February 28, 2008

Book 8: Neuromancer

William Gibson

This book was my introduction to cyberpunk and I have to say, despite some limitations with this specific book, the setting was absolutely electrifying and absorbing. Gibson's gritty future unfolds in front of the viewer's eyes, a complete panorama of swirling neon in a vision shockingly close to the future we currently inhabit. Neuromancer's characters are compelling and flawed, vividly portrayed despite the book's reliance on heavily confusing and twisting plot elements; Gibson undoubtedly is a man of vision but, like Chiba City and The Sprawl, his vision often becomes unnecessarily cluttered and confusing to the uninitiated.

Neuromancer is, at heart, a cyber-thriller about fast paced crime and the underworld of a depressingly seedy future. The setting feels real and the focus on grime over glitter is a compelling one. Cyberpunk simply would not function without its "punk" element, and this book brings it in force. From the first page, the reader identifies with a thief, an underground addict who operates on shady morals but who clearly follows his own moral code. Case is realistic and undoubtedly more exciting to follow than any middle-class denizens of this world, who remain aloof and only pop in for brief bouts of hard-hitting social satire. Gibson rounds out his basic setting with a strangely realistic vision of cyberspace, an alternate reality that can interact with the real world but which represents a different reality altogether. Its similarities to the modern Internet are uncanny, and technology in the book is explained thoroughly without long-winded technical specs or obviously planted dialogue. The technology, like the world, simply leaps off of the page and constructs its own reality.

What is unfortunate is that the book is somewhat limited by its too-intricate plot twists. The action of Neuromancer is fast paced to match its setting, but far too often the reader is lost in the dust, struggling to keep up amongst the jargon and Case's own misunderstandings of technology. Even after finishing the book, I am confused as to why certain characters took certain sides. The book has a feel of constant grasping, as if something has been missed that would provide the key to understanding. Gibson's world is so real and so jarring that it is possible that the ratio of setting to plot is simply too equal, and my own reading focused too heavily on the former. Regardless, Gibson's reluctance to state the obvious occasionally works agaisnt him as concepts take too long to settle in and become familiar, often long after they become crucial to the events unfolding.

Overall, Neuromancer is unmatched in providing a realistic and intriguing setting. This vision of the future is as fully realized as one can hope for, including its very real links to the present (both 1984 and 2008). Despite their occasionally elusive nature, the characters are compelling and would be at home in further examinations of their lives. Molly Millions is especially well-realized and occasionally overshadows Case, the novel's obvious main character. Reading this book is an enveloping experience that creates a desire to experience the setting, a feat accomplished only by the most nuanced literary visionaries. Despite Gibson's notorious lack of knowledge about computers, he is spot-on in his visions of technology and the future of not only computer systems but also plastic surgery and perhaps politics and business as well. Though Neuromancer is often confusing and cluttered, it is worth reading for the scope of its vision alone. I suspect, too, that its plot will settle a bit on a second reading; the book is so full that there is almost too much brilliance to take in on the first time around.

Grade: A-

February 23, 2008

Book 7: Shatterday

Harlan Ellison

Ellison has put together a fine collection of short stories in Shatterday, stories that run the gamut from straight-up science fiction to fantasy to horror to outright comedy and romance. One thing that remains consistent throughout the stories, however, is Ellison's focus on the darker side of humanity and aspects of humanity which we would prefer to ignore. Ellison's stories bring a dark tint to the everyday and use either slight or overt fantastic elements just as often as necessary, only overwhelming the reader in two or three stories and providing what is, if not the most coherent story collection, certainly many fine examples of the short fiction form.

The collection's leading item, "Jeffty is Five," is heartwrenching and, quite simply, a masterpiece. The tone shifts quickly from lighthearted nostalgia to outright despair as Ellison asks us to reconsider our attachment to the past. "Jeffty is Five" raises more questions then it answers and is simply in a league of its own. Thoroughly imagined and with a startlingly realistic tone throughout, the story reveals intricate parts of the human psyche without once trying too hard to impart its message.

"How's the Night Life on Cissalda?" is a bit sophomoric in subject matter (Ellison himself admits in his introduction that the story is primarily about "fucking"), but nonetheless provides an interesting take on human solitude in a collection filled with human interaction. Many stories ("All the Birds Come Home to Roost" and "All the Lies That Are My Life" are foremost among them) deal with more realistic situations but retain an air of the fantastic that separates them just enough from our shared reality to really provoke thought in the discerning reader. Ellison is not all doom and gloom, however (despite what "Flop Sweat" would suggest) and "Would You Do It for a Penny" is outright funny, if betraying a rather cynical picture of humanity. This cynical view is inherent throughout the collection but its author is mercifully more interested in probing the human mind than explaining it. Each story benefits from careful consideration and application and each reveals its truth(s) subtly enough to encourage careful reading. Each story falls into place and reveals another dark, hidden aspect of the mind. The collection is unsettling but briliantly so.

By branching out from traditional science fiction and fantasy, Ellison allows his talent to transcend genre and concentrate on his twisted tales and not-so-strange protagonists, who are in unreasonably close proximity to his readers. Though his introductions are often self-serving, they provide an interesting glimpse into the madness of his method and contextualize the stories in a way that adds to their mystique and power without spoiling their contents. The only stories in the collection that are in any way failures are "Opium," which is far too abstract, and "Shoppe Keeper," which takes a brilliant premise and leaves it tragically underdeveloped and vague. In both cases, Ellison has stumbled onto stories just as interesting as those that form his best fiction, losing one slight aspect along the way that limits their possibilities. Shatterday and "Shatterday," however, represent Ellison in top form; the collection is definitely worth pursuing for fans of science fiction, fantasy, and more realistic literature alike. Ellison's short fiction here probes the human condition in an unsettling way powerful for its uncomfortable proximity to reality.

Grade: A

February 22, 2008

Book 6: The Road

The Road
Cormac McCarthy

This book is not for the faint of heart or for those looking for a quick pick-me-up. Though it reads quickly, The Road just as quickly absorbs itself into your soul and refuses to let go, leaving the reader stunned and strangely hungering for more of the bleak and barren landscape of the road. McCarthy's style may here defy conventions and seem simple, but this book is an elegant masterpiece cloaked in the clothes of simplicity. All of the aspects that would hurt any other book come together to form a panoramic view of a hopeless post-apocalyptic environment that tugs at the heartstrings and is so passionately real. McCarthy doesn't need flashy language or complex constructions to tug at the heartstrings and to evoke utter despair and desolation- indeed, the simplicity of the text makes it that much easier to relate to and allows the book to permeate and linger, a careful meditation on human frailty that is ultimately beautiful in its complete destruction.

McCarthy's style is, to say the least, incredibly understated. Dialogue is unmarked and contractions are often missing apostrophes. Rather than rendering the book unreadable, however, these small stylistic considerations (they are obviously far from oversights) create an atmosphere that transcends the book and allows it to become an independent environment actually experienced by the reader. The conversations between the unnamed protagonist and his son, for example, often resolve in ambiguities that open up vastly different and intellectually interesting possibilities. Though the portraits of the two main characters are heart-wrenchingly complete, they remain elusive and general enough to apply at once to everyone and no one else at all. Occasionally they seem extraordinary for surviving thus far; at other times, they are reflections of humanity's deepest and darkest moments. They are brilliantly inconsistent and each conversation, each snatch of description adds to their portraits and force the reader to look inward. There is something about these characters that is eerily resonant and haunting, a perfect tone that matches the plot.

The plot, while a bit tedious at the beginning, weaves itself in amongst the character developments and prevents the book from becoming a simple character study. Though events may seem interchangeable or intermittently excessive, each in fact adds to the legend and builds upon the previous events to create an actual narrative. It would be far too easy to begin at the apocalypse and end with salvation; instead, McCarthy begins in the middle and gives his starkly rendered landscape no direct cause. The apocalyptic event remains shrouded in mystery and heightens the generally tense tone of the book; it simply does not need to be explained. It has happened, and events follow as such.

The Road lingers in the mind and in the heart, at once deeply touching and incredibly disturbing. It achieves so much in part because it works solely in subtlety- the scarce shock scenes that do appear don't seem for a minute out of place and fit in perfectly with the world McCarthy has created. The book manages to be understated while touching strongly on themes of morality throughout: there are no grand moral pronouncements, only two characters trying (for whatever reason) to survive and doing the best they can. It may seem strange that a pre-apocalyptic audience could find such cohesion with these characters and their incredibly distant situation, but McCarthy's incomparable talent makes the barren, bleak road appear before us. The Road may be the emotionally heaviest book I have read in a long time, but it is achingly poignant and worth its weight.

Grade: A

February 17, 2008

Book 5: Desert Blood

Desert Blood
Alicia Gaspar de Alba

Taking a string of real-life events horrific and terrifying enough to escape even the yellow journalism of 24-hour cable news stations and turning it into a gripping and compelling mystery novel is no small task. However, this book, while necessary and entertaining in the most basic sense of the word, ultimately falls prey to bad writing and contrived plot devices and fades into obscurity along with the murders of hundreds of young Mexican women along the El Paso/Juarez border. Gaspar de Alba does a good job of rendering the murders and creates a gripping enough story to keep readers interested, but by resorting to overplayed conventions of the mystery genre she undermines both her book and, unfortunately, the story behind it. Desert Blood, far from being a wake-up call to happily ignorant America, instead polarizes readers and turns them away with flat characters and predictable, unrealistic plot elements.

Gaspar de Alba does deserve some credit for this harrowing novel. She bravely attempts to pull back the curtain on an utterly ignored tragedy sadly close to home and, in writing the book, surely subjected herself to minor psychological terror. As a woman, it is immensely uncomfortable to read the multiple graphic accounts of brutalization and rape; necessarily written in the present tense and sparing no minute detail, these chapters bring the problem right to readers' eyes and minds. They are strong and evoke parallel strong reactions among readers. While this level of graphic detail should turn readers away, it actually serves the novel well by painting a no-holds-barred picture of the situation at hand. The time has long passed for the country to wake up, and if Desert Blood has to shock to raise awareness, so be it. The entire book is saturated in a grittiness that speaks to its real-life source material and makes it continually compelling despite its many flaws. Gaspar de Alba has real literary talent, but it's a shame that it is wasted only on the most terrifying passages of the book.

While the book provides an acute and three-dimensional sense of setting (El Paso and Juarez come alive), it cannot create even remotely realistic characters. Ivon, the main character, is hopelessly stereotypical. Even late attempts to distinguish her from other beer-swilling, men-hating, Doc-Marten-clad butch lesbians cannot override readers' first perceptions of her as just another rough and masculine lesbian, who happens to be in this situation. Her family situation shows a desperate attempt to come away from the stereotypes but instead plays off of others, proving that two stereotypes together does not defy either one and instead keeps the situation at bay instead of bringing it home. While I will be the last to argue that feminist lesbians should not be main characters in books, even I could not identify with Ivon. She is off-putting to those of us who wish to rise above popular perceptions and will certainly alienate most men and straight women who see yet another manifestation of the angry dyke. This is a narrative that calls for a sympathetic main character, a failure even more obvious in the short chapters that place readers in the shoes of the victims, with whom they identify completely despite their brief duration. There are a few truly unique characters in this book, but Gaspar de Alba takes such pains to refrain from individualizing most that character introductions and description induce groans and release readers from the story.

This kind of obvious and over-done attempt at characterization is reflected in the writing as a whole. Many implications can be easily drawn from the narrative without Gaspar de Alba's tiresome lecturing. Gaspar de Alba rightly chooses an entirely omniscient narrator for the book, but abuses it to the point where a limited view seems vastly superior. The novel is littered with sentences that function only as asides to the reader, in effect the author screaming through a bullhorn right in the reader's ear. All of this is unnecessary and only serves to put the reader off even more than the downright offensive stereotypes. Desert Blood, while attempting to raise awareness and provide biting social commentary, comes off as a protracted rant against The Man instead of a nuanced work exploring problems in a very realistic way. What is even more infuriating is that there is subtle talent evident at certain points in the book, the parts that will most likely turn readers off without an interesting surrounding narrative to make the disgust worthwhile.

The book is not a complete failure. It does present a real problem in harrowing terms and presents an interesting theory regarding the reason for the murders in Juarez, inviting readers to follow up themselves and begging the question, "Why isn't anything being done about this?" If only the book didn't actually ask this question so many times in plain and boring prose, if only the plot didn't wrap up nicely and follow predictable, groan-inducing patterns, if only the characters weren't infuriating to those whom they seek to represent as well as those whom they openly defy, if only it didn't try so hard, then maybe Desert Blood could have been a clear call to action and a hair-raising mystery. Unfortunately, we are left only with what we have, and it is far from great or even particularly useful. The Juarez murders linger in obscurity despite this attempt to bring them to the forefront of American discourse.

Grade: B-

February 10, 2008

Book 4: World War Z

World War Z
Max Brooks

Thankfully, I'm picking up the pace quite a bit here, and with mind-blowing entertainment too. World War Z has everything: a clever concept executed with amazing clarity, gripping narration engrossing yet effortless, a compelling human interest story, good writing, a touch of black humor, and a combination of hope and cynicism that would astound Hemingway. I was a bit worried while approaching this book; in fact, I laughed it off. A book about a zombie war, by the son of Mel Brooks? Well, hey, I had to read it for class. Having finished the book, I wish to ban my ignorance forever to the wayside. This book is amazing and strong from start to finish. Brooks is a master of adaptation and movement, tracking a zombie plague throughout the globe and nailing international relations as well as intricate human relationships. Brooks deals with concepts as familiar as love and as unfamiliar as, well, a zombie apocalypse. He may have chosen a niche topic around which to weave his tales of violent upheaval and worldwide panic, but his excellent authorial skills should not be dismissed and instead lend the somewhat marginalized topic of zombies a piece of credible, highly executed art.

From the first page of the book, I knew that Brooks had chosen exactly the right medium in which to tell his story. By compiling a selection of interviews, Brooks is able to present the multiple viewpoints modern readers should expect with an event of this scope. Instead of limiting his story to the United States or even expanding to Europe or Australia, Brooks provides a truly worldwide outlook on a colossal global event, made possible only through the globalization utilized to brilliant ends within the book. By beginning in China, Brooks roots out the very beginning of the problem and sets off the chain reaction he will follow around the globe as the contagion spreads. More importantly, he thinks outside of the realm of the particular interview at hand and includes references to future or past interviews that, taken together, provide a complete view of events. Brooks recognizes both the strengths and weaknesses of oral interviews as a source of information and exploits both brilliantly, adding insightful satire and critiques without becoming too overbearing (usually). A few references to the Iraq War become a bit cumbersome and are too transparently linked to the views of the author (though I happen to agree with them), but authorial presence is usually held to a minimum in the book. That presence that Brooks does show is usually filtered through the lens of the interviewer who has collected the data available here; adding this voice gives the book an extra dimension of realism.

This realistic take on such a cliched and overly fantastic subject as zombies is shockingly effective. Brooks uses the viral strain of zombie history and links it into current fears about potential bird flu or SARS pandemics. The path he traces is realistic and recalls the spread of other diseases. The actions of the different countries most represented (particularly the United States, Russia, and China) seem to be realistic extrapolations based on their current conduct. Is it so unbelievable that China would do all in its power to hide news of the spreading crisis (just think of the more benign toy contaminations) or that Russia would revert to a pseudo-Romanov "Holy Russian Empire"? Brooks presents much of the darker side of human nature but is so compelling and so blatantly honest that readers have no choice but to go along for the ride and accept the story as it unfolds. It is, in fact, shocking to be drawn out of the narrative universe and back into the real, zombie-free world.

Brooks's speakers are likewise incredibly real and broadly representative. There are doctors, statesmen, everyday survivors, soldiers, and even emotionally scarred victims of the war. Some appear more than once and all are somehow sympathetic. By presenting them in their own words, Brooks wisely avoids judgment (except for the sly interruptions of the interviewer) and lets the story tell itself. This is the best way to present a global event, and characters run the gamut in almost every respect. Not all are stereotypical representatives of a typical apocalyptic story; you'll find them here but presented in the flesh and without cliche. Each person has a story to tell and yet each story connects to the others and reveals a small piece of the larger picture. The book is a triumph in integration; each section is necessary yet stands on its own. None seem extraneous and all are equally compelling in their own way.

By the time the reader finishes this book, zombies have gone from a tired horror-movie staple to a compellingly terrifying possibility. We are as intimate with the zombies as those who directly encountered them. We know the timeline of the war and are familiar with the different methods and means by which people escaped. We are not only familiar with the war itself but with the shape the postwar world is taking; the story does not stop with the last great pushes against the zombies but lives on in the remarkably and concisely detailed interview settings (as well as the consideration that the plague may not be entirely over).

This book is a well-written and engaging literary piece masquerading as pulp fiction. Brooks knows what he is doing and has brilliantly executed each facet of his incredibly detailed concept, exploring its ramifications and leaving no part of the history of the zombie war along the wayside (my shattered ego lies alone). Some sections of the book are a bit heavy on the present, making me fear for its potential longevity (it is tied incredibly closely to the early 2000s), but I believe that it can function as a work of alternate history, projecting a path based on our own times. While the gore in the book may turn off some readers, it is not overbearing and certainly not extraneous- the horrific moments are central to the plot and help create the vivid sense of reality that ultimately makes the novel work. I may have been skeptical at the outset, but I will undoubtedly return to this incredible book time and again to explore its insights into human nature, its bizarrely relevant take on the fate of humanity in a world gone mad. With zombies.

Grade: A

February 4, 2008

Book 3: Philadelphia Fire

Philadelphia Fire
John Edgar Wideman

Here is a book that really displays the challenge of fairly representing a book. There is no doubt that some aspects of Wideman's passionate novel are worthy of the accolades triumphantly gracing its cover. There is some doubt that there is literary merit on each page of this complicated book. There is significant doubt that this book can truly inspire or successfully engage all but the most highbrow readers, thereby alienating the very demographic that the book appeals to and is meant to inspire. Wideman surely has chosen an appropriate form for his story of absolute disintegration and chaos; unfortunately his free indirect discourse, however critically appropriate, does not translate into a logical or even particularly engaging narrative. Wideman takes an important and tragically neglected topic and causes more confusion and befuddlement than was likely there in the first place, squandering an important opportunity but all the same crafting an interesting and valuable piece.

The main problem with the book is its utter lack of logic. Characters drift in an out, conversations without quotation marks may or may not take place, stunningly irrelevant flashbacks cut across the hints of plot, and Wideman launches into self-serving soul-searching just when his character is about to find a hint of solace (maybe; one can never tell). To call the book "winding" or "stream-of-consciousness" would be grossly exaggerated understatements as Wideman takes pains in refusing to make any sense whatsoever. What is most remarkable about the work is that selected portions do manage to make sense within themselves and that Wideman's bits of wisdom make the book bearable, if only barely. There are scattered paragraphs that brilliantly evoke the difficulty of literature to fully contain a sense of history and to even attempt to convey complex and individual-specific thoughts. When Wideman says, "Thought telling you might help. But it doesn't. I feel myself beginning to invent. Filling in the blanks but the blanks are real. Part of the dream," he latches onto an almost universal sentiment and makes an utterly profound statement about reality. This insight is potentially life-changing, but even a discerning reader will easily miss it the first few times around due to the incongruity of the book and the misplaced wisdom. There are similar morsels, but they would do better to be collected (as is an inexplicable list of possibly relevant outside quotations just a few pages later) than to languish amongst the debris that makes up the book.

Now for the surprising part. Though the book is utterly painful to read and will cause many a headache to those accustomed to vague progression of events or consistency in setting or character, there is an underlying logic that barely peeks through, and then only upon the closest inspection. Wideman is ostensibly writing about the bombing of the MOVE cult in West Philadelphia and the subsequent burning of the surrounding ghetto in 1985, and his detached and flaky narrative skeleton can easily be mapped onto the confusion felt by his first main character (Cudjoe). The disjointed nature of the story makes more sense in this context, and though it is painful to experience it places the reader almost inside Cudjoe's disoriented and confused mind. The first section of the novel, in fact, almost presents a narrative that could be follwed during the subsequent sections, if only Wideman would stick to the subject matter and resist the urge to lapse into self-pitying autobiography, which is where he loses the reader. The second portion of the book is mind-numbingly boring and self-concerned and utterly unrelated to the important event now neglected even by the author aiming to shower it with attention. It is no wonder that people feel disenfranchised and forgotten; if Wideman's point was to convey this he succeeds absolutely, which unfortunately still brings a loss to the community that, nevertheless, lacks adequate (if any) representation. Is Wideman's message truly that the black community in Philadelphia should play second fiddle to his personal concerns? The third section of the book somewhat redeems the work, but the first story remains unresolved and only comes back nominally in the last few pages, too late to make any sense whatsoever and just in time to really agitate those hoping for a hint of stability.

There is no mistake in calling Wideman's work a study in disintegration. His book brilliantly mirrors the disrespect thematically hinted at throughout Philadelphia Fire, but I fear that in falling into this trap he has done a great disservice to those who would benefit most from an honest and intriguing treatment of this tragedy. While Wideman does nail some aspects of his story, such as the routine subtle racism towards a black mayor and the hopelessness of the landscape of poor urban America, his book is messy at best and is too challenging to affect the situation at large. I have no doubt that Wideman is an exceptionally skilled writer; his insights can be fascinating and mind-opening, but altogether this work lacks coherence and cannot even stick to its own vague semblance of a plot for more than 90 pages. Philadelphia Fire is structually interesting but could probably be replaced by a more coherent and, let's face it, enjoyable portrait of the destitute, one which remains accessible enough to do more than endlessly frustrate.

Grade: C+

February 2, 2008

Book 2: Melville's Short Novels

Melville's Short Novels
Herman Melville

This particular book may be difficult to review on account of its dual nature. Its first part consists of three original texts by Melville, while the second part deals with likely source material and critical essays and commentary. The book as a whole hangs together quite well, although the division between stories, sources, and criticism is a bit awkard and would make more sense were all the material pertaining to a certain story placed in the same section of the book. The numerous divisions make it somewhat difficult to engage with all of the material for a specific story before moving on, but this is merely a flaw of aesthetic execution and does not reflect upon the material provided, which is of excellent but draining and somewhat dry quality.

The stories themselves are brilliant and well-chosen. "Bartleby the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," and "Billy Budd, Sailor" all deal with similar themes of alienation and have surprising resonance with class issues and issues of subordination and mastery. From Bartleby's subtle resistance to the accidental misstep of Billy Budd to the outright violence onboard Benito Cereno's ship, Melville traces patterns of resistance and the utility of violence and its potential consequences. Each story stands well alone but raises different issues when considered in light of the other two works. Melville uses radically different situations to explore fundamental questions with elements of mystery and hidden motives, never revealing too much and being sure to leave his stories open to multiple valid interpretations. Where Melville stumbles a bit is in his overly long passages of description and background information that would be better left out. "Billy Budd" is often confusion and lacking in action, and the story suffers for it, though it is somewhat redeemed by the questions it poses. Melville asks a lot of his readers and, for the most part, the work put into understanding the stories will pay off richly.

The benefit of introspection and careful consideration is highlighted by the inclusion of essays and source material. "Benito Cereno" especially benefits from these additions because its source material was a diary and related legal depositions. Reading these primary sources makes it quite obvious what Melville chose to omit or elaborate upon, or even outright invent. This puts the story in an entirely new plane and allows the reader to carefully consider it and recognize the importance of every single word. "Benito Cereno" is a masterpiece based on a historical event and only stands to gain from the inclusion of its source material. Likewise, "Bartleby" and "Billy Budd" also gain interesting context from their sources, but none of these are as direct or interesting as the former. Melville's acknowledgment is merely hinted at or postulated instead of being readily apparent, and the inclusion of some source material for his other works (Emerson's "The Transcendentalist" for "Bartleby," in particular) unfairly pushes a specific interpretation of the text while posing as an objective view of its origin.

It is thus with a certain amount of doubt that one should approach the critical essays. These are, again, particularly useful in the case of the brilliantly ambiguous "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby" but become overbearing in light of "Billy Budd"'s already overbearing tone. Most of the essays included contribute significantly to an increased understanding of their subjects, but some are unreasonably obtuse and confrontational, tending towards the academic at the expense of the interesting and useful. The essays are definitely worth taking a look at, but they do not represent an exhaustive consideration of Melville's work and should be approached with certain hesitancy.

Overall, the volume is highly academic but still remains interesting to the discerning and involved reader. Melville's work itself can stand on its own but gains eerie depth when approached from the different angles suggested by the critical parts of the volume. Melville does stumble a bit and his first two stories are somewhat superior to the third in terms of sheer interest to the casual reader, but all three will yield interesting philosophical prompts when examined with any kind of caution at all. It is no accident that Herman Melville has assumed a central position within the history of American literature, and his short works help illuminate his talent and his knack for packing heaps of philosophy into fairly small spaces.

Grade: A-