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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The Sellout

The Sellout The Sellout by Paul Beatty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have two distinct reactions to this much-talked about book:

1) This is easily the flat-out funniest book I’ve read since Mark Leyner’s Gone with the Mind. If you like your fiction with a triple dose of stand-up humor, this is it. I rarely went more than a page without a laugh out loud snort, and Beatty has the capacity to keep the jokes coming. Whether it’s conceptual material – like the plots of demented (and racist) lost Little Rascals shorts or the notion of a pot smoking Black L.A. farmer being charged in the Supreme Court as Me (changed from Meade) vs. The United States of America – great shtick, this just stays funny.

I enjoyed the humor here so much that I found myself taking it, uncharacteristically, in small bites. Short as this is, it took me almost two weeks to finish because I’d enjoy a piece of it and then put it down. I was never in a hurry to be finished with it; I simply enjoyed having another slice of it to get to each day.

2) This is also a sophisticated critique of supposed post-racial America. It’s so sophisticated, in fact, that I can’t quite determine the nature of its critique. At one level, it’s exploring the disturbing idea that African-Americans might somehow be softened by the absence of the overt racism. That’s certainly the surface premise: our protagonist determines he will bring back segregation and even slavery, and the results are positive (in the ironic context of the novel).

That premise is so clearly ironic, though, that the novel seems at the same time to be critiquing the idea that anything so simple could explain the condition of African-Americans in the 21st century. Rather than promoting a return to racism, it mocks easy solutions. It makes fun of the idea that there’s anything straightforward or clear about the way we understand race.

Even more deeply, though, I think this is an experiment in form, a test to see how much the novel can contain. I heard an interview with Beatty as I worked through this, and he told Marc Maron that one of his early mentors told him (and I paraphrase) that the world was going to have to learn to read him. This work mixes so many seemingly disparate and conflicting ideas and tones, that it never quite resolves into anything. As soon as it starts to feel as if it’s coherent, there comes a new element to destabilize the whole. That’s true with the frame device – our narrator lighting up a joint as his case appears before the Supreme Court – and it’s true of the addition of one character after another: his father, the ex-Little Rascal and would-be slave Hominy, his bus-driving girlfriend, and the whole crew of the Dum-Dum Donuts Intellectuals. Each new element seems to set the whole edifice wobbling again.

That strange mix often left me feeling as if I didn’t understand Beatty’s overall point. I admit I found that frustrating at times. I wanted this book to resolve itself, not just by way of plot but moreso in its tone.

As my memory of it fades, though (I finished it a couple days ago), I think I admire its irresolution all the more. Like the best stand-up comics, Beatty is true first of all to his material. He doesn’t fit his characters to some narrowly defined moral vision. Instead, he turns them loose. The result has some comforts (to go along with its many great laughs) but it has its enduring provocations as well. This book isn’t “about” anything specific. Instead, it’s a brave and unpredictable inquiry into what I might call “the weird” of contemporary race. He mines some of the least funny threads of American culture and history and dares us to laugh at them. There’s a little Mel Brooks sensibility, but there may be even greater ambition since it’s challenging the technology of the novel rather than the technology of film.

I recommend this one. Worst case scenario, you’ll laugh until you cry. Best case, you’ll realize your laughter and tears are two of the inevitable reactions to the history that’s shaped us.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If this were the only Sandman volume I’d read, I’d probably think of it as a four-star work. Since I’ve seen how excellent this series can be (in A Game of You) and I’ve seen its initial – very different – premises all the way back to Preludes and Nocturnes, I find it a bit wanting. When Gaiman’s exploring the myths he’s created – as opposed to refitting myths and fables from other sources – there’s a naked brilliance to his work. While he sometimes has interesting commentary, much of this feels like showing off.

There’s a clear formula here: find an incident or character from history, whether the French Revolution or Marco Polo, and retell it in such a way that Morpheus and his dreams play a crucial part. It’s one story after another, generally well written (though often drawn in uninspired fashion) but it comes to feel as if we are getting material from Mr. Gaiman’s file folder of obscure stories (or familiar stories made obscure), as if he’s plucked out whatever struck his fancy for that issue rather than sat down to further the story he began himself.

By this point in the series we have a Morpheus who is more or less all-powerful. I don’t mind that; in fact I like it very much except for the fact that this began as a very different premise. The Morpheus we met at first was a god who’d been humbled by a human, and then he was a weakened figure who had to set out to recover his full power. This Morpheus suffers no threat, has no real conflict to concern himself with. He becomes almost a Rod Serling of the obscure, the character linking an anthology series. Again, that’s not a bad thing in itself, but it’s a change from the implicit promise of the series’ beginning.

Gaiman started telling one kind of story and then began to tell another. I understand that half these stories appeared before and half after A Game of You, but that just adds to my sense that, clever as most of these are, they’re filler for the larger stories Gaiman can sometimes tell.

On the plus side, the two strongest stories here are probably the last two, “Parliament of Rooks” and “Ramadan.” In the first of those, an overactive toddler with a mother pushed to her limits, falls into dream and wanders into Morpheus’s castle. While I am irritated to find the requisitioned Cain and Abel, squabbling brothers who owe as much to Krazy Kat as Genesis, I love the rest of this. Almost nothing happens beyond a square off of story-telling, but it’s haunting and beautiful to see the toddler explore the new world he’s tumbled into. It feels like an updated Little Nemo, but it also feels all Gaiman.

The last story involves more of the Morpheus involving himself in history trope that I tend to find irritating, but it works here. The great Sultan Haroun al-Raschid rules over a Baghdad which is the wonder not just of its time but of all time. It is a city so full of magic and art that even Haroun can barely take it all in. It’s so wondrous, so self-evidently the apex of civilization, that he becomes saddened at the thought that it will one day fade. Aware of all that, he summons Morpheus and makes a deal: He will give his city to the dream lord so that it will exist in a dimension that human dreamers can intermittently return to forever. As with the best of these Sandman stories, it reaches a poetry that’s rare not just in this genre but in any.

I’m moving on with the series, and volume 7 is already lined up. If this is the worst it gets, then it’s going to worth reading straight on through to the end. I just hope Gaiman works more to tell extended stories drawing on his own best creations.

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the term doesn’t already exist, I want to coin this a ‘hardboiled novel of manners’. There’s a genteel novel-of-manners feel to it as we get a lot of attention on the niceties of how properly to entertain someone, how architecture or fashion functions as social statement, and how people generally express themselves through subtle public gestures.

Highsmith’s central insight seems to be that civilization (or what she has her characters call “society” when it comes to the fore in the final pages) is a thin veneer on top of a species with the capacity to be real animals. Bruno says as much in the opening scene when he declares that every man is capable of murder, and that’s borne out. Everyone (except the saintly Anne) is indeed capable of murder. We need laws to keep us from going wild, but it isn’t clear society truly wants that. Most of the characters seem happy to tolerate murder as long as it doesn’t affect them. It just seems understood that people do bad things.

Highsmith uses that hardboiled axiom to explore the famous premise of the novel: two men meet on a train and toy with the idea of having each commit a murder on the other’s behalf. Without motives, each murderer would go unsuspected, yet each would accomplish his goal.

In Hitchcock’s hands, that story became a chance for him to explore his own favored notion of a protagonist who, somehow a little guilty or compromised (whether for listening to a murderous stranger on a train or simply peeping into a neighbor’s window) finds himself a fundamentally innocent man bound up with truly despicable people. Highsmith’s vision is much darker. [SPOILER] Most tellingly, Guy actually goes on to commit the murder that Bruno wants from him. Hitchcock gives his protagonist an out; he eventually pulls himself back from the “deal” he’s entered into. Highsmith’s protagonist gets broken down, however. Under the pressure of Bruno’s obsession, he proceeds to kill Bruno’s father. Later, he begins to echo many of the more Bruno’s more despicable quirks. At the end he determines that anyone can be broken down, that we’re all so fundamentally vicious that the right pressure can turn us all into characters.

There’s a crispness throughout most of this, but I think it falls a bit short in some of its psychological profiling. In the end, I simply don’t find Guy’s breakdown authentic. Compromised as he might be, I don’t accept why he doesn’t go to the police, especially when he has such compelling evidence of Bruno’s guilt. Highsmith writes compellingly, but I think this falls a bit short of the even darker, more efficient Talented Mr. Ripley.

As a final thought, I wondered whether this might in some way be a comment on the then only 6-7 years old Fountainhead. We have here a protagonist who realizes, eventually, that individuals stand apart from a rule-bound society. He feels called to do great things, and he concludes that simple things, like other people’s lives, shouldn’t hold him back.

I have not read The Fountainhead, but is there’s anything to my hunch, this is not a flattering comment. The novel ultimately does not endorse such a vision of the power of the great ego. Rather, we come to find Guy a somewhat small man, a man whose being broken down by another has undermined the real gifts he had. In fact, as I read it, this undermines Ayn Rand altogether. Skeptical as this is of what holds society together, it laments our alone-ness rather than celebrates it.

Highsmith remains the first acknowledged female star of the hardboiled tradition. If all you know of this one is the film, you’re in for a surprise.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The small Ohio town where I grew up was a stop on the Underground Railroad. One of my neighbors lived in a house supposedly old enough to have been part of the actual network, and I remember climbing into a rocky little space that – if it had been there 120 years before – might have been where some slaves hid for a time.

I think of that space and it gives me the illusion of a connection to that overwhelming experience, but I know it’s only an imagined connection. The slaves who fled the unspeakable horrors of the plantations endured things far worse than what the metaphor of “underground railroad” suggests, but that’s what we call it.

The central power of this novel is that it takes that metaphor and makes it real. It’s no longer just a way of describing people who came together desperately to fight slavery; it’s an actual railroad, a set of tunnels dug deeply and impossibly by hands we never see.

That vision alone makes this one striking and memorable. When Cora first gets away from the plantation and finds her way to a station, it feels like the end of a terrible nightmare. She’s saved by the anonymous and staggering work of others. It promises her a way north, and it obligates her to do her part for others who come after. It’s all there, dug in stone and soil.

But this novel is much more than just a metaphor made real, more even than an inspired marriage of the runaway slave narrative and the magic realism method. It’s also about the limits of the collective work of salvation. The bitter truth is that slavery so deeply marks its victims (and, in ways less deserving of sympathy, its victimizers) that there is no real escape. In the closing pages, [SPOILER] when Cora limps down a dismal track along a discovered line of the railroad, the grand promise of the original vision is gone. She’s survived and escaped, but so many others have not.

We get a glimpse in Indiana of what a genuine post-slave community might look like, but the world is too intolerant, too violent to let it stand.

We have, in other words, metaphors to name an experience larger than any one of us, but beneath them lies a suffering that challenges everyone telling story to make fresh. Whitehead does that, and Cora’s dreams have real and rare power in the face of the horrors she has endured. In his imaginative manner, he does it better than Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany (to name two skilled writers who’ve used fantasy or science fiction to probe the experience of slavery). He does it so well, in fact, that I thought at times I was reading the even better still A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

The wonder that comes with the vision of the railroad makes fresh what it meant to resist slavery and its supporters. The collapse of so much of that wonder makes the awfulness of that history come down with new weight as well.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who owns our dreams? That’s the implicit question underlying the whole Sandman series, but, to my persistent irritation, Neil Gaiman has always seemed to blink in the face of it. He’s asking a deeply human, deeply personal question, but he’s allowed much of the series so far to deal in cosmologies. Sometimes that’s been the generally satisfying cosmology of Morpheus and his siblings. Other times it’s been the less rewarding appropriation of extinct mythologies.

Here, for the first time in my experience, Gaiman gets it right. He gets it brilliantly and beautifully right in the way he stares at the deep question of what it means to claim a dream. That carries with it the question of how we understand creativity (and possibly creation itself) and also how we, as humans, need others for our own completion.

Somewhere in the Dreaming there lies a tiny island, a skerry, first brought into the quasi-real by Morpheus for Alianora, a beautiful girl who needed (or simply asked for) a space she could populate with the sorts of comforting childhood fantasies that live in places like Oz or Narnia. What began as her place, though, passed on to others after she died. One young girl after another found her way to the tiny place and added to it. It became a kind of communal dream, a place open to a select few – one at a time – who peopled it in their dreaming and may have only dimly remembered it in their waking. In other words, Alianora did not own her dreams any more than the others who came after her. In an unacknowledged Jungian sense, there was a collective unconscious – or perhaps collective semi-consciousness – that tied a handful of strangers into a genealogy of demiurges.

Our main protagonist, Barbie, is the last of those dreamers, and, without knowing it, she’s the victim of the Cuckoo, a creature whose impulse is to worm her way into the nest of another and kick out the legitimate offspring. The Cuckoo has taken control over most of the skerry, claiming its dreaming for herself at the expense of its existence. She believes that destroying it will free her to fly elsewhere, to dream in new ways or, more sinisterly, to supplant the dreams of others elsewhere.

Our story spans the dreaming and the waking, and Gaiman handles that juggling act with much more finesse than he has in earlier volumes. Barbie has a coterie of friends – all women, though one of those is a former man transitioning – who live in a small apartment building together. When Barbie gets summoned back to the skerry, to serve as the dreamer (and bearer of an ancient dream/real artifact) who can overcome the Cuckoo, her friends split up, one to protect her helpless sleeping self and the others to venture into the dreaming through the power of the moon and in opposition to Morpheus’s decree. (And what a beautiful stroke of creativity to assign the moon a kind of backdoor status to dreaming. It fits in a fresh and mythical way.)

In the end, [SPOILER] our heroes fail. The Cuckoo has an irresistible hypnotic power, and she forces Barbie to break the artifact, which summons Morpheus who’s pledged to destroy the skerry in such a case. He explains the facts of dreaming, and he gathers the wonders of the generations from Alianora to Barbie, taking in their quirky dreams and converting them back to the sand that gives dreams to others. If that suggests at first that all dreams belong to Morpheus, though, there is a compelling sense that he merely directs their flow, a flow that he acknowledges is greater than himself. (Gaiman has hinted at this in earlier volumes but never to the poetic effect of the conclusion here.) As dust, these rich imaginings are recycled into the seeds of others’ dreams to come.

Even more striking, it becomes clear that Barbie herself is a kind of dream. She is, as the story tells us, recently divorced from Ken. We also see, in the moments after Barbie arrives on the skerry, a Mattel Barbie doll on which she dreamed as child. Someone has infused her with the dimensions of a real girl, and that someone seems equal parts Neil Gaiman and a generic little girl humming to herself before her private “Dream House.”

In the introduction to this volume, Samuel R. Delany talks of Gaiman’s capacity for infusing the everyday with mythic qualities. In the earlier volumes, I’d disagree and say he’s doing the opposite: what else is happening when a demon like Azazel or a cat deity out of Egypt gets coopted for a kind of Demonic Celebrity Apprentice? Those stories bleed the mythic from myths and give us gods and demons as human-sized characters.

Here, though, as Delany says so strikingly, Gaiman takes the toys of childhood and raises them to the status of archetypes. Barbie’s dreamworld quest alongside animated stuffed animals feels eerily familiar, a twist on the adventures we all know from Alice or Dorothy, but it feels new as well. It’s as if he’s re-opened a door that only our most expert dreamers have managed before.

All of this works because it insistently reminds us of the degree to which our deepest wonder comes not from our private dreaming, but from our attempting to claim someone else’s dreams only to discover ourselves in some new place. We are all, in one degree or another, cuckoos who insinuate ourselves into others’ creations, and as such we simply follow our nature (as Morpheus explains the Cuckoo is indeed doing through her impulse to destruction) when we take the wondrous and claim it for ourselves.

In another context, the change from one illustrator to another would really irritate me. (Especially because I think Colleen Doran is so perfectly suited to the material that I find the other five wanting in comparison.) Here, though, it amplifies the sense that we depend on others for the beginnings of our dreaming and for taking what we dream someplace beyond our private imagining.

In the end, this volume gives us what the others have so far only vaguely gestured toward: Morpheus alone can navigate the twisted paths of the dreaming, but the place belongs – in its fragmented and directionless fashion – to all of us.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m starting to run out of excuses for not loving Neil Gaiman – as so many have told me I would and as I fully expected. (I wouldn’t have bought the first eight volumes of The Sandman if I didn’t expect to love it the way so many others do.)

I was disappointed in volume three because I found it a series of disconnected, one-off stories. This time, there is a full arc: Morpheus comes into possession of hell, and he has to decide which of several claimants he wants to give it to.

There’s cleverness throughout this – Gaiman is always clever – but I sometimes get the feeling it’s cleverness for the sake of cleverness. I enjoy seeing the gods from different pantheons come together (it’s especially fun to get a Thor who is the anti-Marvel version – a buffoon who eats and sexes himself into near stupor), but after a while I get frustrated that there’s no cosmology that underlies their shared space. Odin can be powerful in one sense – he is still the all-father – but in another he is just a guy standing alongside Egyptian or Miltonic figures. The importance of each seems to rise and fall with the attention Gaiman wants to pay rather than with anything intrinsic to the story.

That becomes especially clear at the end. (I hesitate to call it a climax because, as I often complain about stories crafted into single-issue comic episodes, there’s not all that much to build up to it. When that chapter comes, it feels almost like a new start to the story we’ve been reading.) When the demon Azazel threatens to destroy Nada, Morpheus has a showdown with him. It’s all on Morpheus’s terms, though – which feel like all on Gaiman’s terms in the sense that he’s after the splendor of the moment rather than pay-off for the story he’s been building up – and the final conflict falls flat in many ways. It starts, and then it’s over.

All that said, there do remain some touches I deeply admire. Two of those comes at the very end. First, while the Azazel showdown leaves me wanting, the concept of it brings me back. It really is beautiful to consider the demon as trapped somehow in dream. By giving vent to his own desires, he ventures into the space of pure dream, pure creation, and that renders him a plaything in Morpheus’s hands. I want Morpheus to be more of a stable hero, and I want Gaiman either to step entirely outside the story or more directly into it. Still, Morpheus as the story-maker of the story – Morpheus as Gaiman – is compelling at the end.

And, at the very end, Gaimain gets off one of those moments that really moves me, that makes me frustrated that I only like this rather than love it. That’s because I love the idea of Nada reborn as an infant without memory. It’s a beautiful instant, one that gives me hope that I’ll finally be able to click with what Gaiman is doing.

On to volume five with an open mind…

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Hidden River

Hidden River Hidden River by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one isn’t great art, but, oh, is it a lot of fun.

Check your skepticism at the door if you feel like giving this a shot. It turns on several hard-to-believe coincidences – something that ordinarily bothers me a great deal. [SPOILER] To start with, what are the odds that our hero would escape injury so often, that he’d never be suspected in the range of killings and set-ups he’s behind, that he’d get hired at the one environmental group that he wanted to investigate in the first place, that he’d find two guys loyal to him to the death, or that no one would ever bother to ask him what happened to John once he returned to Ireland without him.

Those are, in most cases, the sorts of holes I’d feel a truck driving through. They’d distract me to the point of not caring about anything else.

Oddly, though, McKinty pulls off the opposite trick here. I find myself – for reasons I can’t fully identify –drawn to the character and the situation. Alex is a Jewish cop in the middle of Belfast’s Catholic/Protestant wars. He’s a too-good-for-his-own-good cop, and he’s a heroin addict. He has a mysterious history from the end of his police career, and now he’s a wit’s end.

It’s fun to get McKinty’s hardboiled take on Belfast – I read his The Cold, Cold Ground which I liked at least as much and admired more – and then it’s fun to see him grapple with the different world of Denver. He has a tone and a way with character that grips you – or grips me at least.

It’s fun as well to feel him manipulating you throughout. In this case, he’s even somewhat clumsy. [SPOILER: I knew from early on that Amber was the real threat.] But so what? Most of the fun is in seeing the oh-so-clever Alex get confused in the midst of his sex-and-heroin lust.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on this because I suspect my enjoyment of it would come tumbling down if I worried too much about things like how it morphs from a confession from someone who seems already dead (in classic noir-like feel) to a feel-good self-transformation instead. Or about how seriously to take the Hindu theology thread that runs throughout, even giving the novel its name.

No, bottom line, this is a guilty pleasure that I can recommend to others only with mixed feelings. But I promise you that I’ll be snatching up the next McKinty I come across, and I bet it will make it from the to-read pile into my hands pretty quickly.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country

The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good news is that I remain intrigued by the possibilities of The Sandman as I finish volume three of the collected works. I thought I knew where it was headed, then discovered I was wrong, and now am still curious about where it’s going. Almost a third of the way through the series, I still have the positive sense that it could turn into almost anything.

The less good news is that I liked where I thought it was going more than I like where it has gone to this point. I loved the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, because it was such a fresh take on the comic genre. It had the form of a superhero book, giving us a different kind of hero who was caught up in an intriguing story of revenge and perpetual reinvention. I enjoyed the second volume because I thought it was reloading for another multi-issue narrative in which Morpheus deals with an anomaly in his universe.

This volume, though, is a grab bag. Instead of giving us an extended story arc, this one gives one striking issue after another. It’s fun to see Morpheus invite the lords of fairy to see a production of the still-living Will Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it’s intriguing to see the story of how a seductive death helps a woman disfigured into invulnerability eventually kill herself.

Each of those stories is its own, though. We’ve lost the continuity of the series. On the one hand I admire that a lot. These are, in effect, short stories, and it takes enormous skill to tell a new one every issue. And I enjoy most of these.

But, again, it isn’t quite what I expected. I’ll keep reading these one-offs for a while, but I signed up because I thought I’d get to see Morpheus dive into an extended, novel-like experience. I still think that might be coming and, if I know it is, I think I’ll come back and revise my estimate of these interesting stand-alones upward.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I think of despair, I think of mutism. That is, I associate the deepest loss of faith with the inability to use words at all. Hemingway’s power derives mostly from the sense he gives that silence is so close at hand. It’s not just that he’s efficient with his language; it’s that each word carries a heavy emotional cost since the temptation to turn inward is so strong.

In this novel, one of the candidates to be his masterpiece, Vonnegut is playing a slightly different game. Words come easily. When someone dies, the phrase is right at hand, “And so it goes…” Ask our narrator a question, and he’s got a glib answer. There’s always something to say, and the words themselves are as cheap as the paperbacks Kilgore Trout writes and releases to the world. No one seems inclined toward silence. We talk because it’s what we do.

Yet despair is here, and it manifests itself in a pressure against narrative rather than language. Vonnegut, as the character of the narrator here, has no trouble spinning out a goofy premise like Tralfamadore or explaining the didactic point of a Trout novel, but he never lets us forget the effort it takes to tell a straightforward story. That’s because stories, as such, pretend to make sense of a world that he despairs of making sensible.

We see that assertion most clearly in the first chapter, when our narrator describes how he’s failed to write anything directly about his experiences in Dresden. When Mary O’Hare gets angry at him for preparing to write a novel about World War II, she angrily explains it’s because the stories always get it wrong. “Wars are fought by children,” she explains. And our narrator, acknowledging she’s right, agrees to call his book “The Children’s Crusade.” He doesn’t want to write a war novel, but he wants to try to tell a story – a senseless story of a devastating bombing raid by our own country that had no strategic value – so he has to write a novel about the war.

And the novel he writes goes on to fight with itself throughout. Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time because of the trauma he’s experienced, and that expresses itself most clearly in the way it breaks Vonnegut’s narrative. There is none of the conventional consolation that story/plot/narrative brings. We know early on that Billy will die in an assassination. We know he’ll be kidnapped by Tralfamadorans. We know that the universe will end when the Tralfamadorans screw up a test of their advanced rocketry. And we know that U.S. bombers will obliterate a German city called Dresden while a group of American P.O.W.s survive the onslaught in an underground slaughterhouse.

We see the same assault on conventional narrative in the comic book existentialism of the Tralfamadorans. Since they experience all time as happening simultaneously, nothing is ever a surprise. They urge you to cling to beautiful moments, knowing full well that they cannot control what will happen any more easily than they can control what’s already happened. There’s no surprise in their lives, only the capacity to choose what they focus on.

And we see it in the quick descriptions of Trout’s novels. They never seem to tell conventional stories either. They aren’t about plots where one thing happens after another. They’re about concepts that make you go “Hmmm.”

Vonnegut was hugely important to me as a high school kid. I read and re-read everything he’d written by the middle 1980s, and he helped me fall in love with literature as something that can expand my ideas in addition to my experience. I didn’t like this one that much in those years, though. I resented its frequent sloppiness, and I thought – despite what I understood to be its critical acclaim – it was a kind of phone-it-in effort after Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Mother Night. (It does reference important characters from each of those earlier ones.)

Coming back to this after more than 25 years, though, I see its sloppy storytelling as its most articulate feature. I believe Vonnegut when he says it took him more than a quarter century to write about Dresden. His experience made no sense, and trying to make sense of it though story would have been a betrayal of the horrors he saw and that others saw alongside him. Instead, he finds a way here to mock his own effort as a way to counter the despair that tried to keep him from telling that story at all.

If you’ve never read Vonnegut, I still recommend starting with Cat’s Cradle or one of the other early novels (other than Player Piano which is playing a different game). Once you’ve got a handle on Vonnegut’s tone and universe, though, give this one a shot. I see now what I didn’t see then – this is literature at a high level. It is, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, news that has stayed news.

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: Babel-17

Babel-17 Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading this book is a little like going back and playing one of those early home video games, something like the first generation of Castle Wolfenstein. There’s something to it, something you know you sensed when you played the game way back when, but you can also clearly see how the technology limited the final effect.

This one has a fabulous premise: the “bad guys” develop a language that corrupts its speakers. It functions less like a human language and more like Fortran or Basic – languages that direct a machine to do a thing without giving it the vocabulary to comprehend itself. Without that sense of self – without the concept of “I” – it isn’t possible to resist the codes one’s programmed to do. In the world of the novel, it turns its speakers into sleeper double-agents, people who aren’t aware of their own duplicity.

I can give that kind of a summary largely because of what I learn in the final pages of the novel, when one of the characters – having been reprogrammed of deprogrammed – explains the phenomenon to everyone else. Otherwise, this is a hard-to-follow story. We get a lot of quick cuts, a lot of characters introduced by pronouns rather than given names, and a lot of action committed by characters under the control of other wills.

Much of the story moves forward through dialogue, often a clunky narrative technology but especially so here. How, I ask, can we contemplate the power of language when we are so trapped in conversation. There are “technologies” that might work better – stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, deliberate fragmentation – but Delaney tends to stay with a conventional approach here. He does push against it a little – we get some attempts at weird-angle limited omniscient third person and he opens each chapter with long, allusive quotes from Marilyn Hacker’s poetry – but, ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have the tools to get his fabulous question across.

I don’t think he’s alone. I’m cooler on his contemporary Philip K. Dick than most, and there was a lot of other high concept, overly pedantic sci-fi in those era. It was common for sci-fi to come across as cold, peopled with characters who seem props for ideas rather than characters in their own right. In some ways, the original Star Trek had the same problems: big ideas without quite the special effects to pull them off. It took Star Wars (on screen) and Dune (in print) to begin to develop that technology, and now we have Guardians of the Galaxy (on screen) and Neal Stephenson (in print, when he’s on his game).

There’s certainly something here, and I also acknowledge I read this too quickly to get everything from it. I suspect I’d have been in awe of it if I stumbled onto it as a 13-year-old in 1978. I don’t mean to say I’d have gotten all the bio-linguistic points it raised, merely that I think I’d have sense it even then as pushing toward something it couldn’t quite yet say.

I have the chance to hear Delaney a few weeks from now, and I’m keeping an open mind. I’m blaming him here for a limited technology, but it’s just as possible I’m not bringing all the reading tools to this that I should.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: A Little Life

A Little Life A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A central hallmark of genre fiction is that it takes some fundamental aspect of its reality as a given. In fantasy, we get magic, and we aren’t usually invited to question why it’s there, only what it’s doing in any particular instance. In mystery we get an impulse toward solution. Our detective may have a motive, but ultimately the world of the novel depends upon the axiom that we want to understand the unknown. And romance takes it as foundational that people love one another and will endure a great deal to arrive at that love.

A Little Life is not genre fiction, but it gives us a concept of friendship that is as central (and unexplained) as gravity. The four friends at the heart of this grow from young adults into successful actors, architects, artists, and lawyers. They endure emotional and personal setbacks, get married, develop professional relationships, and reveal one another’s hidden pasts to each other. But no matter how complicated their lives get, they remain tied to each other.

That’s an affirming notion, but it starts to wear thin 400 or so pages into this massive work. Jude is an appealing but deeply scarred man. He needs his friends, and they’re there for him. Always. Really. Always. The closest is Willem, an actor who becomes a major star, a man whose face is on Times Square billboards and who goes on location to exotic locales. Willem has girlfriends and, presumably, a circle of colleagues who matter to him, but he’ll always drop everything to help Jude. And then suddenly, that becomes literal as the two become lovers with little to anticipate that major shift. Even as lovers, though, theirs is less a romance than a friendship taken to its ultimate stage. Even as it becomes sex-free, it remains an extension of this mysterious quality called “friendship.”

There’s real power here in many places. Jude endures far more than anyone should have to, and he slowly peels back the awful abuse he suffered as a child. He’s haunted in ways that can never be dismissed, and the intensity of his self-loathing comes through in the many (did I say many) scenes in which he either cuts himself or imagines cutting himself. Yanagihara often writes with grace, and Jude’s suffering emerges as incandescent. Even as he’s surrounded by his friends – an ideal cast of them, including an always-there-for-him-doctor, a brilliant legal mentor who actually adopts him, and a landlord/neighbor who becomes a regular guardian – he can never dismiss the shadow of his horrifying childhood.

In a way that becomes increasingly troubling, though, the novel never seems to confront history outside its insular space. We never hear, for instance, of the political backdrop, of technological changes, or of pop culture touchstones. This is a book that spans more than 40 years, but it’s never clear which 40 years those are. In one tiny detail, Brother Luke, on the run with Jude when Jude is only nine, makes sure to take his computer whenever he leaves the hotel room. But then, thirty years later, Willem’s agent is concerned that his coming out as gay will hurt his movie career. (A newspaper article even calls Willem the highest profile actor to date to admit to being in a homosexual relationship.) I’ve tried to triangulate those dates, but I can’t make them fit: Child molester religious brothers on the run could not have had portable computers – ones that context implies would have internet access – until at least the early 21st century. From the other end, though, it’s already a handful of years since an actor like Ian McKellin (another “serious” actor who doesn’t typically play romantic leads) can come out without trouble. How then do we squeeze thirty years in between 2001 and 2015?

And that’s not just a petty concern either. This book depends upon history to give it depth, but it gestures only vaguely toward that history. The same impulse that fetishizes friendship, that so greedily (and, to be fair, gratefully) takes friends as the necessary bodies in orbit about the self, can lead to a kind of narcissism, a sense that nothing beyond the self matters. The absence of historical setting is one thing, but so are the interests of the others around them. J.B. is a purportedly gifted artist, someone they all know will go on to do great things. He does, producing at least five major shows of his work…each of which consists of large-scale paintings of the original group of friends. (And, tellingly, each exhibition pares down its subjects; the second-to-last is only Willem and Jude, recast as archetypal friends Frog and Toad from the Arnold Lobel stories. The last is called simply “Jude Alone.”) Malcolm is a gifted architect, supposedly doing great things around the world, but the only work we ever get described are the apartments and homes he designs for Willem and Jude. Andy is a deeply gifted doctor. He can heal burned skin, treat advanced infections, even amputate limbs. But his own work is so secondary that, though I might have missed it, we never even learn what his specialty is. Even Richard, who comes along later, announces that he owns three or four buildings in New York, but still seems always to be next door to Jude when Jude needs him. My point is that, for all their supposed success, we don’t see any of these people achieve anything that isn’t directly related to our central protagonists.

Put differently, this is a New York novel, but it’s a New York novel in the way Seinfeld was a New York show. It presents a New York that you can make your own, a vast city that provides you with niches where you see only the same small circle of people and you can craft your life around your preferences. To its credit, Seinfeld acknowledged that irony; love it or hate it, the notorious final episode was an indictment of the show (and of us, its viewers) for taking other people so lightly and with such detached amusement. This novel is more like Friends in that regard; it’s more a story that never feels it has to interrogate the privilege at the heart of its New York experience.

I don’t want to dismiss the whole of this too lightly. There’s no question that it explores Jude’s pain and need to self-harm in ways that go beyond what mass market fiction has done. There’s a bravery in Yanagihara’s exploration of this physical and emotional pain, and there’s a power too. (I wouldn’t finish a 700 page novel if I didn’t find something compelling in it.) And Yanagihara has the capacity to articulate rare emotions – and complex rationalizations – that challenge in interesting ways. There are many places I paused over his thoughtful summary of a character’s seemingly strange decisions.

But I can’t forgive this book entirely for its inability to challenge its own premises. For as long as it is – for all the detail we get about their dinner parties, the layout of their homes, the roster of the friends at this or that moment in the story – we hear almost nothing about the most crucial moment in their lives: the time when they first came together in college. That would mean defining the term at the heart of this, and there doesn’t seem room to do that.

So I end with my opening complaint. This is ultimately a “friendship novel,” one so wedded to its own generic premises that it never has to explain them. Tolkien has magic and Jackie Collins has love and sex; everything forms around those axioms. Yanagihara has a lot to say about suffering and about growing old, but he doesn’t show here the capacity to step even farther back and examine the premises that allow him to make those explorations.

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard from some veteran Sandman people that the series really gets going with this, volume two. For what it’s worth, on a first reading, I prefer volume one. The joy of sheer discovery there, of finding such a new vocabulary for thinking about what a traditional comic book can be like, is exhilarating. Here, interesting and haunting as it is throughout, I see Gaiman relying on some of his own tropes. I still enjoyed this a lot – and volume three is sitting by my bed waiting for me to finish up my reactions here – but I find it (for now at least) a notch below the first.

Still, there are moments here that really work. Sister death, a goth beauty, is a terrific invention (as is the hermaphroditic Desire at the end), and some of the panels with her still haunt me days later. It’s almost a throwaway, but the one where she takes the life of an infant – in a SIDS like death – is haunting. The taken soul lets out a complaint, “But it was so short,” and then we see a stricken mother realizing what’s happened. It’s a huge story told in two quick moments.

More broadly, I find the Rose story intriguing. She’s a “vortex,” a character who causes dreaming to become communal rather than individual, and, as such, she’s a threat to the “controlled chaos” of the realm of dreams. I find I like that more in concept than in execution here, though. In the stretch where we see dreaming unraveling – when the oddball denizens of Rose’s boarding house slide into one another’s dreams – it feels to me as if Gaiman is working a bit too hard. I feel a collision of clichés more than what I think the effect should be: the frightening discovery that we cannot protect our most private (and therefore most vulnerable) aspects from each other. (As an FWIW, that’s precisely the horror that Darl represents in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.)

I don’t characterize that as failure. I don’t think it’s even quite the wrong note. It’s just the right note played a little out of tune.

To a lesser degree I feel the same way about some of Gaiman’s intriguing indulgences. It’s entertaining to see Morpheus agree to meet once a century with an Englishman who’s decided he doesn’t want to die. The episode is clever and compelling, but it also feels like an interruption of the larger story. It feels like Gaiman claiming for himself the power of Morpheus. “In place of your regularly scheduled dream, I am presenting you with this.” So, yeah, it’s intriguing and probably worth doing. It also feels like an indulgence, like an author who’s so intoxicated with the new space he’s opened up that he can break with the pattern he’s implied from previous issues.

I like the way this one wraps up. Morpheus’s conversations with Desire suggest what must be the next chapter – who is Rose’s grandfather and what does that mean for our understanding of the endless as a whole. So, I’m not at all down on this series. I just feel, after the explosive joy of the first volume, that I’m settling into what promises to be a good stretch of episodes after this.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes literature turns out to have prognostication powers. Don DeLillo’s Mao II is one of the great post 9/11 novels, yet it’s written before the event. And few books made better sense of the dreamy, detached-from-reality mood of the Reagan presidency than Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, also written before Reagan’s ascent to office.

To a lesser degree, and with less literary merit than those others, Buckley’s novel anticipates our current moment of fake news and the alternative facts crisis. This one tells the story of a public relations flak for a defense contracting company who gets charged with trying to whip up anti-China hysteria in order to secure funding for an unknown massive new project. He begins his project by asserting – entirely without fact – that China is behind a recent health scare for the Dalai Lama.

And then the plan spirals out of control. It turns out the Dalai Lama is indeed quite ill, but it serves various conflicting interests to claim that China really did go after him. We get different factions of China’s governing council who accuse and counter-accuse in order to jostle for authority. We get CIA spooks who foment and then undermine the rumors all in the service of their different agendas.

When this book is at its best, it’s a whirlwind of almost plausible stories that conflict with one another. We’re never allowed to forget that the central claim of the competing stories is fundamentally false, but we’re also brought to see that such a truth hardly matters after a while. Once the story begins to circulate, it has a real-world gravity. It’s a lie that has traction, an alternative fact that causes things to happen in the real world.

This one is probably a notch weaker than Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking, but it shares the same sharp humor and deep-seeded concern with the nature of, for lack of a better word, bullshit in the heart of our culture. That one takes more joy in the outrageousness of the lies in play, but both deal with the fundamental observation that we’re shielded from being able to make thoughtful policy by the power of the bullshit around us.

I’m never quite sure of Buckley’s politics. Since he’s the son of 1960s and 1970s Number One Conservative William F., it’s hard to imagine him as a progressive (unless he’s living out a serious Oedipal experience). At the same time, he isn’t pushing for hardline matters either. He seems to see much military spending as wasteful, yet he also seems to have respect for good government. There’s no knee-jerk impulse to decry all government as too much government.

In the end, the message is mostly hopeful. Beneath the cynicism of his characters lies a real hope that we might someday get to a point where we can distinguish the lies of the unprincipled from the truths we ought to be weighing.

At this historical moment, that’s a progressive political claim. In the bigger picture, though, it seems a more philosophical – more politically neutral – notion. You don’t have to be a Social Democrat to believe that good government depends upon access to the truth. That insight, thoughtful and comic as we get it here, is timely today and, given that it’s more than four years old now, eerily prescient.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit it. I have been hard on Neil Gaiman. I’ve read just a couple of his – Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane – and I’ve liked them but. There’s always been something that kept me from joining the cult of Gaiman, something that, while I enjoyed what I was reading, made me assert (in truth) that I’m a bigger fan of his wife, rock star Amanda Palmer.

But this is where it all started, and it’s where friends have insisted I had to go before I could render a legitimate verdict on the guy.

And while I am not quite ready to declare The Sandman a masterpiece, I am certainly intrigued. It’s striking in its story, in its art, and in its tone. It’s familiar and original – uncanny in the way Freud described the term, and in the same essay he considered the original Sandman episode from E.T.A. Hoffman – and I had a hard time putting it down. This is really something. It may well turn out to be a masterpiece.

Reputation has Gaiman as one of the foundational graphic novelists that came in the wake of Maus – alongside Allan Moore and Frank Miller – and I can already see it here. What’s particularly intriguing, though, is that this isn’t beginning as a graphic novel in the sense of a larger, structured narrative. Instead, it has the shape and feel of a comic series. Each episode stands on its own in the midst of the larger story, but each is still complete in itself. I can imagine being one of those kids who waited each month to snatch up the latest issue. Even reading it all these years later at night before bed, I found myself wondering during the day what would happen next.

I don’t mean that as any sort of complaint. Graphic novels have the feel of films (which is probably why Miller and Moore have had more luck with their books being filmed) but there’s something beguiling in the wait-til-next-issue texture of this. Eisner, Spiegelman and their followers invented a new art form. Gaiman adapted an old one into a new kind of art. (Or at least that what it feels like this early into things.)

I’ll cut this review short by my wordy standards because, even though it’s getting late, I want to read the next chapter. And, of course, that’s the ultimate thumbs up.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: White Teeth

White Teeth White Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know how to categorize this novel.

It’s a pre-millenium story, culminating as it does on New Year’s Eve 1999 and concerned as it comes to be with the power of technology to reshape our very biology.

It’s a philosophical novel, one where clear ideas of East vs. West play out as ideas. We see that almost bluntly in the way a pair of identical twins get split up, one growing up in lower-middle class London and the other in late 1980s Bangladesh. (In fact, the clear layer of such interrogation reminded me often of Saul Bellow – not a bad author to be compared to, but it did sometimes make me feel as if the characters themselves were secondary to the underlying argument. I felt sometimes as if they behaved in order to further the experiment of the characters’ lives rather than as figures growing out of an organic identity.)

And, most evidently, it’s a post-colonial novel, one that interrogates what it means to be a British citizen at the dawn of the 21st Century when someone is as likely to be of Indian or African descent as to boast a posh pedigree. That’s what put it on the map and established Smith as not merely a world novelist but also a prominent public intellectual.

Across those lines, it’s clear that this is often masterfully written. Smith is as insightful here (the first of her novels I’ve read) as she is in her public musings. She can turn a phrase brilliantly, and often summed up difficult thoughts with what felt like a pen stroke. One example from late in the book comes when a couple working class characters acknowledge they are not OxBridge graduates. Our narrator observes (and I paraphrase) instead, they had both attended the School of Life. It’s just that they were there at different times. That particular gem, and countless others, came quickly and made it hard to reflect on. As I do, though, I see a wonderful irony. There is a certainty that comes in reflecting on one’s growth and education. There’s also a limit to it, though, and like the best philosophers, Smith has a skepticism about the unexamined life. A line like this isn’t preachy; it’s just a drive-by shot at certain kinds of self-satisfaction.

It's also clear that this is effectively plotted. As tangled as the story is – it’s three generations across three different families – everything ties together. That’s almost too much a virtue; the final scene brings almost every character we’ve met into a single conflict, and it feels almost more like the summation of an argument than the resolution of separate characters’ concerns. Still, you can’t help but admire the ambition behind it all.

The bottom line for me is that I did admire this at every turn. Any time I stopped to think about what I was reading, I had to marvel at the construction of the story and the ultimate efficiency of a narrative that sometimes seemed to proceed sideways (introducing us to major characters sometimes as late as halfway through the narrative) but that always wound up going in the direction of its overarching concerns.

I also often – but not always – enjoyed this novel. Smith writes with such cleverness, and she layers such finely woven backstories, that I often got happily lost in the proceedings. Other times, though, I had the opposite reaction: I’d be aware of how she’d arranged contrasts – at the way the separated twins balanced each other, at the way the early story of Archie and Samahd’s encounter with a Nazi eugenicist spoke to the later story of Marcus’s gene manipulation of a “Future Mouse,” or at the way our immigrant characters valorized a Britishness our British-born characters had lost sight of – and I’d feel a bit manipulated. In other words, the plan of the novel is so remarkable, that sometimes I found myself remarking on it rather than reacting to what I felt was the emotional heart of the piece.

That secondary, more clinical feel came often enough for me to wish myself finished with the novel more quickly than I was, but it never tempted me to put it down. Instead, I found this worked best for me when I allowed myself leisure to work through it. It functions so well as a novel of concepts that, if I did get distracted by its ideas, I could just let it all breathe. When I’d find my way back into it, Smith’s terrific prose and her vast field for exploring ideas would gradually pull me back in. And then I wasn’t merely processing but also enjoying things again.

Smith’s been on my list for years, and I certainly want to get to the more recent novels. Something tells me she’s learned from this already impressive debut, that she’s lost the sharp focus of her inquiry in favor of letting more of her characters define their own ambitions. Even if she hasn’t, though, she must still be worth reading. For all that this is engaging on so many levels, it’s also powerful for the sense that it’s a fresh perspective asserting itself in prose. This is, not just by reputation but across page after page, the emergence of a world-class novelist. It’s always impressive and usually a deep pleasure.

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