Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: On Power

On Power On Power by Robert A. Caro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess: I haven’t read either of Robert Caro’s reputed master projects for the simple reason that they seem too long. He’s gotten famous for the biography of Lyndon Johnson that seems never to end. (He jokes here that he’s on volume five of a projected two-volume work.) And he made his name by calling on us to rethink the role of Robert Moses in remaking New York city and state.

I’d like to read them, especially the Moses since it touches so much on the way cities get remade and reimagined in what’s largely an ethnic context. Still, it just seems so imposing. I’m sure I’d appreciate it, but I also think it would take a long time to find the particulars I’m interested in within the larger story he’s telling in the book.

And that brings me to this “book.” I use the quotes only because it’s such a short work, in many ways just an extended essay. But, above all, it’s an introduction to Caro’s work and to his abiding interest: how does political power shape our America, and how does wealth shape and inflect that power?

If Caro never quite answers that question, I can cut him some slack. I don’t expect people to answer the question of “What’s the meaning of life” either. Instead, we get a top-tier mind wrestling with a subject worthy of it. We have a man with a simmering social conscience reflecting on what he’s learned over four decades of sifting through records that most people would lack the patience or imagination to deal with.

In this essay – and it really is an essay in the sense of being a work that finds its subject as it goes – Caro makes his work personal. He tells the amusing and inspiring story of how he migrated from investigative journalism into deep-dive biography, but he presents it as the consistent pursuit of the same impulse. Whether he’s commuting four hours a day (on highways that Moses constructed by crushing the powerless and bending to the powerful) for a first job or moving to Johnson’s Southern boyhood home for otherwise impossible to get material, he always looks to the ways some bully and some get bullied.

The star here is Caro’s voice. That’s magnified in the audiobook where he reads his own story in a great working-class New York accent, but it’s present in the prose, too. As a trained journalist, he never wastes words. As a man inspired to tell the tale of people who found themselves at the mercy of others, he tempers his outrage by reminding us of his own limits and by acknowledging that the work is so vast – so long, if you will – that he can’t let it consume him or his sense of humor.

This is a straightforward pleasure, and I come away from it feeling as if I have a new friend.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Cash City

Cash City Cash City by Jonathan Fredrick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one starts out with promise. Nick Malick is a Chicago cop who’s moved to a mid-sized city in West Virginia for his doctor-wife. They’re divorced now, in large part because a sexual predator kidnapped and killed their only son. Malick has become a hard-drinking P.I., and he’s more or less waiting around until the man he’s convinced has killed his son gets out of jail.

The opening scene is right out of the Chandler playbook, but who’s complaining? A father hires him to find his missing daughter, and the trail leads to drugs, prostitution, and despair. There’s a gang coming in from Detroit, calling themselves Cash City, and they sell drugs and then buy guns to take back. They’re organized, and they’ve bought off enough local cops to be mostly untouchable

So the original frame of the narrative is strong – and Frederick does tone and description with real skill – and the plan to move it to a setting that gets so little attention is a good one. And this holds up for more than half of the novel in that vein.

But somewhere along the line, things go disappointingly awry. One premise of Chandler’s work is that, however bleak and fallen the world is, we see some of that fallen state in our detective as well. He’s a flawed man in a flawed world, and that’s part of what makes him effective.

In this one, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s a bogeyman (or bogeymen). It’s not just that the city is fallen; it’s that it’s infected. The gang is a plague – there’s even a hint of the Biblical sense to that since it takes a lot of first-born children. If it can be gotten rid of – and if the sexual predator can be killed – then it seems there’s hope for redemption.

I see the logic, but it seems an ethical cowardice after the opening structure. That is, Malick doesn’t really need to redeem himself; he just has to kill the bad guys. There’s simply less at stake than the first chapters implied.

And, to bring that point home, the predator becomes more and more monstrous. He’s always part of the novel, even though he’s a muted backstory figure to start. By the end, though, he’s a Hannibal Lecter knock-off, a sadist who’s been stalking his stalker. Frederick slips a couple notches in skill, imbuing the guy with a creepy quality that changes the entire tone of the novel.

It’s a shame that this takes the nose dive it does because Frederick seems to know what he’s doing when this begins. Finishing a book takes a knack, though. Instead of staying true to its intriguing early premises, this one grafts on a different genre altogether and the lurid conclusion undermines that opening promise.

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Review: Button Man: Get Harry Ex

Button Man: Get Harry Ex Button Man: Get Harry Ex by John Wagner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

At its core, noir is an ethical undertaking. As a generic project, it asks what guides us in the moral decisions we make. As a method, it strips away everything we’re accustomed to directing us: corruption means we can’t trust the police, the government, or our laws; theological uncertainty means we can’t trust inherited ethical teachings; and the flawed self means we can’t even draw on our own (or our protagonist’s) past decency. All that’s left is the nagging echo of the hope that we have a faint hunger for doing the right thing.

The best noir – whether that’s Hammett, Chandler, Ellroy, Woodrell, or dozens of other – shows us staggering brutality without flinching, but also finds a way to lament a fallen world. Ellroy’s characters behave in shockingly immoral ways, but his protagonists seem to sense there is a better possibility out there. They continue to kill one another, but some of the dramatic climaxes of his work come when they regret what their choices have forced them to do. They don’t undo it – they still shoot friends in the back, and they still betray innocents – but they acknowledge the possibility of decency in a world very different from the one they know.

Meanwhile, this book is noir at its worst.

On the one hand, there’s the condescending narrative structure. I don’t know how it can be a [SPOILER] since it’s telegraphed so inelegantly, but the first of these contained stories – in which ex-soldier Harry Exton is hired by a wealthy man as a participant in an illegal league where “button men” kill one another or get killed in a private sport – is framed by Exton talking with a psychiatrist about his experiences. It opens with Exton drawing a gun and asking the psychiatrist for help. Then, 80 or so pages later, surprise!, the psychiatrist turns out to be the “voice” who has hired Exton and forced him to kill others. It’s a lazy device clumsily presented.

The next two stories are only marginally better. In one, Exton sets out to collect blackmail information against his new voice. In the other, set up by the collective voices to have to fight off 13 other Button men, he finds a way to [SPOILER] fake his own death. It’s hard not to see any of this coming, and it’s even harder to feel there’s anything satisfying in such endings.

But those narrative shortcomings are almost pardonable. After all, noir is linked to pulp, and pulp is all about shuffling through familiar plots in order to refine them into efficient stories. (Think, for instance, of the dozens of comic book and film reiterations of the Batman or Spiderman origin stories; those have evolved from quick and clumsy first versions into powerful cultural myths. They aren’t surprising any longer, but they’ve become deeply satisfying as vehicles for a range of cultural anxieties and hopes.)

The real failing here is a moral one.

These stories purport to criticize the violence inherent in capitalism, with the wealthy able to hire “button men” to live or die on their behalf. As awful as we are often supposed to feel about that premise, though, the bottom line is that Exton resents it only because he isn’t really one of the wealthy. He complains about the fact that “they” will never let you quit, but, as the volume mercifully ends, he protects himself by killing the last man who knows he’s alive, murdering him in front of the man’s nephew and making a joke about it. The writing is clumsy enough that it isn’t clear the murder is necessary; the vision is corrupt enough that it doesn’t acknowledge any of the moral distance we’ve traveled.

In some ways, this is a cultural descendent of the Rambo films. It’s easy to forget, but First Blood was a powerful reckoning with the experience of Vietnam. Then the sequels lost all sight of that premise and produced an unreflective killing machine who fought and refought the war on the “gooks,” winning this time through superior American toughness and unexamined “decency.”

These stories don’t even have the virtue of such original clarity of moral inquiry. This is always something that tries to indict a spectacle that it then invites us to watch as we munch on popcorn.

This looks like noir, but it’s as far from the best of the genre as I can imagine. It echoes better works in seeming to ask how we should act in the moral vacuum of a world where money can buy life for sport. Then it encourages us to enjoy the experience without asking us to evaluate our own complicity.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For starters, Swyler masters the difficult business of finding two solid stories to weave together. Convention tells us from the start that the contemporary story of Simon will tie into the 18th century story of the circus, the love affair, and the eventual curse of the tarot card reader, but each one separately holds together. In most novels done this way, I find I prefer one or the other of the braids in the woven tale. This time, I was happy to switch from one to the other.

This one also starts with good energy. I felt in good hands from the start. Simon isn’t an especially likeable guy, but that seems to be part of the plan. It doesn’t explain why Alice would fall for him, but it opens up an interesting narrative space. He can feel sorry for himself without derailing the story. That is, in fact, much of the story. I’d even say the novel is at its best when we aren’t certain whether Simon can do anything to change the past.

As a result, the more this becomes a clear dialogue between the two strands of the story, the less compelling it is. I can’t exactly call it a [SPOILER] to say that it does turn out that Simon us using the clues from the long-ago story. Once he stops guessing at clues and leads and instead realizes his sister is at risk of drowning on July 25, it becomes increasingly conventional.

On the plus side, there’s just the right dash of horror here. Particularly in the earlier, stronger parts, the real potential of death hangs over all this without suffocating it. That part is well played.

As this hits the heart of it, though, it simply slows down. As we can increasingly see where it’s going, it pauses to let us anticipate it. It lingers over its own symbols, the borrowed tarot symbolism and the original symbolism of the house perched on the edge of the sea. In other words, it calls attention to the things that made it impressive at the start, and in that way diminishes those early strengths.

There’s an interview in the edition I read (listened to) with Swyler, and she talks of this as a first novel. That likely explains its satisfyingly dense two halves. It also likely explains why it loses the momentum it does.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: The United States of Murder Inc. Volume 1: Truth

The United States of Murder Inc. Volume 1: Truth The United States of Murder Inc. Volume 1: Truth by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This aims to be a high-concept .45 caliber blow-you-away story. It delivers, but more like a .22.

Like a lot of people, I admired Bendis and Oeming’s Powers. That was high-concept, too, but it also seemed in step with a lot of the best comics coming out at the same time. In fact, while it struck me as less good than Astro City (to take my favorite of the time), it seemed a perfect summation of what I think of as third-wave superhero stories. The first was the “golden age” stuff of hey, cool, it’s Superman and Batman. The second was the Marvel innovation; Spiderman (or insert your favorite here) may be a superhero, but he also has problems. The third got started with The Watchmen; what’s it like to be an ordinary human in a world where there are superheroes.

No one handled that question more directly than Bendis in Powers, and Oeming’s art was the perfect, blunt complement. Here, though, the concept seems less urgent, less a question that others are asking with different effect. Courtesy of an alternate history that we get in dribs and drabs, the organized crime families of the United States have established a separate government. They control “the territories,” which seems to be much of the Midwest. Cool, but, why? It’s less clear what the concept is supposed to help us explore.

Still, as a guy who studies organized crime, I’m always game to see a clever take on that sort of premise. Beyond that original concept, though, there isn’t too much that impresses at a conceptual level. [SPOILER] So the government sets our protagonists up; the CIA frames them for the murder of a United States Senator with the hope that the gangs will turn on each other and the government will be able to pick them apart one by one. Why then would one agent more or less spill the beans and blow up the plan?

More broadly, the characters here are largely flat and predictable. Valentine gets ‘made’ in the opening panels, and Jagger is a bad-ass hit-woman who has no trouble taking out whole squads of adversaries even when they get the jump on her. And she looks a little like Scarlett Johansson, though everything in Oeming’s line work gets thickened and bruised.

All that said, there is a nice energy to the story. Bendis may not bring the same insight into the zeitgeist as he did in Powers, but he may have an even sharper sense of narrative. There’s no condescension. He gives you enough of the story to figure things out if you’re paying attention. If you aren’t, goes the implication, then you ought to go find something easier to read. It’s not Ed Brubaker, but it’s not bad at all. I found myself admiring it more and more as I read, even to the point of starting a search for volume two.

Oeming’s drawings work a little less well, though. Instead of the usual color on white, this is more neon on black. I guess that makes sense as the unofficial colors of Las Vegas, but it’s wearing. Too much of the art seems to be over-caffeinated, and that makes it all the harder to distinguish climax from set-up.

So, this one may not come with full Dirty Harry firepower, but it still gets off a good shot. I found myself enjoying it more and more the longer I read, and that’s always a good sign. And, since I really am looking for volume two, I guess I’m already reloading.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Five separate people recommended this one to me in the space of about three weeks, so I came to it with a sense of ‘it’ factor. From the title and the enthusiasm of all these people, I assumed it was a modern day Le Carre novel, an East-West thriller with a good dash of contemporary reflection on the nature of totalitarianism.

Well…I suppose there is some Le Carre, but it comes only at the end. Instead, this is mostly a novel of manners. And, reader alert, it’s a very slow beginning. (Did I mention it’s very slow?) This is beautiful throughout, though, and I admired it even when I couldn’t get a good grip on where it was headed.

For most of the first quarter of this, we get an insightful reflection on the changed times of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. Count Rostov, a nobleman sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a sumptuous hotel (where he will eventually become a waiter), represents a faded manner of life. He’s not entirely opposed to the communist project – he helped write a poem that the new authorities admired enough to spare his life over it – but he has a style and sensibility that the new world neither recognizes nor values.

One of the intriguing instances of that comes into focus when a communist official asks Rostov to help him understand ‘gentlemen” to aid him in his work of communicating with the representatives of Western powers. It’s a quiet and thoughtful conversation, extended over decades, in which each comes to see some of the virtues of the other’s system. Over time, Rostov’s childhood world (and his education within it) seems ever less relevant. When he sets out to tell a story to a child, for instance, she’s disappointed that he has never seen an elephant and yet unimpressed that he once knew many different princes.

Rostov feels like a large soul, like someone destined to be the hero of a novel by Tolstoy or Pasternak. Instead, he’s confined to a single building, making a life among the unambitious people there. He comes to care for these people, but he seems always diminished. I kept comparing him to a bonsai tree. If he’d been in a container large enough for him to spread his roots in full, he’d have been more than merely an ornament.

[SEMI-SPOILER] Things do change in the second half of the novel when he comes to be the parent-of-last-resort for a young girl. Even there, though, the novel remains slow even as there are hints of his connections to the West and his hope, one he always dismisses, that he might find a fuller place for himself and Sophia. This moves so slowly into thriller – and the thriller is so low-key – that it never really hits what I imagined would be full speed.

Bottom line, I might have enjoyed this even more if I’d gone into it with a clearer sense of what to expect. Its prose is stunning at all times, or better said, it’s always elegant and impressive in the manner of Rostov himself. Still, there’s no denying its beauty of its ambition. It may not be Le Carre, but it’s something else very moving and, in the end, very satisfying.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s taken me five months to get through this, and I don’t regret a day of it. I’d heard such great things about it that I doubt I add much in saying this is the finest graphic novel I’ve read in the last few years and quite likely the greatest graphic novel I have ever read. (OK, Maus. Maybe Maus is as good.)

It’s rare for me to find myself in such agreement with the consensus on something, especially when everyone admires it so much, so I’m enjoying the experience. It feels like walking out of a concert with a couple hundred people sharing the same buzz.

Others have described the overall story here, and everyone seems to note the beautiful, haunting illustrations. Ferris is so flat out gifted that it’s stunning to see the way she can move from full-color Art Institute hand-drawn reproductions to near stick figure work. All of it works. She’s like a skilled director as she moves her camera from place to place.

The one thing I’d want to add, as partial explanation for why it took me so long to read this, is the incredible consistency here. Years ago, I went to the Grand Canyon. I was impressed, of course, because it was as massive and magnificent as I’d heard, but I was also moved because it had so much stunning detail. I expected the size, but I didn’t expect the tens of thousands of facets to it. Every time I shifted my view, it looked beautiful in a fresh way.

In that same way, this is the Grand Canyon of graphic novels. Pick almost any page and it will be striking. Sometimes it’s the line work. Sometimes it’s the layout. Sometimes it’s the juxtaposition of styles. And sometimes it’s the remarkable way she moves her narrative forward.

As I read, I did wonder if I’d ever finish, and I wondered what it would be like to have something less overwhelming to turn to at night. Now that I’ve finally gotten to the end of Book One, though, I find I’m Googling information on when Book Two will be out. I saw a review that suggested we haven’t had anything like this since Art Spiegelman brought out the first volume of Maus and made us wait four years for the second. I have the same feeling.

I guess it’s time for me to start something else tonight, but I’m going to feel the specter of this one for a long time. And that’s a good thing.

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