January 20, 2009

Book 4: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories
Robert Louis Stevenson

I find it difficult to believe that I have never before read "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and am already so familiar with it due to cultural saturation that the experience of reading it was rather sublime at times. Unfortunately, I could never look upon the story with entirely new eyes and read it with its eventual revelation effectively spoiled. Nonetheless, the novella is a powerful piece, an interesting and original parable about the evil that lies within each of us. The best thing about the story is the fact that while it is undoubtedly an allegory it never feels too heavy or overbearing and is always internally interesting. Readers are drawn in immediately, towards the climax of Dr. Jekyll's unfortunate situation, and an inventive narrative structure of backwards revelations keeps the surprises coming as the story unfolds. Stevenson manages to take one of the most famous tropes in English literature and develop it in an interesting, ambiguous, and timeless way- of course we accept the fundamental divide between good and evil within us, but Stevenson takes this metaphorical split onto the literal plane and mixes in a bit of science fiction to create a provoking and unrelentingly dark tale. There are no compromises and Stevenson pulls no unnecessary punches; "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is an original tale that echoes seamlessly past its own time frame and dives fearlessly and subtly into the human psyche.

The other stories selected for this book are "The Bottle Imp", "Markheim", and "The Body-Snatcher", each of which have their merits and fit in well with the fundamental good/evil divide explored in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". The first is an original re-telling of the typical genie story that has an interesting Faustian twist that speaks effectively to the possibilities of ultimate love, sacrifice, and selfishness. Despite an ending that seems a bit unfulfilled and a little too cheery given the tone of the rest of the story and its predecessor in this volume, "The Bottle Imp" is an original and enlightening take on a traditional narrative that should please any readers interested in Faust bargains. "Markheim" is a quick psychological thriller that effectively, though clumsily at times, speaks to the division of good and evil within one human being, though in a qutie a different way than "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". It has a bit of a twist ending that is powerful though a bit too strident to be entirely effective- I assume it would hold more weight to its own contemporary audience. The last story in this particular grouping, "The Body-Snatcher", is a well-written pure horror story that employs an interesting front-nested narrative structure that frames the story rather well. Stevenson knows how to inject a sense of mystery throughout the entire story by clouding the reasons behind its opening tumultuous exhchange and again proves his knack of a well-structured story by ending absoulutely perfectly.

Throughout these four stories, it is clear that Stevenson is interested in the ways that good and evil impulses interact and affect us as we deal with them; he takes four very distinct approaches and draws no single conclusion. Each story comes to a vastly different ending in regards to its outlook on human nature, and none feel overly contrived or overwhelmingly thematic. Stevenson allows for a little fantasy in these stories and it serves him quite well, allowing him to explore humanity in a much more real way than much purely realistic fiction can. These stories never stray too far beyond the realm of possibility to stretch credulity and as a result form a powerful testament to our power to confront and deal with the evil that lies within each of us. Stevenson refreshingly abstains from becoming overly didactic (save in "Markheim") and knows exactly how to let a story form, develop, end, and, most importantly, breathe. His worlds simply exist without being at all overwrought (again, Mr. Markheim proves the exception with a disappointing final speech) and subtly explore darker themes without annoying moralizing. Robert Louis Stevenson proves himself immensely interested in the depths of the human psyche in these stories and approaches it with a depth of understanding that can only be appreciated by all-too-human readers. These stories are intellectually engaging and, more importantly, enjoyable and well-written and definitely deserve a look. "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has certainly earned its place among the classics of English literature.

Grade: A

January 17, 2009

Book 3: The First Immortal

The First Immortal
James L. Halperin

The jacket of this book totally sold me; sure, I was a little leery of this unknown sci-fi adventure, but it had a fantastic premise and I decided to give it a chance. Despite its usually-subpar writing, I found The First Immortal incredibly entertaining and, almost despite itself, a thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. If nothing else, this book has inspired me to write a book of my own condemning many of the fatal writing flaws effortlessly exhibited by this book. It's almost too bad that the writing of the book is so self-conscious, because its topic is incredibly interesting and, as a matter of plot, is dealt with well and in several unique facets. Halperin proposes a world in which cryonics (post-death freezing of the body in hope of future rehabilitation) becomes feasible in the coming century and studies the effects of its prevalence on societal attitudes about everything from death to the role of humanity in the universe to gay marriage. The science appears well thought-out, even if the timeline is a bit optimistic, and Halperin does an excellent job of creating a consistent future world that is believable in its completeness. He does not stop at exploring death but expands his vision into the future of computers and artificial intelligence, with the occasional irrelevant pimping of his other book (I can tell without even having read it). The future he explores is always interesting and is obviously well-researched and carefully considered; it's too bad his characters and general writing fall so far below the competence level when his setting excels.

The plot itself is set up to cover just over 100 years and focuses on Benjamin Franklin Smith (a rational deistic scientist with an estranged- though totally legitimate- son, go figure) and his descendants as they deal with the emerging and exploding science of cryonics. Halperin does a good job of drawing a portrait of Ben in the beginning, but clouds any judgment with what I like to call the Obvious Hammer, a style of writing in which the theme is emphasized to the detriment of any literary quality. Teenage Ben and his best friend Toby sit around having unbelievably existential discussions in the days immediately preceding Pearl Harbor, and while Ben's outlook on life as the world's most precious commodity goes a long way to describe his fascination with cryonics, it does not need to be so incessantly beaten into the reader. Other characters are, for the most part, underdeveloped two-dimensional moving plot devices; the glaring exception is Ben's sole son Gary, who is characterized fully only to become baffling and inconsistent several times throughout the book. Characterization is clearly not Halperin's strong point, and though readers are at least interested in his actors, it is clear from the beginning that the book is mostly a forum for a lengthy exploration of the effects of cryonics on society. Far too often, Ben and co. simply represent different sides of a philosophical debate instead of nuanced, individuated human beings.

Though its biggest writing flaws are its lack of reliable characters and its stunning use of the Obvious Hammer, The First Immortal has some truly questionable structural decisions. The first person narration is entirely misplaced and serves only to confuse the reader; the "I" comes in at entirely inappropriate moments and reminds us that there is no plausible way the narrator could know everything about his great-grandfather's childhood or his ordeal during his time at a World War II prison camp (well, I suppose that with immortality and a perfect memory Ben may have had time to narrate all of this, but why to his great-grandson and not, you know, to readers directly?). Additionally, though the overall time span of the book works, certain jumps are too large and there are huge gaps in the general sense of this world. The book inexplicably switches from a diary-like format, with dates simply listed to deliniate sections, to an AP-fronted style without so much as a warning or even a page break. This latter style makes sense and is deployed effectively to give readers headlines relevant to the time in question, saving Halperin time in constructing and explaining technological developments, but its sudden appearance seems gimmicky; it would have been more effective if used uniformly throughout the book. Halperin's use of seemingly-irrelevant detail in these headlines is excusable because it gives readers a working knowledge and certain familiarity with the strange new world, but he all too often describes his words with laughably unrealistic dialogue- there is so much redundant explaining between characters who would already know everything being said that it almost becomes a running gag, entertaining rather than infuriating.

This, then, is the fundamental conclusion that I draw about The First Immortal: it is a wonderful attempt at using fiction to explore some truths about existence, with a strong sense of its issues and themes, but it takes itself way too seriously and its author is really a terrible writer. The ideas presented are excellent and interesting, but the poor writing demeans them and makes the whole book come across as yet another work of bad sci-fi, which is too bad because there is something behind the book that is incredibly interesting and telling. I actually enjoyed this book despite its many glaring writing flaws because the world it presents is so compelling and so realistic that I was sucked in and hooked. Sure, the book isn't helped much by its introduction ("Two [incredibly self-righteous and too-serious] Caveats") or its bibliography/further reading postscript that makes the whole book retroactively seem like an advertisement for cryonic freezing and research, but it is, at heart, fun. I don't know if I would exactly recommend this book, but I did enjoy it despite my inherent and near-constant desire to groan. It's bad, it really is, but it transcends its horrible writing to become entertaining rather than infuriating and worth a look.

Grade: C

January 10, 2009

Book 2: Shampoo Planet

Shampoo Planet
Douglas Coupland

Shampoo Planet is Coupland's follow-up to his generation-defining Generation X and proves to be an interesting successor when read in this context. This novel follows the same basic structure and tone of Generation X, although it is set a few years later and focuses on a younger and, perhaps, less aimless generation. This book feels very much the same as its predecessor and contains much of Coupland's charm and typical missteps. Coupland's writing style and the strong voice of his narrator do much to capture the feeling of the era as experienced by his characters. Coupland uses some stereotypes in his writing but his major characters rise above them. There are times when main characters Tyler and Anna-Louise seem like they're just quipping stereotypical sound bytes at each other, but there are others in which their cynicism feels incredibly nuanced and appropriate. There is no question that Coupland has a hold on the mindset of these millennial generations, but his wit can be heavy-handed and overbearing at times. When Coupland is on target, however, the book shines as a time capsule of the era and even our own. Shampoo Planet is most definitely a product of the early nineties, but many of its concerns are still felt strongly in today's society- Coupland simultaneously writes in his time and for the future, which perhaps says more about contemporary American society than a present-day novel might.

This book also improves on Generation X in terms of breadth of characterization and plot development. The plot is simple but takes Tyler on his necessary journey; it resolves in a rather silly manner but because the novel concentrates more on interpersonal relationships this awkward resolution is acceptable. Certain characters fall prey to pointless stereotypes (Harmony is a woefully obsessed Dungeons and Dragons nerd who is entirely unrealistic) but others rise above them (ex-hippie Jasmine comes to some interesting conclusions about the world); Coupland, as usual, provides and eccentric and sarcastic yet entirely relatable and likable cast. He also provides and intricate sense of setting from a backpacker's Europe to yuppie-wannabe rural Washington to the unglamorous Hollywood. Shampoo Planet is, like its predecessor, an accessible and interesting novel tied inextricably from its time period but relevant even today. Coupland captures in his nonchalant and conversational style the voice and outlook of a generation trying to strike a balance between their 60s-era parents and the dawning hope of a digitized, corporate future. Coupland is not always eloquent but he is always revealing and more often than not can draw laughs and sympathetic sighs in the same breath. As Tyler says while inscribing dollar bills with revealing one- or two-line observations, "What I write are not sins; I write tragedies."

Grade: A-

January 6, 2009

Book 1: Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet
Sarah Waters

So begins another year of reading, hopefully one as successful as the past two have been, both in terms of quantity and quality. Thankfully, Tipping the Velvet proved to be an excellent and successful beginning, an excellent and absorbing read that kept me intrigued despite its flaws. It is nice to finally encounter a book featuring lesbians and their relationships that doesn't trivialize them or throw them in as an afterthought. The book is an excellent use of lesbianism in serious, literary fiction, and that in itself is quite an accomplishment. Indeed, the best aspect of Tipping the Velvet is its impeccable sense of setting- turn-of-the-century England (particularly London) is incredibly vivid and real, and the characters who populate it seem believable and well-suited to their time period. One would think that a teeming underground of lesbians in the 1890s is unlikely and too influenced by modern standards, but I found most of its quirks and characters intensely believable; it helps that Waters places her lesbian characters into clusters, who of course would all know each other and create circles for other lesbians to move within. London itself is remarkably rendered and absolutely comes alive, perhaps even more so because I've been there but certainly becauase of Waters's sense of time and place and, of course, literary skill.

What is more interesting is that Tipping the Velvet, though incredibly specific to its time and place, is more of a character study than a period piece. It is, at heart, the story of a selfish young girl learning what love, and more specifically love for women, means. Nancy herself is very three-dimensional; though I greatly enjoyed the book, I'm still not sure I'm entirely fond of her. Nevertheless, she is intriguing and it is interesting to see how she becomes alternately resourceful (when out of luck) or content and lazy (when privileged). It is easy to judge her prior complacency and her helplessness when she is cast out of her heavens, but she is reacting fairly to her circumstances. Additionally, it is thrilling to watch her come into her own as she plays with conventional notions of gender through her appearance. Waters does her readers a great service by refusing to make Nancy a great and flawless heroine; her humanity prevents the book from becoming trivialized and allows its focus on lesbianism to be taken seriously and the book to be read by those outside of this small , expected audience. It is too bad, then, that its plot often feels contrived and becomes, by the end, quite predictable. Each section of the book ends quite similarly, and there are many occasions when the foreshadowing is a bit thick. The climax amusingly recalls the end of The Jungle with its unabashed, but firmly setting-specific, socialist rhetoric.

There are a few problems with Tipping the Velvet, but overall it is a strong book and an interesting alternative vision of the turn-of-the-century world often recalled in modern art. The book's depiction of the music-hall life and streets of busy, bustling London are astounding and vivid, as are the characters. The novel deals quite interestingly with an aspect of life largely untouched by serious works of fiction and is frank, but not condescending, in its depiction of lesbianism and the effects it has on both lesbians and those around them. Waters uses her supporting cast to explore various means of dealing with same-sex attraction and raises issues of shame and the idea of coming out without being disingenuous to her story or seeming trite. Many timeless issues that arise with not only same-sex attraction and relationships, but also through ideas about gender presentation, are present in the novel and form an undercurrent that are appreciated by those in the know without being condescending to those who prefer more traditional partners. Nancy is a convincing and lively narrator, despite the character flaws exposed by the narrative, and though there are issues with the overarching plot, individual sections and encounters are handled deftly. Tipping the Velvet lacks a little in its overall execution, but in the minutiae is proves itself addictive and quite revealing, an original and spellbinding look at turn-of-the-century London seen through the eyes of an under-utilized minority.

Grade: A-