Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Title: The Black Dahlia
Author: James Ellroy
Publisher: Mysterious Press (1987)

This title doesn't exactly bring out my sentimental side but, in looking for something I posted a couple years ago, I noticed that Michael and I just passed our 2 year anniversary of doing these posts and sharing our love of books. It started out with exchanging our favorite titles with each other and doing these joint posts, then culminated with our families meeting up over the weekend of the 2011 L.A. Times Festival of Books. 2012 saw me in SoCal again for the festival and for good times with Michael's family and our reader friends. Just one more reason to love the internet: our communities are so much larger than our localities. :) Thank you all for indulging my moment of sentimentality and now back to the books. For anyone new to the this series, this is where we choose a book/movie pairing and I say a few words on the book and Michael says a few words on the movie.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Black Dahlia
at It Rains... You Get Wet

I'm not always ahead of the game but I'm cutting this post very close to the wire, the wire that is our agreed post date, that is. Why do I mention this? It's because I almost gave up on this book before pg. 50. That sure wouldn't have been very nice since this title was my suggestion. So after weeks of taking any excuse to put the book down, I had it at work and didn't have anything else to do at lunch so I gritted my teeth and pushed through. I have so little interest in boxing that the focus on it at the beginning was a bit boring for me but I certainly could have made it past that. However, there is a limit to the number of racial slurs, homophobic comments, denigrating descriptions of women, and random police beatings that I can take. If you're wondering why so many people hate LAPD this would be a nice lesson in the historical behavior that elicits such hatred. Fictionalized it may but I expect there's a goodly dose of reality here. Anyway, the beginning is really hard to get through. I won't read another Ellroy and if you were to pass on this book because you weren't interested in the assault on the eyes it offers, I certainly couldn't blame you. On the other hand, it is a rabbit hole of the seedy side of cops and criminals that can certainly suck you in once you get past the beginning (slurs, etc fall off precipitously but do not disappear, of course, it's about the kind of people who do and say awful things so that's not very surprising). So yadda yadda yadda what is it actually about?

From the author's site: On January 15, 1947 the tortured body of a beautiful young woman was found in a vacant lot in Hollywood. Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, a young Hollywood hopeful, had been brutally murdered. Her murder sparked one of the greatest manhunts in California history. In this fictionalized treatment of a real case, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, both LA cops obsessed with the Black Dahlia, journey through the seamy side of Hollywood to the core of the dead girl s twisted life.

This short description doesn't begin to convey the twists of plot and character that reveal themselves as the mystery of the Black Dahlia disrupts the lives of Bucky, Lee, and their best friend Kay. Notwithstanding what I've already mentioned, this is a hard read. This book is full of trashy low-lifes and the cops aren't that much better. One thing that took me by surprise was the length of time the book covers. It's over two years from its opening to its end and the main protagonist spirals further and further out of control.

...and I don't dispute your somewhat belated desire to see justice done.

This line stuck with me more than any other because all the justice (ha!) did feel belated. No one wanted to act. Either the political atmosphere wasn't right, the correct person couldn't be counted on or bribed, evidence was suppressed for minor reasons, the list goes on. We see events through the eyes of Bucky and his brand of justice was convoluted and inconsistent. This was a particular weakness of the book. It's not that I wouldn't expect these characters to be complicated and flawed but I would expect to recognize why they did what they did. Much became clear as the story wound up but much remained inexplicable. The connection between events and Bucky's self-defeating personal decisions weren't always clear. Bucky's connection with Kay and the deceased Dahlia weren't developed in ways that made it obvious why he pursued the courses he did. His professional and personal obsessions with these things were so important to the book that I thought it was quite a flaw for half of this to never feel natural.

I wasn't too enamored with the ending (I'd definitely be interested in how other readers felt about it) but the plot had just the right mix of crazy and plausible to keep me interested even if I didn't care for the end. Some of what I liked the best is spoilerish so highlight if interested: I loved, loved, loved how Bucky was being played on all sides. No one was straight with him and, as the reader, I received it as the crushing blow he received it as. I think that is when I was most involved with the story. I still don't know that I completely buy that Bucky would have been able to come back from this (his with-a-bow-on ending with Kay didn't quite ring true for me) but I can completely understand how it drove him to see the Dahlia as his only point of control.

I wish my thoughts were a bit more cogent but a plot thicker than Steen's and a book I almost put down make for a hard task. I don't know that I'd recommend it but I will at least say that it develops into something better than I would have anticipated at the start.

Don't forget to swing by the film review. I thought I'd already seen this movie but when I queued it up for a repeat I realized I hadn't or that I hadn't finished it the first time around. I did finish it this time but it did not leave a good impression. I think it was just a poor adaptation in general but it really suffered from my inability to stop comparing it to the adaptation of L.A. Confidential. Before you head over there, the quote Ellroy chose to include at the beginning of the book:

Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,
My first lost keeper, to love or look at later.
--Anne Sexton

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Interesting Article

Since I follow Feminist Frequency (permalink in SG Links if interested) I read her post about the Kickstarter project and was pretty excited for its production and then filed it away for future viewing and went on with my web surfing day. Then the internet intersection where video games, gamers, and misogynist cross paths absolutely fucking exploded. (Who knew this was such a busy intersection?) Here is the good news and I'm still pretty excited for its production. I'm also pretty excited that this has opened up numerous discussions. I hope it lasts. These conversations need to happen.

Anyway, as I was linking around I came by this interesting article. I found it particularly interesting for its focus on why gamers can be so prickly and defensive:

The cost, sadly, is that this protracted struggle for recognition and respect for our hobby and our industry has largely robbed us of the capacity to engage in intelligent or reasonable critique of what's happening in games. Since our childhood, most of us have been leaping to the defence of videogames - defending the medium from our parents, from our media, from our politicians. It's become an automatic response. Many of us don't seem to be able to turn it off, even now that there's really very little need for it. As a result, attempts at reasonable discussion over questions like race, gender, sexuality, violence or addiction with regard to games from within the industry get treated with the same hostility that Keith Vaz or Jack Thompson's grandstanding used to (quite rightly) receive a few years ago.

Monday, June 11, 2012

How to lose this reader in 25pgs or less

It's no secret that I'm not a book finisher. There are too many books in the TBR pile to waste time reading a book I'm not enjoying. I do try very hard to give books a chance, though, so I've got a 100 Page rule. If I'm even mildly interested in it, I'll give a book 100 pages before I put it aside. There are ways to get cast aside early...

For this book (that shall remain titleless), it should be noted that it had a lot going for it at the get go:

Cover - thumbs up (this being the most important attribute of any book:)
Historical fiction - thumbs up
Set in under-represented region (in the US publishing world anyway) - thumbs up

And, before I knew how fast and loose the author (who shall remain nameless) played with adverbs and adjectives, I thought this was a pretty evocative choice: "mules and horses exuberantly defecating."

Anyone with a hoofed pet can appreciate just how much poo they create. But this was quickly followed by: "Rachel's eyes popped at the size of the turds, longer than her arm..." Whooops! Couldn't find a horse or a mule to observe? And, as I mentioned above, this is historical fiction. Author can actually observe one of these animals now to see that their turds are not the size of a 5yo's arm so how much faith can I have in the historical part of the fiction. I know this seems a small detail but really, it's so easy. And, ok, it annoyed me so I nitpicked the next part, "...and she giggled when the trolley's wheels squished them underneath." If you've got a trolley pulled by mules/donkeys/horses you probably have at least two animals and they will definitely have shafts attached to the outer portion of the harness. Wheeled vehicles being what they are, the wheels of the trolley will also be towards the outer sidewalls of the vehicle. When the animals poo, their approximately golfball sized turds will fall in a line because the animals are walking. Their butts will be between the shafts and wheels and so these not arm-length turds will be left for the next vehicle to squish.

But, whatever, it seems a stupid mistake to me but Author has much more important things to research so I'll pass this one by (on pg. 2) and continue reading.

Pertinent to the rest: It very much appears that an older teenager or adult is remembering her life when she was ~5yo.

-Up next we've got overly idyllic descriptions of home life complete with descriptions of activities a person would never bother to describe (great fault in historical fiction just to include more details). Historical fiction writers have a lot in common with spec fic writers: you are building a world. Make it real by making it natural. An artificial creation detracts from the story rather than impressing me with all the mundane details of diet you happen to know.

-Awkward and inconsistent dialogue which I think is a result of attempting to re-create a "local" dialect.

-Disturbing hints of single female protag getting most of her support and sense of community from men rather than women or at least a mix of both. News flash authors: women like each other and are friends with each other and support each other. In fact, it'd be much easier for me to name five women I can call on in a pinch than five men. (This trend in stories bothers me only because it is a trend: I've nothing against stories about women who are in a community of men but it's not every woman all the time. Where are all the women?)

-Using 5 words when 2 would do.

-A tendency to go through the story with this type of construction: this happened, and then this happened, and then this other thing happened, and so on.

-Last and most detrimental for my reading eyes: nothing for me to do. Lemme 'splain. "Rachel sat, as she often did at such gatherings, on the lap of her tall, rangy Uncle..." There's not much wrong with this on its own but "as she often did" or its ilk was peppered throughout almost every paragraph. I never had to figure anything out. I didn't need to observe what anyone was doing, infer how they were feeling, or try to figure out why they did what they did because every damn detail was laid out for me over and over again. In the technical sense of craft I don't like this much, but I dislike it even more as a reader who wants something to do while reading a story. If you don't give me anything to do I may as well be watching a movie. Movies are nice, I watch them a lot - and even enjoy them from time to time - but when I'm reading I expect a different experience.

What gets you to put a book down?