Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: The Wrong Case

The Wrong Case The Wrong Case by James Crumley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No matter when most detective fiction is set, part of it invariably takes place in 1955. That’s kind of the Victorian era of American literature – the moment when a public Eisenhower morality obscured a sordid underworld – and detective fiction is a lot like our Victorian novel: a popular form that, in talented hands, can be lasting literature. Chandler may have written much of his best work twenty years earlier, but he seemed to predict the 1950s (and many of the films of his novels were made then). And Ellroy, writing four decades later, set most of his work in the period. In between, their legion of imitators touched directly or indirectly on the same dynamic, a sense of noble disappointment that our American experiment carried a flotsam of cynicism, disappointment, and outright evil in its stream.

I mention all that because Crumley seems a rare bird who was able to re-fit the classic detective form into a different, later era. Writing around the same time as the more highly regarded (but so far, to me, disappointing) John D. MacDonald, he managed to modernize the form. MacDonald’s Travis McGee was just another Chandler “knight,” but a man even more removed from his time than Chandler’s Marlowe. I find him a whiner, but I do need to give him another shot, whining mostly about the fact that it isn’t 1955 anymore, that the world no longer has a clearly defined place for a man like himself.

Crumley, though, adjusted to the times. This is my second of his; it’s a bit less good than The Last Good Kiss, but, then, so is almost everything else. That reinvents the genre while this one merely stands as a satisfying extension of it. In either case, though, his novels feel alive, feel as if they’re using the genre to say something about a world that’s a couple decades newer than most of the others. (To be fair, Ellroy uses the 1950s to say a great deal about today, but that’s a matter for another day.)

In The Wrong Case, we have a cranky private eye in a mid-sized Western city. His great-grandfather established the family fortune as much through dumb luck as anything else, and now Milo has the means to stay drunk and dependent most of the time, needing to supplement things only a little with seedy divorce work that’s suddenly dried up with the state’s transformed dissolution laws.

On the surface, Milo is another fallen knight type, another guy walking down the mean streets without quite being sullied himself. He spends his days protecting a coterie of fellow drunks and down-on-their-luck drifters, and he doesn’t ask all that much for himself. Over the course of the novel, though, it becomes clear that he genuinely sees himself as lost. He sees all sorts of drug abuse and open sexuality, and he refuses to judge it. He suspects that these young people may be right, that they may have a better sense of how to lead a decent life than he does. And, since he’s certain he has no capacity for living decently, it’s inspiring to see his lack of self-righteousness.

In other words, he’s a hero not just in a different age, but for a different age. He sees a cultural transformation – it’s not Eisenhower’s America but Nixon’s – and he has a glimmer of hope that the young people he knows will do a better job than he or his self-important ancestors ever managed. There’s almost nothing he can do to help – the title suggests, after all, that he’s somehow on the wrong case all along – and even his solution of the mystery leaves things mostly as they were.

Throughout it all, Crumley writes with humor and insight. One of the reviews I glanced at calls him Chandler crossed with Hunter S. Thompson, and that’s a great way to put it. He’s Chandler forty years later; he’s Thompson without the full-blown misanthropy.

Consider this exchange:

Milo’s bartender friend laments a recently killed mutual friend, “The old fart survived two wars and some goddamned punk pushes him down the stairs and kills him. What the hell kinda life is that?”

And Milo answers, “I don’t know, Leo. The kind we have, I guess. I don’t know.”

I love the final “I don’t know” here. If I’d had the skill to draft such an exchange, I’d probably have cut it. But not-knowing is central to Milo’s existence. The world is in tumult, and he resists the standard impulse to complain that it isn’t as it was when he was a kid. It was broken and confusing then, and it’s broken and confusing now. The answers are never easy, and nostalgia isn’t any use.

There’s a gorgeous couple pages late in the novel – pages 235-6 in my Vintage contemporaries edition – that serve as a kind of ethical will from his father, a glorious drunk who died under suspicious circumstances when he was only 10, who tried to help him understand life while retching in a bathroom. It’s too long to quote entirely, but the essence of it is that there’s a kind of honesty in being a drunk. “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. Some of them are good men, but in the name of goodness, they cause most of the suffering in the world. They’re the judges, the meddlers. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something down deep inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent. You can’t trust a man who’s afraid of himself. But sometimes, son, you can trust a man who occasionally kneels before a toilet. The chances are that he is learning something about humility and his natural human foolishness, about how to survive himself. It’s damned hard for a man to take himself too seriously when he’s heaving his guts into a dirty toilet bowl.”

It’s not that sublime throughout – there are times you can see the guide wires of the standard form directing the action and coloring the minor characters we meet – but it’s certainly an inspiring effort. There are another 4-5 Crumleys out there, and I’ll get to them. I don’t know of any others that accomplish what he does, though, so I’ll be rationing them over the next good while.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: Quiet Americans

Quiet Americans Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Glass breaks easily. It’s whole one moment, and then it shatters. That’s a small part of what Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass that in many ways marked the beginning of the Holocaust – represented: a breaking that could never be put together again.

Erika Dreifus’s remarkable linked collection of short stories focuses on that facet of what the Holocaust meant. In the wake of so much breakage, so many things torn into pieces, it falls to the second and third generations to make sense of the fragments that remain. None of her characters navigate any part of the 60 years after World War II without bearing its scars, and none can really ignore its shadow.

One of the many subtle insights here is that the legacy of the Holocaust seems to grow over generations. Only one of these stories is set during the War and the immediacy of the staggering disaster has a different feel than the later ones. That story, “For Services Rendered,” may well be the strongest in this uniformly strong collection. It tells the story of a German pediatrician who, because he has cared for Goering’s daughter, is able to escape the world that consumes almost everyone else he knew. After the war, after the Nuremberg trials, he confronts the difficult question: while Goering’s widow was a princess of the Reich and benefited from its evils, she also saved his and his family’s life. She is of evil on a staggering scale, but she is also a person, a woman who showed him a necessary mercy, and he has to decide whether to intervene in her trial.

Most of the remaining stories turn out to be linked, tracing a broken family as it acculturates to American life. There’s a generation of refugees, a generation of their children who have to care for aging parents afraid to go back for visits to a Europe that is eerily familiar, and a generation after them who slide easily into upper-middle-class careers but still find themselves haunted by a past they cannot really know. (The final story, “Mispocha,” does a particularly careful job of that, giving us a middle-aged man who uses the new tool of DNA analysis to uncover a mystery his survivor parents never revealed to him.)

What’s striking in the linkedness – and, unless I am missing a subtle connection, the middle six are connected while the first and last are not – is that the running together of generational perspective is part of the real power here. We see multiple generations experience the challenge of watching parents age and feel children supplant them. Even as the decades pass, though, the Holocaust brings about new challenges, new reminders that they are the heirs of a broken past they cannot hope to repair.

In “Lebensraum,” the second earliest chronological story here, a refugee finds himself working in the middle of Iowa. He’s the only Jew for hundreds of miles, and, in his role as director of a prisoner-of-war camp kitchen, he comes to supervise prisoners who wore Nazi uniforms. It’s a balance for him, remembering his lost family and imagining a future for his new child, but it’s also a promise that American has given him enough “room to live,” enough space to shape a new life separate from but inflected by the old.

In “Homecomings” and “The Quiet American” – two stories that particularly talk to each other – we see women of different generations return to Europe to try to make sense of how their private and global worlds have changed. In the first, the protagonist has the bad timing to arrive in Germany during the 1972 Olympic massacre, a visceral reminder that hatred and fear of Jews persists. In the second, a young woman is troubled to find a tour guide who talks more sadly of the loss of German infrastructure than of the murdered millions. The two stories make a powerful diptych: the same experience mediated by characters from different eras but delivered with Dreifus’s particular skill and supple voice.

That generational conversation may be clearest of all in “Floating” when a woman worries over possible complications in her daughter’s pregnancy. At the same time, she recalls her own, recalls the innocence of “floating” in joy and, perhaps, naivete. The irony seems to be that, in a potentially more dangerous time, she survived without being fully aware of the dangers. Today, her daughter and potential grandchild have more access to life-saving technology but also more awareness of all that could go wrong.

It’s surprising as you read this – and I hope ‘you’ will – how easily and quickly it goes. Each story is powerful on its own terms, and yet they align with one another in powerful ways too. The effect is that this reads in some ways like a novel but with between-story opportunities to take a quick breath.

I happen to be friends with Erika, but the disclaimer seems unimportant because I got to know her as a result of reading her work. She is a serious talent, and this book deserves a wide and appreciative audience.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Review: A Horse Walks into a Bar

A Horse Walks into a Bar A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you think about it completely outside the transaction of comedian and audience, there’s something oddly cruel about stand-up. We, the people intent on laughing, ask the comic to stand on a stage and entertain us. Once upon a time, maybe, in the long-ago of the Borscht Belt, we got a series of jokes, one-liners we could take back home or to work to share with others. Jokes were jokes without context, or with only the context of a general men-are-men and girls-are-to-be-ogled-or-to-mutual-misfortune-married.

That hasn’t been true at least since Lenny Bruce, though, and maybe long before, and a large part of the best comedy is also a deep sadness. If it takes a teaspoon of salt to make cookies truly sweet, it takes a dash of tears-of-the-clown to make us really laugh. It was always true of the great Louis CK (to take just one example) that he was quietly bleeding on stage even as he nailed us with his observations. It’s all the more poignant today that he was also at least dimly aware of how his success was warping him, how it was turning him into someone who’d lost his sensitivity, who was testing the limits of his fame and his shame by exposing himself (literally as opposed to the figurative work he did so brilliantly on stage) in front of women who knew and admired him.

Anyway, this book explores that tension in the abstract. It gives us a comedian, “Dovaleh G,” who’s bombing more or less deliberately as he goes through his stand-up act in the Israeli city of Netanya. He feels compelled to recount some of the trauma of his childhood – he’s the son of a bitter father and a Holocaust surviving mother – but his audience has come for the jokes. So he does some of each; he performs an emotional striptease at the same time as he punctuates his life story with shtick.

And that story is a tough one. He’s spent much of his life getting picked on and beaten up. Always the smallest, always the least equipped to handle the aggressive culture of Israel in the mid- to late 1960s, he adapted to his pain by making others laugh. When the other kids pour a full shaker of salt on his lunch, he eats it with exaggerated pleasure. When they douse his baseball cap in the leftovers of their own food, he slurps the bits that drop past his mouth, smiling and laughing as if he is an author of the joke.

All of that builds to a crescendo, though, one that [PARTIAL SPOILER] culminates in the final third of the novella. He’s summoned from his army training camp as a young teen and led to understand that one of his parents has died. No one tells him which one, though, and he has to drive across the country – chauffeured by a would-be stand-up comedian, no less – for the funeral, weighing which parent he hopes it will be. It’s excruciating, but it’s also funny.

And then, of course, for being funny it’s also all the more excruciating.

The funnier the book gets, the more it hurts. And, at times, it’s first rate comedy. Some highlights: Of his mother, “It’s interesting, actually, that we both had post-partum depression after I was born, except that with me it’s been going on for fifty-seven years.” Or about the time a guy gets invited to a major soccer match by a friend he hasn’t seen in decades. At the game and grateful, the guy asks, Why ask someone so distant from your everyday life to this great event? Did you ask your wife? “My wife’s dead,” he says. Well, what about other people, your relatives or friends? “Believe me, I tried,” the guy says, “but they all said they’d rather go to her funeral.”

Or the one about the man who, told by his wife that he can cure her fatal disease if he has anal sex with her, bursts into tears at the success. “Why are you crying,” the wife asks, “aren’t you happy I’m better?” “Of course I am,” he says sobbing, “but I can’t help thinking I could have saved Mom, too!”

Forgive me please, someone, for finding all of that funny, especially when it comes in the midst of Dovaleh’s deep acknowledgement that he has failed as a human as a bad parent, a bad spouse, and in choosing one parent over another, that he was destined to fail no matter the choice he made. But all of that is the power of this novella.

Or part of it.

Because as stunning as that abstract exploration of comedy is, this is also a very particular story. Dovaleh is not quite alone. He has invited our narrator, an old friend who has recently lost his wife and recently been compelled to give up his career as an important judge. We see Dovaleh’s act through the narrator’s eyes, through memories of when they were both bullied or near-bullied kids at the same army camp.

Our narrator is suffering too, wondering what’s left of his life, until – at least as I read it – he gradually discovers he’s been called upon not to serve as a judge at Dovaleh’s ever-more-of-a-train-wreck comedy show and autobiographical dismemberment but rather to serve as a dispenser of mercy. That’s what he is most fully ably to recall of his dead wife, with whom he never had a child and who’s increasingly fading from his memory. Show some compassion sometimes, she said, let others know you’ve heard them without the obligation to pronounce a verdict.

That’s yet another level of depth to what’s happening on stage, or on page, as the almost in real time episode plays out. Dovaleh wallows in his own disgrace, opens up with pain and anger and humor. And our narrator, at the other end of the transaction, grows in his private way too.

So, yeah, this one is brilliant – hardly an original insight on my behalf since it just won the Man Booker prize. It’s a universal story of the power of comedy to help us understand, and of the simultaneous price it demands for that understanding. It’s also a particular one, showing us a glimpse of a modern Israel, a modern Jew, a modern citizen of the 21st Century, called upon less to act than, in some fresh way, to move beyond our callouses into feeling the pain, the humor, and the slippery joy of the lives we’re given to lead.

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review: Since We Fell

Since We Fell Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

OK, bad news out of the way to start:

First, this is so contrived in so many places that, as well written as it generally is, it won’t survive your putting too much weight on it. [SPOILERS] Why would a con-man go to incredibly elaborate lengths to persuade his wife he’s another man if, as he repeatedly claims, he’s doing so to help cure her of her agoraphobia and panic attacks? Why, if he’s planning an intricate international scam in order to acquire the wealth he dreamed of as a working-class kid, does he have the resources to purchase and outfit multiple safe houses? And why, if he’s trying to earn her eventual trust, does he stage an event in which she believes she’s murdered him?

Why, I can’t help asking now that it’s over, didn’t he just go into it over a nice bottle of wine?

Second, tough-guy Lehane has gone soft on us. The guy behind the brilliant Mystic River and the exemplary noir short story collection Coronado has come to believe in love. [SPOILER] Sure, he has a young woman murdered in front of her newborn, but the point is that even people who’ve screwed one another over can share the sort of love that augurs a happy-ever-after and a new family all their own.

I can’t say such a softening of one of our best pros is all that surprising – the disappointing Live By Night (made into the Ben Affleck movie) showed he was willing to sell out at the right price – but for much of this one I’d hoped we’d see a return to form of the earlier novels.

That’s two major strikes against this but, that said, it’s otherwise as terrific as I can imagine. Lehane is still such a pro, so capable of drawing compelling characters and of exploring a noir universe, that it works in spite of its foundational flaws.

One character, who’s holding a gun to our protagonist Rachel’s head, asks her, “Do you want to be good, or do you want to live?” There may be subtler and more satisfying distillations of the noir premise, but there aren’t any more direct. Everything in life is tarnished; any time we make it through the day, we diminish ourselves through the compromises we make.

Rachel’s afflictions, her inability to deal with strangers, are a consequence of the evils she’s seen as a journalist and as a woman raised by a possessive, overbearing mother. She’s been bruised at every turn, and she determines she doesn’t want to bruise anyone else. She doesn’t even want to be with Brian, in large part because she doesn’t seem to believe she’s worthy of him. (In turn, he seems drawn to her because she represents an unsullied decency that’s beyond him. He’s drawn far less well than she is, though, and since Lehane gives him exceptional chameleon powers, it’s hard to get a real read on him.)

The different sections of this one don’t line up all that well, but Lehane makes each one sing. The first section is an almost stand-alone story about Rachel trying to identify her father. It’s beautifully done, worthy of Lehane’s deep talent, and it succeeds in making historiography – the search for history as opposed to history itself – compelling. The second, when she falls in love with Brian, has a nice resonance as well, suggesting an intriguing version on the old “Gaslight” trope where a husband tries slowly to convince his wife she’s insane.

The next parts of the novel move well – I really enjoyed the tension – but they ultimately strain credulity. They work only as long as Lehane distracts us from their silliness, which he is talented enough to do until, with the book over, not even he can keep us from looking back and asking, “wha?”

I’ve touted Lehane as the exemplar of contemporary noir, the closest thing to a supplanter James Ellroy has known. Well, Ellroy may have slipped a little (he’s recycling his own excellent work, which means something like Perfidia still stands above most of what’s out there), but Lehane has slipped farther. I’m likely to keep reading him (though not the Live By Night sequels – avoid those) but without quite the great expectations he earned with his early work.

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Review: Savage Brothers Deluxe Edition

Savage Brothers Deluxe Edition Savage Brothers Deluxe Edition by Andrew Cosby
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve mostly avoided the whole zombie thing. It’s not a philosophical aversion, just an aesthetic one. The Walking Dead looks tempting, but it’s so long and, as I understand it, so fraught with death and near-death, that I don’t think I quite have the patience to see how it plays with ideas of human nature and the flimsiness of what we call civilization.

Still, this one was only one dollar – one dollar! – and it has bright, fun illustrations, so how could I pass it up.

The premise here is pretty funny, though I acknowledge my limited experience of the genre may make it more novel to me than to most: Dale and Otis are two low-life entrepreneurs filling a niche in a post-apocalyptic world where the dead walk and frogs fall from the sky. If your loved one has been turned into a zombie, they’ll go put him (or her) down for good. That’ll give you piece of mind, and it’ll keep them stocked with Schlitz beer.

And that is more or less where this peaks.

There’s a story that follows – they draw a case that brings them into conflict with a severed-head-in-a-jar who’s planning some assault on what’s left of humanity – and they run into a too-predictable ally in a one-time pre-med student/stripper who outclasses them as a fighter and a thinker (and yet who, inexplicably, was about to be sacrificed to the head). But I never found myself grabbed by it. I wanted more Schlitz and less apocalypse, but where’s the sustained story in that?

The good news is that the illustrations are as over-the-top as the premise and what there is of this goes down easy. Still, even though there’s a volume two, I’m probably done. As fun as this is in its opening pages, it’s predictable right away. The next volume would have to be as cheap as this one for me to give it a thought.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Review: Seven to Eternity, Vol. 1: The God of Whispers

Seven to Eternity, Vol. 1: The God of Whispers Seven to Eternity, Vol. 1: The God of Whispers by Rick Remender
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Kurt Busiek’s Autumnlands enough to give this one a shot, thinking that one graphic novel fantasy success might mean another. Otherwise, I doubt I’d have picked up something that looked so earnest and brooding.

Our bad guy here, known alternately as the God of Whispers or the Mud King, becomes increasingly a fantasy world version of Donald Trump. He’s risen to power on a combination of selfishness and fear. He has the capacity to see a person’s deepest desire, especially when that desire comes at the price of harming others. He incites hatred – in one later sub-plot he’s destroyed an egalitarian community by stoking a sense of outsiders and immigrants as the cause of a sudden plague – and he is a master of negotiation. Once you hear his “deal,” he has a hold on you. Even if you attempt to decline his offer, the damage is done. You’ve seen your own most selfish side; you’re partway toward a seduction that depends upon indifference to others and an elevated sense of your own importance to the world.

As far as I can tell, the original issues of this came out during the Presidential campaign, and the later issues (where the Trump echoes are clearer) may have come out even after the election. In any case, it isn’t fair to claim Remender is writing as a Resist figure, but his sympathies are clear: he doesn’t like bullies.

To Remender’s credit, he’s more interested in the figures opposing such a tyrant than in the tyrant himself. The core of that resistance is Adam, the father-figure in a clan of “Mozaks,” or mutant magic-users who stand as the only threat to the tyrant. In the opening scene, he watches his own father – seemingly the most powerful figure never to bow down – killed in a battle to preserve the rest of the family. With the family then weakened, Adam, who’s dying of a mysterious disease, plots to pledge his loyalty in exchange for the safety of his own wife and children.

Then, at the last moment it seems, a handful of other Mozaks rise up and topple the Mud King. The titular seven behind that revolt then have to go on a quest to destroy him, knowing that killing him outright would result in the deaths of the many thousands he’s compromised.

All that’s a mouthful, of course, and the handful of other reviews I’ve read do talk about the confusion of the plot. I’m willing to forgive that, seeing it as an admirable ambition, but it’s worth noting. You’ll need to a lot of turning back to pages you’ve already read.

I’m more troubled by the persistent grimness here. Others seem very much to admire Jerome Opena’s art, but I find it dark and washed out. The joy of Autumnlands is its reminder of the pleasure in escapism. This is the opposite, though: it’s a bleak world with characters who’ve suffered as long as they can remember. There’s even a kind of my-life-has-been-worse-than-yours pissing match, and one character has to interrupt it by saying it’s pointless to argue over who’s suffered more. Everyone has suffered – whether through disease, murder, or even genocide.

To double back where I started, I’m drawn to the idea that Remender intends this as a dystopian reflection of our current age because otherwise I can’t see why he’s doing it. There’s no joy and little hope here. Unpacking what’s going on makes for an intriguing reading experience, and there are certainly flashes of wonder in the way one or another character’s power expresses itself, but without such a context this is a real slog.

I’m going to go with the benefit of the doubt here, and there’s a chance I’ll scratch the itch to see where the next volume takes it. Still, what’s here doesn’t take us far enough to get a sense of how it all comes together. I hope it does find its way to another level, that it cements its contemporary critique with more than horror and finds a way toward something that, without betraying the darkness it’s wrestling with, looks a little like hope.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: The Autumnlands, Vol. 2: Woodland Creatures

The Autumnlands, Vol. 2: Woodland Creatures The Autumnlands, Vol. 2: Woodland Creatures by Kurt Busiek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t that big a fan of volume of Autumnlands. The illustrations grabbed me, but the story was confusing and ‘epic,’ – epic in the sense that it wasn’t in any hurry to get where it implied it was going. I certainly didn’t plan to pick up the sequel, but volume one was on the shelf, and I kept picking it up. Something about Benjamin Dewey’s art kept calling me back. So, gradually, I got to wondering what happened next.

Well, I think it gets better. I have admired Kurt Busiek for a long time from his Astro City work. The idea there was to try to recover a sense of the wonder that a superhero first engendered, the largely innocent promise that a caped crusader would be there to fight on behalf of ideals that we can assume the others around us share. That work was largely homage, but it was also celebration. It looked backwards, but it tried to weave a changed sense of gender stereotypes and a more generous inclusiveness into that past vision.

It turns out Busiek is doing a lot of the same things here. At bottom, this book tries to reinstill wonder. It is bewildering, especially at first in volume one, but, as it settles into a narrative with clearer terms and clearer challenges at stake, it accomplishes that goal all the more consistently. This is a world of talking animals, represented most fully in this volume by Dusty, a dog and aspiring young wizard. He and the Great Champion, a hero recalled by backfiring magic in volume one, are exploring the Autumnlands, the mostly uncivilized space below the magnificent floating cities of the wizards and the animal elite. Here they begin to discover the headwaters of the stream of magic that, powering the world, is beginning to run low.

I feel silly typing those sentences, but the fact that I typed them anyway gives a sense of the peculiar power of this story. It wouldn’t work at all without taking itself and its premises seriously, but it would be insufferable if it took them too seriously. This isn’t philosophy, but it isn’t aimless either. It’s a sustained effort to make it possible to be surprised at what artists can do. That would be purely innocent if it didn’t also give the sense that its vision of different races working together weren’t somehow, in some unnamed fashion, at stake.

And each element of the overall art here complements the rest. Busiek seems to be hitting his stride in the writing of this. Each of the eight separate issues explores some new facet of the world, but then he moves things forward between issues. It’s a good and comforting pace, making this an ideal thing for reading as you’re getting ready to fall asleep.

I actually think Dewey’s art slips a little here – some of the proportions are off, though that may be because he is drawing more human forms here than the animal shapes that dominated volume one – but it’s still arresting. And, while I don’t usually notice such things, Jordie Bellaire’s coloring touches it off in a way that – even as I have just finished it – has me reaching to look over random pages.

Oddly, the real star for me is the lettering, credited to John Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt, both of something called Comicraft. I don’t know how to say it other than that these words almost demand that you read them. The letters feel like part of the art.

Again, the full effect of those different people working together is that there really is something wondrous in the work. It’s a largely silly story with premises that change here and there, but it has the feel of the escapist comics of some golden age. At the same time, in subtle ways I can’t always put a finger on, it reminds us that we aren’t in a golden age any more, that it takes an effort today – as adults at this moment – to see the world the way a child might. I admire the ambition, and I admire the execution.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: On Power

On Power On Power by Robert A. Caro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess: I haven’t read either of Robert Caro’s reputed master projects for the simple reason that they seem too long. He’s gotten famous for the biography of Lyndon Johnson that seems never to end. (He jokes here that he’s on volume five of a projected two-volume work.) And he made his name by calling on us to rethink the role of Robert Moses in remaking New York city and state.

I’d like to read them, especially the Moses since it touches so much on the way cities get remade and reimagined in what’s largely an ethnic context. Still, it just seems so imposing. I’m sure I’d appreciate it, but I also think it would take a long time to find the particulars I’m interested in within the larger story he’s telling in the book.

And that brings me to this “book.” I use the quotes only because it’s such a short work, in many ways just an extended essay. But, above all, it’s an introduction to Caro’s work and to his abiding interest: how does political power shape our America, and how does wealth shape and inflect that power?

If Caro never quite answers that question, I can cut him some slack. I don’t expect people to answer the question of “What’s the meaning of life” either. Instead, we get a top-tier mind wrestling with a subject worthy of it. We have a man with a simmering social conscience reflecting on what he’s learned over four decades of sifting through records that most people would lack the patience or imagination to deal with.

In this essay – and it really is an essay in the sense of being a work that finds its subject as it goes – Caro makes his work personal. He tells the amusing and inspiring story of how he migrated from investigative journalism into deep-dive biography, but he presents it as the consistent pursuit of the same impulse. Whether he’s commuting four hours a day (on highways that Moses constructed by crushing the powerless and bending to the powerful) for a first job or moving to Johnson’s Southern boyhood home for otherwise impossible to get material, he always looks to the ways some bully and some get bullied.

The star here is Caro’s voice. That’s magnified in the audiobook where he reads his own story in a great working-class New York accent, but it’s present in the prose, too. As a trained journalist, he never wastes words. As a man inspired to tell the tale of people who found themselves at the mercy of others, he tempers his outrage by reminding us of his own limits and by acknowledging that the work is so vast – so long, if you will – that he can’t let it consume him or his sense of humor.

This is a straightforward pleasure, and I come away from it feeling as if I have a new friend.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Cash City

Cash City Cash City by Jonathan Fredrick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one starts out with promise. Nick Malick is a Chicago cop who’s moved to a mid-sized city in West Virginia for his doctor-wife. They’re divorced now, in large part because a sexual predator kidnapped and killed their only son. Malick has become a hard-drinking P.I., and he’s more or less waiting around until the man he’s convinced has killed his son gets out of jail.

The opening scene is right out of the Chandler playbook, but who’s complaining? A father hires him to find his missing daughter, and the trail leads to drugs, prostitution, and despair. There’s a gang coming in from Detroit, calling themselves Cash City, and they sell drugs and then buy guns to take back. They’re organized, and they’ve bought off enough local cops to be mostly untouchable

So the original frame of the narrative is strong – and Frederick does tone and description with real skill – and the plan to move it to a setting that gets so little attention is a good one. And this holds up for more than half of the novel in that vein.

But somewhere along the line, things go disappointingly awry. One premise of Chandler’s work is that, however bleak and fallen the world is, we see some of that fallen state in our detective as well. He’s a flawed man in a flawed world, and that’s part of what makes him effective.

In this one, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s a bogeyman (or bogeymen). It’s not just that the city is fallen; it’s that it’s infected. The gang is a plague – there’s even a hint of the Biblical sense to that since it takes a lot of first-born children. If it can be gotten rid of – and if the sexual predator can be killed – then it seems there’s hope for redemption.

I see the logic, but it seems an ethical cowardice after the opening structure. That is, Malick doesn’t really need to redeem himself; he just has to kill the bad guys. There’s simply less at stake than the first chapters implied.

And, to bring that point home, the predator becomes more and more monstrous. He’s always part of the novel, even though he’s a muted backstory figure to start. By the end, though, he’s a Hannibal Lecter knock-off, a sadist who’s been stalking his stalker. Frederick slips a couple notches in skill, imbuing the guy with a creepy quality that changes the entire tone of the novel.

It’s a shame that this takes the nose dive it does because Frederick seems to know what he’s doing when this begins. Finishing a book takes a knack, though. Instead of staying true to its intriguing early premises, this one grafts on a different genre altogether and the lurid conclusion undermines that opening promise.

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Review: Button Man: Get Harry Ex

Button Man: Get Harry Ex Button Man: Get Harry Ex by John Wagner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

At its core, noir is an ethical undertaking. As a generic project, it asks what guides us in the moral decisions we make. As a method, it strips away everything we’re accustomed to directing us: corruption means we can’t trust the police, the government, or our laws; theological uncertainty means we can’t trust inherited ethical teachings; and the flawed self means we can’t even draw on our own (or our protagonist’s) past decency. All that’s left is the nagging echo of the hope that we have a faint hunger for doing the right thing.

The best noir – whether that’s Hammett, Chandler, Ellroy, Woodrell, or dozens of other – shows us staggering brutality without flinching, but also finds a way to lament a fallen world. Ellroy’s characters behave in shockingly immoral ways, but his protagonists seem to sense there is a better possibility out there. They continue to kill one another, but some of the dramatic climaxes of his work come when they regret what their choices have forced them to do. They don’t undo it – they still shoot friends in the back, and they still betray innocents – but they acknowledge the possibility of decency in a world very different from the one they know.

Meanwhile, this book is noir at its worst.

On the one hand, there’s the condescending narrative structure. I don’t know how it can be a [SPOILER] since it’s telegraphed so inelegantly, but the first of these contained stories – in which ex-soldier Harry Exton is hired by a wealthy man as a participant in an illegal league where “button men” kill one another or get killed in a private sport – is framed by Exton talking with a psychiatrist about his experiences. It opens with Exton drawing a gun and asking the psychiatrist for help. Then, 80 or so pages later, surprise!, the psychiatrist turns out to be the “voice” who has hired Exton and forced him to kill others. It’s a lazy device clumsily presented.

The next two stories are only marginally better. In one, Exton sets out to collect blackmail information against his new voice. In the other, set up by the collective voices to have to fight off 13 other Button men, he finds a way to [SPOILER] fake his own death. It’s hard not to see any of this coming, and it’s even harder to feel there’s anything satisfying in such endings.

But those narrative shortcomings are almost pardonable. After all, noir is linked to pulp, and pulp is all about shuffling through familiar plots in order to refine them into efficient stories. (Think, for instance, of the dozens of comic book and film reiterations of the Batman or Spiderman origin stories; those have evolved from quick and clumsy first versions into powerful cultural myths. They aren’t surprising any longer, but they’ve become deeply satisfying as vehicles for a range of cultural anxieties and hopes.)

The real failing here is a moral one.

These stories purport to criticize the violence inherent in capitalism, with the wealthy able to hire “button men” to live or die on their behalf. As awful as we are often supposed to feel about that premise, though, the bottom line is that Exton resents it only because he isn’t really one of the wealthy. He complains about the fact that “they” will never let you quit, but, as the volume mercifully ends, he protects himself by killing the last man who knows he’s alive, murdering him in front of the man’s nephew and making a joke about it. The writing is clumsy enough that it isn’t clear the murder is necessary; the vision is corrupt enough that it doesn’t acknowledge any of the moral distance we’ve traveled.

In some ways, this is a cultural descendent of the Rambo films. It’s easy to forget, but First Blood was a powerful reckoning with the experience of Vietnam. Then the sequels lost all sight of that premise and produced an unreflective killing machine who fought and refought the war on the “gooks,” winning this time through superior American toughness and unexamined “decency.”

These stories don’t even have the virtue of such original clarity of moral inquiry. This is always something that tries to indict a spectacle that it then invites us to watch as we munch on popcorn.

This looks like noir, but it’s as far from the best of the genre as I can imagine. It echoes better works in seeming to ask how we should act in the moral vacuum of a world where money can buy life for sport. Then it encourages us to enjoy the experience without asking us to evaluate our own complicity.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For starters, Swyler masters the difficult business of finding two solid stories to weave together. Convention tells us from the start that the contemporary story of Simon will tie into the 18th century story of the circus, the love affair, and the eventual curse of the tarot card reader, but each one separately holds together. In most novels done this way, I find I prefer one or the other of the braids in the woven tale. This time, I was happy to switch from one to the other.

This one also starts with good energy. I felt in good hands from the start. Simon isn’t an especially likeable guy, but that seems to be part of the plan. It doesn’t explain why Alice would fall for him, but it opens up an interesting narrative space. He can feel sorry for himself without derailing the story. That is, in fact, much of the story. I’d even say the novel is at its best when we aren’t certain whether Simon can do anything to change the past.

As a result, the more this becomes a clear dialogue between the two strands of the story, the less compelling it is. I can’t exactly call it a [SPOILER] to say that it does turn out that Simon us using the clues from the long-ago story. Once he stops guessing at clues and leads and instead realizes his sister is at risk of drowning on July 25, it becomes increasingly conventional.

On the plus side, there’s just the right dash of horror here. Particularly in the earlier, stronger parts, the real potential of death hangs over all this without suffocating it. That part is well played.

As this hits the heart of it, though, it simply slows down. As we can increasingly see where it’s going, it pauses to let us anticipate it. It lingers over its own symbols, the borrowed tarot symbolism and the original symbolism of the house perched on the edge of the sea. In other words, it calls attention to the things that made it impressive at the start, and in that way diminishes those early strengths.

There’s an interview in the edition I read (listened to) with Swyler, and she talks of this as a first novel. That likely explains its satisfyingly dense two halves. It also likely explains why it loses the momentum it does.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: The United States of Murder Inc. Volume 1: Truth

The United States of Murder Inc. Volume 1: Truth The United States of Murder Inc. Volume 1: Truth by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This aims to be a high-concept .45 caliber blow-you-away story. It delivers, but more like a .22.

Like a lot of people, I admired Bendis and Oeming’s Powers. That was high-concept, too, but it also seemed in step with a lot of the best comics coming out at the same time. In fact, while it struck me as less good than Astro City (to take my favorite of the time), it seemed a perfect summation of what I think of as third-wave superhero stories. The first was the “golden age” stuff of hey, cool, it’s Superman and Batman. The second was the Marvel innovation; Spiderman (or insert your favorite here) may be a superhero, but he also has problems. The third got started with The Watchmen; what’s it like to be an ordinary human in a world where there are superheroes.

No one handled that question more directly than Bendis in Powers, and Oeming’s art was the perfect, blunt complement. Here, though, the concept seems less urgent, less a question that others are asking with different effect. Courtesy of an alternate history that we get in dribs and drabs, the organized crime families of the United States have established a separate government. They control “the territories,” which seems to be much of the Midwest. Cool, but, why? It’s less clear what the concept is supposed to help us explore.

Still, as a guy who studies organized crime, I’m always game to see a clever take on that sort of premise. Beyond that original concept, though, there isn’t too much that impresses at a conceptual level. [SPOILER] So the government sets our protagonists up; the CIA frames them for the murder of a United States Senator with the hope that the gangs will turn on each other and the government will be able to pick them apart one by one. Why then would one agent more or less spill the beans and blow up the plan?

More broadly, the characters here are largely flat and predictable. Valentine gets ‘made’ in the opening panels, and Jagger is a bad-ass hit-woman who has no trouble taking out whole squads of adversaries even when they get the jump on her. And she looks a little like Scarlett Johansson, though everything in Oeming’s line work gets thickened and bruised.

All that said, there is a nice energy to the story. Bendis may not bring the same insight into the zeitgeist as he did in Powers, but he may have an even sharper sense of narrative. There’s no condescension. He gives you enough of the story to figure things out if you’re paying attention. If you aren’t, goes the implication, then you ought to go find something easier to read. It’s not Ed Brubaker, but it’s not bad at all. I found myself admiring it more and more as I read, even to the point of starting a search for volume two.

Oeming’s drawings work a little less well, though. Instead of the usual color on white, this is more neon on black. I guess that makes sense as the unofficial colors of Las Vegas, but it’s wearing. Too much of the art seems to be over-caffeinated, and that makes it all the harder to distinguish climax from set-up.

So, this one may not come with full Dirty Harry firepower, but it still gets off a good shot. I found myself enjoying it more and more the longer I read, and that’s always a good sign. And, since I really am looking for volume two, I guess I’m already reloading.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Five separate people recommended this one to me in the space of about three weeks, so I came to it with a sense of ‘it’ factor. From the title and the enthusiasm of all these people, I assumed it was a modern day Le Carre novel, an East-West thriller with a good dash of contemporary reflection on the nature of totalitarianism.

Well…I suppose there is some Le Carre, but it comes only at the end. Instead, this is mostly a novel of manners. And, reader alert, it’s a very slow beginning. (Did I mention it’s very slow?) This is beautiful throughout, though, and I admired it even when I couldn’t get a good grip on where it was headed.

For most of the first quarter of this, we get an insightful reflection on the changed times of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. Count Rostov, a nobleman sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a sumptuous hotel (where he will eventually become a waiter), represents a faded manner of life. He’s not entirely opposed to the communist project – he helped write a poem that the new authorities admired enough to spare his life over it – but he has a style and sensibility that the new world neither recognizes nor values.

One of the intriguing instances of that comes into focus when a communist official asks Rostov to help him understand ‘gentlemen” to aid him in his work of communicating with the representatives of Western powers. It’s a quiet and thoughtful conversation, extended over decades, in which each comes to see some of the virtues of the other’s system. Over time, Rostov’s childhood world (and his education within it) seems ever less relevant. When he sets out to tell a story to a child, for instance, she’s disappointed that he has never seen an elephant and yet unimpressed that he once knew many different princes.

Rostov feels like a large soul, like someone destined to be the hero of a novel by Tolstoy or Pasternak. Instead, he’s confined to a single building, making a life among the unambitious people there. He comes to care for these people, but he seems always diminished. I kept comparing him to a bonsai tree. If he’d been in a container large enough for him to spread his roots in full, he’d have been more than merely an ornament.

[SEMI-SPOILER] Things do change in the second half of the novel when he comes to be the parent-of-last-resort for a young girl. Even there, though, the novel remains slow even as there are hints of his connections to the West and his hope, one he always dismisses, that he might find a fuller place for himself and Sophia. This moves so slowly into thriller – and the thriller is so low-key – that it never really hits what I imagined would be full speed.

Bottom line, I might have enjoyed this even more if I’d gone into it with a clearer sense of what to expect. Its prose is stunning at all times, or better said, it’s always elegant and impressive in the manner of Rostov himself. Still, there’s no denying its beauty of its ambition. It may not be Le Carre, but it’s something else very moving and, in the end, very satisfying.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s taken me five months to get through this, and I don’t regret a day of it. I’d heard such great things about it that I doubt I add much in saying this is the finest graphic novel I’ve read in the last few years and quite likely the greatest graphic novel I have ever read. (OK, Maus. Maybe Maus is as good.)

It’s rare for me to find myself in such agreement with the consensus on something, especially when everyone admires it so much, so I’m enjoying the experience. It feels like walking out of a concert with a couple hundred people sharing the same buzz.

Others have described the overall story here, and everyone seems to note the beautiful, haunting illustrations. Ferris is so flat out gifted that it’s stunning to see the way she can move from full-color Art Institute hand-drawn reproductions to near stick figure work. All of it works. She’s like a skilled director as she moves her camera from place to place.

The one thing I’d want to add, as partial explanation for why it took me so long to read this, is the incredible consistency here. Years ago, I went to the Grand Canyon. I was impressed, of course, because it was as massive and magnificent as I’d heard, but I was also moved because it had so much stunning detail. I expected the size, but I didn’t expect the tens of thousands of facets to it. Every time I shifted my view, it looked beautiful in a fresh way.

In that same way, this is the Grand Canyon of graphic novels. Pick almost any page and it will be striking. Sometimes it’s the line work. Sometimes it’s the layout. Sometimes it’s the juxtaposition of styles. And sometimes it’s the remarkable way she moves her narrative forward.

As I read, I did wonder if I’d ever finish, and I wondered what it would be like to have something less overwhelming to turn to at night. Now that I’ve finally gotten to the end of Book One, though, I find I’m Googling information on when Book Two will be out. I saw a review that suggested we haven’t had anything like this since Art Spiegelman brought out the first volume of Maus and made us wait four years for the second. I have the same feeling.

I guess it’s time for me to start something else tonight, but I’m going to feel the specter of this one for a long time. And that’s a good thing.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Review: Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4 Draft No. 4 by John McPhee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review of John McPhee’s Draft No. 4

So I was at that point in my own work of extended nonfiction writing – the point where I can’t decide whether I am essentially finished or need to start over with chapter one – when it seemed like a good idea to talk my troubles over with someone who’d been through them before. And who could be better than John McPhee, arguably the premier nonfiction writer of the last generation?

The good news is that McPhee talks here about wrestling with some of the same things that are weighing on me now. In his chapter on “Structure,” for instance, he talks about a kind of base, architectural sense to a prose piece. I get it, I think, and I feel good about myself for getting it. He’s letting me (us) in on technical talk. It’s esoteric, but that’s OK. We’re in the same business. If we were guitarists, it might be a matter of unusual tunings. If we were tailors, it might be about the nature of inseams.

And there is a lot of that good news. Just about every one of these chapters has something to offer. He talks about the nature of facts in nonfiction, siding with me (and with every serious thinker on the subject I know save a single writer who led a workshop I was in) that, if you know you’ve invented anything, or even if you suspect you’ve gotten anything wrong, then what you have is fiction, not nonfiction. It’s often fun to hear him talk about the various lengths his New Yorker fact checkers would go to determine whether the plaque on Sylvia Plath’s old apartment is the color and style the author declared or whether a World War II Japanese fire balloon really landed on the roof of the facility where they worked on the Manhattan Project.

I have gotten a decent splash of what I wanted when I picked up this book. It’s comforting to think about how I might abstract the organization of my own manuscript – about the geometric shape I could use to sketch it. It’s comforting as well to think about the matter of “omission.” There are great nuggets that just don’t fit. And it’s inspiring to hear him talk about the nature of interviewing subjects; I can see how talk show hosts do it, but it seems a different art for writers like him (and maybe like me). One good tip: you know the nuggets when you find them.

Given all that, I feel grateful that this book has come out at just the moment I need it. I have, in fact, set a record for least time between discovering a book in the New York Times Review of Books and then reading it in full: three days.

But, I have to throw a little shade, too. In tone here, it feels as if, hearing my questions (and my questions are implicitly the questions his students and other would-be writers ask) he feels license to go in whatever direction his mind takes him. He’s the one who says he’s writing about writing, but it often drifts into memoir. That, in itself, is fine – I wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t from the great John McPhee. (And that’s not sarcasm even if it sounds a bit like it.) But there are times when the self-references seem to assume more familiarity with his life and oevre than I bargained for, when it feels as if he’s walking down the hall and assuming I’m at his heels hanging on his every word. It’s a privileged tone, and I guess I prefer a less condescending one.

In one of the later chapters, he talks about frame of reference, mocking himself and other writers for assuming that readers will get references that may be out of date or obscure. In many instances, I have that reaction to his stories. At times he describes an editor or writer from the New Yorker in detail; at others he presumes we know someone or that we recognize the standing of one mid-century magazine versus another.

Overall, I’m happy to forgive that mild self-centeredness. The lessons he has to impart are the product of an idiosyncratic career as a writer, so I’ll accept them idiosyncratically. I’ll also appreciate the digressions and stories that grow out of and give prelude to those lessons.

Still, as a Midwesterner who lived in New York only briefly – not long enough to adapt to the omnipresent bustle – I feel a bit removed from the wisdom here. Every story and every writer is different is a cardinal principle, and I endorse it. But sometimes here I feel as if the experienced man who’s helping me is also reminding me that his world is so different from mine that I’m going to have to solve my writing problems on my own.

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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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