Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon is probably another book I’m late to the party on. After all, Hannibal Lecter was all the rage in 90’s, not the 2010’s. There are still quite a number of devotees, but this isn’t as fresh as it once was. Mind you, this was one party I never really wanted to get into. The one movie (Silence of the Lambs) was enough for me.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for David Foster Wallace (DAVID FOSTER WALLACE!).)

Still, I try to read outside my normal area once in a while. I know we all paint ourselves into corners far too much reading-wise, and I’m just as bad as anyone. Still, I’m not much for crime thrillers, even if they are highly recommended by David Foster Wallace. Did I mention DFW had this one on his top ten yet? I’m pretty sure I did. If you missed it above, DFW put this one as his third all time favorite book. Though not being a big crime thriller devotee, I had to check it out.

Really, I don’t see why DFW was so big on this. It’s a good book, but I don’t see what the big deal is. Maybe DFW liked to read a totally different kind of book than he wrote, but there isn’t much to interest me here.

Mind you, this is still a good, suspenseful book. We have Will Graham, the agent who tracked down and captured Hannibal Lecter. He is in somewhat of a retirement, nursing both his physical and mental scars from the Lecter incident. Of course, he doesn’t get to stay in quiet retirement. A new killer, the Red Dragon, is on the loose. In order to stop his killing spree, Graham must come out of retirement:

            “All dead,” he said.

            Graham stared at him a moment before picking up the pictures.

            They were only snapshots: A woman, followed by three children and a duck, carried picnic items up the bank of a pond. A family stood behind a cake.

            After half a minute he put the photographs down again. He pushed them into a stack with his fingers and looked far down the beach where the boy hunkered, examining something in the sand. The woman stood watching, hand on her hip, spent waves creaming around her ankles. She leaned inland to swing her wet hair off her shoulders.

*****

            “Will, this freak seems to be in phase with the moon. He killed the Jacobis in Birmingham on Saturday night, June 28, full moon. He killed the Leeds family in Atlanta night before last, July 26. That’s one day short of a lunar month. So if we’re lucky we may have a little over three weeks before he does it again.”

*****

            “I think we have a better chance to get him fast if you help. Hell, Will, saddle up and help us. Go to Atlanta and Birmingham and look, then come on to Washington. Just TDY.”

Of course, in order to track the Red Dragon, Will must visit Hannibal Lecter:

            There was something else he could do, and he had known it for days. He could wait until he was driven to it by desperation in the last days before the full moon. Or he could do it now, while it might be of some use.

            There was an opinion he wanted. A very strange view he needed to share; a mindset he had to recover after his warm round years in the Keys.

            The reasons clacked like roller-coaster cogs pulling up to the first long plunge, and at the top, unaware that he clutched his belly, Graham said it aloud.

            “I have to see Lecter.”

Though, I have to admit, I’m not really sure why he has to visit Lecter. The visit doesn’t seem to produce much of value in the search. The clues they need are found elsewhere and though a lot of plot action comes from interacting with Lecter, I think Will would have been better off leaving Lecter alone. This kind of seems to just be in here to make the book more interesting, almost like mere ornamentation.

All in all, the book is suspenseful…but it isn’t the most suspenseful book I’ve ever read. There is a lot of imagination, developed characters (though many, including Will, sometimes seem a bit generic), and a good story. It is a good book…but just not a book I would ever include in the top books of all time.

Am I really doing it? Am I really going to disagree with DFW?

Well, yes and no. Reading tastes are always personal. The fact that I think so much of DFW still doesn’t mean that I like to read the same books he did. I liked this book, but I just don’t see what DFW saw in it. If there is more than just a GOOD book here, I’m not seeing it.

Then again, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the first time that DFW could see something that I couldn’t. For the moment, though, I’m going to have to consider Red Dragon to be a GOOD book and not much more.

Advertisements

Charlotte’s Web–E.B. White

This week I decided to read Charlotte’s Web.  I remembered this book well, but even more I remembered the cartoon of it.  I watched it again and again, just as I read the book again.  However, I remembered very little of the story, just that there was a pig named Wilbur, a spider named Charlotte and Charlotte wrote words in her web and that it was a very sad book at the end.

Adriana Trigiani found Charlotte’s Web beautiful enough to list in her top ten.

I will admit, that even at 37, I teared up at the end of Charlotte’s Web.  This could be a byproduct of hormones, or stress, or tiredness, but I don’t think so.  If I had burst into tears, maybe it’d be one of those.  Instead I just felt sad a little bit.

E.B. Stuart is the author of Stuart Little, another children’s classic.  He also wrote The Trumpet of the Swan.  For all three of these books (Charlotte’s Web too) he won awards for.  I can see why.  Charlotte’s Web is a perfect book for elementary school children, even today when it might seem “old fashioned”.

It has talking animals, children are fascinated with the realm of imagination.  Children (or at least I did, and it seems when my daughter is playing, she is too) are convinced that just beyond their perception things are happening.  Amelia spent 3 hours on St. Patrick’s Day with a good friend, hunting leprechauns.  The friend’s older brothers helped leave leprechaun evidence around the house.  Their mom said “I never thought they’d spend that much time doing it!”.  Her friend is 8, the same age as the little girl who rescues Wilbur from death as the runt of the litter.

There is an educational component that is skillfully hidden in the story.  Charlotte (the spider) tells Wilbur the names of the different parts of her legs and about her spinnaret and how she weaves her web.  Later in the story, her children explain how the spiders scatter so that they’re not all in the same area fighting over food.  The goose talks about how she hatches her eggs.  Wilbur, of course, shows the habits a pig would have.  The seasons are discussed.  Charlotte uses bigger words such as salutations and magnum opus

“Plaything?  I should say not.  It is my egg sac, my magnum opus”.

And E.B. Stuart then uses Wilbur to question what the word means so that a child can get the meaning without feeling condescended to by the author.

“I don’t know what a magnum opus is” said Wilbur.

“That’s Latin.  It means great work.  This egg sac is my great work.  The finest thing I have ever made”.

There are countless other examples from almost everything Charlotte says.

Charlotte’s Web also allows children to experience death in a safe manner.  And in a not too obvious way.  Children can be turned off if something is talking down to them.  E.B. White weaves these lessons into a compelling, interesting tale.  His story tells the natural cycle of life.  It shows how things can change, not just with the seasons but with the years.

This story transcends gender and possibly ethnic origin (not being anything other than a mutt of Caucasian background, I can’t guarantee it).  There is very little “girl” or “boy” components to this story.  And today, with society mostly removed from the small family farm society that existed just a few decades ago, it makes it a bit more universal.  I believe that’s because, much like Little House on the Prairie or other texts like that, it’s more a historical lesson now than a contemporary tale.  But Charlotte’s Web is definitely contemporary in emotions and feelings.

I honestly can’t wait to read this story to Amelia.

 

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

To be honest, felt a little pressure when I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany to ponder it for this blog. Kim wanted to see what I thought about it in relation to The World According to Garp. Also, I’ve got friends who are seriously pissed about the apparent situation where literary people shake their heads at you if you say writers like John Irving or John Steinbeck (whom I adore) are among your favorite writers. That just felt like a lot of pressure.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jennifer Weiner)

But, let’s set all that aside for a moment. Let’s get down to A Prayer for Owen Meany.  The story is told by a character named Johnny Wheelwright and relates to his memory of, and how he was changed by, his friend Owen Meany. Though most of the important events happen to, or involve, Owen, the story really centers (at least to me) on how this all effects Johnny.

Owen is a peculiar child, excessively small and possessing an extremely odd voice:

            In Sunday school, we developed a form of entertainment based on abusing Owen Meany, who was so small that not only did his feet not touch the floor when he sat in his chair–his knees did not extend to the edge of his seat; therefore, his lefs stuck out straight, like the legs of a doll. It was as if Owen Meany had been born without realistic joints.

*****

            In Sunday school, when we held Owen up in the air–especially, in the air!–he protested so uniquely. We tortured him, I think, in order to hear his voice; I used to think his voice came from another planet. Now I’m convinced it was a voice not entirely of this world.

            “PUT ME DOWN!” he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. “CUT IT OUT! I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!”

However, Owen is far from meek. Indeed, he indeed becomes a most amazing individual:

            Directly opposite the Main Academy Building, the headmaster was getting into his camelhair overcoat; his wife, Sam, was brushing the nap of that pretty coat for him, and kissing her husband good-bye for the day. It would be a bad day for the headmaster–a FATED day, Owen Meany might have called it–but I’m sure Randy White didn’t have his eyes on the future that morning. He thought he was finished with Owen Meany. He didn’t know that, in the end, Owen Meany would defeat him; he didn’t know about the vote of “no confidence” the faculty would give him–or the decision of the Board of Trustees to not renew his appointment as headmaster. He couldn’t have imagined what a travesty Owen Meany’s absence would make of the commencement exercises that year–how such a timid, rather plain, and much-ignored student, who was the replacement valedictorian of our class, would find the courage to offer as a valedictory only these words: “I am not the head of this class. The head of this class is Owen Meany; he is The Voice of our class–and the only voice we want to listen to.” Then that good, frightened boy would sit down–to tumultuous pandemonium: our class raising their voices for The Voice, bedsheets and more artful banners displaying his name in capital letters (of course), and the chanting that drowned out the headmaster’s attempts to bring us to order.

            “Owen Meany! Owen Meany! Owen Meany!” cried the Class of ’62.

Owen may be small and have a strange voice, but he is indeed ‘fated’ to do great things. He is chosen by god, though perhaps not like you might think. Still, even though Owen is the one chosen and the book details his life minutely, the book is still about Johnny. Or rather, his observation of Owen and how Owen impacts his life and his faith in god.

Well, that’s all fine and good…but that’s all just summary. I suppose the real question, the question I feel all the pressure about mentioned above, is: what do I think?

Frankly, I liked A Prayer for Owen Meany a great deal. I think I may have even liked it better than The World According to Garp. It has a great story with great characters and great description. There is also a real touching pull to it.

However, personally, I still only liked it so much. It is still the style you should expect from Irving, and Irving is more of a maximalist than is my taste. A Prayer for Owen Meany just seemed thicker than it needed to be, and that made the pacing different than I would have wanted. It also seemed like there was a little bit of loose-end tying toward the end as opposed to natural development of events.

Of course, that’s all personal. It is still a good book, even if there were things I didn’t like about it. How’s that? I think I’ve managed to answer the people above about A Prayer for Owen Meany in a way that probably satisfies no one, other than perhaps me. I call that a job well done.

The Book of Ruth & The Book of Esther—Old Testament Bible

As those of you following this blog know, one of the books listed in the Top Ten Books, was the Bible.  Now as many of you probably know, the Bible isn’t a short read.  It makes Les Miserables look like The Lorax.  So, I am covering the Bible in sections.

For who listed the Bible as their favorite book, see my original post here.

I read the two books in the Old Testament that are named after women and whose main characters are women.

The Book of Ruth comes first in the order of Old Testament books, so I’ll discuss that one first.

Ruth is about a woman (oddly enough, named Ruth) who marries an Israelite who is living in Moab (a neighboring country) with his mother, father and other brother.  Over the years, his father dies, then he and his brother die.  This leaves only Naomi, his mother.  She tells Ruth and the other daughter-in-law that they should return home to their families, that she is returning to hers.  When they protest (they have been with her for ten years after all) Naomi says;

“Turn back my daughters; why will you go with me?  Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Tuyrn back my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.  If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown?  Would you therefore refrain from marrying?  No my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord as gone out against me”.

Orpah leaves then to return to her Moabite family.

Ruth states;

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.  For where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you”.

Naomi accepts Ruth’s insistence and they return to Naomi’s people.  There they are reliant upon others for sustenance.  Naomi sends Ruth to the fields of a kinsman, Boaz.  Boaz views Ruth with kindness and allows her to do even more gleaning than is typical.  In these times, people could follow threshers and glean leftovers that had fallen for sustenance.  Naomi tells Ruth to go lay at Boaz’s feet.  She does.  Naomi has her husband’s property for sale.  Boaz goes to a man, who (even though not identified as such) is a relative of Naomi closer in genealogical terms than Boaz and offers the property to him first.  Then when the man says yes, craftily informs him that it includes Ruth, the widow.  The man demurs, not wanting to mess up his own inheritance line.  Boaz then agrees to buy it and take Ruth as wife.  The bargain concludes (as they did in this time) with the man handing Boaz his sandal.  (Yes, I know.  Next time you strike a bargain with someone, a sock might be a nice touch! 😀 ).

The literary standpoint:  This is actually a story that could easily be fleshed out into an entire novel.  There are all sorts of plot devices, and as evidenced by the fact that you still hear it in all sorts of literature etc, the whole “For where you go I will go” speech is obviously a very well written statement.

My Christian standpoint:  I believe that the book of Ruth gives us instruction on how we should be with our inlaws.  Many of us do not like them.  However, as our spouse’s family that raised him, they deserve respect.  We should treat them as Ruth treats Naomi, by refusing to leave her and like Boaz treats Ruth before he falls in love with her (I assume this is what happened after she laid at his feet).  I can’t articulate better what I mean, but all those petty things that make us want to slap our in-laws?  We have to stop that shite.

Interesting side note:  It just hit me how Ruth’s behavior also parallels Chinese culture.  A woman in historical China (I assume not today but I could be horribly wrong) would leave her ancestral home and when she did, she became a full part of her husband’s family, with her allegiance to her mother in law.

Second interesting side note:  Most of you that aren’t familiar with the Bible have heard of David (of David and Goliath fame).  David was part of the ancestral lineage of Christ.  Per the genealogical end of Ruth, Ruth & Boaz were David’s grandparents, making Ruth also an ancestor of Christ.

The Book of Esther:

The book of Esther never mentions God.  In fact, Esther is a story (however, one based in history) about a woman who was Jewish and living among exiles in Persia.  The Queen at that time, refuses to *cough* entertain the King.  And he is told by an advisor; “…let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus.  And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she”.  This advice pleased the King.

The King’s young men who attend him let out a cry; “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the King!  And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the capital, under custody of Hegai, the King’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women”.

Well no wonder King Ahaseurus was so pleased with the idea of deposing Vashti, that upstart queen.

Anyway, Esther is one of the beautiful virgins.  She is an Israelite, whose cousin is a man named Mordecai, who is raising her.  He tells her to keep the fact that she is Hebrew a secret.  So she does.  Of course the King picks her (I doubt the book would be named for her or the story told if this didn’t happen).

Now the King had a bad  man serving as his very top right hand man, Haman.  Haman hates the Jews.  Mordecai won’t bow or pay homage to Haman.  So Haman vows to destroy all the Jews.

So Haman gets an edict sent out with instructions “…to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods”.

Mordecai contacts Esther in the palace when he finds out about this.  He asks her to intercede.  She replies.

“All the king’s servants and the people of the King’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law–to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live.  But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days”.

(My theory is that he was out enjoying the hundreds of other virgins that probably got shoved into his harem).

Esther finally sucks it up (sorry to those of you that find this blasphemous, but I’m just summarizing in my own words) and on the third day approaches the king in her royal robes.  He holds out the scepter to Esther.  Then asks her what is it, what is her request.  He tells her he will give her anything, even to the half of his kingdom.

“If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to a feast that I have prepared for the king.”

So the King summons Haman, and they both are at the feast.  After, when they are drinking wine the king asks Esther what her wish is, and what’s her request?

“My wish and my request is:  If I have found favor in the sight of the King, and if it please the king to grant my wish and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come to the feast that I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said”.

Haman leaves all full of joy thinking that Esther loves him (not in that way! yeesh folks!) and that he is making even more inroads with the King.  And as a reward, he decides he will hang Mordecai.  He builds a gallows even (apparently, hanging Mordecai will be a great stimulant for his appetite for the feast in the morning).

The king can’t sleep that night, so asks for the book of memorable deeds.  They were read to him.  (I always enjoy a good chronicle of memorable deeds before bed myself).  Well he discovered where Mordecai had told about two eunuchs who had plotted to kill the King.  The King asks what distinction had Mordecai been awarded.  He is told that nothing has.  The King asks Haman when he comes in what should be done to a man whom the King wants to honor.  Haman of course thinks the King is speaking of him.

“For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set.  And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials.  Let them dress the man whom the king delights to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city proclaiming before him:  ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor”.

So the King turns to Haman and gives him his robe and tells him to take it to Mordecai and to do all that he said should be done.  With nothing left out.

Mordecai goes to the King.  Haman goes home crying (well…”mourning and with his head covered”).  His wife Zeresh and his wise men state “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him”.

He goes to the feast with Esther and the King.  On the second day of the feast, again while drinking wine, the King asks what is it that Esther wants.

“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, for our affliction Is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

The King asked who dared do such a thing and where are they.

“A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!”.

The King angrily strides off (well…”the king arose in his wrath”) and Haman begs for his life to Esther.  The king returns and sees Haman falling to the couch where Esther is.  And the king thinks he is assaulting Esther.

A helpful eunuch, Harbona, in attendance on the king (I think maybe Haman was a bit rude to Harbona at some point)

“Moreover, the gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”

Of course, we all know where this is going.  Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he built.  Then the King’s wrath was abated.

Esther still has to beg to the King to reverse the decree that went out, by writing a new order to revoke the letters devised by Haman.  The King basically gives Mordecai carte blanche;

“Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he intended to lay hands on the Jews.  But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked”.

So, Mordecai sent out decrees stating that the king allowed the Jews to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them…and to plunder their goods.

So in the 12th month, the month of Adar, on the 13th day when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, the Jews gained the upper hand over all the masters that had hoped and dreamed of their destruction.

And, so they did.  They took their own revenge, and plundered and annihilated etc. etc.

And so Purim was born (per the Biblical text of Esther).

Literary note:  If you can’t see how amazing a story this would make, or a movie or a play…well then I would assume you had no sense of imagination at all.  This has all the notes of a great drama.  Beaten down people, one man in power bent on revenge against another, beautiful virgins, the powerful man being hung on the gallows he himself built.  Wow.

Biblical note:  Even though God is never mentioned, due to the other books of the Old Testament, it is known that nothing happens to the Israelites that God doesn’t know about.  And that in the past God has given others the means to rescue his people (Moses.  David.).  So, I believe God is in fact all over the book of Esther.

The end.  Thanks for tuning in.  Sorry for the length.