Thursday, June 26, 2014

Time Keeps On Slipping Into the Future

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Penguin Books
3 1/2 Stars Out of 5 Stars

You know that experience when you learn something new and only a few days later, references to it start popping up in the most unexpected of places: a television program, a book you're reading, a song on the radio, a friend mentions it in conversation? It's like the universe made certain you knew about this fact or concept because there was fixing to be a pop quiz over it and you needed to be ready. It's these types of connections and coincidences that make up A Tale for the Time Being. While it at first seems as though the novel is filled with sometimes irrelevant facts and digressions, just hang in there--Ruth Ozeki weaves them all together in a tale that serves as a metaphor for how writing and reading, or the interaction between writer and reader, can help us see ourselves in the life of another and ultimately save us from isolation and existential angst.

A Tale for the Time Being alternates between two women who, at first, seem very different: Ruth, a writer living on a small Canadian island, and Nao, a teenager living in Japan. When Ruth finds Nao's diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, their worlds defy time and space to collide in unexpected ways. The diary, however, is far more serious and sophisticated than its cartoonish packaging might lead one to believe. Written inside of a "hacked" copy of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (Nao purchases it in a craft shop in Tokyo that takes old books, guts them, and inserts new paper), Nao directly addresses her unknown reader as one would a close confidant and introduces herself as a time being, one who is aware of and chooses to exist in every moment in time, though it is becoming more and more difficult for her to do so. While reading the diary, Ruth becomes obsessed with finding the girl--at first for fear that Nao may have been a victim of the 2011 tsunami, but later for fear that she is a danger to herself. The diary allows us to experience Nao's unique voice as she relates her inability to fit into her new culture, her father's descent into depression after losing his job in the U.S., and the brutal, horrific bullying she endures at the hands of her classmates and teachers. As her diary goes on, the faux title begins to prove true: Nao is becoming more lost as time goes on. 

As Ruth reads the diary and desperately searches for Nao, we learn about her life as well and find that the two women overlap in surprising ways: both are Japanese-Americans, both are transplants to a place and culture not their own, both have somewhat strained relationships with the men in their lives, both have strong connections to a revered female elder, both feel a failed sense to accomplish what they want in their writing, both have an expatriate's experience of 9/11, both worry about losing time. Nao's name often functions as a pun on the word "Now," leading to overlapping meanings as to what both Ruth and Nao, feeling stuck in time, may really be searching for--hope for a "now" in which they can fully exist without being immobilized by fear, worry, or sorrow. 

While I enjoyed the book, I can't say that I loved it. Ozeki's meditations on time and existence are beautifully rendered, but sometimes difficult to understand as they rely upon the reader to retain information from previous chapters when they are echoed in later events. There is so much here and so much that I don't fully comprehend. For not only is this a story about relationships, but it's also one about the concept of time, especially as it relates to zen and quantum physics. Ozeki plays with the idea of parallel universes, of time and existence as nonlinear. While I was able to keep up with the general idea, I still feel like there's a whole layer of meaning that I kept grasping for without success. This is a book that I think I could really love upon a second or third reading as I think more and more tumblers would fall into place and allow me to really unlock the full depth of meaning here.

Surprisingly, though, I had the opposite reaction to many readers in that I often found the Ruth chapters more compelling than the Nao chapters. Nao's diary doesn't really read like a diary; instead it reads like a first person narrative. And, yeah, okay, a diary is a first person narrative, but it usually doesn't read like a novel as it's more bare bones in terms of physical details, focusing more on the emotional inner life of its writer. Nao's voice also reads more like that of an adult; for a teenager, she is very precocious and while the details of her life as an adolescent are rendered authentically, she herself doesn't sound much like a teen. In Ruth, Ozeki excels at capturing the subtle seismic shifts in a marriage and, if one pays close attention, there's much about Ruth that makes her the perfect recipient for Nao's diary. I also enjoyed the tension created by whether or not Ruth will be successful in her search for Nao--especially since the Nao she is looking for is one of the past and may or may not exist in the present, regardless of whether or not she can be physically found.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Should Come With a Free Bottle of Purell

The Things That Keep Us Here
by Carla Buckley
Published by Delacorte Press
3 Out of 5 Stars

The Things That Keep Us Here explores what would happen to an average American family in the event of a worldwide pandemic and, in capturing the rapidly deteriorating conditions, the perpetual paranoia, and the tedium of isolation while cut off from all forms of communication, it largely succeeds. For days after reading it, I found myself making mental checklists. Do we have enough candles? Check. Do we have enough canned goods? Check. Do we have enough hand sanitizer? Check. Do we have enough paper books to wait out the pandemic? F'ing A, check. As a germaphobe, I started washing my hands like I was scrubbing in for surgery and wiping down the shopping cart with an attention to detail that has the Wal-Mart door greeter eyeing me with both suspicion and sympathy. During the "peace be with you" handshake at church, all I can think of is "flu be with you," "flu be with you." This book has not been good for my psyche.

But is it a good book? I guess the best way to answer that is with the time-tested pros and cons list!

What I Liked 
*For the most part, Buckley creates believable characters and family relationships. The growing tension between the daughters, between the parents, between the parents and the daughters as day after day passes in boredom and as life regresses to a focus on the basics of survival is realistically portrayed. 
*The rapid breakdown of city, state and national services is thought provoking. I think many people wonder if they personally are prepared for such a disaster, but what about the institutions (government and commercial) we rely on daily? After all, we've seen the response to events like Katrina. What if we faced a pandemic that wiped out nearly half of the country's population? That's some pretty chilling stuff.
*Ann's response to taking in a possibly infected baby and putting her own children at risk presents the moral dilemmas one would likely face in such an event. At what point does caring for one's own family trump one's compassion for others? 
*Unlike many pandemic thrillers, it doesn't focus on the science and the race to find a vaccine. Seeing a real family cope felt like a new twist for the genre.

What I Did Not Like 
*While Buckley does realistically capture the minutiae of daily life in such a scenario, I'd be lying if I said it always made for riveting reading. A good portion of the book reads like one really long snow break. Also, Buckley's writing is serviceable, but a stylist she is not.
*Much of the book is contrived in a way that is unnecessary. When the book begins, Ann and Peter Brooks have been separated for a year. We learn (very early on--this isn't spoiler territory) their marriage has become increasingly unhappy after the death of their infant son. Of course, the pandemic brings Peter back home. This smacks of Hallmark Hall of Fame "will disaster bring them back together again?" territory. When Peter arrives, he has a beautiful young foreign exchange student, Shazia, in tow. Ann is forced to wonder whether or not this is Peter's new lover, but graciously allows Shazia to stay with her newly reconstituted family. Buckley was probably angling for a subplot that would help move the story forward since writing about realistic day to day life (keeping the house warm, keeping the kids fed, keeping the laundry done, etc.) could become monotonous. However, these forced relationship dynamics are distracting and drain away some of the tension and suspense. 
*Also distracting is the constant veiled references to what happened to their baby. The story of how and why the child died is purposely withheld for no clear reason other than to give a "surprise" twist at the end that didn't contribute to the family's experience during the pandemic and lacked any kind of emotional payoff.
*Peter is a virologist. Why? Other than finding a flock of dead birds in the beginning and occasionally checking in with his colleagues whenever the power comes back on to read up on whether or not a vaccine is available, his job has no bearing on the outcome of the novel. It particularly bothered me that someone whose job is to study viruses would make one of the most ridiculous decisions in the novel.*(see below for spoiler)

In the end, it's fair to say that this is just an okay book. WhileThe Things That Keep Us Here certainly causes some reflection and brings a human element to the often statistical hypotheticals about the impact of a pandemic, honestly, a newspaper or magazine article about this subject triggers the same level of fear and unease within me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've typed the word "pandemic" so many times that I have an overwhelming urge to go wash my hands.


*After becoming exposed to the virus, Peter protects his family by staying in the garage for 48 hours (the incubation time for the flu). But that's it--48 hours. The minute that 48 hours is up, he's back in the house, hugging everyone and engaging the missus in a late night laundry room "whew, can't believe I just cheated death" shag-a-thon. Any parent, with or without a virologist's knowledge, probably would have given it one more day just to play it safe. But, no, the virologist doesn't even think about the damn virus mutating and Peter's joyous return home from the garage turns into a potential Oprah-esque "You get a virus! And you get a virus! And you get a virus!" scenario. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doesn't Find New Land

The Pilgrims
by Will Elliott
Published by Tor
2 Out of 5 Stars

**I received a free copy of The Pilgrims from Tor in exchange for an honest review.**

Ah, the fantasy quest novel. Been a while since we've bumped into each other, but, damn, we used to have some good times when I was a teenager. I swear you haven't changed a bit since the last time I ran into you. So, anything new with you? No, not really? Still just rambling off down the road to adventure, eh? Meet a mage or two, maybe some stone giants, a few angels? Choose some ordinary schmuck to save the world from an omnipotent evil overlord hellbent on world domination? So, nothing new in your bag of tricks? Well, it was good seeing you . . . maybe we can meet up again sometime and you can tell me the same predictable tale. No, no--don't call me, I'll call you. Take care now! Buh-bye.

Yeah, I'm a little jaded when it comes to the fantasy quest. Granted, I cut my teeth on this genre, so folks who are new to fantasy may enjoy this tale far more than I did. The only way I enjoy this type of novel these days is if it's a new, inventive twist on the standard journey through a world that is not our own. Unfortunately, The Pilgrims by Will Elliott never rises above the formulaic presentation of an unlikely hero going on an unlikely adventure.

Eric Albright and his homeless friend, Case, find themselves in a strange world after opening a door that appears on a London bridge. In this new world, Eric and Case have the instant ability to both understand and speak the languages of all its denizens. Joining a merry band of rebels against Vous, the man who would be a god, Eric and Case meander without much purpose, encounter all of the aforementioned creatures and then some, and do little to endear themselves to the reader. Eric becomes convinced that he's meant to be a savior--though does little to prove it other than occasionally picturing himself as Batman. While the fantasy world created by Elliott has some intriguing elements, they fail to stand out when surrounded by so many cliches. The characters themselves are also flat, especially Eric, who seems so at ease with this strange place and his role in it that the narrative loses the tension created by a character confused by and at odds with his new surroundings.

Another strike The Pilgrims has against it is the "door between worlds" trope. I've mentioned in other reviews that I usually find this to be a charmless, hackneyed plot device. I despise The Wizard of Oz, Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland. The only time it has worked for me is in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and in the movie Labyrinth (and that probably has more to do with David Bowie in tight pants than anything else . . .). So when our hero, Eric Albright, opens a door between our world and that of Levaal without immediately find a well-endowed Bowie on the other side, well, you can imagine my disappointment.

And, finally, the third strike: The Pilgrims is a standard quest novel that for, inexplicable reasons, has been split into a trilogy. Here's what I hate about series quests: the first book will be all "a questing we will go, a questing we will go, no resolution, yo, a questing we will go"; the second book will continue in the same vein until the last 50 pages when, wtf, you mean shit's going to start happening now?; and the last book, if one makes it that far, might actually be fairly decent. But the reader has to drag ass through the first two books before there's any payoff in sight. I don't like to be toyed with thus.

So, if you're new to fantasy, you might want to give The Pilgrims a whirl, but fantasy veterans need not apply.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Beautifully Written, But Lacking Emotional Depth

Red Sky in Morning
by Paul Lynch
Published by Little, Brown and Company
2 Out of 5 Stars

Red Sky in Morning has rightfully earned comparisons to the terse, brutal writing of authors like Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell. This is a bleak story and a pervasive sense that all will not be well by the end hangs over every melancholy word. This is a book that I should have liked and why it didn't resonate with me is something I've been pondering for a few days.

Set in Ireland during the 1800's, the novel begins with the classic conflict between tenant and landowner--only this conflict ends in an accidental death that costs Coll Coyle not just his farm, but his family and his country. Fleeing from vengeance in the form of a foreman named Faller, Coll is forced to leave Ireland and sail to America, where brutal work and animosity against the Irish awaits. However, Faller is a single-minded hunter willing to pursue his quarry across the ocean and will not rest until Coll has paid for his crime.

Of course, the tale of a man trying to outrun the sins of his past and the weight of regret through a physical journey is not a new one. And I think that's part of the problem here. This is an oft told story and, to my mind, it's been compellingly told by other authors--McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain come to mind. Red Sky in Morning never delves into the relationship between man and God, good and evil, sin and forgiveness with McCarthy's philosophical complexity, nor does it use the landscape as evocatively as Frazier does in revealing Inman's inner turmoil as the sinner hoping for salvation in a world gone to hell.

There is no doubt that Lynch can write beautifully, which is both a strength and weakness of the novel. While in Ireland, the harsh landscape bears silent witness to Coll's failings, refusing him shelter or succor from his sins. This idea of land as witness to the frailties and failings of man seems Hemingway-esque in a The Sun Also Rises sense; there's the feeling that, for all man's follies, only the earth abides. Lynch's depiction of this landscape is poetic, but begins to veer into a tedious purple prose before it mercifully shifts to the sea voyage, which picks up the pace as dialogue and plot begin to take the reins. I had also hoped that Ireland itself would be more present in the novel, but only a third of the book takes place in Ireland and, other than the Irish dialect and colloquialisms, the story could have easily taken place in any other European country in the 1800's.

Ultimately, though, my disappointment with the novel comes down to this: there is no one here to champion. None of the minor characters are likable and, while Coll is undoubtedly a victim in a system that has robbed him not just of his power, but of his humanity, he's also not a sympathetic character. Refusing to take any form of responsibility for his actions, putting those he loves at risk, and leaving his family behind (with only the occasional pang of regret or remorse; he goes chapters without thinking of his wife and children) make it difficult to connect with him. There is also the odd device of providing his wife with a very limited voice periodically throughout the novel. These chapters feel wedged into the narrative and serve only to reveal the source of the conflict that led to Coll's downfall. To read more about her life in the aftermath of Coll's desertion may have provided more of an emotional touchstone for the reader and salvaged something from the novel.   

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dorothy in the Mild, Mild West

The Legend of Oz:  The Wicked West
Written by Tom Hutchison
Illustrated by Alisson Borges
Published by Big Dog Ink
3 Out of 5 Stars

Three childhood stories whose magic is lost on me: The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. I really, really detest every single one of them. In fact, there's something I generally dislike about threshold stories in which the "looking glass" between fantasy and reality is shattered by the curiosity of a child. While I'm sure there's some sort of Freudian field day to be had with this admission, I shall not speculate on why these tales failed to flip my imagination switch as a youngster.

So why am I stating this? Because when Dave, the owner of my local comic book shop, tried to get me to read this, I shook my head vehemently, made the sign of the cross, tried to back away. I may have even hissed. But he suckered me in with the "but it's a Western" angle. So I relented. And it wasn't as bad as I anticipated; however, it also wasn't as great as I had hoped. Still, for me to give a 3 star to Oz related material is a big damn deal.

The artwork is beautiful in a traditional sense, but takes very few risks. While conventional in other ways, I was particularly glad to see that, other than Dorothy being a little booty-licious in a few frames, the women aren't oversexed pin-ups for folks with fairy tale dame fetishes (the zeal shown for T & A of epic proportions was one of my main problems with Hutchison's Penny for Your Soul, also published by Big Dog Ink). Unfortunately, the story also takes few risks. There are some clever ideas (I really loved the Native American mysticism of the "scare crow") and some not so clever (such as making the Tin Man a lawman, an idea that might have struck me as brilliant if I hadn't seen it in SyFy's own Wizard of Oz re-imagining a few years back, which was actually titled Tin Man).

Basically, this is Oz in the West--same basic plot structure, same basic characters, and very few surprises. It's fun, but really doesn't develop the story in a new or complex way. Hardcore Oz aficionados would probably enjoy it, but, while I liked it, I won't be continuing the series.

But Somebody's Gotta Do It

A Dirty Job
by Christopher Moore
Published by William Morrow & Company
4 Out of 5 Stars

After the birth of his daughter, Charlie Asher, mild-mannered Beta Male, finds his life upended--and not just because he's become a new father. Through a strange course of events, he finds that he has been selected to be a Death Merchant, harvesting the souls of the dead and helping them on their journey to transcendence. The job, unfortunately, comes with a shit-ton of problems, such as being suspected of murder; hellhounds unexpectedly manifesting in his home; sewer harpies taunting him at every turn; encounters with an army of small, nattily dressed chimera; the perpetual threat of the Forces of Darkness rising if he fails; and the disconcerting knowledge that his daughter can kill by simply pointing and uttering that most powerful and fear inducing of words: "kitty." Plus, "Hi, I'm Death. With the big 'D'" doesn't really work as a pick-up line with the ladies. He's got ninety-nine problems, but a bitch ain't one.

His guide to his new lifestyle is The Great Big Book of Death, which really isn't that big. Or informative. Really it's just a lot of cartoonish pictures with such helpful tips as "In order to hold off the Forces of Darkness, you will need a number two pencil and a calendar." Death shops at Staples. Sucks to be Charlie.

There are a lot of words that I could throw around about Moore's writing: zany, wacky, demented, hilarious. But let's go ahead and toss "poignant" on the list. Trust me, everything you expect from a Moore novel is here, but one of the things I admire about his stories is that, for all the strangeness getting stranger, there's a well-spring of compassion and respect for humanity in his work that can surface when you least expect it. It should be no surprise that people die in a book about death, but what may catch many off guard is the genuine respect Moore demonstrates for the passing of a human life and a keen understanding that "Most of us don't live our lives with one, integrated self that meets the world, we're a whole bunch of selves. When someone dies, they all integrate into the soul--the essence of who we are, beyond the different faces we wear throughout our lives." Moments like this are what elevate Moore's work above pure screwball comedic writing. He has a keen understanding that life is absurdity and that humor is the best coping mechanism we have.