Johnathan found himself feeling rather down.  It was the zeitgeist; for everywhere there was corruption and vice. Decency, civility, industriousness and all the other virtues had gone out of the world. Decadence and rot, from the upper echelons of society down to Johnathan’s own place of business, had worked their worst.

And so as he walked through the dingy back-alleys to his gloomy little apartment, his mood was understandably grim.  As he approached the stained white door, the faded American flag next to it caught the breeze and hit him in the face.  He cursed and, in the imprudent fury that occasionally possesses a frustrated person, tore the banner, pole and all, from its fixture beside the door.

Grumbling profanities, he opened the door and went inside the dark apartment, flag and pole tucked under his arm. He set down his briefcase and entered his kitchen to make himself a meager dinner. The kitchen was dark; barely illuminated by the dim light that filtered through the window by the stove.  He fumbled for the light switch and finally found it. But on turning on the light, he found he was not alone.

Seated at his kitchen table was a tall, olive-skinned woman, dressed in a style that Johnathan would have described as “Victorian”, though in fact that was not the correct period.  She wore a full-length red and white striped dress, with a shiny blue caraco, with golden epaulettes at the shoulder.

After dropping the flag and recoiling in surprise, Johnathan managed to blurt out, “Who are you? What are you doing? I’ll call the police!”

The woman smiled slightly. “No need for that, my friend,” she said coolly. “Although I request that you pick up that lovely flag you have rather unceremoniously left lying on the floor.”

“What, this?” said Johnathan stupidly.  “It’s old and faded. I may as well pitch it.”

“Please don’t,” said the woman, in a tone of annoyance that told Johnathan he had better pick up the flag already. Having done so, he returned to his line of questioning: “What are you doing in my apartment, ma’am?” he asked, and then added, “I did not invite you. Please leave before I call the police.”

“I have not, and will not, steal any of your belongings, nor harm you in any way.” she said calmly. “I only want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Johnathan said, with ill-concealed irritation. “I don’t even know who you are!”

“Columbia is my name,” she answered. “And I want to talk to you about America.”

“You want… what?” he said in confusion. “Well, I don’t know why you want to talk about that, but if you want to know what I think: America’s going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a disaster.  The government is nothing but criminals and liars, out to make a buck.”

“Ah, but that is politics,” she replied. “That is not America.”

“Well, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is nobody has a clue what they’re doing. They can’t hold anyone accountable, they can’t do their own jobs right–it’s chaos everywhere; people are out of work, they can’t afford decent food or a decent place to live, and criminals are all over the place–killing people, stealing stuff, and, and–and breaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night!” (He concluded this speech by pointing towards Columbia.)

“Can you really think of nothing good about the country?” she queried.

“Oh, it used to be better, back in the old days.  People weren’t perfect, but at least they tried,” he muttered.  “It was a great country once, but it’s all ruined because people are too stupid or too afraid to try to fix things anymore.”

“And what was it that made it great?” she asked.

He shook his head,  “I… I don’t know.  Do you think if I knew that I would be here?”

She folded her hands. “Let me tell you something about America: it does not have as much history as other parts of the world do. People who come here are looking to build something new–without all the baggage of the old world weighing them down.”

“Well, what of it?” said Johnathan.  He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, and yet he found himself sitting down to listen to her all the same. “It’s all failed now, anyway.”

She replied crisply: “I believe it’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure’–those are things that only apply in a contest with a clearly defined end. The beauty of creating something new is that it is a risk. You do not know how it will turn out–but there is courage in trying.”

“That is what really matters, you see,’ she continued. “When anything–a life, a country, anything–begins, there is no guarantee of ‘success’. And yet, if no one were ever willing to run that risk…”

She trailed off, and Johnathan now found himself mesmerized by her speech. He stared at her for a few moments. Her brown eyes had a strange calming effect upon him, and he felt like he was becoming hypnotized as he studied her dark, angular face.

“But what’s the use of any of it now?” he asked, forcing himself back to reality. “There’s nothing new here–it’s old and rotten and falling apart!”

Columbia closed her eyes for a moment and smiled patiently, as though she had expected this from him.  She opened her eyes, looked directly into his, and said: “And don’t you think that in the past, others have felt just as frustrated and lost as you do now?”

“Yes,” he admitted, after a pause.

“And what did they do?”

“They… created something new.” he answered quietly.

“That’s right,” she said with a satisfied nod. “They faced their challenges, assessed them, and overcame them through courage and ingenuity. That is America.”

The two of them sat in silence after that.  Columbia leaned back in her chair and glanced around the room with an expression of mild interest. Johnathan simply stared at her, the strange feeling of hypnosis growing stronger all the time.

A loud bang from outside jolted him to his feet.  For an instant, he thought it was a gunshot, but when he rushed to the window, he saw glittering white sparks in the air and realized it was a firework display.

“Look at that,” he said with a smile, as more bright showers of light exploded in the darkness overhead. “Columbia, come and see–”

He turned to beckon her to the window, but she was gone.  The chair was empty. Johnathan looked around in confusion. He ran back through the kitchen and out the front door on to the porch, looking around for her as he went.

She was nowhere to be seen. Johnathan stood on the porch in a daze, listening to the crackle of the pyrotechnic display building to its climax.

He looked around and caught sight of the empty metal bracket beside the door. The flag and pole, he realized, were still under his arm. He hurriedly unfurled the flag and restored it to its place.

THE END

I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”

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Carrie Rubin, author of “Eating Bull” and “The Seneca Scourge”

[I recently read the book Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin. I loved it, and contacted the author.  She very kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work.  Enjoy!]

BG: I’ll start at the beginning: how did you get the idea for “Eating Bull”? Did the idea just come to you one day, did some specific incident suggest it, or…?

CR: A little bit of both. Overweight/obesity is a professional interest of mine. I’ve dealt with it in both a clinical and research setting. Many people assume a large BMI means a lack of willpower, but that’s both inaccurate and unfair. Many other factors come into play, especially our disastrous food environment where processed food, mega-sizes, and sugar-laden junk bombard us wherever we go.

Through fiction, I wanted to bring the issue of the food industry’s role in obesity to light. Plenty of nonfiction books exist on the topic, but with fiction you get an emotional element as well.

As for a specific incident, several years ago a tearful, severely overweight adolescent sat on my exam table and said: “Not a day goes by I don’t know I’m fat, because no one will let me forget it.” That was the catalyst for my teenage protagonist.

BG: The book has three “starring” characters, each of whom represents a different view on the roles of the individual and society in causing obesity. Can you discuss these viewpoints a little, and also how you balanced the amount of page time devoted to each?  Was it difficult to strike that balance?

CR: I wanted to represent three viewpoints, from one extreme to the other, all of which exist in our society:

My secondary protagonist, a social-justice-seeking public health nurse, represents the viewpoint that society plays a huge role in our weight gain and must take responsibility.

My villain, an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic, believes obesity is entirely the individual’s fault and takes it upon himself to rid the world of “undisciplined sheep” … in a very bloody way.

My primary hero, an overweight teenager, falls somewhere in between, representing the viewpoint that both the individual and society play a role, but that society must make changes so that it’s easier for the individual to change too.

As for the number of pages devoted to each, I simply shifted to a new viewpoint with each chapter, rotating the characters on a regular basis, each carrying the story forward according to his or her point-of-view.

BG: Regarding the villain of the story, Darwin: He’s really a repulsive and terrifying character, but you also show just enough of a glimpse of his past to make the reader feel a little sorry for him at the same time. He seems genuinely mentally ill, rather than just a caricature of a psycho killer–I loved that. Any observations (or advice) on writing plausible, well-rounded villains?

CR: Villains are tricky to write. They can easily become one-dimensional. Rounding them out into full-fledged characters with likable—or at least relatable—traits is difficult, and I have a ways to go before I master that skill.

Darwin’s pretty despicable, but I tried to create backstory that would explain how he got that way. This proved even trickier considering I hid his identity until the climax. I had to flesh out his character without giving away who he was. That adds an element of mystery to the thriller and hopefully keeps the reader guessing until the end.

BG: I could go on forever about how much I liked the characters in “Eating Bull”. Expanding from just Darwin, what are your techniques on writing characters generally? Apart from the three starring characters, did you also write the supporting cast to reflect the central theme of the novel?

CR: Before I even start my outline, I define my main characters: their likes, dislikes, dreams, goals, mannerisms, etc. Characters drive the plot, so I like to have a firm grasp on them before I start much story planning.

As for the supporting cast, I usually have them in mind before I begin, but they tend to blossom as I go along. In Eating Bull I did indeed write some minor characters to reflect the central theme: the bullying grandfather and classmate, the unsupportive boyfriend who dislikes overweight people, the dietician and fitness coach who guide my main character toward his goal.

Some of the supportive characters heap a world of hurt on my teenage protagonist, but I wanted to reflect real life. In my research for the book, I attended a seminar in which the focus was to highlight the frequent fat-shaming that goes on in our society—including from the healthcare industry—and to shift the onus from weight loss to size acceptance. The tales the speakers told of the shaming they experience on a regular basis, from acquaintances and strangers alike, horrified me. I knew I needed to have my character experience the same thing if I wanted to be honest to the theme.

BG: What is the central message you want readers to take away from “Eating Bull”?

CR: I’ve already touched on that somewhat, but the main takeaway is: weight gain and loss isn’t as simple as calories in minus calories out. There are many other factors in the equation, including hormones, biological determinants, neurochemicals associated with addiction, socialization of food, poverty, food environment, built environments (poor walkability of a city, food deserts, etc.), and yada yada yada.

I could go on and on, but the point is, changes need to be made at all of these levels if we want to see real progress. Expecting the individual to do it alone hasn’t worked too well for us so far. It’s time to up our game.

BG: So, not to spoil anything, but you’ve mentioned you are working on another book. Any hints as to what to expect from it?

CR: I’m often reluctant to discuss my unpublished works (worried I’ll jinx things, perhaps?), but I can tell you my latest completed manuscript is a medical thriller with supernatural elements. There is no shortage of medical thrillers out there, so I like to change things up a bit. It’s pretty much ready to go, and I’ve just completed the first draft of the second in the series. I’d like to write at least three novels with the same recurring characters—maybe more—but each book will be a complete stand-alone.

BG: What other authors have influenced you, either in writing style or in genre/subject matter?

CR: I always get nervous with this question, because I worry I should list a number of literary greats, but that’s not how it is for me. I’m all about the storyteller.

In my teen years, Stephen King was a huge influence on me. More than just be a writer, I wanted to be a storyteller, and to me he’s one of the best. JK Rowling is in that category too—a gifted storyteller—and if I can match a fraction of their skill I’ll be happy.

In terms of writing medical thrillers, Robin Cook was my first influencer, and while his writing might sometimes get panned, he knows how to weave a good tale. I’m easy to please and can overlook a lot. Give me a story I can get lost in and you’ve got me as a fan forever.

Before I go, Berthold, I want to thank you for your support of my novel and for interviewing me on your blog. It’s a pleasure to be here and I enjoyed answering your questions!

BG: My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful and informative answers!

[Carrie Rubin is a physician, public health advocate and the author of medical thrillers Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. You can find her books here, and also be sure to check out her website and social media pages.]

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“Wonder Woman” poster. Image via Wikipedia, re-used under “Fair Use”.

Superhero movies are not my favorite genre. But I have long enjoyed watching re-runs of the old Wonder Woman TV series starring Lynda Carter, so I made a point of seeing this one.

Another thing that intrigued me is that the movie is set in World War I. (The character of Wonder Woman was originally created in the 1940s, and therefore was naturally depicted fighting in World War II against the Nazis.)

This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons: first, Hollywood normally can’t resist inserting Nazis into things on the flimsiest of pretexts; so to have no Nazis when the source material actually includes them is a pretty bold artistic choice.  Second, World War I is not nearly as well-known to modern audiences as World War II, so this setting seems like a bit of a risk from a marketing perspective. I like risk-taking.

I also like spoiling movies, so be warned–I’m now going to describe the plot, with spoilers!

The film begins in the present-day with Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving a photograph from the first World War, showing her in her full Wonder Woman garb, standing alongside a ragtag band of soldiers.

This segues into young Diana’s childhood on a hidden island of Amazon warriors. Diana wishes to train as a warrior under General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother forbids it, and tells her a cautionary tale about the horrors of war. She explains that Zeus created men to be peaceful, but they were corrupted by the God of War, Ares. Zeus then created the Amazons to protect mankind, and Ares was ultimately defeated. But Zeus also created “the God-Killer”–a weapon housed on the Amazons’ island, in case Ares should return.

Despite these warnings, Diana trains in secret anyway.  Her mother eventually finds out and initially disapproves, but ultimately is persuaded to let her continue.

One day, after a sparring session, an airplane crashes just off the shore.  Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the Amazons defeat the German forces pursuing him, but General Antiope is killed in the battle.

The Amazons question Capt. Trevor, who explains that he is fighting in the “War to end all Wars”. His plane was shot down as he was fleeing the Germans having stolen a notebook from a chemist nicknamed “Dr. Poison” and her commander, General Ludendorff, who are working to create a super-deadly poison gas.

Diana quickly realizes that the war Steve describes must be the work of Ares. She takes the God-Killer weapons and asks Steve to travel with her to the outside world and the center of the fighting, where she is sure they will find Ares.

Steve first takes her to London and delivers Dr. Poison’s notebook to his superiors. They can’t read what it says, but Diana can, and realizes it means the Germans are manufacturing and preparing to deploy the new, more lethal gas at the Front.

Sir Patrick Morgan, one of Steve’s superiors, is close to getting the Germans to agree to an armistice, but Diana believes Ludendorff is actually Ares, and will use the gas no matter what.

Diana, Steve, and a small group assembled with help from Sir Patrick go to the Front to destroy the supplies of poison gas.  Thanks to Diana’s heroics, they successfully liberate a small town and learn that Ludendorff is in the area, planning to attend a gala for the German officers at a castle nearby.

Sir Patrick orders them not to attack the gala, as he is close to finalizing the armistice. However, they go anyway. (Notice a pattern here?) The Germans fire the gas into the recently-liberated village, killing the inhabitants, much to Diana’s horror.

Diana tracks Ludendorff to an airfield where the Germans are about to deploy a massive long-range bomber loaded with the poison gas. Steve and his men attempt to take the bomber, while Diana kills Ludendorff with the God-Killer sword.

Diana is shocked that the fighting doesn’t stop on Ludendorff’s death. She starts to wonder if all mortals truly are inherently evil and prone to violence. At that moment, Sir Patrick appears, and reveals that he is in fact the God Ares, but that he does not cause wars–he merely exposes the true, dark nature of Zeus’s creation.

Meanwhile, Steve and his men fight their way to the bomber, and Steve is able to get aboard, knowing the only way to stop it from delivering its payload is for him to personally destroy it.

Diana and Ares fight a massive battle, and when Diana sees the bomber explode with Steve aboard, she rallies and defeats Ares, having been persuaded that humanity has the capacity for good as well as evil.

The closing scenes show Diana in London, somberly remembering Steve as cheering crowds celebrate the end of the war. The film ends with a return to the present-day Diana, looking at the old photograph of her and Steve, taken when they liberated the village.

As is typical of the genre, there are lots of drawn-out, special effects-heavy fighting scenes.  These are not bad for the most part–though definitely not to my taste. Each of them seemed to go on longer than necessary–thanks in part to an overuse of slow-motion effects. This was especially true of the final showdown between Diana and Ares. Since Diana’s victory was a foregone conclusion, it really did not need to drag on that long.

Much more interesting are the “character” scenes–yes, that’s right; the parts where people actually talk to one another. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together, and their scenes were my favorite parts of the film.  Romantic sub-plots in action movies can very easily become pointless and tiresome, but the sparks between Diana and Steve seem genuine, and it gives the story some real heart.

One interesting aspect of their scenes is that they frequently talk simultaneously or interrupt one another.  This happened quite often–almost to the point of being overused–but it also made their conversations feel spontaneous, rather than just like two actors reciting lines at each other.

I wish the film had dwelt a bit more upon Diana’s relationship with Steve, and her impressions of the “outside world” in general–there was a little too much time in the second half devoted instead to Steve’s merry band of sidekicks.  They were mildly entertaining, but I think it would have been better to let them be nameless grunts rather than try to make them “colorful”. It’s Diana’s story, after all.

The script didn’t even try to use language that was appropriate for the time period–all the allied soldiers and officers spoke in modern lingo. Even more puzzling to me was that occasionally some characters would speak in a foreign language, with subtitles, but the Germans (and some of our heroes when posing as Germans) would speak in German-accented English.

I’d be interested to know the details of some of the weapons used in the film.  Some are obviously fanciful, others seem to have been trying to stay faithful to the period.  At one point, Steve still has a Colt 1911 despite being disguised as German colonel–that seemed weird to me. But after all, this is a comic-book superhero movie, so I tried to tune out the nit-picking historian voice in my head.

This brings me back around to the setting, which as I discussed at the outset was something that interested me in the film. I still think it was daring (by Hollywood franchise standards, that is) to change the setting to a less-familiar time period.

However, given what actually happens in the movie, it’s a bit puzzling. In fact, World War I actually did end with an armistice, and the real Ludendorff survived the war and went on to be influential in the early years of the Nazi Party.  So, given what happens in the film, is it supposed to be the beginning of an alternate history tale in which World War II did not happen? That would be quite interesting, but it’s left very vague and unexplored.  Fertile ground for a sequel, I suppose…

It’s not a bad film by any means, the plodding CGI boss fight at the end notwithstanding. The other fights are good enough, if you like that sort of thing, and Gal Gadot is a very likeable and charismatic lead.

As I said, I have seen few superhero films. The only recent ones I have watched are Marvel’s Thor and its sequel, The Dark World. The former is a delightful adventure that ranks among my favorite movies.  The latter, sadly, is more what I gather the typical superhero movie is like: a CGI-laden affair, with little time for character development or nuanced emotion of any kind.

This is noteworthy because Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman, was originally hired by Marvel to direct The Dark World, before leaving over the dreaded “creative differences”. It’s a pity; having seen Wonder Woman, I would have liked to have seen what she could have done with it.

Wonder Woman isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly an entertaining summer flick, and it’s nice to see a film with a female lead and a female director drawing crowds to the theaters.  Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a trend in the entertainment industry.

eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckley
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin

I rarely read murder-mystery or thriller-type novels, especially not those without supernatural elements to them.  Stories with lots of non-supernaturally-motivated murders rarely appeal to me.  So Eating Bull was a bit of an adventure–not the sort of book I would normally read.

“Eating Bull” is the cruel nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, Jeremy–an overweight teenager who becomes the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against fast-food companies in Ohio.  He is supported by his good-hearted but overworked mother, Connie and his nurse, Sue–a determined woman with a strong sense of social justice.

Arrayed against Jeremy, Connie and Sue are school bullies, unsympathetic co-workers, and even Jeremy’s own grandfather–an agoraphobic Army veteran. Sue faces the additional difficulty of her loving but extremely protective husband, who dislikes her risking her own safety by courting the wrath of public opinion.

In addition to all of this, a serial killer calling himself “Darwin” commits a series of grisly murders–all of them targeting overweight people, whom he deems “sheep”.

I won’t go through the plot in too much detail and risk ruining the appeal of watching it unfold. I will say that all these elements are combined very well–each chapter is told from the perspective of either Jeremy, Sue or Darwin, and all of them balance out and keep an extremely gripping pace.  For the final fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put the book down, and the ending is very emotionally satisfying.

Jeremy is very sympathetic and likeable, and Sue is an admirable portrayal of a heroic woman who nonetheless has a flaw–she tends to value her concern for Justice over the more immediate concerns for herself or her loved ones.  This is well-done, because such a character could have easily become cloyingly saintly, and Rubin does a good job of making her seem heroic and also still human.

The Darwin chapters are naturally quite disturbing, and a good example of why I don’t normally read this genre.  Not that they are badly-written–rather, that they are so well-written as to make me feel slightly sick just reading them.  The portrayal of the killer’s mental state is quite sharply-drawn–among other things, it’s one of the best depictions of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that I have ever read.

These chapters are definitely heavy on gore, and that was a little tough for me–which is kind of funny, given that my own books have a fair amount of carnage in them.  The parts with violence against women were especially hard to take. But again, these are my own tastes, and I suspect fans of thrillers will be used to this sort of thing.

All in all, I came away extremely impressed by Eating Bull. In spite of the violence, I enjoyed the characters and the pacing. And Rubin also has a real talent for clever descriptions and almost Chandleresque turns of phrase. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall it stacks up well against the few modern thrillers I’ve read. (Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in particular.)

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the book, since thrillers are normally not my cup of tea.  It was something I pondered for a while as I was reading Eating Bull: “Why am I enjoying this so much? It’s not like me.”

And then it hit me: there’s another side to the book, apart from the engaging plot.

Eating Bull‘s main theme is the problem of obesity–Jeremy is obese, Sue wants to cure the societal causes of obesity, and Darwin wants to exterminate obese people. All the minor characters, in some way or other, comment on Jeremy’s condition–some positively, some negatively–but it’s the central theme of the book.

Now, some would just use that as a cheap “hook” or gimmick to tie everything together.  But Eating Bull goes to some lengths to explore the causes of obesity.

For example, there are several scenes where Connie gets some fast-food for Jeremy to eat after she returns from work.  She knows this isn’t optimal, and is apologetic to Jeremy’s caregivers when asked about it, but explains that it’s cheaper and faster to get bad food–and as a single mother working two jobs, this is no small consideration.

There are many other examples of this throughout the book, all aimed at showing the various factors that contribute to obesity. At times, it raises some serious issues regarding how food is marketed, reminding me of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation.

In some ways, Eating Bull is really what they used to call a “problem novel”–a novel meant to illustrate and draw attention to some societal problem. These were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels are examples of the genre, as is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

It’s very difficult to write a social problem novel that doesn’t come across as preachy and heavy-handed–the author has to balance all the mundane facts (and sometimes even figures) needed to make the social point with a compelling dramatic narrative that is interesting to read. (In The Jungle, Sinclair seems to simply give up towards the end, leading to entire chapters that are just lectures and Q&A sessions on Marxist theory.)

For the most part, Eating Bull avoids this pitfall, keeping the action going at a brisk pace while exploring the larger social theme through minor incidents and at well-chosen intervals.  When some detailed sociological point needs to be made, Rubin wisely has it said by Sue, for whom it seems logical and in-character.

This social aspect was really what set Eating Bull apart for me–it was something more than just an interesting page-turner.  Whereas most thrillers are normally easy to forget once you have learned How It All Works Out, this one gives you a bit more to think about.

One word of warning: if you enjoy eating chips or similar snacks while reading, well… you probably won’t while reading this one.  You may decide to opt for a salad instead, but then of course it’s harder to eat a salad while reading. And that’s to say nothing of the Darwin chapters, after which you may not want to eat anything at all…

Still, it’s a good book.  Check it out.