Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: You Will Know Me

You Will Know Me You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one has been on my list since it came out more than a year ago when a student (thanks, Callie) recommended it to me. I’m glad I waited, though, because outside of a Summer Olympics when the gymnasts get their quadrennial two weeks of fame, this Winter Olympics with its analogous figure skaters is the perfect backdrop for reading this.

As I see it, Megan Abbott is the premier woman writing in noir. I loved her afterward to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place because it showed the conscious ways in which she sees the potential for bringing a female perspective to the form and its generic concerns. She’s a good writer, that’s clear. More impressively, she’s reinventing the genre in ways I certainly couldn’t imagine.

In place of a detached tough guy who enters a mystery in the capacity of detective – whether formally a detective or incidentally – we get a mother who’s already hip-deep in the world of her family and her child-prodigy daughter’s elite gymnastics world. She isn’t glimpsing some deep unsettling ‘noir’ truth; she’s encountering the dark, then darker, then darkest side of the seemingly perfect family she’s nurtured.

I don’t want to give too much away in the form of spoilers, but this begins with Katie dimly suspecting something dark in the spangled world of her daughter’s gymnastics. There’s a hit-and-run accident – which may not be an accident – and it becomes increasingly clear that it’s connected to an effort to maintain the fa├žade of innocence in their gymnastics world. First we suspect one person, then another, and then finally the real culprit – and it’s the last person we’d have imagined, the one who most represents the supposed happy world. Abbott gets us from one of those suspects to another, gradually unpeeling the red herrings until we’re confronted with what we don’t want to see.

I can see criticizing this for moving slowly. I thought it dragged early, and Callie warned me that it would. She also urged me to stick it out, and I’d glad I did. There may still be room for some tightening in the text early – I don’t want to be too presumptuous with Abbott, who’s taught me to admire her – but I suspect the power of the ending comes in part through its contrast with that carefully sketched world of the opening chapters.

By the end, I found myself holding my breath. It wasn’t a matter of being afraid to find out who did it – Abbott had prompted that realization pretty carefully in the final quarter of the novel. Instead, it had to do with realizing that she really had the guts to end this on such a dark and damning tone.

I admire Abbott in part because her sense of noir incriminates all of us. Here, Katie is a “good mother,” yet that fundamental pose leads her to endorse the worst sorts of crime. This book not only condemns the world of pushed-and-posed girls gymnastics, but it calls into question how complicit we are in our family’s crimes when we justify them in the name of being a parent.

That is a very long way from The Continental Op or Philip Marlowe, but it’s a provocative extension of the same fearless ethical inquiry into how we justify our decisions in the Modern world. I thought Abbott’s Queenpin was really good, but this is even more ambitious. Now, everything she’s written is on my list.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review: The Automatic Detective

The Automatic Detective The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a funny premise, executed almost as well as I can imagine it. Our detective hero, Mac, is a robot created as a killer by an evil genius. By the time we meet him, though, he’s developed consciousness and sworn off evil. He drives a cab, keeps his head down, and has almost no friends while he waits to earn citizenship in this steampunk city of rotary phones and sentient robots. When the kids next door get kidnapped as part of a deep-seated conspiracy, he sets out, detective-style, to find them.

I’ve seen similar concepts burn out quickly. (See Rex Nihilo for one.) Sometimes, when the joke is in the premise, it’s easy to get lazy as you write. Martinez doesn’t fall for that, though. He’s consistently clever in his language and his juxtapositions. To take one early example, it’s deeply clever that he’s both a “Mac” – as in the Apple computer – and a “mack” which was a generic nickname for anyone who drove for a living.

Martinez is terrific with the language throughout, taking such laughs where he finds them but never overdoing them. Instead, he gives us a nice range of characters, all clearly modeled on hardboiled types, but growing out of his concept as well. There’s the 800-pound gorilla with a taste for contemporary literature; the robot who boots up with the default personality of the loyal, snappy secretary; and the honest cop who happens to resemble an exotic monkey. We get all that with humor and consistency.

There are a couple of spots that seem to strain the premise, though. The almost femme fatale, a 21-year-old beauty who’s also the best scientist in town, is odd in her taste in lovers: first there’s the four-armed low-life thug and then there’s Mac. It isn’t clear how or why she’s interested in him, and that’s a bigger elision than most of what goes on.

More troubling in the long run is that the noir aspect of things gets obscured (or even mocked) in the way the central conflict unfolds. This is almost note-perfect for the first half – and I’m deeply impressed – but then it has to make more of the ultimate bad guys. That means turning a robot/technology fantasy into an outer space alien fantasy. I get that Martinez painted himself into something of a corner – and he makes good humor out of it – but it seems an unnecessarily complicated way of filling out the plot.

In other words, this is at its best when it’s playing with atmosphere, but it needs a plot – a silly one – to keep things moving. As I got deeper into the second half, when the plot becomes more central, I found I was in something of a hurry to finish up.

So, be alert to what you’re getting. It’s hard to imagine doing this any better than Martinez does it, but, hard as he tries, he hits what seems a ceiling to this kind of project in the end.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: The Jester

The Jester The Jester by Michael J. Sullivan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella, or maybe even long short story, is really a shaggy dog tale. A fair number of things happen, but they all serve to underscore the “punch line” of the piece. (To avoid an immediate spoiler, I’ll say that later.)

With that, this is essentially Dungeons & Dragons fiction. It was fun to share with my son on a recent road trip, but it’s so linked to genre and convention, that I doubt I’d have the patience for something longer in the same vein.

Four adventurers – two professionals who seem to be the protagonists of most of Sullivan’s work, a wealthy woman, and a pig farmer – are trying to find a treasure stolen by a long-ago jester and hidden in a dungeon. To Sullivan’s credit, he doesn’t waste much time. We open with our heroes falling from a substantial height after a skirmish that we get caught up with later. The idea is adrenaline from the get-go.

Before long, they find themselves in a room with a couple obvious escape options. And, since our characters sense the convention of which they are a part, they make two crucial inferences: 1) They will have the opportunity for only one choice, and 2) The choices reflect the will of the jester, who has built this dungeon to teach those he hated a lesson.

So, they determine that, since the Jester hated greed and cowardice, the option that least reflects those qualities must be the one.

It’s hardly a surprise or a spoiler that they choose correctly, but the twist comes at the end. [SPOILER] There we find that the jester, who stole “the most valuable thing of all,” merely stole his own freedom. That’s the message of his tomb, and it’s the shaggy dog ending. Everything contributes to that payoff, and there’s a kind of “wah, wah, wah” sound effect as their own greed gets mocked and unfulfilled.

So, this is what it is. There’s a cleverness and a skill to it, but it’s certainly not my thing. I note, however, that Sullivan seems (on Goodreads at least) especially generous and attentive to his readers. That’s a good thing, and it goes a long way with me. I’m grateful to have had this on a long and tired stretch of a night-time drive, and I’m grateful it gave my son and me a nice home-stretch diversion.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a sense of what drew the prolific and successful Gaiman to this project. He’s got the juice to do whatever he feels like at this point, but I imagine he wanted to compile a fresh telling of the Norse myths because there’s a muscularity to the stories. They grapple with the boundary between the world we know and the world we see as just out of our reach, and that’s his wheelhouse too. What’s The Sandman if not an elemental vision of how metaphors can help us see our universe more clearly? And what are the American Gods doing in our everyday if not to give us a glimpse of a potentially vaster world we can no longer really access?

So while Gaiman’s fingerprints are all over this version of the adventures of Thor, Odin, Loki, and their friends, the reverse is true as well. Gaiman tells us in his prologue what’s more or less evident: these stories shaped his imagination as a child. Here, in this volume, he’s trying to give us a version that brings the same fierce joy he discovered then, and he’s trying to do so in a way that reflects the changed sensibilities of 21st Century readers.

And this is a blast. As someone who grew up on Bulfinch’s Mythology – Gaiman seems to have had other mid-century translators for his childhood reading – I knew a lot of these already, but they’re a joy to encounter again. We get the story of Thor trying to drain an enchanted drinking horn; he doesn’t know it’s end is in the sea, and he manages to drink so much that he lowers the sea level. And we get the story of Frigg extracting a promise from all things never to harm her beloved son Baldur, all things but one.

Then there are the ones new to me. There’s the story of how Loki distracted the horse of the builder who otherwise would have stolen the sun, the moon, and the beautiful Freya; in this version, he transforms into a mare, inflames the builder’s horse with lust, and then allows himself to be mounted such that he gives birth to a remarkable foal some months later. And there’s the time Loki worked to make a woman laugh by tying a rope between his “private parts” and the beard of a billy goat, each tugging at the other to intense mutual discomfort. That’s probably too bawdy for Bulfinch, and I’m grateful to Gaiman for sharing it now.

As much fun as this is throughout, though, Gaiman can’t solve – or, better said, doesn’t want to use the narrative violence it would take to solve – the central narrative challenge of these myths. That is, these are not characters with psychological profiles. Instead, they’re elemental. They do what the stories need them to do, and that breeds inconsistency of detail and inconsistency of character. In one story, the gods need to eat of the golden apples to retain their youth and power. Outside that single account, though, the apples are never an issue.

Most distractingly, the characters change. Loki is a traditional trickster figure in many of them. He causes trouble, but it’s originally of the mischief variety. As the stories move forward, he becomes increasingly serious in his crimes, culminating in his effectively murdering Baldur. There’s no explanation why he turns from fun-loving troublemaker to general of the army bent on destroying the world. Gaiman might have given us one, but that would have made it more of a Gaiman novel and less a tribute to this strange and compelling collection.

So there are holes in this as a coherent story, holes it falls to us as readers to fill. That makes this less a novel to pick up and enjoy and more a reflection of the different narrative goals of the different generations of myth-makers responsible for the originals centuries ago.

I don’t know the source material well enough to know how well Gaiman’s stories represent them, so I can’t pass judgement on that quality. (Neither of us reads Old High German, or certainly not me.) Still, I think Gaiman outdoes himself in the way he recounts the final chapter, Ragnarok. As he explains in his introductions – both to the collection as a whole and to the final chapter – he sees all the other myths as having happened long ago. Ragnarok, though, is yet to happen, so he skillfully narrates it in the future tense. The effect is haunting and arresting. It feels dream-like (back to the Sandman, I guess), as if it’s information coming to us through a source outside our everyday senses.

Gaiman wraps all that up with a stunning final image. [SPOILER] In a gesture that reminds me of E.R. Eddings’s weird pre-Tolkien fantasy, The Worm Oroborous, we discover that Ragnarok is an ending that implies a beginning. With nearly all the gods having destroyed one another, the few who remain collect a set of chess pieces, arrange them on the board, and begin another cycle of conflict between these elemental figures.

I don’t love everything Gaiman does; I found Sandman more uneven than most people seem to, and this collection is also uneven given the nature of its rich source material. But I am grateful to him for this, a book I got to share with my son, and I recommend it. In fact, there’s a good chance I’ll re-read it myself once these stories start to lapse again into that space between memory and dream.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I ought to be the target audience for this. I very much admire Murakami and have read most of his novels. I’m also a fairly committed runner and triathlete, the subjects of his meditations in this journal-like collection of essays he wrote over about a year and a half in the middle 2000s.

And yet, this one really falls flat. There’s little sustained self-exploration: we get, for instance, the now famous declaration that he was watching a baseball game (he names the exact player at-bat) when he suddenly decided he could write a novel. He’d been running a jazz club – something that comes, again, with little detail – and then he decided that’s what he’d do. He wrote it, sent it out, and won a contest. If it was really that easy, then I hate him. (Maybe that’s how many small-college basketball players feel about Lebron James, but still…) If it was more complicated, as I am certain it was, then it shows him dodging some of the real material on the table.

The sustained problem here is the banality. Murakami doesn’t censor his observations – it made him happy to run past a beautiful woman on Cambridge mornings, or he counsels high school gym coaches against insisting all students should run the same distance – which generally means that he doesn’t pursue any either. There’s no thesis here, no center. There isn’t even a clear narrative, since he begins by talking about distance running, with a sort of goal at the New York City marathon, and then he goes on a long tangent about bike and swimming training for unrelated triathlons. He essentially compiles a series of reflections he wrote every week or so over the period.

As I reflect on this, I’m reminded of Murakami’s particular genius. His best work is filled with banality, with individuals in the midst of daily transactions with nothing spectacular about them. What makes Murakami special is two-fold, though. First, he has a gift for creating characters who are just mildly out of step with such everyday rhythms. They typically seem to fit in well and only slowly discover their own “strangeness.”

In that light, “normal,” is a fundamental concept for him. There’s always a sense of how things should be, of how people should act, but his characters gradually become estranged from it.

Second, and even more memorably, he has a gift for excavating a space beneath the normal. His characters descend, often literally, to strange depths of alternate worlds or experiences. He isn’t quite a science fiction or fantasy writer – his work is always anchored in our world – but the cumulative effect of his magical work is to make the ground beneath us seem less solid.

Read Hardboiled Wonderland. Read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And read 1Q84. Skip this one, though. It has the surface that Murakami punches through in his real and memorable work. Here, though, it remains at that surface, giving us a mostly superficial look at his mid-life experiences as a committed but unspectacular runner.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review: The Neighborhood Outfit: Organized Crime in Chicago Heights

The Neighborhood Outfit: Organized Crime in Chicago Heights The Neighborhood Outfit: Organized Crime in Chicago Heights by Louis Corsino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess: I am jealous of this book. I had it recommended to me by an anonymous referee for the press where I’ve submitted my own gangster book. That referee suggested this is a model for the way a scholar can blend personal, family history with academic rigor. I say admiringly, it is. It most certainly is.

Corsino uses his preface and introduction to explain that he is the son and grandson of Italian-Americans from Chicago Heights, Illinois, a Chicago suburb notorious for its connections to the larger Chicago Syndicate. His father and grandfather were both “connected” to the mob, but not as big-time, “made” figures. Instead, they did some of the day-to-day work, collecting money from jukeboxes or delivering sugar for Prohibition-era bootleg brewing. They weren’t part of “the Outfit.” Instead, they were part of the deeper kinship connections of the Italian-American community.

Corsino is a sociologist both by training and, here, by analytical inclination. In some respects, this is a classic study of organized crime, one that echoes the template set by University of Chicago figures like Frederick Thrasher and John Landesco, but he updates it thoughtfully by positioning himself in the study. He doesn’t pretend to a neutrality on the subject – and he makes clear he has access that an outsider would not – but he also declines to be an apologist. He is both subject and observer, and he walks that line with real elegance.

This is a short work, which is impressive as well since it focuses on a single thesis for its subject of interest. As Corsino sees it, the Italians of Chicago Heights were among the most isolated ethnic communities in the country. (He makes deft use of census data to underscore the point.) As a result, they were less able to turn to legal alternatives for income and, perhaps perversely, more inclined to trust each other in a secret organization than to trust the institutions they felt were excluding them.

Only some of this is brand new, but Corsino has the rare ability to make it feel as if such broad-based theories grow out of the work he’s doing. He doesn’t pretend to be the first to make such theoretical claims – again, he has a light touch in acknowledging the theorists who’ve paved his way – but he doesn’t overdo the theoretical quotes either. He does what a good sociological study does: he makes his corner of the world seem to speak to us of larger implications.

One particular piece is new, though, to me at least, and I find it admirable. As Corsino sees the Chicago Heights experience, three factors brought about the 50-year success of the local branch of the larger mob. Closure, violence, and brokerage. “Closure” is his term for the perverse fact of communal isolation. Violence is self-explanatory, but he is careful to remind us that it was limited; he calls his final chapter “You Can’t Shoot Everyone” to underscore the degree to which these men perpetuated a business rather than a sustained conflict. And “brokerage” is the idea that it takes trust for someone to broker a service on behalf of others. Closure and brokerage were both products of the tight-knit community, features that helped in the creation of an organized crime operation but that also held back most in the community. It’s helpful and intriguing to have these concepts in the structure Corsino provides.

There’s a slice of history here as well. I was familiar with most of the big names in Chicago Heights history – Jimmy Emery, Frankie LaPorte, and Albert Tocco – but I don’t I’ve ever come across a synthetic account of them. Corsino leaves that in the background for most of this – this doesn’t lend itself well to adaptation by Martin Scorsese – but it’s one more useful contribution he makes.

I have a final confession as well: I knew of this when it first came out, but I decided against reading it out of loyalty to friends in the Chicago gangster research world. John Binder and Matt Luzi have seemed to me to be the people to see of Chicago Heights for the last couple decades, and I was too quick to dismiss someone who seemed to be a late-comer to their work. I’m happy to say that Corsino cites John and Matt, not only giving them substantial credit but also putting their research into historical context. He’s nobody’s latecomer, and this work clearly grows out of a lifetime of reflection and research.

I have a lot of work to do on my own book, but I think Corsino models some ways through my own difficulties. Keep in mind that this is an academic work – there are stories here, but they’re subordinated to an academic argument – but otherwise know that this is a terrific example of what a thoughtful scholar can accomplish when he brings together his personal and academic background.

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Review: Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This turns out to be, in effect, two books: one is interesting without quite being that much fun, and the other is a lot of fun while being less interesting. Either way, this weird novel seems to me worth a good bit of the hype it seems suddenly to be getting.

This starts out as a 21st Century Kafka-esque fantasy. An unprepared scholarly newlywed loses his wife on his honeymoon in a fantastically imagined construct. The tower of Babel is so vast that no one seems to know its boundaries let along its details. He’s overwhelmed by his every encounter, and we get a variety of implied questions: what does it mean to be an individual in a world where life is so cheap? How can we establish friendships when all life is a contested negotiation? And What does it mean to have an identity in a place where we’re all defined transactionally?

As I read the first half of this, I felt as if I were reading a fantasy that reflected the world of the internet. I don’t mean that the tower represents the internet; rather, I feel as if this is the kind of twisting and endless world that the internet might be if it were made physical. No one knows who built the tower, yet it goes on forever. It gives us the capacity to perform as others, and it gives us opportunity to interact on intimate terms with strangers, but it seems never to change anything. It’s a book that makes us ask questions about our changed world.

Bancroft does a great job of setting all that up, but things move pretty slowly to start. The teeming market scenes are striking, but there are a lot them. And the extended sequence where Senlin falls into a living-theater experience, where he has to perform an ad-libbed role alongside others doing the same, is largely brilliant. It just doesn’t seem to end with the clarity I expected; I can’t tell whether it’s all a performance within a performance or whether it’s a genuine accident within the well-oiled mechanism of the theater.

But then [SPOILER] this becomes a very different novel. The clearest sign of that change comes in Bancroft’s switch from his default epigraphs to start each chapter – instead of quotes from a goofy and ignorant guidebook, they come from Senlin’s future autobiography. That change reflects a reversal of the narrative position we began with: what was a confused and ill-suited protagonist becomes very quickly a canny leader. He goes, in other words, from Joseph K in The Trial to Spartacus in the Kirk Douglas film.

With that change, the slow-developed philosophical challenge of the beginning fades away. We learn, for instance, [DOUBLE SPOILER] that everything Senlin experienced on the lower levels was part of a test to determine whether he’d be a good employee on the fourth level. Rather than giving the bewildering and beguiling experience of the internet, of happenstance informing so much of the avatar-defining choices we make, we get a more conventional fantasy. There are good guys and bad guys. Senlin’s wife didn’t just happen to take a step away from him; she’s now the object of desire by a powerful figure of the tower. The young man who helped and then betrayed him didn’t happen along; he was a plant, part of the test.

I’m sorry to see that fallen ambition because I do believe the original effect of the novel (which may have been Bancroft’s original intent) had the chance to be deeply memorable…especially if it could be tightened and shortened.

At the same time, I confess that this becomes, by the end, a rollicking adventure. [MORE SPOILER] By the very end, Senlin has declared all-out war on the tower. He’s stolen an airship, acquired a crew of dangerous and effective fighters, and set out to take his wife back by force.

I can’t help feeling that Bancroft changed horses halfway through here, and I think this would be a stronger book and a stronger series if he’d gone back and made things more consistent. Still, there’s a lot to like about each half. I’m curious about where this is going next, and – especially now that this seems to have found its adventurous tone – I may just buy in for volume two.

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