American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I nearly put this book down after the first few pages. The writing was snappy, stylish, quick. It also pulls no punches and the first chapters reveal a cast of protagonists engaged in brutal violence, seemingly amoral, openly racist, antisemitic, misogynist, you name it.

Ellroy is eager and emphatic to prove his opening sentence, his great thrust:

America was never innocent.

Our heroes, shake down men and corrupt cops and FBI agents on the fast track to losing their conscience, are either terrible people or on their way to becoming so. Murder, torture, corruption. Five hundred pages of it. It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that these guys aren’t even the worst the country has to offer — the mob and the US government, often-hand-in-loving-hand, are worse. Never innocent.

This book is like six hundred pages. You can’t really do six hundred pages of complete revulsion. Well. I can’t anyway. So what happens? You reach a point, this sort of nadir of disgust, and then you float past it. Embrace it, maybe. America was built on corpses, worshiped corrupt heroes like the coward-womanizer John Kennedy, was in bed with organized crime while endlessly persecuting innocents, so who gives a shit? Stop hating Pete and instead cheer on his massacres. Microwave into the bathtub, alright, great. Burn it to the fucking ground.

It’s hard to say if this is some kind of catharsis or an absolution of responsibility w/r/t the American present. I don’t know.

Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.

Bear by Marian Engel

bearWhen you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging through old books and cataloging them. When you note this blurb describes her as ‘mousy’. Yes, when you take these things and you read the sentence they sneak in at the end about this being one of Canada’s most controversial novels, I believe that like me, you can only come to one conclusion about what this mousy librarian does with that bear.

What is with Canadian women going wild on remote northern islands? This happened in Surfacing by Margaret Atwood too. Sans the beastiality, but with plenty of dirt and madness. But who am I to complain? I liked both these novels a good deal.

Engel has a pleasant, readable style. The pathos of the protagonist is real. It’s easy to get into her head even as she constantly reveals deeper layers that unveil a very different character by the end of the book. The descriptions of the wilderness — from the very specific feel of the cold morning air to the shape of the mushrooms — is immersive and well done.

So I guess we should spend some time doing some analysis on bearsex. What our librarian (who is not actually a librarian, she’s an archivist), Lou, comes to find out in the wilderness is not any particular useful bit of sexual or personal discovery. I read reviews or descriptions that attest to that and I’m confused. It’s more like she affirms what she already knew: that being an intelligent woman in the so-called liberating 70s was still to face stifling, society-wide misogyny on a daily basis. Lou can’t find love but she desperately wants a man: emotionally and sexually. It’s this sort of yearning I can match to 60’s/70s lit (The Golden Notebook for sure), but I see it much less in contemporary texts. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps it’s just disempowering to say that out loud.

Here’s where the bear comes in: with his musk and his enormous masculine presence and his phallus-like tongue, he’s the physical embodiment of strength/protection/power/etc that men are supposed to be. But he’s also impotent and can’t reciprocate Lou’s love. Bear is like the polar (ha!) opposite of the over-intellectualized but useless human men she encounters. Lou imprints a personality on the bear only to find it empty and wrong. It’s just a bear. Wilderness retreats, regardless of what taboos they break, can’t fix society or human relationships.

There’s my take on a woman-bear love.

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

cityofbohaneThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.

The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.

Ol’ Boy wore:

High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.

Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.

“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.

But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.

Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.