Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: The Guns of August

The Guns of August The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Barbara Tuchman’s favorite military philosopher, here at least, is Clausewitz. Through that Germanic perspective, she wants us to see the battles of the early months of World War I, the ones that led to the awful trench-war stalemate of All’s Quiet on the Western Front and the despairing backdrop of Hemingway’s work, as a game of chess. To that end, she resurrects all sorts of individuals responsible for the strategies and counter-strategies. We open with a roster of the kings of Europe, and throughout we get skillful, capsule biographies of one commander after another, someone whose quirk of personality contributed to the failure or success of his country’s troops. She imagines, in other words, the minds purportedly responsible for driving the outcome of the war.

Leo Tolstoy’s favorite commander, at least in War and Peace, is Kutuzov, the aging general who blunts Napoleon’s march into Russia. As Tolstoy paints him, Kutuzov understands that planning can go only so far in battle. After that, you have to trust to a kind of spirit of the moment; you have to understand that war is not chess but rather a conflict of passions and preparations. Some select few may set events in motion, but war is ultimately an experience larger than any particular minds.

Tuchman’s history is a history of would-be chess master generals, of men who live up to their training and conceptualization or men who fall short of theirs. It’s a striking history at times – it answers why one battle went one way and another the opposite – but it’s rarely compelling. She never looks to larger matters of warfare, to the enduring question of what makes an ordinary man carry a rifle into conflict with other men. She takes the “rules of war” as a given, and shows us how they play out.

In the end, this becomes a succession of more of the same. As skillfully as she can turn a phrase, as concisely as she can boil down a clever sketch of someone or other, each battle begins to echo the last. One side wins on a front to put the other on its heels. The Germans move forward only to get bogged down.

As I read this, I can’t help missing the grander vision of, say Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, a writer who gets something of the Kutuzov understanding of war, of the larger human experience and tragedy of real conflict. In that much more gripping history, we see the stakes of the battle, and we’re called on to understand both the human character of each commander’s decisions as well as the human toll each loss entails. Shaara’s is a story told at a human eye-level that, piling scene upon scene, becomes epic.

Tuchman’s, disappointingly, is an effort to show the technical aspects of an epic struggle that, excellent prose aside, never touches the deeper tragedy of its horrific topic.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: The Invisibles, Vol. 6: Kissing Mister Quimper

The Invisibles, Vol. 6: Kissing Mister Quimper The Invisibles, Vol. 6: Kissing Mister Quimper by Grant Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m reviewing all six of the first Invisibles collections here; the seventh seems to me a different animal, though, and I’m still working my way through it.

The premise of The Invisibles is spectacularly adolescent. Somewhere in another dimension there is a race of aliens intent on controlling all human minds. They want us to conform to some easily governed social norm, and they’ve taken over most of our human institutions.

Against that assault stands a coterie of charismatic rebels, The Invisibles, who think for themselves and risk everything to keep a spark of individualism alive. It’s sci-fi/philosophy with a shot of libertarian fantasy.

The story starts when the group recruits a young man to be their potential savior, or maybe Buddha, and then it gets really weird. There’s time travel, psychic warfare, mutant dwarves, unwitting stooges, tentacle-faced creatures, and kinky sex. There are ultimately so many simultaneous narratives going on that it’s often overwhelming. I read this episode by episode as I was getting ready for bed, and I could rarely be sure what I’d just read or what I was about to read next.

Many of the stories are simply too bizarre to follow. I’m still not sure exactly how the Hand of Glory is supposed to enable our heroes to bend time, nor am I clear on who’s been stealing it or why.

As the team coalesces, though, there’s something really compelling. There’s our new recruit, Dane/Jack Frost, who rapidly grows out of his naïve phase into a sometimes more interesting voice of the working class. There’s Boy, an African-American police officer who’s caught up in a history of loss. There’s Fanny, a transvestite beauty who’s also a South American shaman. There’s Ragged Robin, an agent who’s come back from the future to help lead the team but who should otherwise be only eight years old. And there’s King Mob, the bad-ass balding head of the group who always has an answer, even when he has to wrestle with his own growing love of violence.

The art is a little uneven because Morrison employs a handful of different artists, but by the sixth volume, this is really clicking. The stories retain their crazy, you-readers-can’t-keep-up frenzy, but they’re framed by a clearer conflict than earlier. Ragged Robin’s ultimate mission becomes all the more central, and that gravitational heart makes the crazy tangents more connected. In the end, there’s something at stake, and something resolved.

I had brief hopes that this might live up to the highest standards of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropiltan. It’s not that good, but it’s satisfying in a lot of ways and occasionally flat-out brilliant.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: Queenpin

Queenpin Queenpin by Megan Abbott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one I’ve been looking for. I’ve wanted to find a genuine noir story from a woman’s perspective, one that turns the genre on its head in some of the ways Walter Mosley did a generation ago.

Our protagonist is a bright young woman who gets taken up as the protégé of a Virginia Hill like mob courier. In retrospect, the setting is just what a female take on the genre needed – a character built on probably the most famous woman ever to be part of the major gangster world. I didn’t see it in advance, but Abbott writes with such skill that her story has an almost necessary quality to it after the fact. Of course our heroine is swimming in those same waters.

In the best of ways, this is legit noir. “Queenpin” Gloria Denton is wily, patient and vicious, and she’s a good teacher. We learn the world just as our protagonist does. Setting up so much of the novel as a tutorial, a fresh kind of tutorial, smoothly sets up all the background we get. (And, for the record, we get that background with real skill; there aren’t pockets of ‘information dump’ here, just quick explanations of why someone’s doing what she does.)

Abbott’s excellence extends to the sentence, too. Check out this description of the suckers, “They took their chances and I got the sweet butter skimmed off their bad luck.” This is a quick, full novel, yet I knocked it out in one sitting. It’s pulp like the best of pulp is meant to be.

I can’t help comparing her to the very strong Sara Gran, the other contender for top female noir protagonist(s). I’ve read one novel by each, and I’ve liked both. On the basis of these, though, I have to give the clear edge to Abbott. She’s got a brand new one that’s getting good reviews, and she’s got a nice back-list that I look forward to exploring. I’m going to try to get to more of her stuff soon.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: The Best American Essays 2015

The Best American Essays 2015 The Best American Essays 2015 by Ariel Levy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read most of these Best of collections cover to cover because I often use them as text books in my creative nonfiction writing classes. The challenge in reading them (and I imagine in editing them, too) is that have a yearbook/miscellany quality to them. They can’t really be thematic because they’re trying to acknowledge the “best of” a given year. So, like buffets or potlucks, there can be real high points, but there’s also a necessary (and often enjoyable) sameness. We don’t get the focused collection of essays that stands out from other collections, but we are guaranteed good eating…or reading as the case may be.

That said, I think this is a stronger offering than most. To begin with, Bob Atwan’s customary opening reflections on the nature of the essay are even stronger than usual. For me, who’s read all of his introductions for close to a decade and who’s even had the distinct pleasure of knowing him a bit, he manages to build on his ongoing meditations on how we might define “essay,” but he does so in a way that I imagine is open to a first-time reader. And, paired with that, Ariel Levy has the insight to write as thoughtfully as a guest editor I can remember (with the possible exception of the great Lauren Slater in 2006) and then the grace to do so briefly. It’s a very good way to start.

After that, the clear highlight here is Roger Angell’s “This Old Man.” Writing as a 93 year old man surprised still to be “vertical,” and even more than that surprised to find moments of joy after the unthinkable losses of his wife and daughter (and the lesser but still painful loss of a beloved dog who fell to its death from a window), Angell gives a beautiful description of the everyday work of making life matter. It’s both matter-of-fact and flat-out inspiring.

I expect “This Old Man” will wind up in high school textbooks before too long, likely paired with E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Not only do both deal with the sense that we have to work to understand our mortality, that there is a powerful beauty we have to extract from the ambivalent and varied world around us, but Angell is the boy – White’s son – in that now 75-year old essay. Both are brilliant and substantial works of American art. White talks about Angell, without naming him, as the son who will go on to make memories of his own; Angell, without naming him, thinks of the father (step-father if you want to be technical) who’s one of many beloved presences he can still recall to the now, can still recognize as part of what has given his life joy.

There are some other quite strong ones, too. Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker” reflects on parenting from a different angle. She knows she doesn’t want to be a mother, but she weighs what it means to disappoint her husband, and she diverts her near-maternal feelings to trying to help foster children. In the way the best essays do, she lays bare her sadness and then lets it linger. She finds no easy answers, but she shares her hurt, and the beauty of her hurt, in a brave and open way.

Another top essay is Kelly Sundberg’s too-brutal-to-take-your-eyes-off “It Will Look Like Sunset” in which she recounts how she came to be an abused wife. Sundberg can write – I learn here that she’s one of the editors at the excellent Brevity – and she has a powerful story to tell. I will certainly share this one with my students, but it will come later in the term. The hurt is too much to come at directly.

I have to spare a word, too, for Rebecca Solnit’s “Arrival Gates” about her visit to Japan. But it’s not really about that visit – an overwhelming one in the wake of the Fukijima earthquake – as much as it is about an epiphany she experiences at the orange gate of a temple she quickly tours. That leads her to a profound meditation on what it means to arrive, how arrival implies a journey that may have started any number of places depending upon how we look back on it. And then she culminates in the sense that we are always arriving somewhere, that every moment, when we push ourselves to consider it, marks a potential culmination. It’s overwhelming, and in the hands of a lesser writer might be trite, but it’s inspiring here.

The next tier is strong too, essays by Sven Birkerts (in a more personal mode than I’m used to from him), Tiffany Briere, Justin Cronin, and Zadie Smith are all ones I’ll work to share with students as well.

I’ll wrap with the final observation that four top-tier essays in a Best-of is more or less par for the course. Beyond that, Levy particularly distinguishes herself in that she has almost no essays that disappoint me. (Most of these collections have two or three that make me say, “how did that get there?”) There’s quality throughout this, and that’s a tribute not just to Atwan’s general method but to Levy’s particular sensibility.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: Something More Than Night

Something More Than Night Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is so much cleverness in this book that it oozes into every sentence. After finishing it up, I have to fight the urge to try to mimic its tough talking angel-protagonist’s tune. Bayliss is a tough guy immortal, an angel who’s chosen to carve out his slice of the cosmos, his “magisterium,” as if it’s a diner out of an Edward Hopper painting.

Meanwhile, Molly is a mortal – or, as the hardboiled angels call us, “a monkey” – who’s just died in an accident and been reborn as a new angel, one whose memories of her human life both cripple her and give her insights the other angels lack. Bayliss is her crass mentor, the only hope she has of making sense of the metaphysics of the multiverse she can finally take in.

Things may get a bit tricky near the end, more on that in a moment, but the star of this show is Tregellis’s deep gift for language. Bayliss is a brilliant invention, less so for his character (which works well for most of the novel) than for his endless and clever patter. His narrative style, whether he’s smoking “a pill” (or cigarette), explaining the nature of the Mantle of Ontological Consistency with its outlying “ontological boondocks,” or telling a “jasper” of an interfering Throne (one type of angel) to “scram,” his every utterance is a joy. Yes, Tregellis is showing off. Yes he must have been a philosophy or theology major (or at least spent a long time smoking pills at dingy coffee houses). But this is always fun.

I think Molly works a little less well throughout. At first her confusion means we get some of the same material in a different and somewhat less clever voice. Later, as she begins to pull things together, she’s more effective, but the story begins to stretch at the seams, so she still doesn’t quite come together.

The brilliance of this is in the premise and then again in Tregellis’s pitch perfect rendition of it. As the explanations of the situation fade and the central mystery rises, though, this starts to drag a little.

[SPOILER ALERT] For me, this takes a real downward turn when we discover that Bayliss is actually an unreliable narrator. I suppose I see what Tregellis is doing; he’s answering the cleverness of the premise with one more clever turn (that Bayliss/Gabriel is imposing not just the voice of the noir narrator but the plot as well, with him in a kind of femme fatale role).

As it plays out, though, we learn so many of the premises of this cosmos from Bayliss that it saps some of the fun to find that many of our first principles are suspect. To put it as Bayliss might, I was ready for the book to take an ontological swing at me, but I never saw the epistemological haymaker coming. That’s a sucker punch to us readers, while the rest of the book makes it feel as if we’ll be fighting under legit rules.

So, if the end disappoints me, it still doesn’t undo the fabulous beginning here. This is funny enough and clever enough in its first three quarters to make it worth reading all the way to the end.

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review: Love & Treasure

Love & Treasure Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had high hopes for this one through almost the halfway point. It’s a story that traces the path of a particular necklace over a century from pre-World War I Budapest through the Holocaust, and up to the 21st century world of reparations and provenance.

Waldman is ambitious throughout, using a different voice and tone in each of her three major parts. And she does so with an impressive purpose: to weigh the ways we 21st century Jews ought to regard the difficult burden of the Holocaust’s legacy.

The first part works well, chronicling the way Jewish Army lieutenant Jack Wiseman falls in love with Ilona, the lone survivor of her Hungarian family. It’s tense and moving as Jack tries to understand an experience from which he was insulated by virtue of his American status. That straightforward fact – he didn’t go through the camps and he didn’t lose his beloved sister to unthinkable depredations – gets complicated. Jack has been through something of his own hell. He’s seen combat, had friends die in his arms, and lost the innocence of his youth. That’s not shoah-level trauma, but it is real.

Even more strikingly, it’s Jack who gets charged with taking care of a train full of possessions looted from Hungarian Jews. Ilona begins increasingly to turn her attention to Israel, to abandon (understandably) the world she knew. Jack tries to be true to that burden. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that there is no feasible way to return the property to its rightful owners or heirs, he holds to a scrupulous sense of what others have lost.

That part is the longest and much the most effective. It gives us a compelling, if impossible, love story, and it makes literal the question of how to “own” the staggering loss of the Holocaust. Like the novel overall, the answer to that question is larger than any one person, larger than any straightforward story.

The second deals with Jack’s granddaughter as she tries to return the necklace to one of its heirs and the third with the necklace’s origin in the complicated story of a Hungarian Jewish suffragette. Each is notably weaker than the one before it, less for the way the novel goes than for the unnecessary detail and digression. Waldman badly needed an editor here, someone who could cut out as much as a quarter of the second part and maybe even two-thirds of the third. (Her decision to use Nina’s analyst as her narrator is both labored and tendentious. It pulls us away from questions of the Holocaust itself, which might have justification in giving later victims rich stories beyond their victimhood, but then it often pulls away from Nina herself. We simply don’t need to follow the analyst’s story since it doesn’t come back to inform any other part of the book.)

The architecture of the novel does carry a lot of effect, and I found myself struck by the degree to which Waldman refuses any easy answer. No one can be the genuine heir of a victim murdered alongside her entire family, yet no Jew is quite free to stop thinking of her or himself as some sort of heir. Amitai is, in many ways, an opportunist who tries to make money off of returning lost wealth to distant relatives of those who once held it. As such, though, Waldman, casts him neither as scoundrel nor hero. When he decides to ensure that the painting goes to Hungary rather than Israel, he demonstrates a real ambivalence about who “owns” the history. That’s a striking statement, although it might carry more weight if it didn’t come to us as a seemingly sudden inspiration, one that goes against everything he’s done to that point.

In such a light, Waldman’s failings in the second and, especially, third parts are frustrating because it feels as if this had a shot to be a genuinely great novel. To be blunt, there are a handful of key questions that she might have answered if she’d been more economical earlier. If she’d been able to sustain the focus with which she examined her ideas in the first part, she could have extended this to a more satisfying conclusion.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the epilogue, as we see Jack in 1948, a still recently returned soldier feeling guilty that he has stolen the necklace from the material he was charged with guarding, that guilt gets undermined. He learns from attending an auction that his piece would have brought back only $1.50. In many ways, his valuing the necklace, his honoring the idea that someone with a real and passionate life owned and then had it stolen, is a more impressive tribute than any trivial amount of money would have been. He seems to become its rightful “owner” because he recognizes it, because he cares where others are indifferent or forgetful.

Years later, then, in what we experience as the prologue, it would have been nice to get a sense of how Jack comes to feel otherwise. Why does he think giving the necklace to a relative of its owner will make a difference? His granddaughter comes to suspect he might simply be giving her a space for her grief over the end of her marriage – and that feels partly true – so is it finally just a narrative dodge? Is Jack giving Natalie a romantic quest (that conveniently ends in romance for her) or is he making a statement? I’m OK with either of those answers – and I think Waldman’s inquiries can accommodate either one – but I’d like more to go on than guesses. There seems to be a powerful point here, but it gets lost along with the focus of the later parts of the novel.

And, finally, I am somewhat frustrated at the way Ilona simply falls out of the story. It makes sense that Jack would never see her again, but it doesn’t feel right that we never learn her outcome. She’s suffered the burden of the Holocaust and then left Europe and its painful memories behind. Has she learned anything? Does she figure in some distant way into what becomes of the necklace? Did she figure in some obscure way with the story of how it came to belong to Natalie? (That answer seems to be no, but maybe other readers can set me straight.)

Nicole Krauss’s much stronger History of Love makes its only misstep, a small one as I see it, in overdetermining the ways in which a Holocaust survivor’s book comes to shape the life of a girl one world and two generations away from him. We get all the loose ends tied up, perhaps too tightly.

In this case, we have the opposite. The powerful question that Waldman weaves throughout the narrative – what obligation does each of us have to own the history of the Holocaust – gets looser and looser before unraveling almost all the way. Promising as this novel is, it still needs a couple of knots to make it whole.

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