Alligator by Shelley and Paul N. Katz

GATOR!!!!!

There are some books I come across in this list that I’ve wanted to read and expect to like. There are even some that are new to me, but I still expect to like. I did not expect much from Alligator by Shelley and Paul N. Katz.

What the heck though, right? As long as it wasn’t Lake Placid, I figured I’d give in a shot.

 

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for David Foster Wallace. Really? That guy had such odd choices for favorite books considering the kind of writing he did.)

If the Lake Placid reference doesn’t clue you in, Alligator is about a giant gator (well, Lake Placid was about a crocodile I believe, but still). People discover giant alligator. People set out to kill giant alligator that never killed anybody who hadn’t tried to harm it. Bad things happen.

There was something in the water, a shock of ebony, a blackness even darker than the night. The giant shadow resolved itself into a form. Humpbacked like a bull, enormous, almost prehistoric, it had the form of an alligator only it was much bigger than anything Dinks had ever seen. The alligator didn’t move, but lay across the surface of the water like a giant patch of darkness. Dinks could see its blood-red eyes glowing fiery, hypnotized by the magic of the lamp.

*****

Orrin steadied himself against the side of the skiff. He was a good shot, and the target certainly was big enough. He took aim and squeezed off a bullet. He could hear it crack across the water like the Fourth of July. He pulled again.

Before the second shot was even off, a terrible shriek pierced the night. The water began to boil and heave violently. The enormous hulk of the alligator broke the surface: he seemed almost to stand on his tail. Then he crashed back under the surface and submerged, creaking like an old ship.

*****

Dinks looked back out at the water. It too was calm. Perhaps Orrin’s shot had killed the alligator; perhaps it had just scared him. Either way, there wasn’t a sign of him. Dinks smiled. That was a close one, he thought as he took in the burning smoke with pleasure.

*****

Suddenly everything exploded around Dinks. There was a violent shove as the alligator crashed blindly into the tiny skiff, and Dinks could feel himself being wrenched out of the boat and thrown into the air. The earth was gone for him. Water and sky became all mixed up in his mind. There was no pain, only surprise, cutting through his chest like a knife. A flash of light, electric red, seared his brain. Then he fell back into the water, puppetlike, with the strange cracking sound of his own bones in his ears.

A rich man who is used to getting everything he wants set out after the gator. He forced a local guide (scarred by his experiences in Viet Nam) to help him. They hate each other, and the rich man might be the guide’s father. People are out to prove things to each other, and themselves.

The characters are a bit easily marked by their roles, but the major ones have more development than I thought I’d find. I still think they’re all a-holes for not just leaving the gator alone, but there’s more than just ‘man learning the true power of nature and proving manly dominance by taking a stand in the face of it’ inside.

Alligator was nowhere near as horrifyingly bad as I worried it would be. It was actually pretty good. It does have some thrilling aspects, but it took a bit longer getting going on that than I hoped. That was puzzling. Still, there was a lot more going on emotionally than I thought and that was rewarding. It still seemed like pointless human destruction on some level, but at least I could see some of what Alligator was saying. I suppose I should be satisfied with that. After all, it was much better written than I expected.

All in all? Nowhere near what I’d put as an all time best book, but not bad.

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Fuzz by Ed McBain

This week I took on Fuzz by Ed McBain. Hold on, I have to get something out of my system…

McBain as an author has apparently little to do with The Simpsons character, though. Fuzz doesn’t center on a single Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger character. It’s a number of characters in the 87th precinct. It’s a thrilling crime drama, but not quite the Bruce Willis/Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie kind of a thing.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for…David Foster Wallace?! Yeah, apparently so.)

The 87th precinct is in a mess. A cunning criminal known as ‘The Deaf Man’ is making extortion demands, and killing city officials when the demands aren’t met. He kills the parks commissioner. He kills the deputy mayor. Fuzz has plenty of stark crime drama type action:

That night, as Parks Commissioner Cowper came down the broad white marble steps outside Philharmonic Hall, his wife clinging to his left arm, swathed in mink and wearing a diaphanous white scarf on her head, the commissioner himself resplendent in black tie and dinner jacket, the mayor and his wife four steps ahead, the sky virtually starless, a bitter brittle dryness to the air, that night as the parks commissioner came down the steps of Philharmonic Hall with the huge two-story-high windows behind him casting warm yellow light onto the windswept steps and pavement, that night as the commissioner lifted his left foot preparatory to placing it on the step below, laughing at something his wife said in his ear, his laughter billowing out of his mouth in puffs of visible vapor that whipped away on the wind like comic strip balloons, that night as he tugged on his right-hand glove with his already gloved left hand, that night two shots cracked into the plaza, shattering the wintry stillness, and the commissioner’s laugh stopped, the commissioner’s hand stopped, the commissioner’s foot stopped, and he tumbled headlong down the steps, blood pouring from his forehead and his check, and his wife screamed, and the mayor turned to see what was the matter, and an enterprising photographer on the sidewalk caught the toppling commissioner on film for posterity.

He was dead long before his body rolled to a stop on the wide white bottom step.

However, oddly enough, there is a slapstick humor element regularly mixed in with all the cop drama and crime aspects:

The painters were in a garrulous mood.

“What have you got going, a stakeout?” the first painter asked.

“Is that what the walkie-talkie’s for?” the second painter asked.

“Is there gonna be a bank holdup?”

“Is that why you’re listening to that thing?”

“Shut up,” Kling said encouragingly.

The painters were on their ladders, slopping apple green paint over everything in sight.

“We painted the D.A.’s office once,” the first painter said.

“They were questioning this kid who stabbed his mother forty-seven times.”

“Forty-seven times.”

“In the belly, the head, the breasts, everyplace.”

“With an icepick.”

“He was guilty as sin.”

“He said he did it to save her from the Martians.”

“A regular bedbug.”

“Forty-seven times.”

“How could that save her from the Martians?” the second painter said.

“Maybe Martians don’t like ladies with icepick holes in them,” the first painter said, and burst out laughing.

The drama was gripping and well written, and I did get a guffaw out of the humor. I did find some weird repetitions in Fuzz that grated a little bit. Here are a few: 1. The city is a bitch. 2. It’s cold. 3. People don’t like working on Saturdays. These didn’t break up the book too much, but they were kind of weird things to harp on.

Fuzz was my first McBain and I have to say I had a lot of fun. I was expecting a fast paced and stark crime drama, and it was and did all that well, but I wasn’t expecting the intermixing of the slapstick humor. Fuzz is gripping and vivid, action-oriented and all that, but it’s also quite funny in parts. That made it a lot more for me than a simple crime drama. I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I was going to.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land

I had a number of reasons for wanting to take a crack at Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land here on the blog. First of all, it is an undisputed classic. It’s a favorite in sci fi circles, though, and I don’t spend as much time there as I should. This seemed like a good chance to correct that.

However, I really knew nothing about the book. What I thought I knew came from the Iron Maiden song of the same title:

Stranger in a strange land
Land of ice and snow
Trapped inside this prison
Lost and far from home

Of course, the above selected lyrics show that the song has nothing (as far as I can tell) to do with this book.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for David Foster Wallace.)

So…what is Stranger in a Strange Land about? Well, we have Mike (Valentine Michael Smith). He is a human who was born on a flight to Mars and was marooned there to be raised by Martians when the crew of his voyage killed each other over some infidelities related to his birth. After a subsequent mission, he is brought back to Earth. Many on Earth hope to exploit him for both the wealth he inherited and a Mars land grab they hope to justify through him. The Martians, on the other hand, hope to use him to gather data on Earth.

“It’s a nasty story. I got that much before my informant sobered up. Dr. Ward Smith delivered his wife by Caesarean section–and she died on the table. What he did next shows that he knew the score; with the same scalpel cut Captain Brant’s throat–then his own. Sorry, hon.”

Jill shivered. “I’m a nurse. I’m immune to such things.”

“You’re a liar and I love you for it.”

Of course, this is just the beginning. Some decent humans get a hold of him and attempt to thwart those who would exploit him, though he soon doesn’t need much help.

Johnson did not hit Jill as hard as he used to hit his wife before she left him, not nearly as hard as he hit prisoners who were reluctant to talk. Until then Smith had shown no expression and had said nothing; he had simply let himself be forced along. He understood none of it and had tried to do nothing at all.

When he saw his water brother struck by this other, he twisted, got free–and reached toward Johnson–

–and Johnson was gone.

Only blades of grass, straightening up where his big feet had been, showed that he had ever been there. Jill stared at the spot and felt that she might faint.

Berquist closed his mouth, opened it, said hoarsely, “What did you do with him?” He looked at Jill.

“Me? I didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t give me that. You got a trap door or something?”

Where did he go?”

Berquist licked his lips. “I don’t know.” He took a gun from under his coat. “But don’t try your tricks on me. You stay here–I’m taking him.”

*****

The Old Ones had taught him well. He stepped toward Berquist; the gun was swung to cover him. He reached out–and Berquist was no longer there.

Jill screamed.

In a very summary way, and I hope in a non-spoiling one, this attempted exploitation is dealt with one way or another. Mike then attempts to understand humans and live in their world. Then, he tries to use what he knows to fix things for humans. Much happens along the way.

All in all, this was probably one of the more interesting sci fi and/or utopian novels (I say utopian because of the discussions centering around Mike attempting to fix things for people) I’ve ever read. I got into it and didn’t feel that I had to wade through a bunch of stuff to get to the story. As for the utopian dreams, it didn’t really descend to the level of mouthpiece, though it came close at times.

Mind you, the pacing was a bit different from what would have been my druthers. Sometimes it felt like Stranger in a Strange Land wandered a bit. It certainly didn’t seem logical to me how the book flowed from one thing to another at certain points. However, other than those things, I found the book to be damn good…and I think my criticisms are more my personal taste as opposed to real criticisms of the merits of the book.

Frankly, I’m not much of a sci fi buff, so I can’t judge Stranger in a Strange Land in that context. However, I don’t much care about that. I just judge it as a book, same as any other. It might not be my favorite thing out there, but it was a book I needed to read. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

To be completely honest, I never felt a big urge to read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. I’m not sure what I thought about the book, but it just never piqued my interest. I knew it was considered important to the so-called sexual revolution, but I am generally not drawn to what I perceive to be social fiction.

We’ll deliberately ignore the fact that Fear of Flying is considered a ‘woman’s book.’ I’m the perception of the book as that influenced my interest in picking it up, but that kind of classification is ridiculous anyway. Similar to what the ‘How to Determine If It’s a Boy’s Toy or A Girl’s Toy’ or whatever it is titled points out, you don’t use your genitals to read books.

Regardless, when thinking about books to read for this blog, I thought about how I’d never felt the need to read Fear of Flying. I thought this might be the time. Besides, I thought I might have a different perspective on this book since I am a man and so many men seem to avoid it (though I did see an interview once where the author commented how men were glad to see their date reading Fear of Flying as it usually indicated a high likelihood of getting laid).

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for, of all people, David Foster Wallace.)

For me, Fear of Flying seemed solidly written, though not particularly groundbreaking. The main character, Isadora Wing, is an intelligent and accomplished writer, but she is overwhelmed by fears and insecurities. She is in an unstable marriage to an analyst on the way to an analyst’s convention. This is certainly the party is sounds like, full of all kinds of people who are audaciously certain they have the final answers on questions they haven’t even fully began to ask:

Most of them were carrying expensive cameras, and despite their longish hair, tentative beards, wire-rimmed glasses (and wives dressed with an acceptably middle-class whiff of bohemia: cowhide sandals, Mexican shawls, Village silversmith jewelry), they exuded respectability. The sullen essence of squareness. That was, when I thought about it, what I had against most analysts. They were such unquestioning acceptors of the social order. Their mildly leftist political views, their signing of peace petitions and decorating their offices with prints of Guernica were just camouflage. When it came to the crucial issues: the family, the position of women, the flow of cash from patient to doctor, they were reactionaries. As rigidly self-serving as the Social Darwinists of the Victorian Era.

Having landed in her marriage the same way that she landed in all of her relationships (as a cure to the ills of the previous one), Isadora is unhappy with her analyst husband. She is swept off her feet by another analyst who is nothing like her husband, and ends up taking off on a whirlwind European tour with him. Of course, though he preaches how she must become independent, and all the ways she MUST become independent, he is really just another version of the same:

When I threw in my lot with Adrian Goodlove, I entered a world in which the rules we lived by were his rules–although, of course, he pretended there were no rules. It was forbidden, for example, to inquire what we would to tomorrow. Existentialists were not supposed to mention the word “tomorrow.” It was to be banished from our vocabulary. We were forbidden to talk about the future or to act as if the future existed. The future did not exist. Only our driving existed and our campsites and hotels. Only our conversations existed and the view beyond the windshield (which Adrian called the “windscreen”). Behind us was the past–which we invoked more and more to pass the time and to amuse each other (in the way that parents make up games of geography or identify-the-song-title for their bored children during long car rides). We told long stories about our pasts, embellishing, embroidering, and dramatizing in the manner of novelists. Of course, we pretended to be telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but nobody (as Henry Miller says) can tell the absolute truth; and even our most seemingly autobiographical revelations were partly fabrications–literature, in short. We bought the future by talking about the past. At times I felt like Scheherazade, amusing my kind with subplots to keep the main plot from abruptly ending. Each of us could (theoretically) throw in the towel at any point, but I feared that Adrian was more likely to do it than me, and that it was my problem to keep him amused. When the chips are down and I’m alone with a man for days on end, then I realize more than ever how unliberated I am.

The bottom line? None of these men are going to fix Isadora. Isadora is going to continue to be unhappy no matter who she is with if she isn’t an independent person on her own first. I probably make it sound trite, but Jong does a much better job with it.

My reaction to the book? Well, I’m astounded that anyone could consider it pornographic. That just seems ludicrous. As for social agenda, I’m sure there is one there…but I don’t think it gets in the way of much. It’s a good solid work of fiction about a character’s need and attempt to become an independent person. This one just happens to be about a woman.

As far as I could tell, that was the big groundbreaking revelation: that women were human beings and operated as such. They are surrounded by forces that attempt to explain and control them, but all without any understanding of them as individuals and without any real authority, just like most people to some degree or another. Perhaps I just come at this book from a different time period, or perhaps I delude myself into thinking that I am more enlightened than I am, but it just didn’t seem that revolutionary a work.

But, all of that is more of a response to the psychological impressions of the book floating around out there rather than a response to Fear of Flying itself. Fear of Flying never claims (other than what someone may have written on the jacket) to be more than a serious work of literature examining the journey of a human character. And, it is that. It is well written and engaging to read. Frankly, I think that is the most important criteria for anyone to judge the book by. Anything else is something other than the book.

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.