Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Middle East Separate Peace

The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
Published by Riverhead Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

Consider me underwhelmed. The Kite Runner isn't a bad book, nor is it a particularly good book. Two boys are the best of friends, until a tragic incident tears them apart. One is doomed to live his life filled with guilt and the other is doomed to be unbelievably good no matter how tragic life becomes. Basically, it's A Separate Peace set in Afghanistan and, for my money, A Separate Peace is a far superior, more nuanced work. Despite my lukewarm reaction, I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it as there are some things to like. Let's review the good and the bad in list form, shall we? 

Things that I liked:
*In terms of description, Hosseini is a gifted writer. His descriptions of people and of Afghanistan before and after the Taliban took control show the stark contrast between the more prosperous, westernized Afghanistan of the 1970's and the desperate, impoverished Afghanistan that was created by Taliban rule. I appreciate Hosseini's depiction of how some Middle Eastern countries have been crippled by Islamic extremism. For that alone, the book is worth the read.
*Okay, in hindsight, I now realize that I probably should have titled that section "Thing that I liked" because I am drawing a blank.
*Oh, hey! I thought of something else. I appreciate that it didn't have a "happily ever after" ending, which I thought it was recklessly careening toward. I thought Sohrab's reaction to his new surroundings as he coped with his past was authentic and heartbreaking.

Things that I didn't love:
*The relationship between Baba and Amir inexplicably changes after they arrive in America. While it is later revealed why Baba's attitude toward Amir changes, it seems too little too late.
*I have to admit, I didn't like the two characters I was supposed to care the most about. Amir was self-centered and petty, while Hassan was unbelievably, ridiculously, annoyingly, and cloyingly good. 
*The obvious symbolism and predictable plotting began to wear on my nerves--especially toward the end. It's similar to those intricate domino designs that someone so elaborately and painstakingly sets up to knock down, all for the sheer joy of watching one domino slap into another. Each event so obviously leads to the next that I was constantly aware of the narrative as something contrived and something clever. I could never fully suspend disbelief. In fact, I began to play a game with myself: when presented with a new plot "twist," I'd predict what it would lead to and then wait to see if I was right. I was always right.

If I had read the book before all of the hype began, something might have been salvaged. However, given how ridiculously high my expectations were, the novel can't be entirely at fault for not living up to them. I still plan to read A Thousand Splendid Suns as I've been told it far exceeds The Kite Runner, but I'm quite willing and ready to leave the story of Amir and Hassan behind me.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

So Wrong, but So True

Go the Fuck to Sleep
by Adam Mansbach
Illustrated by Ricardo Cortes
Published by Canongate Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

Even though I will vehemently deny it around people who know me, every once in a while I look at all the people who suck in the world and think I owe it to humanity to procreate. Why? Because, and I don't want to undersell this, I really think my children would be awesome. However, there are three primary reasons I have thus far refused to give in to any maternal instinct: 1) pregnancy and childbirth hold no appeal whatsoever as I don't think the whole host/parasite dynamic is that magical, 2) with my luck, my children would be cheerleaders and football players--and I just can't risk that, and 3) I would be the type of parent who would tell my kid to go the fuck to sleep--at least until they had the ability to mimic everything I said. I have proof of this because of the summer I baby-sat my 6 month old nephew. That child may never remember it, but during those two months he heard language normally only uttered by drunken sailors on leave--albeit in a sweet, sing-songy voice. And the only thing I wanted from him all summer was for him to go to frackin' sleep so I could read. That summer I learned why it's called baby-sitting (literally, that's all you can do--sit and watch the baby) and why I probably should not consider being a parent.

It's also because of that summer that I can understand the frustration of the narrator in this book. I also highly recommend listening to the audio version narrated by Samuel L. Jackson while reading. No one can throw down vulgarities like my man Samuel. He perfectly captures a loving, but tired parent's increasing tension and frustration while trying to coax a young'un into sleep until he finally reaches a Jules "And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger" Winnfield crescendo. And. It. Is. Awesome. 

What Happens in Lost Vegas (Is Dull Enough to Stay in Lost Vegas)

Lost Vegas
Written by Jim McCann
Illustrated by Janet Lee
Published by Image Comics
2 Out of 5 Stars

Lost Vegas was a limited series from Image Comics (normally a safe-bet for unusual, creative, and intellectual comics) that started with serious promise and ended with a serious letdown. 

The premise of Lost Vegas is that Roland, a gambler who stacks the deck in his favor whenever possible, is forced into indentured service on the pleasure ship, Lost Vegas, when a card game goes wrong. Lost Vegas offers all the thrills, pageantry, and adult pleasures of its earthly namesake. Roland, however, is the type of man who makes his own luck and it's not long before he cooks up a scheme to escape, along with a rag-tag band of misfits (aren't they always?), that inadvertently draws him into a high-stakes game of intergalactic politics.

The concept behind Lost Vegas isn't a new one, but its futuristic, outer-space setting had incredible potential. The characters could have been intriguing, the plot could have taken some maddening twists and turns, and the story could have ultimately proved memorable. So the problem? It told a minimum 12 issue story arc in 4 issues. The end result is a "wham, bam, thank you, m'am" experience for the reader; the canvas simply isn't big enough for character development, clever world-building, or proper pacing. In addition, there are some glaring and obvious typos in the final issue. 

The bright spot here is the lush and neon-splashed artwork by Janet Lee. While bringing the Lost Vegas in all its hedonistic, bacchanalian glory to life, her efforts aren't enough to revive the story line--its the equivalent of watching someone perform CPR on a corpse. You have to admire the attempt, but, damn, that sucker's dead.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Look Back at My (Thankfully) Brief Love of Sookie Stackhouse

Ever so briefly I was a smitten-kitten for Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series.  It wasn't long, however, before I tired of the predictable, formulaic plot of Sookie gets in trouble, handsome supernatural being comes along to help her save the day, and plot circumstances force Sookie and tall, dark, and handsome to part ways so that she will be unencumbered when embarking on her next supernatural romance.  These reviews have been left as is to document my whirlwind, yet ill-fated love of Sookie's story.

Dead Until Dark

by Charlaine Harris

Published by Ace Books

3 Out of 5 Stars

I read this book after getting hooked on HBO's True Blood. Despite having seen them in bookstores, I had avoided picking one up until then because, based upon the inexplicably cartoonish cover, I assumed they were some more young adult vampire nonsense. Clearly, that was a misguided marketing ploy.

It's hard to say what I really thought of the book because season 1 of True Blood is based on Dead Until Dark; as a result, all suspense of who did it and why was gone. However, I enjoyed the book far more than the television show. For one, the show has all of these revved up sex scenes that often seem irrelevant to the plot (I know, I know--that's kind of HBO's thing). I'm not a complaining prude here--it's just that, if they're included, they should be relevant and shouldn't seem so intent on pushing the envelope just for the sake of shock value. The book certainly isn't devoid of them, but they seem more reasonable within the context of the story line. 

Sookie is a promising character. Unlike the weak and whining Bella (who is my main source of complaint with the Twilight books), Sookie's got some spunk. And she, too, is different--a telepath, she has a power of her own that levels out the playing field a bit in her human-in-contact-with-the-supernatural situation. I also like the idea of vampires trying to mainstream into modern culture and demanding equal rights--kind of an interesting spin on things. I'm anxious to read the next novel so I can get a true feel for the series without any spoilers.

Living Dead in Dallas

3 Out of 5 Stars

Sookie Stackhouse is at it again, getting herself tangled up in all sorts of supernatural mischief involving vampires, werewolves, and now a maenad. 

These books are pure brain candy and a lot of fun with no literary pretensions. I enjoy the unique twists that stem from Harris's choice to set her vampire tales in the South (and not the South of antebellum aristocrats, but borderline trailer-trash South) and have vampires attempting to mainstream into society after being recognized as citizens by the U.S. government. 

While I enjoy the books and will continue reading the series, there were a few things that irked me enough to bump it down to a 3 star. Strangely, Sookie was one of the things that drew me to the series because she's not a helpless female so in love with a vampire that it consumes her entire sense of self. She's strong-willed and often gets herself into trouble during the daylight hours when Vampire Bill can't come to the rescue. She's resourceful and reliable. However, Harris seemed to backpedal a little bit here with Sookie. She's pouty when she doesn't get her way and seems too self-involved to really be likable (yes, yes, she's gorgeous and she knows it, we know it, the vampires know it--I don't need to hear her rhapsodize about how perky her boobs are or how her tan is holding up or about every freakin' article of clothing she puts on or takes off throughout the book). However, there are genuine flashes of humor throughout and Eric is definitely becoming a more fascinating character.

Club Dead
4 Out of 5 Stars

Finally, I'm able to give a Charlaine Harris novel a 4 star. Club Dead is the best in the series and you can tell that Harris is beginning to work through some of the weaknesses that I've noted in the first two books. One thing that Harris has done right is to realize that, once the star-crossed lovers finally get together, the audience's interest begins to wane. As an audience, we want the "will they, won't they" tension. In Dead Until Dark, we have that tension between Sookie and Bill. In Living Dead in Dallas, the two get a honeymoon period of being together for an entire novel. But that would eventually get boring, right? And so, it should be no surprise that Sookie doesn't get her happily ever after with Vampire Bill. This isn't a bad thing as it sets up all kinds of interesting relationship possibilities for our favorite wrong-side-of-the-tracks Southern telepath. Will she fall for Alcide, the werewolf, or Eric, the Viking vampire? Decisions, decisions. 

Some things that I like about the series include the working class Southern references. For instance, Sookie and Alcide actually go to a Wal-Mart at one point and Alcide, though a werewolf, has to make a living by day as a land surveyor. For the most part, the supernaturals in Harris books actually mainstream into the human world, socially, politically, and financially. They're not the independently wealthy, old money vampires of Anne Rice's world. Instead, they appear to be average people who just happen to--surprise!--be vampires, werewolves, shifters, telepaths, etc.

My one irritant: the means by which Harris severed the relationship between Sookie and Bill. It seemed so out of character for Bill. From the very first page of the novel I thought, "This is not the Vampire Bill of the first two novels." Nothing really explains this sudden shift in character, nor is his attraction to Lorena ever adequately explained. Harris whips up a short little background story told by Eric to explain this bizarre behavior away, but it just doesn't gel. Oh, well. Her only other option would have been to kill him off and I did not need another "New Moon-esque" experience of the heroine bemoaning the loss of her lover and wallowing in self-pity. At least Sookie maintains her dignity and the ending is very fitting for a spunky Southern girl with a mind of her own.

Dead to the World

3 Out of 5 Stars

After thoroughly enjoying Club Dead, this one fell short of my expectations. When Sookie finds Eric Northman (the Viking vampire who owns the vampire bar Fangtasia in modern day Shreveport, Louisiana) on the side of the road, he seems dazed and disoriented. And with good reason--he's lost his memory. Gone is the smug, sarcastic, and arrogant Eric that Sookie's always known and, in his place, is a scared and dependent vampire. And that's part of why I didn't like this as much--Eric's just not as much fun in this one. 

I won't wax profound over this novel. These books are the equivalent of cheesecake bites--they're addictive and you feel a little guilty for indulging in one because this is not great literature. In fact, the writing really is pretty terrible, but what she lacks in writing skill Harris makes up for in a vivid imagination and a savvy for knowing how to keep us interested in the life of Sookie Stackhouse.

Girls Need More Coraline, Less Barbie

by Neil Gaiman
Published by HarperCollins
4 Out of 5 Stars

Creepy, quirky, and all things to be expected of a Gaiman novel, this is one of those books that I wish had been available to me as a young 10 to 12 year old when all I had to fall back on was the Nancy Drew series. There was certainly nothing this twisted and delightfully dark on the shelves of the school library. As a heroine, Coraline is a likable, brave girl who takes matters into her own hands when her parents are kidnapped by a dark force that should scare her shitless. Young girls, force-fed Barbie worship and Twilight-y longing for an undead mate, need books like these because, frankly, that much exposure to all things pink and sparkly eventually gets boring. I also like that Gaiman sidesteps the whole "it was just a dream" scenario and ends with enough evidence that Coraline's experience was just what it was--a daunting quest undertaken by an undaunted little girl.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Triple Dog Dare

Darker Than Amber
by John D. MacDonald
Published by Fawcett Crest
1 Out of 5 Stars

Holy shit snacks. I can't believe I read the whole thing.

First off, let's get one thing straight. Reading this was a dare. All parties involved, including myself, knew I would most likely despise this book and find it a vile-coated offering with a noxious nougat center. I started to shelve this bad boy as "book rape" until I remembered that I had willingly agreed to subject myself to this slow torture and I didn't even have to be double dog dared. I'm that kid from A Christmas Story who willingly licks the frozen flag pole just because someone thinks I won't. I may need to reassess my response to challenges after this. Oh, and I should also state that there are likely to be spoilers.

In Darker Than Amber, Travis McGee and his whip smart buddy Meyer are fishing under a bridge in the middle of the night when somebody drops a perfectly good whore over the bridge (people are so wasteful--she had lots of good tricks left in her), chained to a cement block. McGee rescues her and thus stumbles upon a prostitution ring that has a habit of lovin' up and then killing its johns by dumping them off cruise liners. McGee decides this must end because whoring is wrong (*cough* hypocrite*cough*) and oh, yeah, one of the prostitutes has $32,000 stashed somewhere that's his if he can find it. 

So, without further adieu, let the hatin' begin:

A) You know, it's actually kind of hard to truly hate this book because it's so dated it reads almost as a parody of itself. Every man in here is all hopped up on testosterone and adrenaline, while all of the women are highly sexualized nymphettes. Men are meant for fighting and women are meant for screwing after the fighting is done. The only thing differentiating the men is whether or not there's a brain behind the brawn and athletic prowess. The only thing that differentiates the women is cup size and whether or not you will have to leave money on the nightstand after the screwing is done. 

B) From what I gather, Travis McGee is a beloved literary figure. Well, I can certainly see why. Nothing is more lovable than a misogynistic sea cock (which I shall forever think of him as after he describes having a cleverly hidden stash in the boat's sea cock and I thought, "No, sir, you are the sea cock.") One might argue that, no, McGee doesn't hate women--look at how many women have had the exquisite and life changing opportunity to experience his magical sea cock. One would be a dumb ass to argue such. Sleeping with women doesn't equate respecting women. At one point, Meyer tells McGee, "You like women as people. You do not think of them as objects placed here by a benign providence for your use and pleasure." To which I say, bull shit. I don't like the cut of that gibberish. All he does is objectify them. After a lengthy description of their sexual attributes--after every swell of breast has been noted, after every curve of hip has been cataloged  after every ass has been analyzed--he immediately culls these potential sexual conquests into one of two categories: worthy of the sea cock and not worthy of the sea cock. Depending upon to which group a woman belongs, she can expect to be called "kitten," "pussycat," "honey," "broad," "punchboard," "slut," "whore," or "bitch." I detect a strong whiff of misogyny in the air.

C.a) But at least McGee uses his sexual prowess for good sometimes. In the beginning of the novel, he regales us with the story of Vidge, a housewife who worries that she has become "frigid" after her domineering husband has made her doubt her own sexuality. Poor Vidge. She'll never enjoy sex again. Paging Dr. Cock! Dr. Sea Cock! Oh, McGee has the cure for what ails her. He takes her "swimming, fishing, beachcombing, skindiving" and then takes her pants off after he's tired her out to the point of least resistance (life was so much tougher before roofies) and reminds her of why it's good to be a woman. McGee found some "pleasure in the missionary work"--pun intended?--but it's something of a sacrifice because "dealing at close range with a batch of acquired neuroses can make your ears ring for a week." 

C.b) What's good for the gander apparently isn't good for the goose. Despite his admission that he's done his fair share of sleeping around, McGee seems to think that too much sex can ruin a good woman. From the philosophical musings of McGee: "I have the feeling there is some mysterious quota, which varies with each woman. And whether she gives herself or sells herself, once she reaches her own number, once X pairs of hungry hands have been clamped tightly upon her rounded undersides, she suffers a sea change wherein her juices alter from honey to acid, her eyes change to glass, her heart becomes a stone, and her mouth a windy cave from whence, with each moisturous gasping, comes a tiny stink of death." Right. So we women apparently die a little each time we sleep with someone new. But maybe that's because our morals have been compromised, whereas, when McGee shags nasty, he's just out there doing the Lord's work amongst the frigid masses. What an asshat. 

C.c) Sleeping with hundreds of women? Living on a houseboat? Specializing in frigidity reduction therapy? Does anyone else see a connection between Travis McGee and Leon "The Ladies Man" Phelps? I fully expected McGee to proposition a woman with the old, "Hey, sweet thang. Can I buy you a fish sandwich?"

D) After saving Vangie (the aforementioned whore), McGee seems to have respect for her intelligence and is actually proud of her refusal to scream after being tossed to her death. However, after a second and more successful attempt is made to kill Vangie, McGee seems to suffer from "When they're dead, they're just hookers!" syndrome. Suddenly, he begins rhapsodizing about how "she was a cheap, sloppy, greedy slut" and philosophically wondering, "Wasn't the world maybe just a little bit better off minus one slut?" This inconsistency in character continued throughout the novel and really made me dislike McGee because I felt I could never really get a firm hold on the character. Is he meant to be a likable scofflaw, a salty Casanova, a greedy knight in somewhat tarnished armor? And this isn't the result of complexity of character. What he say or does at one point in the novel is often at complete odds with something he says or does at another point in the novel. If anything, I'd say he suffers from a lack of definition and is often as 2 dimensional as the female characters.

E) I was baffled by the whole plan to bring down the prostitution ring in the end. It seems like Meyer and McGee go to some ridiculously complicated lengths when simpler ones would have sufficed. Like the whole hiring an actress to play Vangie bit or the buying a doll and making it look like Vangie to freak out her killer. Yeah, because nothing messes with the mind of a stone cold killer like the old Madame Alexander porcelain doll scheme. Those dolls are creepy as shit.

After finishing this book and giving an audible sigh of relief, I noticed the promo for the next book: "Now that you've finished this Travis McGee adventure, we bet you can't wait for another exciting case. To satisfy your craving, please turn the page . . . " In case you're wondering, I did not turn the page as this is where I and Travis "Sea Cock" McGee shall forever part ways.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Haunting Look at a Brutal Crime

In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote
Published by First Vintage International
4 Out of 5 Stars

In 1959, four members of the Clutter family (Herbert, the father; Bonnie, the mother; Nancy, the popular teenage daughter; and Kenyon, the reserved and quiet son) were tied up in separate rooms of their own home and shot in the head. All of this took place in the Mayberry-esque town of Holcomb, Kansas (a poster child for "things like that don't happen here"), and terrified the local residents. There was little evidence, no clear motive, and a good chance that those responsible would never be apprehended. Once the perpetrators of this violent crime were captured, it was revealed that four people were brutally murdered for roughly $40, a pair of binoculars, and a radio. 

In Cold Blood blends the non-fiction story of the Clutter family murders and the subsequent manhunt for Perry Smith and Richard Hickock with fictional touches to create what Capote termed the "non-fiction novel." And what he creates here is beautiful and masterful: the vivid imagery, the skillful building of suspense, and the complexity with which the characters are rendered are all nothing short of superb. 

What impresses me the most is that Capote is able to build tension in a book where the reader knows the narrative--and he does it not only in the build-up to the murders, but also time and again as Smith and Hickock embark on a road trip filled with close calls and crime sprees. It is also admirable that details of the murder itself are not gratuitous; the material is not treated as tabloid fodder and does not seek to sensationalize or linger upon the gruesome. The Clutters are never reduced to a body count; Capote brings them to life in the opening chapters so that the reader is always keenly aware that these were people with dreams and frailties, friends and family.

To that end, he also refuses to paint the murderers with broad brushstrokes. There's no doubt that Smith and Hickock had criminal, even sociopathic tendencies (particularly in the case of Smith). However, Capote reminds us that they, too, were human and in many ways shaped by violent backgrounds and abusive childhoods (again, primarily in his depiction of Smith). While not absolving them of the crime, his portrayal does force us to look at the human behind the act and not just the act itself. 

The only complaint I have is not a fault of the novel; in fact, it's more likely a testament to how effective the overall work is. Capote made me feel for the characters too well and constantly being aware of its roots in reality made for a depressing read. For all of its strengths, I was certainly glad to reach the end of this one.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Epic Battle Between Man and Nature

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
Published by Scribner
4 Out of 5 Stars

While this is not my favorite Hemingway book, I enjoyed it nonetheless. The plot structure is simple: just look at the title and there you have it. What is impressive is what Hemingway does with the plot. As always, Hemingway is a master of capturing the natural world in his often poetic prose. 

In the figure of Santiago, you have the Hemingway code lived to its fullest. It's the knight attempting to slay the dragon, the matador in the bull ring, the big game hunter in Africa. In challenging nature and respecting it, the old man and his fish are locked in the most classic of Hemingway battles--it's the will of man versus nature and, whoever wins, the outcome is always fair because they are equally matched in strength and will. 

Many critics refer to Santiago as a Christ figure and while there are undeniably many echoes of the story of Christ within the text, I see Santiago as representative of something finer and nobler that transcends religion. In his refusal to break down, give into despair, or feel pity for his situation, Santiago is the epitome of true faith (with or without any allegiance to Christianity). It's a simple story, but offers the reader much to think about without lapsing into the didactic. If you read the book, I also strongly recommend that you follow it by reading The Ancient Mariner chapter in Carlos Baker's Hemingway: The Writer as Artist

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Might Be Contagious for the Right Audience

by Pete Hautman
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
3 Out of 5 Stars

My immediate thought after finishing Rash: Huh. For it is a peculiar novel. And I'm still not entirely sure what to say about it. I enjoyed it, but didn't love it. However, I think its target audience would love it. That audience is teen and preteen boys, and heaven (aka Barnes and Noble) knows there aren't enough books out there for them. 

The novel is set in the not too distant future of the United States, which is now known as the USSA (United Safer States of America). In this dystopian-lite future, anything that is dangerous to one's safety has been outlawed: no drinking, no smoking, no contact sports, no fast food, no foul language. Children can't play outside without the appropriate safety gear. Most of the populace is taking a cocktail of drugs to maintain their health and well-being (including Levulor, which dampens the instinct toward anger). The reason for the emphasis on safety is that it has significantly increased the lifespan of the average human. The trade-off is that one really can't enjoy that extra-long life. (And if you think this future is a ridiculous hypothesis, look at national, state, and city legislation attempting to yank toys out of Happy Meals, make walking and using an electronic device illegal, implement Body Mass Index requirements at public schools, etc.)

In this society, even the most minor of infractions can be a criminal offense that sends you to a prison work farm. These work farms perform the potentially "dangerous" (by this futuristic society's standards) jobs no one else wants to do. They produce goods and produce, and they also maintain the nation's infrastructure. Bo Marsten's famously short-tempered family knows this first hand: his father (convicted of road rage) works at a shrimp farm and his brother works on a road crew. It's only a matter of time before Bo's own temper gets the better of him and he's sent to a production facility in the arctic that is run by a football fanatic who arranges illegal sporting events for his own entertainment. Because of Bo's ability to run faster than anyone else, it isn't long before he's recruited to the team and learns first hand what pain really feels like.

There are a lot of draws here for teenage boys: very short chapters, rapid fire pacing, frequent changes in topic (you'd almost think Hautman himself is ADD as frequently as events and settings change), a futuristic society whose ridiculousness makes it simultaneously frightening and funny, and, of course, football. 

A Frightening Future

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
Published by Nan A. Talese
4 Out of 5 Stars

I've read a few of Margaret Atwood's poems and short stories, but this is my first official Atwood novel (I now imagine a collective gasp from all the hardcore The Handmaid's Tale fans . . . not to worry, that's on my reading list as I've already procured a copy). I've always heard people rave about how wonderful Atwood is and I can now say that I finally know what all the fuss is about. 

A dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake is set in a not-so-distant apocalyptic future in which mankind has been eradicated by the jealousy of one man, Crake. We soon learn that Crake was the childhood best friend of the narrator, Jimmy (aka Snowman). While I don't want to give too much away regarding the how and why of this catastrophic event, it is Jimmy's fate to live on so that he can care for the "Crakers," a race of genetically altered human beings that have been modified by Crake to be docile herbivores, existing like animals in a natural habitat and never plagued by petty human concerns. 

For all the inventiveness of Atwood's imagined future (video games, the increasing power of the Internet, genetic splicing, biotechnology, etc.), this is not so much a story about the end of humanity as it is a story about Jimmy, his life and the destructive love that brought about his castaway status in a future he couldn't have imagined. Atwood doesn't offer answers and is never didactic--she simply tells a story and that story speaks volumes about what may be the future of humanity.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Legacy of Violence

The Son
by Philipp Meyer
Published by Ecco
4 Out of 5 Stars

An epic tale of family set in a state big enough to bear the weight of legend, The Son follows three generations of the powerful McCullough family of Texas: "Colonel" Eli McCullough, the rough and tumble patriarch of the family, whose past includes being a Comanche captive and assimilated tribal member, Texas Ranger, Civil War Confederate, and Texas land baron; his son, Peter, a gentle soul tied to the land, but whose conscience weighs on him after his family's participation in the slaughter of their Mexican neighbors and subsequent land grab; and Jeannie McCullough, the granddaughter of Peter, who shuns society's gender defined role to become the family's first powerful matriarch in the wake of the Texas oil boom. Their stories are inextricably bound to the violent birth and coming of age of Texas. 

Through his exploration of the chains of familial duty and legacy, Meyer is depicting more than just the turbulent years of our country's pioneering past. Texas serves as a microcosm through which Meyer skillfully explores the cyclical rise and fall of empire: the success of a tribe or a country or a family is written in the blood of another, one generation crashes into the next, a king must fall before "the son" can take his place. And yet it's more than that--when men build empires, they stare into the abyss of their own mortality and try to leave their mark on a world and a history so vast, so infinite that even the most significant of lives will eventually be consumed and forgotten. Passing the torch to the next generation becomes the only form of immortality one can hope for. But what happens when the next generation wants to build their own legacy, or can't make peace with the sins committed in their family's past? This is particularly evident in the chapters following Peter McCullough, a man defined by a guilt that's not his own, and also in the chapters about Jeannie McCullough, a woman who has to blaze her own trail to keep the family name alive.

The chapters about Eli McCullough are the most engrossing and Meyer doesn't pick sides in presenting the ensuing conflicts between pioneers and the Native Americans. There is no noble savage here; the Comanche are capable of stomach-churning violence (raping and mutilating Eli's mother and sister before his eyes, torturing enemies in their camp, raping and brutalizing captives), but they are also compassionate and funny in their relationships with one another. The same is true of the pioneers--engaging in unspeakable acts of cruelty against the Comanche and other tribes, they are not monsters entire. Instead, both sides are all human with "Something of the reptile in us yet, the caveman's allegiance to the spear." The fight for land and dominance was not unique to the whites as it is ingrained in human culture to take from those who are different and whose ways one does not understand. 

An overall excellent novel, the only reason I'm giving it a 4 out of 5 star is because it is grim reading, which made me long for a bit of Larry McMurtry's ability to balance grim reality with the humor in life. Also, I found the presentation of the three differing narratives perplexing. The Eli and Peter chapters are told in first person, while Jeannie's are told in third (which may be to show her struggle for "voice"). Eli's chapters are originally presented as the result of an interview done at the end of his life, but do not read as an interview. Peter's chapters are told in the form of a diary, which reads like no diary ever kept by anyone in human existence. Instead, they read just like novel narrative, continuing for pages with exact dialogue and lengthy descriptions with little to designate them as diary entries other than the occasional insertion of a date. These conventions, the interview and the diary, seemed unnecessary and were at times off-putting. 

There was little to differentiate the voices of Eli, Peter, and Jeannie, but maybe that's the point--that theirs is the voice of history relating a story that will be told time and time again with no one learning its lessons.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Bleak Utopia

by Kurt Vonnegut
Published by Random House Publishing Group
3 Out of 5 Stars

As a fan of sarcasm, cynicism, pessimism, and nihilism (yup, I'm fun at parties), as well as an absurdist plot, I'm a smitten-kitten when it comes to Vonnegut. However, I'm not in love with Galapagos. In deep like? Yes, but, for me, the gold standard when it comes to Vonnegut is Cat's Cradle, followed by Mother Night. I did, however, like Galapagos better than Slaughterhouse-Five.

Galapagos is set one million years after 1986, when the world as we know it ended and, through a series of fluke events, one man and several women are stranded on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos. The end of civilization was brought about by mankind's "big brains" (although not necessarily by man himself, as man is fundamentally good--just led astray by his inability to control his thoughts and his imagination), along with the help of a bacteria that leaves all the women of the world sterile. However, on the secluded island of Santa Rosalia, the female castaways still young enough to produce are spared and, with an unwilling sire and a little help from a high school biology teacher, they are all impregnated. Thus, life continues to flourish on Santa Rosalia. Not only that, but after millions of years, mankind has evolved so that they have smaller brains, flippers for hands, and a lifespan of 30 years (at which point we're easy prey for sharks and killer whales). Welcome to utopia! With our Darwinian advancements, we no longer have the ability to lie, cheat, steal, etc. We also lack the capacity for simple thought or creativity of any kind. (Admittedly, it's a shit utopia, as far as utopias go, and I myself would gladly just swim out to meet the sharks.)

If you think I've just divulged several plot spoilers, I haven't. You learn all this at the beginning and the rest of the novel circles itself like a dog chasing its tail as these events are told over and over again, but new details are added with each retelling. This structure could become repetitive for some readers, but didn't really bother me. As with most Vonnegut works, fragmented and nonlinear narrative is to be expected, as is the theme of "people are dumb asses." However, there is hope in this cautionary tale--if we learn to rein in our big brains, then maybe we'll be spared the evolutionary chain of events that lead to the utopian existence of lounging around on a beach somewhere, clapping our flippers together while chewing seaweed cud and hoping for some seal-like lovin' before the sharks come for us. And I think that's a lesson we can all learn from, don't you?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Going Down the Rabbit Hole in Vietnam

Going After Cacciato
by Tim O'Brien
Published by Broadway/Crown Publishing Group
4 Out of 5 Stars

This book is not for everyone. If you have trouble suspending disbelief or issues with magical realism, walk away now or read O'Brien's The Things They Carried. However, if you can just sit back and enjoy the ride as a master storyteller blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in such a way that there are no hard and fast truths (which is the point in most of O'Brien work), then you will most likely enjoy the experience. Going After Cacciato is less accessible than The Things They Carried because trying to discern the truth of what happens when Cacciato, a young soldier in Vietnam, chooses to go AWOL and walk all the way to Paris is difficult at best. A unit is dispatched to hunt Cacciato down, but encounters a number of bizarre twists and turns along the way (think Catch-22 meets Alice in Wonderland). 

The narrative is split into three distinct time periods and told from the point of view of Paul Berlin. These distinct narratives focus on Berlin's first few months in the war, the hunt for Cacciato, and one night after the hunt for Cacciato is over (this occurs while Berlin is on night watch and thinking back to the hunt for Cacciato). The problem with making sense of the narrative comes from Paul Berlin himself--a young soldier ill-equipped to deal with the violence and atrocity of war, he uses his imagination to while away the tedious hours, as well as to re-create traumatic events with which he's not ready to cope. The point, however, is not what actually happens to Cacciato (in fact, upon a second reading, I found myself questioning the conclusion I came to after reading it for the first time), but how Berlin wisely or unwisely chooses to deal with events that are beyond his ability to control.

A Call to Action

The Life You Can Save
by Peter Singer
Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks
4 Out of 5 Stars

I chose to read Singer's book because I've often wanted to do more for the world's poor, but I want to do so in an informed way and see to it that my money is going to be used in a meaningful way that does not have politically or religiously motivated strings attached. I've tried to research charities before, but quickly became frustrated with the the lack of solid evidence as to their efficacy that even the most well-known charities couldn't (or wouldn't) provide. So I was already sold on the idea of giving to those in Third World countries, but didn't really know how to do so. I hoped Singer's book would offer me some practical advice as to which organizations to give to and some information regarding the difference these organizations are making. 

The first part of the book is dedicated to making the philosophical case for our responsibility as a wealthy, industrialized nation to give to help end worldwide poverty. This part of the book I would give more of a 3 star rating, namely because this was a part of the book that I didn't really need. I was already convinced; I just wanted to know how. However, there are some interesting tidbits that explain our psychological and social aversion to giving, which helps explain why so many of us can turn a blind eye to the world's poor. For example, if we're on our way to work and a small child is drowning in a nearby lake, almost all of us would rush out to save the child. We wouldn't worry about being late to work or about risking our own life; we would simply act because we know a child's life is in danger. And yet 1 in 5 children living in Third World countries die before the age of 5. We know that, but statistics don't move us to act in the same way witnessing one particular child whose face we can see and whose voice we can hear can. 

An argument that I found compelling in this part of the book is his case against the "give close to home" idea. While Singer is not advocating that we do nothing for those in our community (indeed, he does argue that we need to be more involved in our communities and give more of our time and resources to volunteering), he does argue that there is a difference between what poor in America looks like and what poor in Ethiopia, Nepal, or the Congo looks like. Whereas 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 in impoverished countries, 1 in 100 children die of poverty in the U.S. (and, yes, that is definitely too much, but it does show where our money can do the most good). The American poor still have access to education, health care, and social services. 3/4 of their households have a car, air conditioning, and a VCR or DVD player. 97% of them own a color TV. American poverty has its own set of challenges and setbacks, but, as Singer points out, it's not necessarily the kind of poverty that kills as viciously and indiscriminately as it does in the Third World.

The last part of the book is the part that I found most effective for my purposes and, for those of you who are like me and just want some practical advice on how and to whom to give, you might want to skip ahead to this part of the book or you may just want to visit, a website that reviews the effectiveness of various charities and advises as to which ones are efficiently making a true, quantifiable difference in the lives of the poor. I've already chosen two charities that I'll be giving to: The Fistula Foundation and The Small Enterprise Foundation.

What I found interesting about many of the negative reviews is that the number one reason cited for disliking the book was "it made me feel guilty about not doing more." Well, no shit, Sherlock. And, frankly, you should. I should. We all should. 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day--the Starbucks coffee I drank while reading this is approximately someone's salary for 4 days of work. If I have to skip the occasional Caramel Macchiato or bottled water or pair of shoes to help save a life, it's hardly a sacrifice on my part considering what's at stake.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Doesn't Deliver

The Heroines
by Eileen Favorite
Published by Scribner Book Company
1 Out of 5 Stars

Sometimes a clever conceit should remain just that--a conceit. Because no matter how you try to develop it, it will never be as as wonderful as the idea itself. Trying to build upon it and give it complexity strips it of its fanciful "What if?" brilliance and plummets it back to earth. And so we have The Heroines, a novel built around one of the most wonderful ideas I've ever encountered--what if the heroines from famous novels needed a respite from the tragedies of their own storylines--and yet promptly clustermugs the whole thing.

Basically, I feel as though I was sold a false bill of goods. The novel purports to be about a bed and breakfast that attracts the heroines of famous novels. Deirdre of the Sorrows, Franny Glass, Daisy Buchanan, Anna Karenina, Hester Prynne, and Catherine Earnshaw have all signed the guest book and checked in for a few days of freedom from the misery of their lives. This is what I wanted to read about--how the heroines come to be at the bed and breakfast and how they interact with a modern world. I expected quirky, witty, and humorous. What I got was dark, disjointed, and ordinary. Instead of focusing on the heroines (who are little more than footnotes), the novel focuses on Anne-Marie Entwhistle and her daughter, Penny. Anne-Marie and Penny run the bed and breakfast and, unfortunately, the novel chooses to focus on their problematic relationship as a result of Penny's coming of age. WTF? Scarlett O'Hara's pounding on the door and instead of focusing on that, a pedestrian mother/daughter conflict is the subject of the book? And that is, in essence, the root source of my disappointment with the book. When heroines do (very briefly) make an appearance, they are flat, one-dimensional versions of their colorful, complex selves. Hester sets about sewing an A on the front of her dress and throwing just enough "thou" into her dialogue to make her seem authentic; Scarlett wakes in the middle of the night to pull down the curtains (for dressmaking purposes, of course) and try to steal the sweet potatoes; Deirdre constantly weeps. They read as caricatures of themselves.

As for the plot, Penny is rebelling by going out into the nearby woods despite her mother's rule against doing so. While there she meets and falls in lust with the Irish King of Ulster, Connor (better known as Conchobar in the original Deirdre mythology), who has followed Deirdre into our time. Through a muddled turn of events, Penny is locked up in a psych ward and we have to read about her "it's-all-so-unfair!" experiences there. After finally breaking free, Penny returns to the woods with Connor, during which some awkward sexual awakening occurs and Penny is going through withdrawal from the meds given to her in the psych ward. She spends her days smoking pot while Connor hunts deer and builds huts. Aaannnnndddddd that's pretty much it. Basically, there's just enough inexplicable tragedy and unresolved longing in Penny's life to make one wonder if Penny is herself a heroine (a thought which Penny also considers). 

Then we have a peculiar shift in narrative and we go back in time to when Penny's mother was a young woman. A point of contention between Penny and her mother has always been the void that is Penny's father. Penny knows that her mother became pregnant out of wedlock, decided to keep the baby against the wishes of her parents, and that her father died in a car accident. Penny's mom is mum on the details of who Penny's father was and what, exactly, was the nature of their relationship. This part of the narrative answers all of the questions Penny has regarding her father. I won't reveal any more here as to do so would be to spoil the ending, but this story line was the best in the book and took about 10-15 pages. The payoff was not worth the other 200+ pages through which I had to drag myself.

The story could have been saved if the characters had been more likable, the heroines had made more frequent (and more satisfying) appearances, or if the story hadn't been so self-aware of how clever it was being with all of its metaphysical musings on the nature of "heroines" and storytelling itself. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Scores One for the Bloodsuckers!

I, Vampire:  Tainted Love
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Illustrated by Andrea Sorrentino
Published by DC Comics
4 Out of 5 Stars

I, Vampire is part of DC's The New 52 and is a relaunch of the storyline that ran in the 1980's. I know nothing about the original series, so you'll find no complaints here about how this updated version matches up against the original because I have no idea. What you will find is a heap load of thanks to DC Comics for reclaiming the vampire from a swooning tween audience. Between I, Vampire and American Vampire (published by DC's Vertigo), vampires that hack, slash, bite, and kill have been returned to us. Blessed be the comic book gods.

Vampire Andrew Bennett made a serious miscalculation when he turned his lover, Mary. He apparently thought they would while away eternity together, needing no one but each other . . . and she thought they would raise a vampire army and conquer the world. It's not too long before Mary tires of Andrew's kinder, gentler vampire and decides to raise hell on her own. Taking the name Mary, Queen of Blood, she sets about gathering her minions (note to self: must get minions) and prepares to slaughter humanity. Of course, Andrew is the only one who can stop her. Ain't love grand? 

I really enjoyed the first few issues of the series, especially the guest appearances by Batman and John Constantine, but the final issue in the Tainted Love story arc seemed rushed, as though they were just anxious to establish Andrew's connection to Justice League Dark. (I also read this in the issue format, not the collected volume, and it really pisses me off when part of the story appears in another comic book title; apparently, some pretty significant chunks of the story appear in Justice League Dark).

Particularly strong here is the artwork. Mary gracefully floats through the air, part mist and part beautiful, tattooed monster. Andrew shifts into various shapes, including a particularly horrifying werewolf. Andrea Sorrentino creates a dark, menacing world where characters appear in shadow and slink through the night, covered in blood.