Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Dinner at the Center of the Earth Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, nu, how do we find peace in the Middle East?

One answer, at least as Nathan Englander imagines it in this generally masterful novel, is Ariel Sharon’s. “The General,” as we meet him here, never backed down. With him it was always about killing a dozen of them for every one of ours. When the PLO killed a mother and her children in a cross-border raid, he leveled an entire village.

With him, it is always go forward, but there is an end – at least as Ruth, his long-time aide, believes. She sees him readying a “peace bomb,” a plan to produce a lasting peace that would grow out of the military mercilessness to which he gave his life.

But, as is the case for most of the present-tense of this novel, he has given only half his life to that strategy. As in real life, the General suffers a debilitating stroke and remains barely alive. In his half-life, he relives much of the always-attacking nature of his life. At times, Englander’s prose is incandescent here. The scene where the General relives a moment when he and a radioman were blown into the air by a bomb is worth the whole of the novel. It’s horrible, gorgeous, and mystical. And unforgettable.

As it turns out, then, there’s no way to unleash anything like a peace bomb, no way to redeem the violence of the last generation. The most evocative sign of that stasis – aside from the General’s own “limbo” – is Ruth’s son, a guard assigned to look after Prisoner Z. If there’s a point-of-view character who earns my sympathy, it’s the guard. He spends his life pursuing the “request,” really an order, the General made of him. He looks after a man who is no longer a real person, waiting for an end that cannot come. (SPOILER: For me at least, his giving Z the means to kill himself is a hugely satisfying end point. It suggests a middle ground more appealing than the dinner of the title.) The guard simply waits, smoking his life away in the service of the never finished plans of his parents’ generation.

The other significant answer for how to find peace in this novel comes from Prisoner Z, whom, we learn, exceeded the parameters of his secret mission in an attempt to make peace with a Palestinian. The details get a bit blurry, but they turn on his being willing to trust someone, to try to make a human rather than a military connection.

That road fails as well, and he spends the rest of his life as a non-person, underground. It’s one more dimension in which the failures of the last generation limit the prospects of peace in this one.

There is a third approach to something like peace, and it’s where the title comes from. Shira and her Architect love each other across battle lines, and they are willing to seek a middle ground, a theoretically impossible one.

[SPOILER:] As beautiful as the final scene is, where the two of them enjoy a white-cloth meal in a tunnel beneath the battlefield, it comes without quite the build-up of the other possibilities. For most of the novel, Englander is brilliant in the way he bounces backward and forward in time, creating a welcome thriller feel in the way the different chapters of Z’s plot eventually come together.

Shira is a part of that story – though we don’t know it for a long time – but her romance seems to come to the fore too late for full satisfaction. I wish Englander had given us more glimpses of her early so that her love wouldn’t seem quite so out-of-the-blue at the end. I suspect there are scenes I didn’t recognize as hers early on, but it’s the one place I wish Englander had given more. (I’m also not a fan of Z’s Jewish mother – she’s stereotyped in ways that feel a bit lazy for such a gifted writer.)

All in all, this is a powerful look at the grip the last generation still has on today’s Israel. Englander is one of our absolute best short story writers. Here – after a good but not great first novel in The Ministry of Special Cases (also about a prisoner lost in the bureaucracy of a state) – he’s taken another step toward writing the great novel that seems like it’s coming from him.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The premise here was enough to get me: it’s a cross between the caper story (think Oceans 11) and swords and sorcery fantasy. We get glimpses of kings and all sorts of magic, but then we also get the coarse language and perspective of the lower classes. Locke Lamora is, at root, a con man, and the concept is a promising one. How would a cunning low-life fare in a world that we expect to be governed by decaying codes of chivalry and guilds.

There’s a fundamental problem, though. Con-games are only fun if both sides are sharp. If I’m not making myself clear, watch The Sting (or Oceans 11) again. It’s deeply satisfying to find characters who are smarter than we are and who then run into characters who might be smarter still. Confidence games are conflicts of wit, so it’s important to see wit flashing.

And there isn’t a lot of wit here. Locke is our hero because he is our hero. He rarely outsmarts anyone or seems even to have a particularly astute insight. He’s a master of disguise, but much of the story seems contrived to give him chances to utilize that skill.

[SPOILER] In what may be the climax of the first half of the novel – a half that moves far too slowly – Locke masquerades as the Grey King in order to accomplish an obscure errand the King has with the first bandit king. Somehow, it comes as a surprise to Locke that he’s been set up to be killed in the King’s place. Huh? I can’t think of anything more obvious. Of course that’s why the King has recruited him for the mission. I find it impossible to believe that someone fooled that easily could elsewhere be the “thorn of Camorr,” the great secret wit who fleeces everyone.

There’s also a clumsy narrative structure. We get long chunks of backstory, glimpses of Locke and the Gentlemen Bastards as they’re learning to be the great confidence men they become. After a while, it comes to feel as if we get an interruption in the story just so we can go back in time to get the childhood lesson that will allow our heroes to rescue themselves from whatever fix they’re in. It’s all too convenient, too unplanned. Instead of the pleasure of feeling caught in the story that a solid writer has seen for us at a distance, it feels as if we’re going through this with someone who trusts himself to come up with an invention that will move the story forward again.

One last complaint before a final good word. There’s also a disappointing capacity for emotional response. This is, in general a light-hearted story, one that ultimately embraces a ‘cozy’ vision of the universe as a place governed by fundamental decency. In the midst of it, we get some horrific violence, such as when a likeable woman is killed and stuffed in a vat of horse urine. It happens, we hear how outraged Locke is, and then it’s gone. There has to be violence in stories like this, but Lynch just can’t make it work side-by-side with the fundamental light-heartedness of the scenario.

To be fair, though, Lynch does supplement this good premise with a jaunty, colorful style of sentence. I laughed at almost every “godsdamned” that someone said, and I enjoyed the profane language set alongside the basic mysticism.

I’m in a funny place right now, deep into my own writing, and I find I can’t give my full attention to really good writing. This isn’t good writing, but it’s just the level of work I can handle at this point, so I was glad to find it and willing to see it through to the end.

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Review: The Pro

The Pro The Pro by Garth Ennis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Confession time: I decided to give this one a shot when I flipped it open and saw the scene of our seedy prostitute-turned-superhero giving a blowjob to a Superman proxy. Just as he is about to cum, he tells her to move her head, and he shoots his wad through a brick wall and high into the sky where it shears the wing off a passing jet. I thought that was hysterical – which may not say great things about me – and I brought the book up to the register right away.

What I admired in that scene was the utter disregard for the pieties of comics. Introducing the idea of sex, raunchy sex and not the soft-focus of puppy-dog love, seemed brilliant. It seemed, in fact, a whole new frontier for third-generation comics. It was an invitation to a comic that would undercut everything you expect a comic to be and then give something urgently fresh as well. And it had a striking, bold art.

Sorry to report that, outside of that one brilliant scene, there isn’t much to enjoy here.

On the one hand, there’s a deep laziness. Our Pro gets her powers simply because an extraterrestrial being decides he’d like to prove that even the lowliest of humans can be a hero under the right circumstances. (He’s a take on Marvel’s The Watcher, called in this case the Viewer – which another character keeps getting wrong as “the Voyeur.” Mildly funny, but an unexplored premise.) There’s nothing at stake in that, no claim he’s making or testing. Yes, I get that it’s a joke, but it’s a joke within comics – a hee-hee, did you get the reference moment – rather than a joke to make some original point about the nature of voyeurism or indifference to the suffering or experience of others.

Then comes the superhero team who welcomes her. Again, it’s an adolescent, fan-boy wink to the comics ‘other people’ are silly enough to enjoy. We have a Superman clone, a Wonder Woman, a Green Lantern. It’s such a Justice League parody that it has nothing to say other than “look at us for treading on Superman’s cape…aren’t we clever.” There’s a reasonably funny moment when the Green Lantern figure gets his ring finger shot off and, mid-flight, crashes horribly to earth. Otherwise, there’s nothing original or thought-provoking to the characters, other than vague (and tired) implications that someone’s sidekick is probably his boy lover.

Beyond that refusal to develop the situation in any way that might reflect a fresh vision, there’s a surly, half-baked libertarian politics in the air. The Pro raises a couple of potentially intriguing points when she notes that real heroes would have stopped 9/11, or when she realizes that a quasi-police force of superheroes is often the wrong security detail for the job. She suggests loosely that we shouldn’t trust the powerful just because they’re powerful – which is a potentially worthwhile inquiry to make in a comic that put more energy into its project – but even that notion sits lazily above the rest of the action. She doesn’t pursue the insight, and the story moves on as if she never said it.

And, in even uglier fashion, the story seems to celebrate that she’s a low-rent whore. Yeah, there’s something potentially funny about the idea that her superpowers – whatever they are, since we never really learn – allow her to give hand jobs at super speed, but other than a raunchy joke, that doesn’t get developed here. There’s a defiance when she defends her choice to turn cheap tricks, but it’s not clear to what effect. She lives an ugly life – even this book acknowledges that – and she does so without apology. But the only thing we seem to take from that is the idea that no one is morally superior enough to judge her.

In context, that feels less like a reasoned argument for the limits of government – as the Pro discusses in her throwaway monologue – and more like a self-defeating, teenage manifesto: I’m 17 and I can make my own decisions even if you think they’re dumb.

So I recommend passing on this. There’s an extra star for its art and for that one funny scene, but the rest of it falls far short of what my first glimpse suggested it could be.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: Rat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth

Rat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth Rat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In some ways, you know exactly what you’re getting as soon as you open this one. The illustrations have a terrific energy, and that combines with a general irreverence in tone and story to make it something you can’t take too seriously and can’t put down that easily.

I enjoyed the first Rat Queens when I read it a year or so ago, but I’m not sure I saw a sequel in it. The idea there was a lot of fun: imagine a Dungeons and Dragons game of all female heroes. Mix up their ‘races’ – throw in a hobbit like cutie, a half-demon rage queen, a wizard, and a classic fighter – and you have something familiar and striking at the same time. That first story turned on a kind of betrayal, a trap that should have taken out all the town’s heroes but ours.

This one is a lot more complex, and I’m surprised that doesn’t bother me. I resisted volume two for a long time because I figured things reached a natural end in volume one. Suddenly there’s a richer back story than we had before; boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and lost rivals all turn up, and all demand at least a partial re-thinking of the entire situation. There’s also a more serious antagonist, a priest who seems to represent a larger conspiracy that the women will have to face over time.

But, and this is a good thing in my estimate, I don’t feel asked to take any of it too seriously. There’s just enough of the Dungeon Master spiel to give this grounds to keep going, but not enough to make it a heavy-handed ‘high fantasy’ story. Instead, we never have to go long between battles, and those are always cleverly drawn. There’s frenetic energy, a lot of breaking of frames, a lot of blood, and just enough over-the-top humor to remind you why we’re here.

I think it will be a while before I pick up volume three, but I do think it’s likely I will. Sometime before too long when, like now, I’m distracted enough by other work to find it tough to read serious things, I’ll be glad to get back to the clever silliness of the Rat Queens.

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Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a lot of people, I read and admired Moneyball, Lewis’s breakthrough book about the ways the Oakland A’s used new statistical analyses to get an edge over better-funded rivals. It was a book about a powerful idea wrapped inside a pretty good story: how one baseball team went from irrelevant small market team to shapers of the sport overall. It had all sorts of great vignettes about obscure finds that panned out and sure things that flamed out, and it all worked in the service of a specific goal: to get the A’s a World Series win.

Moneyball was so good, that it begged a sequel. What, I wondered along with a lot of baseball fans, would the next generation of smarter-than-the-market baseball thinking bring us. Even in the years after the book’s release, it was clear that some of the A’s insights were getting out of date. For instance, the steroid era had effectively cheapened power hitting. If you had someone with a good batter’s eye, it was likelier he’d be able to develop home run power with the help of steroids. (And, sadly, the A’s did have a number of notorious steroid abusers, most famously Jose Canseco.) In the (mostly) post-steroid era, power hitting was again more expensive and no longer reflected a market inefficiency. That didn’t make Moneyball wrong; it just meant that the problem Lewis described so skillfully was evolving.

You can see the residue of a Moneyball sequel in this good, but not quite as good Lewis book. The first chapter here shows how Daryl Morey, the Billy Bean of basketball in his role as the GM of the Houston Rockets, tried to remake basketball statistics along Moneyball principles. That much is an obvious sequel, one that a lesser writer than Lewis would likely have jumped on. Instead, though, Lewis “undoes” that notion. He describes how, early on, Morey discovered that no amount of statistics could overcome the need for human judgement on the promise of a basketball prospect. He needed to rely on scouts’ opinions, but he realized scouts’ opinions were necessarily unreliable. It was a choice not of certainty, or even always of better odds than otherwise, but of the need to embrace the uncertainty of human decision-making. It was a matter of “undoing” what we thought we’d done well.

So, in the introduction and chapter two, this becomes a different book. In the introduction, Lewis tells of responses to Moneyball, and singles out a review of the book from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler that mentions the work of two Israeli thinkers -- Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – as anticipating what Bean, and even Bill James were doing in baseball. This book becomes Lewis’s answer to Sunstein and Thaler’s review; it becomes his exploration of what Kahneman and Tversky proposed about the fallibility of the human decision-making process.

The ideas the book explores are really interesting ones, and the best parts here come when Lewis renders some slice of them in the clear way he’s so skilled at. I’d heard of confirmation bias, of course, but I get introduced here to all sorts of other decision-making errors. It’s a great experience to realize how easy it is to fall into the errors the two men described, measured, and named.

So the heart of this book is a good nonacademic review of ideas otherwise buried in academic prose. I enjoyed it, and I have the pleasure of feeling smarter for having read it. Still, unlike Moneyball, the great idea(s) isn’t wrapped inside a great story. Lewis spends a lot of time discussing the friendship between Kahneman and Tversky, but there isn’t all that much to it. Set aside the way their lives reflect the early years of the Israeli nation, and this is a story of two opposite personalities who found each other, complemented each other’s thinking, and then slowly drifted apart. There isn’t much meat to it, and that diminishes this as a story.

I give Lewis great credit for excavating his subjects’ work and for refusing to take the easy road to a sequel based on Morey’s experience in basketball. Just as Kahneman and Tversky show us that we have to “undo” much of what we think we know about how our minds work, Lewis “undoes” the obvious book he could have written. The result is something very much worth reading but, as a story that enriches the ideas it explores, it falls short of the excellence of Moneyball.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: Every Anxious Wave

Every Anxious Wave Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a moment early in the musical Urinetown where a character comes on stage and explains the premise: yes, this is a story about a dystopian future where water is rationed, but it’s going to deal only with the question of how people have limited opportunities to pee. If you want to know about the other implications – where will our food come from, how will we stay hydrated – don’t bother. There’s a premise here; get it, roll with it, and enjoy it.

This novel starts out with that same flippant joy. Slacker guy discovers time travel. His one friend, a computer wiz, whips up an app to control it. And they establish a rule that the device can be used only for purposes of going back to watch legendary bands play shows you were too young or not hip enough to see. All that in the first 8-10 pages.

So, yeah, I was on board right away.

And the beginning of this is full of real cleverness and joy. It happens to be set in the Chicago of my own young adulthood, and it’s a bit of an ego stroke to get the sense that 21st century hipsters lust after mid ’90s shows at The Empty Bottle or Lounge Ax, that they’d have wanted to see (and here I venture a bit out of the text) the Young Fresh Fellows, Southern Culture on the Skids, or the not-quite-spent Alex Chilton, all in front of crowds less than 150.

There’s an early fun conflict when Carl accidentally sends his friend back to 980 rather than 1980, and that means he has to seek out another astrophysicist to straighten things out. And she brings a lot of drama.

If you’ve read the back of the book, you know all that, and you’ll know if it sounds appealing. To me, absolutely. And I’m glad to say that Daviau delivers. She finds just the right balance between hip and self-effacing. Carl’s history as the “Garfunkle” of a successful late punk band – one distinguished by its lead singer’s appreciation of the beauty of “chubby girls” – unspools in satisfying ways. I can almost hear them playing “Pin Cushion,” their big hit.

As this moves along, though, I get the sense that Daviau, having spent that great burst of inspiration, started to alter the DNA of the original story.

[SPOILER] Over time, that first principle of time travel gets modified. Part of the joy of Urinetown (written, in part, by a friend of friends from my Chicago near-hipster days, so half a point of street cred to me) is that it never wavered from its goofy premise. Every Single Wave does, though. Whether it’s about trying to prevent John Lennon’s murder or making increasingly complex changes in the life of a friend, the novel becomes more and more about the typical time-travel novel conventions: you can’t control the unintended effects of alterations you make. Our hero makes one change, has to discover its implications, and then has to make further changes.

The continued good news is that Daviau mostly sustains the simple pleasure of her narrative voice, but I can’t help feel a bit cheated. I was supposed to be buying a ticket to see the Replacements playing Ann Arbor in 1985. Instead I’ve got a day pass for Pitchfork. The music’s still good, and there’s enough of it to keep you spinning around, but it’s also something I can get other places. The peculiar magic of the start of this just doesn’t hold up, but there’s enough cleverness and fun to make it worthwhile seeing how all the frayed ends get sewn back together.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember this novel from a review I read when it first came out more than 15 years ago. The premise sounded amazing, and I still think so. This begins as a masterpiece.

One of my favorite philosophers is Gaston Bachelard whose focus is on the experience of home. He explores the degree to which we understand ourselves based on the degree to which we feel at home in a certain place or among a certain group.

In that light, this novel begins as a powerful exploration of two people who find “home,” who find the completion of themselves, in the same place. Kathy is a mostly down-on-her-luck recovering addict who needs the house to feel a connection to a past she’s trying to recover. She wants to be the person she once imagined, and the house is part of making that happen in the wake of being abandoned by her fellow addict boyfriend.

Massoud is a former Iranian colonel, an officer who fled the country as the Shah fell and brought a stash of money with him. He’s spent the last 15 years watching his resources dwindle and experiencing his own slide into irrelevance. When he buys the house in a tax sale, it promises a new beginning. It gives him his first real stake in America, and it promises to make him whole again.

That conflict is powerful, and Dubus writes lyrically about each character. The story is compelling as each works toward her or his need around the house. He has to make immediate changes so it can be more valuable in resale. She has to circle around it when, homeless, she is no longer certain where she belongs.

Unfortunately, the novel takes a turn into something else midway through. [SPOILER] I have no problem with Kathy’s falling in love with a police officer who’s dealing with his own deep discontent, but it does bother me that he becomes more and more the driver of the plot. His sudden love for Kathy has him enlist, violently, on her side.

The final quarter of the book, then, is less an exploration of the powerful grip a home can have on you than it is a study in the way desire and frustration can boil over. It’s still a compelling story, one that has the grip-your-attention power of a suspense story when you know, with dread, what’s coming but can’t look away.

And, throughout, this is written in a beautiful fashion, one that recalls in parts for me the very different tone of Jefferey Eugenides.

So, this is a powerful work, one I’m glad to have

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