April 30, 2008

Book 17: The Best American Short Stories 2007

The Best American Short Stories
Edited by Stephen King

Another year, another Best American collection, again spectacular and, according to my inexpert view, likely deserving of its title. This collection is strong throughout and, though certain stories necessarily rise above others, all are worth at least a preliminary glance. A couple are inferior but all of the stories in this collection are at least interesting and will reward readers for their time and efforts. King's influence could be acutely felt throughout the collection, as it included several more fantastic stories not normally encountered in the "literary" pantheon, but his presence is not overbearing and the collection maintains an excellent balance between realism and fantasy. The stories in this collection have a broad range of focus and theme but all attempt to get at an underlying truth of the human condition, more often than not in brilliant and unforgettable ways.

Highlights of the collection include John Barth's "Toga Party", which brilliantly sketches the slow decline of old age and a far more responsible approach to it than many would expect. The story is dreary but somehow celebrates life at the same time. William Gay's "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?" is a terrific, although slightly confused, portrait of an unsympathetic ruffian who becomes utterly tragic. The story hits all at once in its last final lines, a summation that does the story justice by making the plainly obvious absolutely inescapable. In doing so, it avoids the curse of many overbearing authors and moves the story to a higher plane. "Sans Farine" by Jim Shepard, "Wake" by Beverly Jensen, and "Findings & Impressions" by Stellar Kim all impress as well, taking the extraordinary and making it normal, with unforgettable characters and interesting new perspectives on seemingly routine events. "The Boy in Zaquitos" is undoubtedly present due to King's intervention (coming from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) but should be read by anyone and everyone willing to believe in the horrors of globalization and the terrible toll espionage can take on its agents. The absolute best story in the collection, however, is Roy Kesey's "Wait", at once moving and uproariously hilarious. I laughed out loud throughout the entire story as a normal delayed flight scenario degenerates into all-out civil war and meteoric destruction. Just when the doomed passengers seem to find some release, some hope of departure, a new and unexpected delay strikes; the story follows this simple formula yet somehow it never gets old. Kesey's unlimited imagination and careful balance of raw emotions with fantastic events create an incredibly hilarious but insightful story. This collection contains more gems than an ordinary short story collection should, with its good stories undoubtedly the cream of the crop and its mediocre offerings still a cut above the rest.

Grade: A

April 28, 2008

Book 16: The Godfather

The Godfather
Mario Puzo

I have never seen the movie based on this book, but given its gripping story and characters, it is no wonder that The Godfather's adaptation is hailed as one of the best movies ever. Puzo's novel gets occasionally sidetracked but stands up as a solid work of Mafia fiction, a clever blend of film noir with genuine family drama, romance, and subtle hints of the American Dream. The Godfather is a big city fantasy gritty and realistic to the core, successfully alternating between surprisingly touching sex scenes, run-of-the-mill business meetings, and scenes of incredible bloodlust and horriffic, but never off-putting, violence. Puzo is an incredibly skilled writer who draws on his refined and realistic characters and thoroughly intense portrait of the New York underworld to create a gripping novel with real literary merit despite its pulp intentions.

The novel opens with four diverse stories of men who have come upon misfortune and who are going to ask their shared Godfather for favors. This approach is the absolute best way to begin the sprawling epic narrative of Vito Corleone, alerting readers immediately to his immense power and his intricate value system that relies on such favors and friendships to retain that power. Puzo is at once subtle and blunt; it is obvious that Corleone is a powerful Mafia Don but the narrative itself waits to include violence, immediately setting its delicate balance. Puzo's restraint is remarkable; though his pacing is off a bit and the novel cluttered with unnecessary side stories, he knows when to shock and when to draw back. The gory details of sex or murder never overwhelm the narrative and thus should not put off readers too much. The restraint in this regard is remarkable.

Unfortunately, the novel's only flaws come from overuse of this restraint. While details come back often enough to ensure that nothing in the novel is pure fluff, some of Puzo's timing is woefully off and makes the book a bit unbalanced at times. The history of Don Corleone, for example, is gripping and intimidating but comes in the awkward middle of the novel, truly belonging perhaps to several other breaks in the story but only breaking up the heretofore effective speed of the narrative. Similarly, details about certain Italian terms are included where they are not necessary at all and create false leads. Most ineffective is the narrative's play on time and space. Though Puzo skips backwards effectively at crucial points in the narrative, other temporal anomalies are simply awkward and ineffective. The most egregious offense is Albert Neri's backstory, an entire nested chapter that is illuminating but comes during the novel's climax. Puzo is otherwise a master of third person omniscient narrative and makes excellent choices; his story is a bit muddled but not less intriguing or worth reading because of a few simple errors.

In fact, The Godfather utilizes the most appropriate third-person omniscient voice that I can recall. It is absolutely crucial that each individual story be followed in this manner, and the use of an absolutely detached narrator only cements the novel's presence as a family epic above any other suitable genre (all of which, incidentally, it excels at). The story throughout is gripping and it is a testament to Puzo's talent that main threads do not get lost in all of the book's many crevices and tangents, though they are plentiful. The book is a sprawling family drama above all, a Mafia-centered fantasy wonderfully packed with interesting characters and possessing a subtlety suitable to the workings of Don Corleone himself. Despite the fact that it may be considered "pulp fiction," Mario Puzo has put quite a lot of talent and hard work into The Godfather, making it an unforgettable book of utmost quality. Excellent for a summer read and enjoyable all-around, The Godfather is a well-written American epic and a modern classic.

Grade: A

April 23, 2008

Book 15: Hiroshima

John Hersey

What an exceptionally sparse, yet moving book. Hersey went to Hiroshima a year after the devastating nuclear bomb strike of August 1945 and interviewed several victims of the blast, producing this shocking and matter-of-fact account of the strike and its immediate aftermath, giving modern readers and contemporary readers alike an intricate picture of the havoc wreaked by this inhuman monster of modern warfare. Hersey succeeds mostly because he does not sentimentalize the victims or their plights: his prose is straightforward and journalistic. Hersey knows to sit back and let the events unfold in the reader's imagination, and his restraint makes the book effective despite its dry, jounalistic tone. Throughout the small book there are hints of interweaving stories but these threads are never forced and are left to unfold as they will and, despite the book's focus on six individuals, those people are well-connected and provide a seemingly comprehensive glimpse into the horrors of the world's entrance into the new nuclear era.

Hersey wisely begins without much backstory or elaborate set-ups. He simply presents his six main characters as they were precisely when the bomb was dropped, a stark shift from everyday life to the depths of psychological horrors beyond the normal imagination. Hersey does an excellent job of capturing the frantic sense of confusion in his rapid shifts between the interviewees and their situations; though this makes the narrative confusing for the reader, the narrative is effective because each story is sufficiently individual and social to fit within the greater scope of the work. Hersey traces the victims through the immediate aftermath and then swings wide to look at the months after the bombing; this transition is a bit awkward and inconsistent between the individual stories but nonetheless offers appropriate senses of both closure and enduring effects. Hiroshima may not be a particularly exciting or sentimental story of a nuclear bomb strike, but it is a deeply moving piece of journalism that should be read by any and all even considering the potential benefits and hazards of using nuclear weapons. Despite its focus on a culture entirely removed from our own, it is not hard for modern readers to find their own colleagues and family members among Hersey's starkly rendered characters: Hiroshima is a testament to the horrible power of human imagination and, without falling victim to overarching pronouncements on human nature, retains a power in and of itself to comment on the human condition. This book is an exercise in minimalism entirely appropriate to its subject and is thus entirely successful.

Grade: A

April 13, 2008

Book 14: The Sleeper Awakes

The Sleeper Awakes
H.G. Wells

I have always been interested in time-travel narratives, and H.G. Wells, being one of the preeminent fathers of science fiction, has naturally thrown his hat into the ring. Unfortunately, his predictions of the future have not aged well, though they are sometimes remarkably accurate and show an interesting glimpse of what life was like while he was writing. The Sleeper Awakes, while not a bonafide classic of science fiction, nonetheless presents an intriguing look at the year 2100 that reflects as much on his own time as on our own (which is almost precisely in between Wells's own time and the novel's imagined future). Useful for its vision, Wells is often unclear and the narrative often cluttered, alternating too infrequently between long passages of description, which often become boring and tiresome, and action that often occurs far too quickly to be followed by the reader. Wells has intriguing ideas, but is ultimately unable to combine them with a gripping plot to form a successful book; the pacing is, frankly, terrible, but the book is far from horrible.

The main thrust of Wells's story is the continuing and changing education of Graham, the protagonist who awakes in a foreign world to find that, due to interest and investments on his behalf, he is absolute owner of the future London. Unfortunately, the audience is as clueless as Graham and any subtle hints are entirely missed in the confusion. There is something to be said for experiencing this disorienting future alongside the unfortunate lost soul, but throughout most of the first half of the novel there is no hint of a coherent plot or landscape; everything is muddy and the vertigo experienced by the reader is entirely unpleasant. To top it off, much of this section is devoted to descriptions that end up going nowhere, with almost no plot to hold the reader's interest and justify further reading. Thankfully, the second half sees a spurt of action and connects many of the loose threads from the first half of the novel, but unfortunately these are explained to Graham and he has almost no sense of discovery. For an ultimate ruler, he has strikingly little power and insufficient psychological depth to carry the book.

The reason the book is not a total waste, however, is its predictions, which offer interesting insights into both the 1890s and the historical trajectory of the present. Sure, we don't have single person monoplanes, but modern readers must remember that Wells wrote The Sleeper Awakes a few years before the historic Wright Brothers' flights at Kitty Hawk; what Wells does predict is a sense of open-air combat and dogfighting that remains relevant, though less so, today. This prediction, along with visions of feeding tubes and babble machines (almost literally "talking heads"- sound familiar?) presents a realistic view of our own world and is remarkably prescient, even for a 1921 revision. Wells hit the nail right on the head regarding the population migration into cities and away from rural areas; though he did not forsee the sprawling suburbs of the middle class, he accurately assumed great shifts of people that reflect not only the physical reality of modern urban/suburban spaces but also communities on the Internet and the general sense of globalization that we live with. More interesting than his technology, perhaps, is Wells's vision of future politics. Though, thankfully, we have not seen a resurgence of slavery, the urban underclass today is arguably enslaved by the modern capitalist system. Wells is far from a Marxist and the politics of his novel end ambiguously, but his view of the natural extension of capitalism cannot be ruled out as a viable possibility. Unlikely, maybe, but there are traces of modernity in this fictional system that pits the people against a tyrant ruling "in their name". Most shockingly, this scenario was made full flesh in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and is not impossible under the increasingly top-heavy American capitalist system today.

Overall, then, The Sleeper Awakes is trapped between two extremes: its writing leaves much to be desired and sputters only to suddenly fling the reader along at full speed, but its actual content is relevant and intriguing. The pacing is uneven and ragged, leaving the reader often as lost as Graham, which is not necessarily to the novel's benefit. On the other hand, Wells has proven his credibility in predicting future trends. This book is illuminating for its visions of the future of yesterday and that future's relationship to our own familiar world. Anyone interested in futurology or Victorian visions of today would be interested in this book's raw predictions, though the plot leaves a bit to be desired. Politicians would be wise to read this book in good faith, and Wells carefully treads the line between Marxism and capitalism in his politics. The book ends in an ambiguity that is not frustrating but amazingly appropriate, ensuring that The Sleeper Awakes is at least relevant and interesting to niche audiences.

Grade: B

April 11, 2008

Book 13: Angels in America

Angels in America
Tony Kushner

I was worried at first about reviewing this epic work, mostly because it is a play and I tend to stick to prose. Upon reading it, however, I found myself fully engrossed by the plot and characters, all of whom are intricately interesting if lumped into certain categories and occasionally insufficiently developed. Angels in America is nothing if not ambitious, but occasionally it reaches too high and sacrifices realitic plot lines or dialogue (even for a fantasy, some of it is a stretch) for sheer wonder, which often leads to confusion and requires the re-reading of several passages. Indeed, if I had not seen the HBO adaptation immediately upon finishing the play, many of the crucial plot points and character interactions would continue to elude me. Kushner's work is well-executed and gives an interesting glimpse into modern America, but it is lacking in a few crucial ways.

Kushner centers on the AIDS crisis as a turning point for America, a hinge upon which the door of the Millennium is about to swing shut. The main characters are introduced economically and, especially through Kushner's liberal use of description, get a good sense of who they are. All of them are at a breaking point and each scenario is realistic and heartwrenching as relationships fall apart. The play's dialogue is usually believable, though some rants (such as Louis talking to Belize in a diner) seem entirely out of character and, while adding important thematic depth to the play's dismantling of modern America, are out of place and annoying. Despite some extraneous matter and rampant stereotyping (all gay men do not call each other "girl"), each character is fully realized and many develop incredibly throughout the play, which traces its set of coincidental encounters very carefully and in a straightforward, often funny, manner. Kushner's characters are three dimensional, vibrant, and are the major reason that the play succeeds.

It is when the Angel of America enters that things get a bit muddy. While I am no opponent to fantasy elements, the Angel is done clumsily and is often too Biblical without adequate preparation. While the central problem facing America is old news (think Nietzsche), it is handled with originality and fits within the scope of the play, which pits the conservativism of Angels and, well, conservatives, against the inevitable tide of change and progress. The play unfortunately misses the mark and spends too much energy condemning Ronald Reagan and his brand of conservatism; while AIDS is at the center of the play it is largely ignored thematically and becomes just another disease. The play could almost be about cancer and retain crucial elements. Ultimately, Kushner is a bit too forward with his personal political opinions and does not forge them into something useful for understanding his characters or the play's relationship to America.

Certain elements of the play, such as Joe Pitt's inner struggles, are at once brilliantly depicted and utterly ignored; on one hand, we see him grow and fail to grow. On the other, there is no indication of what is going on within his head. These flaws embody the main problems with the play. Humor is misplaced and awkward: "Millennium Approaches" (the first half) is far more serious than "Perestroika" and the tone change does not make any sense, as their events overlap. Kushner alternately adopts postures of deepest gravity and strange, ironic humor, which do not mix well in this particular story. The play is interesting and certainly isn't bad, but ultimately it is a bit too pretentious and tries to do too much. Kushner underestimates the power of subtlety and, though introducing wonderful ghosts (Ethel Rosenberg is fantastic) and a fairly well-conceived extended metaphor, aims a bit too high to be truly great. This play deserves revisiting, as my experiences with the miniseries prove, but as a first-time reading experience it disappoints.

Grade: B

April 3, 2008

Book 12: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem

Even after considering this book in class, an exercise that usually raises my opinion of a book, this book is still simply mediocre. It has its high points and its low points and definitely shows that Lethem has talent and is comfortable with a film noir, grimy New York City feel. When all of the pieces of the book come together, however, none stands out and shines. Motherless Brooklyn is interesting and mildly engaging but nothing jumps off of the page. It will not lodge itself irresistably in your consciousness, nor will it inspire rage at pretention or sheer inability (neither of which factor in at all). The book in this sense achieves the almost impossible: it simply exists.

Lowpoints of the novel come, unfortunately, with its plot. While Lethem's take on the traditional story of orphans finding a father figure in a brutal world is engaging and interesting, it isn't strikingly original. The fact that four Brooklyn orphans become henchmen for a small-time mobster and generally shady figure is hardly surprising and follows conventions. The plot plods along at a reasonable pace, again continually interesting but never achieving the thrilling feeling of a chase; though the book's first car chase is incredibly well done and creates a page-turning chapter, its more climactic second chase is, again, merely on display. This is the main problem with the novel: though it is, at heart, a mystery story (albeit with a strong emphasis on character rather than plot, which is fine), Motherless Brooklyn simply lacks the intrigue that belongs in the genre. There is nothing wrong with defying conventions or stretching them. However, when a reader encounters a certain type of novel it can't hurt to carefully consider when to break form and strike new territory. The mystery's strongest selling point, its incredible tension and continual turning of the screws, is missing by the end of the book. Even when Lethem does include a genre-satisfying piece (more specifically, the wrap-up that explains all), it is befuddled and doesn't clarify the events of the story. Life is complicated, but such a simple and, let's face it, predictable outcome at least warrants a clear explanation.

All this aside, the novel does provide some excellent insights into the human condition; its strong sense of character is almost unrivalled to the point where it feels unfair to judge the book's plot at all negatively. Lethem's main chracter, Lionel, is living with Tourette's syndrome and, even better, he narrates. The glimpses we get into Lionel's stuttering, stream-of-conciousness mind (both through his narration of thoughts and out loud) are illuminating and familiar to those whose brains have ever made rapid, almost untraceable connections. Lionel gets a bit corny when talking about his relationship to Frank Minna, his father figure, but he is always engaging and is endlessly fascinating. Despite the fact that he is cut almost whole from stereotypical cloth, he comes alive and piques interest in his story. His words seem real and his outbursts come naturally.

What's unfortunate about the book is that the story of Lionel's journey and detective work doesn't do justice to his account thereof. His syndrome defines him, helps him, and hinders him, but though it is seamlessly integrated into the story, the plot remains stagnant. Twists can be seen from miles away and never reach toward satisfying conclusions. This is terribly unfortunate coming out of a writer with such undeniable talent. Brooklyn comes alive in this novel so much that I feel I have been there even without visiting. The supporting cast, though relegated to flat background in most cases, are at least interesting for their expected and unexpected reactions to Lionel- stereotypical or not, they allow the reader to experience Lionel from the outside, at least temporarily. Lionel is one of the most original narrators I have yet encountered. Rather than sentimentalizing Lionel's challenges, Lethem allows him to simply live with them, an illuminating experience that makes the novel worth reading despite its lack of excitement. Motherless Brooklyn is ultimately a novel comprised of individually excellent parts that never quite cohere into a whole. It is neither a must-read nor a waste of time. For a few hours of entertainment and perhaps some moments of self-reflection, readers can do much worse.

Grade: B