Tuesday, October 25, 2016

2016 read #82: Flight by Sherman Alexie.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
182 pages
Published 2007
Read October 25
Rating: ½ out of 5

Flight is a work of profound empathy: empathy for cheaters and deadbeats, empathy for alcoholics and would-be spree killers, empathy for US cavalrymen massacring Indian camps, empathy for terrorists flying planes into city centers. Alexie's ability to generate such empathy again and again, each time within a handful of pages -- all while employing a recognizable cousin of the flippant teenage narrative voice I found so off-putting in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian -- is astonishing. While some of the answers here are too easy, too obvious (we all need love, we all need acceptance, we all need a place), that doesn't make any of the questions less moving, any less vital.

Monday, October 24, 2016

2016 read #81: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell.

Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow by Rainbow Rowell
522 pages
Published 2015
Read from October 14 to October 24
Rating: ½ out of 5

Simon Snow began his literary life as a Harry Potter pastiche in Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Carry On was the title of the Simon Snow slashfic written by the eponymous fangirl, but Rowell (as she says in the closing author's note) wanted to try her hand at writing a Snow novel -- "What would I do with Simon Snow?" It's all a delightfully tangled question of literary ontology and ontogeny.

What matters here is that this is a cracking good tale that begins as the same Harry Potter pastiche we all expected -- the equivalents of Harry and Draco are roommates! there's a brilliant and powerful witch who fills Hermione's shoes! there's an eccentric and vaguely fatherly headmaster who keeps throwing our hero directly into trouble! there's a clique of powerful old wizarding families who don't like the inclusive reforms of the forward-thinking headmaster! -- but quickly carves out its own space in the crowded "magical school" subgenre, and establishes its own tone. As my friend Marlene pointed out, after flipping through the first few pages, the narrative voice is a bit manic -- breathless, rushing along in clipped sentences and fragments and exclamation marks, making only a token effort to distinguish between wildly different perspectives. But once you're into it, and provided you don't lose interest at any point, the writing is swift and engaging. (I must confess, I kinda did lose interest for a bit, after -- spoilers -- Simon and Baz consummate their romantic tension with a kiss in the midst of a literal firestorm of angst, which seems like it should have been the climax of the book, but wasn't.) The romance is well-handled, particularly the aforementioned kissy-facing in the firey woods, and while the magical elements aren't particularly fresh, I feel Rowell held her own with them. And the actual climax, while predictable, was satisfying, and the epilogue was miles better than Harry Potter's.

I did wonder whether Simon's musings on whether he was now "gay" constituted bi erasure or not: Is this an oversight by the author (going from dating the prettiest girl in the school to dating the dangerously sexy vampire boy doesn't necessarily mean you're no longer interested in girls, after all)? Or is this an oversight on the part of the character, who may not have ever been exposed to the concept of bisexuality? I'm leaning toward the former, which is kind of a shame.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

2016 read #80: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
304 pages
Published 2010
Read October 13
Rating: ½ out of 5

Of the two novels I've read that pastiched Regency romances with added elements of fantasy fiction, Jo Walon's Tooth and Claw has the flashier gimmick; it takes some time for the subtle weaving of Shades of Milk and Honey to reveal its full effect. But Kowal's allegorical use of "glamour" -- as a feminine means of brightening the household, of manufacturing a soothing homemaking cheer, of concealing emotion, of maintaining gendered illusions, of providing an outlet for creative expression and repressed personality -- is far more elegant and affecting than Walton's blushing dragons. It's a slow burn of a novel, dawdling a bit too long for my current tastes in (what I felt were) obvious social intrigues and illicit assignations, all willfully ignored by our painfully proper Jane Eyre-esque point-of-view character until they reached crisis. Emotional investment in our eponymous Jane, however, crept up on me until the tangled machinations enmeshing her caused me surprising amount of distress with each fresh complication. Regency isn't my usual style, to be sure, but I can't deny that it hooked me. The climax is messy and frustrating, but in a manner that stays true to the world and gender norms of the story, full of male disbelief and condescension hindering the actions of our hero, making a perfect endcap for the general theme. The coda, by contrast, is tidy and commercial, setting up a series of continuing adventures with an abrupt tonal crunch.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016 read #79: The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
155 pages
Published 1953; originally published serially as Gravy Planet in 1952
Read from October 11 to October 12
Rating: out of 5

General spoilers ahead.

This began with such promise. A brilliantly dark satire of a future America where megacorporations run the government and advertizing is the highest form of human expression, The Space Merchants is best in the first half or so, when its merchant is a steely-eyed true believer, oblivious to the horrors he narrates. Even after "the Haroun al Raschid bit" (in the words of Phil Klass, a sci-fi writer friend of Pohl's who read an early draft), when our star-class hero gets violently demoted to indentured servitude and must explore the lowest echelons of society, there are enough nauseating details (Chicken Little!) and too-close-to-home commentary on recent (and, plausibly, future) abuses of labor to make up for the sudden scattershot focus. It's in the final wind-up and climax that The Space Merchants let me down, rushing to accomplish a whole bunch of things in order for the good guys to win and escape to the fresh commercial prospects of Venus. The final third or so feels more like a standard 1950s sci-fi novel, with guns and quick thinking saving the day and the guy getting the girl (plus or minus a suicide along the way). Those first two-thirds, however, deserve classic science fiction status.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016 read #78: The Hike by Drew Magary.

The Hike by Drew Magary
279 pages
Published 2016
Read from October 8 to October 11
Rating: ½ out of 5

One of my default rhetorical tricks (and one of the easiest ways to manufacture a review in general, whether in music, film, literature, whatever) is to categorize a book as a hybrid between two given styles, authors, subgenres, formulas, etc. Another one of my favorite openings lately has been to respond to the claims of the blurb copy, either in slack-jawed agreement or in snide counterpoint. Today I'll use both methods!

"The Hike is Cormac McCarthy's Alice in Wonderland," asserts one Jeffrey Cranor. (I don't have the time or patience to listen to a recording of some people talking, so I just don't do podcasts; I understand Welcome to Night Vale is a big thing in geek circles, but I have never heard even a snippet of it.) I'll give him his Alice in Wonderland -- The Hike is pretty much a textbook wonderland/portal fantasy, with our hapless hero encountering a series of obstacles drawn from pop culture and hoary fantasy fiction cliches -- but Cormac McCarthy Drew Magary is not. Magary's writing is fast-moving, but has that currently-hip irreverent tone that makes for forgettable, disposable, junk food reading. The brilliance and horror of McCarthy is nowhere evident here.

If I had to reformulate Cranor's statement to my own liking, I'd say The Hike is like one of Catherynne M. Valente's weaker Fairyland books, cramming together old fantasy tropes at breakneck pace, with little time to pause for character or meaning, but starring a white suburban dad and exploring the doubts of mortality and the regrets of workaday middle age rather than the vertigo of adolescence. Speaking as a white suburban dad, I just didn't connect with the existential crises of our basic-as-fuck hero Ben. The temptations the path offers him -- hooking up with that cute girl in college; releasing the guilt he carries over not loving his abusive, absentee dad -- felt as authentic and real as a Hungry Man microwave dinner. The only moments of emotional punch involved Ben's kids (an obvious button to push, but one I can't help but respond to) and the revelation on the very last page, which of course I won't spoil here. Suffice it to say that the psychological toil Ben puts in on the path is not commensurate with the suburban psychological wounds he bears, making the entire exercise feel at times like an indulgent power fantasy: Average white dude breaking the chains of his past traumas to realize his true potential, to become more wise and more powerful than you could imagine, a veritable god forged through his own sheer willpower!

The very ending, as I said, somewhat redeems the book in my eyes, and to be fair, despite the emotional disconnect I felt, I can't say that the book is bad. It just felt rather flimsy to me.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

2016 read #77: Vicious by V. E. Schwab.

Vicious by V. E. Schwab
365 pages
Published 2013
Read from October 4 to October 8
Rating: out of 5

Ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe got me back into superheroes (a subgenre I honestly hadn't given a crap about since I was 11 or so), I've wished that they were an acceptable topic for fantasy novels. It's weird that Warhammer and D&D fanfic fills shelves, that Star Wars tie-in novels top bestseller lists, but superhero books have just never seemed to catch on. Comic books and cartoons had the monopoly for so long, I suppose, that a text-based superhero story rarely occurred to anyone outside of, say, fan-fiction websites. It's possible that this is changing already -- the other day I saw a YA novel starring Marvel's Black Widow, so it's probably only a matter of time before Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters joins Hogwarts on the YA shelves. In the meantime, Vicious is one of the very first "superheroes as urban fantasy" novels I've ever heard of.

Vicious begins promisingly, with an engagingly nonlinear narrative building two parallel mysteries -- the origins of the characters' "ExtraOrdinary" powers and their inexorable course toward animosity, thirst for revenge, and a final showdown. The characters feel drawn straight from a YA magic-school novel, pairing a haughty bad boy with a charming good boy who excels at everything he touches, but the characterizations are vivid enough to partially disguise how archetypal it all is. However, as the twin mysteries are brought to a head, roughly around the halfway mark, setting up the countdown to the long-awaited confrontation, Vicious loses a bit of its momentum and its charm. One of the blurbs on the back cover calls Vicious "A noirish cross between the X-Men and The Count of Monte Cristo," but perhaps a more apt comparison would be a cross between a magic-school novel and a generic "Hunt down the sociopathic killer before he can hunt us down" thriller. The formulaic build-up to the climax, stumbling over itself to get all the pieces into place, feels like a weak end-cap to the promise of the first half.

And I'm left with an unsatisfied itch: Without spoiling anything, a rather blatant Chekhov's gun involving Sydney Clarke's powers is set up and never resolved. Perhaps that was left for the sequel to investigate.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

2016 read #76: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Translated by Lewis Galantière
229 pages
Published 1939
Read from September 30 to October 4
Rating: out of 5

On one hand, it is fascinating to observe the enduring themes and imagery of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince -- childish openness to wonder and imagination, the delicate beauty and sorrow of mortality, individual beings adrift about the universe on isolated planets -- anticipated here in his memoirs, arising from his experiences in the air and on the ground in the years between the World Wars. On the other hand, Wind, Sand and Stars precipitates the inevitable disillusionment that comes from discovering that an author was the product of his time, mummified in the same casual racial and gendered prejudices of his contemporaries.

Stars is most engaging when Saint-Exupéry is in flight, with his precise descriptions of night navigation and the upper wilderness of clouds suggesting the universe of tiny planets explored by the Little Prince. The closing chapter, a series of sketches from the Spanish Civil War illustrating his philosophy of that ineffable "Spirit," the sense of wonderment and awareness, that turns men into men, is effective stuff as well -- even if his philosophy is little more than a weedy patch of Romanticism, blooming late in the Modernist age, decrying the soulless world of clerks and factories and extolling the virtues of science, art, and rural peasantry. What sets Saint-Exupéry apart from most romantics (in my admittedly meager experience) is his esthetic and philosophical appreciation for invention. An airplane or a locomotive or a factory is merely a tool, its value or its worthlessness determined by how well it serves a man and Man -- and to what ends.

The language is, of course, purposefully gendered: Women, in Saint-Exupéry's proto-Hemingwayan world, are coquettes and objects to be won, hearth-tenders to come home to, beacons for the lost adventurers to find their way home. Observing two women fortifying a Communist roadblock in Spain, he makes sure to note that they don't seem to know how to hold their rifles. The chapter on "Men of the Desert" indulges in some colonialist notions, including a long description of the "contentment" an enslaved Senegalese man feels. I take that a tiny bit out of context -- the passage is part of a larger philosophical musing on the "crippling" effects of a "humdrum life" and captivity, relating to depictions of commuting clerks at either end of the book -- but the stench of colonial power pervades the entire chapter.