January 2, 2016

Book 1: Noises Off

Noises Off: A Play in Three Acts
Michael Frayn

I must begin with a confession: I have an annoying habit of over-thinking things (see, for example, this blog), including my perennial choice of first book of the year. But even if I do fear the impact that a dull- or, perish the thought, bad- opener will have on my next twelve months of literary conquests, it is an irrational apprehension with no satisfactory solution. All of this is a long-winded (see "over-thinking", above) way of saying that I picked up Michael Frayn's Noises Off on a whim after reading a summary of a cinematic adaptation, despite knowing little about theater. I do, however, deeply appreciate the concept of farce, the quintessential spirit of British humor, and the opportunity to pull back the curtain on an operation. Luckily, this was sufficient to allow me to enjoy Noises Off, a satirical look at the gradual, but ever-accelerating, unraveling of a small traveling theater company during a production of the imaginary play Nothing On.

I usually find myself slightly worried about my ability to adapt to the peculiarities of written drama, given the inherent differences between plays and prose, but if Frayn's work is any indication, these adjustments needn't be painful or even particularly noticeable. With a surplus of humorously stated stage directions and a group of supplementary program notes from its play-within-a-play, Noises Off works well solely as a printed text. Both the framing narrative and the fictional play are often laugh-out-loud hilarious, relying as they do on simple misunderstandings and ample helpings of dramatic irony. Nonetheless, much of the humor of Noises Off- and, indeed, of Nothing On within it- comes from the physical location of the actors and the fast-paced juggling of various props, which can be difficult to follow without a visual aid. And though this did detract a bit from my reading experience, it successfully piqued my interest in the play's visual aspects and ensured that I will keep an eye out for performances within a reasonably drivable radius.

Still, the play does have its limitations. The characters in both Noises Off and Nothing On are relatively cliché, a problem somewhat exacerbated by the fact that each of them is distinguished primarily by a different degree of aloofness rather than by any deeper traits. While this may result in part from Frayn's conscious decision to imitate and satirize the traditional bedroom farce, it doesn't help the reader make sense of one character's seemingly unprecedented descent into a sudden, jealous rage in Act Two; we have only the other characters' overly expository dialogue to guide us, where even a few bits of stray dialogue in Act One could have at least laid the barest foundation. This hasty characterization contributes to the overall farcical tone of the play, for both better (the play itself convincingly mirrors that which it engages) and worse (simplified characters are more difficult to fully appreciate, even when the intended reaction isn't wholly serious or straightforward).

Likewise, the plot's eventual descent into complete madness may be read either as a successful emulation of the general form or as a frustrating oversight. The general structure is excellent, as the reader views the interpersonal relationships as they begin to fray during a final rehearsal, rapidly deteriorate during one fateful matinee, and come completely unhinged in the (mercifully) final performance. Frayn's use of the play-within-a-play is utterly genius at times: by seamlessly weaving the entire first act of Nothing On into his own Act One, he ensures that readers fully appreciate each subsequent change, both subtle and entirely bizarre, that come later. The slapstick, who's-on-first (and, more pertinently, where-are-the-sardines) nature of Noises Off and Nothing On overlaps perfectly during Act Two, when readers helplessly watch the players simultaneously do their best to rescue a live performance while suffering from their own exaggerated (but no less hilarious) mishaps and misunderstandings backstage. Frayn's interweaving of actions in Noises Off and Nothing On is nothing short of brilliant, especially given the intricate, delicately poised network of comings and goings that drive the latter. The humor of Acts One and Two is almost effortless despite many moments of inherent silliness, marred only by the reader's inability to trace the physical locations of players and props without significant visual assistance.

It is a shame, then, that Noises Off goes slightly off the rails in its own third act. While the natural progression between the events of Act One and Act Two is appropriate and obvious- as is the series of mishaps that characterizes the fast-paced, blink-and-miss-it action of the middle-frame, the gap between Acts Two and Three is impossibly vast. Some clumsy dialogue clues readers into some newer points of tension, alongside those that linger from the first two acts, but it is not enough to sufficiently bridge the gap. Frayn's intentions are obvious, but the third act becomes increasingly detached from the first two, resulting in a climax that is somewhat painful to read given the effortless genius of the first two extended scenes. The play becomes somewhat preoccupied with itself and its farcical ambitions, to its immediate and unfortunate detriment, and the end simply doesn't hold up to the precedent established mere pages before. Nonetheless, the humor is accessible even for those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of modern stage productions and the play has a timeless quality about it, holding up perfectly nearly forty years after it was first conceived. The first two acts of Noises Off are among the funniest pieces of fiction I can recall reading recently and, thankfully, carry the day despite a weak finale that is destined to disappoint.


Grade: B+

December 5, 2015

Book 56: The Best of Electric Velocipede


The Best of Electric Velocipede
Edited by John Klima

This collection traces the history of The Electric Velocipede through some of the stories and poetry it published during its run. Though the anthology presents itself as a "best of" edition, the individual stories and poems drastically vary in quality (moreso than in most other collections) even if they do tend to improve as the volume proceeds. This book has its gems, as all of its kind do, but ultimately feels somewhat scattered without a sense of theme to guide it. The focus on speculative fiction is evident throughout, but it's difficult to get a handle on which genre a particular story is in as they flit between various fantasy and science fiction tropes. This is perhaps primarily a fault of the offending authors, but the frenetic reading experience could have been improved by more mindful organization (the effect of chronological ordering here results in a lot of disorienting jumps), effective introductory notes, or other ameliorating editorial factors. That said, the collection does have its high points and surely does not lack for variety; I was particularly surprised to find myself drawn in by some of the poetry. The Best of Electric Velocipede does provide a useful introduction to some lesser-known voices in speculative fiction, but its many misfires lead to a wildly uneven reading experience despite the success of its few gems.

Grade: C

November 22, 2015

Book 55: The Shore


The Shore
Sara Taylor

The first thing to note about this book is its structure; though advertised as a novel, The Shore is a collection of short stories that follow the lives of several generations (particularly women) of a family living on the Virginia Barrier Islands. The stories do link up nicely, even if readers must frequently refer to the family tree that Taylor provides at the front of the book, and certain themes weave their way throughout the collection. The interconnectedness is deliberate and easy to spot, yet feels natural as secondary characters in one story come to the fore in another. Most crucial is the legend of matriarch Medora, whose story is told directly but becomes (understandably) distorted over the generations, in a nice and relatively subtle metafictional nod to the power of story and the peculiarities of family legends. Each story feels complete while connecting to the greater whole, though one story- that of someone who left the islands- seems to be missing, leaving a gap in the otherwise tight mosaic. Other stories, particularly the final quartet, diverge slightly from the previous formula, following characters who are not Medora's direct descendants and only given a more direct connection to the remainder at the end of the book. Individual stories work well in isolation and their variation showcases Taylor's array of skills as she utilizes different narrative voices, tenses, and moods, making the characters come alive and distinguishing them individually and temporally. These stories truly feel like they are taking place in their own times, even if Taylor stumbles a bit in her attempt to include non sequitur plague fiction; this particular effort feels a bit forced and introduces some thematic elements that Taylor fails to exploit usefully. Despite this and some other minor stumbles, The Shore is an intriguing and engrossing portrait of a place, told through the various lenses of a single family and the diverse experiences they have, from poverty to profit and everywhere in between.

Grade: A-

November 13, 2015

Book 54: Zeroes


Zeroes
Chuck Wendig

I approached this book really wanting to like it from the description, which promised a fun near-future adventure with a misfit band of characters. By and large, Wendig's novel delivers exactly that, with standard technology-driven science fiction tropes blending seamlessly with the fast-paced plotting of a thriller and a touch of horror here and there. The technical elements are handled well for a non-specialist audience (of which I am most definitely a part) and the action is relatively easy to follow without an extensive computer background; the plot alone is twisty enough to keep most readers hooked regardless. The more graphic elements of the story come somewhat by surprise and stand out, and though they work in the context of the story readers may want to be aware going in that they do pop up. More conventionally, Wendig plays to his strengths with his core group of characters, who are a nice mix of quirks and identities. I suspect that much of his audience will see themselves within this group, mostly for the better. Though the book focuses more on its characters and plot twists, with its science fiction aspects acting more as a vehicle than a core, Wendig does explore some intriguing ideas about artificial intelligence and hacking as a pursuit with shifting and indefinite moral codes. The book's main stumble comes with its framing device, particularly at the end of the novel, where it comes seemingly out of nowhere and fails to connect the requisite dots. Even if it is the opening to a potential sequel, it makes little sense in the context of this book. Overall, however, Zeroes is a fun science fiction thriller that offers a different twist on some familiar tropes and a pleasant enough reading experience.

Grade: B+

November 5, 2015

Book 53: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
Fannie Flagg

After becoming quite familiar with this book from its reputation, I finally decided to read it. I found the book to be slightly rough going at the outset, as the framing narrative did little to draw me in: I found it to be a bit cloying and sentimental throughout and, much like the two present-day characters, would have rather preferred to spend my reading time among the bygone residents of Whistle Stop. Likewise, some elements of the main storyline can seem similarly haphazard, and the various diversions and backstories can seem either indispensible or irrelevant depending on the context and contents. The overall feeling is one of unevenness, aided little by the problematic handling of the book's Black characters. Yes, this novel intends to evoke midcentury Alabama; it was, however, written in the 1980s and Fannie Flagg should have made more of an effort to look at these characters through a more empathetic, modern lens. Despite some major flaws, the book does have a certain charm and, ironically perhaps in light of its poor treatment of race, excellent lesbian representation that feels no need to either hide nor trumpet its inclusive spirit. Idgie and Ruth's relationship is as natural to them and to the residents of Whistle Stop as any other, and while Flagg shies away from naming it outright her intent feels obvious. Representation is crucial, and it is always nice to see queer characters allowed to exist, happily, without being subject to the same five stories. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café certainly has its flaws, but its core holds a nice story of a bygone era, fully conceived and convincingly rendered, dripping in useful nostalgia.

Grade: B

October 29, 2015

Book 52: Fortune Smiles

Fortune Smiles
Adam Johnson

First and foremost, a content warning: the story "Dark Meadow" centers on a pedophile and treats this character sympathetically; proceed with caution. While I believe that this story effectively accomplishes its goals, reading it is a profoundly disturbing experience, insofar as it plants the reader firmly in this character's mind. Johnson (and, indeed, his editor(s)) may have had good intentions when including this story in the collection, but it is unsavory and would have better been left out.

Otherwise, this is an interesting short story collection that operates primarily in a familiar mode: it consists mostly of "literary" fiction with a few hints of sci-fi-inspired intrigue that are always a little too ashamed to cross over directly into genre writing. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but Johnson seems too willing to go along with the traditional strictures of litfic rather than exploring the inventive elements that would otherwise lend this collection some desperately needed originality. Several stories simply fail to capitalize on the author's grand ideas, whether by coming into them with too little interest too late in the story ("Nirvana") or by failing to connect the fantastic elements effectively to the story's other themes ("Fortune Smiles"). Interestingly enough, the most effective stories are the realistically minded "Hurricanes Anonymous" and "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", both of which are grounded in strong, compelling characters who carry the narratives even when nothing much is actually happening to or around them; the latter story, especially, is a masterclass in engendering readers' sympathy for an unsavory character, offering as it does an exploration into the idea of the banality of evil without excessive moralizing or unaffected indifference. Overall, Fortune Smiles is full of excellent writing and grapples with several interesting themes, but fails to capitalize on its most intriguing ideas, settling instead for typical aimless litfic fare.


Grade: B-

October 25, 2015

Book 51: Masked

Masked
Edited by Lou Anders

I may not have read many superhero comics, but I nonetheless find the concept of powered individuals incredibly intriguing and rife with possibilities. Masked collects fifteen stories of superheroes and supervillains with a pleasantly wide variety of styles, subjects, and, yes, superpowers. Though the anthology is a bit uneven, as they tend to be, I appreciated each author's attempt to reinvent a trope that often seems to have worn out its room for originality and growth. The originality never ceased to impress me, particularly in Bill Willingham's "A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)". Willingham brilliantly utilizes a nursery rhyme structure to introduce a roster of 26 alphabetically categorized super characters, while simultaneously keeping his story moving at a fine clip. It is a silly conceit, to be sure, but the format feels appropriate and functions as both a (gentle) skewering of and love letter to the genre (which, to be fair, often relies on a good deal of silliness in all of its formats). More serious, but equally enjoyable, is Chris Roberson's "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows", which introduces The Wraith in an adventure with thematic depth, written in a convincingly journalistic style that befits its mid-1940s setting; I only wish that I could read about more of his adventures. Other stories achieve varying levels of success, but each author offers an interesting take on the idea of the superhero, a draw that makes Masked as compelling as the very ideas it celebrates and thrives on.


Grade: A-

October 19, 2015

Book 50: Ghost Fleet

Ghost Fleet
P. W. Singer and August Cole

At its core, science fiction explores the (possible) effects of technological developments, no matter how minute or majestic, how realistic or ridiculous. Co-authors P. W. Singer and August Cole play at the genre's edges in Ghost Fleet, spinning a story of World War III using only plausible current technology (as the book's numerous endnotes attest). Moreover, the authors exploit current political tensions by choosing the United States, China, and Russia as the three primary combatants, a scenario that seems increasingly plausible by the day. This adherence to reality provides the book's core energy, even as the authors track a handful of influential individuals on all sides of the fighting. These personal stories are as convincing as they need to be in this context, offering readers additional emotional footholds alongside the ones provided by the very real, and effectively exploited, fear that the novel's events could easily take place in the near future.

Though the authors are, unsurprisingly, most sympathetic to the United States's point of view, they adopt an all-encompassing geopolitical outlook that significantly heightens narrative tension throughout the book. Expected sympathies aside, Singer and Cole carefully portray the conflict as a relatively even affair, in part by following sympathetic viewpoint characters on all sides. If the authors do have a blind spot, it is the everyday experiences of lower-ranking combatants and civilians; their story focuses, for better and worse, on the generals and other elite forces. The resulting story occasionally slides into hero worship, but enough scientific intrigue remains to make the experience worthwhile. The authors' tendency to focus almost exclusively on the big picture, even during the scenes that (almost) pass for emotional vignettes, does lower the emotional stakes somewhat, but the sheer probability of the events at hand make up most of the potentially lost ground.

Ultimately, the occasional nods to characterization do enough to keep readers emotionally invested in the viewpoint characters, even if the narrative is driven more by the impact of various technologies than any other factor(s). The novel offers little in the way of nuanced psychological drama or particularly beautiful prose, but its science is so solid that these omissions hardly matter. Somehow, the authors manage to focus on the science without losing too much of the fiction; they actively engage with, but do not become overly enamored by, the technology and avoid the kind of overwrought prose that exists merely to grasp at some "literary" cachet that books like this rarely even need. Moreover, the novel is accessible to everyone, despite the thorough research behind it, and the authors manage to portray the impact of technology without requiring their audience to sit through lengthy lectures. In the end, it all just works, and each of the books elements effectively accomplishes precisely what it needs to. Ghost Fleet is an excellent example of widely accessible hard science fiction that neither compromises its intellectual integrity nor grasps at unnecessary straws for so-called literary merit; steeped in uncompromising realism, it is a thrilling vision of a future that may be frighteningly close at hand.


Grade: A

October 11, 2015

Book 49: Music for Wartime

Music for Wartime
Rebecca Makkai

All short story collections are potentially susceptible to derailment due to inconsistency of subject, theme, style, and/or quality, and it is often difficult to anticipate what awaits when beginning one. This is particularly true of single-author anthologies, even those that do turn out to have a common thread running through their individual components. Comprised partially of stories focusing on Hungarians' experiences during and after World War II and partially of wholly unrelated tales, Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime occupies a strange middle ground between thematic unity and narrative diversity. The opening story and three additional "legends" interspersed throughout the collection are ephemeral folk tales set in rural interwar Europe (likely Hungary) that offer some context for those stories that explore the implications of the war, at the cost of making the others seem hopelessly out of place. Despite their individual and collective ability to establish a setting and evoke a particular mood, these efforts to establish a common thread and theme serve more to highlight the collection's incongruities than to unify its disparate pieces into a coherent whole.

Makkai's laudable, if imperfect, attempt to add a wrinkle to the typical anthology format betrays another of the collection's flaws: repetition that fails to construct collective meaning. Several characters seem to be recycled among the war-inspired stories without any overt connections beyond a general connection to the conflict, however far removed. Moreover, these stories are scattered among others featuring such wholly unconnected elements as a traveling circus, a reality television producer, and a time-traveling Johann Sebastian Bach. Without providing stronger connecting tissue or even ensuring their physical proximity, Makkai fails to capitalize on the war stories' potential power. Even though many individual stories shine, both within and outside of the purported theme, the collection lacks the unity it apparently craves. Powerful examinations of vivid characters and compelling philosophical questions are lost amidst the book's attempt at a unified vision that it fails to create. Music for Wartime is an eclectic collection that suffers from its hesitancy to effectively embrace either its shared themes or its more unique elements, resulting in a group of strong stories that buries its own potential.


Grade: B

October 2, 2015

Book 48: Look Who's Back

Look Who's Back
Timur Vermes

Satire can often be a tricky prospect, for what should be obvious reasons, and it is difficult to imagine a trickier target than Adolf Hitler; this is especially true when the target audience is German. Timur Vermes accepts the challenge by dropping the historical Hitler into modern Germany, with all of his personality (and our real-world history) intact. Moreover, this time-transported Hitler narrates his own story, putting readers into the dubious position of seeing the modern world through his point of view and, more importantly, forcing them to reconcile that vision with the reality we (think we) understand. The resurrected Hitler is as stubborn and single-minded as he was in his own time, and he struggles to make sense of a Germany that is radically different from both the one that he lived in and the one he intended to create. Meanwhile, he cannot accept the reality of his defeat, and thus views every development as a natural consequence of a resounding Axis victory in World War II. The constant discrepancy between Hitler's assumptions and the actual facts of postwar history creates the cognitive dissonance that drives the novel and provides the backbone of its (often pitch-black) humor.

The primary result of this juggling is a very funny novel that pokes fun at the displaced dictator and at the absurdities of the modern world. Yet Look Who's Back offers, at its core, a stern warning about this same tendency to laugh at humanity's darker impulses. Hitler is recognized and celebrated, in part, because this is what he expects; what others see as impeccable method acting is, in fact, a life truly lived, and it slowly wins over the public (but not, in a nice twist of irony, the actual neo-Nazis, who likewise believe that Hitler is merely a committed actor in wolf's clothing). He ultimately catapults to stardom after going viral on YouTube and winning a gig on the late-night circuit, a would-be parody act who is funny precisely because he is the only one not in on the joke. Wisely, perhaps, Vermes doesn't offer a verdict on the main question that arises: whether Hitler's charisma or the audience's (our) susceptibility to the exaggerated illogic of extremism is responsible for his renewed rise to power. Whatever the answer, the book certainly invites readers to consider how easily Hitler (still) captivates audiences, and how easily we dismiss extremists as silly without fully recognizing the danger they pose.

While it is surprisingly deep for a book focusing so obviously on ts surface humor, Look Who's Back may fail to resonate fully with an expanded audience. The trouble with Look Who's Back, for American readers, anyway, is that much of its humor is very narrowly tailored to its German audience. Certain jokes are necessarily inaccessible, despite translator Jamie Bulloch's best efforts and an appended glossary offering biographical notes on former and current German politicians (including lesser-known figures within the original NSDAP), entertainers, and potentially obscure facets of the country's entertainment industry. These references force the foreign reader into a catch-22: to read the explanatory notes is to accept spoilers, but to ignore them is to dwell in ignorance and miss many of the jokes as they fly past unheeded. It is somewhat unfair to blame either Vermes or Bulloch for this, but the obvious disconnect did affect my enjoyment of the novel; the book sacrifices universal accessibility for a deeper dive into modern German culture, and as a result it is impossible for many (if not most) English readers to fully appreciate and/or understand its humor and underlying message. Even in this somewhat distilled form, however, Look Who's Back cleverly explores the ramifications of its interesting premise, offering plenty of slapstick and satire to entertain readers who cannot fully appreciate, or judge, its criticisms.

Grade: B+