18 July 2013

Briefs: The Iron Bridge (Anton Piatigorsky), Limit Vol. 6 (Keiko Suenobu), & Time Patrolman (Poul Anderson)

Anton Piatigorsky's The Iron Bridge dramatizes small incidents from the teenage years of six brutal 20th-century dictators: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, Josef Stalin, Rafael Trujillo, and Adolf Hitler. It's--well, I want to call it a "fun" project, is that OK? perhaps the even less descriptive "interesting"? It's also a bit MFA thesis-y, to be honest. Perfectly competent writing, but little fervor (except in Hitler's off-the-cuff diatribes in "Incensed," but he's also the easiest subject, right?), and a certain predictability to the whole endeavor; suffice to say it didn't knock my socks off. Though I may have been spoiled by the genius of Richard Hughes' characterization of Hitler in The Human Predicament.

Limit Vol. 6 (publishes July 23) wraps up the "Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies manga series I've been devouring since the beginning. I'd worried mid-series that the story would suffer from the marooned girls' discovery that a male classmate survived as well, cause boys ruin everything, but then there was a murder, and paranoia, and red herrings, and I was hooked again. And I found this last volume utterly satisfying and sweet--I may have even shed a few tears.

Time Patrolman came into my life as a Kickstarter reward, from Ad Astra Books and Coffee in Salina, KS. It's really two novellas rather than a single story: the first, "Ivory, Apes, and Peacocks," takes place in 950 BC in the flourishing Phoenician city of Tyre. Manse Everard has come there to investigate a bomb sent from the future by temporal terrorists unknown; as a member of the Time Patrol--an organization formed to protect the integrity of humanity's history--he must track down the perpetrators, in time as well as space, before they carry out their threat to destroy the whole city, with the millenia of repercussions such a catastrophe would create. It's a fun historical/sci-fi detective story, with a great sense of place.

Still, I liked the second tale, "The Sorrows of Odin the Goth," much better--its emotionally engaging characters and immersion in the everyday life of ordinary people insignificant to history remind me of Connie Willis's Oxford time-travel stories. Carl Farness is recruited to the Time Patrol as an academic; formerly a professor of Germanic philology, he wants to track down the truth of events among the fourth-century Ostrogoths that gave rise to legends recorded centuries later. But while there, he falls in love, and when Jorith dies in childbirth, he becomes determined to protect his offspring, born 1500 years before him. His entanglement with his own descendants gets him in trouble, of course, but it's not till the very end that he realizes how great the damage he's done, and the one agonizing choice that remains to him to fix things. Sad, beautiful, and complicated (I mean, the tenses alone!).

(FTC disclaimer: I received free copies of The Iron Bridge and Limit Vol. 6 from Steerforth and Vertical, respectively.)

11 July 2013

The Wooden Shepherdess (Richard Hughes)

Oh, gosh. Guys, can get on making literary necromancy a thing? Because Richard Hughes having the bad luck to die before finishing the projected third volume of The Human Predicament, I think, ranks up there with Gogol's burning the second part of Dead Souls (and then dying himself before he thought better of it) in terms of woefully unfinished masterpieces. The two volumes he published in 1961 (The Fox in the Attic) and 1973 (The Wooden Shepherdess) are already a 20th-century War and Peace, sans theory-of-history digressions and plus a wry wit Tolstoy wouldn't know if it bit him in the beard. It's somehow both epic and intimate, gorgeously written, and Hughes has taught me more about the internal machinations of the Nazi Party, and contemporaneous British parliamentary politics, than history class ever did. (Not to knock my European History teacher at all. Dude was awesome.)

The Fox in the Attic ended with the Munich Putsch, and The Wooden Shepherdess somewhat accelerates the pace, climaxing eleven years later with the Night of the Long Knives (memorably and mythically depicted in Visconti's The Damned). I say "somewhat," because while several months or even years may be dispatched in summary, there are small scenes and set pieces along the way that seem to proceed in real time. The book begins in Prohibition-era America, where the 24-year-old quasi-hero of Attic, Augustine, has ended up after being mugged on a Breton dock and unceremoniously dumped down the hatch of a rum-running boat. Hiding out due to his lack of papers and his illicit means of arrival, he soon finds himself the "elderly mascot" of a pack of hard-drinking, promiscuous, utterly baffling teenagers--"self-sufficient as eagles, unarmored as lambs." This setup leads to perhaps the best literary car chase of all time (I mean, can you think of another one?), and Augustine's deflowering, an encounter he feels a "cold-porridge parody" of his pure love for his Bavarian cousin, Mitzi, whose entry into a Carmelite convent forms another, rather less raucous, thread.

The novel also continues the story of Augustine's sister, Mary, her MP husband, Gilbert, and their daughter, Polly, and adds a new backdrop--the slums of Coventry; at one point Hughes segues between the two brilliantly with "Yes, the ways of the rich man are known to be full of trouble; but even the poor have their cares." And while the rich and poor of Great Britain have their troubles and cares, while Augustine has adventures in Morocco and grows ever more aimless, Hitler slowly continues to climb to absolute power. And not in the background, either--Hughes is totally unafraid to hash out history in narrative, to flesh out real people as characters, to try to figure out not just the how but the why of it, with the chilling hindsight that 30s Europe simply didn't have. An ambitious undertaking, to say the least--but one in which he unambiguously succeeds.

09 July 2013

Amy Falls Down (Jincy Willett)

Reviewed here for Wichita's alternative weekly newspaper F5.

04 July 2013

Wives and Daughters (Elizabeth Gaskell)

Wives and Daughters was the last book I started in my recent travels, on the train back to Kansas from New Mexico. I think it was recommended to me ages ago when I read Fathers and Sons? So yeah, the Project Gutenberg ebook's been sittin' on the ol' Nook for a while. Glad I finally got to it, though!

Set in the 1820s in an English country village, Wives and Daughters is mostly the story of Molly Gibson, daughter of the local surgeon. I'm not gonna lie, she's pretty annoying, v. much in the Sweet Gentle Victorian Heroine mold, which can often read as spineless to a millenial harridan like me. She's hardly insufferable, though, and she's surrounded by some great female characters--and male as well, in the persons of Squire Hamley and his two sons, Osborne and Roger, all good dudes.

But as the title tells us, the women in the book may be defined by their relationships to men, they occupy their own feminine spaces, and it's in these that the novel largely dwells. Mr. Gibson's appallingly self-centered second wife sometimes shades into evil-stepmother territory, it's true; her daughter, Cynthia, however, defies stereotype. Cynthia is flirtatious, and thoughtless at time, but she and Molly become as close as sisters, despite their differences (this diverse-sibling relationship is mirrored by the Hamley boys). I loved Cynthia (and I loved that everybody thinks her name is totally out there): she knows who she is, and she knows her own mind, flaws and all.

(Also gotta give a thumbs-up to the happily unmarried Miss Browning, who says at one poit, "I am rather inclined to look upon matrimony as a weakness to which some very worthy people are prone.")

One warning should you decide to read this one--it was published serially, starting in August 1864, and Elizabeth Gaskell died of a heart attack in November 1865 without finishing it. It's almost there--you can tell what's going to happen--but it's really a shame she didn't get to write it.

*For the standard by which I now measure heroine insufferability, read** the sentimental journey of Ellen Montgomery, protagonist of Susan Warner's 1850 The Wide, Wide World--America's first bestseller!

**No, please don't read it, it's awful. Like, in one of the first chapters, Ellen's mother chides her because Ellen says she loves her mom more than she loves Jesus, and her mom is all, "I love Jesus more than I love you." SERIOUSLY THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENS AUGH
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