak with authority and understanding beyond their character (if that is the chosen narrator).

Frankly, I love the stories of both authors.  I want to read about "The Happiness Machine" that is inaccurately named and "The Screaming Woman" who frightens a little girl into action with a shovel as much as I want to discover what the time-traveler saw in the ancient library in the Australian caves in  "The Shadow Out of Time."  I approached them expecting to see their similarities and instead discovered their wonderful differences: Lovecraft is truly a writer of the horror and macabre, whereas Bradbury puts the "science" in science fiction and the "fantasy" in fantastic.

I am glad I finished another book in my Fill in the Gaps list.  I am glad I also re-discovered a childhood favorite, and I plan to keep the substantial short story collection within reach for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a well-written novel with interesting characters and a compelling story. It started off like gangbusters with an intriguing first few pages describing an old man receiving a mysterious gift in the mail, continued ripe with suspense and intrigue, and ended with heartbreak. I should really have liked it.

However, I didn't like it, and I wouldn't recommend it to another reader.

First and foremost, it was very lurid. I stopped watching the television shows CSI and Law & Order because every crime seemed to involve a young, attractive woman who was raped and/or murdered in gross, horrifying ways. (As though there is any other way to be raped and/or murdered....)  The excruciating details of these crimes laid bare in 42 minutes made me ill.

Such was the case with this book. Every section title page included a statistic regarding violence against women, so we had an idea that more would be revealed. Two main female characters were brutalized, and as the story unfolded, so did the immensity and scope of their brutalization. To their credit, neither accepted the mantle of "victim," and each found a way to make herself a "survivor."

The number of women who were not survivors, however, is staggering. The range and the luridness of these crimes literally disgusted me. Readers have to plow through this information to get to the end, and it is a terrible path to have to take. I didn't need to read such tragic stories.

Author Steig Larrson, may he rest in peace, touts Lisbeth as quite the hero. I suppose she is — but at such a cost that I wish he hadn't created her. Maybe she isn't a victim, and never will be, but what she experienced still broke my heart.

The rest of the book deals with finance, corporate greed and corruption, romance, family intrigue, mystery, history, journalistic integrity, Swedish law and the love of Apple products. Oh, and computer hacking. And possibly autism. Are all of these important? Sure, but I couldn't get past the awfulness of the crimes to which the women in this book were subjected.

It also seemed interminable: the book was much like the Energizer bunny and I just so wanted someone to find a way to thwart it. Just when I thought the violence toward women couldn't get any worse, it did. (By the way, men were brutalized, too, and it was quite terrible as well.)

I recently discovered the Swedish title originally was Män som hatar kvinnor (which translates to Men who hate women), and it made the book more intriguing — until I got to the horrors, then I understood exactly what the title meant. It didn't make the revelations in the book any less awful, or more intriguing.

Stieg Larrson wrote two sequels to this book, both of which are on bookshelves around the world (and selling like hotcakes). I won't read either of them.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: Have a Little Faith

I discovered Mitch Albom when he visited George Mason University for Fall for the Book.  His book at the time was For One More Day, a tantalizing slender volume whose premise intrigued me.  However, I had pooh-poohed his book as sentimental.  Weren't all of his books like that?

Then I read one.

And I fell in love with Mitch's writing.

However, I still approached this book with trepidation.  It was about death,  religion and faith.  It was about poverty and drugs and loss.  It was about a whole lot of issues I wasn't ready to confront when I got the book for Christmas.

But I had faith in Mitch, and when I was ready, so was his book.

I did not know what to expect from this book, and I was again delighted by Mitch's deft touch that never, ever veered to maudlin. 

May I say I love Albert Lewis?  His idea of faith is so similar to mine, only he takes it a step further.  After reading The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, I decided everyone was right.  However, I didn't stop to think about how I could be right, too.  This rabbi took his faith and his acceptance of others' faiths and turned it into his life, a testament of his beliefs.  I admire that.

I enjoyed how Mitch introduced us to the Reb.  I saw him through Mitch's eyes, with love and fear and misunderstanding, understanding and history and faith.  I was being introduced to someone's old friend whose history was bound tightly to my friend.  I liked the Reb the way Mitch liked the Reb: from a distance.  However, the more time we both spent with the rabbi, the more we could decide our own relationship with him.  I liked that.

Henry Covington, on the other hand, was more of a challenge to get to know.  Mitch introduced him to us the way he met him: not just through his own eyes, but through the eyes of his parishioners.  Henry's faith was tangible in a way only trial and tribulation can make it.  He was real, though his regret about his own life of sin was hard to read.  I have a hard time thinking human beings, the creatures created by a loving God/ess in His/Her own image, are wretches who are undeserving of God's love — and Henry acted as if he was a wretch.  I wanted him to act like a man who was loved by his God, not a man who still carried his burden of sin with him.   Maybe his regret was too much to put down.

In the end, the book fulfilled Mitch's promise to the rabbi, and that was fulfilling.  Seeing Henry's parish benefit from the readers of the Detroit Free-Press was fulfilling.  Albert's beliefs made me start discussing faith again, re-examining my own, which always is fulfilling (if not a challenge).

I've said it before, and I will say it again: go buy Mitch's books. Every single one.  And please attend one of his book events.  (I did, and I am so glad.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Why I Cast Aside The Devil's Punchbowl

I fell in love with Greg Iles because of the radio.

It was a Friday afternoon and I was driving home from work, all 2.2 miles, when I heard an ad for his novel, Spandau Phoenix.  I was intrigued enough by the premise to stop by the bookstore on my way home.  I don't remember what I had planned that weekend, but it wasn't important as I cracked open the paperback and followed Iles wherever he planned to take me.

I secretly suspected Iles was really John Grisham a la Richard Bachman.  (Despite evidence to the contrary, I'm not convinced.)

pounced on his second book when it came out.  I didn't like as much but still appreciated it, and I was more than a little grateful that his next novel wasn't a WWII thriller. 
I've read nearly every novel Iles has written, and I've liked them to varying degrees.  His website touts his ability to write in multiple genres, which benefits both the reader and the writer.  However, I was really creeped out by the lasciviousness of the characters in Turning Angel — which is unexpected, as I enjoyed the "psychosexual" thriller Mortal Fear.  Perhaps the consensual age of the characters was a mitigating factor for me.  No matter.  I decided to take a break from the author to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
I picked up The Devil's Punchbowl to take another trip with Iles.  It lasted all of 120 pages.  I don't know if I like Penn Cage anymore.  In this book, his voice sounded insincere and his language was stilted and overly-analytical, as though we all had to be brought up to speed on his character's life in this series.  (I have seen it done more successfully, namely in Stephanie Plum novels.)  Also, he sounded like a weepy teen overly obsessed by his failed love affairs.  That's a shame because I liked Penn and his relationship with his father.

Finally, the story felt formulaic: the hero is held accountable for another person's failures and has a set time period in which to find a solution, or her/his best-loved supporting characters (innocent, loving, undeserving of pain and death) will meet their demises.  Thanks to another high-profile author who has used that formula for every novel, I am jaded by it.

Long story short, I'm shelving this Iles novel for the time being.  I'll get a few more books under my belt, perhaps a classic or two, then try another one — maybe True Evil.  However, I won't rush into it.  I want to like Grish — er, Iles — again, and I'll take my time so the timing is right.