Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: Sandman Slim

Sandman Slim Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find I have accidentally stumbled into a run of a genre I didn’t know existed: the hardboiled theological quasi-horror fantasy novel. There’s Ian Tregellis’s Something More than Night and Brian Evenson’s Last Days, and there’s this. All three are surprisingly good – especially the Evenson – and I wonder how such a niche came to be. Something in the zeitgeist, I guess.

As with those others, I doubt I’d have picked this up if I’d known how much it depended on a conventional heaven-and-hell conception of the universe. As with those others, though, I couldn’t have counted on Kadrey’s skill to overcome such a flat background and provide an innovative and compelling take on fantasy and the hardboiled. (To be fair, Evenson is in a different class, but Tregellis and Kadrey are plenty of fun as well.)

Our protagonist, Stark, is a magician, a guy who simply has a knack for picking up power. He’s cocky, and he rubs the rest of his circle the wrong way, prompting them to banish him to hell. A decade later, after he’s survived everything the demons and fallen angels throw his way in the gladiator pits of hell, he escapes and sets out to kill the ex-friends who sent him there.

That’s an over-the-top premise, again, one I wouldn’t ordinarily trust, but Kadrey finds the perfect mix of fantasy, humor, and the hardboiled. To take an early example, Stark tracks down one enemy and, in a swoop, slices off his head. The wound isn’t fatal, though, and he keeps the head around for a while, taunting it and getting information from it. Sometimes he gives the head-in-the-closet a drag on his cigarette, sometimes he subjects it to a stream of television infomercials. And the banter is always great – Kadrey does dialogue in a big way.

There are other shots of humor here, too, including an ongoing bit about Stark’s inability to understand how the internet has emerged in the decade he’s been away, and another about his propensity for burning through whatever clothes he happens to be wearing.

Side by side with that surprisingly consistent comedy, Kadrey commits to the genre. He passes up many opportunities to get sentimental or saccharine. Stark really is “Sandman Slim,” a bogeyman of the hell-crowd. There aren’t easy answers or happy-ever-afters. He’s a creature of hell, and hell is trying to break through, and none of that is finally a joke. As he deals with it all, though, Stark never gives into convention, never plays the assigned part. It’s a hardboiled trope, but it’s one that only the good writers can manage.

Without spoiling the end, I have to acknowledge – again, it seems – my frustration with the final chapter or so. Kadrey and/or his editors must have seen he was onto something good, so he’s added a chunk that invites and sets up the sequel, eventually, says, a series of sequels. This one is plenty of fun, and I’m on board for more Kadrey, but I find it irritating that this strong novel has to be distorted in the service of what feels like marketing.

This is certainly a lot of fun, though, and I will be looking for more from Kadrey – maybe even, sigh, the next Sandman Slim.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad has gotten a lot of deserved attention for the way it takes an historical metaphor – the underground railroad – and makes it real. Mohsin Hamid does the same thing here, and he does it with a strategy rooted even more fully in the fabulous mode. This is a good and a powerful novel, one that deserves to stand next to Whitehead’s, and one that raises many of the same questions in a transnational context.

The essential premise here is that there is a “door” to the West from the violence-riddled Middle East. That’s a common metaphor as in “close the door to future immigrants,” but it becomes literal here: throughout a city consumed by war and terror, doors begin to open up that allow refugees instant departure to Australia, Europe and, eventually, the United States.

If that sounds too sci-fi, it isn’t. It’s as everyday as the sometimes dingy, sometimes spectacular railroad in Whitehead’s book. There are many such doors, most guarded by the triumphant revolutionaries, but a few accessible through the black market. Once they open, though, they don’t really permit return. Those who leave, leave. They lose the worries that consume them and find fresh ones.

Hamid handles all of it with real delicacy, and it’s hard to believe the novel is as short and compelling as it is. There is something fabulous in the way he handles it all, and he has a gift for drawing complicated pictures with a few, quick lines. This feels like a fable in its absence of detail. From its near fairy-tale opening to its frequent change of scene, it gives us whole scenes from a handful of images.

None of it would work without Hamid’s deep skill. The scene where Saeed says farewell to his father has an emotional density that’s hard to describe – two decent people are trying to say the right thing to each other. Each knows his sacrifice will cost the other, yet he also knows he has to make it. The result is moving as well as fleeting. It’s the hard nugget of detail that gives form to the larger fable around it.

The relationship between Saaed and Nadia is wonderful as well. We open with an almost traditional boy-meets-girl scene, but everything eventually gets inflected by the weight of religion, tradition, gender roles, and Western culture. It would be so easy for Hamid to lose the weave of it all and give into cliché or sell at least one character short. Instead, he retains the same quick-sketch mode that serves him so well. Nothing is easy, and no one is to blame. These decent people are just caught in a world vastly larger than their private one.

I’m giving real thought to teaching this the next time I get to do a Contemporary American literature class. I think there’s a question about whether it’s American or postcolonial, but it speaks so interestingly to The Underground Railroad, and it’s such a powerful novel in its own right, that I think I may go for it.

I’ve heard only a little about Hamid, but, on the strength of this, I want to keep going. There’s so much skill here concentrated into so small and efficient a story, that I certainly find myself wanting more.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Starship Grifters

Starship Grifters Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When we first meet Rex Nihilo, he’s annoying. Over time, he becomes really annoying.

Imagine a cross between Han Solo and Donald Trump. He’s a narcissist with a hyper drive and a loyal sidekick robot, a space grifter who shoots into hyperspace first and never asks questions, or at least never listens to the answers.

There’s some fun to start, and I’ll give Kroese credit for the occasional guffaw, but you see in the first several pages what you’re going to get, and you don’t get any more than that. In fact, it might be that you get less since the best invention of the book comes in the opening pages. We learn there that our narrator is a robot that’s mostly sentient. When she begins to think too much like a real human – when she triggers a built-in warning that she might be crossing an artificial intelligence boundary – her system shuts down and she has to re-boot.

That’s a funny concept, and it has real promise. Kroese’s failure to do much more with it beyond his early gag is a symptom of what keeps this from being anything more than an easy spoof. I waited for our narrator to have additional system hiccups, but she never does. Instead, she too often drifts off into making declarations in the vein of “Rex is never as smart as he thinks he is.” She’s set up to be a wonderfully unreliable narrator, but she becomes just another neutral lens most of the time.

On top of that, the further we go, the more the story gets driven by the vapor trails of Star Wars. They wind up with a resistance group headquartered on a small moon. They have to blow up a giant space ship. There’s a princess our “hero” flirts with. There are Mad Magazine style send-ups of it all, but it becomes almost fan fiction at a point when it would be nice to have it strike out on its own.

There’s a “twist” at the end when [SPOILER] the uninhabited planet turns out to be peopled with all the things Rex thought he was inventing. It’s really the home of our hero and his robot, and they’ve been sent on a mission they never comprehended. Funny as such a gimmick might have been if it weren’t so telegraphed, it’s yet one more disappointment. Rex hasn’t survived because he’s a bumbling, entitled narcissist. It’s because he was set-up to survive by powerful forces.

In other words, he’s the worst sort of entitled narcissist because his entitlement is hard-wired into the plot.

I’m not making the mistake of taking this too seriously. It’s a gag-filled story and, yes, it got me laughing every few pages. That’s not a high enough ratio to redeem this, but it is a constant reminder of what it is. This is not Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe; it isn’t ultimately asking any questions. It’s just trying – probably too hard – to make you laugh.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: News of the World

News of the World News of the World by Paulette Jiles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no formula for great fiction, but I think I want it to do two things at once: tell a good story and wrestle with a worthwhile idea. A lot of almost-good work does one or the other of those, and a lot of less good fails at both.

This is a really good book, one that grew on me until I found myself admiring it very much. For starters, it has a good story. Captain Kidd is an aging veteran of multiple American wars when he gets drafted to return a Native American captive to her family hundreds of miles away. Johanna is only 10, and she no longer remembers her family or her native language. The two have to ride through post-Civil-War Texas, confronting natural and human threats at every turn. At that level alone, it’s a compelling story – and the shootout on the mountain with the three men who want Johanna as a child whore is nail-biting in its intensity.

But this is also a reflection on the idea of what it means to be an American. Johanna’s first language is not English but German. The country they journey through is not quite the United States; it’s a Texas trying to sort out it larger allegiance. And the people they meet are uncertain how to identify as part of a larger community. I’m going to assume that Jiles has read Benedict Anderson’s famous Imagined Communities in which he proposes that it takes a sense of the “news,” a sense that some stories concern “us” and some concern “others,” to create the concept of a nation.

In that light, Kidd’s occupation as a reader of news – he’s a 19th century aggregator in the spirit of Huffpost or Yahoo News – makes him an applied Andersonian. He’s set on giving his audiences an awareness of the boundaries of their own communities. He does so as an entertainer, but also as someone aware that he is part of a process by which a jagged collection of peoples will come together after the war that has so recently divided them.

In the way of great fiction, then, this book balances both the thrill of something happening with ideas that give those happenings weight. Like Laila Lailami’s The Moor’s Account and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, this is a book that imagines an America before it has coalesced into the nation we know. Its story entertains because it shows our protagonists at risk in a changing world. Its ideas amplify those crises by reminding us that we, as Americans today, are the result of the decisions the people of their world were making. And, it gives life to the excellent but dry thinking of someone like Anderson, taking his idea of the Imagined Community and showing us a community in the act of imagining itself.

I’m not going to say this is as effective as A Mercy. I do think Jiles blinks a bit at the end when, for understandable reasons, she falls in love with her characters and gives them endings different from what the tendency of the story would have offered. Also, this does start a bit slowly with too much exposition and an adventure that, while looming, doesn’t pick up its gravitational force for a while. Still, there’s a lot to admire here, and I’m torn only between liking it very much and flat-out loving it.

In any case, I certainly recommend it.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review: Last Days

Last Days Last Days by Brian Evenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Be careful before you pick this book up. It is as violent and nihilistic as anything I’ve ever read. It opens with a man reflecting on how he recently had his hand chopped off with a cleaver, and then it gets only darker and bloodier. It’s unsettling in what is has to say and in how it says it. It will either give you nightmares from what it says or give you nightmares for what your not reacting to it says about you. If I’d had a clearer understanding of what this was about, I would never have picked it up.

It’s also an extraordinary novel, maybe even a masterpiece, so I’m glad I did.

I gather I’m late to the Brian Evenson party. At least that’s the impression I get from the solid appreciation by Peter Straub that serves as the afterword to the edition I read. Apparently quite a few people already admire what Evenson’s doing. All the better, I suppose; this is so radical and disturbing that I’m comforted to feel I’m not quite alone in my admiration.

As far as I’m concerned, this comes as close as anything I can imagine to capturing the spirit of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, arguably the first great hardboiled work of literature. (Of course, after reading this, I feel as if my imagination is fairly limited.) In that one, our Continental Op is a man determined to find justice in a world too flawed to provide it. As a consequence, he embarks on a killing spree that renders him “blood simple” (the source of the title of the excellent Coen Brothers’ film). He’ll get justice even if it means murdering everyone in the town on Personville.

Evenson’s Klein is not so much after justice as theological certainty. That puts him on the same footing as many other protagonists – I think most memorably of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – but he’s perhaps more driven than any others. He’s taken for a prophet by a group of believers so avid that they mutilate themselves, that they take the number of amputated limbs as the measure of believer’s holiness. Over time (and I can’t quite call this a spoiler) he comes to think he may in fact be a prophet, that he might even be the messiah of this twisted world.

There’s something lurid in his theology, something unsubtle and technicolor, but it serves as the residue of something like real faith. Eventually two groups want to crucify him, one as the messiah and one as the thief by his side. Either way, there’s a yawning chasm at the heart of the novel: what would it mean to know God well enough not to doubt, what would it mean to understand Biblical structure so fully that, when thy right hand offends thee, you go ahead and lop it off with a cleaver. Absent such certainty, but in a world where some profess to feel it, we’re left with the choice of accepting the faith of others’ or believing in nothing. Or, as Klein eventually does, in bringing about a kind of Last Days that harrow what we see of the world.

All of that is fairly subtle in a novel that is decidedly unsubtle. The first signs of it, though, are in the simple excellence of Evenson’s narration. He puts us thigh deep into the story by the end of the first paragraph, and he never compromises his aesthetic vision. He never explains; he presents everything through a red, anaesthetizing mist. We experience one dehumanizing moment after another, but the narrative only gradually pulls away from what we recognize as human experience.

And that aesthetic vision reflects a moral one. In lesser hands, I’d have a hard time admiring a protagonist who laments the fact that he’s no longer human. In the hands of one who, somehow, skillfully [SPOILER] takes us to a point where our protagonist murders more than a dozen people while brandishing the decapitated head of their leader, I’m down with it. Klein really has become less than – or, disturbing thought, more than – human.

That’s a sight that’s full of the horror I have to acknowledge, but it’s also one that supersedes horror and goes where only the most deadened hardboiled or noir can go: to an inquiry into the nature of first principles that seems entirely fresh.

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Review: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a Vonnegut phase in high school and into my early college years, and I remain grateful to him for showing me that literature can make you think even as it makes you laugh. I loved him for four or five years, then I felt I’d outgrown him. It’s only in the last four or five years (leaving a good 25 in between) that I’ve come back to him in a more measured way.

I think the best Vonnegut really is as good as his partisans say, as good as I thought it was when I first encountered it in the Reagan years. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse Five, and, of course, Cat’s Cradle are all substantial works that hold up. They take elements of science fiction, combine them with a cynicism that can only be the product of an even deeper idealism, and give us some of the most memorable critiques of American life from the last 50 years.

Sirens of Titan isn’t quite up to that level. It’s Vonnegut feeling his way toward his more successful work. He senses there’s an intellectual freedom in a science fiction mode, but he gets mildly trapped in it here. The idea, for instance, of Rumfoord as a cosmic intelligence capable of seeing past and future is an intriguing spin on the idea of a god, but it also becomes a bit self-defeating. Rumfoord moves the events of Constant’s life forward, but it isn’t clear why. He seems to want to teach humanity a lesson – and Constant’s conclusion that our purpose is to love another isn’t a bad distillation, even if it sounds trite in my paraphrase. In the end, though, he himself is confused and moving on. It’s solid and intriguing, moving in some ways, but it also implies an anxiety from the still-learning Vonnegut.

Much of what is striking in the novel gets refined in later ones. We have, for instance, the rudiments of a religion that comes across more impressively in Cat’s Cradle. We also have a riff on the use of impediments to arrive at true equality; an idea he does a lot more with in “Harrison Bergeron” and that feels tacked on here. And we have disaffected rich men, unsure how to account for their great fortune, who get crystallized in Eliot Rosewater.

The one great contribution here, I think, is the Tralfamadorans. Yes, they come back in Slaughterhouse Five, but they’re here in fully realized form. It’s a brilliant idea: life forms so different from ours who direct humans toward great accomplishments that serve as trivial ‘text messages’ from across the universe. What is the Great Wall of China but, in effect, a post it note from the inter-stellar UPS driver saying he’ll be back soon with the package.

Definitely read this one. It’s not a bad place to start with Vonnegut if you know you’ll go on, and it’s a great way to echo the pleasures of the more mature novels if you’ve read them. Either way, commit to reading other Vonnegut as well. As striking as this is, it’s only a glimpse at what was to come.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Sourdough

Sourdough Sourdough by Robin Sloan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the evidence of two novels, Robin Sloan does “cozy conspiracy theory” novels. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore was about a mystery sitting inside a city and waiting for someone to solve it, and this one is similar: our protagonist inherits a sourdough starter that is somehow sentient. It isn’t clear where the starter comes from nor what it ultimately wants, but there’s a perpetual sense that the pieces will somehow come together.

[Spoiler alert:] They don’t come together all that well. We discover at the end that the starter has a semi-conscious plan to take over everything, which is a fun idea, but it doesn’t square with the tone of what’s come before. There’s a sweetness in the dough; it produces loaves with faces that either look stolidly out or, as the baking progresses, smile warmly. And it’s a lot of fun that the dough enjoys music. It also loses the most interesting intellectual element: the idea that there’s the possibility of marrying the power of technology – represented here by robot arms – with the art of simple living.

So, if I were being ruthless here I’d have to hold the disappointment of the end against this. A bit like Penumbra, this one feels as if the rules change a bit at the end. Each is a fabulous concept (and I mean “fabulous” both in root sense and as praise) but Sloan doesn’t entirely sustain it.

Another part of me, though, says I should get over it. Maybe someone else would be less taken by a library that’s deeply connected to a decades-old mystery. And maybe someone else would be less pleased by an intelligent sourdough starter. As it happens, I’ve worked in libraries, and I have a sourdough starter in the fridge that’s given me close to fifty loaves and has lasted 14 months.

If there’s a trivial quality to some of what Sloan does – I can’t for instance, entirely overlook the privileged nature of her protagonist who inherits this wonder without questioning her worthiness – it’s a trivial aesthetic I share. There’s a joy to the ideas here, an inventiveness that carries a bit of wonder into our everyday world.

I wish I liked the tone more, and I wish she’d shown more narrative control, but, if there’s anything to the old saying that the proof is in the pudding, I’ll admit that this is pretty good sourdough. When I concentrate only on the joyful conspiracy theory at the heart of this, it makes me happy. Taken for what this is, fun escapism, it’s just the recipe.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Pro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: Every Anxious Wave

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

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

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

So, yeah, I was on board right away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: House of Sand and Fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: Windy City Watchdog

Windy City Watchdog Windy City Watchdog by Bob Wiedrich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Chicago reporter’s memoir follows in a surprisingly substantial niche genre. From Ben Hecht on, it’s been a kind of late-career obligation for Chicago’s top muckrakers to reflect on their lives, careers, and favorite anecdotes. I got curious and combed my shelves for others in the tradition: I already have John McPhaul’s Deadlines & Monkeyshines (1962), Bill Doherty’s Crime Reporter (1964), and John Drummond’s Thirty Years in the Trenches (1998), and I’m not even including the late career retrospectives that Ed Baumann and John O’Brien put together. With that, I’m sure missing plenty more. Narrow as it is, it’s been fertile ground.

So, in that light, I find it kind of sad that Wiedrich’s memoir is self-published and that’s it’s gotten very little attention. Some of that, I’m afraid, is his fault. This is written in short, episodic bits. It feels like an assemblage of columns he’s written in retirement more than a coherent narrative. But some of that is a world that, as we see so dramatically with the crisis over “fake news,” has forgotten the work it takes to do real reporting. A generation ago, there’d have been a real market for something like this.

I’ve been doing a lot of digging in mid 1970s Chicago crime reporting (for a project that’s kept me from doing much other reading), and there’s no question Wiedrich was a real star. Alongside his Tribune partner Sandy Smith and the Sun-Times’ great Art Petacque, Wiedrich was the premier reporter of gangster events of his era. His old columns make sense of stories that others were putting together only in piecemeal. There’s a saying that journalism is the first draft of history. In those days, Wiedrich did his share of those first drafts, but he may have been alone in also doing a kind of second-draft, of writing pieces like his awesome “The Old, Gray Mob, It Ain’t What it Used to Be” in 1974 as a careful look at the way the founding generation of Chicago’s Syndicate was dying out. As someone going back to make sense of the period, I find his work is essential.

This memoir is not, for the most part, as spot-on as those old columns. I enjoy the way he captures a kind of gentle corruption permeating the Chicago he remembers. He has a great story about trying to tip a cop off about a bookie joint as a kid, only to be told to mind his own business. Or he talks as well about how, as a nearly broke young reporter, he’d join cops for free meals from restaurants that knew they were being gently squeezed.

I picked this up for the nuggets I might get on the gangsters he covered and knew, and I’m afraid it’s often thin in that department. There’s a sameness to most of the Syndicate members he discusses, though he clearly hated Richard Cain, a sheriff’s deputy who notoriously worked for the Syndicate at the same time. (And wound up shot in the end.) Cain once tried to entice him into a sexual encounter with a prostitute in an effort to collect dirt on him for future blackmail. Otherwise, we get a lot of names but none of the only-now-it-can-be-told details that I was hoping for.

There are some nice moments of reflection on the vanished Chicago and only a little of the “things were so much better then” nostalgia that threatens any project like this. I come away from this thinking it would be good to spend an afternoon with Wiedrich, who still seems sharp, but that the book itself doesn’t quite give a new look at the history he first helped uncover.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Past Imperfect

Past Imperfect Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The British empire may have died, but its death spasms continue. Fellowes has gotten famous, so I understand, from Downton Abbey – which I have not managed to see – and I thought reading this might give me some flavor of what people seem to admire so much about it.

On the plus side, this is often ‘sumptuous,’ a word I associate with Downton Abbey. We get long descriptions about the lives of assorted aristocrats, their homes, and their hopes. At its best, Fellowes gives nice, insightful portraits of individuals. At its worst, it runs on, tending toward what I might call a pornography of upper class life – descriptions that acknowledge the banality of the whole crowd but that go on to detail their whims and hungers with lingering attention.

All of that is generally what I signed up for: a 21st century English novel of manners. What really disappoints me, though, is the clumsiness of the narrative here. Fellowes can certainly write at the sentence level, but the whole of this feels almost amateurish in its organization.

At an architectural level, this is a Gatsby rewrite. Our narrator is a man of “the crowd,” but he’s on the outskirts of it. Through him, an arriviste pushes his way in, falls in love with a young woman, and then finds he cannot after all reinvent his background sufficiently to win her.

As we get the story, though, it’s presented through the organization of a mystery novel – a staged and dated variation of the old locked-room mystery. The dying Damian tells us that he understands he sired a child on one of his many mistresses of a couple decades before, and he wants to know which woman is the mother. Of course he has a list of all the women he slept with, and, of course, our protagonist/narrator proceeds from one ‘suspect’ to the next.

The organization that follows is so straightforward as to be embarrassing. We get a section dedicated to each – with her name on it in all but the final case – then we get a chapter on life ‘back then’ and a chapter on the present-day ‘interrogation.’ The skill of the sentences obscures the real hack-work underneath. Why, for instance, would one woman confide that she ‘bought’ her child to fake a pregnancy that would force a man to marry her? It’s a story she’s never told anyone, and there’s no conceivable motivation for sharing it when she does; it’s just convenient to the arc of the story as we get it. When he needs an answer to move onto the next chapter, he gets it. And why does each chapter reach a ‘climax’ in which it seems the child in question might be the one…only to have the possibility eliminated by one or another last-second reveal? Again, narrative convenience.

Throughout the novel, we’re teased with the idea of “Portugal,” a final and too-embarrassing-to-speak-of scene that, predictably, we get described near the very end. [SPOILER] So, Damian loses his temper and tells all the upper-class twits off. And he’s an asshole to our narrator. By that point in the novel, our narrator’s more or less forgiven him. It’s not that big a deal, yet it carries the weight of concluding that part of our narrator’s life…even though he admits he remained in contact with his old set over the following decades.

And then there’s a ‘twist’ at the end that’s really frustrating because it violates the spirit of the ‘mystery’ as we’ve gotten it. Someone on the list shouldn’t have been there and vice-versa and, guess what? The most obvious person of all is the one. Fellowes gets to express his contempt for the excesses of the aristocracy – he shows us his appreciation for the common sort after all -- but the wealthy get wealthier, and a sliver of the fine old caste system persists.

I’m probably being harder on this than I should be. I did finish it, after all, and one of its clear sins is its length. Still, I’d heard such good things about Downton Abbey that I have time believing Fellowes had much to do with shaping the way those stories came together.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess I didn’t really plan to read this. I’ve loved Franken since I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, proclaiming the ‘80s not the me-decade, but the “Me, Al Franken, decade.” Still, I figured I’d heard what I needed to hear, and I’d just go on rooting for him to do his good work in the Senate while I spent time reading more serious fiction.

Then I kept stumbling across excerpts of this book, and each one made me laugh. There was the famous one about Ted Cruz, “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” There was his quoting Lindsay Graham as evidence that Republicans can be funny too. Noting that Graham was running 15th in a field of 17 candidates for the GOP Presidential nomination, Franken told him, “Lindsay, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I’d vote for you.” Without hesitation, Graham replied, “That’s my problem.” And there was his persistent talk about how he’d had to “de-humorize” his statements in order to become a legitimate Senate candidate.

Finally, I got hit with a chance to buy the book as part of a fundraiser and, well, I just couldn’t stop reading it.

In many ways, this is three books in one, and all are interesting.

The first 50-60 pages are really a memoir of Franken as a Jewish kid in Minnesota growing into a successful comic. In the spirit of Steve Martin’s recent memoir, it brought the pleasure of revisiting many of the great skits of my adolescence from the performer’s side of things. I hadn’t realized how central Franken was to the early SNL vibe. He wasn’t Martin, who came to be the manic face of the guest host, nor was he Lorne Michaels, the impresario. He wasn’t even John Belushi or Bill Murray, the most inspired of the performers. But, as a writer, he was a constant voice behind all of those people, and – with the exception of Michaels – he was there longer.

Again as with Martin’s memoir, one of the pleasures is to discover the existing comics that Franken wanted to emulate. I love his take on Bob and Ray – perhaps my father’s favorite comedy team – and, once he says it, I can see how their dry approach informed Franken, his partner Tom Davis, and much of what I remember from those early SNL days.

The middle part of this book recounts the long process of Franken’s run for the Senate. It tells how a politically inclined person slowly decided to become a candidate. Along the way, he had to overcome a strange primary – in which his old humor was read out of context – and the closest Senate race in U.S. history – in which his humor was manipulated into untruths.

This part gets a bit slow in places – there’s less tension than the narrative seems to imply since we know the outcome beforehand – but it is intriguing for a political junkie.

The best part of that section, though, is the way Franken discusses the role of humor in his campaign. He talks a lot about how he had to try to present himself as someone other than who he’d been his entire adult life. His frustration is fun to see, but even more fun is to have him release some of the best jokes he had to self-censor during the campaign. It isn’t news that Franken is funny and insightful; it is news that he was being funny and insightful at this most serious part of his life.

The final section is even more fun as the now-established Senator Franken gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the Senate. The line about Cruz turns out to be an anomaly. Franken talks about how he feels compelled to push against his Republican colleagues, but he offers a refreshing look at what it means to know the people you’re fighting with. It’s striking to hear him report that Jeff Sessions – the same guy whom Coretta Scott King called too racist to be a federal judge and who is a neanderthalic Attorney General – asked his wife to knit a blanket for Franken’s first grandchild. Franken assailed the guy during his confirmation hearings, and it’s more compelling to know he did so with a personal affection for the man whom he politically opposed.

Anyway, this turns out to be a thoughtful and fun book. I kept daring myself to put it down, but then it would jump back into my hand and make me read it. All I can say is, if you’re tempted, give it a shot. Franken’s voice comes through on the page, and we certainly need as much of it as we can get these days.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Bird and the Sword

The Bird and the Sword The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of the best fantasy is ultimately about language. Tolkien began, after all, with his linguistic experiments around the language of the elves and orcs, and the stories grew from there. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy has an entire system of magic around the notion that the world came into being when the first human spoke the true language, and now all magic is the residue of that same speech. And J.K. Rowling makes a big deal about how important it is for her young wizards to pronounce words just-so, to appreciate the power of the individual word.

A lot of powerful feminist literature explores what it means for a woman to lose her voice. Whether it’s something like The Little Mermaid story or The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re called on to interrogate the degree to which women are subjected to control by the removal of their voices, by silencing them.

Amy Harmon marries those two traditions in this gently magical story of a young woman who discovers power, love and a sense of her own desires through the process of recovering the voice taken from her as a child. This is fantasy in the broad sense of the term: it’s a story that invents a new world in order to comment on the one we know. It may not be “high fantasy” in the sense of the endless parade of Tolkien/Martin wanabes, but that’s a good thing. Instead, it’s a story that spins a new mythology from the long tradition of fairy tale.

This is also a story that goes in unexpected places. Lark is a lord’s daughter whose life is overturned when the king discovers that her mother is “gifted,” that she has the power to give “words” that reshape reality. The king has the mother summarily executed, but not before she can level curses upon the king and his son, and she can command her daughter to silence so that she will not suffer the same fate for exercising her power.

To the degree that this book explores the feminist trope, it’s telling that it’s another woman who silences Lark. And she does so not out of jealousy (as another woman attempts to do late in the book) but for her own protection. It’s hard to judge the mother: has she acted wisely to defend her daughter, or is she frightened of this particular female power? I like that the answer isn’t clear, that this is a real novel, not a political tract. It asks a powerful question – how do we accommodate a woman’s power – and then it allows multiple answers to emerge.

Similarly, Lark gets taken hostage years later by the new king, only to discover that her mother’s curse has left him gifted as well. He has the capacity to change into an eagle, but he can’t control the process. As her mother promised, he is losing himself “to the sky.” Again we see the ambivalence of the situation. This power is, in its way, welcome, and the king acknowledges later that he has always dreamed of flying. Yet it also limits him. It’s both a curse and a gift, an experience of the world that makes him more and less likely to tolerate the “gifted” community his father sought to exterminate.

And, at the same time as she’s taken violently, she slowly discovers she loves Tiras. And their romance is rich and rewarding, with a dash of Pride and Prejudice thrown into the battle narrative. You buy that they’re in love for the right reasons, and Lark’s narrating of her growing desire for him is legitimately powerful

We see the dynamic with Lark’s father as well. Early on he’s praised for being a mild, unambitious man, the perfect mate for Lark’s mother who might shine too brightly if she were nearer the throne. Later, he becomes a key player in the chess game to determine who will be named successor to the dying king. He’s Lark’s protector, but he also likes her as silent; he doesn’t want to see her power unleashed.

And to top all of that off, Harmon writes with real skill. Her prose is lyrical and engaging, but it’s never overwrought. It feels like a fairy tale, but it never resolves itself into something as straightforward as that tone would suggest.

I do think there are spots where the action drags (but that might be my fault for getting distracted for days at a time as I read this and therefore coming to it with more gaps of time than I usually do). For a story that comes to depend as much as this does on intrigue, there might be more of a run-up to the political crises in the last few chapters.

All in all, though, Harmon writes so beautifully, and she does so in the service of such legitimate literary questions, that I enjoyed this very much.

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Review: Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition

Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition by John J. Binder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For starters, John Binder is the name in Chicago-area Prohibition-crime history. He’s been a friend, mentor, collaborator, and resource to me, but that hardly makes me unique. John has been a generous and insightful resource to everyone who’s found his way to him in the last quarter century. In fact, a good squeeze-the-produce way to find out if a work in this field is any good is to check its acknowledgements page: if John isn’t mentioned, it means the author never really got started digging. Lots of people are doing good and provocative work on the Capone era, (think of Rich Lindberg, Matt Luzi, Mario Gomes, Rose Keefe, and Mars Eghigian) and but none of them are doing it without somehow coming into contact with John.

And this book is the summation of John’s three or four decades of research. If you’ve never really gotten the skinny on Capone, this book has it (though it may not be the best place to get a first exposure to that long and bloody story). If you already know where some of the bodies are buried, then no other source can take you so quickly to the current, advanced thinking about what happened, what people say happened, and how far we can go with revising this well-known but distorted historical moment.

In a broad sense, this book has been done before, but not for almost 60 years and not without many significant recent findings. In the immediate wake of Prohibition, there was an entire industry dedicated to creating the general myth of Capone’s Chicago. On the one hand, you had the rise of the “Syndicate” under Colosimo, Torrio, and Capone. On the other, you had the nefarious Dean O’Banion (I can call him “nefarious” because he shot my grandfather), Hymie Weiss, and Bugs Moran lining up the Northside Gang. Then, after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, it was just Capone until he got knocked off his perch by Eliot Ness. Or was it for tax evasion?

From almost the moment the bullet casings fell to the floor, you had writers mythologizing the Chicago gangster. (Armitrage Trail and Ben Hecht were writing versions of Scarface while Capone was still at large, and every day’s newspaper – of which there were seven competing – brought some fresh anecdote.) There was nothing romantic about the character – that wouldn’t come until the middle 1960s with Mario Puzo – but he was certainly magnetic. Equal parts charismatic, menacing, cunning, and doomed, he quickly fit into an established storyline: a rapid rise and a sudden fall.

I have a long shelf full of books that people were writing in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, all of which tell the same essential version of the Chicago gangster story, one that featured Capone but that didn’t necessarily revolve around him. Then, starting in the 1940s, writers tended to focus on one or another aspect rather than the whole. Capone’s legend grew larger and larger, to the point that it overshadowed almost everyone else’s. (There are at least four serious biographies of Capone – Pasley, Kobler, Schoenberg, and Bergreen – and that doesn’t count the dozens of books that deal with a slice of Capone’s life or the countless quickie biographies that simply recycle what’s already out there.) In other words, the Prohibition story in Chicago got reduced to the story of Capone.

What Binder does here, above all, is restore the larger context of that story. Yes, there’s still a lot about Capone and a lot about booze, but this book recovers the histories of the dozen or more substantial gangs that started out as legitimate rivals. And it also restores some necessary balance to the crimes in play. It wasn’t all booze. It began with prostitution and gambling, grew to include the crucial business of racketeering, and eventually necessitated political corruption. So it’s more characters doing more things.

That larger net makes it harder to tell a coherent story. There are stretches here where we get long lists of names that may not mean especially much to people who haven’t studied this material. Still, no one has attempted to publish such lists since at least 1961 (when Kenneth Alsop attempted the last such overarching history) and no one has ever done so with so much ancillary research at hand.

Once Binder lays out the structure here – several gangs involved in several different kinds of criminal enterprises – he gets to the familiar story of “Al Capone vs. Bugs Moran.” Except, here, Binder refuses to let it settle into the familiar rise and fall of Scarface. Among other things, he asks an obvious question that few have posed: if we know that the Northside Gang had hundreds of gunmen and dozens of significant lieutenants, then how did the killing of only half a dozen of them – leaving Moran alive – bring an essential end to the gang war?

Binder’s answer is that it didn’t. The Massacre marked the beginning of the end, but only the beginning, and he gives a substantial chapter to the extensive sequel. The Moran forces may have been weakened, but they were soon, but temporarily, even stronger after their alliance with the noxious pimp Jack Zuta, the suddenly wealthy Aiello gang, and the bold, further Northside Touhys. In other words, as Binder convincingly reminds us, the gang war continued a good five or six years longer. The Capone gang – even after Capone was sent to prison – pursued a patient and disciplined strategy, one that took foresight but also good fortune. Time after time they fragmented the opposition, absorbing some of the ones they’d defeated, and then continuing to pressure the ones who remained. It took really until World War II, but they eventually consolidated everything and became (though this is outside Binder’s study) a kind of government for the criminal world, compelling anyone who broke the law to play by their rules, paying the proper “street taxes” and abiding by clear directives about where or when they could ply their illegal trades.

Along the way, Binder offers a number of thoughtful digressions to take down either longstanding myths or attempts at historical revisionism. Among them

• He argues that the South Side O’Donnells, led by the media savvy Spike, were more influential than contemporary observers – particularly the ones who attempted to record which gangs held which territory – seemed to acknowledge. He uses careful studies of police logs and Chicago Crime Commission data to suggest we’ve allowed Spike to settle into a teller-of-tales sort when, in reality, he was consequential.

• He takes on Tribune columnist John Kass’s assertion that Capone was essentially a figurehead for later mob boss Paul Ricca. Binder acknowledges the consensus that Ricca went on to become probably the paramount figure in the mob, but he sees no evidence to suggest that influence began as far back as Kass asserts.

• He challenges the formidable Laurence Bergreen who put forward the notion that Capone was really fronting for Chicago Heights power Frankie LaPorte, but he does so thoughtfully, acknowledging the more focused (and more credible in this context) work of Matt Luzi who has shown the Chicago Heights gangsters were more consequential than contemporaries realized.

• And he more or less demolished Jonathan Eig’s recent assertion that William “Three-Fingered” White was the architect of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Those digressions sometimes do break up the core narrative of the book, but since this is a book about expanding about that narrative we can forgive it.

In the end, there’s so much here that it’s easy to declare it an essential work in the field. Binder gives us the most complete updating of the overall Chicago Prohibition era study that we’ve had in decades, and he does it with the same modesty I’ve seen in him for years, crediting others for the pieces they’ve contributed to this very large puzzle he’s done so much to solve. A lot of us have been waiting for this one for a long time, and it’s great to have it at last.

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Review: The Blue Streak

The Blue Streak The Blue Streak by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last of Ellen’s published works so far, though word comes that she has a new collection of short stories nearly finished.

On the one hand, this is impressive page by page. In this story of Danny, a recent college graduate who, having ruined his shoulder through over-training, has neither his near Olympic-level swimming nor any other clear plan. He’s treading water after a time as a “blue streak” in the pool, and he’s irritated his go-get-’em father in the process. Then, in the opening pages, his father dies.

What follows is a meditation on self and family, with many excellent set pieces. We get the note-for-note rendering of the family coming together and dealing with its grief, and we get close-ups of one family member after another.

The best of this comes in the details, and, as someone only a bit younger than Ellen, I found myself squirming at the all-too-close-to-home, warts-and-all rendering of a Jewish family. Since I’m scheduled to work with Ellen later this summer, I paid particular attention to that level of rendering. It’s clear she has real chops, and I hear from others she brings that same eye as a reader.

At the same time, this probably doesn’t “move” as well as I’d like. That is, its individual scenes are all solid, but they don’t always connect to one another as effectively as I’d like. (This is something I struggle with in my own writing.) We get an opening scene where, in a laundromat, Danny meets a young woman and perhaps makes a connection. Except for a quick glance back at the end of the novel, though, the scene has no staying power. The woman falls out of the novel.

In a similar vein, we get what seems a sub-plot about the medical examiner misplacing the father’s body. In a novel so steeped in realism, it seems gratuitous, a plot device to extend the general discomfort of the situation. [SPOILER: There’s also a plot twist where we learn that Danny has been cut out of his father’s will, a quirk of anger that we know doesn’t represent his father’s true feelings but that exacerbates the totality of Danny’s loss. Bottom line, it doesn’t need to be there, and it distracts from the real drama of Danny coming to grips with what it means to be his own parent.]

There’s a strong story in all of this. Danny is dealing with the end of his father’s life, the end of his career as a swimmer, and the beginning of a new kind of responsibility. At its best here, this novel makes that difficult crossroads a real drama. Danny doesn’t have it easy, but novels don’t happen in “easy.” They happen when someone like Danny has his eyes opened to a (detailed) world that doesn’t square with the one he anticipated.

It’s a pleasure to read this for its skill, but it seems less urgent today than I suspect it did when it came out.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one starts out as an impressive reimagining of the procedural. Our narrator is the intriguing Sidney Rose Parnell, a traumatized Iraq war marine who’s joined up stateside with the railroad police in the Denver of her childhood. Sidney carries the horrors of her war with her, seeing the ghosts of the men and women she dealt with in her work in the morgue, and taking advice from her dead sergeant and dead lover. The one good thing she’s brought back is her traumatized service dog, Clyde, who’s pledged his loyalty to her after the death of his first handler, her boyfriend.

For most of the first half, it’s less a question of whodunit than of how Sidney will uncover everything. For all the trauma she faces, she remains a good detective, and it’s rewarding to see her puzzling through piles of evidence at the same time as she deflects the too common sexism that comes her way. She’s a strong character, and you know you’re in good hands from the start.

Toward the end, this is still pretty solid, but it deteriorates into more of a conventional thriller. It’s nice that it’s a woman detective coming to the rescue of a decent but generally helpless man, but there’s a lot of been-there, done-that to it. The climax is surprisingly bloody, and there’s a lot less of the nuance we get from the beginning. From the original straw-man bad-guy of “the burned man,” a disfigured Iraq War vet, we end up with entirely unsympathetic skin-head bad guys out of central casting.

Things move well even at the end, and Nickless can certainly deliver the goods, so I did enjoy it.

I gather this is the first in a series, and I can imagine subsequent ones will continue to mine what it means for Sidney to carry so many of her ghosts back with her. I can even imagine a series that culminates in a big disclosure around the serious crimes she was peripheral to in Iraq.

As all that plays out here, though, it feels as if much of the best material gets held back. As with the Burned Man, we get some misdirection. The Iraq crimes come to us as a tantalizing story, but, per the logic of a series, they get deferred.

This is a bit better than conventional, but it’s not quite the powerhouse it gives promise of being.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Jar of Fools

Jar of Fools Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the great things about reading graphic novels these days is that, mature as the genre is becoming, we can still see its origins. If you’re my age – ahem, comfortably middle-aged – you remember when Maus (and maybe even Contract with God) came out. With few exceptions, the founding examples of the form are still around, still almost current.

I can’t say I’d heard of this one before I found a nice two-volume edition for sale at my local comic book store (shout out to Comics on the Green in Scranton, PA) but it looked intriguing and I gave it a shot. It’s from 1994, still the dark ages of graphic novels, but it’s new to me.

The story here is compelling: Ernie was a top stage magician, but he’s haunted by the death of his brother Eddie in an escape stunt gone bad. Their old mentor, Al, is on the lam from a retirement home, and Ernie’s old girlfriend – who’s also haunted by Eddie’s death – can’t start the new life she thinks she wants. Throw in a con-man living out of his car with his 10 year old daughter. And you have a full cast of characters.

It’s hard to paraphrase what happens in the story because, like a lot of the best narrative art, it grows out of the urges and needs of the characters. Each of these is surprisingly well realized, and I found myself curious about everyone we get to spend much time with. I loved the first part and simply raced into the second. I think the second wraps up a bit too quickly, forcing a few changes in character that come without a great deal of explanation. But that’s a quibble next to the general inspiration of the whole.

The art is understatedly beautiful. Maybe because it was originally serialized in a Seattle weekly or maybe because Lutes hadn’t yet seen some of the box-breaking experiments other artists got into, the drawings are all small, reminiscent of newspaper comic strips. But each box is unusually eloquent. Lutes has a gift for giving quick dashes of character so that even background characters come to feel like people we recognize.

Over time, I felt as if the characters here were actually separate actors, each giving a solid performance in a moving story of broken people finding one another.

We’ll have to see how the full history of the graphic novel genre gets written, and I am sure that a lot of what we take now as exemplars of the form will fade or seem dated. These black and white drawings in their small boxes may not make the eventual cut, but there’s a poignant and broken magic to them. The form may have taken a different direction than this one suggested, but it’s a real gem, and I urge you to check it out if it comes your way.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: Dodgers

Dodgers Dodgers by Bill Beverly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a pretty good crime novel. It’s got a great perspective since our point-of-view is East, a “watcher” at an L.A. crack house. He takes in everything he sees, always alert to threats and always committed to the “safe” way. There’s a lot of money in the business, so he’s got no reason to try anything freelance.

As all the reviews and blurbs recount, East and a small crew have to drive from L.A. to Wisconsin to kill a potential witness against a key player in the larger gang. So this turns into a road trip story with characters who have little experience of the places they’re headed. East is responsible in ways the others aren’t, and he tries to keep them on task despite distractions.

The tension here comes from our young protagonist growing into a sense of his own capacity. He isn’t ready for a mission this fraught at the start, but he’s someone older, more able at the end. We don’t know until the last moment whether they’ll be able to pull the hit off, and we don’t know for a good bit longer than that whether it was a crime worth committing.

If this is really just a crime novel, though, the ending is unsatisfying. [SPOILER] East, stranded in the Midwest, finds a new life for himself, helping operate a paintball factory in a decaying Ohio town. He’s back to watching, and he feels pretty good about himself. Then he discovers that someone he thought he thought was dead has returned, and he has a choice: go back to his old life or try for something new. That’s intriguing (and I’ve undersold it) but it isn’t quite ‘crime’ anymore.

So, while this is a good crime novel, it’s even better as something more, as an exploration of what it means to grow up in this 21st century America.

For starters, Beverly can flat out write. He has a peculiar, wonderful rhythm. It’s almost as if his sentences lope in that tough-guy performed way. It’s almost like reggae without the underlying hope and celebration. I took down these gems. “You think it’s the same out there? But you don’t know. It ain’t. Them police don’t budget on you. That’s their country. They love a little Negro boy.”

Or “Talking to Ty, you ended up knowing less than you started with. He took a pleasure in sharing nothing, enjoying nothing, a scrawny boy who’d almost starved as a baby, didn’t eat, didn’t play – failure to thrive, the relief doctor said. Smart but didn’t like school, fast but didn’t like running. Never cried as a baby, never asked questions. Never loved anything but guns.”

Beverly puts all of that prose in the service of telling his crime story, but also in the service of his more ambitious project. These are kids – and they really are kids, still in their early teens – who’ve inherited a world that offers them almost nothing.

It took me a while to figure out what’s so evocative in East’s name – purportedly short for Easton – and it finally hit me. Like Gatsby this is a story of the American dispossessed venturing, not West, but East. Our hero here is defined as someone trying to reverse the history of the country. His final conundrum is almost a literal take on American history: he can return West, return to the ‘boxes’ he’s always known, or he can try to venture further back into the coastal East, a world that represents the original promise of our culture.

L.A. may be home to East, but there’s something empty about it. Some of that is the violence he knows – he watches an innocent girl get shot in the early pages of the book – but some of that is an even more profound emptiness. His brother Ty, who experienced a “failure to thrive” as an infant, is perfectly suited to the place. But East, who longs for the chance to be loyal to something worthy of him, can’t find what he needs.

The ending that somewhat disappoints as part of a crime novel is compelling in this other context. Once Ty tracks him down at the end, the “center” (i.e. the Midwest of Ohio) cannot hold. East has to choose the L.A. he has always known, or the “East” for which he was inadvertently named. It’s a choice between an everyday despair that’s taught others to murder without qualm and an uncertain future that smacks of the American promise to reinvent ourselves.

There’s a lot to chew on at the end of this and, as much as I admire it, I think there’s a calculated sloppiness, almost a “lope” to the rhythm of the narrative. It’s compelling, and I enjoy it, but I’ll be curious to see what Beverly goes on to do. As many others have said, this is a spectacular debut in itself – and it’s been on my list since I first heard the reviews almost a year ago – one that seems to announce the start of an impressive career. Sign me up for Beverly’s next one, and certainly give this one a consideration.

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Review: The Other Woman

The Other Woman The Other Woman by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Again, I read this with a bias since I am readying to work with Ellen at the end of the summer, but, still, it’s pretty good. I read the first part of it with admiration, paying attention to the narrative choices she was making and trying to trace the way she brought her character(s) into focus. Then, I read the second half with enjoyment, genuinely wondering how Jennifer would resolve her situation.

The story here is deeply clever. Jennifer is in love with Richard, a married man, and things open as she prepares for his son’s first visit to her home. She’s been drafted as a quasi-mother, someone expected to nurture a near stranger, and she isn’t ready for it. That’s a striking perspective on the “affair” story, and there’s real poignancy in it.

The part I most admire here is the way Lesser carefully excavates the backstory without slowing the momentum of her present tense recounting. This is a short and quick novel – one that feels always to be moving – but it gets a lot done in that space. This is all of Jennifer’s life in her time in Vermont, and we come gradually to see how circumscribed her relationship with Richard has made it.

The voice is always good. We get a sense of Jennifer unpacking her circumstance at every turn. She makes me mistakes, she tries to learn from them, and she tries very hard to grow. I quibble with the reviewer who claims this is a story of Jennifer’s growth. I think, in the end, this is more a story of how she works backwards, of how she needs several months with Richard’s broken family to realize the extent of her mistakes. She needs all that time to discover her mother’s trite lesson: work to make your own family. Love the people who are given to you wholly rather than those who commit only partway and then demand more from you.

I admire the lower-case f feminism of the work. Jennifer may have made questionable choices, but Lesser gives her full opportunity to be human. Her story matters because it is hers, and that’s a deep commitment to an equality of experience.

If I have a ‘wish for more’ with this one, it’s that I’d like more on Richard. On the one hand he’s such a consistent ass that I don’t see what attracts Jennifer to him. On the other, I’d like a little more insight into how he’s feeling as his ex-wife effectively manipulates him.

Still, as I say, good stuff, and all the more fuel for my anticipation of working with Ellen later.

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