Monday, June 8, 2009

"The Man in the Picture" by Susan Hill

I've probably picked up this little book a dozen times or so. It was sitting on our "New Fiction" shelf when I came in to work Saturday, and I picked it up again, this time to shift it to our regular Fiction section. It had had its time in the sun, so to speak. Well, I really looked at it this time, and having just finished "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters, I found myself in the mood for yet another eerie ghost story. Plus, this is really a short story, so I knew it wouldn't take long to read.

It's not a bad little book, I'll give the author that. But I would say that it's not really "a ghost story" as the subtitle claims. This is much more a tale of a lover scorned and the ultimate revenge taken by that same woman, not only on the man who scorned her, but on his entire family. Indeed, so strong is this woman's hatred towards those who are happily in love, the painting affects even those not related to the original ill-fated couple.

The action takes place in England and is told from a few different views, that of a former Cambridge student, Oliver; his former professor and now old friend, Theo Parmitter; the Countess, who originally received the painting as a wedding "gift"; and finally a surprise narrator, who wraps up everything nicely and also indicates that the story is probably far from over. (Sort of like scary movies where they leave themselves open for a sequel or two or ten!) The writer has a way with words, and indeed, I felt as if I could see the painting myself in some places. But it's never made entirely clear just exactly how the painting works, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because you can imagine pretty much whatever you want; bad because at times it seems a bit silly.

Overall I'd definitely recommend this book, most likely on a dreary, rainy afternoon when one wants a light entertainment to kill an hour or so. It's not really a "new" story as such; we've seen this sort of ghostly tale before. But it is well done, and I'm considering finding other works by the same author.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Sock" by Penn Jillette

First off, I must admit that I had no idea Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame had written a book. I was very happy and excited to find this - it meant a book for my hubby to read and I really wanted to read it myself. And, as is usual of strange writing, we had very different opinions about said book when we were done. Namely that hubby really liked it, and I was really disappointed by it.

The story is a basic murder-mystery on the surface. A police diver (the guys that fish corpses out of the water) is doing his duty yet again when he pulls out the body of a former girlfriend. Struck by her death, he decides to investigate and find her killer. He enlists the help of a mutual friend, and they take off to track down the bad guy, thus avenging the girl.

Except this being Penn, nothing is normal here. First off, the story is not narrated by the diver but by his childhood toy, a sock monkey. The diver is referred to as "Little Fool" by Sock through the entire book, and at times, I almost felt like Penn was referring to me, the reader, in the same way. Reading the rantings of Sock made it very, very hard for me to get through this book; while the plot is basically an A-to-B-to-C, it doesn't feel that way. The monkey makes comments about anything and everything, very much like a stream-of-consciousness point of view. And just about every single paragraph ends with a reference to a pop-song or some other catch-phrase from pop culture, which was a bit disruptive in my opinion.

Penn is making comments about lots of things in this book, but probably the biggest one is about the existence of God. Yeah, I know - it's there, trust me. It's just not an overt way to make the commentary, and I think that it gets lost in the jumbled rantings of Sock. Overall, I found the characters to be difficult to relate to, the plot to be a bit thin, and Sock to be just outright annoying. I wish I had enjoyed this book as much as my hubby. He kept telling me to keep in mind who wrote it, which does explain a lot. But it doesn't make it a good book.

"Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris

Having read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins about a year ago, I was interested in this very tiny book when it came across the front desk at work. Would it be possible, I wondered, for an author to make basically the same argument that Dawkins made in so few pages? Would this author do a better job of it, i.e. not alienate the very audience he sought to persuade?

The answer is pretty much yes. Harris isn't saying anything new here, but he does take a different approach than Dawkins, which I frankly appreciated. I had really wanted to be able to recommend the full-length book by the scientist, but after slogging my way through it, I was so put off by his heavy-handed, and ironically, holier-than-thou approach that I knew I'd never tell anyone to read that book. This slim volume by Harris, however, just might fit the bill for those interested in the argument "Is there a God, and if so, do we still need to believe in him in the 21st century?"

I thought Harris was much more even-handed in his approach to the argument and also much more respectful of the very Christians he's trying to reach. I also thought that it was smart to write it as a "letter" - this should only take an hour or two to read, no more than that, which also means that he doesn't beat the topic to death. He makes his point, backs it up with several examples, and concludes the letter in a respectful, succinct manner. I very much liked some of his examples of why he's an atheist, too; at one point he reminds us that it wasn't all that long ago that humans believed in gods such as Zeus and Poseidon. Of course, if you admit to still believing in those gods in today's modern world, you're considered a kook. He wonders if someday we won't look back on this time and shake our heads at all the people that continued to believe in a god, be it God, Allah, Buddah, etc. He's not shy about casting doubt on all organized religions, and he also points out that Christians tend to be very intolerant of others' religious beliefs, not a very "christian" attitude in his opinion.

Overall, it's a good little book, one that will definitely make one think. Will it change any one's mind? That I doubt. People tend to believe what they want to believe, regardless of the proof or lack thereof to the actual validity of that belief. I think it would take a personal conversion of sorts, lots of them, before the world changed enough to please Harris.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Crooked Little Vein" by Warren Ellis

"Burned-out private dick Michael McGill needs to jump-start his career. What he gets instead is a cattle prod to the crotch. The president's heroin-addicted chief of staff wants McGill to find the Constitution—the real one the Founding Fathers secretly devised for the time of gravest crisis. And with God, civility, and Mom's homemade apple pie already dead or dying, that time is now. But McGill has a talent for stumbling into every imaginable depravity—and this case is driving him even deeper into America's darkest, dankest underbelly, toward obscenities that boggle even his mind."

Well, this certainly is one weird story. The main plot is McGill trying to locate and obtain this alternate Constitution, the one that when read aloud to people makes them do, well, pretty much whatever you want them to do. The chief of staff states that the president wants it located so that they can start holding town-hall-type meetings, read the book, and get people to go back to the way things were, the "good old days". The sexually repressed days is more like it. Never mind that the COS is a raging heroin fiend, never mind the scary way he shows up everywhere that McGill goes, and never mind that it might not be in everyone's best interest to go back to the days of the working Dad and stay-at-home Mom with the two kids, dog, and white picket fence. McGill is offered a lot of money for this mission, and he's really not in a position to say no.

He's not alone on this weird quest, either. He meets Trix, a rather flamboyant poly amorous researcher (where he meets her is one of the books weirder scenes); the two hit it off and he "hires" her to be his assistant. She tells him he needs her because he's probably the most un-hip person she's met in the last decade. True - McGill isn't known for his wild and swinging ways. And he's going to need someone like Trix to navigate the crazy trail of the book, ranging from Godzilla-obsessed dorks to a wild Texan to....well... let's just say there were things in this book that I sort of wish I didn't know about.

But when all's said and done, is this a good book? Um, yeah, I guess I'd say it is. While it is definitely out there and on the uber-weird side, I thought Ellis's writing was good. Good characterization, tightly written plot (even if it is on the out-there side!), and a nice resolution to the story. This is his first "regular" novel; he's the author of several graphic novels. I would gladly pick up another book of his, but this time, I'll know to put my mental seat belt on before I open the cover. It's definitely a wild ride!