The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

metamorpmosisA MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remains inimitable. Bizarre, grotesque, monotonous, true. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and this is remarkable to everyone but his own self, because as the overworked and under-appreciated breadwinner of his family, he already lives like one. His initial trials involve trying to get out of bed (he’s stuck on his back carapace and hasn’t managed to control his multitude of tiny fluttering legs yet) and trying to open doors. What follows, as his family begins to ostracize him, is a black humor-laced* depiction of how some families treat the terminally ill among them.

The stories maintain a striking relevance. The Penal Colony is a story about the failed maintenance of the once great ‘apparatus’, an impossible steampunk device that writes a victim’s crimes in their own skin until they run out of blood and it (the apparatus) tosses them into a bottomless desert pit. It is a political tale of capital punishment and changing opinions tied to changing regimes. It could have been written today, which is sort of depressing in its resonance.

There’s fragments and meditations. Short recursive pieces where characters sunk in pathos consider and reconsider their life and emotions mark Kafka as a very direct antecedent to David Foster Wallace’s short fiction. There’s dark fairy tales and sardonic observations of social interaction and weird, coincidence laden tales of ship crews where no one acts or responds as they should. Why does that kid love the awkward crewman (‘the stoker’) like a father after knowing him for five minutes, why??

But yes, more Kafka. I intend read his entire oeuvre, which isn’t terribly long, but I’d do the same if it were much longer.

*I never realized the horror-trope of a man covering his mouth with his hands and slowly backpedaling away had its roots in Kafka. I do now, thanks to Gregor’s jerk boss coming to the Samsa house to lecture him on the requirements of showing up to work before he opens the door and sees roach-Gregor and reacts accordingly.

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Paradise by Toni Morrison

paradiseThey shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.

These chilling lines always appear on lists of the greatest first lines in literature, and always piqued my interest, but for some reason never led me to pick up Paradise. Until now. Which is a shame because it is really fucking good.

The all-black town of Ruby exists for reasons of virtue. Work ethic, godliness, community. Its founders, following the collapse of Reconstruction, were reduced from governors to street sweepers. Fleeing the abstract, omnipresent violence of whites and turned away from other black towns for being too black, they continued their Biblical journey to settle in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie. A generation later, their descendants are continuing their legacy, but failing to create their own; events in the real world are pulling their children away. A die-hard devotion to the old ways reveals the flaws in their patriarchal wisdom, and frustrated at the erosion of their status and control, they direct their ire outward, at undeserving targets, and yes, you guessed it, the oppressed become the oppressors.

Outside of Ruby lies the ‘Convent’, formerly a wealthy embezzler’s estate, then a re-education religious school for native girls, it has now become a home for lost women, fleeing predatory life situations and, though they don’t know it, desperately in need of the company of other women. These are the subjects of the first lines of the book, targeted for their free approach to sex and dress, paganism, and especially their independence from men. Their names mark the chapters of the book. These relate their their stories and how they arrived at the Convent, and are interspersed with the history and points of view of the citizens of Ruby, as unrest builds toward the shootout at the Convent — related in the first and penultimate chapters.

The themes of Paradise – the contagion of oppression, violence against women, the pursuit of utopia, the conflict on interpretation of religion — are obvious but deftly told. Morrison has a wonderful way of getting in a character’s head and asking you to empathize with them, then switching viewpoints to another character who just does not care or rejects the principles the first character held. As I mentioned in my review of Ancillary Justice, the difference between approaching current topics of human rights and politics by a lesser skilled writer who takes you out of the narrative and a master who just makes you angry on behalf of the characters is immense. Toni Morrison is the master here. I was enveloped by the plot and characters, not distantly pondering topics of feminism and civil rights. Or I was, but they were entwined. No academic detachment.

The sentence level writing is stellar. Toni Morrison is often described as lyrical and I guess she is, but that word is kind of vague and imprecise. The language in Paradise alternates between personal and biblical. The dialogue feels like it could be spoken aloud. The characters have depth but are familiar — they have traits you see in those around you. Then there are moral proclamations that strike to the bone. Fire and brimstone seem right around the corner. There feels like there is much more at stake than a few lives, or even an entire town.Taken together, it all reminds me deeply of a western — there’s something intensely hopeless about it all, similar to Warlock, another tale of biblical-American destruction.

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.

I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.

The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.

Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.

Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.

I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.

*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own.

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The Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss

alligatorsAn experimental Civil War epic.

We begin in the dust of the valleys, in the long days and the sounds of your generations, digging and constructing and fighting, the hollow slapping of their fists against the meat of the men they beat into the dust. The stray dogs that lapped their spilled blood, while flies hummed and flickered along their mangy skins, their bulged ribs.

This book is about an aesthetic. A scent. Sounds. Blood and embalming fluid and the yellow depths of alligator eyes. Verbs are generally bombastic words with accompanying sounds.The child-hero’s father puts his gasoline soaked hand over the boy’s mouth to keep him quiet and the smothering scent and sensation I can feel still.

It’s biblical in language and scope, Abraham Lincoln as father, God as father, and most importantly — your father as Father (it is written in the second person). The War is apocalyptic. There are plagues. Of gulls and alligators and militiamen. Endless imagery of furs and skins, mud and leather. Mountains of corpses. The prose is unique and dizzying and if it reminds me of anyone, it would be William Vollman.

When it’s not portraying an aesthetic (or sometimes when it is), it is allegory. The freed slaves are only ever called ‘the unpaid’; the whites are ‘the paid’, with the poor whites being ‘the lowly paid’. Eponymous Abe is alternately hated as an unpaid sympathizer, described as an unpaid himself*, then as time passes stories are told of how he was a great hater of the unpaid — ‘The Great Emaciator’. This demonstrates changing public opinions of major historical figures and events over relatively brief periods of time. If the reader finds themselves feeling dismayed and superior about the masses at this point, Kloss cleverly levels his ardor at the reader themself — by mixing real historical fact with insidious nonsense, the chaotic result makes it impossible to tell fact from fiction for anyone but a scholar of American history. Which I am not. Was Lincoln’s guard missing when he was assassinated? Was there really suspicion of Mary Todd being involved in the plot?

Like all books where the protagonists are all terrible people, the book can get a little dicey and uncomfortable when it comes to race and gender. Perhaps more so when the oedipal tyrant hero is ‘you’. Kloss seemed aware of what he was doing, but that is definitely up to personal interpretation. Oh, it’s also ultra violent if that it’s a deterrent.

*This book was published in 2012 and the Obama tie in is so blatant it’s almost distracting.

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A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

commonprayerJoan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-point what a book will contain:

  • A detached heroine, probably in her thirties. A woman becoming unhinged.
  • Cruel men in positions of power over the heroine, who have jobs that give them financial and social clout that allow them to be 100% assholes without much consequence (lawyers, producers, etc). The men may be just as detached as the women, but they exude at least the appearance of control.
  • A lost child.
  • A stomach churning body horror scene, probably relating to the above bullet point, involving a botched abortion or miscarriage or horrifying birth.
  • Actually it doesn’t have to be tied to birth. Vaginal blood, arriving in one way or another, and being integral to at least one crucial scene and maybe one shock scene. Maybe they’re the same scene. In A Book of Common Prayer, a bomb goes off outside a birth control clinic and a doctor jumps in fright while inserting an IUD and punctures his patient’s uterus. Meanwhile, the protagonist (who is working at the clinic) is on her period and this is important.
  • A disorienting disconnect between how much money the characters are spending and how much money they can possibly have/make; it’s not merely like those sorts of books where seemingly everyone is rich. In A Book of Common Prayer, the protagonist has left her husband and has no job, and is somehow jumping from airport to airport with ease.
  • Sex is scary and bizarre, but also understated. When it happens, it is mentioned casually or in a scene much later than when it actually happened. It’s generally inexplicable why the heroine is having sex with whomever she is having sex with.
  • Depression and depravity are omnipresent. Everyone is sad or an asshole, but probably both. Hope or escape is generally represented in the (lost) child.
  • Physical and spiritual despoilment in fictional third world countries, mirroring the protagonist’s own fall/state of mind/ennui.
  • A cold, detached narrator who is not so cold and detached as her self image had her believe before the plight of the subject/protagonist came to pass before her very eyes.
  • Just enough hope or possible freedom to make the utter dashing of said hope/freedom sting (but you knew it was coming anyway).

Yet. The writing is so good, so biting and sharp and uniquely Joan Didion that I keep on reading, even as the books become indistinguishable. Plus, they’re really short and move at breakneck speed, so there’s not enough time to get bored.

(Also while looking for the cover image online, I discovered this book, written in 1977, is suddenly going to have a movie adaptation starring Christina Hendricks come out this year???)

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinIt has been entirely too long since I read a great fantasy novel.

Premise: The Emperor, and all of his heirs save one, die in a fiery zeppelin crash. His estranged halfbreed son, relegated to a secluded lodge and shackled with an abusive overseer, is suddenly thrust on to the throne. This all happens in the first three pages — you’re not left with your hands in your pockets wondering when the blurb on the back of the book will actually come to pass.

Emperor Edrahasivar VII (known as Maia to his buddies / readers) struggles with the questionable legacy of his father, ancient political and territorial disputes, attempts at his life and the building of literal and figurative bridges. He’s unprepared, timid, and plagued by stress headaches. But he is determined to do right by his people.

Sci-fi and fantasy are so often reflections of the times we live in. We live in cynical times. Naturally, our fantasy has taken a turn for the grim(dark). This is hardly secluded to fantasy of course. From The Wire to Breaking Bad to American Hustle, our dramas are obsessed with the abyss. Thus it seems almost radical to read a story surrounding a politician-hero who is honestly good, does not become privy to corruption, nor made an example of by a contemptuous phantom narrator who demands retribution for goodworks and cannot abide that a good person making good decisions could maintain control.

(don’t get me wrong, I like tragic, difficult stories too)

The Goblin Emperor is suffused in a fantasy world with accompanying lingo and vague technology-magic. it succeeds where many of its type fail, however, in that it does not get bogged down in itself. It uses familiar genre arcana as touchstones rather than subjects for lengthy elucidation. There’s steampunk elements — an airship for example — but not steampunk porn. We, the reader, know what an airship is. We don’t need the painstaking minutiae of why it stays aloft. Similarly, all the main characters are elves and goblins, but they don’t need to be described to conjure the correct imagery. Nor do we need to know why there is racial strife between them. It’s a staple[1].

Potential cons: Some of the jargon works better than others. The changing dialect and fluctuations between singular and plural, formal and casual may seem daunting when summarized here but they flow naturally. The honorifics and suffixes and affixes do become a bit much though, especially since most of the cast have generic fantasy names. They can be very hard to keep track of. But it’s a minor complaint. A bit worse is the pacing — it’s not a typically paced novel and it occasionally drags. It has maybe thirty pages too many.

But that should not detract. It’s an excellent book.

1. And it’s a staple for a reason. Obvious real-world reasons that can’t be any more apparent when we have a half-black, half-white president. Modern social issues abound in this book. Another strike against the notion that stories need to be violent and shocking to be relevant. Back

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The Wii U Experience Part II — Pickup and setup

Upon picking up my Wii U at Best Buy, I was informed they did not have a bag that fit it (it’s not that big!). So I took it under my arm and climbed into the same crowded, lurching hellbeast/bus I read most of the books I review here on. A pair of Mandarin-speaking boys laughed at me and kept saying ‘GG!’. Nearby passengers repeatedly affected shock and annoyance when the bus shifted and a corner of the box found some soft, fleshy spot to poke.

I made it home, triumphant, clothes and Wii slippery with sweat (only some of it mine). Unpacked and set up, eager to dive into Mario Kart, we were instead greeted by a mandatory update. It spent about twenty five minutes getting halfway, then an hour or more for the remaining half. There was apparently an uproar over this when the Wii U first launched but so few people bought it that it didn’t reach the fever pitch required to catch my attention. What the hell, Nintendo? This couldn’t be installed in the factory?

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While waiting for the update, I decided to log into their website to redeem the free game that comes with Mario Kart — a significant factor in me buying the bundle in the first place — only to find everyone else thought to do the same thing.

sorry!

It wasn’t until the day after, dealing with intolerably slow speeds, false starts and dead ends, that I was able to get my code for Pikmin 3. I checked today (now +2 days from MK launch) and the site is still a disaster.

All that aside, the system is pretty fun. The tablet controller is much larger than I thought it would be.

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It feels a little ‘light’ and isn’t quite as responsive as I would have liked, but it is pretty cool. Nothing I’ve tried so far utilizes it beyond a status and information panel, but it is nice to see which asshole (insert: Mario, Peach, Baby Luigi, Bowser, whatever) stole first place from me at the last second of a race so I can calculate if I can still get the gold medal or not. And it works as a TV remote! My actual remote is long since lost in one cross country move or another.

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The system itself is sleek and unobtrusive. A welcome change from the Xbox 360 and PS3 I am used to but it is a bit longer than the original Wii. The Mii-verse is one of those potentially interesting things I am utterly disinterested in and I have yet to explore beyond making my basic Mii. The e-shop is sparse compared to the 360 and is still absent much anything newer than the SNES era, but as someone who for the most part missed out on the Wii’s lifespan, it’s nice being able to download Super Mario World and its like.

All in all, at 29, the magic of a new system has indeed dissipated. But I am having fun and do not regret it, painful setup experience aside. Mario Kart and Pikmin reviews to come.

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The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso

marriage.cadmus.harmonyLet us try to decipher this strange, dense book. Roberto Calasso takes on Greek mythology.

But what is Greek mythology? Capricious gods. Adulterous heroes. Many headed monsters. Irony. Hubris.

Calasso explains the difference between narrative and myth: A myth has several different versions, different retellings, but the thrust is often the same — there’s always a labyrinth and a monster and a hero and princess but how they got there, who they were, just how the plot played itself out must change. This is the essence of the myth. A narrative is a singular, crafted story. When a mythical tale is pared down to a single interpretation, specific plot-characters-theme, when its variants are lost, it is no longer a myth.

But what is Greek mythology? A panoply of sexual assault and women hanging from trees.

But what is Greek mythology? Duality. Phantoms. Twins.

“There are two strands to the story of the Pelopids: the tale of a king’s descendants, a succession of atrocities, each worse than the one before; and the tale of a series of talismans, each taking over from another in silence, each deciding the fate of men.”

Meanwhile, the Helen who launched the Trojan War, may have only been a phantom twin, swapped out when she was initially journeying to Troy (a point Calasso delights in returning to the whole book long). Athena finds her childhood playmate looked exactly like her and this is why Zeus tricked Athena into killing her. There should only be one Athena.

The heroes of ancient Greece all have godly-antecedents. Theseus, the Minotaur(bull) slayer, becomes a bull in the end, his stories all mirroring earlier feats of Dionysus, often depicted as a bull. The tale of Ariadne can be drawn back to multiple different goddesses. The warrior women of the time fall back to Artemis or Athena. Echoes.

But they all fall short. Achilles’ life is so brief because of how close he is to the gods.

But what is this book? Occasionally a straight retelling of many Greek myths, both popular and obscure and seemingly with an emphasis on rape and abduction. Laced with thematic analysis, historical conjecture, and anecdote, Calasso rewrites the ancient tales of gods and heroes, often multiple times with different results. He sounds kind of smug about it.

But what is this book? Fascinating symbolism extraction mixed with metaphysical nonsense. An unintended duality, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony vacillates between wholly engaging and hopelessly monotonous. One chapter, we are following Calasso down an engrossing tangent, as he introduces a king from Ancient Greece whose entire history and character has been lost to time, save for one repeated trait: hospitality. A very hospitable king. That’s all we know. Hospitable. Calasso then extrapolates this to mean that actually, this king was the king of the dead, the most hospitable king of all, as he welcomes all. Calasso fills in all this backstory and conjecture to make this somehow make sense.

Follow this into another chapter about the birth of ‘necessity’ and the goddesses who commanded such and how they can never be cowed and lord over gods and men alike except that one time when one of them got tricked and impregnated by Zeus as a goose (it rhymes!) and what this means is that man’s relationship with necessity displays its overarching conflict with beauty and Zzzzz.

But what is this book? Eh, it’s okay I guess.

“What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.”

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The Wii U Experience — Part I (Ordering)

mk

It’s that time again. The previous console generation had sputtered on so long, it seemed as if we’d never have to experience our favorite developers slow and stop releasing games for our favorite consoles. And then perforce rumination on whether to drop a few hundred bucks on an unproven system that is barely supported as of yet and appears to offer very little in graphical upgrades. But here we are, the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii are all breathing their last, abdicating their modernity and destined to enter the realm of historians, hobbyists, and hipsters. It will be a while yet until their true death rattle, but focus has shifted. Let us look ahead.

It’s a frustrating, eye-rolling trend for the previous industry-leader to immediately make poor decisions on their follow-up. Perhaps, like timeworn accounts of mad kings, they feel their digital fortress unassailable. There’s a reason the ancient Greeks were obsessed with tales of hubris. Anyway. The PS2 blew everything else away, had possibly the best library of any system ever then followed it up with a prohibitively expensive PS4 launch, with nary a great game in sight for much too long. Now, my last-gen favorite, the Xbox 360, has a too-expensive successor that originally laser focused itself as a ‘media center’, whatever the hell that is, and not on what matters — the game library. It has gone through multiple embarrassing marketing shifts, reneging on earlier goals, replacing public figures, acquiring a humbling albeit catchy nickname (Xbone!). Its 2013 E3 game-conference presentation was marked by a horrific show of misogyny, showcasing a major issue in gaming writ large. And it still barely has any games, either released or in the pipeline, that I would like to own.

The PS4. Well, at least it has avoided the baggage and marketing shitshow Microsoft has garnered. But otherwise, it has similar problems with price and gameplay. The… prestige of being an early adopter seems to be the biggest perk to dropping $400 right now, instead of waiting another year or two for a library to develop and the price to drop. The days of amazing launch titles like Mario 64 or Halo are long past, unlikely to return. It’s a peculiar turnaround when the excitement of new console releases is backloaded to some arbitrary point in the future when just the right amount of decent games are released to make it worth buying. Peculiar is fine, but much worse, it’s boring. Major launches, especially the kind that require substantial financial investment, should be an occasion for joy, not patience.

Which brings us to the Wii U. Released first and with marketing so anemic that many of the people that made the first Wii so incredibly successful either don’t know it exists or don’t care. Maybe there’s a certain ultra-casual audience that would never care. Even my parents, who ostensibly understand console lifecycles due to grudgingly buying me a few in my youth, would be hard pressed to be convinced they need another Wii. Further perplexing is this incarnation’s controller gimmick: a controller-as-tablet that actually seems pretty cool, or at least potentially cool (it does require game devs to think in new, maybe risky ways), but is a total departure from the immediate, obvious simplicity of the Wii-mote. You can’t get results just waving it about.

Yet, and possibly because it was first, the library is now starting to come together. Super Mario Bros U, Pikmin 3, Super Mario World U, Wind Waker HD are respectable. But now, yes, now, the tipping point has been reached.

mario kart

Mario Kart!

And Smash Bros hovers on the horizon. Yes, the cynics among us ought to point out this is an entire slate of sequels, some with bare updates on the past and including a mere HD remake. Others may peg this is a purchase rooted in nostalgia. They’d be right. But as someone who skipped most of the Wii’s lifespan, it’s been a while since I hurled turtle shells at a gorilla on a go-cart.

Part II: Pickup and setup

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

life of piI began this book in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and finished it on the 38L bus in San Francisco. Kind of like Pi’s journey, sans malnutrition and 450 lb. Bengal tiger.

This book, while entertaining, suffers from a not uncommon phenomenon. It’s been out for 13 years, just had a major movie release, and is part of our societal consciousness. As a result, I knew it was about boy in a boat with a tiger. So when the novel itself spends the first hundred pages in southern India, detailing Pi Patel’s life and entering into both a theological treatise on the multivalence of religion as well as a stalwart defense of zoo ethics, and it’s even further, a full 150 pages (about halfway) before the premise — boy + boat + tiger — is realized, I could not help but be figuratively tapping my foot in impatience.

The religion bits made me want to debate the authorial voice purporting them. Conflating atheism with faith drives me up a wall and the novel paints atheists and theists as similar belief-based stances. It also has a hilarious and unnecessarily antagonistic take on agnosticism, condemning doubt as wishy-washy and cowardly; this, instead of the essential element of theology and science alike that doubt actually is. The zoo defense squad sections follow along similar lines. Martel omits crucial elements of anti-zoo activist’s arguments. His exhortation that the difference between wild habitat and zoo enclosure is arbitrary, and that the animals appreciate the safety and reliability of food does not reconcile with my own childhood memories of Major the polar bear ceaselessly pacing back and forth in his room temperature pen in the Stone Zoo.

I was also under the impression that this was going to be a fantastical story. Maybe it was the tiger. In actually, the tale is played almost* entirely straight. While a Bengal tiger on a lifeboat is extraordinary, the story is otherwise how a person stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean might try and survive. There’s interminable descriptions of knot tying, the structure of the boat, the current status of the tiger, the position of the tarpaulin, the direction of the winds, the ferocity or calmness of the waves. All the sort of repetitive practical details that make castaway stories a bit of a bore and all of which make me suspect this story may work better in a visual medium (I have yet to see the movie).

The book improves for the final fourth. The end of the journey is the best and the last bit where Pi makes landfall is somewhat clever. There’s meta discussion on what fiction actually means — if a ship sinks and everyone dies and there is only a sole survivor, does it honestly matter what happened to him afterward? It’s total philosophy 101: What is truth? Is it relative? It’s not especially profound but it’s contextually sound and makes an otherwise dull book shine. Briefly.

*The scene that makes me say almost instead of entirely — a mysterious living island — is my favorite in the novel. Back

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