Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book 2 – King Suckerman

By George P. Pelecanos

It’s been a long time coming getting back to the Washington Quartet. I reviewed the first, The Big Blowdown, in 2007, as did Olman (note he’s also reviewed King Suckerman here, so I’ll keep it short).

It’s the summer of 1976. Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay are best friends who, through random events, clash with a motley crew of psychotic criminals and hillbillies. All you need to know is that the novel delivers on this premise.

Pelecanos has an excellent ear for the colloquial rhythms of the period he sets his story in. You read some of the sharp dialogue in The Big Blowdown and you’re instantly transported back in the 1940s. The same for King Suckerman’s breezy laid-back slang and the bountiful pop cultural references. You can totally tell Pelecanos came of age as a young man in the 70’s. That he's listened to all the soul and rock albums mentioned in Marcus' record store, and watched all the bad-ass movies that played at the drive-ins and B-houses.

My only complaint was the over-repetition of the King Suckerman reference. The title of the book is the name of the much-anticipated blaxploitation flick that opens up in Washington just before all the shit goes down. It seems that whenever we’re introduced to a new male character, the movie invariably gets brought up, and someone else always goes: “the one about the pimp?” Ta da bam ta da boom. I was quite surprised that someone of Pelecanos’ stature would resort to such a schticky device.

Then you read one of the character’s rundown of the fictional flick he just watched, and all is forgiven:

King Suckerman started out exactly that way, though from the beginning the audience sensed that there was something unsettling going on in the film. For one thing, Ron St. John, who played the title role, he was one stone ugly motherfucker, scarred in the face and narrow of shoulder and chest. Cooper had liked The Mack, thought it was more authentic than most, but in truth Max Julien as the pimp had always bothered him. Julien could be tough, but with his smooth skin, too-easy smile, and deep dimples, he was way too pretty to be believable as the hard man a pimp had to be. You needed someone tougher in the face and body to make the story true. But Ron St. John? He went all the way in the other direction.

Ugly as he was, though, Ron St. John was cool. Cool
and bad. No one could fuck with King Suckerman, ‘cause the man feared no one and had all the bitches in his stable.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Book 1 - Breaking Dawn

By Stephanie Meyer

The final book of the Twlight quartet. I forgot to mention that in the previous installment, Eclipse, Edward asks for Bella's hand in marriage. It’s kinda like, well, if I’m going to damn your soul to hell then the least you can be is my virtuous vamp. Despite their differences, they both have one thing in common, the mark of the V, and it has nothing to do with vampirism! The only catch is, Bella wants to consummate their love while she’s still human.

So Breaking Dawn starts off with Bella and Edward getting hitched, then going off to their Caribbean honeymoon in fantasy Isle Esme. This is probably what every faithful follower has been waiting for since Twilight - to see these two finally get it on! Meyer definitely spares no expense in depicting the corny PG-rated love scenes with, I kid you not, ripped-up feather-down pillows a-flying and destroyed headboards a-plenty.

Of course we all know that the honeymoon is going to end abruptly. I really should have seen it coming, with Bella's weird dreams about blood-suckling babies. Before I could even say “noooo… they’re not gonna have….they can’t possibly have….” Wham! Bella gets knocked up with vampire spawn! Nobody saw it coming, not even Edward’s foster dad, the eminent Dr Carlisle! This is where Meyer’s absurd attempt at a ‘scientific’ explanation doesn’t quite satisfy the WTF? reaction. Anyway, I’ve already made it this far with this preposterous love story, I can suspend my disbelief a little more!

So here we go. Bella and Edward return to Forks, where in the sanctity of the Cullen home, Bella undergoes an accelerated pregnancy (human-vampire hybrids being so rare, they simply can’t wait to come out and show themselves off). There is a surprisingly Cronenberg-esque segment where demon-spawn is practically torturing Mommy from the inside with its super bone-breaking fetal powers. When the big B-day occurs, Meyer delivers the ultimate birth/death motif: Bella dies giving birth and is reborn again as an immortal bloodsucker.

And during this whole ordeal, Jacob the werewolf has been hanging around like a sad masochistic puppy, even forsaking his beloved pack in order to protect Bella from them. When he finally sets eyes on hybrid-baby Renesmee, he discovers his true calling (you’ll have to read the books to find out about the imprinting thing -- it’s not quite as gross as it sounds). At least he finally gets over Bella and he becomes the leader of this own pack of motley mutineers!

So yes, many wonderful things happen to Bella in her new and improved life as a beautified vampire (immortality suits her so well, it’s no wonder she felt so dull being a drab human!). The once distant, difficult Rosalie is now Bella’s best friend through their love of cute demonic babies and motherhood. Bella’s prodigious self-control as a newborn allows her to keep in touch with her still human dad, while also inspiring vampires who have difficulty in weaning off humans to remain strong – if Bella can do it, you can too! Most importantly, being a vampire has greatly improved her and Edward’s sex life – they can both play rough now!

But life ain’t always wine n’ roses, even for vampires. A betrayal triggers the Volturi to come calling as they’re lead to believe that wee Renesmee is a full-blown vampire baby, which is totally forbidden. Since Alice can foresee their arrival, the Cullen family rush to assemble all the vampires of the world in -gulp- the wee town of Forks, in order to bear witness that Renesmee is unique. The vampires of the world can be a pretty fascinating and exotic bunch. There are human-friendly and nonhuman-friendly covens, nomads, and the ancient yet persecuted Romanians. Having an extra-sensory talent is rare and prized. So the original 7-member Cullen family with Edward, Jasper and Alice having special gifts is rather exceptional (and envied by the Volturi). So it comes as no surprise that Bella soon discovers that she has a rather unique power too. She can shield herself and others from malicious psychic attacks.

So in a very remote yet open field somewhere in the Olympic Peninsula, the Volturi finally come head to head against the Cullen clan, the assembled vampires, plus the Quileute shape-shifters (we learn finally that they’re not really true werewolves, aka Children of the Moon). Unlike the ending of Eclipse, we disappointingly don’t get delivered on much physical action and carnage, thought there’s a bit of psychic strategy at play.

What we do get is the message that even diabolical creatures like vampires can indeed rise above their bestial natures and become more civilized by abstaining from human blood. If they keep it up long enough, by jove, they can even forge bonds of love! One of the nomadic vampires named Garrett is so impressed, he makes a moving speech to the assembly:

I have witnessed the bonds within this family—I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire? I’ve made a little study of them in my time here, and it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding—that which makes them possible at all—is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice. There is no aggression here like we all saw in the large southern clans that grew and diminished so quickly in their wild feuds. There is no thought for domination… Are the Volturi here to protect the safety of our secrecy, or to protect their own power? Did they come to destroy an illegal creation, or a way of life?

So love and respect all Mormons! Oops, did just I say that? Ultimately the Twilight Saga is one big modernized fairy tale and Meyer makes no pretension that it is anything else. The series ends so happily, you either want to hurl the book across the room, or cry tears of joy. I wanted to do both!

It was a place where anyone could believe magic existed. A place where you just expected Snow White to walk right in with her apple in hand, or a unicorn to stop and nibble at the rosebushes. Edward had always thought that he belonged to the world of horror stories. Of course, I’d known he was dead wrong. It was obvious that he belonged here. In a fairy tale. And now I was in the story with him.

I was caught between the awareness of reading something completely ridiculous, yet unable to stop myself in wanting to read more. That is the power of competently crafted populist fiction!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

2008 Wrap Up!

With 27 under my belt, this was my best year ever! Don’t think I’ve ever read this many in one year before in my entire life. Definitely surpassed my original goal of 24 (roughly 2 books per month).

This was mostly due to the spur of sudden reading activity in December, like consuming the 1st three 600-page Twilight tomes in quick succession! 2008 also represented more varied and exploratory reading, with a mixture of classics, sci fi, graphic novels, high brow & low brow. All fiction, however. It’s still difficult for me to read non-fiction of anything longer than magazine article length.

Perhaps I’ll try to endeavor for 2009!

Still… a stellar year for Meezly!