Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: Dawn

Dawn Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had Butler’s work on my radar for a long time, and I understand a lot of its appeal. She takes a lot of what works in classic science fiction (from the Arthur C. Clarke era) and crosses it with concerns about race and gender. There’s a lot to think about here, and it mostly works: Lilith is one of a small number of humans to survive a nuclear holocaust, and an alien race rescues and then selects her to lead a group of humans who will repopulate the earth.

I suspect the radical take on sexuality grabbed a lot of people when this came out almost a quarter century ago (yup – time flies). The alien race has three genders, males, females, and a third race that processes the genetic exchange during sexual reproduction. These aliens aren’t on earth for pure generosity, though; they want to exchange some genetic material with us to improve their species as well as ours. As a consequence, the first humans to be born in this new world will have five parents. Two humans and three aliens. That’s intriguing, and it raises a lot of social questions without seeming to force them on a story that can’t accommodate them.

On top of that, the aliens explain that we are a fatally flawed species. Our need for hierarchy, with all the conflict and eventual violence it promises, means we will never be able to leave our world and move onto the greater freedom of the stars. Maybe our new children, graced with some of the aliens’ genes, will overcome that and move on.

The radical idea I prefer, though, is the notion that these aliens have little interest in technology as we know it. Instead, they have a capacity for genetic modification that permits them to cause organic life to become its spaceships, suspended animation cells, and food producers. That’s a smaller part of the plot, but I think it’s even more radical and likely more distinctive.

So, the context here is terrific, as rich as anything I know of from that classic 1950s to early 1970s sci-fi era. But the plot…well, this is ultimately a fairly slow novel. Like a lot of the Clarke I’ve seen, this novel is so enamored with the ideas it brings into play (and, to be fair, for good reason) that its characters and actions seem to fade away. We know from an early point that Lilith is scheduled to be part of this new repopulation effort. And, at the risk of betraying a few spoilers, I’d say that’s more or less it.

Things do happen, but we spend a lot more time having one or another character filling us in on facts of this new and changed world. The ratio of lecture to movement is pretty high, and I found myself squirming in places. The ideas of this books haven’t aged, but the story structure has. Not enough happens to carry the weight of this interesting challenge to what we think we know.

I do recommend this in general, but I doubt I’ll go on to the rest of the trilogy. Instead, I have another of Butler’s novels queued up, and I’m looking forward to it in the coming months.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Gone with the Mind

Gone with the Mind Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have three completely different (and favorable) reactions to this bizarre and funny book.

1) I don’t think I’m the only one who’s irritated by a tendency in some contemporary post-modern work to deal with what I like to call “the disease of the self.” That is, we get major works that confront self-ness in ways that almost put Proust to shame. There’s a lot to enjoy in Karl-Ove Knausgaard, for instance, and the ambition in David Foster Wallace is impressive, but after a while, I’m frustrated by the unspoken premise: “If you pay attention to me in all my microscopic contradictions and discomforts, you’ll be more aware of your own hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Dive with me into the depths of my self, and you’ll get insight into all of us.” For all its brilliance, I can’t help seeing it as the equivalent of literary selfies.

The trouble with that, I can’t help feeling, is that, for all that we do have in common, we are also very different. I tend to admire fiction that puts our differences into conversation. In fact, that’s how my father and the great critic Mikhail Bakhtin define it: the collision between two or more perspectives through the specific narrative of the story. I’m not arguing for a glib superficiality; stories about multiple perspectives need to excavate those perspectives as full and meaningful selves. And I’m not rejecting the idea that great literature can be obsessed with the self – think of a lot of what Joyce did. Instead, I’m just saying that, for some of the literature earning praise in our moment, there’s too much emphasis on the individual self of the writer.

In that context, Mark Leyner is absolutely brilliant. This weird and wonderful book parodies disease-of-the-self narratives by presenting us with someone who writes a post-modern autobiography – complete with excerpts of various personality inventories and testimony from his mother – with the presumed expectation that others will want to read it. Instead, when he appears at the local mall food court for his part in the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series,” no one comes. Or, rather, two employees on their break sit at tables in the back and serve as reluctant listeners.

And yet, despite no one’s caring, Leyner (putting himself forward as his own character) keeps on reading. Or, without quite reading, he gives a five or six hour prologue to the work he tells us he’ll read. No one sits waiting for this work, yet it consumes his every bit of energy and creativity. In the loneliness of writing the book, he’s invented an “imaginary intern,” an invisible friend who helps him conceive of and research the autobiography – and who himself eventually tires of the project and leaves Mark entirely alone.

If all that sounds like an easy joke, Leyner is brilliant enough to pull it off. He twists and turns his narrative so often, and he brings new and bizarre lines of inquiry in so skillfully, that the concept never gets old. The spectacle of Mark’s navel-gazing is both pitiful and inspiring. This brilliant, neurotic, clever and (ultimately) humane thinker, never gets old. He really is fascinating, and the book leaves that irony twisting: our journey into his needy self is both a glimpse at someone craving attention and a reminder that none of us has the attention to give to another. It’s a parody of one postmodern impulse, and, in its humanizing of the need for one man’s wanting to be seen, it really does invite the rest of us into a fresh new conversation.

2) The trope of the Jewish mother as ‘smother has been done. Whether you locate its roots in Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, or Woody Allen, you have to recognize it as a cliché: the Jewish mother can see no wrong in her little boy and, as a consequence, she’s responsible for everything that’s gone wrong with him. Far less skilled writers have kept it going, and we’re left with awful examples of it in, say, Howard Wolowitz’s mother in The Big Bang Theory, or Evelyn Harper of Two and a Half Men (who, not Jewish, is written by the Jewish Chuck Lorre).

Here, though, Leyner, revisits that trope. Instead of demonizing his mother, he explores her sacrifices on his behalf. He finds her his best friend and, slowly but beautifully, his best critic. They may have impeded each other throughout their lives, each keeping the other from developing in other independent ways, but they have also built something together.

In what I think of as the climax of the book, the two of them find themselves in a bathroom, looking for faces in the cracks on the floor. She wants to see his imaginary intern, wants to enter that fully into his imagination, but she can’t. Or he won’t let her. Either way, the two genuinely embrace each other, and he discovers that his voice is largely hers; he discovers (as he’s talked of in his imaginary video game) that his ideal is to be united with her, but to be united in his own, full self. He doesn’t want to erase his life, and he doesn’t blame her for his failings. He just flat out loves her. And that’s a refreshing take on a now too easy cliché.

3) Or, I can say flat out that this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages. Forget context if you want: this book never goes more than a handful of pages without offering something profoundly funny, without making you laugh out loud. It’s a stand-up routine so smart, so well-conceived, that you could probably pick a random page and find yourself fully entertained.

Leyner knows what he’s doing, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.

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Review: Gun Monkeys

Gun Monkeys Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited for this one, having heard it’s one of the contemporary noir standouts. And the premise is good, if tangled: Charlie Swift is the ace muscle for an aging organized crime boss in Orlando, Florida. Heavies from Miami, the feds, and corrupt feds are all after the operation, and Charlie has to go out on his own to make everything right.

The good news is that this is one long adrenaline rush. It’s the hardboiled equivalent of the movie Speed where nothing ever stops. Or, if you prefer, it’s a modern day Fast One, Paul Cain’s 1932 supercharged parody of the genre. Charlie never stops going, never takes a break even after he’s shot a third time and finds himself depending on serious pain pills.

Gischler writes with a nice, sustained aggression, and things never bog down. It’s a full-length novel, but you might still read it one sitting – it’s that gung ho.

At the same time, though, this is so cartoonishly violent that it loses the thoughtful edge I prize in the best of the genre. This is fun – sadistic, malicious fun – but in never slowing down it also never allows much substance to rise to the surface. Charlies kills because, well, he’s a killer. And he’s loyal. And he worries about his mother and his kid brother, but there’s never much examination of why. He’s a “gun monkey” trained to do his one job, and he keeps firing until he’s finished. Others are with him or against him, and their motives are as opaque as his.

Gischler also has a nice capacity for keeping things going. Like his protagonist (but with words instead of instruments of violence) he’s a pro, someone who has the capacity to keep it all going. You can find a lot of quick descriptions that do the job efficiently and cleverly, and you can learn some useful things about writing in the genre by paying attention to how he does it all here.

In the end, there may not be much depth here, but the flash is fast and fun. You could do worse.

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Review: Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife

Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife by William J. Helmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a little strange to think of this as Bill Helmer’s book. (For what it’s worth, I’ve met Bill a couple times and we have a handful of mutual friends.) The truth is, most of this book is written by Georgette Winkeler (a name I’ve always spelled “Winkler”) the widow of Gus Winkler, a Chicago gangster I spent a fair bit of time looking into several years ago.

The simple fact of Georgette’s text is hard to believe. There were more “tell-all” gangster narratives in the 1930s than popular memory recognized; it wasn’t until later gangster histories created a context for things like Dutch Schultz’s lawyer Dixie Davis’s memoirs that later scholars could begin to tie them into a more consistent narrative of organized crime. Still, the idea that a gangster widow would write a book-length account of her life – and that she would name names – is a real surprise. I hadn’t heard of the account until Helmer brought it out, and I’ve done my share of digging.

So, the existence of Georgette’s account makes this worthwhile without anything else. Hearing even her choice of words goes a long way toward showing a forgotten side of life in that moment. If Georgette has a thesis (at least a thesis beyond presenting herself as largely innocent and Gus as the victim of the Italians under Frank Nitti) it’s that the Capone “syndicate” (her word) was a fairly big tent. She charges that Gus got into the syndicate as part of Capone’s team of “American boys,” tough bank-robber sorts whom he found use for in running his gangster operations.

She sees Gus’s death as part of a pattern in which the “dagoes” – fueled in part by ethnic loyalty – got rid of the “American boys.” (Jack “Three Fingers” White was killed around the same time as Gus, for instance.) It’s an intriguing thesis: the end of Prohibition meant a tightening of the guard, and it also meant a more distinctly ethnic makeup. I suspect we’d see something similar post-World War II when the Syndicate took out, among others, Dago Mangano; at a glance I’d guess the “Italian” syndicate became more Sicilian than it had been. (That’s just a guess, though; many non-Italians remained important then: Jack Guzik, Gus Alex, and Murray Humphreys among others.)

Anyway, as interesting as that is, it’s also hard not to get distracted during the long, self-serving accounts. I really enjoyed only a couple of chapters here – particularly the ones around the killing of Ted Newberry – but I pressed on through the whole books for the occasional nugget of information or striking expression.

Bill Helmer is responsible for the apparatus that surrounds this. He inserts a handful of chapters between Georgette’s in order to clarify her story and give more historical background to it. My concern there is that while Helmer knows this material very, very well, he’s also more a reporter/raconteur than a historian. He gives as fact his own favorite theories – such as that Fred Burke was a chief gunman at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre or that Fred Goetz killed Frankie Yale. I’ll credit those as plausible, but they aren’t settled. Helmer has done substantial research to prove them elsewhere, but it’s troubling to find them asserted as fact in a setting like this.

Bottom line: this is a remarkable document, but it doesn’t open all that much new ground. It’s amazing that, almost 90 years later, we’re still finding relevant new material about Al Capone’s world, but this is not at all the place to start with that history.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: Between Here and the Yellow Sea

Between Here and the Yellow Sea Between Here and the Yellow Sea by Nic Pizzolatto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I imagine most people have found this collection after seeing Pizzolatto’s work on True Detective. The snippets I’ve seen make it seem excellent, and it’s high on my to-watch list, but I’m here more because I very much enjoyed his novel, Galveston. It was the best of several hardboiled novels I got to in a row a year or two ago, and he’s been on my radar since.

This collection is certainly solid, and I enjoyed more or less all the stories in it. As I see it, Pizzolatto does two things particularly well. First, he conjures a sense of place. Whether these stories come from St. Louis, the Louisiana Gulf, ex-urban Indianapolis, or Port Arthur, Texas, you get the sense he knows his scene. It feels as if each place is his hometown, as if he’s bringing a lifetime’s worth of perspective to it.

Second, at least in the first nine stories, he has a clear hardboiled/noir sensibility. He seems to tell his stories in the crisp, clear order in which they should be told. His characters are genuinely haunted and face genuine dilemmas. They’re guided by philosophies, but their philosophies take them only so far.

I bracket off the last two stories because, as the notes report, they were added to an earlier edition that had only those first nine. These last two stories are very good, better than most of the early ones, but they strike me as having a different feel. They’re more ambitious in their narrative structure, more complex in the way they frame the questions. They are, in other words, less hardboiled, less directed toward some set of primal questions. I’m not complaining at their inclusion, but they do seem to alter the mood of the collection.

As far as I’m concerned, the strongest story here is the first, “Ghost Birds.” Its central character is a BASE jumper; he’s secured a night watchman job at the St. Louis Arch, and he jumps from it, camouflaged at night. When a college girl figures out his secret, she demands he teach her the skills, and they fall in love. He’s lost an earlier girlfriend, though, and he can’t imagine bringing this one into something so dangerous. That’s just the outline, but the dilemma is powerful, and the price he pays for his sense of justice is compelling.

I also very much liked “1987, The Races,” about a kid who, sensing his father’s humiliation, further humiliates him for no clear reason. Other good ones are “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” “The Guild of Thieves, Lost Women and Sunrise Palms,” and “Nepal” (the last noir of the original nine stories).

On the evidence of this and Galveston, to say nothing of his reputation for True Detective, Pizzolatto remains the real deal.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: 1Q84

1Q84 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I see it, magical realism works from a basic premise. In its most famous form(s), in Garcia Marquez or Bashevis Singer for instance, it takes the “real,” – the experience of our everyday -- crosses it with the imagined or impossible, and explores a middle ground of almost-possibility. The story happens in that middle ground (or twilight) between what we know and what we imagine. It’s a great technique, and there’s a reason it generated as many Novel prizes as it did.

In Haruki Murakami’s best work – Kafka on the Shore, Hardboiled Wonderland, or Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – he does something different. He also starts from two places and works toward a middle ground, but neither is in and of itself real or magical. Instead, each thread of his stories is already a combination of the real and the magical. He famously braids two lines of narrative, but what strikes me as his “formula” (a word I do not use pejoratively) is to demonstrate that everyone’s situation is already ‘magically real.’ His middle ground is the space in which two characters, each already confronting the impossible and magical, have their stories overlap.

In other words, he takes the traditional magical realism method to the second power. He is “squaring” the destabilizing effect of the genre, not giving us a stable place to recognize as “the normal,” and, instead, inviting us into a large and swirling experience of strange and unsettling images. That formula may sound easy – and I thought it was when I first read his work – but if it really is easy, then show me someone, anyone, who can do it half as well. It works because Murakami has the deepest imagination of any writer alive.

That’s a long prologue, but it lets me say that, as much I do enjoy this book, I think it falls short of Murakami at his best.

First, it simply has a lot of redundancy. The two threads here – the Tengo story and the Aomame story – are each intriguing, but Murakami is uncharacteristically clumsy in resuming each one. That is, we’ll get a Tengo chapter followed by an Aomame chapter, but then we’ll get a recap when we get back to Tengo. There is a charming “In our last episode…” quality to it, but it also feels a bit condescending and a lot time-wasting. This is almost 1000 pages long (and they’re long pages), and those recaps feel like unnecessary filler.

Second, part of what makes Kafka at the Shore or Hardboiled Wonderland so great is that they feel like separate novels. You simply don’t know how those different threads will connect, and that’s largely true even at the end, when, even if the separate worlds touch, there’s an incompleteness to their merger. That fundamental mystery feels almost theological, and it shows Murakami at his most magical (at his most magically squared?). In this case, we know from the start how Tengo and Aomame are connected. It’s as if, in this, his longest novel, he telegraphs a key element of the ‘ending.’

With that, Murakami is more explicit about his inquiries here, too. We get more explanations from all-knowing characters (like Leader, Fuka-Eri, or even the Dowager) than usual, and the metaphysical terms seem to be on the table more than usual. In addition to the great imagery we’re accustomed to – the idea of a “cat town” from which no trains depart, of a world where two moons hang in the night sky, or of a concept as compelling as an ‘air chrysalis’ – we get a lot of explanation about what Murakami thinks he’s doing. As one character puts it, “There is nothing in this world that never takes a step outside the human heart to be seen in the evening sky.” I find that a gorgeous line, but I also find it a bit condescending. It feels like our author is explaining his method at the same time as he is demonstrating it. I prefer the unexplained magic of his other work. As another character puts it toward the end, “It’s very difficult to logically explain the illogical.” Agreed. And that’s why the explanations we do get diminish the power of the illogical at the heart of this.

I don’t want to go too far in carping about this, though. In many ways, it’s the best love story I’ve seen from Murakami, and there is a maturity here beyond something like Sputnik Sweetheart, an earlier novel where he seems to be just figuring out how wide he can spread his magical net. There is something moving about Tengo’s stolid commitment to doing what he does well. And there is a compelling righteousness in the way Aomame refuses to watch women be battered. This is set not in our own history but in 1Q84, but it feels like an examination of our world, particularly in its echoes of the Aum Shinrikyo subway attack. In that light, Murakami refuses to condemn or to embrace traditional theology; rather, as he so often does, he gives it a magical weight and lets it be a further variable in his study of what is real and what lies just beyond the bounds of the real.

If you’re new to Murakami, I suggest starting elsewhere. If you’ve read your share, then go for it knowing that this has many of the virtues of his best work but that it’s not quite as nimble, not quite as magically fragile as his best.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review: Bust

Bust Bust by Ken Bruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I was reading (and enjoying this) I found myself thinking about the parallels between hardboiled/noir fiction and the sonnet. Each is a form that implies a subject: sonnets are fourteen lines of metered verse, and they’re usually about love, requited or otherwise. Noir is a short novel with clipped sentences, and it’s usually about murder, sex, and betrayal, There are great exceptions in either case (think of Auden’s sonnets or James Ellroy’s noir) but part of what makes each great is that the “rules” are so formalized. As writers and readers we enter into an implicit contract: surprise us by giving us just what we expect.

In that light, Bruen – or maybe Bruen and Starr since this is my first Starr – are flat-out pros. Maybe they aren’t Shakespeares of the form (that would be Hammett and Chandler in this metaphor, I suppose) but they’re awfully good. They make it seem easy and they make it seem fresh. Yet I know as both a reader and a writer that it’s tough to pull this off.

Some of the reviews tout Bruen’s humor, and I think that’s fair. There is a dark humor here, a skilled laughing at the absurdities of the dark side of life. Consider this line from late in the book, “If he’d just had a thing for flat-chested women, none of this would have happened.” Or this one. “Who said money couldn’t buy happiness? Some dumb bastard who bought discount, probably.” Those are great lines, but they’re not simply punch lines. They’re earned as insight into the characters who utter them. In other words, there’s a lot to laugh at here, but the laughs come after the fundamental human comedy: we’re programmed to do stupid things

I could point out that most of the characters here are clichés: the fiery Irish femme fatale, the paunchy and horny middle-aged businessman, the off-his-rocker IRA assassin, even the bitter U.S. army vet (who happens to be wheelchair bound). But if I do point that out, it’s not in complaint; it’s in admiration. We’ve seen these pieces of the puzzle before – we’ve heard voices like this one before – but there’s still something new in the way they come together here.

The novel is part of a tradition, and it revels in that. Each chapter has a quote to start off, a tip of the battered cap to classic noir, to a friend’s work, or to the authors’ own. It knows it isn’t doing entirely original, but that’s the point. You don’t expect originality in a sonnet either; you expect instead a variation on an established theme. You don’t get it all that often, so celebrate it when you do.

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Review: Wake Me Up

Wake Me Up Wake Me Up by Justin Bog
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have known Justin Bog since before he was a Justin or a Bog, and it’s a moving experience to read this novel for a glimpse at the kid I knew before I had any real sense of what it meant for someone to be gay. I was generally clueless about the possibility that something like that could inform someone’s identity, and I was certainly clueless about the pain people like protagonist Chris Bullet went through.

And it is a great deal of pain, literal pain, that Chris experiences. It’s no spoiler to say that he’s brutally attacked by four boys on suspicion of being gay. We learn as much in the first several pages, and – hard as it is to read the scene – it seems appropriate. This novel works in part by making homophobia into a real and palpable thing; it takes that hatred, puts it on the faces of four boys (one, in particular, an almost tolerant kid who’s frightened by the thought that he might be mistaken for being a homosexual himself), and then transfers all that hatred and fear to a baseball bat. It’s real, and we’re all struck by it.

From there, the novel proceeds to am intriguing omniscient narrative device: Chris, comatose, becomes aware of all that is happening and of all that has happened to him. It’s a tangled story. His mother is a poet dealing with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. His father has recently had an affair, and has a pregnant estranged lover. His grandfather is a serial philanderer and absent parent, and the town of Middleton, Montana itself is grappling with an intolerance it hasn’t fully acknowledged.

The novel leaves us with the ‘what-will-happen’ tension of whether Chris will survive, but its real crisis is the degree to which Chris will arrive at an understanding of the world in which he finds himself. He is a victim; there is, sadly, no denying that. But the larger question is ‘what is he a victim of?’ His attackers, certainly. His parents, maybe. They’ve loved him without always understanding him, but they’ve also dealt with their own difficulties. The community itself, probably. There’s little understanding of or sympathy for difference – we’re reminded a few times, for instance, that Montana has no hate crime statute for homophobic attacks. But a community is large and amorphous. There are police officers, doctors, and nurses who help without understanding or who try to understand without quite recognizing the scope of the problem.

Chris moves beyond a mere sense of victimhood, though, in his attempt to understand others. His meditations on the one attacker, Ellis, carry a real poignancy. He sees a kid he thought he was friends with. Yes, he was attracted to him, but so-what to that? Heterosexual kids are attracted to each other all the time, and it doesn’t generally lead to these sorts of hatred and fear. Yet Chris does have some patience for Ellis’s confusion. There’s no excusing the ugly violence he perpetrates, no justification for an unambiguous evil, but there are glimpses of a frightened boy beneath them. Chris’s capacity for seeing that – as well as for seeing the decent urges beneath the indecent actions of everyone from his grandfather (the “Chess King”) to the inept psychiatrist caring for his father – lets him take one step toward a tolerance for others that’s too often denied him.

This is not a light read, but it is an important one. There are kids like Chris growing up even today, kids who are bewildered about being themselves in front of their communities and potential friends. I hope I was a good friend to Justin in the days we were kids together. Reading this, it’s a privilege to see the man he’s become.

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Review: The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good Kiss The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a basic system for rating genre fiction: if it’s ordinary in the sense that it “gets” the rules of the genre but still delivers a solid story, I give it three stars. (If it’s worse than that, I rarely bother to finish it. Cutting out on bad books is privilege of getting older.) If it introduces a nice twist – whether of character, setting, insight, or novelty of plot – I’ll go four stars, and that’s pretty much the best I’m hoping for when I pick up a mystery or a fantasy novel. Five stars, I believe, get reserved for books that invent themselves, and genre, by definition seems to me something that depends on the invention(s) of other writing.

Then there are those books that create the genre itself. That could be The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, or it could be something by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.

And that brings me to Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. I’d heard great things about this novel. At least a couple people describe it as they key missing link in the evolution of neo-noir, the book that links Chandler to something like James Sallis’s Drive. And it may well be that; I have more reading to go before I affirm that kind of a claim.

But what this book clearly does is reanimate the genre in a way that makes it feel almost like a reinvention. I love Chandler, and when I read him I hear a specific voice and think of a specific time and place. Weirdly, when I read this book, I hear almost that same Chandler voice but in a different time and a different place. This is not 1930s L.A.; it’s 1970s Montana (with some San Francisco thrown in). But somehow there’s the same wearied idealism, the same willingness to align with a lost cause in defense of an ideal that never comes quite clear.

This book is so skillfully done, in other words, that feels as if it’s inventing a kind of writing that already exists. Sughrue could almost be Marlowe, yet – in a way that reflects the 1970s – he has a faded technicolor hue rather than a noir one. (Though it amounts to the same effect in its different color scheme.) You believe that he’d take up with an alcoholic bulldog, and you believe that he’d admire a poet like Trahearne – who is himself a kind of James Dickey poet/novelist writing about a nearly obscured American masculinity.

And Betty Lee Flowers turns out to be a great heroine for the age. A particular beauty sullied by one assault after another who never stops being deeply desirable.

I couldn’t predict the twists at the end – I trust it isn’t a spoiler to say that the weight of the novel runs toward keeping Trahearne writing at all costs, a nice self-pitying noir anxiety for any tough-guy writer to ruminate over – but I feel, from knowing my Chandler, as if I could predict the emotional trajectory.

And yet, I’ll also say “so what” to that predictability. It so fully embraces the genre that it feels as if it’s making up the rules in the same moment as it follows them more effectively than any other story I can think of. Definitely worth reading and satisfying on many levels.

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Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I thought I’d read Bovary a long time ago. That’s probably because I have read Anna Karenina (and to a lesser extent Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog”), the other great adulterous novel of the mid-19th century, and I have also read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (in French, no less, thank you Madames Nichols et Bork). It’s also because it’s so entwined in other literature and art that you feel you know it already. It casts the kind of light that makes you think you’ve spent more direct time on it than you have.

So, news flash: this is really good. Flaubert has the gift of the great sentence (even in translation) that he’s famous for. He’ll find the perfect detail or the perfect metaphor. Or, other times, he’ll find the perfect sentence to sum up reveries of one sort or another, and often that sentence will turn what’s come before it on its head.

If Tolstoy is the great Romantic, celebrating the passion that drives Anna’s unhappiness forward, then Flaubert is already a Modernist, someone as intrigued by irony as by the subject before him. That’s true with many of those staggering sentences, of course (he’s like a master painter with brush strokes that speak a consistent language apart from and yet constituting the work as a whole) but it’s also true of his view of Emma. I’d always assumed that we’d be called to root for Emma, that she would be (as Anna in many ways is) a proto-feminist figure whose unhappiness demonstrates the need to reimagine the role of women in society. I think it’s possible to read this that way, but I’m not convinced Flaubert was polemicizing. (And Tolstoy, great as he was, generally was polemicizing about something.)

Instead, I think we are often supposed to judge Emma. I think we are supposed to see her as self-centered and, to take an old-fashioned word then current, immoral. She is scandalous, and she leaves destruction in her wake. Flaubert seems unafraid of her sexuality – there’s great passion here, and it’s fun to imagine the good people of the 1860s and 1870s shocked by its explicit scenes – but he’s also unafraid to judge it. Sure, Charles is a dope, a mediocrity who can’t match her beauty or her intelligence, but we seem to be told here that everything would have turned out all right if only she’d managed to make herself satisfied with what she had. She had the materials for happiness before her, but she had to keep pushing, had to grab for more than was her allotted share.

Anyway, I have almost nothing original to say about this, but then I doubt I’d have anything original to say about visiting the Louvre, something I still hope to do some day. In each case, we’re talking about masterpieces, so there’s nothing wrong with just standing before them, mouth slightly agape, and admiring what’s there.

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Review: Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards! Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Several years ago, when I was interviewing for a generalist literature professor position, one of the members of the hiring committee asked me whom I thought was the greatest living writer. There was a right answer, it turned out, and that answer was Terry Pratchett. And, from what I see of the web activity on him, there are at least a few others who thought so as well.

Setting aside people like Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Lethem, and Toni Morrison, Pratchett isn’t (or, sad to say wasn’t) even among the best of the fantasy writers of our era. On the evidence of this, my first Pratchett, he’s simply not in the same league as Susanna Clark, Erin Morgenstern, or J.K. Rowling. He’s not even at the top of the narrower British, Monty-Python-inspired, fantasy-parody genre, where Douglas Adams is clearly better, and Neil Gaiman and Martin Miller (Martin Scott) are at least as good.

With all that as prologue, though, there’s no question this is a lot of fun. I seldom went long between laughs, and I did find myself enjoying the twists of the story as they underscored the stereotypes of the genre and then betrayed them. I admire the way Pratchett (here at least) goes against – and even mocks -- the convention of the fantasy hero, not just mocking that character but demonstrating there’s an entire world around him. Pratchett puts that hero in his place narratively, making him a relatively minor character, as well as comically.

Even as I enjoyed the book, though, I found myself thinking of Dr. Who. I have enjoyed that show the several times I’ve seen an episode or two, but I’ve never dived into it for the full experience. I suspect that Pratchett’s Discworld is the same way. It’s pretty good – a clever guy breaking all sorts of rules and having all sorts of fun – but it gets all the more pleasurable as one story accretes atop another. You can enjoy a Dr. Who episode, but I understand that you need to see a full story arc, then a full run of a particular Doctor, and then a healthy dose of older episodes in order to get the full effect.

The problem with that, as with Discworld, is that you have to take such a promise on faith. You have to commit to an awful lot in order to get the best of any part of it. I’m afraid I don’t see myself reading 39 more Discworld novels any time soon, even though I suspect I would enjoy this one all the more in retrospect.

So, bottom line, I didn’t take that job, and I am convinced Pratchett was not the greatest living writer of the early 2000s. He is fun, though, a slapstick mind with enough inventiveness to pull off amusing and potentially addicting stuff. I may indeed give the next one of these a shot, but Douglas Adams is safe on his perch, as, of course, is Philip Roth.

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Review: The Guise of Another

The Guise of Another The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I abide by a pretty strict Life’s Too Short to Finish Bad Books policy, but this one slipped through.

Yeah, the opening premise is promising – an accident unravels an old scheme predicated on identity theft – but it goes downhill rapidly.

For a time I thought I might learn something from this as a counter-example, but it is so ineptly done that it doesn’t even have that dubious virtue. The narrative, the voice, and the perspective are all, to put it simply, wrong. It switches from one tone to another in clumsy fashion, seeming to stagger toward a coherent conclusion. It features characters who attempt clever maneuvers to throw others off and then it shows the same characters making stupid, contrived choices. Supposedly insightful characters spend time (through an awkward point-of-view lens) in condescending asides explaining their motives and then, chapters later, act exactly opposite those motives.

If that isn’t bad enough, it has a 1980s slasher film morality, condemning violence at the same time as it revels in it, and punishing everyone for his or her sins with equal glee. It’s a conservative vision married to the amorality of noir, and it fails on both counts.

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Review: Chronic City

Chronic City Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this ten years ago when it came out, and I declared it then the best novel I’d read that decade. I’ve just re-read it as part of teaching it for a class and, in a changed context with enough time having past for it no longer to be the flavor of the month, I want to say that it holds up. I love Lethem. I think he’s our best working novelist. (At least he has a co-share of that title alongside Marilynne Robinson). And I think this is still his masterpiece.

There are many things I might say about the novel, but what lingers at the moment is the idea that this is a post-modernist Great Gatsby, and it’s the most successful grappling with the allure of the city of the last quarter century (at least that I know of).

To flesh that idea out, consider that Perkus Tooth is the anti-Gatsby. If Gatsby sensed ahead of almost everyone else the power of the city to let us reinvent ourselves, Tooth is the last holdout in the belief of the real. Gatsby’s dream is old news in 21st century Manhattan; everyone goes to the city to shed a past and embrace an impossible ethereal dream. Tooth is a knight of the real. Even if he is more Quixote than Lancelot, there is still something noble in his insistence on seeing through the surface of things to the conspiracy below and to the inexpressible reality below even that conspiracy.

Consider as well that Chase is a postmodern variant of Nick, someone who, while he cannot fully apprehend the hero’s vision, appreciates the battle in service of it. Like Nick, Chase is more at home in the world of the city (even though Chase himself is Gatsby-like in having left behind a Midwestern childhood and assumed a new identity through the intercession of moneyed interests). And, like Nick, Chase cannot see – or refuses to see – much of the machinery in which he finds himself caught.

Sharing it with students in a couple different classes, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who don’t like this, who find it a circular game of slippery identities around characters who ultimately have no real sense of self. When I squint, I do see what they’re saying. These characters do come close to being cartoons, and they are caught in a world that, with its make-believe elements, seems impoverished next to the rich world of the real.

When I unsquint, though, when I read this again as it comes open-eyed in my experience of it, I have to challenge those ideas. Yes, these characters border the artificial, but they do so because the city – the world Lethem plumbs, a world I sometimes experience myself – is saturated in artificiality itself. If the postmodern condition rests on the irony that we begin to recognize our world is simply a kaleidoscope of signifiers that fall into new patterns every time we adjust the knob, then this novel begins with that irony.

Unlike most postmodern fiction I know, however, this refuses to capitulate to that irony or, as in the case of David Foster Wallace, to wallow in it. This is a novel that, accepting a world with the precondition that language has deconstructed around us, fights all the same toward something that feels like meaning. Lethem’s Manhattan is too far gone in the way of the broken signifier for anything like real repair to feel legitimate, but, in Perkus, he creates someone who rages against the dying of the lie – someone who believes there is truth in a world that gives no evidence there can be. (The only writer I’ve ever seen to strike a similar blow is Don DeLillo at his best in Underworld and, to a degree, in Mao II.)

Chase can only “chase” him so far, but therein lies the real and authentic drama of this postmodern world. This novel accepts all the irony (and with it, the unstated despair) of the postmodern world, but then it scrabbles back toward something lost and ineffable, some green light beckoning across a grey fog that almost, but not quite, obscures everything.

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Review: My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 1 My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve heard such hype around this Norwegian Proust, that I finally had to make time to read it. At least two friends I respect very much have been raving about him, and they’ve encouraged me in my fits and starts through it.

I suppose I can see the appeal.

On the one hand, Knausgaard writes with wonderful precision. When he takes in a scene, we take it in. He is a master at switching from one sense to another. Some scenes come to us visually with a range of details lining up into a full picture. Others come emotionally, where he recognizes and probes a feeling that hovers over some memory. Still others are rooted in sound, and we often get catalogues of the music he was enjoying (or attempting to play) at one time or another. That variety of representation shows real skill, and it keeps this from bogging down.

On top of that, he writes from a philosophical perspective. Like Proust, he seems to sense that something in his experience holds the key to understanding who he was and, through that, who he is. And underlying all of that is the implicit promise that his discovery will help us readers make our own discovery. Unlike Proust, he has the machinery of 20th century philosophy to contend with. Things don’t always represent what we expect them to represent; some of our certainties are no longer certain but rather evocative of a cultural past that threatens to mock us.

As he puts it in a meditation about looking at paintings of angels halfway through this, “the great and the good were dubious entities.” He means that what art once contemplated now feels beyond us. Instead, art has turned in on itself, made itself its subject. As he puts it, “Art has become a spectator of itself.” As a result, our burden (our “struggle”, I suppose) is with the self, with what I sometimes think of as the postmodern Disease of the Self, an inability to get outside ourselves and relate to a larger community. As he sums up that particular meditation, “We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.”

And I will even admit to a slice of what Knausgaard’s admirers claim for this: when you read it at length, you start to absorb his rhythms and perceptions. I have spent chunks of the last week or two feeling more like a middle-aged Norwegian novelist than like myself, a middle-aged professor from Ohio by way of Chicago and Pennsylvania. His perception is so insistent, so compelling, that he pulls you in. If Al Franken once urged us to follow up the “Me Decade” of the 1970s with the “Al Franken Decade” of the 1980s, this book makes a good case for living at least a month in the mind of Knausgaard. (And a month is probably selling it short if you plan to make it through all six volumes of this.)

So, that’s my case for “getting” this. There is something there there (or here here if you’re caught up in the experience of the book as you check out this review.)

But I can’t help feeling the opposite reaction as well. There is simply no central narrative here. I suppose that reflects the deconstructed memoir we have going here, but it seems to me ask an awful lot of a reader. It’s not just that Knausgaard finds himself wallowing in self-ness; he imposes it on us. For most of the time I was reading this, I had no idea how it would end. And by that I don’t mean I didn’t know how things would wrap up but that I had no idea how I would even know it was over other than by the fact that there were no more words. When the particular magic of the prose failed – less as a result of any lack of skill than from my own tendency to drift to my personal experiences – I sometimes felt like an overworked therapist, sitting down to another session with my Norwegian patient, listening to him circle around the same central mystery of his life while I wondered what I would make the family for dinner once his hour was over.

And, while I admire the engagement with postmodern impulses, I have to admit a bias in the opposite direction: for me at least, in a world where we are pulled in so many directions, I want art to be selective. I want it to be efficient as it delivers its truths. I prize the clever and the funny. I want my writers to be tour guides who take me to curious insights of character and contradiction, and I want them to trust me to fill in a lot of the context around those insights. I want them to choose (and frame) the best of what they have to say and in so doing to spare me the tendentious and the unframed.

One of the friends recommending this also praised Elena Ferrente to me. I like Ferrente, but I don’t love her, and I don’t love her for the same reason I don’t love this: it moves so leisurely through a rich life that I start to lose sight of the life around that life. (I think Ferrente does that better than Knausgaard, but I still wish she’d move her narrative forward more quickly, and I wish she’d be more selective in the stories she shares.)

The other friend is a big David Foster Wallace advocate, and I can see the similarity in the way both writers seem so caught up in the empire of the self, so intent on sharing every scrap of experience no matter how tendentious it seems. While I’ve tried on several occasions, I don’t “get” Foster Wallace. He not only seems to suffer from the same Disease of Self – and not only revels in that sickness rather than seeking a way out of it – but he lets it infect his prose. So much of it strikes me as heavy, that sentence by sentence I tire of his work. In Knausguaard’s defense, his prose (as we get it in translation) always seems to beckon, always seems open to some new possibility, some new quirk of his own memory.

I’m glad Knausguaard is out there, and I don’t regret having read this much. Still, as I found myself counting down the final pages of the book as I turned them, I’m glad to be outside him and back into my own self. Good luck to him (and to his many readers) but I don’t see myself making it through five more volumes of this.

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Review: The White Tiger

The White Tiger The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve had this one in the pile for at least five years. It sat on my shelf, something I felt I ought to read but didn’t quite feel like tackling. I liked the idea of a postcolonial take on India’s economy and class/caste system, but I wasn’t in the mood for something serious and heavy – I had enough of that in the pile of American stuff to read.

Anyway, I couldn’t quite kick it out either. (You don’t do that with Booker Prize winners which seem to me, this one included, an almost can’t-miss bunch. Those judges routinely pick books I find I love.) So it sat there for a serious opportunity.

I wish I had known sooner, then, how funny this book is. Balram is, in a word, a rogue – a classic rogue. He is essentially conscienceless, and the overall conceit of the novel is not a confession of his crimes but a boast, one that he offers fawningly toward a Chinese official whom he has never met and who will of course have no interest in the story.

The novel consists of his “rise” as if he were an Indian Duddy Kravitz or Augie March, but he comes from a world more corrupt than Richler’s Montreal or Bellow’s Chicago. (And you know a place is corrupt if it puts Chicago corruption to shame.) Adiga’s India holds life cheap; it’s graft is an industry with clear rules and procedures. It’s modern economy is a façade, new wealth built on the prejudices and exploitation of the society it purportedly replaced.

Balram fancies himself an entrepreneur, and he certainly is that by the end. But he is an entrepreneur in a modest Al Capone way even in his apprentice days. No betrayal is too much and no hypocrisy too blatant for him to recognize it in himself. He plays one sort of character in one setting and another when the context changes, boasting of all it in a memorable, sometimes charming, sometimes impossibly stupid voice.

And the voice is always accomplished. Imagine a character who dares at least twice to list what he considers the four greatest poets in the world only to acknowledge not knowing the name of the fourth. Or imagine one who, fearless when it comes to blackmailing others, cowers at the sight of a gecko or other lizard. Or one who makes it clear he knows the price of every life around him but has no conception those lives might have any value in other currency.

But this seems like more than simply a memorable character study. It’s also a send-up of the contemporary Indian character, a critique of a culture that presents itself as “improved” but that carries forward the inequality for which it was notorious in earlier generations.

It is, in other words, literature that does the highest work of literature: mocking the presumptions that serve as the grease for the gears of self-righteous culture. This is just the sort of thing I’d be advocating for a Booker if the Booker people didn’t keep getting it so right themselves.

And, let me tell you, it is really funny. There is certainly something heavy here, but Balram’s strange amalgam of servility, pride and malapropism makes it seem light and amusing throughout. Don’t wait five years to read this yourself.

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Review: Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You don’t have to read all of this book to get what is probably its best part. You certainly should read it all – don’t get me wrong – but the essence of it comes to us in the first paragraphs when we hear Bone talk for the first time.

This is the story of a young girl growing into her full self in the face of a great deal of confusion (from her wild and colorful family) and more than her share of hostility (a childish, frightening and terribly abusive step-father). If the question underlying it is always, “What will she learn?” the answer comes to us in the first and really all the following lines: she will grow into her voice, a humorous, clever, musical and thoroughly original voice.

And, when you hear that voice in the first few lines of the book, you know the person speaking them is OK. You know, in other words, that our protagonist emerges from her tough times as a distinct and memorable self. It’s all there in the opening where she tells the story of her birth and her “accidentally” being recorded as a bastard at the county office. Think of a bud at the end of a branch; all the season’s growth is in it in miniature. If you pull it apart carefully enough, you can see everything that will follow.

So, without dismissing Bone’s sustained experiences – as she grapples with moving all the time, with discovering her sexuality, with her attraction to religion and gospel music and, above all, with negotiating her step-father’s growing abuse – this novel is the story of how a girl becomes a woman, how she learns enough to tell her own story.

The violence, naïve sexuality, and confusion about what it means to love someone can be harrowing. Toward the end – which you really must read to understand the depths from which Bone recovers – it gets harder and harder to endure. Bone calls out for someone to help her and, within the novel, she lacks the language to make herself heard. Seeing that, experiencing her when she has no voice, makes that “end” – the original and strong character who emerges as our narrator at the beginning – even more compelling.

Listen to the music of her every sentence. Yes, this book matters for what happens, but it’s memorable for how it happens, for the wonderful human voice at the heart of it.

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Review: The Ghosts of Belfast

The Ghosts of Belfast The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point, our sort-of heroine, Marie McKenna, asks our hero (as much a hero an emotionally ill serial killer can be), Gerry Fegan, “You can’t choose the places you don’t belong, but what if the places you don’t belong are only ones left to you?”

It’s a great question, put in memorable noir elegance, and much of this novel sets out to answer it. Gerry is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of the people he killed when he was one of the IRA’s top hard men, and he understands them as demanding that he put to death the men responsible.

Most of this is as fine an example of the genre as you’ll get. Neville writes with consistent skill, and he has a gift for alternating scenes of riveting violence with meditations on things as simple as the work of sanding down a piece of wood. I’m new to his work, but I’m ready to declare him the real thing – someone who can stand up to, say, Ken Bruen, with whom he is often compared.

There are some limits brought on by the genre, though. Above all, I’m never satisfied with Marie’s answer for staying in Belfast. A point is a point, but when they’re threatening your daughter and they’re willing to pay your way somewhere else, why stick around? She may not belong in Belfast, and that may be part of the legitimate local critique of the work. (That is, Belfast’s recent generations have driven away much of what might be “the good.”) But I can’t help feeling she stays more for the needs of the story than in keeping with the character Neville draws for her.

The end of this is a satisfying showdown, but the very end troubles me. I’d give a spoiler alert, but the fact that this is the first novel in a series does that for me: Fegan is a powerful character, and he bears the weight of his ghosts with a dignity (and palpable insanity) that makes him memorable. The trouble is, he’s also necessarily a doomed one. He should not survive this, yet he does, and apparently he goes on to multiple further adventures. That’s a shame. Neville has invented someone remarkable at the heart of this book. I wish he’d trusted himself to invent someone else for another one rather than violating the emotional premise of this one.

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Review: Babbitt

Babbitt Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a lot of the time I read this, I found myself thinking of Jonathan Franzen. Is it possible he is the 21st century’s answer to Lewis?

That’s not an insult, even if we have mostly forgotten Lewis and what he meant to American literature. He was, after all, the first U.S. author to win a Nobel Prize in literature, and he created a vocabulary for talking about American culture that lasted until I was a kid in the 1970s. People were still describing someone as an “Elmer Gantry” and, yes, as a “Babbitt.” Each was effective shorthand for describing someone warped by the excesses of American culture, someone who, unknowingly infected by the sorts of desires Theodore Dreiser most famously drew, sets out to infect others with the same ones.

If Franzen isn’t drawing characters as memorable in their essentials as Gantry or Babbitt, he is showing people who are similarly complicit in the same system that plagues them. If Lewis’s characters got casually drunk in the middle of Prohibition, Franzen’s get casually stoned today. If Lewis’s were bewildered by what the dawn of the automobile and telephone age meant for the way we live in it, Franzen’s do the same for the effects of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle.

All of that seems relevant because I can’t quite decide how highly I regard Franzen. At the worst he is just what Lewis was: arguably the foremost chronicler of American dissatisfaction of his age. And yet, that said, Lewis was far from a hack. He made Naturalism relevant at the dawn of the Modern moment. We forget how impressive he was because his work comes out just a few years before Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner rewrite the boundaries of what’s possible in the novel.

There are some impressive technical moves here. For one thing, there really is no plot. It’s episodic, showing us a succession of portraits of George Babbitt, a man with pretensions to individuality who finds he can’t function unless he’s reassured that he’s doing just what everyone else is doing. That’s experimental; it’s pushing the limits of what we think fiction is.

For another, there’s a capacity for mockery that lingers almost 90 years later. To the degree we remember Lewis today, we have him cast as middlebrow, as someone people read if they couldn’t quite handle the cutting edge of Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf. That may be true, but there’s also a Modernist bias: we tend to admire novels that excavate the self over those that plumb the nature of the overall city. I share that bias; I like novels rooted in character, especially if the exploration of character takes place from odd angles.

I’ll criticize Babbitt and Elmer Gantry because, in the end, Lewis has no affection for his characters; he holds himself above them, thinks of the “real writer” as exempt from what he sees. And that’s what brings me back to Franzen. There are some today who rank him alongside Foster Wallace and Lethem, just as there were some who saw Lewis as the equal of Dos Passos or Fitzgerald.

So, bottom line, Lewis still has some relevance today for his method and his real if not-so-subtle insight, but he’s also interesting for what he suggests about the literary politics of then and now. Yeah, this drags in spots (but The Corrections doesn’t?). Still, it’s worth a look on its own terms and for its echoes today.

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Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown

The Tin Roof Blowdown The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is packed full. It’s an articulate rant against what Katrina and the federal government did to New Orleans. It’s a meditation on race and class. It’s a procedural. And it’s one more chapter in the Dave Robicheaux series.

If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. I admire Burke’s ability to write a sentence, even when – as is probably too often the case here – he uses that skill to offer a thumbnail sketch of a character who will be with us for a chapter or so and then depart. I wish he’d found a way to focus this sooner and more effectively.

The first fifth of the novel recounts the damage Katrina did and works in accounts of a couple of horrifying crimes: an admirable junkie priest who goes missing as he tries to save parishioners, a white family retaining its dignity after the brutal rape of its daughter who feel threatened by potential looters, and a group of young Black men who get fired upon as they try to navigate the waters. That’s just the beginning; it takes a good 50 pages for a clear crime to come into focus and for Robicheaux to assume something like a purpose within the story.

I’m jumping from the first Robicheaux novel to this, the 16th, so it’s hard for me to appreciate it in sequence. Burke is skilled enough to bring us up to speed without dumping too much information at a time, but getting introduced to characters like his daughter and second wife isn’t the same as knowing them. It’s clear their presence raises echoes of what Robicheaux has been through in his other books, but, not knowing those books, they make this one seem all the more cluttered.

Even as a stand-alone book, there are problems of unresolved matters. [SPOILER:] it’s frustrating, for instance, never to learn what happens to the diamonds or to the gang-bangers he arrests early in the novel. There is simply so much going on that Burke can’t quite tie it all together.

That said, there is a good urgency to much of what takes place in the book. Burke’s outrage at what’s happened to his city underlies much of what takes place in the story. Racism works as a real engine here, but not in predictable ways. The central African-American character has to bear the weight of racist suspicion, but he also deserves it for being a despicable and weak man. He works toward a kind of redemption, though, further going against stereotype. The central white victims are neither fully admirable nor truly despicable; they’re humans caught in deep webs of relationships.

If this starts slowly and ends without full resolution, the heart of it is what I expect from a real talent like Burke. It’s a story that explores a darkness at the heart of our contemporary world, a darkness that touches everyone but rarely turns on anything as simple as true evil. No one is innocent, but no one emerges as the real and ultimate villain.

If I get back to Robicheaux, and I very well might, I’ll start back again with the second in the series and move forward.

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Review: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great book. I mean, really great.

Our narrator is a divided self. He is born a half European, half Vietnamese in the North of Vietnam, and then, despite being positioned to welcome Western influence in his country, aligns himself with the communists before the Vietnam War. Then, because of his excellence as a student and his not looking like what people would expect, he’s cast as a sleeper agent and rises to be aide-de-camp to a key South Vietnamese general. Most of the novel takes place in the United States where he finds himself secretly supporting the communist government and chronicling the exiles’ dreams of returning to Vietnam and creating a new counter-revolution.

The structure of the novel reflects that fundamental schizophrenia. Half of it is brooding and historical. We revisit American atrocities in Southeast Asia, we relive a history that some of us once new well but that current generations may never have known, and we get a first-hand glimpse at the horrifying re-education camps. It is, as I gather at least some critics have seen it, a history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath – in English – told from the other side.

The other part is deeply personal, though, and that’s the half that seems to me to take this from a very good novel into the realm of greatness. Our narrator cannot help but map the two halves of his identity – a Vietnamese loyalist willing to murder on behalf of his theoretical cause and a Westernized refugee/immigrant addled by sex and aware of the ambition of his ego.

Somehow, through all of that, the novel has moments of inspired hilarity. At one point, imprisoned in a camp, he contemplates the meal digesting in his stomach and labels the shit forming in his intestine another “brick” to help build the revolution. At the end [apologies for a kind of SPOILER] he finds a manic joy in deconstructive reading of “Nothing is more important than life and liberty,” turning the empty slogan into a powerful, almost-pun that undermines revolutionary thought and sloganeering. At another, echoing Portnoy’s Complaint, he recounts how he would sometimes masturbate into squid, a delicacy his Western father rarely doled out to his impoverished Vietnamese mother. It’s a tour-de-force scene, conflating an “f-the-father” Freudianism with Marxist revolution and good old fashioned teenage horniness.

In that light, a good part – though not all – of this novel works for me as what I call (Port)Nguyen’s Complaint. The two novels share a structure: Roth’s narrative is cast as an American Jew talking to his psychoanalyst while Nguyen’s is of a double-agent writing his confession for his communist allies in a reeducation camp. Both also deal with unreliable first-person narrators, characters who have reason to cast themselves as abject examples of what they once aspired to and yet who have also accomplished substantial things.

I think there’s a lot to learn in casting the two novels in conversation (maybe I have an academic project) as well. Roth, writing as an American in America, has the luxury of presenting his story as, implicitly, the story of a new sort of American. Nguyen, writing as a Vietnamese unable to ignore the intellectual gravity of the Western-American experience, can’t stand on such stable ground. Portnoy may eventually come to a kind of self-recognition at the end (though whether it’s a break though is open to interpretation), but our narrator here goes face-to-face with the failings of the Vietnamese communist project and the pangs of that country’s early rebuilding. Roth is granted what the communist’s might have called the privilege of Western decadence, while Nguyen has to reach through layers of irony just to reach the position of irony where Roth begins.

This one is already on my list of books to re-read in the next few years. Like its protagonist, it’s split along many axes: Vietnamese and American, coherent and careening, brooding and comic. With all that, it surely deserves a second reading too.

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Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m back to this one after 20 years, and after it had grown in my memory as one of the best fantasy novels I’d ever read. The good news: this absolutely holds up. If you don’t know Amber, then put it on your list. It’s an accomplishment right up there with anything in the genre.

It’s particularly rewarding to revisit the book in the wake of George R.R. Martin’s recent success. I can see a good bit of Martin’s vision growing out of Zelazny’s. As I read them, they are the two most successful fantasy series to take place in, essentially, amoral universes. Neither gives us anyone who really comes across as a “good guy.” Neither privileges the point-of-view character(s) as somehow better than his or her rivals. Corwin may develop some compassion, but he is still generally indifferent to mortal suffering. He may feel bad about sacrificing a quarter of a million “shadow dwellers” in the service of his ambition, but he never lets it ruin his day.

The central difference between Martin and Zelazny, though, is that Martin’s moral neutrality comes from a sense of realpolitik, a post-Cold War sensibility in which all sides are capable of harming others. Zelazny’s comes from an older, hardboiled sentiment: the world is cold and indifferent, and everyone is ultimately a son-of-a-bitch. Once you embrace that foundational truth, you can have a lot of fun.

And this is fun. If it isn’t as sprawling as Martin’s work, it’s much more efficient. (The first five Amber novels combined are probably not much longer than the first Game of Thrones book.) It begins as an almost conventional noir story: an amnesiac wakes to discover he’s being drugged against his will in a private “hospital.” We learn his history at the same time he does. It turns out to be a huge history, one that implicitly stands at the heart of many of the mythologies we know in the West. Corwin and his siblings have been interfering in Earthly affairs for centuries, yet we humans can glimpse them only in shadowy form and cannot hope to comprehend what their one true world of Amber looks like.

You’ll know whether the genre interests you. If it does, give this one a shot. It’s short, adrenaline-fueled, and can stand alone. If you get hooked, though, there’s a lot more where it came from, and you’ll introduce yourself to one of the real masters.

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Review: Sweetland

Sweetland Sweetland by Michael Crummey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t deny the skill of this, but it is unrelentingly depressing. Moses Sweetland is the last holdout as the Canadian government wants to offer a collective resettlement package to the residents of a small and dying island community. As he confronts the inexorable fact of his situation, he explores old grudges, disappointments and disasters. The place is rich in history, but it’s a small, local history. And Moses, the keeper of those memories (almost literally so since he was the longtime lighthouse keeper) has almost no one to leave them to.

I couldn’t have chosen a more affecting time to read this, since I got to a big chunk of it on a return to my hometown for a visit to my dementia-suffering mother. It was too easy to see the town of Sweetland as a reflection of my own town, where the only friends I have left are in their late 80s and the only stories we have are the old ones. I felt my own home slipping away, and reading this was an echo of that feeling.

This novel holds up pretty well throughout, sustaining its difficult story and sustaining its depressing valedictory tone. But it is one awful moment after another, all woven together in a manner that reflects the nets many of the island’s fishermen once used. Moses is a stubborn and compelling figure, but his grudging love for a great-nephew afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome is quietly beautiful.

I’ll caution that this gradually comes to rely on an unreliable narrator. That gets confusing, and sometimes frustrating, but it does feel right since, as Moses’s situation disintegrates, so does much of his capacity to keep his own mind together.

I admire this more than I can recommend it. Reading it did bring the gift of seeing my old home town in the light of its own sunset, but know going in that it’s a beautiful downer of a book.

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Review: The Moor's Account

The Moor's Account The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The premise of this alone makes it stand out: a North African man, who’s had to sell himself into slavery to pay his family’s debts, arrives in 16th Century “New Spain” to serve as part of a Conquistador’s mission of conquest. On top of that, though, Lalami adds a thoughtful layer of what it means to tell history, and we’re left with an original and provocative story.

The premise here reminds me of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. (If it is not as accomplished as that novel, don’t worry; very few things are.) Both of those books imagine the New World at a moment before it coalesced into a place capable of the sort of slavery we know. Each explores (and largely rejects) the possibility of friendship and partnership between people of different races, but each does so at a moment in American history before there is an America.

The best parts of this one come as the explorers get their first glimpses of a southern North America that, if familiar to us, is bewilderingly new to them. There may be a sameness to our experience of their discoveries – it does get difficult to distinguish one new tribe or one new river from another – but the group’s gradual diminishment changes their experience in ways that sustain the narrative. They lose their arrogance, and the nature of their encounter takes on an ever-changing tone.

Early on, the narrator notes of the would-be conquerors, “They gave speeches not to voice the truth but to create it.” They name everything they see as if they are in a world without history.

Later, once their hardships compel them to acknowledge the history and power of the land around them, they become more descriptive. The narrator even subtly mocks them for switching to a shorthand of “first river” or “second river” where once they thought of themselves as drawing a new map.

Lalami adds to that drama the sense that the very business of telling the group’s story follows a similar pattern. The arrogant tell their story and think of it as history in full. And, at least as I have learned the history, the Spanish story feels like the full and familiar one.

The central joy of this book is the realization that, without “the Moor’s account,” we have only a partial history of that awful and awesome time. It takes a black man, enslaved to the Spanish, to help us see those Native Americans in a new light. If the picaresque of this occasionally drags (but only occasionally) that implicit narrative correction to our history makes it all come together as a compelling and entertaining story.

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Review: The Hawley Book of the Dead

The Hawley Book of the Dead The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It isn’t easy to write the Gothic in an American context. We don’t generally have a deep enough history – or a deep enough appreciation of the history we do have – to weave that haunted feeling throughout a substantial story.

My favorite part about this book is that it succeeds in doing just that. It does evoke a sense of history as deep and troubled. Whether it’s the opening scenes in a Las Vegas theater where Houdini and scores of forgotten magicians worked their art or later in the emptied New England small town of our protagonist’s ancestors, you get the sense that people have lived in the spaces that Szarlan explores.

As a consequence, much of what we learn about the deep magic of the world comes to us haphazardly. I imagine that this would be distasteful to Orson Scott Card and other proponents of a well-ordered “world-building” philosophy in fantasy writing. This book seems haphazard, introducing key points later than you’d expect and reconfiguring its back story as it goes. There does seem to be a sloppiness to it all, but I can generally forgive it for the consistent way it evokes its intriguing gothic tone.

I’m a little less forgiving of some of the ways it walls off Revelation’s emotional world. She is understandably devastated by the death of her husband (not a spoiler since it comes in the first sentence) but then she’ll go long chapters without seeming to think of him. Or, to take a [SPOILER ALERT] later example, she acquires a sword that clearly has magical implications, and then she just forgets about it until she has a convenient need for it.

So, this one could have used some tightening up in its plot and in the consistency of its characters. For its capacity to get across a distinctly American type of hauntedness, though, it’s a real and pleasurable success. I’ve been on a roll with un- or semi-satisfying books, and this one brought back some of the magic I’d been missing out of reading.

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Review: Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read everything Vonnegut had written when I first got into him in high school more than 30 years ago. A lot of it was still fairly new then, and I felt pretty good about myself for reading stuff that felt like the sign of a serious collegiate thinker. I’ve made it a kind of project to revisit it over the last few years to see if it holds up, and the verdict has been, for the most part, yes. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Cat’s Cradle are still really satisfying. They’re novels that raise some heavy ideas in the guise of light comedy, and they tell stories that become compelling the longer they go.

If those other, more polished novels didn’t exist, I’d give Breakfast of Champions a higher rating. As it is, though, a lot of what makes this one memorable comes to us more skillfully in those others. This has some intriguing and memorable sections. “What kind of a man turns his daughter into an outboard motor” is still funny, still as outrageous as when I first got it as a youth swimmer myself.

But large portions of this seem mannered, seem almost as if they are Vonnegut trying to imitate Vonnegut.

Kilgore Trout may be a striking figure in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, but here he is largely a projection of Vonnegut feeling sorry for himself. At his best, he brings a Bukowski seediness, but by the end, he runs out of gas. At the risk of spoiling something, he winds up in conversation with Vonnegut himself, part of the novel as a character, in an exchange that seems almost an admission that Vonnegut has written himself into a corner.

Some of the tropes get old as well. I get the insight that humans as “meat machines” is sardonic and cynical, but the ninth or tenth time we get the size of someone’s penis or a woman’s bust/waist/hip measurements, the joke gets old. Too much of this is recycled, too much Vonnegut trying to recapture something he’s dealt with earlier.

All that said, there are still many joys here. This novel comes at the end of Vonnegut’s best run, and there’s a boldness to it – especially at the beginning – that you can’t ignore. Even if it reassembles earlier successful characters, it announces itself as a radical experiment in cynicism and despair. It’s dark in an earned way, an effort to figure out what’s left when you’ve decided there’s nothing left to say. Still, bottom line, I can’t help feeling this is likely where Vonnegut ‘jumped the shark,’ where he went from being one of the real voices of his generation to a man who could no longer quite find the form for his idealistic pessimism, for his sense that we human beings are squandering the remarkable existence we’ve been granted.

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Review: The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There used to be a respectable class of novels in the “middlebrow” category. That is, they were works by writers who were real pros and who had something to say, but who said it without taking particular literary chances. It wasn’t an insult to call something middlebrow – the New Yorker was famously that in many circles. And I don’t mean it as an insult to call Boyle’s novels middlebrow. They’re thoughtfully and skillfully done, and they tackle significant subjects. They just don’t seem to have particularly penetrating answers to those questions. (And I’m referring here to this one and When the Killing’s Done, the only two I’ve read in the last decade or so.)

The Harder They Come sets out to interrogate where so much American rage comes from. It’s a 2015 book, and, admirably, that means it has its finger on the pulse of what’s shaping our current election.

It starts out recounting how aging Vietnam veteran Sten Stensen kills a would-be mugger while on a vacation in Costa Rica. One answer is that he has been trained as a soldier. Another is that he sees the chance to protect his wife and fellow travelers. Another, and maybe the one put forward most forcefully, is that he fears the obsolescence of old age and kills as much from being insults as being attacked.

It then asks how his son Adam can be so violent in his turn, embarking on an escalating series of angry episodes. The answer there, though, comes through pretty clearly: he’s a schizophrenic who thinks of himself as the reincarnation of an 18th century mountain man.

Each character is solidly drawn and worth pondering, but neither comes forward as quite a satisfactory answer to why our culture feels such rage at this moment. Each has a deeply personal reason for his rage, but neither is responding to our cultural moment or even to one another. Adam’s girlfriend, a fierce radical libertarian, is angry and occasionally wild, but even she seems as much emotionally disturbed as reacting to some broad cultural misgiving.

If all of that sounds disappointing, it shouldn’t. The story moves along with some real depth because it is echoing those uncomfortable questions. Its unhappy characters come to life, and react in sometimes moving ways. This is a solid book in every way, and Boyle remains a pro. I can’t help preferring the more ambitious Brief History of Seven Killings or the masterful Narrow Road to the Deep North – both books that seem to me better at interrogating the nature and afterglow of violence – but I’m glad we have Boyle who can so reliably set out questions of the American character. It may take me a while to get back to him, but I will.

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Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I probably needed to spend more time on this intriguing book. On the plus side, it reminds me a bit of Haruki Murakami’s work. It reminds me as well that, while Murakami makes that blend of magic, science, and self-discovery look easy, it’s actually very difficult to pull off.

In this one, we have a trio of central characters. Thaniel and Grace are Londoners with assorted family issues, and Mori is a master clockmaker (and more) with strange powers for influencing others.

At its best, the book raises striking questions about the nature of time and the capacity for an individual to make choices in a world that may be predetermined. The late touch that calls for a series of coin tosses as a means of escaping apparent predestination is really striking, both as a plot device and as a philosophical idea.

The uncertainty at the heart of those questions is hard-wired into the story, though, and a chief result is that the often out-of-sequence narrative calls for real care in reading it. I don’t mind having to work my way through a book, but this one has an odd habit of seeming to say, “You should have been paying closer attention a chapter ago when things seemed light-hearted or concerned with detail.” As someone reading it quickly, I kept missing those details, and I often found myself bewildered. If I’d realized the book was expecting me to read in such a different fashion, I might have been more taken with its striking irregular rhythms.

On the plus side, this held my interest even as I discovered there were huge parts I’d simply missed. Pulley has a capacity for strong detail to do along with the philosophical questions she raises, so I held on through my frequent confusion to see how it all wraps up.

I have to agree with others who have complained that the start is simply too slow. I’d add as well that I found the conclusion confusing, but that may well be my fault since I allowed my confusion to grow as fully as I did.

Bottom line: there seem to be real virtues here, but don’t underestimate it as you go in. It has the tone of a light read, but it demands your attention throughout. It’s a compliment to compare this to Murakami, but if it has some of the impressive weight of Murakami’s questions, it lacks the powerful lightness that Murakami manages to maintain through so much of what he does.

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Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review of V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic

I’ve been thinking that many (most?) of the classic fantasy novels find some way to give us a point-of-view character who has to learn the nature of the magic in his (or rarely her) world. Tolkien’s Bilbo and Frodo are sheltered outlanders who learn the nature of power as they adventure into the historic lands. Ursula LeGuin’s Ged begins as an apprentice to a wizard before graduating to wizard’s school. Harry Potter begins in a wizard’s school. Roger Zelazny’s Corwin starts his adventures with amnesia and has to relearn the vast lore he’s forgotten. Even George R.R. Martin introduces us to his world through the borderland Stark family, characters who know some, but not all, of what goes on north of the wall or south in the fight for the Iron Throne.

That characteristic of so much successful fantasy work struck me as I read this one because our point-of-view character here, Kell, already knows everything about his world, or more properly, his worlds. He’s neither a student nor an outsider, but the classic insider. He rarely discovers anything new. Instead, he tells us – or our narrator tells us – much of what better fantasy allows us to discover.

As a result, the start of this is almost ponderous. The first 50 pages have almost no action, and there’s little at stake. Kell is tied to the royal family of his world, and we hear their history. Kell has dealings with the powerful of White London, and that serves as an excuse to get the history of that world. And he arrives in Grey London (our world) which serves as an excuse to deliver some of the history of the world we know.

The book picks up some when we meet Lila, and I suspect that’s in part because she is someone who knows nothing of magic. We discover a fair bit of the metaphysics of the universe through her eyes. That may be conventional, but things do start to come alive once she and Kell meet up. She’s originally our secondary character, but she emerges eventually as at least his equal. The story simply works better when it’s through her eyes; she’s the stranger in the world, and we can explore it more effectively when it’s through her eyes. If I were Schwab’s editor, I’d have pushed her to rebalance the opening narrative, letting Lila be our primary point-of-view.

There are other substantial problems, though. About a third of the way in, Schwab begins an irritating habit of giving us a scene through one point of view and then the same scene through another’s. It feels sloppy and unnecessary, just one more example of a not-fully-worked out narrative strategy. And then the tone changes dramatically. The initial warm and wondering sense gives way to some casual, unironic violence. Characters emerge only to suffer torture or death, and then we go back to concerns with nuances of language and fashion. It all feels inconsistent and uncontrolled.

All of that is frustrating because the premise is so fabulous. I love the possibilities of different Londons that rest one atop the other, each with a different relationship to magic. That’s an almost can’t-miss setting. The eventual story is almost adequate, I suppose – Kell has to deliver an ancient artifact to the mythical dead London – but it’s deeply clichéd as well. (Can you say “the ring must be destroyed before it corrupts its user”?)

I held on for the first two-thirds because I couldn’t believe such a great situation couldn’t eventually pay off. It never quite does, though. I read the final third almost perversely hoping it would stay disappointing, wondering how it was possible to squander such a terrific set-up on such a seen-it-all story. There are possibilities, I suppose, but nothing memorable ever develops.

There are sequels coming, and I’m curious to know how Schwab works with a concept she seems to have spent here, but I can’t imagine putting real time into this again. Once was enough.

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