29 September 2011

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

Let me offer this sentence as an exemplar of why I didn't bother to finish The Night Circus:
"[The Burgess sisters] ask the perfect questions to keep the conversation flowing, warding off any lulls."
OK. So what, may I ask, are these questions like? Are they teasing or thoughtful? Do they draw out information on the topic at hand, or do they change the subject? Of whom are these questions asked? Can you quote me just one that I might experience its perfection firsthand, instead of taking the author's word for it?

To me, this is unskilled writing, and The Night Circus is rife with it. The carnival of its title is supposedly an intoxicating panorama for all the senses, but we're given very few details about the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in question, a vagueness at first mysterious but quickly annoying. I can only theorize that Morgenstern is unable to rise to her own descriptive occasions, that her reach exceeds her grasp. She's got a good premise here: the eponymous circus is unwittingly a battleground, the site of a game played out between the proteges of two rival magicians, with the students themselves unaware of the rules or the stakes. But (though I am alone in this, as I've been hearing rave reviews for months) I found the prose lacking in definition and emotional weight. And I just got bored.

Those Across the River (Christopher Buehlman)

Oh man, guys. This is a scary book.

I rarely turn to movies for the experience of pleasurable (because controlled) fear--doesn't usually work for me, though I am a sucker for haunted house stories. Have you ever seen The Sentinel? It is great. Instead, perhaps because I'm more used to manipulation via fiction (fiction is manipulation, pure and simple, the creation of real emotions from imaginary stimuli), I turn to horror novels for the keep-you-up-at-night shivers.

I was smart enough to read Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman's first novel, in broad daylight, but it slow-build menace did a number on me nonetheless. It's the story of WWI vet Frank Nichols and the woman he calls his wife, Eudora, who move together to the small town of Whitbrow, GA, to take possession of a house bequeathed him by an aunt he never met. This despite the aunt's dire warning to sell the property without setting foot there, because "this place will smell out I fear what is in you and claim you, for its own, it, will, hug, your, bones, into, the woods, & you will wish that you had never"

Frank and Eudora should be forgiven for ignoring this disturbingly effective dispatch from Horror Tropes 101; after all, it's 1934, jobs are scarce, and the scandal of their affair (Eudora was married to a professorial colleague of Frank's at the University of Michigan) has pushed Frank out of academia. In Whitbrow, they'll have a place to live, Eudora can take over the teaching job the deceased aunt vacated, and Frank can refurbish his credentials by writing a book about his vicious ancestor Lucien Savoyard, slaughtered on his plantation across the river by the slaves he refused to free.

Except nobody in Whitbrow goes across the river, and they can't quite say why. But every full moon for as long as the town can remember, they've sent a pair of pigs over there, garlanded with flowers and consecrated in a half-pagan rite that Frank and Eudora observe with amusement. Of course, the smiles don't last, and neither does the ritual--in the depths of the Depression, who can spare the pork? And really, what is it protecting them from? Is there really something there, across the river, waiting and watching in the dark of the woods?

SPOILER (you know, for aliens and time travelers): Yes. And while the enemy is ultimately familiar, Buehlman does a masterful job of drawing out the reader's anticipation, parceling suspense and shocks with style, like Santa Claus leaving a rattlesnake in your stocking. Good, scary stuff--shelve it with Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and you may never sleep again.

1491 (Charles C. Mann)

I think I've previously mentioned my father as the most well-read amateur historian I know--most of my knowledge of topics like the Napoleonic wars or the Schlieffen Plan comes from his pleasantly pedantic dinner-table conversation. So when he told me that Charles Mann's 1491 was "one of the most interesting books I've read in years" (enough that he sought out an indie bookstore on vacation in order to purchase the sequel, 1493, on its release date), I had to sit up and take notice.

Indeed, 1491 is a grade-A buttonholer, a book that makes you want to grab people on the street and cry, "Did you know this?" It's a distillation of decades of research by historians, linguists, archaeologists, even molecular biologists, all revising previous notions of the pre-Columbian Americas as sparsely populated by simple societies frozen in time, wielding no power over their environment--whether these natives celebrated as Noble Savages or disparaged as brutes, this version of their lives is familiar from textbooks and entertainment alike.

Except it might all be wrong.

From the Inka to the Amazon, the Wampanoag (who greeted the Pilgrims) to the Haudenosaunee (usually called the Iroquois), Mann argues that Indian cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere were large, technologically savvy, and above all, shapers of the landscape. They bred maize into a staple food of the world, understood the power of the controlled burn (still practiced in prairie ecosystems like western Kansas), even diverted rivers to irrigate crops. All this knowledge and more was lost in perhaps the greatest tragedy of human history: the genetic susceptibility of the inhabitants of the New World to the diseases of the Old, which some scientists now believe may have killed 90% of American indigenes, throwing their world into cultural and ecological chaos.

Mann covers an amazing amount of ground, untangling dissenting viewpoints, detailing academic rivalries of shocking vehemence, and upending mainstream beliefs on almost every page. The narrative is not always smooth--no one will praise 1491 as reading like a novel--but the information is so revelatory as to make it a page-turner nevertheless. It's to be hoped that the work of the tireless scholars he chronicles filters into our laymen's consciousness sooner rather than later.

28 September 2011

REAMDE (Neal Stephenson)

Capsule review of REAMDE for Stephenson trufans (even though we've all read it already by now): more Cryptonomicon than Anathem.

And here's what that means: REAMDE is a real-world international thriller, smart, topical, and precise. It's very much an ensemble novel, with an ever-shifting cast of characters, but everything stems from one central relationship between Richard Forthrast--a middle-aged techie who's turned a marijuana-smuggling past into a lucrative post at the helm of a MMORPG called T'Rain--and his niece Zula, adopted from war-savaged Eritrea as a child, raised by salt-of-the-earth Iowans, and in a doomed romance with Peter, a hacker whose shady dealings with the Russian mob lead to chaos. The book's title is the [sic] filename of a Chinese-gold-farmer-written virus, which hold its victims' data hostage until they pay up--not by Western Union or briefcase of cash, but within the sword-and-sorcery world of T'Rain itself, a scheme that plunges that universe into similar upheaval as IRL.

There's actually several more layers of complexity and intrigue to REAMDE's 1000-page narrative (including an absolutely hilarious rivalry between the two fantasy authors responsible for T'Rain's backstory), but I insist on some of them remaining surprises. I can tell you that the book never feels long. Stephenson writes action with fluid intensity, as assuredly in a wilderness gunfight as between magic-wielding avatars online. And he does a better job that any adult novel I've read in portraying people whose lives take place as much on the Internet as in "meatspace"--and the panic of being forced into pure analog existence--without dismissing them as freaks or shut-ins. To me (who's writing this review longhand due to a laptop power supply's demise), it's an instantly recognizable division of mental resources. It might be heavy to carry onto a plane or a train (unless you've a non-evil e-reader, of course), but REAMDE is solidly built to delight the action-movie-loving D&D nerd in all of us.

13 September 2011

Spending time with terrible people.

Having put Brothers Karamazov finally behind me--which I know, classic etc. Grand Inquisitor etc. "an onion" etc. but gosh, as a novel I just wanted to punch it in the face--I read two novels this weekend! Both, as it turns out, center on awful human beings, but there, as they say, the similarities end.

Bonnie Nadzam's debut, Lamb, comes out today, and There Will Be Talk. Because it's essentially the chronicle of a 54-year-old man's seduction of a freckled, friendless 11-year-old girl. For me, this elicits a basic question about my relation to art: can I say I "liked" a story that made my skin crawl from beginning to end? I don't think so, if I define "like" as synonymous with "enjoy," and consider them both contingent on pleasurable feelings...but I am well aware that these are not the only possible definitions. And conversely, I don't wish to say I "disliked" Lamb--the prose is gorgeously spare, the incidental hymn to the Rockies (almost) makes me want to go camping, the pacing is steady and assured. And Nadzam chooses to concentrate less on the physical aspects of the relationship than the emotional and material manipulation that ties predator and victim together--the interior sense of foreboding and menace is a perfect example of the novel's strengths as an art form. If you don't mind being disturbed, absolutely, go for it.

And if you have ever described your sense of humor as "sick"? You must have a go at The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, whose first-person narrator Rosa is one of the most obliviously despicable black-comic protagonists ever. I mean, in the first chapter alone, she forces her pregnant 17-year-old daughter (whom she hates anyway, because she's sullen & ugly) to undergo several attempts at a home abortion...none of which are successful. But her granddaughter, Aminat, turns out to be the apple of her eye, and she determines to win her beloved little girl the best life imaginable, no matter who she has to crush to do it. Vain, nasty, abusive, and often deluded, Rosa is also hilarious--a true feat on Bronsky's part! Yes, this one I Liked. Because of the LOLs, and then the sudden shocks as I re-remembered that I was being entertained by a monster. Also, maybe I should track down some recipes.

Oh! Also read the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan's Runaways comic, which fits in pretty well with the accidental theme, as it's about a group of kids who discover that their parents are literal supervillains. I quite liked it. I've heard there's a point where the series goes off the rails, though--can anybody head me off before I disappoint myself?

08 September 2011


Thank you, Michael Sullivan, for telling me to read Anthony Trollope's delightful Barchester novels--and for sending me a spare Everyman's Library copy of The Warden.

Thank you, Housing Works Bookstore, not only for helping me keep my bookselling skillz honed by volunteering the past few months, but for having a copy of Barchester Towers on the 50-cent cart.

And thank you, WORD, for setting up an affiliate program--click away on the covers above and you can order the books from them right away! (They also have Google ebooks, should you want all six books for...wait, 99 cents? Somebody get me a Nook for Christmas, OK?) If you don't have a beloved local indie bookstore, I'm happy to share mine.

I promise that while I read the next up in the Barchester novels (Doctor Thorne), I will be Proactive and Professional enough to underline all the marvelous quotes, and keep a list of all the nifty words I learned--because there were a lot of both, dang it, and they've fallen clean out of my brain! (Though luckily I appear to have preserved the theme song to Perfect Strangers intact.) Here's a bit towards the end of Barchester:
And who can apportion out and dovetail his incidents, dialogues, characters, and descriptive morsels, so as to fit them all exactly into 439 pages, without either compressing them unnaturally, of extending them artificially at the end of his labour? Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgelling my brains to find them? And then when everything is done, the kindest-hearted critic of them all invariably twits us with the incompetency and lameness of our conclusion. We have either become idle and neglected it, or tedious and over-labored it. It means nothing, or it attempts too much. . . .
I could go on--just such easy, playful prose, for all its vocabulary. A joy to read.

Trollope's wit and authorial asides can hold their own against Austen, as can his quirky characters: the adorable Mr. Harding (the warden of the first novel), prone to playing an invisible cello when he's anxious; Miss Thorne, who considers anything invented after the Elizabethan era suspiciously modern. Too, their country-dwelling middle-class settings and concerns are similar. There's a lot more mid-Victorian High Church/Low Church intrigue and less romance in Trollope (although these first two books actually feature woo-and-win subplots involving the same woman, whose first husband dies between the volumes). I dream of someday editing series of tiny books covering historical subjects geared specifically towards puzzled readers, e.g. The Church of England for Nineteenth-Century British Novels or Russian Orthodoxy for Dostoevsky. Trust me, you have never read the word "prebendary" so many times.

But then there's this: in Barchester, when the odious clergyman proposes, our heroine SLAPS HIM ACROSS THE FACE. Advantage: Trollope!
Creative Commons License
Muse at Highway Speeds by http://museathighwayspeeds.blogspot.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.