Skip navigation

Category Archives: Reading

Anthony Burgess’ novella A Clockwork Orange has intrigued me for some time.  Although I have never seen the movie, I was already familiar (on a very high level) with the plot.  The book impressed me in a number of ways, though.  Given how well this book is known, this review **WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS**

This version had a forward by the author, explaining an important difference between the original American version (on which the movie was based) and the international version.  Essentially, the final chapter was left out of the American version, significantly reducing the growth of the protagonist, Alex (more on this later).

The first aspect of the book that surprised and impressed me was the use of slang.  The slang, an invention of Burgess, is used throughout by the main character and some of his cronies.  The inclusion is delicately and consistently handled.  Alex switches between the slang and normal speech as required by the situation.  The words, with a few exceptions, sound very much like the sort of slang fifteen year old hooligans would use.  I couldn’t help imagining the work that must have gone into the invention and execution of this language.

The philosophical discussion in the book is one of the key elements of this book.  Fundamentally, the book is about the importance of choice to morality.  After Alex’s vicious and horrifying crimes early in the book, he is subjected to a procedure to brainwash him – he is no longer able to chose to do evil.  And thus, unable to chose evil his good actions do not make him good.  Indeed he is no longer human.  He is a ‘clockwork orange’ – looking like a natural, valuable creation, but being no more than an automaton. This is a theme I’ve seen before, and important to the human experience.  Most notably (from my opinion) in the final chapter of the Wheel of Time.

Now to come back to the final chapter, which was included in the version I read.  Leading into the final chapter, Alex has been ‘cured’ of his brainwashing.  He is now capable and desirous of choosing to return to his former violent life.  Burgess notes correctly that ending the story here does not give Alex any growth.  He is at the same place he was at the start of the book.   This leaves an interesting circular story, but  with a dark overtone.  Burgess desired for his protagonist to change across the story, thus the inclusion of the final chapter, where Alex becomes disinterested in the life of violence he has led and turns his thoughts to the future – marriage and children.  The narrative falls short for me, though.  There is no real explanation to why he is no longer excited by violence.  Furthermore, his transformation was not tied into the rest of the story.  This would have been a natural enough, though would need a delicate touch to avoid suggestion that he was not being “forced” to change his ways.  It also seemed quite sudden, especially for someone whose life to this point has been driven by the desire for violence.

The book works well for what it is trying to achieve, and I think works equally well with or without the final chapter, though this of course impacts the feel of it.

One thing I am often irritated by when reading  is characters who make obviously poor decisions.   Movie characters aren’t immune, of course.

Of course, characters are allowed – and should be – human.  They will undoubtedly have foibles, and making bad choices is certainly going to be a part of that.  In real life, bad choices are usually a result of: incomplete information, poorly predicting the possible outcomes, or acting under pressure.  Most authors navigate this masterfully, showing why a character will make the wrong choice in a given situation.  The best writers will make you understand the character and their  so well, that you feel convinced that it’s their best option – or even a good option – at the time.

And then there are the characters who do obviously stupid things because they’ll be “fun” or just because they’re impulsive.  Even impulsive people have motivations, though, and even they understand when there are risks involved.  I can be impulsive myself, but there’s always a line that doesn’t get crossed.

A recent book I read, the first installment of the Cirque du Freak series (by Darren Shan) had one of those moments where I squirmed because the character was doing something just plain stupid.  Stealing a giant, deadly, and hard to control spider from a vampire?  Sounds like a great idea, right?  And why did the character feel compelled to do this?  In his own words, “I’m note sure . . .”

So to all my fellow writers out there:  If your character must do something stupid, at least give him a reason.

 

A portion of the books I choose to read are done specifically because they are popular.  This makes me feel terribly unenlightened, but at the same time, as a writer, it’s important for me to understand what is popular.  I’d like to believe that the most wildly popular books are also the best written, but this is usually not the case.

And so I found myself reading Divergent, by Veronica Roth, after its recent theatrical release.

The book is about a girl toughing it out in a dystopian future.  Apparently that’s in vogue right now.  There is enough different in the setup not to dwell too much on whether or not this work took its cue from the Hunger Games.  Besides, any time you compare works in the same genre, you’re bound to find similarities.  What I noted, though, was the similarities between Katniss and Tris.

Both heroines find themselves in tough situations where they are pushed to violence.  What surprises me, though, is how both brush aside these acts.  I understand that for both of them, these are intended to be unavoidable or emotionally charged.  I have trouble seeing it that way, though.  Specifically, at one point Tris tells a friend (who has admittedly given her reason for anger) that if he comes near her, she’ll kill him (?!).  At another time, she shoots a friend (who is zombie-fied) in the head.  She couldn’t have stopped him without killing him?  Seriously?  Admittedly, Tris shows some remorse for this, but doesn’t even think whether she had another option.

I certainly accept that literature is filled with anti-heroes, with moral ambiguity, and with otherwise good people who make bad choices.  We writers try to make our stories (even sci-fi/fantasy) seem real, after all.  But both Tris and Katniss are, as far as I could tell, intended to be relatable heroines, not anti-heronies.  If poor choices are made in the heat of the moment, shouldn’t this be reflected in the writing?

In the end, I did find Tris more likeable, and less self-centered, than Katniss.  Her shifting moods and varying application of selflessness was perplexing, though.  I haven’t yet been able to tell whether this is a character quirk, sloppy writing, or because she is “Divergent” – which in the context of the story might be an acceptable explanation.

I liked the book enough that I will probably continue the series, but I certainly wasn’t spellbound enough to be in a hurry.

These days, a good portion of the reading I do is via audio books on my commute.  This is, for me, an efficient use of my time as well as a nice way to relax heading home from my day job.

As an aside: I have a friend who is a fellow writer, as well as being a librarian.  Her husband likes to tell her that audiobooks don’t count as “reading”, so she shouldn’t count it on books she’s read.  I think this is silly, personally, though I’m sure he’s not alone in his opinion.

There are some books that I listen to that don’t engross me.  That in itself, of course, shouldn’t be surprising.  Not every book can be The Wheel of Time.  It occurs to me to wonder, though:  Does the reader impact my perception of the story?  Would I have found it more interesting or engrossing, the characters more relatable, if I had read the book myself?

Most readers do a remarkable job.  I have just enough acting experience (during my college days) to appreciate how difficult it must be to bring a world to life with your voice.  A few of the readers, though, have struck me as off on their tone.

We’re all told to judge on substance, not the superficial. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  But we do.  Every day we judge people based on how they are dressed, how they look.  We decide on which book to pick up off the shelf because it has more interesting cover art.  As a writer, particularly, I find it unsettling that I may be deciding whether I like a book based on a reader, rather than the content.