Tag Archives: fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale

51qGjF8UHJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Another month, another book club book. This time out, a horribly dystopian near-future examination of some religious dudes stealing everything from women. You know, to save them from how cruel the world can be. I must say, despite taking a while to get to a point where it was believable, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed utterly plausible from then on. Due to plummeting birthrates and the aforementioned (aforeimplied?) enslavement of functionally all females in the nation, our mostly-nameless heroine viewpoint character heroine has been enrolled as a Handmaid; which is to say that, Genesis-style, she acts as a stand-in for the wife of one of the high muckety-mucks of the fictional future nation of Gilead, so they may be fruitful and multiply. Keeping in mind the disdain these people have for fertility clinics (or, indeed, science), well, my point is to say, yes. That is every bit as horrible as you’re imagining it to be.

The rest of the story, with its leisurely revelations of the world Atwood has built[1] and its insistence on hitting the reader with one terrible event after another, is a surprisingly difficult slog. Well, if you’re looking at the size of the book it is, anyway. If you’re considering the emotional toll of the things I’ve mentioned and taking me at my word that I’ve left out five or ten reveals for every one that I’ve spoiled so far, well, it’s easy to see why the emotional density of the book makes for a slow, miserable read.

The worst part is, it was extremely good and I wanted to know what would happen. If only it had read as badly as it made me feel and I could have quit a few chapters in!

[1] She revealed things far more leisurely than I just have! In my defense, I’ve still only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

41E4+fttDjLIn case you are wondering why I should read such a very Snow Falling on Cedars type of book, and nevermind that I haven’t read comics in ages or that there’s a new Stephen King book in the world? Book club.

So, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There’s this Japanese guy, living in a house with a wife and a secret alley that wanders through the neighborhood and a missing cat and some fortune tellers and a Lolita neighbor, all of which are also Japanese[1]. And…. okay, I have no idea where to start or end this review, spoilers-wise, because very little of what actually happens is the point, and I’m going to spoil the hell out of the themes of the story, because that’s what I usually do, except this time if you take away the themes there’s actually nearly nothing to discover, so I may be doing it wrong. If you’re worried about that kind of thing or this particular book, you should skip the rest of this, only then you’d have no review at all. So here’s what I’ll do.

Before all the despoiling of the fecund thematic territory I am about to perpetrate, I will say that I did not particularly like the book, and mainly it was because of a probably cultural difference between myself and the author that leads me to strongly disagree with the points his book is making. (I am not so sure he himself is making them, but it’s hard to explain why. Hopefully I succeeded below, in the spoiler part you aren’t reading? Still, it seemed like I ought to say so, in case.) However, and this may strongly tie into the recent parenthetical distinction, the way it wrapped up was pretty satisfying, so at least I don’t resent the whole endeavor.

Anyway, though, themes. Well, theme. Toru Okada (the Japanese man I mentioned earlier), as he wanders through his world, growing more and more confused by the ever stranger events and people he comes into contact with, is presented with one unifying message from every single character, except possibly the cat: “there is no way to control fate, not yours, not mine, not anyone’s.” And I mean, the name of the book itself: there’s this bird that nobody can see, up in a tree somewhere, winding up the world every morning, and then the world goes off on its preordained path until it winds down again. And while that’s an interesting thought exercise, it makes for a pretty horrible world. Nobody can fight for happiness. Nobody can feel good about any accomplishment, nor feel regret about any shortcoming. It all just is, and that’s the end. My ability to maintain interest in characters for whom I don’t feel the slightest shred of empathy? Turns out to be vanishingly small.

The one good thing about all that is that I’m pretty sure the pivot on which the story swings is Toru’s decision whether to accept that message or not. If you are saying to yourself, “He can’t decide that or it undermines the entire premise!”, well, a) that’s what makes me feel a little better about things but also b) that’s why I’m not sure if I read the book correctly. Because, seriously, if I’m right, it’s 95% “everything is outside your control” and 1% “I disagree”, and that’s a weird proportion when you are arguing the converse. So I may really just be inserting what I wanted to happen instead.

(The remaining four percent is Japanese history lessons, ca. World War II.)

[1] I point this out repetitively because it will be important later. I pointed it out with one repetition instead of one per noun because that would have been as horrible to type as it was going to be to read.

Swan Song

You guys. You guys. Do you know how long it’s been since I finished a book? Thanks to the magical powers of the Internet, I can reasonably speculate. Two and a half months. I… I am literally convinced that the last time I went two and a half months without finishing a book, it was because I had never finished a book. Like, ever. Because I was still three or something.

If you have any questions about my job (which, to be clear, I had only just accepted when I started reading), I think all of the meaningful answers lie in the previous paragraph, and anything else I could say is just window dressing. But anyway, yes, I have read a book. It is Swan Song, by Robert McCammon. It is one of those apocalyptic nuclear war books from the ’80s, only it shares a lot more in common with The Stand than with the Deathlands books I’ve been reading lately (and may skip ahead to, since they go so well with camping and also I am about to be camping).

See, there’s a nuclear war, and then different people, like a bag lady and a quasi-pro wrestler and a Vietnam vet turned survivalist slumlord and the embodiment of evil and a girl named Swan who has an affinity with plants and may or may not be extremely relevant to the title of the book slowly start to shuffle their way across post-nuclear America toward one another for a dramatic showdown between good and evil. I liked it pretty okay, but if I had it to do over again, I would have been reading much shorter and faster books, so that I might have had a chance to enjoy this more when I eventually did read it. (Or, possibly if it was spread over two weeks instead of ten, vast flaws would have been revealed? There is no way to know!)

I of course liked the apocalypse sections, as always. The eventual post-apocalypse was saved from being too simplistically preachy by likable characters. The downside was that the majority of evil characters were too caricatured. If you tell me that a fourteen-year old boy is going to point an unloaded .357 at his dad’s head and pull the trigger several times as a joke, you can’t justify that by calling it foreshadowing. Not unless you plan to do something to make him nuanced and redeemable later. Otherwise, he was just a budding psychopath from the start, and that’s not a very interesting entrant into the armies of evil. But the good characters, yeah, pretty likable and maybe even two-dimensional in many cases. And of course there’s always that apocalypse.

The Road

I got on a plane to Portland on Thursday night, and, as one does, I brought a book along. It had been recommended by a librarian and by a used bookstore’s regional manager, both friends of mine. Pretty rarefied praise, right? I read about three chapters of it around the discomfort of my late arrival to the front seat, you know the one, it has no tray and no space for your stuff. Then, when the plane landed, I set it down to get my backpack out of the overhead luggage, and then walked off the plane, fiddled with the internet for an hour thanks to free wifi, and realized as I was at the end of the line for the next plane that I had never picked it back up. A quick check in my backpack confirmed the sad tale, but by then not only was the first plane almost certainly gone, I was also on the jetway, three people back from the actual plane entrance. So I sat on that flight, sad about the lost book and the inability to read until I finally fell asleep, and then I found a Powell’s at the bookstore in the Portland airport and bought the first book that really caught my eye, the long-recommended The Road. (There was a movie starring Aragorn as the man who is on said road, which I never saw, if that helps to identify which particular road I have in mind.)

In a strictly plot-derived sense, this could be a book of the first years of the apocalypse that resulted a century and change later in my ongoing Deathlands series[1]. Something horrible happened, and the world (presumptively but never explicitly America) is a broken, terrible place where you can only rely on yourself or, in the case of pretty close to 50% of the book’s characters by presence, your father. Food is gone, shelter is gone, animals are gone, even the sun is gone. The prose reminds me a lot of Hemingway, only with a richer vocabulary of colors to paint from; I could almost understand, reading it, why people can appreciate a spare canvas over a rich, vibrant, and above all completely full one. It will stay with me, I know, but I’m not sure I can say that I liked it.

How is this, you may ask, knowing my love of the apocalyptic? It occurs to me that, aside from the dire events themselves, my apocalypse porn addiction shares another consistent thread throughout the collection. All of those books, however high- or low-minded, have a generous amount of hope buried within them. The Road was as bereft of hope as it was of sunlight, and no amount of spare beauty could ever make up the lack. And now that is a thing I know about myself!

[1] In the character and prose senses, of course, they could not be further apart.

The Passage

The Passage is exactly the kind of widely popular fiction that I avoid, the kind that is probably cited as the most recent book read on 3 out of 5 new eHarmony accounts right now. (Well, the ones that acknowledge reading as something people actually do.) I honestly have no idea how it got on my radar in the first place, given that. I guess from a person I know, or NPR? It’s a total blank, I just remember that it got added to my shopping list notepad on the iPhone, and that at the time, I was not shocked, so apparently remembered having added it. My brain works like this far more often than I am comfortable with. Anyway, whatever I had heard was sufficiently convincing, I guess, so I did end up reading it, and really quite early after purchase considering my enormous queue.

But, okay, whatever convinced me was basically right, as the book is at its most basic level a post-apocalyptic overrun-world story, with only a few beacons of huddled humanity in pools of infinite darkness. And I like that setting a lot. As you can perhaps imagine from the title, the people with whom we are concerned don’t just stay huddled under the beacon, but why they go, from whom they are huddled, and what they hope to accomplish are all questions with interesting enough answers that I don’t want to spoil them, except to tease by saying that Amy, introduced in the first sentence of the book as The Girl Who Lived a Thousand Years, is definitely involved. (Every good post-apocalyptic story that isn’t about the actual apocalypse needs a character from Before, to tie the reader to the shattered landscape. Otherwise, it might as well not be set on Earth in the first place!)

So, it has a setting I like and a story I’ve approved of. Why am I not gushing, as I almost certainly too often do? It’s a number of little things that add up to overall dissatisfaction. Like, the perfect record of using “wretch” as a verb. Or the innocent murderer on death row in act one of the story who eventually provided nothing to the plot’s genesis or resolution. Or, and I suppose this is not so little, the overly coincidental coming together of the hero and the plot token just as doom was assured through means unrelated to that doom, without there being some kind of fantastic element or prophecy to justify it.[1] Or the spiritual underpinning throughout the story that never quite gelled for me. Or the sadism of the last sentence of the epilogue. And now it sounds like a story I didn’t like, which isn’t right either. I guess it was a story that I liked a lot, but that had some real need for editing, enough so that I was too often pulled out of the story by it. There is some irony in the fact that I’ve never had this complaint about what are objectively worse books in the Deathlands series.

[1] I am apparently willing to swallow all manner of implausible coincidence, as long as the author tells me that some person wrote it down cryptically generations before.

Blockade Billy

There’s a thing that happens when Stephen King books come out, and it is this: I buy them and read them. Of course, sometimes they slip by me unnoticed for a little while; and for that matter, sometimes they should. Blockade Billy and its companion piece are not bad stories, by any means. I enjoyed them both! And despite the tiny size of the book, I only paid paperback pricing or so, and even for a book that only took about a day to read the lot of, it’s not like I feel ripped off by undersizedness or anything. The only real problem I have is that the two stories (one about the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of an eponymous baseball catcher, the other about an indecent proposal) are both too short to really count as a book, and now I feel like I should be reading the rest of a short story collection that I do not, in fact, have to hand.

Leave ’em wanting more is one thing, but I’m pretty sure leaving ’em entirely unsatisfied is a bad motto. And it’s a pity, because the first story especially was quite good. I should caveat that it was very baseball-heavy, though, as some people who are insane don’t like baseball.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

A couple-few years ago, I saw the musical performance of Wicked in Dallas. It was a little heavy-handed with its pro-PETA message, but entertaining for all of that, plus at the time we were under a tornado warning (no shit) and the power actually went out briefly mid-show. The chick who was playing Elphaba? Good lungs, as she was able to joke at the audience until the power came back up, and everyone could hear her. So you see.

Sometime not long afterwards, I picked up a copy of the book that inspired all that, also named Wicked. Then, as is often the case, some years later I have read it, and my reaction is extremely mixed. On the one hand, I’m a little surprised to have liked it, even though I couldn’t say why. I mean, I liked its derivative work well enough, right? But still, I went into it expecting not so much, but with enough interest to understand why all the fuss. Instead, I got a pretty neatly put together series of five stories that probably could have been about five different people, even though they are not. The styles differ wildly (my favorite was the second part, at school, which reminded me constantly of Jane Austen) and the portrayals of our main character differ as well, due mostly to extensive passage of time between each section. I wouldn’t want to see it in a lot of books, but I kind of approve of Maguire’s choice to disregard continuity, perhaps in an attempt to give his audience more insight into the central point he is making about passing judgment without very many facts?

Which, right, I suppose I shouldn’t ought to assume everyone knows about the book. It is, basically, the other side of the story of the Wizard of Oz, in which our wicked Witch, Elphaba, went to college with Glinda, joined political resistance against a tyrannical usurper who styled himself the Wizard of Oz, and was eventually brought low by one Dorothy who frankly had no idea what was going on around her and was everyone’s pawn at every turn. And like I say, it’s a pretty entertaining story, with a lot of interesting character voices and structural choices. So why am I ambivalent? Because, at some point in the story, after her political agitations but before the arrival of her destined nemesis, Elphaba starts to reflect upon her legacy and quickly to fixate upon it, which gives Maguire an excuse to start dealing with everything through the prism of Literature, and Theme, and Essay Questions. And if there’s one thing I cannot stand, it is the 20th Century tendency toward intentional art. People should ought to create what they want to see, not what they believe other people will consider important. And that’s the worst part: this book is something I wanted to see. It just lost its way, somewhere along that yellow brick road.

Death: The Time of Your Life

There may be more Death-based graphic novels; the existence of an Absolute mega-edition like was created for Sandman and some other DC titles suggests so, but I’ve only ever seen two. And as of today, I’ve read the second one, so I guess I’ll just have to see what else pops up or else not worry about it. Which is not unlike how the pale gothy girl wearing the ankh expects me to live my life, I think; after all, it’s what I’ve got.

I kind of wish, though, that I either read Sandman more often than I have or else that I had eidetic memory, or that I had been obsessed with the series the way I was with the Wheel of Time during the ’90s, or really anything that would lead me to have good recall about the characters of Foxglove and… Jesus, I’ve forgotten her girlfriend’s name in the time it took me to start this review after finishing the book earlier today. That’s just sad, though unfortunately illustrative of my point. Because, you see, The Time of Your Life is mostly about the two of them and their son Alvie who has a suspicious anagram in his name, and also of course about the pale gothy girl with the ankh, who you may better know as Death.

It was a sad and sweet but probably more sad story about relationships and fame and sacrifice and of course death, and I liked it on its own merits, but I didn’t really like it on the merits of being a story about Death. She felt shoehorned in to provide a… well, deus ex machina can hardly apply if the being providing it is pretty well at a higher level of existence than gods are. But all the same, her only real point in the story was that she worked as a lever to break the logjam between waify singer/songwriter Foxglove and that girlfriend whose name I can’t remember, so that they can proceed with their lives (or not) one way or another, instead of continuing to circle around and around the same static relationship they were stuck in on page one. And even worse, Death provided this lever by way of an action so implausible that she even commented in the dialog that it’s the kind of thing she never does, right before doing it anyway, for no apparent reason. That could be a hint that she has taken more interest in the two characters than I apparently managed (her name is Hazel, if you are itching to know), but I couldn’t bring myself to take that hint. Instead, it was just an inexplicable oddity in, like I said, what could have been a pretty interesting story about a few side characters without ever including her.

Although, I admit it does seem like some member of the Endless should have probably been involved for it to really fit in the universe, familiar characters or not. It’s just, it’s plausible that if a character is going to behave inexplicably, Gaiman already wrote one who has that exact modus operandi. Y’know?

[1] It’s weird, or serendipitous, or merely coincidental, but I’m positive not ironic in any sense, that I’m listening to Who Killed Amanda Palmer? on vinyl as I write this. See, I bought it a few weeks ago while browsing a local record store for a few pickups, and finally unwrapped it right before I started on this. I had been going to write it anyway, just over Jon Stewart from last night instead, but the whim struck me, and there you go. And after I’d gotten about a sentence deep into the review, a line from the third track played out: “Nobody deserves to die, but you were awful adamant that if I didn’t love you, then you had just one alternative.” And the thing is, I feel like there might be a way to tease out a very close parallel between that line and the book, but only with spoilers, and anyway, it really would be coincidental, almost certainly nothing more. Even though I’m pretty sure Amanda Palmer wrote the introduction to that giant updated Death collection I mentioned, and Neil Gaiman wrote the copy on the back of Amanda Palmer’s album, and they’re engaged, and all of that. Sometimes, despite everything, it really is just a coincidence.
[2] How weird is it that there are two unreferenced footnotes in this entry?

Duma Key

I know what you’re thinking. Goddamn, man, do you even remember how to read?! As it happens, I do. I mean, it’s only been three weeks, right? And, being a Stephen King novel, it was pretty darn long, too. But these are basically candy-ass excuses; the truth is, I’ve just been busy with a lot of other things, and therefore reading slowly. I think it is somewhat unlikely that I’ll read 50 books this year, if things keep going the way they are; right now, for example, I’m on track for a mere 36. But, we’ll see!

Plus, I think I have a subconscious inclination to savor Stephen King books, as though each one is probably the last he’ll ever publish. This is almost certainly not the case, and yet it’s the mindset I’ve been stuck in for at least three years now. Well, as much as I don’t want it to be, I think that I could be satisfied if Duma Key actually were the last one. It was just really good in a way that I can already tell will be difficult to express. I think what really got me was how personal the scope of the story was. I mean, maybe it was personal to King, but that’s not what I’m saying, as I’d have no way to guess it. Rather, despite that it spanned a century and irrevocably altered the fates of three families, everything that happened was vital and immediate and kept me engrossed on the behalf of protagonist Edgar Freemantle.

Following a horrific construction-site accident, Edgar leaves his first life behind for an extended stay on Duma Key in Florida, where he hopes to take up drawing, recollect himself, and discover what’s left of him. He could never have dreamed of the talent he will find, and far less of the power with which that talent is imbued or the slumbering evil that inhabits the southern half of the island. Luckily, he also finds real friends to help him through the many trials that lie ahead, some far more dreadful than the accident that brought him to Duma Key in the first place.

Hey, look, it’s a jacket cover! (At least, that’s the kind of thing I imagine that they say.) One of the many cool things about Stephen King is how he effortlessly glides between genres. If you take away the spooky demon-ghost lady and the supernatural paintings, you’d still have the core of one of those feel-good dramas about people putting their lives together again after vast adversity, like what I imagine Stella getting her groove back must have entailed. I have insufficient interest in that kind of story to seek it out, but here it is, right in the middle of my horror novel. By and large, I approve of this; mostly because it provides depth and breadth to what would almost certainly otherwise be a dry well by this time. King understands what terrifies us, sure, but he also understands our essential humanity; as far as I can tell, he always has, and that’s what keeps bringing people back to him, not any temporary frights in the small hours of the night.

Black Hole

I keep wanting to say that I’ve found evidence that the modern graphic novel is not for me, but there’s clear evidence that it is, in the right format. Sci-fi or horror or allegorical fantasy, and I’m basically in there. Plus, of course, the superhero genre, which, y’know: tradition! But at the same time, I’ve read a few lately that seem to be just telling a regular modern fiction story (except with pictures) and I keep failing to wrap my head around them. Unlike Jimmy Corrigan, I can at least say that Black Hole wasn’t a complete slog. But at the same time, it feels like there are strands and aspects I failed to grasp despite my best efforts.

It’s the ’70s, and it’a high school. So everyone is focused on being popular or not, taking drugs, and having sex. The problem being, there’s this STD called simply “the Bug”. It has a 100% transmission rate, and if you get it your body changes somehow. It might be concealable, or it might be completely deforming, or maybe somewhere in between. And we follow the lives of a girl and a guy over the course of several months or a year as they interact with a) the diseased, b) the drugs and alcohol to prevent having to deal with any of it, and c) eventually, perhaps with the disease itself. And from time to time, d) with each other.

As a straight-up story, it’s pretty good. Bleak as all get out, but effectively told. High school interactions are completely magnified by the Bug issue, with outcasts being relegated to a tent city in the woods where nobody has to see them, rather than just one corner of the lunch room. There’s a bit of horror, both the stark version where one mistake can ruin your life (so, okay, that’s magnified high school stuff too, maybe, to an extent) and the more literary version where murder is unleashed into the diseased populace. But it’s the metaphorical layer I can’t get my head around. AIDS fits, albeit imperfectly. The fact that the story was begun in the ’80s despite a 2005 publication date on the collection makes it feel more timely, which helps. But why are some people able to go unnoticed while others are branded? Why isn’t it deadly in itself? Why does nobody outside of the high school population seem to be infected? It’s not about pregnancy, since guys are affected as easily as girls. It’s not about the act of having sex, because clean people have no problems at all, as long as they stay away from the diseased. Like I said, I just can’t nail it down. And it’s all the odder because outside of the disease part, a nearly identical story could have been told with the same plot. So it’s mostly there (I believe) solely to be a metaphor for something. And here I am, with just no idea what’s up. Lame!