Books and Book Reviews: December 2007 Archives

I'm disinclined to trust Mr. Weigel, largely because of his position on Iraq which I interpret to be "a just war is any war that I decide is just." But that evaluation in itself may be unjust. In his new book, Mr. Weigel continues to maintain that the Iraq war is a just war. He provides no evidence for this in the book, but then, that's not the book's purpose. So I start my review by saying that I was skeptical upon taking up the book and constantly challenging propositions as I read it. Nevertheless, I found myself persuaded to at least consider the points being made in greater detail. The book won me over and encouraged me to look again at what I held to be true.

The purpose of the book is to expose some thoughts about the present world situation and who the "enemy" is. The arguments made are clear, succinct, and compelling--reasonable articulations of the state and nature of "this present darkness." In fact, I found his arguments so compelling and so instructive that any interest I may have had in Mr. Paul as a candidate was driven out of my head. Not that Ron Paul is wrong on everything, but his pseudo-Washingtonian isolationism is deeply troubling. I would liken his policy to those of Neville Chamberlain--not exactly because Mr. Chamberlain was into appeasement, Mr. Paul seems to be heavily dedicated to capitulation. But I suppose that is an argument for another time.

In fifteen short articles, Mr. Weigel lays out a clear sense of what the present battle is about, how it must be fought, and how much depends upon winning and winning in the right way. An image that lingers with me from the book is the Churchill Poster with bulldog finger pointing at the viewer and the bald statement, "Deserve to Win." And, regardless of what the detractors and apologists for the left have to say, we do deserve to win--what we value and what we cherish are deeply human and humane values (when we're not busy supporting waterboarding and other atrocities). In fact, one of the points I took away from the book is related to this and encapsulated below.

from Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism
George Weigel

If, for example, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and agnostics ( as well as HIndus, Buddhists, and adherents of other religions) could agree that there are certain moral truths "built into" the world, built into us, and built into the dynamics of human striving--moral truths that we can know, by careful reflection to be true--then we would have the first build blocks of a philosophical foundation on which to construct, together, free and just societies that respect religious conviction. We would have, in other words, a rational, interreligious "grammar" and vocabulary with which to engage each other on questions of what is, in fact, the meaning of freedom, justice, and other aspects of the good.

This is a profound articulation of a primary truth, one that I've been trying to share with a very good friend for a very long time. We understand it as natural law--Mr. Weigel does not so call it here, and I think he does well not to do so, the term seems to confuse those not familiar with its technical meaning in philosophy.

The book is filled with small insights like this. Nothing radical, nothing monumental in each moment, but building to a strong sense of moral integrity. While I might take Mr. Weigel on his views regarding Iraq, by virtue of the thoughtfulness of this book, I find that I may need to spend more time with what he has to say about the matter and really evaluate it and understand it.

One other observation that is most welcome at this time is Mr. Weigel's unstinting support for research into and development of alternative energy resources particularly for transportation. When I first learned about Wahhabism and its centrality to Saudi Islam, and coupled that with the fact that we continually finance our own destruction through the energy dollars we pour into that nation, I concluded that something needed to be done. It's good to have the support of someone who is more thoughtful and less reactive that I tend to be.

In sum, the book is short, the thoughts are large, the writing is clear and well done, and the reader is amply rewarded for the investment of an hour or two with the book. Highly recommended, even if one stands in the camp opposite that of Mr. Weigel. His heavy reliance on Bernard Lewis helped to clinch the value of this work for me. That and his reasonable, moderated, equable tone go a long way toward making the arguments at least palatable enough to consider in greater detail. A nice, short introductory handbook to the nature of our present crisis.

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20th Century Ghosts


Excited by my recent discovery of Joe Hill's novel Heart-Shaped Box, I took up his book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts. The collection leads off with what is probably the weakest piece, and even this did not disappoint in the slightest. What a superb collection of stories and what a tremendous range the author exhibits!

Stories range from the ghastly (such as the lead-off tale "Best New Horror," to the sublime, "20th Century Ghosts," "Better than Home," "The Widow's Breakfast," and "Pop Art." In between are all shades of eerie and horrifying--from the Bradburyesque "Last Breaths" to the Kafkaesque story of Francis, the boy transmuted into a Locust.

There isn't a bad story in the collection, but I'll detail a few of my favorites. "Pop Art," is the unlikely tale of an unfortunate boy born with a genetic defect that skips generations--he's inflatable. "My Father's Mask," is a wild, creepy, eerie, unforgettable tale in the line of Harvest Home and Bethany's Sin with a big dollop of "The Lottery" mixed in. The imagery and trajectory of the story are utterly unexpected and entirely predictable at the same time and the mix sends the reader completely off-balance at every turn. "20th Century Ghosts" refers to the ghosts of the silver screen and a theater, haunted by one particular ghost, whose gift is the gift of a life related to cinema. Beautiful. "Voluntary Commital" tells the tale of a young boy who is gifted with the ability to build, and build he does--out of cardboard boxes he builds a bridge to otherwhere. This story has a distinctly Lovecraftian flavor, and for those well versed in the lore even makes mention of one of those famous lovecraftian locations. But it is also so well handled that it isn't simply one more Lovecraft pastiche. The authors knows the lore and uses it deftly.

While many of the pieces fall in the realm of supernatural fiction, some are surreal, such as the tale of Francis who wakes up to find himself tranmorgrified into a locust, "Pop Art," and "My Father's Mask." In addition there is straight fiction--"Better than Home," is the story of a boy and his relationship with his father. "The Widow's Breakfast" is about riding the rails in the depression, loss and a subtle kind of redemption offered on both sides of the exchange. And there is a tale of high-school sweethearts meeting on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead--both poignant and sweet.

Joe Hill has talent and remarkable control over his material. While Heart-Shaped Box may be strong material to start with, 20th Century Ghosts allows an entrée into his oeuvre that may be more pleasing and have wider general appeal.

This story collection is highly recommended to those interested in supernatural fiction, baseball (which seems to obsess Mr. Hill as much as it does his father), or just plain good writing. I hope that Mr. Hill follows the great start made in these books with a great many more both "straight" and "genre." I know I am eagerly looking forward to the next.

Next stop: Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon's self-styled "Jews with Swords" tribute to the "Sword and Sorcery" genre. Although I rather suspect it may be lacking in the Sorcery realm.

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How the Greats Are Great

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from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

That's all Miss Rosa knew. She could have known no more about it than the town knew because the ones who did know (Sutpen or Judith: not Ellen, who would have been told nothing in the first place and would have forgot, failed to assimilate, it if she had been--Ellen the butterfly, from beneath whom without warning the very sunbouyed air had been withdrawn, leaving her now with the plump hands folded on the coverlet in the darkened room and the eyes above them probably not even suffering but merely filled with baffled incomprehension) would not have told her anymore than they would have told anyone in Jeffeson or anywhere else.

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Heart-Shaped Box--Joe Hill


Who is Joe Hill and does it matter?

Rumor has it (and I consider wikipedia a source that is only a step above rumor) that Joe Hill is Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen King. Joe Hill is the name he has taken in order to thrive on his own as a writer--something that was bound to fall through at one time or another. I admire a person who has the courage to engage in writing in the face of the enormous opus and craft of a parent's or a sibling's writing. In this case, Mr. Hill faces both Stephen and Tabitha King and has a brother, Owen King who is also a writer. With odds like these, it would be a hard thing to make one's own way in the world of fiction/literature. The attempt to do so can only be admired.

Synopsis--Or, at Least, as Much as I'm Going to Tell You Here

What is there to say about Mr. Hill's first novel Heart-Shaped Box? A difficult question indeed. The novel centers around an interesting concept--an aging death-metal rocker hears about a ghost for sale on one of the many E-bay clone sites. Given his collections of materials related to the occult and supernatural, he naturally needs to possess this item. Problem is, the person selling it already knows about the Rock Star's interest and is using that interest for purposes that must remain undisclosed. The story evolves out of the purchase of the dead-man's suit which arrives in the heart-shaped box of the title. Ah, but it isn't the only heart-shaped box in the novel and it is the interplay of these heart-shaped boxes that makes for some of the interesting possibility of the novel.

The theme, ultimately, is redemption through love. The love is not divine love (as many people have pointed out is also true for Harry Potter novels); however, all true, unselfish love, even broken human love for another, is a sign of divine love. (As St. John tells us, if we cannot love what we can see and hold, how do we begin to think that we can love what we cannot see and hold.) It is also a novel about learning how to love in the face of the vast indifference and sometimes active hostility of the world at large.

Supernatural Fiction v. Horror Fiction

I suppose Mr. Hill's novel is marketed as "horror." And to some extent that is a real shame. While there are horrific elements to the story, most of these are centered squarely in the realm of the human heart. Yes, there is a vengeful, vindictive, and almost unstoppable ghost out to destroy for his own purposes. But far more frightening are the human agents behind the havoc that the ghost ends up wreaking.

Ghost stories fall into a curious "between-land" of fiction. While the effect of some of them may be horrific, there are a great many in which the element of horror is secondary to the purpose of the story. Most famous among them is that seasonal gem, the literary jewel in the crown of our current festive season. There is nothing particularly horrific in the apparitions or activities of any of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. So too with Turn of the Screw in which there may or may not be ghosts. And even so with The Haunting of HIll House. While the ghost story may enter the realm of horror at will, it isn't always, nor even necessarily frequently about horror. More often the ghost story is about connections--human connections. The ghost story is supernatural fiction that can touch on strains of true faith and religion. The themes of the ghost story allow one to examine the communion of saints and what that means as well as other aspects of faith, belief, and the supernatural world.

Supernatural fiction, fiction that focuses more on human themes--love, redemption, etc.--is in a sense a superior brand of horror fiction because it has purpose beyond entertainment or shock. There is an end toward which the entertainment pushes. And Mr. Hill's book succeeds on this level admirably.

While there are a number of distressing elements in the book--coarse language (but from coarse characters living a rough life), abuse, and other unpleasant realities that shape some lives, Mr. Hill uses them to good effect. What was most remarkable about the story is that I cared at all for the main character Jude Coyne, who, as we meet him seems nothing more that a superficial, self-obsessed aging death-metal rocker. In the course of the story we discover much about him and learn to like and even love and care about him and the other characters in the novel.

The core of the story is centered around the redemption of Jude Coyne. In some sense, there are parallels to A Christmas Carol in which the visitation of the ghost brings about a deep change in character. Now, the ghost in this novel is considerably more vindictive and destructive than any encountered in A Christmas Carol, but its purpose in the novel and in the life of the character is similar. In the presence of this ghost, Jude comes to realize what love is and how much he has experienced of it and taken it for granted.

While there is no overt mention of God, nor any strong indication of any religious theme, and while one cannot really interpret in any reasonable way the intentions of an author, there is a moment within the book at which one of the characters says that she is not afraid to die because now she knows that it is not the end, that there is something that comes after.

20th Century Ghosts

While Heart-Shaped Box is Joe Hill's first novel, and a compulsively readable one at that, it is not his first fiction. Most of what came before was a series of short stories, some of which are collected in the book 20th Century Ghosts. I've read only the first two stories in this collection, but they show the same aplomb, the same control, the same desire to explore important themes that the novel shows. While following in his father's footsteps, Mr. Hill steps out in ways unique to himself, and the promise of these stories and this first novel make me hope that we can expect a great many more from Mr. Hill.


For those who like ghost stories, malevolent ghosts, and plain, good writing, Mr. Hill has provided a superb novel. The language more controlled than some of his Father's middle works (seems that the elder Mr. King is gradually regaining control over his work that was patently missing from works such as The Tommyknockers). Joe Hill is a person of interest in the field of supernatural fiction.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from December 2007.

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