February 22, 2012

Book 9: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Seth Grahame-Smith

This is a book where you know you're getting exactly what's on the box: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes the standard biography of Abraham Lincoln and inserts the unholy undead. It's a clever- and fun- conceit, one that is both the book's greatest asset (somewhat obviously, perhaps) and its largest liability. The promise seems great at first, with a present-day introduction ripped straight out of Hawthorne and a sly twist on Lincoln's early biography that sets up the main idea of the narrative. Unfortunately, however, that twist- namely, and this will surprise no one, that vampires are real- becomes the novel's only surprise, and every insertion of vampires into the standard lore surrounding Lincoln's life weakens the novel considerably. By the time the fourth or fifth Great Crisis has been re-attributed to vampires, readers can be forgiven for thinking the author rather more lazy than creative; sure, the idea of re-crafting one of our finest leaders into a menace to the undead is creative, but simply adding vampires where it is convenient is not. Why vampires? What does this say about our re-fashioned Honest Abe? I hardly expected the book to be a pinnacle of insightful literature, but without even an attempt at these deeper questions of meaning, the book's conceit quickly becomes tiresome, even as the tension increases and the nation plunges ahead toward Civil War. It's not like Grahame-Smith was unaware of the promising ambiguities littered throughout the text; indeed, he even attempts to introduce such moral grappling into his text as different vampires choose sides and begin to spar. Instead of exploring the moral questions raised by this development, which have implications that impact the novel to its very final line, Grahame-Smith seems content to rest on his laurels, which are trifling indeed. His complacency turns a novel from a seemingly slam-dunk romp into a tedious recapitulation of well-trod history. With vampires.

Yet even when he adds vampires in ways more intriguing than "this pivotal death in Lincoln's life was a result of vampire poisoning," Grahame-Smith can't quite pull it all together. I applaud the attempt to weave vampires' unquestioned evils with those of the South, but simply stating a proposition does not a case make. There is so much more that can be done with this premise, and while I understand that the book is meant to be just surface fun, its flippant ability to raise intriguing propositions while instantly proceeding to ignore- or even outright undermine- them is downright maddening. The book so frequently shows potential, only to ignore it for easy laughs that simply stop coming after the first 50 pages or so. That the author does not seem entirely bereft of talent only makes things worse. His grasp on straight-up horror writing is firm, and some scenes are truly chilling, particularly when juxtaposed with what seems at first a silly premise and with hilariously altered photographs and other illustrations. I may question, and be subsequently annoyed by, the choice to refer to Lincoln as a folksy "Abe" throughout the entire narrative, but it does effectively render the famous President far more accessible than more formal histories might. Likewise, a clever usage of dreams is effective, but as similarly over-used, overwrought, and worn as the remainder of the novel's greatest tricks; it's great the first time, but any subsequent reappearances should have been consigned to the cutting-room coffin. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not meant to be a serious novel, but its intimations of serious implications raise expectations that simply aren't met; the book is fun for a while, but the charm wears off, and instead it is a clever, but ultimately futile, endeavor, exactly what one would expect from the box.

Grade: B-

February 18, 2012

Book 8: Sex on the Moon

Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History
Ben Mezrich

It sometimes seems that everything, and, perhaps, everyone, has a price, but what of those things that are too unique, too valuable to be measured by any measure of value at all grounded in reality? Surely the lunar samples retrieved by the various Apollo missions belong firmly in this category, and thus the caper posed in Ben Mezrich's Sex on the Moon, which involves theft of several moon rocks, may indeed be called audacious. Though the book attempts to put this crime on a pedestal, however, much of the text simply undermines the task, which boils down to a NASA insider's not particularly keen observations, a lucky lockpicking trick plucked from a run-of-the-mill spy film, and a whole lot of gusto. And while these may not a brilliant Crime of the Century make, in Mezrich's hands they coalesce into a hell of an interesting story, if not particularly well told or able to really live up to its billing. Though Mezrich delights in trite clichés, the fact that the story is more of a character study of Thad Roberts, the perpetrator, makes it work, as Thad seems to be the kind of guy who revels in clichéd thinking and grandiosity. Despite his centrality to the narrative, however, it is difficult to tell whether Thad is intended to be sympathetic or, rather, whether the reader should wish to smack him into reality. Mezrich's tendency to catapult the reader through time and, occasionally, space does not help matters, and the relationship that ultimately moves Thad from "wouldn't it be cool to steal some moon rocks" to utterly lovestruck, moon-promising thief is woefully underdeveloped. And though one wonders whether, given Thad's somewhat impulsive personality, that was precisely the case in real life, the plot jumps seemingly at will, from an introductory getaway to the story's present day to a few years earlier to the narrative present to a year later. Mezrich always leaves hints as to the passage of time, but the effect is a bit jumpy, if not quite up to vomit-comet levels.

This effect is most destructive when the story rolls around to the grand act itself, with so little pomp that one wonders whether the author realizes it should, by rights, be the climax of the narrative. Instead, the energy is dissipated and the low-key theft is retold in a matching low-key tone, which may fit thematically but which makes the big reveal a bit of a letdown, to say nothing of the mundane nature of the theft itself. The getaway, aptly foretold in a prologue, is skipped entirely, and it seems that it takes only a few pages to get to the not-at-all-suspenseful conclusion. The narrative arc and pacing could have been handled better, yet despite all of its faults, Sex on the Moon is utterly compelling reading. Maybe it's Thad's strange mix of a mad scientist's determination, self-reinforcing inflated ego, and cluelessness, or maybe it's simply the fact that every kid wants to go to Space Camp; regardless, the book is difficult to put down, even if its calling itself audacious is really the most audacious thing within. The idea of going behind the scenes at NASA is as enthralling to readers as it first was to Thad, and readers are treated to nifty behind-the-scenes visions of the space shuttle simulator and the astronauts' zero-gravity training pool, visions that add to the atmosphere of the novel and keep it interesting despite other missteps and mishandlings. Mezrich's unseemly pleading for a movie deal toward the end (I actually groaned when characters began saying, "My life could be a movie!") is immature and very quickly gets out of hand, yet there is something of a compelling story in all of this, though told in a stilted manner and with only two or three particularly interesting main players. Additionally, one gets the feeling that the story, held so closely to Thad's view of events, may occasionally stretch the truth, but despite a number of literary problems Sex on the Moon is an enchanting, if flawed, character study wrapped around a not-quite-classic heist tale.

Grade: B+

February 13, 2012

Book 7: Dying Inside

Dying Inside
Robert Silverberg

Science fiction is often seen as the domain of the space opera, the home of works that may not be, strictly speaking, literary, but which excite and entertain nonetheless. That may be true of many books, but Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, though definitely a work of science fiction with its central conceit, straddles genres in its exploration of aging. Centered on David Selig, a telepath who finds his powers dwindling as he enters middle age, the story examines the impact of telepathy his life, told expertly through well-chosen anecdotes thoughtfully interspersed with the main narrative. The science fictional element surely isn't missing, and Silverberg has clearly thought out many implications of being a telepath, including a reaction entirely opposite to David's, in the persona of self-serving, yet strangely enticing, Tom Nyquist. We also see some unexpected, yet brutally probable, side effects of telepathy when mixed with mind-altering substances and, though the book is more a meditation on loss and the effects of one's choices, there are some thoughtful and, to my mind, original insights into telepathy along the way. Most importantly, the book doesn’t automatically construct Selig as a hero, and his isolating special power is just that- isolating. Though he encounters the occasional new-agey pseudoscientist and, indeed, a fellow telepath who has a refreshingly different perspective on their power, David must face his fate largely alone, and he does not choose to change the world with his keen powers of infallible insight. Nor is he prone to use his powers for his own personal gain; rather, he is content to feel sorry for himself, burdened by the sheer exhaustion of dealing with the duplicity of humanity.

Not that we can blame him, and indeed his pathos, while occasionally exhausting, adds to the depth and reality of Silverberg's character. Is this not a realistic reaction? David is, despite his whininess, strangely compelling as a failure, as someone coming to terms with a wasted life and discovering how his power has affected him and how he might approach a life without it. This is not enough, mind you, to completely carry the book, and there are times when David becomes almost unbearable, particularly when wallowing in passages that don't add much to the narrative. Overall, however, his emotions are deftly handled and come across in prose that is alternately sarcastic, poetic, and simply descriptive. While Silverberg's choice to include lengthy selections from his own college term papers is questionable, they bear some relevance to the plot and to David's characterizations, and similar stumbling blocks are generally overcome as David looks to his past in an effort to make sense of the present. The novel is not perfect, and for those a bit younger it may resonate less than with those approaching their own mid-life crises, but Dying Inside is a prime example of how science fiction can illuminate aspects of humanity in a fresh way, with potentially new insights.

Grade: B+

February 8, 2012

Book 6: Birds of America

Birds of America
Lorrie Moore

Usually short story collections have ups and downs, but most do have a general level of quality, with a few stories rising above to enchant and a few being, well, less than memorable. Given my previous experiences with Lorrie Moore, I expected Birds of America to present a group of witty and endearing gems; what I got, however, was almost precisely the opposite: a group of disjointed, cloying, and boring stories with only one that seemed to justify the time put into reading it, let alone the rest of the collection. Don't be fooled by the abstract, too-long title, for "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" is a moving tale of a parent's worst plight, and its impersonal manner transcends the plane of pretentious litfic experimentation on which it is built, becoming instead a universal exploration of pain and suffering, an oasis of meaning in a desert bereft of entertainment or, sadly, plot. This story has plot, and characterization, in spades, and almost- but only almost- makes one look more fondly upon the author. Unfortunately, the majority of the stories in this collection, while having their moments, meander along pointlessly until reaching a noncommittal ending that really has nothing to do with the preceding story. It's possible to read these as portraits, and while yes, they are in a sense rich and layered, they fail to captivate; these are still lives, not moving images, and one cannot blame readers for simply wishing that Moore would get on with it already. Too much in here bows to the litfic intelligentsia, appearing to work in profound subtlety but being instead almost unbearably boring. There are moments, of course, where Moore displays her searing ability to peer into the depths of the human soul, but these are quickly swallowed by the boredom that plagues each of these stores. Likewise, both "Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People" and "Charades" each come very close to being meaningful, before eventually wandering off into the same meaningless, but critically beloved, territory of utter pandering. Lorrie Moore is, I believe, capable of much more than she shows in Birds of America, but the collection sags under the weight of its own assumed importance and never becomes, well, interesting.

Grade: C-