Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a big step from something like Game of Thrones down to generic “fantasy” fiction. I put fantasy in quote marks because, while I have an expansive definition of the term, a lot of the fan-boys have a narrower one. I don’t think there’s any question that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Night Circus are the two best fantasy novels of the last decade (at least that I’ve read or heard about) but there’s a generic definition of fantasy that limits it to what some people call “high fantasy” – fantasy that deals with made-up empires and magic that can tip the balance of power.

And, while Game of Thrones has revived that specific sub-genre, its best-known competitors are generally awful. I haven’t read any of the Shannara books since high school, but I knew even then they were pale imitations of The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a good decade since I read The Sword of Truth and Wheel of Time books, and I wouldn’t have bothered with them if my local library had had a wider selection of audio books on cassette. They’re not just derivative; they’re depressing. They all have an apocalyptic sensibility, an earnestness about what “good” or “truth” might mean, and they all have a ham-handed way of drawing characters on a human scale against the backdrop of their “world-building.”

That’s prologue to say that Abercrombie falls in the vast middle between the great escapism of George Martin and the doorstopper Tor paperback wasteland. And, with the exception of Robin Hobb, I don’t know anyone else who’s so satisfyingly workmanlike in the field.

Backing up a bit, I found myself needing a good long, unserious diversion as the semester hit its dog days. I couldn’t find the energy to pick up something I suspected might be great, but I needed something to read. I’ve been in noir for a long time, so it seemed time to find something in fantasy. I read a promising review of this, and by good luck it’s what was promised.

Sure there’s a detailed world here, but Abercrombie also gives us a clean layout: the Union is an island of civilization surrounded by barbarian threats to the north and south. We get a couple of heroes from each place – Jazel and West from the Union, Logen from the North, and Ferro from the South – plus a variety of incidental others, most notably the wizard Bayaz and the inquisitor Glokta. Again, reducing it to the simplest level, this volume is basically concerned with the way most of them come together into a ‘fellowship’ representing the different nations against a dark magic evil.

While all that is familiar ground, there are also many satisfying wrinkles. There’s texture to almost everyone. Jazel is an arrogant son of the elite, and he has a compelling relationship with West’s commoner sister, challenging what he thinks he knows and showing him as a not always likeable guy. West himself has a violent streak that gives him dimension. Glokta has a compelling backstory as the victim of years of torture. Logen, perhaps too superman-ish in his fighting prowess, carries a deep fear inside him. And the Union itself, far from being an exemplar of freedom, is a corrupt bureaucracy.

This isn’t high art, but it is well done fantasy. It doesn’t expand the genre, but it lives inside it, showing it’s possible to populate “high fantasy” with characters who are compelling beyond their Dungeons and Dragons powers.

Word of warning if you’re intrigued: this is not a stand-alone book. It leads right into the second volume and, I assume, from there to the third. If you buy in, you’re looking at close to 2500 pages. I doubt this will hold up that long, but it’s got a good way to go before it descends to late Wheel of Time territory, so I’ve already got volume two queued up.


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Monday, April 17, 2017

Review: The Worst Class Trip Ever

The Worst Class Trip Ever The Worst Class Trip Ever by Dave Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Roughly 30 years ago, Dave Barry was one of the three or four funniest people in America. He wasn’t a stand-up comedian, but he cranked out a column (weekly, as I recall) that almost never failed. He had a gentle way of poking fun at himself and our larger middle American mores, and he had an astonishing ability to work with rhythm: sentence rhythm and the rhythm of humor.

It’s been a long time since I read him, but when I saw this one I figured it would be great for sharing with the family. The good news is, the kids mostly liked it and it helped me as we drove a big stretch of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The bad news…

I don’t know where the humor went. Apart from a silly/sweet opening section where the father gets trapped by an alligator on their lawn, while wearing nothing but his loose old boxers, little of this resonated with the work I remember. Instead, this one is predicated on a surprising cruelty. There’s a kid who farts a lot – so the others have license to make fun of him – and a huge part of the plot turns on the protagonists racially profiling some fellow airline passengers.

But you know what? I’d forgive such straying from what-we-need-to-tell-the-kids if there were much substance to this. Instead, it felt to me like something he more or less made up as he went, a sloppy narrative that, once started, had nowhere satisfying to go for resolution.

I’ll spare the details but note two of the kids’ reactions:

1) The ten year old called out at one point, “This is just like all the other books I read. It has some nerdy kids, they’re doing something they shouldn’t be, and there’s a pretty girl they’re interested in.” That’s not merely genre; it’s running out of any original vision for a novel that might entertain kids.

2) The 14 year old asked at least twice, “Why don’t they just call the police [and resolve their problems]?” It’s a good and troubling question. The answer, and we get it in the text, keeps changing. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s a sense of adventure. Sometimes it’s because the bad guys have a way to keep it from happening. But the real answer is simply that there’s no story if they undertake that perfectly reasonable plan. In short, the whole book suffers from being utterly contrived.

Look, I realize this is a book for kids, and I admit mine did say they liked it. Still, the Dave Barry of a generation ago would have known how to make this something both generations would have enjoyed. I’ll go two stars since I’m not the target audience, but that column sure feels like a long time ago.


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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives

The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I mostly enjoyed this volume of the series, particularly because it does what I think Sandman does best: explore its own terns and contradictions. This tells of Morpheus and his sister Delirium going on a quest to find their vanished brother Destruction. In some of the best ways from these episodes, it’s an allegory. We live in an age when we’re insulated from the kind of destruction that used to define and redefine cultures. Our technology protects us in our everyday lives, and our political institutions (which our current moment is putting to the test) protect us as states. There’s something appropriately sad in the way Destruction has simply checked out. He knows he isn’t needed in a world that is, for at least us privileged Westerners, so comfortably secure.

In any case, I admired this at that level on my own, but Peter Straub’s afterword helped me see it even more dramatically. The culmination here is the killing of Orpheus, a character I haven’t much appreciated before this. He’s striking in his immortal beheaded state, but he becomes really interesting in the way Straub frames this: for Gaiman here, all existence is brief next to the Everlasting. One man can live for 1500 years, but when Death comes for him it’s still the end. In what may be my favorite moment from the volume, the goddess Ishtar, diminished from two millennia without worshippers, moves into non-existence through a final, too-beautiful-for-humans dance. Everything human, even the gods we imagine for ourselves, must die.

This is, in other words, a meditation on change in the way that large parts of The Fairie Queene and other Renaissance works are. We get a glimpse of the world as it might look from the perspective of eternity, but then we are reminded that, as mortals, we will never be able to know what eternity feels like. Morpheus knows, and he knows that we cannot know, so his view of us humans takes on an intriguing pity and condescension. Add to that Delirium’s incapacity to understand the, to her, blink-of-an-eye span of a human life, and these characters take on a power we haven’t always seen.

I still think Gaiman could be more efficient with such a message – we get tangents and characters who seem to take us in other directions. And I am troubled by the inconsistent artwork, much of which strikes me as average at best. (It’s a shame Gaiman couldn’t have settled on a single artist and developed the project over time with him or her.)

Still, I feel persuaded more than I have been that this one has some real insight. I may never become quite the Sandman (or Gaiman) believer that so many people I admire are, but I am in this for the long haul, and am already teeing up volume number 8.


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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The Sellout

The Sellout The Sellout by Paul Beatty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have two distinct reactions to this much-talked about book:

1) This is easily the flat-out funniest book I’ve read since Mark Leyner’s Gone with the Mind. If you like your fiction with a triple dose of stand-up humor, this is it. I rarely went more than a page without a laugh out loud snort, and Beatty has the capacity to keep the jokes coming. Whether it’s conceptual material – like the plots of demented (and racist) lost Little Rascals shorts or the notion of a pot smoking Black L.A. farmer being charged in the Supreme Court as Me (changed from Meade) vs. The United States of America – great shtick, this just stays funny.

I enjoyed the humor here so much that I found myself taking it, uncharacteristically, in small bites. Short as this is, it took me almost two weeks to finish because I’d enjoy a piece of it and then put it down. I was never in a hurry to be finished with it; I simply enjoyed having another slice of it to get to each day.

2) This is also a sophisticated critique of supposed post-racial America. It’s so sophisticated, in fact, that I can’t quite determine the nature of its critique. At one level, it’s exploring the disturbing idea that African-Americans might somehow be softened by the absence of the overt racism. That’s certainly the surface premise: our protagonist determines he will bring back segregation and even slavery, and the results are positive (in the ironic context of the novel).

That premise is so clearly ironic, though, that the novel seems at the same time to be critiquing the idea that anything so simple could explain the condition of African-Americans in the 21st century. Rather than promoting a return to racism, it mocks easy solutions. It makes fun of the idea that there’s anything straightforward or clear about the way we understand race.

Even more deeply, though, I think this is an experiment in form, a test to see how much the novel can contain. I heard an interview with Beatty as I worked through this, and he told Marc Maron that one of his early mentors told him (and I paraphrase) that the world was going to have to learn to read him. This work mixes so many seemingly disparate and conflicting ideas and tones, that it never quite resolves into anything. As soon as it starts to feel as if it’s coherent, there comes a new element to destabilize the whole. That’s true with the frame device – our narrator lighting up a joint as his case appears before the Supreme Court – and it’s true of the addition of one character after another: his father, the ex-Little Rascal and would-be slave Hominy, his bus-driving girlfriend, and the whole crew of the Dum-Dum Donuts Intellectuals. Each new element seems to set the whole edifice wobbling again.

That strange mix often left me feeling as if I didn’t understand Beatty’s overall point. I admit I found that frustrating at times. I wanted this book to resolve itself, not just by way of plot but moreso in its tone.

As my memory of it fades, though (I finished it a couple days ago), I think I admire its irresolution all the more. Like the best stand-up comics, Beatty is true first of all to his material. He doesn’t fit his characters to some narrowly defined moral vision. Instead, he turns them loose. The result has some comforts (to go along with its many great laughs) but it has its enduring provocations as well. This book isn’t “about” anything specific. Instead, it’s a brave and unpredictable inquiry into what I might call “the weird” of contemporary race. He mines some of the least funny threads of American culture and history and dares us to laugh at them. There’s a little Mel Brooks sensibility, but there may be even greater ambition since it’s challenging the technology of the novel rather than the technology of film.

I recommend this one. Worst case scenario, you’ll laugh until you cry. Best case, you’ll realize your laughter and tears are two of the inevitable reactions to the history that’s shaped us.


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If this were the only Sandman volume I’d read, I’d probably think of it as a four-star work. Since I’ve seen how excellent this series can be (in A Game of You) and I’ve seen its initial – very different – premises all the way back to Preludes and Nocturnes, I find it a bit wanting. When Gaiman’s exploring the myths he’s created – as opposed to refitting myths and fables from other sources – there’s a naked brilliance to his work. While he sometimes has interesting commentary, much of this feels like showing off.

There’s a clear formula here: find an incident or character from history, whether the French Revolution or Marco Polo, and retell it in such a way that Morpheus and his dreams play a crucial part. It’s one story after another, generally well written (though often drawn in uninspired fashion) but it comes to feel as if we are getting material from Mr. Gaiman’s file folder of obscure stories (or familiar stories made obscure), as if he’s plucked out whatever struck his fancy for that issue rather than sat down to further the story he began himself.

By this point in the series we have a Morpheus who is more or less all-powerful. I don’t mind that; in fact I like it very much except for the fact that this began as a very different premise. The Morpheus we met at first was a god who’d been humbled by a human, and then he was a weakened figure who had to set out to recover his full power. This Morpheus suffers no threat, has no real conflict to concern himself with. He becomes almost a Rod Serling of the obscure, the character linking an anthology series. Again, that’s not a bad thing in itself, but it’s a change from the implicit promise of the series’ beginning.

Gaiman started telling one kind of story and then began to tell another. I understand that half these stories appeared before and half after A Game of You, but that just adds to my sense that, clever as most of these are, they’re filler for the larger stories Gaiman can sometimes tell.

On the plus side, the two strongest stories here are probably the last two, “Parliament of Rooks” and “Ramadan.” In the first of those, an overactive toddler with a mother pushed to her limits, falls into dream and wanders into Morpheus’s castle. While I am irritated to find the requisitioned Cain and Abel, squabbling brothers who owe as much to Krazy Kat as Genesis, I love the rest of this. Almost nothing happens beyond a square off of story-telling, but it’s haunting and beautiful to see the toddler explore the new world he’s tumbled into. It feels like an updated Little Nemo, but it also feels all Gaiman.

The last story involves more of the Morpheus involving himself in history trope that I tend to find irritating, but it works here. The great Sultan Haroun al-Raschid rules over a Baghdad which is the wonder not just of its time but of all time. It is a city so full of magic and art that even Haroun can barely take it all in. It’s so wondrous, so self-evidently the apex of civilization, that he becomes saddened at the thought that it will one day fade. Aware of all that, he summons Morpheus and makes a deal: He will give his city to the dream lord so that it will exist in a dimension that human dreamers can intermittently return to forever. As with the best of these Sandman stories, it reaches a poetry that’s rare not just in this genre but in any.

I’m moving on with the series, and volume 7 is already lined up. If this is the worst it gets, then it’s going to worth reading straight on through to the end. I just hope Gaiman works more to tell extended stories drawing on his own best creations.


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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the term doesn’t already exist, I want to coin this a ‘hardboiled novel of manners’. There’s a genteel novel-of-manners feel to it as we get a lot of attention on the niceties of how properly to entertain someone, how architecture or fashion functions as social statement, and how people generally express themselves through subtle public gestures.

Highsmith’s central insight seems to be that civilization (or what she has her characters call “society” when it comes to the fore in the final pages) is a thin veneer on top of a species with the capacity to be real animals. Bruno says as much in the opening scene when he declares that every man is capable of murder, and that’s borne out. Everyone (except the saintly Anne) is indeed capable of murder. We need laws to keep us from going wild, but it isn’t clear society truly wants that. Most of the characters seem happy to tolerate murder as long as it doesn’t affect them. It just seems understood that people do bad things.

Highsmith uses that hardboiled axiom to explore the famous premise of the novel: two men meet on a train and toy with the idea of having each commit a murder on the other’s behalf. Without motives, each murderer would go unsuspected, yet each would accomplish his goal.

In Hitchcock’s hands, that story became a chance for him to explore his own favored notion of a protagonist who, somehow a little guilty or compromised (whether for listening to a murderous stranger on a train or simply peeping into a neighbor’s window) finds himself a fundamentally innocent man bound up with truly despicable people. Highsmith’s vision is much darker. [SPOILER] Most tellingly, Guy actually goes on to commit the murder that Bruno wants from him. Hitchcock gives his protagonist an out; he eventually pulls himself back from the “deal” he’s entered into. Highsmith’s protagonist gets broken down, however. Under the pressure of Bruno’s obsession, he proceeds to kill Bruno’s father. Later, he begins to echo many of the more Bruno’s more despicable quirks. At the end he determines that anyone can be broken down, that we’re all so fundamentally vicious that the right pressure can turn us all into characters.

There’s a crispness throughout most of this, but I think it falls a bit short in some of its psychological profiling. In the end, I simply don’t find Guy’s breakdown authentic. Compromised as he might be, I don’t accept why he doesn’t go to the police, especially when he has such compelling evidence of Bruno’s guilt. Highsmith writes compellingly, but I think this falls a bit short of the even darker, more efficient Talented Mr. Ripley.

As a final thought, I wondered whether this might in some way be a comment on the then only 6-7 years old Fountainhead. We have here a protagonist who realizes, eventually, that individuals stand apart from a rule-bound society. He feels called to do great things, and he concludes that simple things, like other people’s lives, shouldn’t hold him back.

I have not read The Fountainhead, but is there’s anything to my hunch, this is not a flattering comment. The novel ultimately does not endorse such a vision of the power of the great ego. Rather, we come to find Guy a somewhat small man, a man whose being broken down by another has undermined the real gifts he had. In fact, as I read it, this undermines Ayn Rand altogether. Skeptical as this is of what holds society together, it laments our alone-ness rather than celebrates it.

Highsmith remains the first acknowledged female star of the hardboiled tradition. If all you know of this one is the film, you’re in for a surprise.


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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The small Ohio town where I grew up was a stop on the Underground Railroad. One of my neighbors lived in a house supposedly old enough to have been part of the actual network, and I remember climbing into a rocky little space that – if it had been there 120 years before – might have been where some slaves hid for a time.

I think of that space and it gives me the illusion of a connection to that overwhelming experience, but I know it’s only an imagined connection. The slaves who fled the unspeakable horrors of the plantations endured things far worse than what the metaphor of “underground railroad” suggests, but that’s what we call it.

The central power of this novel is that it takes that metaphor and makes it real. It’s no longer just a way of describing people who came together desperately to fight slavery; it’s an actual railroad, a set of tunnels dug deeply and impossibly by hands we never see.

That vision alone makes this one striking and memorable. When Cora first gets away from the plantation and finds her way to a station, it feels like the end of a terrible nightmare. She’s saved by the anonymous and staggering work of others. It promises her a way north, and it obligates her to do her part for others who come after. It’s all there, dug in stone and soil.

But this novel is much more than just a metaphor made real, more even than an inspired marriage of the runaway slave narrative and the magic realism method. It’s also about the limits of the collective work of salvation. The bitter truth is that slavery so deeply marks its victims (and, in ways less deserving of sympathy, its victimizers) that there is no real escape. In the closing pages, [SPOILER] when Cora limps down a dismal track along a discovered line of the railroad, the grand promise of the original vision is gone. She’s survived and escaped, but so many others have not.

We get a glimpse in Indiana of what a genuine post-slave community might look like, but the world is too intolerant, too violent to let it stand.

We have, in other words, metaphors to name an experience larger than any one of us, but beneath them lies a suffering that challenges everyone telling story to make fresh. Whitehead does that, and Cora’s dreams have real and rare power in the face of the horrors she has endured. In his imaginative manner, he does it better than Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany (to name two skilled writers who’ve used fantasy or science fiction to probe the experience of slavery). He does it so well, in fact, that I thought at times I was reading the even better still A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

The wonder that comes with the vision of the railroad makes fresh what it meant to resist slavery and its supporters. The collapse of so much of that wonder makes the awfulness of that history come down with new weight as well.


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