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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