December 31, 2012

2012 Year in Review

2012 Year in Review

Despite the date on the post, here I am writing this review in May 2014, in a vastly different place in my life than I was at any point during the year. In the unlikely event that anyone ever reads this (hello, intrepid reader!), I'll offer a quick apology. Things- or my reading habits, at least- seemed to go off the rails a bit in late 2012 (as you'll see from the relative scarcity of posts). I don't know why I stopped reading with as much urgency as I had before, but I never really gave myself an opportunity to step outside of the blog, reconsider, and forge ahead. I'm doing that now.

That said, I have very vivid memories of many of the books I read throughout that year, including several that I might not have heard of were it not for a science fiction and fantasy book club. From Fail-Safe to Channel Zero, it's obvious that my interest in genre works was high, and both of those books are among those that made a strong impression of me. Looking back on the list, however, the titles that strike me the most are Sex on the Moon, Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and Channel Zero. I remember the first as a fun romp and resolved to read Ben Mezrich's other books, which I have not, as yet, done. The latter title reaffirmed my belief in the power of graphic narrative, and some of its stark images still dance around in my head from time to time. Just yesterday, as a matter of fact, I was attempting to recall the name of the subversive comics I had read as I pored over a shelf of graphic novels at a large Chicago library. I didn't come up with the title at that time, but the memory clearly lingers. It is Connie Willis's works that had the most permanent affect on my reading psyche, however; I almost cannot believe that it has been so long since I first became intimately acquainted with her works. She continues to stun and amaze me, and a copy of Doomsday Book currently sits among my other recently borrowed library books. I'm astonished at the lasting spell that she has cast over me and am forever grateful that I discovered her work in 2012.

These books may have passed through my hands several years and at least two public library systems ago, but I'm grateful that my thoughts, meager as they are, remained on my hard drive. I look forward to revisiting many of these books and, once more, to reviewing many others.

December 27, 2012

Book 42: Channel Zero

Channel Zero: The Complete Collection
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan

In Channel Zero, a brief comic series, Brian Wood tells the story of a near-future, heavily corporate America that is as terrifyingly relevant now as it was at the time of its creation around a decade ago. Add a stark, black-and-white landscape, often rendered in numerous gritty styles and complete with hidden messages, and the result is a unified, uncompromising vision. The story itself can be a bit difficult to follow occasionally, with displaced narration and outside news reports contributing to a well-conceived totality of vision, contained in a neat package that ties up its own story but leaves plenty of room for interpretation and expansion. The narrative jumps right into the thick of the atmosphere, successfully setting the tone and setting but making the characters and narrative seem a bit more distant. This distance affects the story throughout, and it is sometimes unclear whether Wood intended the comic as an exploration of a possible future (and, naturally, a criticism of certain elements of the present) or as a character study set within that period. The conflict between these two desires is evident as the side stories, intriguing as they are, interrupt progress through the main storyline and may have readers searching for direct ties that are not necessarily to be found. A number of characters are introduced with brief, factual biographies, only to pop up for only a panel or two in the final pages. While this is part of the ultimate point that Wood makes in Channel Zero's original run, it can be disorienting and distracting rather than empowering and explanatory. In the end, the story is powerful enough to resonate despite some flaws in the telling, and the art is entirely complementary to the narrative, with its convincing, if bleak, vision of a corporate, sanitized United States.

In addition to the original Channel Zero run, this volume contains concept artwork, additional short stories, and a prequel story about the main protagonist. Though the prequel, like the initial run, muddles the timeline and thus confuses the reader, it explains some aspects of the main work without overshadowing it. Becky Cloonan's artwork, again in monochrome, fits the content and Wood's original style for Channel Zero, while providing a more clean look for an arguably cleaner point in the future history. Throughout Channel Zero and its accompanying stories and background material, Wood is nothing if not earnest, and though his stories occasionally seem over-dramatic and alienating, he compromises none of the raw emotion that powers the story and its characters. Each distinct work within the collection contributes unquestionably to a whole vision cut of one cloth, and if some bits are misplaced within Channel Zero, they do cohere to Wood's larger vision, an impressive accomplishment for a first work in the graphic medium. Channel Zero: The Complete Collection makes an immediate visual and political impression on readers, and is presented with an urgency that trumps most of its flaws, like the message (which has its own faults) or not.

Grade: A-

December 22, 2012

Book 41: Life Goes On

Life Goes On
Hans Keilson

Life Goes On is one of that peculiar class of novels published in Germany on the very eve of Hitler's ascendance, and it dissects the effects of the country's economic unraveling during the Weimar era through the autobiographical lens of Hans Keilson. Though Keilson was Jewish and fled Germany a few years after the Nazi takeover, politics plays very little part in this novel of everyday life, which focuses more on individual lives and reactions than on macroeconomics and international, or even national, politics. Socialists are given a brief cameo, likely make briefer by the book's post-January 1933 publication date, but the story focuses on a middle-class, moderately successful shopkeeper and his small family. The occasional use of "Mother" and "Father" in place of personal names do humanize the story, but often present confusion, particularly in the early pages where readers may struggle to grasp who the main characters are, and how many they are in number. The characters are at once specific and generalized, and though the adult couple will appeal as a stand-in for a certain class of Germans, their son Albrecht is a bit more difficult to pin down. He grows significantly throughout the course of the book, but remains consistently out of reach and difficult to relate to, perhaps because of his frequent apathy and inability to understand the forces at work around him. The novel itself is similarly difficult to digest as the narrative progresses at a pace that echoes the general apathy of the time, which, unfortunately, can make it a bit boring. Time flows at an inconsistent speed, with few pivotal events to serve as guideposts or break the spell, and while this method of storytelling may reflect the times themselves, it hardly makes for compelling, page-turning consumption. In its execution as well as its content, the book is a time capsule, an almost stream-of-consciousness work that explores the tepidness of interwar Germany in both style and content. Life Goes On is most compelling as a product of its times, an intensely personal view of pre-Nazi Germany that may fail to fully captivate or resonate with modern audiences.

Grade: B+

December 17, 2012

Book 40: The Absolutist

The Abosolutist
John Boyne

The most poignant images of World War I, forgotten as it is, remain with us today, as we imagine young men gearing up for horrors they- and the world- couldn't possibly expect, only to be mown down by the hundreds of thousands while racing from trench to trench in an often futile battle for inches or yards. All wars, and many other situations besides, breed fear, but something about the First World War seems especially suited for the study of fear and its effects on human emotions and behavior. Fast-forward to today's expanding exploration of queer narratives, modern sensibilities about pacifism and non-combatants, and add it to the continuing fascination with the trenches, and John Boyne's novel The Absolutist is one result, a not-quite-revisionist story of love, fear, and the lasting effects of war and associated guilt. The first-person narrative moves seamlessly from past-tense 1919 to present-tense 1916, with each tense lending an appropriate sense of reflection or urgency, respectively. The novel is imbued with a sense of regret and sadness, not unique to war narratives and indeed hardly unusual for a book about World War I, and it becomes obvious from the beginning that this regret will serve as the driving force behind the story, and little clues scattered throughout allow the reader to slowly put the pieces together just before the narrator does, producing a sometimes-satisfying, sometimes-frustrating conversation between the reader and the book. Following the story just ahead of the actual story can help put various pieces into their emotional context, but it also results in some intended big reveals losing the punch that would make this novel absolutely excel. By the time the war story reaches its inevitable conclusion, that conclusion feels not only inevitable but painfully obvious, putting the book off-pace and robbing it of the raw emotional power on which it relies.

That this is followed by an entirely unsatisfactory and utterly off-putting coda does a disservice to the book's characters and readers alike, forcing a particular reading of the novel that may not please all readers. There certainly isn't anything wrong with an author taking a particular view of a work, or indeed a character reacting in an understandably reactive, self-pitying way to a turn of events, but the final lines of The Absolutist seemed to me to be a particular critical reading shoehorned into the novel. This does an enormous disservice to readers, who are thus prevented from honestly reacting to a heretofore ambiguous chain of events and who are instead forced to glean a specific moral meaning to the story, one which I simply did not believe had been there. The narrator (and author, and even many readers) may indeed have believed it, but the way in which John Boyne portrays that realization unfairly casts a stone-hard interpretation on the preceding novel, which would otherwise serve as an intriguing point of contention. By setting a queer story in an overtly un-queer time, Boyne invited controversy and debate, and the war narrative's closing line of dialogue seems to set up a forever-ambiguous point of personal contention for the narrator and for readers alike, only for this delicately balanced nuanced to be blown away, somewhat literally, by a clumsy epilogue. The utterly silly post-facto framework could even be excused if not for this great literary sin, which immediately re-casts the novel, which should be placed in nothing sturdier than sand, into solid stone. It may be difficult to separate my personal (and, obviously, quite unfavorable) reaction from Boyne's intent and actual words on the page, but the effect of reading the final pages greatly diminished the novel in my eyes, turning something beautiful and poetically tragic into self-serving whining. Again, this is not uncharacteristic for the narrator or the book's various genres (war story, novel of mourning, etc.), but its handling seems to unfairly foreclose discussion and debate. Expected sad ending aside, this ending is simply rotten.

Does the poorly executed conclusion sully the entire reading experience? Not necessarily. IT does force readers like me to reconsider their reactions, and it invites re-readings and re-examination, if not in the way Boyne may have intended. It is difficult to erase what was to me a terrible ending, but Boyne does successfully juggle real-time war and retrospective pathos throughout the book. He often tips his hand just a bit too early, but the cards are solid, and the characters are realistic and generally sympathetic, even if they appear a bit convenient to modern readers and contemporary politics. The book feels like, but functions well as, an old war story tailored for the present generation. The Absolutist is, despite a lackluster finish, a compelling story of love and betrayal, life and loss, the First World War and its aftermath for its soldiers and for those they sometimes left behind.

Grade: A-

December 13, 2012

Book 39: Escape from Camp 14

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Blaine Harden

North Korea is, by nearly all accounts, a harrowing place to live, where residents are bound by the twin (and linked) oppressors of government and hunger. Society is strictly arranged into the haves and have-nots, and the lowest of all are imprisoned in the country's forced labor camps, where Shin In Geun (now Shin Dong-hyuk) was born and spent much of his early life. Blaine Harden, an American journalist, has written an English biography of Shin, based in part on Shin's previously published Korean autobiography and on extensive interviews. As a well-traveled journalist, Harden understands and acknowledges upfront the difficulties inherent in writing a factual account of torture in the world's most secretive, and closed, society. He calls overt attention to one major revision on at least two occasions, and though he does not attempt to explain the difficulties inherent in relying on human memory, he seems eager to present his story for what it is: a survivor's account, laced with relevant facts and analysis about North Korea and its defectors. While it's clear that Harden feels very strongly about human rights in North Korea (and he goes out of his way several times to remind readers of the fact), he doesn't go through pains to present Shin as a martyr, and the book, while sympathetic to Shin, does expose some dark moments in his history. Harden recognizes the differences between this story and others, and plays to its strengths, drawing on common conceptions and known facts about North Korea to build context, though some of these forays come at the expense of fluid storytelling.

Because the mere existence of the book, and Harden's prologue beyond that, gives away the story's ending, the story isn't played for suspense, which is wise, as Harden resists the urge to insert unnecessary tension. He doesn't, however, always avoid excessive theatrics or moralizations, which can occasionally intrude upon the bare-bones nature of the story and, indeed, most of its telling. His contextual explanations, while helpful, are inserted in the midst of narrative passages, and while the integration makes sense, they often break into (the brief) chapters just after those chapters began, disrupting the flow of the narrative and occasionally presenting more of a distraction than a useful addition. He often takes a big-picture view that conflicts with his laser focus on Shin's experiences, and the tension between them is often unresolved after the mid-chapter interludes. The writing itself is simple and straightforward, and Harden's restraint serves the story well. It is the power of Shin's story, and not Harden's prose, that keeps the reader effectively engaged, as is appropriate. The details themselves are predictably harrowing but are treated with a distance that reinforces the emotionless calculation that Shin relied upon for survival. Despite the obviousness of the eventual conclusion, Harden occasionally tips his hand too early and often, particularly while recounting Shin's travels beyond Camp 14's fence. The photographs are supplemented with a strange, comic-style group of illustrations depicting scenes from Camp 14 that don't quite seem to do justice to the situation. Escape from Camp 14 is a stark, straightforward account of a man's escape from North Korea's prison camps, free of unnecessary embellishments and possessing few, but generally justifiable, distractions.

Grade: A-