December 2009 Archives
Hard to go wrong commercially these days with zombies or (especially) vampires; it's the rare book in the "undead genre" that doesn't feel like it was put out to capitalize on the trend. Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide
, an entertaining and delightfully thorough novelty book, nonetheless felt that way. His followup, World War Z
, stands apart from other hopeful cash-ins and would be a classic even if nobody else were writing about undead catastrophes (and romances).
Narrated as though the author were interviewing survivors of, and firsthand witnesses to, the great zombie war, the events "retold" in the book are fascinating and chillingly realistic. The potential limitations of the narrative style aren't apparent. Instead, Brooks uses the gimmick to imbue the story with an aura of realism that is so critical to a good catastrophe story. We meet brave survivors, cowardly ones, lucky ones, and while all share a profound experience, all are changed in different, moving, realistic ways. It's as much the story of the world changed by a zombie plague as of the effort to quell it.
Students of geopolitics will find Brooks' explanation of how different countries and cultures respond to the "outbreak" realistic and rewarding. North Korea essentially disappears, for example, its population sequestered presumably where they were meant to go in the event of a nuclear attack or invasion. For all anyone knows, millions of Korean zombies still squirm around underground bunkers. Nobody wants to go check. Israel predictably responds the quickest and most decisively to the crisis. Possibly imagining what would really happen in America, or possibly making a political point (it really doesn't matter), Brooks has America try overwhelming military force agaisnt the armies of the undead with catastrophic results, leaving the area west of the Rockies the only relatively safe place to be. Its second effort to wipe out the plague bears more fruit.
My only quibble with this fascinating book does have to do with a limitation imposed by the narrative style. We meet a survivor who successfully extracted herself from a hopeless situation with the aid of an ally on shortwave radio. In an "interview" style it's difficult to get across that the woman imagined the voice on the radio, but rather than subtly lead the reader to the conclusion, Brooks pummels us with a blunt instrument. If that's the one fault I could find with the narrative style — and it is — Brooks is successful indeed.
World War Z is chilling, engrossing, moving and deftly told through a difficult narrative structure. It's a book you'll enjoy and appreciate.
I would say this was an engrossing book. The most likeable character is a little girl you don't meet till near the end, so I wonder about the wisdom of that. There's an inevitability about the story, in the sense that you realize there's really only one thing that will be "happening" at the end, but you do look forward to how the characters will react to it and how it will play out. (I was mildly disappointed. The "climax" of the story, and some will argue that takes place in the last couple pages but that's not what I mean, plays out weirdly and without the level of urgency and drama it deserves. The reaction to it is strange and in many ways unsympathetic, which is dissatisfying -- you don't read this book for an interesting plot, you read it to follow the characters, and in at least one case, you're disappointed.)
But "engrossing," having said all that? Yes. It's an intriguing way to tell a story, although probably the only way it would have made sense. The narrative follows a "regular" time line only to the extent necessary to anchor the plot and steer it towards its conclusion. Otherwise, we see Henry and Clare at different ages as we (mostly) follow Henry around time.
Henry -- an "adventuresome librarian," I think the blurb says, and you need to overcome your impulse to snigger -- is a "Chrono-Displaced Person," an involuntary time traveler. His life is bound inextricably with that of Clare, whom he meets when she's 20 but who met Henry when she was six and who has gotten to know him (including in the Biblical sense!) from lots of "visits" between her ages of six and 18. Clare is an artist and can do that because she has a trust fund and then she and Henry happen to win the lottery, if you know what I'm saying. In other words, you're not exactly immediately and intuitively sympathetic toward either one, the way you might be if Clare were a waitress at Phil's Diner, say. But they grow on you. They develop complexities, or at least Clare does, that make them surprising and interesting at certain junctures.
The novelty of the narrative and a genuine interest in how these two characters will influence and meet their fate make the book worthwhile.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
sparkles. You note that each chapter is named for a classic work of literature and you brace yourself for something pointy-headed and self-important. There are times, few and far between, when the narrative gets a bit overwrought. But the world and characters Pessl has created brim with energy and mostly, that energy enlivens the story, it isn't wasted making the unnecessary point that the author is smarter than you are. This was a pleasant surprise.
Our heroine, the preposterously named Blue Van Meer (will color be a heavyhanded symbol in the story? It turns out, no, thankfully), has moved with her single dad to a new area and is attending a new school and, it's clear early on in the narrative, there will be interesting friends made, some terrible event endured, and you'll enjoy the story if you enjoy the characters and you won't if you don't. Throughout, the book reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book I'm quite sure Pessl read, probably more than once.
Secret History-like, Blue finds herself part of an exclusive clique, but against the wishes of other clique-ers. A teacher, Hannah Schneider, has arranged and is in charge of the group, and for reasons we and Blue will wonder about throughout the book, tries to force Blue into it. She does her best, though her effort is largely not reciprocated by the other students. We learn early on that Hannah will die in an apparent suicide, and that that's the event that will Change Everything for everyone. It was a risk revealing this up front, but realistic; Blue narrates the story and doesn't seem to have any reason to play hide-the-ball. Because you know in a broad sense what will happen, you examine the characters and their reactions and relationships and whether you enjoy the book has more to do with that than with solving the whodunit.
Happily, though, the whodunit plot isn't stale or predictable, and the story itself rewards you too. We know early in the book that Blue has real father issues, and that Hannah will die, and that everyone will hate Blue afterward; knowing those things informs our reading but doesn't undermine the story. The energy and confidence of Pessl's narrative draw you in and delight you and her plot engages you. It's a book you wish wasn't over once you're done.
As a debut, Special Topics shows tremendous promise. Pessl's Night Film is scheduled to be published in 2010. I'm going to get it as soon as it's available.
This book frightened a friend of mine, a father to a son, as he wondered throughout how he would deal with a similar situation as that in the book. That angle frankly never crossed my mind. Instead when I was done with this book I came away with the sense that I'd read the most realistic, heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting fable about fatherhood I'm ever likely to read.
The world of The Road has vaporized; virtually all living things are dead, nothing grows, no animals skitter and scrabble for survival; only a very few human beings remain alive on a husk of a planet ravaged by, most likely, total nuclear war. Seas and rivers are gray, ash and soot fill the air and cover the ground, burnt, irradiated or murdered bodies litter the landscape, and those remaining, some 10 years after the cataclysm, have become either cannibalistic bandits, or are kept alive for food, or spend their days trying to avoid a fate worse than death. The main characters, never named ("the man" and "the boy"), are a father and son who are walking from somewhere in the American northeast, likely the Appalachian mountains, to the Gulf coast so as not to endure another bone chilling winter. The boy was gestating when the world was destroyed and has never known a world teeming with life, with areas of safety and opportunities not just for survival, but prosperity.
The man, you come to intuit, surely understands that there is not likely to be anything better about the Gulf coast. With a sky that routinely blots out the moon and through which the sun can barely penetrate, it's going to be winter wherever they go. The boy asks if the ocean, when they reach it, will be blue. "I don't know," the man replies. "It used to be." Of course he knows it's not going to be blue. He's not naive. He is also unwilling to contribute to quashing any hope that for no good reason flickers in his son's heart. For the same reason, though throughout the book the man is coughing up blood and his condition is worsening, he does his best to hide this from the boy. Why?
Why make the journey under these circumstances? That is the central question and premise of The Road: When you can't hope for better, can't hope at all, you move because you have to move. It's objectively interesting and emotionally heartbreaking that the man doesn't so much as teach his son basic survival tips on their trip. The boy doesn't know how to care for their gun with the one bullet in it; he carelessly leaves it on the beach at one point and there is a frantic search, successful in retrieving it, now full of sand. They find a flare gun on a wrecked boat and the man offers to let the boy shoot it; the boy wants his father to shoot it, so he does; he doesn't even show him how to use a gun.
The most obvious answer to these curiosities is that it's hopeless; nothing the father can teach the son is likely to help him live on his own in a world the two of them are lucky to survive together. But they move. The man presses forward with his son and when the man is gone the son will have to live without him. In a world ravaged of life and hope, he probably won't, for long. But then you think about your own life, your own son, and you realize you move forward because you have to, you move, and you realize that once you're gone your son has to live without you. In the world of The Road there is no reason to hope he'll be successful. In our world, we have hope, but have we got anything else? Can we do anything more than viciously protect the boy, feed him, keep him warm and alive until we reach the end of our road? The most we can do is move, not stay still, not wait for death but try and outrun it, dodge it, keep it at bay as long as we have breath in our lungs.
Some people probably read this expecting science fiction or something out of the alternative history genre, what with all the clones running around. It's nothing like that. Today's biological science and genetic engineering potential make clones the perfect vessels for exploring what it means to be human and alive. Ishiguro does that well, and his conclusion is unsettling.
When I say that I don't mean it in an I, Robot sense, or like whatever non-human they had as a walking advertisement for What It Means To Be Human in the various Star Trek series. The novelty of being proud of yourself for recognizing a character in a book, movie or TV show as, ironically!, the most human of them all even though he's not wore off probably after about a year of Mister Data, if not after Asimov got through with it. Ishiguro isn't going for that at all, to his credit. The characters in Never Let Me Go are decidedly not "as human" (let alone more) as biologically born persons are, and that is the profoundly disturbing thing that makes the book haunt you after you close it for the last time.
The rich experience of the book is enhanced the less you know about it in advance, not that there are many spoilers, but chances are you know that in the book clones are grown, kept healthy and brought to adulthood in order to donate various organs and such to non-clones. It doesn't take place in the future; instead, advances in genetic engineering have happened at a far more accelerated rate after World War II than they did.
We follow the conclusion of the career as "carer" to her fellow clones of a Kathy H., during which she reminisces about her childhood and young adulthood. Kathy is a wholly remarkable character who, unlike her fellows, doesn't have lifelong dreams of a "normal" life working in an office or become preoccupied with rumored "deferrals" of her donation obligation. You want her to live a great deal more than she does -- not that she affirmatively wants to die, at all, but part of the brilliance of the development of Kathy is that it is truly, and believably, not in her to think in terms of life or death. She looks forward to being able to "retire" from her duties as a carer, at one point even betraying that she's looking forward to the peace, quiet and slower pace -- of having her organs harvested. She never thinks in the terms illustrated by the part of the previous sentence after the dash, and this is a remarkable accomplishment in a sympathetic character.
You intellectually understand and accept how Kathy's and Tommy's relationship develops and where it's going, but it's passionless (most things are) and you never "root" for them to live happily ever after. You may think that means you don't care about them, but Ishiguro's achievement here is that you do. Without resort to the formulaic buttons authors can push to get you to identify with and like human characters (or Mister Datas or Spocks), Ishiguro interests you in his. Read the book to appreciate an extraordinarily difficult job of character development done well, and you won't be as disappointed as if you're looking for sci fi.
In The Last Town On Earth
, near the end of the Great War and during the Spanish flu outbreak, a remote, collectivist mill town in Washington state closes itself off to the outside world to avoid the ravages of disease. A starving soldier arrives and upsets their plans; actually, there are two starving soldiers, and each separately arrives and upsets their plans twice, but whatever. It turns out neither soldier really has anything to do with anything, that the flu inflitrates the town for reasons having nothing to do with intruders, and kills a bunch of people without any real narrative value, and I think the point of the story is that it's sometimes ok to shoot people. Whatever it is, I don't think it's any more complicated than that.
But enough being harsh. The beginning of the book seems like the beginning of a novel someone writes and then sticks in his drawer for years because he can't figure out how to continue it, then finally does. It hits its stride after a few chapters, and is written competently, and the story carries you along comfortably. There are interesting nuggets of American cultural history here, even while the story itself is a little thin. The characters are capably fleshed out, with an exception or two, and no one does anything unbelievable.
Ultimately, the book is unsatisfying. There is an abortive romance whose end isn't dramatic or sad, it's just disappointingly "there"; there is a brooding, conflicted character whose conflict is resolved but not in a terribly interesting way; there are hints of interesting socio-political subplots that never bear fruit. It's possible that Mullen imagined a world, or a town, where nothing much interesting happens. That's realistic, there are towns like that everywhere. Just not something you'll find rewarding.
I've loved The Inferno since junior high. I would pull a translation by Rev. H.F.Cary M.A. off the shelf at my high school library every now and then and just be entranced by the illustrations by someone named Dore. The edition, including illustrations, is online via the Gutenberg Project here
. If you've ever read The Inferno, you know that the text is often dry and impenetrable. If your first mistake was like mine, it was reading a translation by a priest.
But that's not really fair to Rev. Cary. I have a volume that includes The Inferno, The Purgatorio and The Paradiso translated by layperson John Ciardi, and while very well done, I think the real problem is that Dante's work is EPIC POETRY and translators must feel like they have to be very staid and stolid lest they come off too unserious. For instance,
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
So translates Ciardi; click through to the Gutenberg site to see Rev. Cary's interpretation. You see that Ciardi's looks sort of like the stuff you read in English class: impressive adjectives, words shoehorned into the meter (drear instead of dreary, scarce instead of scarcely), nouns and verbs befitting an EPIC POET rather than a normal shlub (journey, shall, recount). It even rhymes; the original Italian is in terza rima, aba bcb cdc ded efe, but you can hardly expect an English translation to do that and be faithful to the substance. Can you?
Now, The Inferno, you may know, was written in an accessible vernacular. Dante used then-current figures of speech, had the tortured souls he met speak the way they spoke while alive, not like they'd taken an etiquette class to get in to hell, described things like a man seeing hell and telling friends about it, not like an EPIC POET writing for a 21st century literature class.
Of course, what was accessible in 1300 is still EPIC POETRY today, so you tend to get lots of journeys and recountings and drears, but sometimes you'll find that a writer has tried to make a "modern" translation of Dante. Usually it ends up seeming as gaudy and phony as that Romeo and Juliet movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and that girl from Stardust.
I bought myself Ciaran Carson's 2002 translation of The Inferno a couple years ago. It's absolutely breathtaking: Faithful to the boisterous original, and in terza rima! Here:
Halfway through the story of my life
I came to in a gloomy wood, because
I'd wandered off the path, away from the light.
It's hard to put words to what that wood was;
I shudder even now to think of it,
so wild and rough and tortured were its ways;
and death might well be its confederate
in bitterness; yet all the good I owe
to it, and what else I saw there, I'll relate.
"The story of my life!" "Came to!" Contractions! It's really engaging work throughout. Here are the two different ways Virgil describes the rationale for the lower circles of hell, in Canto XI. Ciardi first:
Fraud, which is a canker to every conscience,
may be practiced by a man on those who trust him,
and on those who have reposed no confidence.
The latter mode seems only to deny
the bond of love which all men have from Nature;
therefore within the second circle lie
simoniacs, sycophants, and hypocrites,
falsifiers, thieves, and sorcerers,
grafters, pimps, and all such filthy cheats.
This is fine poetry, don't get me wrong; but Carson's:
Fraud gnaws every conscience. A man may cheat
someone who trusts him; and he may do the same
to one who does not trust him in the least.
This latter mode seems plainly to disclaim
the bonds of social love that Nature makes,
so in the second circle are contained
all hypocrites, officials on the take,
chancers, panders, crooked businessmen,
and other scum, like conjurors, and fakes.
is readable. More: It's thrilling, beautiful. Read this translation for a good, fulfilling, entertaining read, even if EPIC POETRY usually strikes you as a little clammy.
It's a quest book, with a disappointing result that leaves all sorts of questions you'd been persevering to get answered, unanswered. You know you're in trouble when you come to understand the premise: In the presumably near future, British society has succumbed to crime, debauchery, materialism and violence to such an extent drastic measures are instituted. So far so good! But British subjects are forcibly segregated into four walled-off quarters of the Isles... according to personality.
You have your sanguine quarter, choleric quarter, melancholic quarter and phlegmatic quarter. This preposterous division might actually have been saved by a couple pages' worth about how advances in psychological science -- real or imagined, don't care which -- somehow led to the conclusion that these four ancient "humours" really are very important. Otherwise, Thomson may as well have divided the country by height, or something.
But I don't want to dwell on the premise, about which there are all sorts of things wrong, because the story itself needs to be complained about. Our man, Thomas Parry, ends up illegally flitting from quarter to quarter, trying to... it's hard to say. Well, it's not hard to answer the question from the narrative, but there's no real good reason he's doing all this. Along the way he gets into several sticky spots and scrapes, by goodness, for it is a quest narrative. At one point he's told that by random chance he happens to be an honored guest who can stay, on others' dime, as long as he'd like. How fortunate, in that his money's been destroyed! Only later do you find out that even though he's arrived there by shipwreck (!) from which he's the only survivor, and he convalesces for what must be a few weeks, he's been followed! Dang!
I shouldn't get snippy. Thomson is trying hard, going so far as to bludgeon us over the head with literary devices like having key characters leave impressions in pillows, handprints on windshields, and other traces of themselves where they've been. You recognize it (it's awfully hard to miss) and wonder what might be the reason. Right on schedule, we meet a character who specializes in not leaving traces of herself where she goes and "escaping notice." Wow! I get it! So she's sort of different from everybody else in the book, then?
It's dreadful, until near the end when you think you might be rooting for something to happen, that then doesn't, except the book ends with it maybe about to happen, but by then you don't care because the most preposterous (sorry to reuse the word, but it's perfect) event has just occurred and you're waiting for it to have been a dream or illusion of some sort when you run out of book. Not recommended, if you hadn't gathered.
We're meant to come to love Oscar de Leon as we get to know him, and we're meant to be saddened and moved by his death (not a spoiler; read the title). We're to feel his conspicuousness and awkwardness with him, we're to be wrenched with his angst and hopelessness, we're to rouse ourselves as Oscar does near the end, finally taking control of his life and demanding what's rightfully his. When the narrator (of most, but not all, of the book) tells us how special (wondrous?) Oscar is, we're to bob our heads in agreement and press on with his story, rooting for him all the way but not daring to hope for the best, since we know how brief his life will be.
Well, none of that happened to me. I met Oscar, learned everything there was to know about him in fact, and I don't particularly care for him, or about him. That's a huge problem for this book, because unless you're strapped in and keeping your hands inside the ride, you're apt to be left watching as the promise of a fulfilling literary experience passes you by.
Plenty of good books have starred characters you don't like, or even care about. The problem with Oscar Wao is that it's numbingly obvious that that's not supposed to be the case here, and anyway, the characters in Oscar's orbit, some with actually interesting stories and motives, aren't enough to make this a memorable or moving book. And the plot is uninteresting enough that Diaz bolts on a supernatural subtext in hopes it will give the book more heft. It feels bolted on; it feels like a TV drama that the network decided at the last minute needed a little extra something. "Now hear us out — what if there's this curse following the family and dooming, um, some of them?"
Diaz's writing is technically very good; while his characters aren't all that interesting, they're believable, even a couple you would expect not to find believable (there is, I'm not kidding, a whore with a heart of gold who is essential to the story). You're never bogged down by stilted narrative, unnecessary tangents; the story is tightly and briskly told. What he fails to do is weave his ideas (political revenge, the cultural demands on Dominican men, multifaceted relationships between mothers and daughters, finding and losing love) into a book that does them justice. These interesting ideas feel extraneous to the awesomeness of Oscar, who, as I say, isn't awesome.