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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: The Wake

The Wake The Wake by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one feels like the kind of album a good band puts out after it breaks up and gets back together again. A couple of the “songs” sound familiar, reminding you of what you liked about the band in the first place. (That would be the first couple episodes, the ones that Gaiman tells us in the afterword were colored by the memorial service for the great Roger Zelazny, who died around that time and whose Amber chronicles are, for me, one of the great fantasy accomplishments.) One is a real hit – “Sunday Mourning” – and others take the comeback too far.

For me, “Sunday Mourning” is Gaiman doing what he does best: exploring the human contradictions within the mythology he has established. Robert Gadling has lived almost forever. We’ve seen him as Morpheus’s friend throughout, and they had a once-a-century appointment. He’s a fairly ordinary man with an extraordinary gift, and here he confronts a metaphysics changed by Morpheus’s death. It’s interesting at a human level – will he want to continue living if yet another of the consistencies of his life has vanished – and it’s interesting as an allegory. He is Everyman, and Morpheus has been his guide in many things. Morpheus’s death means he has to find his own way more dramatically than ever before.

We readers are, of course, Everyman and Everywoman ourselves. If something ancient of Dream has shifted, we too have to confront new classes of dreaming. It’s frightening but exhilarating, and that’s how Gadling comes to see it.

And, throughout, Gaiman is funny, something he sometimes misses the mark on.

At the other extreme, I don’t have much patience for the final episode, “The Tempest.” Gaiman tells us in the afterword that he thinks the series has always been about the nature of writing – and I’ll buy that at some point – but I find the whole Morpheus/Shakespeare collaboration overdone. I didn’t like it volumes ago when Morpheus essentially commissioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t like it here. If you don’t know The Tempest, I assume it’s frustrating. If you know it fairly well (and I suppose I do, having studied it in grad school and read it many times) then there isn’t much new.

Instead, the gambit works for people who sort of know the play, who, for generally admirable reasons, want to know it better. It feels good to be able to acknowledge one of Gaiman’s references to the play or to Shakespeare’s life and friends, but the bottom-line question is whether Shakespeare saw himself as Prospero breaking his staff. With the answer implicitly yes, there’s the deep awkwardness of Gaiman very publicly breaking his own “staff” – the franchise that is The Sandman.

Look, this is good stuff, but it’s embarrassing to ask to have it measured against the best of Shakespeare. This isn’t that at all, and the very good one-hit “Exiles,” in which the new Daniel/Dream intervenes in the life of a strikingly drawn Chinese vizier, would have been a far more compelling wrap-up.

Otherwise, this one is solid Sandman, which means it’s better than most graphic story work you’ll find. Still, with it getting uneven toward the end, it feels as if it was time for Gaiman’s band to break up for good and move on to its solo careers. I’ve gotten through all the albums now, and I may go back to hear some favorite cuts, but I’m ready to move on.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: Silent Hall

Silent Hall Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found my way to this book because I very much enjoyed Noah Beit-Aharon’s essay at Prosen People about how he came to write it as an experiment in what Jewish fantasy literature might look like. That’s an articulate essay, and it asks some of my own questions from some of my own premises. Yes as Dolkart (aka Beit-Aharon) puts it, there is a strong tradition of Jewish fantasy – think of I.B. Singer or Cynthia Ozick or Steve Stern – but there is less of a tradition of Jewish “high fantasy.” As Tolkien gave that to us, there is a Christian topos woven into the DNA. So, nu, is it possible to do it Jewish style?

(As an aside, I think there are some who have tried, most successfully Lev Grossman, whose Magicians series strikes me as an attitudinally perfect Jewish teenager’s response to the saccharine Christianity of the Narnia books.)

(As a further aside, I think there are a lot of “high fantasy” forebears – like Fritz Lieber and E.R. Eddison – who give us models of the genre without the powerful Tolkien effect. I also think that the current ‘dungeon master’ of the genre, George R.R. Martin, does a fine job of altering the Christian dualism of the form. Still, the question is a good one and worth pursuing.)

And yet, as much as I wanted to like this, I can’t. I’m afraid I can’t even finish it.

Beit-Aharon seems a fine nonfiction stylist, but I’m afraid this simply doesn’t work. The prose here is just too choppy, too awkward in its structure and tone to conduct the experiment with anything like the competence it demands.

I’ll begin with my concerns about the chapters themselves. Each of these is strikingly short – we get 8-9 pages to introduce a character, then we move onto the next. I get that this is a coming together, an origin story for our merry band, but there isn’t enough character development. It’s quantity standing in for quality.

Then, he handles the change in perspective badly. It does make sense that, say, Bandu would lack the vocabulary to name something the others know at a glance, but before long it gets clumsy. We’re moving quickly through the story, but slowly through the exposition. We too often see the same instant through different eyes. In the end, without the depth we need from fully characters, they’re all coming from the same place anyway.

And, finally, there’s a deep problem with tone. For a novel with this sort of ambition, it’s awfully fairy-tale like in its voice. We get broad strokes and dependence on an implicit sense of childhood’s mystery and danger. I can see something like that working for a novel that merely suggests the dark elements it confronts, but then it gets complicated by the devastation described: an entire island’s population dies of a god’s curse, an old woman falls overboard and drowns, men get torn to pieces by a wild boar, and bodies rot in the hot sun. Even more clumsy, we get theological/magical speculation, but it comes to us like something taught to fifth-graders.

In other words, the technique just isn’t here. I suspect I’d enjoy meeting this author very much, and I’d love to trade notes on something we both want to accomplish. This feels too much like something he wrote as a young man, though, or even as an adolescent, to be anything like the success we’d both want to see.

It pains me to say it, but I can’t recommend this at all.


View all my reviews

Review: The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, this one brings it all together. I know there’s a final volume (I’ve even begun it) but this is clearly the payoff, the coming together of the whole mythology and tone. We see the high and the low, the siblings and creations of Morpheus as our Sandman slowly disintegrates.

Parts of this are stunning. At a conceptual level, I like the idea that [SPOILER] Baby Daniel becomes our new Sandman. He has the same powers but, as someone explains toward the end, he is a new perspective on things. The Morpheus we knew is gone forever. The distant human elements of him no longer exist, and the dreaming alters with his passing. Since the dreaming is different for each of us every time we enter it, we humans may not see all that that implies, but we see enough. I’m a believer that the modern dream is the ancient dream but different. You can’t spend your life seeing images on a TV screen without having that affect the kinds of dreams that come to you in your sleep.

The sweeping quality of this is nice as well. We have an ingathering of major and minor figures that feels a bit like the end of a beloved TV series with guest appearances from all the actors we saw in earlier seasons. That did make me regret yet again that there’s been no consistent artist; it’s hard to welcome someone back when, in effect, it’s a different actor portraying him or her, but I’ll let that pass for now. The illustrations here are superior to the earliest volumes, and there’s a strong visual element. Our new Dream, clad all in white, makes an effective contrast to the old one, and he promises a new range of potential stories.

So, in the end, I find this has most of the virtues of the best of the series, but that it retains some of what kept this from being as magnificent as its reputation holds. The biggest problem for me is the way Gaiman seems to know the effect he wants and therefore twists things to produce them. We’ve seen Morpheus with more power than any other than his siblings, and then we’ve seen him bested by a two-bit British antiquarian. We’ve seen him rise above all emotion, and we’ve seen him fall deeply in love. With all that, you get the classic Superman problem: how do you invent effective adversaries for someone who can beat anyone you throw his way? You do it by creating a handful of characters who are so strong that they require rewriting the rules of the universe.

And we hear a lot about “the rules” here. That seems the catch-all excuse Gaiman throws out when someone asks, with common sense, “Why did you do that if you knew it would kill you?” I don’t remember Morpheus worrying over what it would mean to kill his son Orpheus way back when, but that’s the crime he’s on the hook for. (Wouldn’t someone of Morpheus’s omniscience have a sense of what that would mean from the Furies? Maybe it’s there, but I don’t remember. And I don’t see why the Furies would then take so many volumes to get around to doing their thing.) And, sure, he promised Nuala he would grant her a boon, but couldn’t he explain that leaving the Dreaming would make him killable?

A lot of people admire Gaiman for the vastness of his mythos, but I’d prefer a tighter cast of characters, one that more clearly held to both the narrative and the tone he’s telling. Others, like the author of the introduction here, talk about when Gaiman ‘found his voice’ for the series. I’m not sure he ever does. I think he’s perpetually retrofitting what he recounts.

But, again, I’m inclined to forgive all that. If I hadn’t heard so often that this is one of the great graphic novels – the equivalent of The Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, or even Maus! – I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it even more. It isn’t at the level of those, in large part because (despite my impression from the first volume) it isn’t a graphic novel. It’s a comic book series comprised of different volumes that try different experiments. It’s full of episodes I imagine Gaiman would not redo, and it takes a while to find its full story.

This is the climax of that full story, and it clearly contains some of the best of Gaiman’s most ambitious material for the series.


View all my reviews

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: Men Without Women: Stories

Men Without Women: Stories Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t describe myself as one of those crazy Murakami fans, someone who’s always reading (or recently finished reading) one of the big fat ones – 1Q84, Hardboiled Wonderland, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka By the Shore – but I think I act like one. I’ll read the lesser works and, enjoying them, find myself thinking about the others. I’ll tell myself I merely enjoyed (as opposed to admired) something of his, but then I’ll keep talking about them.

In other words, it’s time to give myself an auto-intervention: I am a Murakami-aphile. I had other things on the shelf, but I couldn’t bring myself to getting to this one while it was still hot off the press.

And my reaction here is my typical reaction to Murakami: it’s good, but it isn’t quite as good as his other stuff. In this case, I think that’s probably true, but I realize now that I always feel that way about Murakami because, up close it’s provocative and ambiguous. It takes distance, a distance in time mostly but also, weirdly, from the physical experience of reading the book, for its themes to resolve themselves.

In any case, there’s less ‘weirdness’ to start this collection than I expect from Murakami. With one exception (“Samsa in Love”), each of these stories features a man who is in love with a woman who’s more intimately involved with another man. That’s an intriguing motif to put so central – something the title clearly evokes – but it works.

These are all men who are not quite fully alive. (And that’s a common Murakami concern.) In the first, for instance, “Drive My Car,” an aging actor has a platonic affair with a young woman who becomes his driver when his vision deteriorates. Little happens in the still moving story, but he gradually comes to terms with his feelings about his dead wife and her affairs. He doesn’t end up understanding much more at the end, but he does begin to come to terms with his own willingness to be led by her.

The next three stories explore such similar concerns, that reading them feels a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope. The pattern rearranges itself, but the fundamental pieces are the same: a man who understands himself as “normal” (a word a dislike in anyone’s hands other than Murakami’s who uses it as a powerful shorthand), in love with a women who directs her energy elsewhere, trying to come to terms with an old hurt.

I wouldn’t characterize Murakami as a master of the short story form, but the insistence in his explorations makes these work.

Things get different with “Kino,” the story I would put forward as the strongest candidate for anthologization. This may not be the strongest overall – though I’d be hard pressed to say which one is – but it is the one that most fully echoes the themes of Murakami’s larger works. It’s the only one to explore the supernatural, and it does so by demonstrating that the action of the world-whose-physics-we-cannot-understand has an effect upon our experience of this world. I like it for many reasons, among them that it most clearly echoes the gangster themes from the Hemingway collection from which this takes its title.

I have often shared my copy of “The Strange Library” with people who want a quick taste of Murakami. That will likely stay my go-to recommendation, but “Kino” is now on my list, too. Murakami gains in power the longer his narrative, but this one gets to the meat of his method pretty quickly.

The story that seems to be getting the most attention, “Samsa in Love,” is the one real outlier here. It’s such a clever idea that I can’t help but enjoy it: a bug wakes up to find he has been transformed into a man named Gregor Samsa. It’s a reverse “Metamorphosis,” and it sets up a potentially wonderful exploration into what it means to be human.

Promising as the story is, though, and as much fun as it is in its opening pages, it ends before it fully engages its inquiry. It doesn’t fit thematically with the other work here, and it is almost uncomfortably “Western” where so much of Murakami’s best work spans Japan and the West. I suspect we’ll see this one reprinted in all sorts of places, and Murakami deserves the recognition; I just think “Kino” is more the representative ‘keeper’ of this bunch.

I picked this up as a start-of-summer celebration and a way of satisfying my jones for some new Murakami. I’m satisfied for now, but I also hope he’s working on yet another of the big, ambitious ones.


View all my reviews

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Bad Teeth

Bad Teeth Bad Teeth by Dustin Long
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One annoying thing about hipster novels – as a genre – is that they imply a community of conversation that you, as the reader, are closed off from. And the basic rhetoric of the hipster is to leave large elements unexplained while focusing instead on the mundane. (The classic instance of that, of course, comes in Pulp Fiction when the hitmen, on their way to kill a group of teenagers for reasons not worth explaining, have a passionate debate about Big Mac and foot rubs.)

One beguiling thing about hipster novels is that they give the impression they represent the vanguard of a new way of seeing the world. They’re the organs of the next wave of culture, and they carry the promise that this different weighting of what warrants attention will matter in time to come. Andy Warhol, for instance, elevated the Campbell’s Soup can to iconic status, in part, because he was commenting on the nature of superficiality – on the role of image in contemporary culture – and he turned about to be powerfully prescient.

Somehow, I don’t think Dustin Long is all that prescient. The opening section here has a nice tone, and I enjoyed the unfolding of Judas’s drive to translate a novel by an obscure Tibetan writer. I understand that the subsequent sections are supposed to comment on the action of that first part by transposing the ‘drama’ to other cities that are tangentially related, but I found the holes between the stories distracting. Don’t tell us the end of Judas’s story if you don’t want to, but don’t imply that it’s unfinished state is somehow the point. That sounds like an insight that seemed profound when you were stoned but pedestrian when you sobered back up.

I’d spend more time contemplating the nature of the interconnectedness and the deliberate gaps of the book if what we had were better written. Instead, these characters have little self-awareness and often mere two-dimensionality. Sela is supposedly a humanities graduate student. Instead of contemplating her circumstances with the tools of her field or through the lens of some hard-won understanding, she writes in a journal as if she were a teenage girl. Even worse, she writes in the form of letters to the boyfriend she left behind. From a male writer, that seems like the worst type of cliché, the woman who secretly wants him even as she has told him otherwise.

This feels like a novel that wants to be meaningful. It cites philosophers every so often – in that lazy hipster way – but it doesn’t seem to have a sustained philosophical point. It may be an insight that even the most thoughtful of people is still embodied, still horny, but that’s hardly an original one. When we do finally meet our obscure novelist, he’s a smooth talker who’s always on the make. There’s no sign of what might make him worthy of contemplation, nothing like the suffering and deep experience of Roberto Bolano’s Archimbaldi in 2666, or – to go to my personal favorite chestnut – the sustained writer’s block of Mordecai Richler’s Moses Berger in Solomon Gursky was Here. He’s just an old man on the make, maybe even a plagiarist. It takes a substantial writer to imagine a substantial writer, and, from the evidence here, Long is not that substantial.

I suppose there may be a worthwhile ‘play’ of form here, and I can see how the unfinished stories, broken up by geography, make for an interesting formal experiment. But even there, Long sells this short by creating a genuine climax at the end, bringing his characters together in conventional ways. And that’s undercut still further by the adolescent nature of the general yearning here.

This one got me at the start, but it got more and more frayed as it went. I’d have bailed on it if I hadn’t been three quarters of the way through by the time I realized just how disappointed I was. It may be that I’m not hip enough for it, but I’m more inclined to think it’s simply all pose and no substance.


View all my reviews

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: The Shoplifter's Apprentice

The Shoplifter's Apprentice The Shoplifter's Apprentice by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ll confess my bias from the start: I’m signed up to work with Ellen later this summer in a creative writing workshop, so I’d better like her work. And, with some provisions for parts of it as somewhat dated, I’m glad to say I do.

The early stories here deal mostly with establishing unusual friendships that cannot last. In the title story – actually not one of my favorites – we see a young woman befriend a man who shows her the art of shoplifting. In another, “Stinking Benjamin,” we meet a young reporter who spends a season or two close to an older woman with a gift for gardening and a broken past. And in probably my favorite from the early part of the collection, “Sara’s Friend” tells about yet another young woman, this time new to the city, who finds herself befriended by a woman with special needs in the group home down the street.

Each of those stories has in common a protagonist who finds herself suddenly and circumstantially close to someone very different from herself. Since I’m looking to Lesser for some advice in my own writing, I’m struck by the essential clarity of that structure: inhabit a first-person character, expose her to someone who threatens her understanding of the world, and see where the conversation of character takes you.

One of the consistent things I like in these stories is that Lesser does not take us to the same places. Some of her characters embrace a casual sexuality; others recoil from it. Some return to the embrace of parents; others flee. As a collection, it feels as if she is parsing the challenging question of how to establish a sense of self as a young adult. What makes the succession of experiments compelling is that slight changes in each protagonist and each situation produce different results. She’s not repeating her experiments – and she’s certainly not repeating herself – as she moves from one to the next.

The later stories begin to go in some different directions, and some break away from the formula of the first half. My personal favorite is “Dream Life” – maybe because I can relate more immediately to the male protagonist, but certainly because its premise is so funny: his girlfriend has left him because, night after night, she dreams he is cruel and inconsiderate. In waking life, he’s a good guy, but she can’t forgive him the conduct she imagines for him. I can imagine the often wonderful Max Apple giving us something similar, but I can’t see him having the same fundamental sympathy for the girlfriend. He’d draw her thoughtfully and give her a consistent philosophy, but Lesser makes her whole. She’s kooky – at least by my lights – but she has a point. Getting the story from his perspective doesn’t diminish her. In fact, the end of the story suggests that he finally comes to understand her sense that the world of experience has to accommodate dreams as much as waking.

My other particular favorite here is “For Solo Piano” in which a young woman spends a week distracted by the house sitters in the apartment upstairs. She’s unattached, and they’re passionate in their lovemaking and piano playing. It’s almost as if she experiences the soundtrack of a movie she can’t see, a movie she thinks, but isn’t certain, she’d enjoy. It’s short and poignant, and her appetite and hesitation balance each other with real skill. It’s the story that most makes me want to hear Lesser talk about works in progress.

This is clearly a strong collection throughout, and its final story is a fitting wrap-up. In “Madame Bartova’s School of Ballet,” we follow a girl who grows to young adulthood as a ballet student, one without deep native talent but with a clear love for dance and, perhaps even more, love for the idea of dance. The story ends with Madame Bartova’s sudden death, and there’s a compelling emptiness. The protagonist can’t envision starting a relationship with a new teacher, and she finds she isn’t quite the girl she was when she began dancing years before. Instead, she dances to the echoes of her teacher, and, as those fade, she gradually gives up the art altogether. It’s a sad culmination to Lesser’s explorations, but it feels like a fitting invitation to reflect on a different art – the short story – that can sometimes hurt almost like standing point at the barre.

And I look forward to the conversation with her.


View all my reviews

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: American Philosophy

American Philosophy American Philosophy by John Jacob Kaag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Inasmuch as this is a story, it comes up short. Ostensibly the account of how our narrator dug himself out of an experience of what we might call false consciousness – life in an unhappy marriage with a range of career choices before him – most of this is instead a record of the cataloguing of the library of William Ernest Hocking, a mostly forgotten one-time titan of American philosophy. We don’t get the details of a traditional love story – in fact, all of the romance between Kaag and the woman he eventually marries would fit in a handful of pages.

Of course, I realize the intent of that subtitle. It’s a reference to any number of potential love stories: not just Kaag and Carol, but also Kaag and the library, Hocking and his own wife, Hocking and life itself, and Kaag and a discipline he’d embraced only through his intellect rather than his full emotional register. We don’t get details of the meaningful but mundane romance that brings Kaag his new wife. Instead, we get a range of biographical sketches and interpretations of philosophical trends.

I am, in many ways, the target audience here. I’m a scholar of American literature, and I know the literary siblings of the philosophers who stand on center stage here. (That’s literally true in the case of William and Henry James, but it’s metaphorically true of the many writers who come in as friends of the philosophers in question.) I know the joy of finding some puzzle piece of information or insight in a forgotten text, and I have tried to share it with others myself. (And I have generally failed.)

So, my verdict is that this one is too much of a mess to be a full success. It’s part memoir, though I took it for fiction, and it’s part philosophical treatise. It fails to come entirely together… but I want to put an asterisk to that observation.

It takes a while, but Kaag eventually gives us a wide and working definition of what distinguishes American philosophy from the more familiar continental strain. There are vast schools of thought that find their roots in Descartes, that take as axiomatic that we begin thinking as individual selves. As Kaag develops a series of interconnected arguments, he presents us with a compelling alternative. That is, some thinkers (such as C.S. Pierce) proposed that our experience originates not in the self but in our interaction with others. It is not so much the thunderbolt of “I think, therefore I am,” as it is – and I paraphrase from my own understanding – “We love one another, therefore we are.”

That, of course, is the central notion of “love” at the heart of the subtitle, and it’s a powerful one. (It’s just one that I’m convinced could have come more efficiently and with more power in some other form – memoir would be fine, but it would need to be memoir that didn’t so fully parrot the structure of the novel and instead found some fresh approach.)

In fact, while I find the form of this book disappointing, I’m genuinely inspired by what Kaag has to share in these seemingly dry old characters. As he tells us, American philosophy stood in contrast to the continentals in that it attacked the problems of what it means to live an everyday life. It found a middle ground between pure logic and the abstract contemplation of morality. Because the founders of American philosophy, from Emerson through William James, Pierce, Josiah Royce, and eventually Hocking himself, wanted always to explore “experience” (something I knew to be at the heart of Emersonian thought but that it has taken Kaag to help me understand in this new light) they wrote about overlapping ideas.

In other words, one reason we have seen the tradition of American philosophy wither is that it is, from its axiomatic beginnings, messy. It doesn’t start with self, but with community, with a people between or among whom lies the potential for love. (For Emerson and his literary sibling Whitman, that love is both between individuals and in the nature of citizenship.)

So, to the asterisk in my judgement of the book over all: Kaag’s very moving take on the nature of this tradition is messy enough that it seems to have inspired a messy structure in its work. (And, if you want to see “messy” done masterfully, check out almost any of Emerson’s essays.) I think this book falls short of the masterpiece it suggests, but I think it does so in part because Kaag, for all that he embraces this tradition, sees it as a tradition that failed to keep its foothold in our culture. To put it sadly, he’s fallen in love with a ghost, and he can’t quite bring himself to pronounce his new love dead.

There’s real potential in the metaphor of the library, a decaying place that stood for a generation as the ultimate coming together of a century of the finest thinkers our nation could produce. And note that the library, put into an order that perhaps only Hocking himself fully understood, is beautifully and inspirationally messy.

I am certainly glad I read this one, but I can’t recommend it entirely to others. I’ll keep thinking about it, I’m sure, but I’ll be as aware of the faults in its structure as I am in the deep wisdom – and love – that it circles around so messily.


View all my reviews

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a magical book, one of the finest adult fantasy novels I have ever read. (I think I have it slotted at number three, behind Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell and The Night Circus and ahead of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.) I didn’t see it coming, and I really just stumbled upon it, but it begins beautifully and gets only stronger, and stranger, as it goes.

There’s something timeless in a true fairy tale. It’s not just that you know the story of Hansel and Gretel, or Goldilocks, or Little Red Riding Hood; it’s that those stories feel as if they are the way they have to be. They’ve always existed, and our telling and retelling them is one piece of how we build the walls of the world in which we live. They are as old as human memory, as old as imagination.

Somehow, and I wish could figure the method out, Connolly takes those stories and changes their DNA. Gretel doesn’t merely push the witch into the oven; she bakes the old woman until her flesh comes off, and Hansel, even after he gets home, can’t control his wanderlust and eventually gets himself killed. The Seven Dwarves serve Snow White, but they do it under court order, trumpeting their syndicalist theorizing in the open but cowering in fear at her every whim. And Red, somewhat older than stories generally have her, sleeps with the Big Bad Wolf, giving birth to the first of the werewolves that terrorize this fantasy kingdom.

Don’t let those separate summaries give you the wrong impression, though. There’s been a wave of reimaginings of fairy stories – The Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom, Wicked, and the underrated film Hoodwinked to name a few – but this is something else. Those all return to fairy stories with the eyes of adults, giving us an ironic take on stories that once had power to shape our imagination. In each case, we know we’re seeing the “old stories” from the perspective of someone who’s outgrown them.

Eerily, Connolly recounts his stories without a trace of irony. These are fairy tales that come with the same power they had when we were children hearing them the first time, seeing them as pillars of the world we were just discovering. The longer I listened (and I read this as an audiobook which only reinforces the kid-listening-rapt tone of it) the more I found myself in suspense. I didn’t know how this would all turn out because there’s something primal to it. It’s a story about how stories shape our world, but it shapes its own world as it goes.

One of the motifs running through this is the sense of dismemberment. There’s an evil huntress who cuts the heads off children and attaches them to animals. There are wolves slowly turning to humans but possessing parts of both beasts and humans. And there are characters who’ve had their hearts taken out of them. The effect is powerful and at times terrifying (but terrifying in a way that made me feel like a kid scared of thunder) but it’s also a metaphor for the way the entire novel feels. We have stories grafted together, familiar beginnings that take us to surprising endings, but the stories feel whole all the same.

As a bottom line, it feels as if Connolly is giving us fairy stories that reveal what such stories traditionally hide: the fact that life is cruel and disappointing. No one is guaranteed a happy ending. Princes don’t marry the sleeping girls they awaken. Children restored to their homes don’t stay children for eternity. Heroes don’t show up and handily slay all the monsters. Instead, people die young. Optimistic do-gooders get eaten by wolves or worse. And promising marriages fall apart.

If all that weren’t accomplishment enough, though, Connolly pushes even harder to remind us that stories of this sort are, in their way, their own reward. In the midst of disappointment, pain, and death, these eternal stories – in their original and dismembered form – still have the power to shape our experience. They don’t save us from the bad things on our path, but they can save us from despair. They can show us that our lives – our hopes as well as our fears – are the stuff of story. Our lives matter because they are always pushing to be told, always pushing to move from abstract dreams and fears into experiences that really happen.

There are many other things to talk about. This works well alongside Grossman’s excellent and fun Magicians trilogy because it features a similar send-up of the C.S. Lewis fantasy-as-sugar-coated theology trope, but I think is subtler than Grossman and, while its world is drawn in smaller size, it stays truer to its eerie tone.

I don’t want to reveal too much here, but part of its joy is that you “know” its story every step of the way, even when you really have no idea where it’s going. It’s a real gem, and I recommend it (and look forward to others’ thoughts on it).


View all my reviews

Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Last Argument of Kings

Last Argument of Kings Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, on the down side, this remains really, really long. As much as I enjoyed it through the end – and I did – I was also wishing it were over. I know it’s the genre, but I think we could have gone without 300-500 pages (of the trilogy) here and still gotten all its many virtues.

Still, that aside, this really does hold up. Abercrombie may not be challenging the structures of the genre, but he is very much going after its implicit values. This is dark and apocalyptic. There’s no Tolkien-esque sense of a fundamentally benign universe. Instead, like George R.R. Martin, he is upending the conventions and giving us a universe that does not particularly love us back.

At the heart of all this is Bayaz, the aged, sometimes gentle-seeming wizard. As it turns out – in ways that Abercrombie has been hinting at from the start – the entire story here is a showdown between powerful wizards. This is not about the bravery or politics of ordinary humans, not even of humans as extraordinary as Logen or Ferro. Instead, people are a kind of “cattle” to Bayaz, and he is willing to sacrifice any and almost all of them in his millennium-long showdown with his rival.

In other words, Bayaz is not Gandalf. He’s like Jaffar from Aladdin except that he has no desire to wear the crown himself. He’s even more like Henry Kissinger or Dick Cheney or Steve Bannon. He’s an advisor wedded to realpolitik. He sees the world in terms of power relationships and, in a world of wizards, no one has any real power except him and his ancient adversaries. He’s an autocrat of the worst kind, philosophically opposed to the tendrils of democratic representation and equitable distribution that Jazel (modestly) and High Justice Marovia (tangentially to the plot) put forward.

[SPOILER] In that light, it makes perfect sense that Bayaz is the only one who sees anything like a “happy ending.” He gets to return to his library where, presumably, he can recruit a new apprentice who may or may not survive – an outcome of only minor significance to him.

I’ve seen some reviews that bemoan the way everything ends, but I say respectfully that I think people who feel that way don’t see what Abercrombie’s been up to from the start. This has always been about an indifferent history, an indifferent universe.

None of the apparent couples wind up together. Once Ferro discovers that some of the seed’s powers have remained part of her flesh, she pursues her vengeance without a thought for Logen. Once Jazel acknowledges the truth of Bayaz’s charge – that he is a coward at heart (a truth the novel bears out from the beginning) – he settles into his marriage with the Princess, unable to distinguish the sex Glokta has extorted from her from anything like real love; and, with him losing all thought of Ardy (who is wonderfully drawn at the beginning of this volume), she accepts Glokta. And Glokta, who’s loved the spice merchant from the start, returns to his heartlessness long enough to terrorize her into becoming his informant. Things don’t even work out for West who, briefly, seems to survive with the promise of marrying his old comrade’s wealthy and beautiful cousin; in the end, though, he’s another casualty of Bayaz’s arrogance, sickening under the Nagasaki-like aftermath of the wizard’s boundless self-centeredness.

And none of the characters escapes his or her worst traits. Logen never finds the way to become a peaceful, better man. Instead, he keeps on pushing for revenge until he finally finds a battle that even he can’t win. Jazel never finds anything like an authentic self, but gives in to Bayaz’s bullying and realizes how much he has always been clay in the wizard’s hands. Even Glokta, who ‘gets’ the girl and discovers a full-blown apprentice/protégé in the closing pages of the novel, remains miserable – remains wedded to a life he’d prefer to see ended.

It’s an axiom of high fantasy that we get to escape our 20th or 21st century world to spend time in a universe where secret bravery gets recognized. Abercrombie breaks that “First Law” and breaks it mercilessly. It’s as anti-genre as is possible to imagine, with bravery, decency, and ‘goodness’ all utterly irrelevant terms. Still, the whole work remains rooted in the form and tone of that same genre. I admire this as an experiment and mostly enjoy it as a written work. I wouldn’t have given this much time to something like this if I didn’t, bottom line, enjoy it, and Abercrombie does a fine job of redeeming his purpose at every turn. Full of surprises and characters going against type, this is ultimately a lot of fun.


View all my reviews

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review: Before They Are Hanged

Before They Are Hanged Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a lo-o-o-ng book. And by “this,” I mean the three combined. There’s really no trilogy here; one book leads into the next without pause. Given that, it’s hard to distinguish this middle piece from the one before and the one that’s coming. It’s a series of chapters that could, if you shifted where the covers happened to fall, fit into either of the others.

Still, fifty or so pages in, I sighed into acceptance, figuring Abercrombie had gotten lost in what he was doing and that he’d found his way into familiar patterns The different threads started to feel like slices of genre. We get it set up with Glokta as a detective, trying to figure out who killed his predecessor. We get the convention of the fellowship marching through a wasted ancient land, complete with a Moria-like lost city and with a corollary coming of age story for Jezal. And we get a campaign story through the eyes of West. Everything felt “done before,” and I pushed on over the next 100 or so pages mostly just because of momentum. (Though, to be fair, the writing was solid even in the parts that felt headed toward cliché.)

Then, to my pleasant surprise, Abercrombie redeemed things. Glokta solved his mystery. The quest resulted less in the lost mystical object and more about a reveal of Bayaz’s error-filled past. And the campaign took a strange and compelling turn with West turning into the Furious of the North. We’d moved from the generically predictable back into a story revealing itself piece by surprising piece. As I read, I heard Abercrombie enjoying things with me, working to invent his story rather than recycle it.

This is hardly the place to stop, and things could easily go otherwise, but, all told, this volume may actually be stronger than the first. Abercrombie seems to be finding his voice as he goes. Add that drama to the separate threads of the story, and there’s always something to be struck by.

This is still far short of the at times literary excellence of Game of Thrones, but it’s also vastly superior to much of what the genre has to offer. If the Wheel of Time books started stronger than these, they got lost in tangents and space-fillers. Abercrombie has a plan, and this is part of its filling out. I’m still in the dog days of the academic year, and this is a perfect, fun distraction.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: Worlds' End

Worlds' End Worlds' End by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For much of the Sandman series, the idea of dream is that it’s a space an individual goes to. There’s a collective sense to it in the sense that Morpheus is always waiting, but it’s still in the nature of a single person going on a journey.

The striking and generally successful notion throughout this collection is that it’s possible for us to have collective dreams, that people together create imaginaries that have particular power. That’s true in the way so many different characters from different worlds and times in the framing story find themselves at the inn at the end of the world. It’s also true in most of the individual episodes.

My favorite – and one of my favorites from the entire series – is the first, the one in which a man stumbles into the dream of an entire city. It’s eerie and striking. (It helps that it has some of the strongest illustration of any of the series’ work.) Robert falls into a space in the city he’d never known before, and then he finds himself in an almost empty place, one that suggests the space his city would become if it could free itself of the individuals who bring it into being in the first place. I find it haunting and poetic; even if little happens, it feels like a tour of a place I’ve almost touched myself.

In another strong one, a young girl dressed as a boy explores the community of tall ships. She imagines a new persona for herself and then locates it in the collective of the ships themselves. There’s story here, but it too is secondary to the sense of someone needing a community in which to discover herself. Her “dream” as it were is the kind of ship that it takes a company to keep afloat. She cannot dream such a dream alone.

Almost all the other stories share that quality, and it gives a coherence to this volume that too many others lack. On top of that, the sense of a Canterbury-Tales or Decameron-like framing device redeems the problem of the erratic artwork. The same artist draws all the frame scenes, and then a different one handles each episode. That makes it feel as if comes from a different narrator, and it gives the ever-changing styles a purpose.

I’ve got just the two volumes left in the series, so number nine is set to go. I’m curious to see where it will all go, but I am beginning to get ready for a new graphic novel experience.


View all my reviews

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a big step from something like Game of Thrones down to generic “fantasy” fiction. I put fantasy in quote marks because, while I have an expansive definition of the term, a lot of the fan-boys have a narrower one. I don’t think there’s any question that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Night Circus are the two best fantasy novels of the last decade (at least that I’ve read or heard about) but there’s a generic definition of fantasy that limits it to what some people call “high fantasy” – fantasy that deals with made-up empires and magic that can tip the balance of power.

And, while Game of Thrones has revived that specific sub-genre, its best-known competitors are generally awful. I haven’t read any of the Shannara books since high school, but I knew even then they were pale imitations of The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a good decade since I read The Sword of Truth and Wheel of Time books, and I wouldn’t have bothered with them if my local library had had a wider selection of audio books on cassette. They’re not just derivative; they’re depressing. They all have an apocalyptic sensibility, an earnestness about what “good” or “truth” might mean, and they all have a ham-handed way of drawing characters on a human scale against the backdrop of their “world-building.”

That’s prologue to say that Abercrombie falls in the vast middle between the great escapism of George Martin and the doorstopper Tor paperback wasteland. And, with the exception of Robin Hobb, I don’t know anyone else who’s so satisfyingly workmanlike in the field.

Backing up a bit, I found myself needing a good long, unserious diversion as the semester hit its dog days. I couldn’t find the energy to pick up something I suspected might be great, but I needed something to read. I’ve been in noir for a long time, so it seemed time to find something in fantasy. I read a promising review of this, and by good luck it’s what was promised.

Sure there’s a detailed world here, but Abercrombie also gives us a clean layout: the Union is an island of civilization surrounded by barbarian threats to the north and south. We get a couple of heroes from each place – Jazel and West from the Union, Logen from the North, and Ferro from the South – plus a variety of incidental others, most notably the wizard Bayaz and the inquisitor Glokta. Again, reducing it to the simplest level, this volume is basically concerned with the way most of them come together into a ‘fellowship’ representing the different nations against a dark magic evil.

While all that is familiar ground, there are also many satisfying wrinkles. There’s texture to almost everyone. Jazel is an arrogant son of the elite, and he has a compelling relationship with West’s commoner sister, challenging what he thinks he knows and showing him as a not always likeable guy. West himself has a violent streak that gives him dimension. Glokta has a compelling backstory as the victim of years of torture. Logen, perhaps too superman-ish in his fighting prowess, carries a deep fear inside him. And the Union itself, far from being an exemplar of freedom, is a corrupt bureaucracy.

This isn’t high art, but it is well done fantasy. It doesn’t expand the genre, but it lives inside it, showing it’s possible to populate “high fantasy” with characters who are compelling beyond their Dungeons and Dragons powers.

Word of warning if you’re intrigued: this is not a stand-alone book. It leads right into the second volume and, I assume, from there to the third. If you buy in, you’re looking at close to 2500 pages. I doubt this will hold up that long, but it’s got a good way to go before it descends to late Wheel of Time territory, so I’ve already got volume two queued up.


View all my reviews

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review: The Worst Class Trip Ever

The Worst Class Trip Ever The Worst Class Trip Ever by Dave Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Roughly 30 years ago, Dave Barry was one of the three or four funniest people in America. He wasn’t a stand-up comedian, but he cranked out a column (weekly, as I recall) that almost never failed. He had a gentle way of poking fun at himself and our larger middle American mores, and he had an astonishing ability to work with rhythm: sentence rhythm and the rhythm of humor.

It’s been a long time since I read him, but when I saw this one I figured it would be great for sharing with the family. The good news is, the kids mostly liked it and it helped me as we drove a big stretch of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The bad news…

I don’t know where the humor went. Apart from a silly/sweet opening section where the father gets trapped by an alligator on their lawn, while wearing nothing but his loose old boxers, little of this resonated with the work I remember. Instead, this one is predicated on a surprising cruelty. There’s a kid who farts a lot – so the others have license to make fun of him – and a huge part of the plot turns on the protagonists racially profiling some fellow airline passengers.

But you know what? I’d forgive such straying from what-we-need-to-tell-the-kids if there were much substance to this. Instead, it felt to me like something he more or less made up as he went, a sloppy narrative that, once started, had nowhere satisfying to go for resolution.

I’ll spare the details but note two of the kids’ reactions:

1) The ten year old called out at one point, “This is just like all the other books I read. It has some nerdy kids, they’re doing something they shouldn’t be, and there’s a pretty girl they’re interested in.” That’s not merely genre; it’s running out of any original vision for a novel that might entertain kids.

2) The 14 year old asked at least twice, “Why don’t they just call the police [and resolve their problems]?” It’s a good and troubling question. The answer, and we get it in the text, keeps changing. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s a sense of adventure. Sometimes it’s because the bad guys have a way to keep it from happening. But the real answer is simply that there’s no story if they undertake that perfectly reasonable plan. In short, the whole book suffers from being utterly contrived.

Look, I realize this is a book for kids, and I admit mine did say they liked it. Still, the Dave Barry of a generation ago would have known how to make this something both generations would have enjoyed. I’ll go two stars since I’m not the target audience, but that column sure feels like a long time ago.


View all my reviews

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives

The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I mostly enjoyed this volume of the series, particularly because it does what I think Sandman does best: explore its own terns and contradictions. This tells of Morpheus and his sister Delirium going on a quest to find their vanished brother Destruction. In some of the best ways from these episodes, it’s an allegory. We live in an age when we’re insulated from the kind of destruction that used to define and redefine cultures. Our technology protects us in our everyday lives, and our political institutions (which our current moment is putting to the test) protect us as states. There’s something appropriately sad in the way Destruction has simply checked out. He knows he isn’t needed in a world that is, for at least us privileged Westerners, so comfortably secure.

In any case, I admired this at that level on my own, but Peter Straub’s afterword helped me see it even more dramatically. The culmination here is the killing of Orpheus, a character I haven’t much appreciated before this. He’s striking in his immortal beheaded state, but he becomes really interesting in the way Straub frames this: for Gaiman here, all existence is brief next to the Everlasting. One man can live for 1500 years, but when Death comes for him it’s still the end. In what may be my favorite moment from the volume, the goddess Ishtar, diminished from two millennia without worshippers, moves into non-existence through a final, too-beautiful-for-humans dance. Everything human, even the gods we imagine for ourselves, must die.

This is, in other words, a meditation on change in the way that large parts of The Fairie Queene and other Renaissance works are. We get a glimpse of the world as it might look from the perspective of eternity, but then we are reminded that, as mortals, we will never be able to know what eternity feels like. Morpheus knows, and he knows that we cannot know, so his view of us humans takes on an intriguing pity and condescension. Add to that Delirium’s incapacity to understand the, to her, blink-of-an-eye span of a human life, and these characters take on a power we haven’t always seen.

I still think Gaiman could be more efficient with such a message – we get tangents and characters who seem to take us in other directions. And I am troubled by the inconsistent artwork, much of which strikes me as average at best. (It’s a shame Gaiman couldn’t have settled on a single artist and developed the project over time with him or her.)

Still, I feel persuaded more than I have been that this one has some real insight. I may never become quite the Sandman (or Gaiman) believer that so many people I admire are, but I am in this for the long haul, and am already teeing up volume number 8.


View all my reviews