August 26, 2014

Book 21: Survivors

Terry Nation

I felt compelled to read this book after discovering the (newer version of the) eponymous show on Netflix and being intrigued by its take on the idea of the disease apocalypse. Though the book posits a future projected forward from the 1970s, when it was written, its core problems and issues feel as relevant as ever, despite some missteps with regard to characterization and plotting. This is largely due to the nature of his apocalypse, in which normal life is suspended (possibly forever) after a lethal virus quickly kills a vast percentage of the human race across the world (which gets an excellent, brutally efficient name: the Death). Nation gets the basics absolutely right as his primary protagonists, a small band of survivors, begin to navigate a world without electricity, government, or a million other types of infrastructure. There's something inherently compelling about viewing the desolation immediately after such calamitous events, before society has had a chance to redefine itself and settle into its new normal, and modern readers can easily imagine themselves raiding grocery stores for canned foods, hospitals for precious medicines, used cars for their half-full gas tanks, and libraries for how-to books on all of the basic survival skills we now leave to specialists. Nation's vision is often at its best when it extends beyond his group, which attempts to make a go of it as a small, self-supporting agrarian commune, to power-hungry groups eager to establish themselves as the new government(s), traders looking to corner the market on now-irreplaceable goods reliant on pre-Death science, and others trying to reclaim, in a way, some aspects of the lives they knew before.

As compelling as his vision is, though, Nation often loses readers in the details, and some aspects of this vision are far more fully realized than others. His characters are unevenly developed and seem to act at the author's whim far more often than of their own volition, and many are ripe for richer backstories and/or present plotlines; likewise, many are pigeonholed early on and never really sway from that one-dimensional, introductory characterization. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the most egregious failures in this regard occur in relation to the women; though female characters are among the book's most prominent, they are often condescended to by in-world characters and (seemingly) author alike. It is frustrating that even the women who are leaders are foremost wives and mothers, even after the world has been thrown into utter chaos, and that their positive qualities are usually underpinned or undermined by their relationships to their children or to the men. It is, however, encouraging that women do have agency in his apocalyptic future- something that certainly cannot be said of many (probably most) others- and it's not immediately apparent that they are the only victims of poor character-building within the book. This seems to be foremost a failure of talent, not an act of outright malice or misogyny.

Even when Nation attempts to build plot conflicts and provide opportunities for growth- or at least richer realizations- the twists appear contrived, and he relies far too often on his third-person omniscience, rather than events and dialogue, as he draws conclusions and moves the story forward, however tenuously at times. Nation is similarly clumsy in his handling of time: while it is obviously desirable to shift a narrative ahead at different speeds as everything stabilizes, it is often difficult to locate the various starting and ending points either in a kind of absolute time or in relation to one another. This compounds the author's error of introducing too many ill-defined, flat characters and sometimes makes the story difficult to follow. It is hard to sympathize with these people or their plight, even as we can easily imagine it happening to ourselves. Likewise, intriguing threads are raised and dropped before Nation explores their full potential. He has bothered to imagine many of the unintended, wide-ranging consequences of the Death but not to exploit them to anywhere near their fullest potential, resulting in a dull narrative dotted with all-too-brief pockets of excitement and enticing, but quickly disappearing, subplots.

This gets to the heart of the book's primary failure: it relies far too heavily on telling readers what's important, how characters should be perceived, and how England tenuously begins to find its footing in the wake of disaster, rather than developing a consistent, interesting story that reveals any of these things on its own. That the story culminates in a wholly foreseeable event telegraphed, in part, by a blundering attempt to conceal by omission (wherein said omission becomes all the more noticeable, and the reveal flabbergastingly obvious and thus wholly emotionally ineffective) is perhaps fitting; it is a last-gasp attempt at subtlety and nuance that ultimately misses the point entirely and undermines (or perhaps is undermined by) the book's own ending. This same ending would be fitting, if still heartbreaking, if the narrative preceding it paid more attention to questions of shifting morality; in a book apparently concerned more with the bare mechanics of survival, however, it seems unnecessarily brutal, cold, and at odds with itself. Survivors is still worth reading for its imaginative insights into the effects of an abrupt shift from full-fledged modernity to a nearly uninhabited landscape, but it will appeal most to well-versed genre fans who can ignore its many flaws.

Grade: B-

August 22, 2014

Book 20: Chicago Blues

Chicago Blues
Edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Though I will only be calling Chicago home for another week or so, there is something about the city that has drawn me in and captivated me. New York and Los Angeles may be larger, but Chicago has a culture and a sprawling history all its own. Libby Fischer Hellmann may not have taken a drastic logical leap when realizing that the city in its various forms provides a perfect, ready-made backdrop for mystery stories- or when suggesting that this atmosphere is also particularly conducive to blues music- but the resulting volume, Chicago Blues, is a fitting ode to the city's darker moods. The stories themselves are a bit uneven and rarely helped by Hellmann's decision to group them thematically; the editor's heavy hand is most evident, perhaps fittingly, in the first and final sections. Though readers familiar with blues music and Chicago's importance to the genre will feel immediately at home, this opening salvo can easily turn off readers who are less well versed in this aspect of the city's history; the first few stories seem to require an unspoken knowledge and readers cannot be blamed for wondering whether the remainder of the volume will be the same. Similarly, while it is amusing that two authors contributed stories that take place on Lower Wacker Drive, placing them in direct succession at the book's end does a disservice to both. Both Brian Pinkerton's "Lower Wacker Blues" and Barbara D'Amato's "The Lower Wacker Hilton" do an excellent job of evoking the spookiness of their unique shared locale, but they seem to fade into one another despite being entirely different types of stories, leaving the reader unsatisfied and forcing the collection to go out with a disappointing whimper.

Editorial mistakes aside, this is a strong and varied collection that includes both the expected police procedurals and more contemplative stories that use crime and criminality as a jumping-off point rather than a central theme. The more typical stories, most of which are executed well enough to keep readers interested during the act of reading them, are punctuated by a few standout stories that resonate, largely due to excellent finales: Michael A. Black's "Chasing the Blues" brilliantly hides its emotional core in a solemn last line following a series of brash recollections by a long-serving cop; Sam Hill's "The Sin-eater" gradually reveals its true nature to its protagonist and reader at a similar slow-burning pace; and Sam Reaves's mafia-infused "The Test" keeps readers hooked despite (or perhaps because of) its reliance on old mafioso stereotypes. Many of the other stories may be relatively humdrum examples of their particular genre, but that genre begins from a point of strength with its focus on plot, and only one or two of the stories herein are truly bad.

For a collection with few distinguishing characteristics and fewer truly remarkable stories, Chicago Blues is noteworthy for its authors' clear understanding of- and affection for- the city. As natives and/or residents of Chicagoland, they don't limit themselves to the city's more iconic locales, which gives their contributions a kind of gritty credibility. As a recent transplant myself, I was pleased to see successful cameos by the Chicago Cubs, Jack Ruby, and my (marginal) local L stop. The characters, like the city's residents, run the gamut from old-timey syndicate criminals to high-powered executives, and though the plots may feel recycled at times most crime aficionados and casual readers alike should find enough within to sustain their interest. Chicago Blues may not be an exceptionally well-curated collection, but it does offer several welcome glimpses into the city's criminal tendencies.

Grade: B

August 17, 2014

Book 19: The Giver

The Giver
Lois Lowry

The Giver is undoubtedly my favorite book of all time, and it has been since I first read its incomparable final sentence. I revisited it after a long absence after reading a number of articles about the recent movie adaptation and I was, as expected, just as enthralled as I was as a preteen in the late '90s. The movie that runs in my own head is the same as the one I first envisioned so long ago, the characters as familiar to me as any from the books I've read more recently. As with most books that completely blow you out of the water, it's hard to say what, exactly, it is that makes The Giver so great, both as a gateway book into the world(s) of dystopian fiction and as a novel in its own right. Upon reflection, I think that the great power of the book lies in its simplicity, which sets it apart from the glut of similar stories. There is something to be said for the subtle cruelty Lowry's imagined community of Sameness and the way she presents it; who is the story's villain when it seems that the people have done this to themselves? More importantly, though, would the people make the same choice if they knew that they even had a choice to make in the first place? Lowry's great talent is that she writes accessible fiction for preteens and young teenagers that doesn't shy away from tangled ambiguities that are capable of tantalizing an adult mind accustomed to such stories, worlds, and problems.

Unlike many of its peers, The Giver doesn't rely on excessive moralization or on polarized views of Right and Wrong; though we have a hero in Jonas, it's not quite clear who the villains should be, or if they are even to blame for their misdeeds. More importantly, Jonas is a relatable dystopian hero, a boy of twelve who acts like a boy of twelve might in a similar situation, reflecting a younger readership's desire to file things neatly away despite the real world's reluctance to be so easily compressed and understood. As he experiences the greater complexity of the world beyond all that he has ever known, Jonas tends to approach problems first as black and white (ha), though they are always far more complex than the easiest, most comfortable conclusions might suggest. Lowry balances Jonas's (and the reader's) shoot-from-the-hip assumptions with the Giver's hard-earned wisdom, which forces Jonas (and reader alike) to fully appreciate the difficulty and depth of the problems he confronts. Rather than presenting a dystopia with a clear sense of good and bad and ugly, she writes about a future world that is just as messy as the one we currently occupy. Lowry's not one to pull punches, either, and the book includes fully realized depictions of physical and emotional pain, to say nothing of heart-wrenching tales of Release and examples of Jonas becoming quickly ostracized from his community, forced to play a role that is unexpectedly thrust upon him.

I think a large part of the book's greatness and a the fundamental reason for the enduring impression it has left on many readers is Lowry's refusal to condescend to her readership and her reliance on- and trust in- her readers' intelligence. The book's community is defined not with the broad strokes of expository authorial meddling but rather with a careful use of language and real-time examples. It is no accident that the book opens with Jonas carefully distinguishing fear and apprehension, and even when linguistic mishaps are played for laughs they reveal much about the way the characters- and the communities around them- operate. The language Jonas, his family, and friends use explains so much about the way they (have been taught to) view the world around them, and it offers even young readers quick and easy insight into the community's values and structure. And, importantly, our introduction to the community is as pleasant as Jonas's; on some level, it does seem like a pleasant place to live, again unlike the easy-to-hate hells that populate similar books.

If, then, the great strength of The Giver is the ambiguity that fuels its world-building, character development, and plot, there is no greater testament to its genius than its final sentence. It is a haunting, piercing piece of prose that so perfectly encapsulates all that came before it, though it alternately leaves the impression of the happiest and most tragic possible outcomes. Within the context of the book alone, it is, after all, impossible to know what really happened to Jonas, and each of the most popular interpretations offers a satisfying conclusion. Whether or not this final ambiguity is as intentional as the other examples found throughout the book, it is as fitting a conclusion as I've read, up there with (but existing as a sort of counterpoint to) the eerie finality of 1984's parting words. I don't for a minute believe that it is literary nostalgia alone that draws me back to this book time and again; perhaps its great power lies in the careful weight of every incident, every example, every carefully chosen word, or perhaps it is the book's unflinching devotion to hard truths and its resulting emotional core that drew me in and keep me there. Perhaps it is something else entirely. Regardless, it is, and remains, my perennial favorite. For me, The Giver simply is, as it always has been...back and back and back. 

Grade: A

August 15, 2014

Book 18: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

I just finished this book moments ago and, while I'm sure that I loved it, I'm not quite sure what can be said about it; after all, I usually hate books like this, books that so prize style that plot falls by the wayside, forgotten. Not so with All the Light We Cannot See, in which Anthony Doerr proves that high-minded, poetic prose is, in fact, quite compatible with a compelling plot, fully realized characters, and the numerous other qualities that make the best novels rise above the remainder and lodge themselves permanently in your brain. Immediately after finishing this book, I wanted to pick it up and begin all over again, to lose myself again in Doerr's haunting prose that so perfectly captures both the depth of the darkness that fell over Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and the small beams of hope, of humanity that somehow managed to shine through, however tenuous their gleam. All of the standard clichés apply here and words like "transcendent" wouldn't seem ill-applied to this novel, whose lyrical, haunting prose lingers in my mind. Every sentence is a poem, yet, unlike so many other books with similar aspirations, the words combine to conjure characters the reader can care about and a plot that provides the story with essential motion, particularly through the use of carefully weighted cliffhangers.

All the Light We Cannot See could go wrong in so many ways, but somehow Doerr manages to use every potential pitfall to his advantage. Though book's brief chapters quickly alternate between Nazi Germany and pre- and post-occupation France, the twin stories are easy to follow, anchored firmly by the use of integrated flash-forwards to (or perhaps flashbacks from?) a few pivotal days in August 1944, which provide the novel's emotional and thematic climax. Time progresses at uncertain intervals, racing along and stalling at the author's whim, but Doerr provides just the right amount of context to keep everything from running together. Perhaps Doerr's most remarkable feat is his successful deployment of present-tense prose; though the book begins in 1944 and looks backward and forward and backward again, every moment feels suspended in its own time- aided, no doubt, by the sheer poetic weight carried by every word. I cannot say for certain how the risky narrative choice achieves its desired effect, but somehow the tense of urgency slows this story down and allows readers to be present in every moment.

Fundamentally, what Doerr has done in All the Light We Cannot See is not new- it is a World War II story that places the fundamental question of morality at its beating center, looking deep into the heart of a Wehrmacht soldier's path to France and at a young Parisian refugee's experiences on the Brittany coast- but somehow every page bears revelations that somehow feel new despite decades of literature exploring and re-exploring seemingly every aspect of the war. The twin themes of light and darkness are further illuminated by Doerr's rather blunt decision to make one of his main characters medically blind and his far more subtle explorations of willful blindness; wisps of metaphor are planted throughout the book, stronger than suggestions but mercifully left for the reader to discover and parse. Even the book's more cliché elements become new again in Doerr's hands, and the remarkable coincidence that ties the book's disparate threads together seems perfectly suited for an era so adequately defined by the thoroughness of its chaos.

All the Light We Cannot See contains elements of this chaos but is grounded and ordered by its author's formidable literary talents. Even after trying to rationalize my complete and utter fascination with this book and the trance it held over me, I can't say what, exactly, makes the book succeed. Even an ending that feels drawn out and unnecessarily (if not quite garishly) sentimental against the backdrop of the rest of the novel failed to break the hold it had (and even still has) over me. At its core, the book is a war novel that is deeply concerned with human kindness but that overcomes the base sentimentality that often chokes similar forays into the redeemable aspects of the human spirit; it is a quick-moving story told at an elegiac pace, ruminating and demanding careful attention as it moves readers forward; it is the embodiment of what literary fiction aspires to be while remaining accessible; it asks readers to consider the big questions but is never for a moment condescending. And, most importantly, All the Light We Cannot See possesses that bit of literary magic that somehow obscures the source of its greatness.

Grade: A