October 21, 2010

Book 55: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
Charlie Huston

This book, as the title suggests, is not for the faint of heart. If there is a single defining characteristic to this book, it is the coarse, direct delivery of dialogue and explanatory narration, snappy, gritty, and gory. Narrator Web makes no apologies for his decidedly antisocial behavior, and his inclination to swiftly destroy any semblance of normal human interaction is at first disorienting. It is indeed hard to sympathize with a narrator who is so deliberately, deeply unlikeable and alienating that even his closest friends have abandoned hope. There is, of course, good reason why Webster Goodhue acts the way he does, and sharp readers will be able to put the pieces together before Huston, just a touch too late, puts them together himself. The result of this delayed gratification is that the book feels a bit adrift; the plot is sufficient, but the characters and the language are so abrasive that it is difficult to get a firm grasp on the novel until the plot has kicked into high gear. Adding to this uncertainty and reader detachment is the tangled web of Web's life, which while making his actions understandable and ultimately ensuring that the thematic elements of the novel come together in its conclusion still takes a while to come together. Even so, however, it is not clear that a second reading would vastly illuminate anything, Web's personality tics memorable enough that their explanation in retrospect is sufficient.

This book is a strange mixture of the immediate, rough and tumble plot and a more reflective, somber undercurrent that emerges in brief glimpses before Huston launches into another violent, curse-laden crime spree. The novel is contemplative and has something to say about living and, more importantly, about erasing signs of death both literal and symbolic, but overall it is a novel of action. It feels almost as though Huston is attempting to slip the deep philosophy in amongst, and despite, a cracking story. The dissonance, however, resolves into a pleasant chord and the book is a surprisingly pleasant read, if one can get over the language and the often gruesome depictions of...well, gruesome things. Web's history as an intellectual and as an educator adds an extra layer of meta-cognition to the book: Web is dragged into the world of low-class, underachieving criminals much as the target reader is, for this book is aimed at a deep-thinking audience. It's an interesting transplant, especially as the alienation keenly explored throughout the book is at once offensive and redemptive. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is an ever-surprising juxtaposition of the abrasive and the vulnerable, of fast-paced action and sober reflection, and despite being a bit uneasy with itself at times, it somehow works.

Grade: A-

October 13, 2010

Book 54: American Slavery--American Freedom

American Slavery--American Freedom
Edmund S. Morgan

A friend who was dissatisfied with my previous review of Morgan's The Birth of the Republic thrust this book at me along with a challenge, asserting Morgan's prominence as an early American historian and this particular book as a revolutionary work in the historiography of the Revolution. I must say that either the previous book was actually quite poor or I wasn't quite paying attention, because this book is an excellent and well-written, if slightly overreaching, history of colonial Virginia. Most astonishing is the fact that Morgan is able to write what amounts to a dry and slow-paced economic narrative in prose engaging enough to keep reluctant readers interested, though a strong interest in the subject matter may in fact be a prerequisite to any attempts on this book. The prose is far from remarkable, but in being adequate, let alone on the good side of adequate on which he falls, Morgan already vastly outpaces most historical academics. Unfortunately, he routinely falls into some similar traps, including some chronological zig-zagging that doesn't quite make sense thematically. It is understandable and expected, for example, that some figures will need to be borrowed from years in which records actually survive, but this can lead to achronological data that leads to distractions and which ultimately distances both Morgan and the reader from the narrative threads at hand. Many aspects of the book's timeline are, on reflection, somewhat puzzling. The book, which purports to be a history of colonial Virginia and the ideology of the Revolution fermenting among the tobacco fields and within a slave-holding society, but the bulk of the text centers firmly on the 1600s. This is important background, of course, but when Morgan finally realizes that he has a thesis to prove, there is a rapid 100-year jump that surely warrants far more than the two chapters devoted to it.

This lack of focus occurs repeatedly within the book, as Morgan confuses important- and relevant- background information with fluff. All of the information contained herein is interesting, and it all relates to other information within the book, but Morgan's thesis regarding the parallel development of representative government and slavery would be better-served with a more deliberate focus or with a longer narrative that more fully covers post-seventeenth century development. As it is, Morgan does an excellent job covering important attitudes that colored Virginian rhetoric through the turbulent 1700s but only pulls them together in what feels like a desperate last gasp for his thesis. The arguments he presents are compelling, but his rush to end everything so swiftly in the final chapter relies heavily on the reader's trust as he flings assertions around without nearly as much deliberation as previously. Despite a lackadaisical pace, however, American Slavery-American Freedom does make some excellent, original, and well-articulated points about the economic and ideological environment in which both slavery and liberty (though this is an afterthought in Morgan's book) concurrently took such a firm grasp. As a history of colonial Virginia, the book is an excellent resource for historians with a thorough look at societal attitudes both home and abroad that inevitably shaped the colonial experience. American Slavery-American Freedom may not live up to its billing, but it is nonetheless a reasonably readable book exposing, if not quite expanding upon, the ways in which freedom and slavery could become so inextricably linked.

Grade: A-

October 1, 2010

Book 53: The Begum's Millions

The Begum's Millions
Jules Verne

It has been quite a while since I joined Verne on one of his fabulous scientific journeys, and on a recent trip to the library this title, heretofore unknown to me, jumped out. The jacket promised a juxtaposition of utopian and dystopian futures, and I was immediately on board for what promised to be an intimate look not only at Verne's own dual-pronged vision of the future but also of his own time. What emerged as the novel progressed was a book whose merits are derived primarily for its exposition of the author's own historical context rather than from its own literary or even imaginative merits, two qualities that are conspicuously absent despite the lasting enchantment of some of Verne's other works. The premise and plot are simple enough, with variations on either stemming directly from the racist overtones still resonating from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the characters likewise leave much to be desired. The usual imaginative vigor one would expect from a Verne story is suppressed for the sake of politics, and while the book does have some interesting things to say about industrialization and mechanized war (along with a chillingly prescient view of German self-promoted racial superiority) they are often couched in the language of pure political hatred. Even for caricatures, the characters in the novel are drawn with the thinnest of strokes, too brittle to be subjected to even the most routine of twists or turns.

The main problem with this book is that nothing is ever in doubt, and without any semblance of a sustained plot, it's nearly impossible for the reader to maintain interest, and the interesting points that are hidden among the rote and routine stay hidden beneath the surface. Most egregious, perhaps, is Verne's sustained racism which, against Germans, may seem misguided but still fair given the time in which he lived. His blatant attacks on Asians, however, are bewildering and truly unnecessary, though one must commend the translator for leaving them intact in a politically correct day and age. Even these egregious actions, however, manage to fall by the wayside as the overwhelming banality of the plot takes over, and not for want of imagination. Even readers unfamiliar with Verne's better stories will recognize the missed opportunities in his dual utopian/dystopian future, where setting serves only to illuminate stereotypes instead of attack the ideas out of which they are constructed. Rampant militarism was fairly German in the time period, but Verne tips his hand way too soon and too often to make anything out of it, falling back on harsh and unrealistic portrayals to dehumanize the Germans in much the same way their puppet state dehumanizes its own workers. Somehow, I believe the irony is lost on the author.

Even his utopian society (which itself is rather unambiguously named France-ville) is radically underused, existing only as a foil to the Germans and with only a half-chapter explaining its central tenets: France-ville is great because, well, it's great! Verne likewise abuses his heroes, with lead man Marcel brimming with excruciating perfection and with the strange half-resolved story of Octave, perhaps the only character in the book who threatens to have a hint of actual depth. This, too, is wasted, as he is introduced as a slob and promptly ignored, only to reemerge miraculously (and utterly inexplicably) as a war hero and Good Man. And all of this bad writing and poor construction surrounds some interesting scientific speculation that is actually worthy of Verne. His visions of destruction and of the City of Steel are reasonably terrifying and not entirely inaccurate, and though his characters' motives cannot be trusted, the destructive forces they intend to utilize are sufficiently frightening even in the nuclear age. The book also provides some moments of great humor, though these usually come unintentionally and do not sustain the book, though its final punchline (before the requisite sappy and unsupported, though entirely predictable ending) resonates and is, indeed, as clever as it is bizarre. Unfortunately, however, fans of Jules Verne and of dystopian literature are set to be disappointed by an almost complete lack of literary merit that cannot be salvaged as interesting ideas are constantly upstaged by rampant racism and an overt political agenda. The Begum's Millions is, despite some good ideas, overwhelmed by questionable intentions and dodgy writing, though it may prove valuable as a historical text illustrating the developing European nationalism of the late 19th century.

Grade: C+