Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: 'The Witch of Hebron' by James Howard Kunstler

The Witch of Hebron: A World Made By Hand Novel (2010)
James Howard Kunstler (1948-)

334 pages

In this sequel to his novel World Made By Hand, James Howard Kunstler continues his vision of a post-apocalyptic America, as seen through the lives of the residents of the small, fictional town of Union Grove in upstate New York. The novel opens in mid-October, just a month or so after the events in the first concluded. (My review of World Made By Hand outlines the causes of the downfall, and its effects on America in general and Union Grove in particular, so I won’t repeat that here.)

An unfortunate accident in the first few pages of the story leads to a willful act by the son of the town’s doctor that drives the rest of the novel’s plot, and carries the action out of Union Grove and into the surrounding countryside as well as nearby hamlets and towns. The tenuous relationship between the original citizens of Union Grove and their new neighbors of the New Faith order continues its fitful development as events lead the two sides to work together, though at times with ulterior motives. The supernatural events that arise near the end of the first novel (somewhat surprisingly, as discussed in the earlier review) are expanded on in this one, as is intimated by the title.

Unlike the startling freshness of the first book, however, in which the dramatic effects of the all too realistic slide of American economy and society into a state of chaos maintain a firm grip on the reader’s attention, this sequel is a coming of age story in a by now familiar environment. Though the action does lead to glimpses of what life has come to in other nearby communities, this serves mostly as a reminder of how fortunate the citizens of Union Grove have it.

And, the story seems mostly focused on character development in preparation for future stories in the series. For example, very near the end of the novel, when the drama of the story has resolved itself, one of the main characters meets another, and “the man he had known pretty well for more than a decade took on a fiendish glow in the flickering candlelight” --- the foreshadowing here is about as subtle as a hammer.

The result is that, although an entertaining read, the story moves somewhat slowly towards its conclusion.

Other reviews / information:
A strong negative review at Casaubon's Book.

A more positive review by Lance Foster in the NY Journal of Books.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: 'World Made By Hand' by James Howard Kunstler

World Made by Hand (2008)
James Howard Kunstler (1948-)

317 pages

Terrorists have exploded nuclear bombs in Washington DC and Los Angeles, severely disrupting both the government and transportation of goods, and quickly leaving the US economy in taters as confusion and security concerns paralyze the country in fear. A war in the Middle East shuts off a significant amount of the oil supply, destroying what is left of both the US and world economies. Appliances and other electronic equipment sit gathering dust as the electricity has sputtered out, cars and trucks that have not been melted down for metal gather rust in the weeds for lack of gasoline and communication even between neighboring communities has become rare in James Howard Kunstler’s vision of the near future.

All this has occurred several years in the past as World Made by Hand opens. The novel follows the lives of the citizens of a small town in upstate New York, as they come to grips with the new world in which they live. They hear of the violence that has swept through the bigger cities and more populated areas, though their relative isolation from the rest of the country saves them from much of its worst effects; they have less luck when the flu and other diseases spread quickly through the population leaving many dead, as medication now in short supply or out completely.

The residents who have survived find themselves returning to the lifestyles of their ancestors. They learn how to make use of what grows naturally or can be raised in and around their community; how to make the clothing and furniture they used to buy and the now vacant and crumbling stores on the outskirts of town; and how to entertain themselves in a world without the electrical distractions of the past. In Kunstler’s telling, many of the people of this small community, once the turmoil of the transition has been overcome, gradually embrace the new, slower world they have inherited. They may occasionally long for particular aspects of their past, eating a favorite food from a far-away place or throwing clothes in a washing machine, but in general they find that the peace and serenity of their new lives more than makes up for the additional hard work of the highly localized and completely de-electrified new world.

But their isolation is not complete of course, as the townspeople discover when a religious group called the New Faith arrives from Virginia seeking a quieter and safer corner of the country. Taking advantage of the lack of any functioning government in the community, the group buys some buildings and land, and settles in. Although the new settlers bring additional talents and capabilities into the town, their tendency to remain separate from the community, their religious fervor and their distinct manners and habits lead to an on-going, low level tension between the them and the original townspeople.

The New Faith order as a kind of foil for the townspeople. While the New Faith members are tightly organized in their work and their goals, the townspeople have settled into a kind of apolitical and secular stagnation --- they help one another for the common good, but they remain focused primarily on their own lives, no one taking the initiative to create order or structure in the town as a whole. The arrival of the New Faith group forges a sense among the townspeople that they need to pull together to at least meet this new ‘other’ from a stronger position, and thus new leaders to begin this work.

Kunstler builds the plot slowly, introducing the townspeople and their changed world, and then slowly adding in elements that serve both to build tension for the reader, and to shake the characters out of their settled existence. From the sequence of disasters that pre-date the events of the story, to the description of the new life the people build for themselves and the challenges they face, the author keeps the novel grounded in a realism that actually adds an unsettling quality for the reader, as it becomes easy to imagine oneself in the new world he has created. The one false note for me then, comes very near the end, when the author introduces a bit of the supernatural into the story; it seems to come out of nowhere, and feels out of place. (Having now later read Kunstler’s follow-up novel, The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel, it becomes clear that the introduction of the supernatural in World Made by Hand serves as a set-up for a storyline that will apparently be followed in a series of sequels to this opening novel.)

In World Made by Hand James Howard Kunstler presents a startling vision of an all too easy to imagine future. Unlike other apocalyptic stories, the apocalypse here comes from events that could be ripped from today’s headlines --- no world-wide nuclear war, or asteroid slamming into the Earth, just a relatively isolated series of events that jam the gears of our extremely complex modern society.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: 'A Philosophical Investigation' by Philip Kerr

A Philosophical Investigation (1992)
Philip Kerr (1956-)

 330 pages

Written in 1992, A Philosophical Investigation is a detective novel set mainly in London of the near future. Philip Kerr imagines a world in 2013 in which the financial separation between the poor and the rich has continued to increase even as the two groups live more tightly packed into the city. Parts of London built in hopes of rejuvenating its downtown have deteriorated into areas dangerous even for the police to enter, and deteriorating economic and cultural conditions have led to a rapid increase in crime --- in particular an epidemic of serial killers. Governments have turned to ever more drastic measures to provide security, with budgetary pressures both constraining and guiding the approaches taken. A possible future not difficult for a reader to identify with.

In the world of the novel, scientists in the recent past have discovered a part of the brain (the ‘ventral medial nucleus’, or VPN) which when removed reduces the self-control of aggression in males. Further research has shown that some people are born without this critical, regulating part of the brain, and that men born without it are more likely to become criminals. And, through a not-unrealistic sequence of events, the government and eventually corporate and insurance programs have led to a large group of men in the United Kingdom being tested for its presence, with promises that the results are anonymous.

The novel turns on the crimes of a killer who has managed to compromise the anonymity of the program, and is killing off those men who have been found to be VPN-negative. Assigned to the case is a tough, no-nonsense detective, Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz, who works in a department of Scotland Yard responsible for investigating serial killers; in addition to her day-to-day detective work, Jake writes and presents lectures on patterns in serial killer behavior at conferences on criminal behavior.

The chapters of the novel alternate between the voices of Jake and the serial killer as they play an increasingly personal game of cat and mouse. As the case proceeds, each begins to recognize in the other a formidable adversary, for whom they develop both a fear and a grudging respect.

Philip Kerr’s placement of the novel in 2013 put it 20 years into the future when he wrote it. Reading it in 2011, with 2013 just on our doorstep, gives an interesting twist to his original setting. The general drift in his world to increasing extremes between rich and poor, and government struggles to provide security, are recognizable aspects of our present world, even if some of the details he imagines (video-phones still have not become commonplace) have not materialized.

More challenging for the reader is the ‘Philosophical’ aspect of A Philosophical Investigation; for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, the names of famous philosophers of the past become relevant to the story, as do in some cases their theories and writings. Not having a strong background in these philosophers’ histories leaves one struggling at times to see the connections characters are drawing. One is left with the desire to go back and learn more about the philosophers mentioned, and then re-read the book to catch what might have been missed on the first reading.

Even without that background, however, the novel captures the reader’s attention in the way a good detective story should. The tension mounts rapidly as the two protagonists become more and more tightly bound together in what becomes a personal battle between them. Different from so many detective stories though, the novel does not present an easy contrast of good and evil. The reader is drawn into the conflicted complexities of Jake’s feeling about the killer, for whom she develops a kind of understanding, one that does not forgive the killings being perpetrated, but that has some sympathy for the mental struggles that have led to them.

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