January 31, 2015

Book 8: Who We Are

Who We Are: Our Official Autobiography
One Direction

And now for something completely different! There's no use in pretending that my love of boy bands hasn't extended beyond my tween years, and I figured that this would be a quick enough read with some potential to present little-known facts or interesting (if heavily edited and marketing-approved) insight into each of the One Direction lads. But alas; as a reader who is well outside the range of the book's obvious target demographic, I was bound to be disappointed despite my lowered expectations. I hesitate a bit to judge Who We Are on its literary merits, as it has a very clear and narrowly defined purpose, but I do feel that it has the potential to disappoint One Direction fans who are now old enough to expect a bit more of a genuine effort from the marketing team. The introduction and jacket copy imply that Who We Are will offer a more personal glimpse into each of the members' reactions to the various landmark events in their remarkable (and remarkably dense) career, and by that measure I think it is ultimately a bland failure that offers little new information on the group.

The book is built on a solid foundation, comprised of five chapters that purport to tell each individual member's story in their own words, and the choice to begin with the more serious-minded Liam gives an initial impression that the book may actually offer something interesting. Unfortunately, nothing really comes of it in the end, and the book immediately, repeatedly, and apparently unapologetically rescinds on its promise to be more than a re-hashing of the group's history. It cannot be a coincidence that each of the members devotes significant time to each of a small number of events, often describing them nearly verbatim, and the whole thing rings false as a result. Likewise, the attempt to distinguish the five narrative voices, while extant, is lacking almost to the point of futility, and too many of the stories and would-be asides align too perfectly to have originated organically. Too often, a chapter refers overtly to the others and to the same limited catalog of events in a way that betrays its utterly artificial construction. Maybe each member would conveniently and coincidentally choose the exact same shows and anecdotes to reflect upon, but in this context I'm simply not buying it.

I might be more forgiving of the repetition if the remainder of the book didn't feel so relentlessly artificial in a way that openly mocks its opening salvo of lip service to genuine revelation. Many moments are posed ever so precisely upon the precipice of actual emotional honesty, to the book's credit, but the author beats a hasty, and usually awkward, retreat as soon as they come within a mile of controversy. I didn't expect Who We Are to be a tell-all memoir actually written by the principals, but it would be nice not to be relentlessly pandered to, my intelligence and loyalty (and that of all fans) called into question simply because some manager decided on a party line that excludes any hint of real human emotion. It is genuinely moving when Liam's chapter admits to his chronic anxiety (a trait I share, described in a way that made me immediately relate and feel deep sympathy) and when other cracks begin to come into focus, but honesty is a precious commodity in this book and whoever had final say in it was careful not to stray to far from the concocted storyline.

For a band that begs to be taken seriously, One Direction's management is awfully eager to present them as yes-men who always enjoy what they're doing, even when the book itself admits that they may not be 100% perfect 100% of the time. Perhaps the overall effect would be less galling if the members themselves hadn't let slip a few (completely warranted and reasonable) complaints in recent months, but I believe that the dual emphasis on the five as regular guys and as infallible, ever-grateful puppets does far more harm than good. It's disingenuous when the book carefully and immediately backs away from any half-statement that doesn't dwell excessively on how massively amazing every single facet of their lives is. There are hints of real depth and complexity, to be sure, but they are mostly to be discovered between the lines. Unsurprisingly, readers who fawn over the lads' every move will find precisely what they're looking for in this volume, but those who have grown up with the band might find it lacking, particularly in the context of the band's more recent, unfiltered statements, missteps, and honest admissions.

I suspect that moral quandaries about quality, consistency, and morality won't trouble most of the book's readership, but I nonetheless feel that the book does a disservice to band and fans alike by pretending that everything is always perfect and cheerful in the land of superstardom. The first-person chapters, hints at vulnerability (however small), and smug appeals to fans' own vanity will convince the converted that this biography offers something new, unique, and valuable in the One Direction canon, but we unwashed may find ourselves wishing for something more. The book does offer a small glimpse behind the scenes, and it wasn't a complete waste of my time due to my lack of knowledge about the kind of chronology the book so stridently (but inaccurately) says it avoids, but it doesn't live up to its own promises and doesn't keep up with the band's own musical and personal maturation. Readers who wish to know more about the emotional state of the group would be better advised to listen to Midnight Memories and Four for a far more honest glimpse at their inner lives. Despite presenting a welcome- though worn- facade to its primary audience, Who We Are is just another example of unconvincing marketing that shows little respect to its subject and its potential consumers.

Grade: C

January 30, 2015

Book 7: The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century

The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century
Edited by Otto Penzler

With much of the 20th century now covered by a number of his mystery anthologies, editor extraordinaire Otto Penzler has recently turned his attention to the century that spawned the genre as we know it today. His introductions indicate that the collection is meant to introduce readers to the wide range of crime stories that were published throughout the 1800s, meaning that the stories do vary somewhat according to various measures of quality, but they run a surprising gamut from the overly moralizing products one expects of the early decades to the standard (but always pleasant) Holmesian detective stories and darkly ambiguous morality plays. The stories offering straightforward narratives of crimes and the resulting punishments do form the majority, but those that deviate from the script stand out more sharply because of it. Even the more formulaic stories can linger past their final pages, and the most basic among them often provide useful context for the others, if nothing else. Penzler may not have selected the best stories, per se, but his individual story introductions make it clear that the books represents his honest attempt to include the most significant works of short crime fiction from the era in which it came into its own. I am hardly an authority on either the genre or the time period, but as a casual observer I thought that the collection had a nice variety and balance: it was a pleasant- and welcome!- surprise not to read 30-odd variations on the exact same theme.

The book's chronological arrangement scheme, based on each story's earliest publication date, is both the obvious and, I believe, the correct choice. The exceptions- two "riddle stories" whose sequels are reprinted with the originals in this volume and Poe's two stronger Dupin stories- make sense, and the 200-page gap between the two (wholly unrelated) Mark Twain tales is forgivable by their vast differences in tone, theme, and structure. The benefit, of course, is that the reader can appreciate the ongoing development of crime fiction- and, indeed, fiction and language at large- throughout the years, sensing the patterns of influence and echoes that resonate throughout the collection. According to his introductory statements, Penzler deliberately included examples of less accomplished (but nonetheless popular) series like the Allan Pinkerton or Nicholas Carter stories, as well as the first known examples of such important tropes as the detective, ballistic evidence, thumbprint evidence, and the serial criminal. What the collection may therefore lack in overall quality is thus compensated by the overall narrative that emerges. Even when the stories do tend toward the formulaic, there is usually some compelling element to draw demanding and less discerning reader alike, often offering welcome insight into everyday life that cannot be found elsewhere in contemporaneous fiction and/or nonfiction. And while most stories take a predictable line toward morality, gender roles, and general cultural norms and taboos, some are shockingly dark- for their own or any other era. The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century may be a slight misnomer, but it presents a pleasant variety of crime fiction that functions as a worthy introduction to the period and place.

Grade: A

January 19, 2015

Book 6: Man v. Nature

Man v. Nature
Diane Cook

I don't know what drew me to this collection, but I am so very happy that I found it. From start to finish, Man v. Nature offers an intense, challenging reading experience that routinely floored me with its ideas and impressed me with the raw power with which author Diane Cook conveys them. I usually start with the positive, but there's so much of it in this book that I'll offer a brief negative statement: some of the middle stories- the more realistic ones, perhaps not coincidentally- show less verve than the others. Though "Girl on Girl" is undoubtedly powerful, it was more difficult to follow than many of its more fantastically-minded counterparts, its characters and their interactions as complex and unknowable as real teenage girls are. Likewise, while "Meteorologist Dave Santana" initially shows potential, it is content to merely exist and resolve itself within the typical, boring litfic paradigm that Cook successfully plays with- and expands- throughout the rest of the book. Even so, these stories- and perhaps "Flotsam", "A Wanted Man", and "The Mast Year" from the more fantastically-minded cohort as well- do testify to the depth and range of Cook's talent; their conceits are intriguing, but not as fully developed or explored as those in the other stories. Then again, perhaps they are disappointing because the collection's other entries are so incredibly, relentlessly good.

I knew from the very beginning that I would love this book. Cook has a way of stretching the bounds of reality, writing stories that are remarkably believable despite the surreal element that usually drives their plots. It is somehow easy to imagine the unnamed (but no less terrifying) threat that chases a group of high-powered executive types (the very aptly titled "It's Coming"); the woman whose husbands are progressively well-suited to a terrifying (but, again, largely unseen and unexplained) world that has devolved into pure, violent chaos ("Marrying Up")- and the pitch-black implication of its final sentences; or even the interactions between three buddies who somehow end up stranded on a popular, familiar lake, where their lifelong bonds show signs of previously unacknowledged strain ("Man v. Nature"). The latter story is thoroughly realistic- if one takes it at its word, which upon reflection may not, in fact, provide a proper understanding of it despite its purportedly omniscient narrator- but it is devastating in its consequences, its spool of revelations coming undone at an unnervingly steady pace.

Cook's themes are rarely far from sight, but even when they are blindingly obvious, she strikes with a chilling, deadly aim. Despite its unapologetically heavy-handed use of The Obvious Hammer, I can't recall reading a more evocative, harrowing, and (likely) true metaphor of the paralyzing fear that must possess new mothers than that which forms the backbone of "Somebody's Baby." It is clear from the beginning precisely what Cook aims to do, but her suburban landscape and gossipy neighbors are drawn with such precision that their nonchalance is devastating and effective, borne out by a twist that suggests that mothers- and all parents, really- suffer from a greater fear than the one that is initially explored. The theme is obvious and constant, but the story rings true, proving both that somewhat fantastic elements need not limit a story's litfic-friendly emotional impact and that literary-minded fiction need not be aimless, pedantic, or boring. Cook effectively tells these boundaries to go directly to hell, and her stories show her love for her craft and her keen eye for all of the emotions and interactions that make us human, from the majestic to the mundane.

Man v. Nature's most effective stories are those that most wholeheartedly embrace and revel in the possibilities of science fiction, immediately and almost irrevocably immersing readers in their dystopian settings, carefully revealing contextual information at a pace and level of detail that neither bog down the stories with unnecessary asides nor leave unacquainted readers in the lurch. These short stories are as richly imagined and presented as those in many novels, and though I craved more as I finished "Moving On", "The Way the End of Days Should Be", and "The Not-Needed Forest", they each tell a complete story; it is rather, each story's larger paradigm that I wanted to explore further. Moreover, each leaves off at just the right moment, lingering on a pivotal moment between resolution and the unknowable future before leaving readers and characters alike to ponder what comes after the action. Even when the conclusions seem clear, the collection revels in the kind of uncertainty that defines our lives in mundane and trying times alike.

Cook may approach her genre-tinged fiction with a litfic mind, but in doing so she approaches the short story in a different way, offering a unique perspective that teases out truths about human emotions that can only emerge when we are stretched beyond our breaking points and must confront the uncomfortable, the uncanny, and the inevitable. She throws herself completely into each situation, each locale, each character, and is sometimes as cruel as she is compelling, though neither author nor stories seem to revel in such cruelty. These stories are shocking, heartbreaking, raw, and inescapably human; I expect that they will stick with me for a long time to come. Man v. Nature is a brilliant collection that absolutely hits the mark.

Grade: A

January 17, 2015

Book 5: The Map Thief

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps
Michael Blanding

Michael Blanding came to the library where I work a few months ago to promote this book, and, finding him to be a very engaging speaker telling a story that resonates with me personally and professionally, I decided to read his book. Though I didn't find The Map Thief to be quite as interesting as its author's talk, it is a solid example of accessible nonfiction. Blanding begins from a point of strength: the main plot of his story- a high roller in the rare map trade steals his wares from some of the country's most prestigious libraries- is immediately compelling, rife with opportunities for rich characterization and insights into the human psyche. What emerges instead is almost a parable, the story of a man whose honest enthusiasm and earnestness led him to become suffocated by his best intentions. Though Blanding does not sacrifice the integrity of his story to create a flattering portrait of its protagonist, his vivid portrayal of E. Forbes Smiley remains a less than fully realized psychological portrait; he hesitates to draw conclusions and/or to make connections that might make Smiley's story resonate beyond its immediate and obvious facts and ramifications. One gets the feeling that the book was written with a potential libel suit in mind, and Blanding carefully relies on insinuation and hearsay rather than direct accusation- though he somewhat subtly invites readers to guess what his personal opinions might be.

Such a tale, of course, cannot exist in a vacuum, and Blanding does attempt to place Smiley's crimes in their proper context, providing a brief history of some of the maps that figure prominently in the story. Though the history he provides is relevant and reasonably succinct, it relies far too heavily on lists of names and utilizes terms that may not be familiar to a general audience; I'm accustomed to thinking about this kind of thing, but I often found myself lost in a sea of facts without context. It is hard enough to remember which mapmakers owe what to who, and harder still to presume what aspects of this lineage- if any- fit into Smiley's tale, and how. Thus, these chapters and asides feel disconnected from the main narrative despite containing information that is crucial to fully understanding it, and the various threads are never successfully integrated. Moreover, Blanding is also the victim of an almost impossibly terrible layout that places each and every illustration- vitally important and welcome in a book that focuses so heavily on a visual medium- far away from any textual references to it. This intolerable situation is only exacerbated by a division that includes both black-and-white illustrations within the text (numbered numerically) and a group of colored plates (numbered alphabetically); at some point, I gave up entirely on digging through the text, as the visual enhancements simply weren't worth the effort. While this admittedly isn't Blanding's fault, it exaggerates the divide between the parts of the book that deal with cartographic history and those that feel more relevant to the story at hand.

In the end, the book simply is what it apparently set out to be: a relatively straightforward account of E. Forbes Smiley, the rare map milieu in which he operated, and (to a lesser extent) the fallout from his sins. As an insider, I cannot speak to the effectiveness of Blanding's efforts to fully convey the scope and ramifications of the thefts, but I do appreciate his attempt to introduce readers to an aspect of librarianship and archival work that is (obviously) near and dear to my heart. Though he should be commended for his ability to maintain his professional composure throughout the text (which is necessary for a tale such as this one), I appreciate the glimpses of subjectivity that shine through the cracks, such as in Blanding's descriptions of one particular dealer (these passages, I suspect, are absolutely dripping with sarcasm and irony) and his discussion of (possible) thefts beyond those that Smiley admitted to. The book is reasonably lively and reflects the author's interest in- and respect for- the subject. Despite some padding and a reluctance to take a deep dive into its primary protagonist's psychology, The Map Thief provides interesting insight into the world of rare maps and the lengths that one man went to maintain appearances and his position in the market.

Grade: B

January 13, 2015

Book 4: The Vacationers

The Vacationers
Emma Straub

I'm usually somewhat skeptical of this kind of fiction, which lies somewhere between the beach read and the serious literary novel, but I decided to give The Vacationers a go anyway after seeing it recommended on several summer reading lists (yeah, I'm a bit late to that party). For most of the novel, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing and my emotional investment despite the characters' abundant flaws. The setup (a nuclear family, plus one of their children's live-in girlfriend and a gay couple who are friends of the family, is stuck together during a foreign vacation) is well-worn but also well-chosen, and Straub keeps it interesting despite treading over very little new ground. It is, in fact, remarkable how enjoyable the novel is despite the many clichés on which it relies. The gang's all here: the husband who has just been caught with a young editorial assistant, his insipid and overbearing wife, their spoiled good-for-nothing son, the gay best friend and his sensitive husband, and the teenager who just wants to get laid by her hot tutor. Somehow, Straub makes her readers care about these people, or at least elicits their curiosity about how, precisely, the inevitable character arcs will unfold.

I suspect that the novel's success is due to the author's effortless writing. The metaphors and dialogue are equally apt, and the language is usually spot on: evocative without being unduly showy and effective without becoming trite. Straub avoids the kind of self-serving poetic excess that plagues so many novels like this without being afraid to inject a bit of higher-minded prose; she has excellent intuition and a willingness to embrace restraint that makes her more flowery prose all the more effective. Even more impressively, the book moves seamlessly between various characters' points of view without having to rely solely on section or chapter breaks to signify shifts in perspective. This allows readers to come to know the characters intimately as individuals despite the familiar foundations on which they are built, and Straub's ability to convincingly get inside the mind of each of the protagonists is no mean feat.

It's a damn shame that all of this goodwill is nuked to hell during the book's closing chapters. Straub opts for each and every one of the most obvious conclusions to each character's story, to the point where any and all credibility she had cultivated is immediately, completely, and irrevocably lost. Of course x happens, the reader thinks, no matter how unlikely or utterly ridiculous x may be for these characters in this novel. Characters suddenly gain new personalities at the author's whim, apparently because it was convenient to ensure that the book- marketed, remember, as an upmarket beach read- had a happy ending. This is more than maddening; frankly, it's insulting to assume that readers will suddenly forgive and forget as easily as the characters apparently do. Straub takes so much care to expose each character's subtle strengths and flaws throughout most of the book, only to resort to the path of least resistance in each and every possible case.

Is the terrible ending enough to ruin the whole experience? Probably not, and I presume that a lot of readers will be satisfied with the gooey happy Post family that remains after the final page, rather than a version that is tethered more closely- and thus more uncomfortably- to the reality that Straub is so willing to acknowledge and explore throughout the rest of the novel. In the end, the book reduces itself to its lowest common denominator, and an ordinary story made compelling in the hands of a skilled author becomes another boring, sappy testament to whiny rich white people's problems. That kind of book can be interesting and, indeed, worth reading, but this particular example could have been so much more; in the end it is left to languish in the shadow of its own wasted potential. The Vacationers is a partially excellent book that succumbs to outside pressure, worth reading for some of its insights but ultimately disappointing because, like so many other books, it comes so tantalizingly close to being something much more meaningful.

Grade: B

January 9, 2015

Book 3: The Martian

The Martian
Andy Weir

Sometimes you know from the first few words that you are going to enjoy the hell out of a book. Such was my experience with The Martian: it was, from the outset, a hilarious, emotional, and thrilling story built on legitimate science and a very human core. The premise- a lone astronaut is stranded on Mars- comes pre-loaded with numerous possibilities; Weir wisely opts for the realistic route, creating a well-paced near-future adventure that sacrifices neither its science nor its accessibility. Despite being heavily steeped in fields as diverse as chemistry (both organic and non-organic), orbital dynamics, and mechanical engineering, the book is easy to digest for readers whose last encounters with these subjects were in high school. Weir has pitch-perfect intuition for details, knowing what to include, what would become burdensome, and when (and how) to gloss over the specifics; it is nonetheless obvious how much care research, and work went into the book, and the author should be commended for resisting the urge to turn it into a dry treatise or, worse, a testament to his own brilliance. His ability and willingness to let his research inform the story without overwhelming it makes for one of the most enjoyable, appealing hard science fiction stories I have ever read, educational without being pedantic or condescending, plausible, and wholly enthralling throughout.

I suspect that a large part of the novel's appeal is due to the primary narrative voice. We learn about astronaut Mark Watney's plight mainly from his own log entries, written intermittently throughout his time on Mars. From the first three sentences, which are gloriously profane but hilariously accurate, Watney is an entertaining tour guide and a likeable smart-ass whose attitude and sense of humor will instantly lure readers like me to his side. It also didn't hurt that the narration consistently hitting the sweet spots of my personal sense of humor. From the outset, I couldn't get enough of the jokes and asides that, while possibly unnecessary to the plot, really make the novel come alive. From his wavering convictions about his prospects of survival to the increasing frequency of references to seventies television and music (for he is stranded with only his crewmates' USB drives for entertainment), Watney is surprisingly down to Earth; he constantly reminds readers that astronauts are, after all, people much like ourselves. Moreover, Weir is careful to have his protagonist relay his trains of thought; from the way that he works through various puzzles and dilemmas to the ways in which he reacts to- and learns from- both his successful ventures and his mistakes, the reader feels like a part of the action. Mark Watney is a protagonist that readers can see as a real person, a virtuoso example of the kind of character building through narration that is essential for a book that so often revolves solely around one guy.

The writing- and the book- does become a bit uneven in various (necessary) third-person passages that focus on NASA officials and the other astronauts from Watney's mission, but I suspect that much of the problem is due to the effectiveness of the main narration; anything in near proximity is likely to pale in comparison. Whenever the story broke away, I found myself eager to return to Mars, and while the supporting cast is essential and varied, no one is as vibrantly realistic as Watney himself. Weir does occasionally fall into the trap of having the secondary characters tell each other things that they no doubt already know, despite the effective tactics he deploys to avoid this during the book's first-person passages. These, however, are minor flaws that detract only slightly from a well-written and well-conceived book; any given diversion is far more likely to enhance the reader's understanding and the story's general air of suspense than it is to make for a burdensome reading experience.

Even if the supporting cast is a bit thinly drawn, they add crucial elements of tension and dramatic irony, alerting the reader to issues that elude the stranded Watney while he lacks radio contact with Earth. For all of its good humor and charm, The Martian is, at its heart, a race against time and the elements that, somewhat ironically, incorporates the long stretches of dead time that are inherent in space travel. Watney faces problems as urgent as his certain starvation knowing that his resources on hand could last as long as a year or more but also aware that any rescue mission is years away at the soonest. His most abundant, and in some ways most valuable, resource is time, and Weir's effective management of the story's many stretches of dead time is one of his most impressive accomplishments. Between Watney's log entries, which convincingly explain away any gaps, and the third-person shifts in focus, Weir creates a solid pace buoyed by his ability to make even the most tedious challenges of Martian survival compelling and by the vitality of Watney's narrative voice. The book feels balanced, allowing the reader to relax and panic in step with the stranded astronaut, a kind of relaxed thriller that consistently holds readers in its grasp.

I feel, despite the length of this post, that I still can't distill exactly what combination of premise, humor, and plot that made reading The Martian such a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me; at the end of the day, I suppose, some books are just damn good, and this is one of them. I strained the edges of my lunch hours trying to get just a few more pages in, knowing full well that I couldn't finish the book before I had to go back to work, and couldn't wait to see what challenges would smack Mark Watney right in the face- and how he would respond to them. The first and final pages have a nice symmetry about them, mixing humor and sentiment, and I came to enjoy the book's irreverence despite its deep respect for NASA and the astronauts who risk their lives to further humanity's knowledge of the universe's smallest and largest secrets. The Martian has everything that I want in a novel, and I highly recommend it as an exemplar of meaningful, intelligent, and just plain fun hard science fiction.

Grade: A

January 4, 2015

Book 2: Bewildered

Bewildered: Stories
Carla Panciera

I have long been a fan of the short fiction format, though it is more by accident than anything else that my first two books of 2015 have been story compilations. Whereas the stories in Redeployment benefit from the book's clear collective mission and vision, readers must dig a bit deeper to find the coherence in Carla Panciera's Bewildered. Panciera has a decidedly literary outlook, tending to be light on plot, and her stories sometime suffer for it; on more than one occasion, I was left wanting more. As an engaged reader, I don't mind being asked to do some of the heavy philosophical lifting, but I do wish that some of the book's offerings had a bit more meat on their bones. There's a disenfranchised housewife here, a moody, insufficient husband there, and too little to make them- or their plights- resonate after a final sentence, suspended as if in midair. If there is a theme to Bewildered's contents, it is the various discontents that lie below the surface of (seemingly) comfortable suburban lives.

The trials that Panciera's characters face tend toward the banal- marital affairs, the various challenges of parenthood, coming to terms with recent or imminent loss (the last, perhaps, more inherently meaningful than the others)- but it is to her credit that her characters are drawn sympathetically enough to elicit the reader's compassion, even when they may not deserve it. The collection has a certain lyricism about it that rarely gets in the way of storytelling, and one only wishes that Panciera had more of an eye for the absurd, the astounding, and the memorable, rather than sticking to well-worn scenes and scenarios. In a collection defined by the author's seeming unwillingness to draw conclusions, the most powerful stories are those that effectively evoke the effects of regret and grief, emotions that leave their sufferers as unresolved as Panciera's stories often are. The collection's opener ("All of a Sudden") powerfully gives voice to the ever-changing nature and maturation of childhood friendships, and "Weight" is a moving exploration of lingering grief, though one wishes that it had done more to define its protagonist early on- it is a fundamentally different story depending on the character's gender and age. "End of Story" is a suitably melancholy reflective piece that has a surprising- but welcome- take on its point-of-view character; not quite damning but not wholly sympathetic, either, it seems to be more or less what he deserves.

"Bewildered" seems, at first, to be a standard story of a husband's discontent but slyly incorporates elements of the psychological thriller; one only wishes that the author had embraced this turn, stoking a sense of uncomfortable doubt rather than laying the whole thing bare and presenting it as straightforward. In light of this missed opportunity, it is Panciera's final offering, "On Being Lonely and Other Theories", that is probably her strongest. The characters and setting are fully realized and its events, though somewhat exaggerated, come with a set of appropriate- and sometimes unexpected- consequences. One development is more or less telegraphed, but the story ends with an unsettling air of ambiguity that, for once, suits it; things are up in the air, unresolved, and one gets the feeling that they should be. This collection is very much in the vein of modern literary fiction, somewhat reluctant to rely on plot but still somehow conveying something meaningful about modern life. I may have wanted a bit more from these stories, but Carla Panciera excels at atmospherics and some of the stories- or at least the feelings of regret and sympathy they elicited in me- may stick with me for a while. Bewildered isn't comprised of life-changing or particularly notable short fiction, but its stories do offer interesting peeks behind the curtain of self-satisfied suburbia.

Grade: B

January 2, 2015

Book 1: Redeployment

Phil Klay

I figure that there are worse ways to kick off a year of reading than with the previous year's National Book Award winner. While Redeployment doesn't exactly make for light- or easy- reading, it is a rewarding and important book that gives voice to a conflict that many Americans struggle to accept, let alone understand. These stories of soldiers' experiences during and after coming home from the Iraq War (with one brief foray into Afghanistan) are appropriately unforgiving and challenging for their characters and readers alike, focusing as they do on unpopular wars that have largely left the country's collective consciousness. Phil Klay gives voice to a misunderstood- and underrepresented- group of veterans who are already largely forgotten despite (or, shamefully, perhaps because of) the currency of the conflict they represent, and does so without resorting to worn clichés about honor, valor, and duty. His characters ponder the shifting and often contradictory meanings of these and other concepts during a conflict that is defined as much by the blurred lines between civilians and combatants as by the shifting cast of extremist groups that constitute today's named enemies. With its uncertain open endings and ambiguous, unresolved moralities, Redeployment is unflinchingly and unapologetically suited to the war(s) it describes and, in doing so, seeks to understand.

Klay displays a variety of literary talents, presenting active combat, its effects, and the home front with equal amounts of care and plausibility. He often trusts his characters to tell their own stories, and though their voices and experiences can blur when their stories are read in quick succession, they offer important perspectives for events that have long been defined by ideologues and newscasters. Klay asks what it is like to be a soldier and finds a litany of answers, ranging from the reasons why one might consciously choose to reenlist for an active deployment to the rush of wartime adrenaline and the lingering self-doubt that accompanies a man (women are few and far between in these stories, often relegated to bare supporting roles) after he causes or witnesses death. Some of the stories are a bit unevenly paced, and many end without a sufficient sense of resolution, but such faults can be forgiven when the stories themselves are so raw and powerful. One of my few complaints is the lack of a glossary to allow civilians to make sense of the book's many acronyms, though they lend the stories an air of credibility and effectively drop the reader directly into the characters' world(s). The acronyms that comprise a good portion of the text of "OIF" disorient the uninitiated and remind us that, as skillfully as Klay (and others) can render the events and effects of Iraq, there is something fundamentally indescribable about them. And as disorienting as its endless stream of jargon is, the ending of "OIF" is one of the collection's most emotionally moving moments, a sadness that only such stark, matter-of-fact prose can truly convey.

Klay's range is impressive, and he refuses to reduce veterans' experiences to a narrow range of events and emotions; even when he explores the same types of experiences in multiple stories, he approaches them in different ways, effectively demonstrating the diversity of those who go to- and come back from- war. "Redeployment" and "In Vietnam They Had Whores" consider some of the less savory aspects of the return home, whereas "Psychological Operations" and "War Stories" directly confront the struggles that soldiers face when returning to a country that is, at best, as deeply torn about the merit of their contributions as it (still) is about whether the wars should have even begun in the first place. Klay neither condemns nor exonerates the American public- though his sympathies very obviously and appropriately lay with the veterans- and instead offers the kind of human perspective that fiction can provide, largely free of condescending platitudes. Ultimately, Klay focuses on the war's human costs, for all of the messiness and moral discomfort that focus necessarily invites.

The collection's strongest stories are, unsurprisingly, those that confront this cost- and the guilt that often accompanies it- head-on. "After Action Report", "Bodies", and "Frago" all consider what happens after the action calms down, and "Money As a Weapons System" is an unflinching, absolutely maddening critique of the bureaucratic bullshit that defines any large government-run operation. "OIF" is brusque, uncomfortable, and quick, but it leaves a stronger lasting impression than many of its more obviously ambiguous counterparts. "Prayer in the Furnace" tends toward the heavy-handed, but it does offer a glimpse into the mental gymnastics that are required of military chaplains in trying times. That leaves the collection's final- and best- story, "Ten Kliks South", which is a searing depiction of artillery action and its aftermath. This is Klay at his best, utilizing a kind of subtlety that elsewhere gives way to his desire to explain and force understanding. Here is war- any war, not just this one- in a nutshell, the narrator and reader slowly realizing what, exactly, it means to be involved, to take a life, to face the same fate oneself day in and day out. It's a slow burn that gradually becomes a story about much more than it seems, artillery-fueled adrenaline seamlessly giving way to sober reflection. As such, it embodies the best elements of Klay's writing and provides a fitting send-off. Redeployment has its fair share of action and emotion, and though its focus can seem somewhat limited and its stories a bit abbreviated and unevenly paced, it offers jarring and potent meditations on modern warfare that will help define the Iraq War's literary legacy for years to come.

Grade: A