Monday, January 31, 2011

100 Books: 9 - Nancy Mitford's MADAME DE POMPADOUR

Madame de Pompadour - By Nancy Mitford - NYRB Classics

I wonder how many people out there were finally provoked to curiosity about Madame de Pompadour by the famous Doctor Who episode, "The Girl in the Fireplace," in which an ailing spaceship named for her has opened multiple time windows into various points in her life in order to check to see if she is "done" enough for them to harvest her brain to use as a CPU for the ship. When the TARDIS lands on it, The Doctor gets involved and blunders into becoming "Reinette's" semi-imaginary friend (pre-figuring what his next incarnation will be to Amy Pond) as he explores those windows. It's a charming episode which I treated myself to just the other day again, and this time I was left definitely wanting to know more about this woman.

A few mouseclicks, and I find that none other than Nancy "Highland Fling" Mitford wrote a biography of her! I had Mitford pigeonholed as a satirist and a Jazz Age "Bright Young Thing" so this came as a pleasant surprise. I expected a breezy tour of late Ancien Regime France as well as a celebration of a woman whom history has often seemed to revile -- and that is exactly, delightfully, what I got.

I must say, though, that were it not for two happy accidents in my life, this book would have been much more opaque to me than it was. The first is that I was lucky enough to grow up in a most rare household, one in which resided a nearly-complete collection of old Horizon magazines. I have long maintained that these are a liberal arts education in themselves, lovely, slim hardbound (!) volumes through which a dazzling array of thinkers omnivorously surveyed history, art, politics, literature, philosophy, architecture, even, occasionally, space, in greater depth and with greater knowledge than any magazine I've ever found before or since. Our modern Smithsonian occasionally comes somewhat close to what Horizon did so well, but never at such length or completeness. It was in the pages of Horizon that I first learned about the Sevres porcelain manufactory, whose great patron Pompadour was, for instance. I have these magazines still; they are one of my greatest treasures, and I have added to the collection over the years they've been in my care.*

The other happy accident is that I became a devoted fan of Neal Stephenson and have read his amazing Baroque Cycle several times. A modern reader could not ask for a livlier or more entertaining (or thoroughly researched) guide to 17th Century England and Europe, and the court of Louis XIV, the famous Sun King and predecessor of Madame de Pompadour's beloved Louis XV, is the site of many scenes, historical and invented. Stephenson goes into great depth to explore how much of our own society and institutions harken back to those extraordinary times, with a great deal of wit and style -- which means what the reader learns from these books sticks with her long after she has closed and shelved them.

I had cause to turn to both of these sets of sources a few times as I read Mitford's book on Madame de Pompadour, for it would otherwise have been rather a bewildering experience.

Mitford was very much a child of her age and class, which meant she knew what she knew and expected that anyone who cared to converse with her would, also. Not big on explaining herself, was Mitford, at least not in her books; her narration conveys the impression that one has sidled up to her at a large and fancy party to hear from her perspective what is going on there. She is a wealth of information and perspective and, above all, gossip, but does not consider it her job to tell you who all those Ducs and Comptes are so much as what they've done to help or hinder her heroine. The effect is rather like watching a play or opera (a thing Madame was famous for staging in Louis XV's private theater at Versailles) in a foreign language (Mitford also assumes you have at least a passing command of French) with no libretto handy. Figures march on and march off, bow and curtsey and fight, all maintaining a definite orbit around Pompadour but never quite seeming real or fleshed out.

Which is to say that NYRB Classics would have served its buying public well to include a family tree or two, or, even better, a dramatis personae. Despite this lack, the book is a most pleasant read, sympathetic to its heroine, orderly in its presentation of the facts and anecdotes of her life (which is to say not baldly chronological: orderly. Chapters detail her various sub-careers as courtesan and lover of the King of France, as builder and taste-maker, as politician, ranging back and forth in history a bit in the service of clarity, which I applaud), a little bit wry, informative in its way, and always charming.

*My Own Dear Personal Mother, the Little Old Lady with a Computer will call me out quickly if I do not disclose that my first "use" of these magazines was as building blocks rather than as reading material. Flat and slim and sturdy, they made perfect and colorful "floors" for the bizarrely complex houses my sister and I built out of wooden blocks and legos for our Tonka Toy people to live in. She used to admire those and dream that one of us would become an architect. Sorry, Mom! But at least you found someone to treasure the books!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jennifer Hudock's THE GOBLIN MARKET

The Goblin Market - By Jennifer Hudock - ebook only (at this time)

It is with a great deal of pleasure and pride that I share some wonderful news: Jennifer Hudock has at last loosed a print version of The Goblin Market on the world. At this time it's available as an ebook only (if you aren't a fan of Amazon's proprietary, DRM-riddled formats for these -- and I am not -- you can also snag this from Smashwords in whichever alternative you desire), but in this day and age that's all you need unless you're a confirmed bibliofetishist and crave the feel and smell of dead tree in your hot little hands (guilty).

I first encountered The Goblin Market in podcast form. Like many a brave and enterprising new writer on the scene, Hudock took the plunge, embraced the ethos of FREE, and offered up her baby as an audio gift to the world. It's still there for our enjoyment at her site or via iTunes, and is a pleasure in that format, for among her many talents, Hudock has a pleasant reading voice. It's fun to hear fairy tales told as they were long ago, as oral narratives. We gather beside a figurative campfire and are transported.

It's still nice, though, to experience it in private, at one's own pace and on one's own terms, isn't it? Of course it is. Words cast a different sort of spell in print.

And boy, are spells cast. From the opening scene, evoking the eerie and unforgettable Christina Rosetti poem of the same name, The Goblin Market is an engrossing and enchanting fairy tale for grown-ups, populated by memorable and sympathetic characters, taking place in vividly imagined and affecting scenes, at times lushly romantic and sensual and at others full of the kind of creeping dread we so love in the original, dark versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales -- the ones full of queens being forced to dance themselves to death, of infanticide and cannibalism and monsters with serious appetites and sharp teeth.

Full disclosure: I was one of Hudock's beta readers for this print version, a duty I performed with pleasure, even though I'm not a fan of the fantasy genre. I love Merideth, her heroine, questing after her little sister who was ensared by the luscious fruits of the Goblin Market and kidnapped by the Goblin King; I love Him of the Green, the archetypal antlered woodland god who becomes her companion and then some; I love Kothar, the misunderstood and vengeful Goblin King, lashing out from his nightmarish and decadent castle; I love the creepy Darkjan Wald. I love the bittersweet and dangerous undercurrents of the quest-romance and Merideth's bewilderment at learning she isn't quite who she thought she was.

Oh, for pity's sake. Jenny's asking a mere $2.99 for the ebook. What have you got to lose? Go! Read it! Listen to it! Enjoy!

Go shopping. Try the berries. They're even sweeter and juicier than they look.

Addendum: this weekend only, Jenny has a dead-tree print edition giveaway going on. If she sells a mere 50 ebooks this weekend, the luckiest of those buyers will win a paper copy of The Goblin Market, of which only five exist in the world right now.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

100 Books 8 - John Wyndham's THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS

The Midwich Cuckoos - By John Wyndham - Ballantine Books

Originally published in 1957, well before much in the way of feminist literature was hitting the racks, The Midwich Cuckoos frames, in its weird, pulpy way, a lot (though certainly not all) of the issues that the feminist movement would soon be bringing to everybody's attention, at least in the novel's first third or so.

Since the book has been made -- twice -- into Major Motion Pictures retitled Village of the Damned, I imagine most everyone who might be part of its target audience knows its premise: a tiny English village's people (actually, all of its life forms) mysteriously loses consciousness for a day or so, and when everyone wakes up, all the women of childbearing age are pregnant, even the determined spinsters and the younger member of a delicately hinted at lesbian couple. That a number of these women are young and unmarried raises early moral issues within the small and very traditional community, as one might expect for 1957, but the wife of a community leader quickly calls a meeting and successfully talks the village around so there will be no posturing, no sniggering, no remarks about dirty girls having premarital sex, because all of the women are in the same boat -- and their men along with them, even before it becomes obvious that the children Midwich is bearing are not the biological children of Midwich's women.

It's a fine line between pregnancy and parasitism, really, and the line is mostly drawn by social means. A woman who sought motherhood and tried (whether the old-fashioned way or by the various modern means available to us today) and succeeded in becoming pregnant is happy, if anxious, anticipating the longed-for day with joy and cautious preparation (even more so nowadays in our age of pre-natal vitamin regimens, lamaze and other classes, hundreds of books on what to expect, even Facebook plug-ins that display for anyone who wants to look an approximation of what the fetus looks like on any particular day of its own personal gestational timeline). A woman who didn't, who erred into it or was forced into it, experiences it as an unwelcome hijacking of her body and her life. Every unwanted or unplanned pregnancy has in it the seeds of a very personal horror story.

Though The Midwich Cuckoos has a male narrator and is mostly told from the cuckholded men's perspective, the horror of this second kind of pregnancy experience seeps through every page, even before the kids are born, start growing at twice the normal rate, and exhibit their bizarre interconnectedness and frightening power to compel and inhibit their host-parents' behavior. The anecdote, second-hand, of course, of a female PhD who was a researcher at a government facility situated within the "Dayout" zone illustrates this brilliantly: not only did she strenuously object to the imposed pregnancy, to the compulsion to return to Midwich she experienced a week or so after the baby was born, but also, and rightly so in my opinion, to the far greater imposition of childcare and rearing, on her time and on her financial resources. Disowning the child in no uncertain terms and ready to make a stink that would shatter the cone of silence the government has barely managed to settle over the village, she escapes and probably just in time, for the worst, in pulp-fiction terms if not in the secret feminist sympathetic terms of the early novel, is yet to come, though even then, as we learn of other affected villages around the world, there's more to chill the uppity woman's heart: while in a few places mere infanticide occurred, in at least one other location the pregnancies provoked what we now refer to as honor violence.

All that aside, if all you're looking for is good old-fashioned British sci-fi, small in scale, skeptical in tone but still provocative of wonder and curiosity, you can't do a whole lot better than John Wyndham. Day of the Triffids delighted me early and often, both in book and TV miniseries form, after all. That it took me so many years and rather a round-about path to come to The Midwich Cuckoos is weird and possibly shameful; I finally came round to it because of Warren Ellis, very likely my very favorite comic book writer, whose webcomic (drawn by the remarkable Paul Duffield) Freakangels is in part based on the idea of "what if the Midwich Cuckoos had gotten to grow up?"

Yeah, spoilerish there, but the blurb for this blog does warn you to 'ware spoilers, and this is such an old book now, twice filmed, that even I already knew more or less how it ended before taking it up -- and I've seen neither film as yet, though I plan to remedy that tonight, as the John Carpenter version is streaming on Netflix (the earlier film, alas, I must wait for a pysical DVD to come into my hot little hands, but it will, it will). That's a subject for a whole 'nother post, maybe, though I imagine it's been written about plenty before: how some books or films or otherwise-told tales are so deeply a part of our collective cultural knowledge base that their big surprises are no longer surprises at all (I still maintain it's a mark of high quality that a culutural production can stand up even if its big secret is blown). We know what Soylent Green is made of; we know what Rosebud really is. We know Dracula is gonna get staked and that Ahab is going to regret getting his whale (speaking of which, I've not yet read Moby Dick, but shall as one of my 100 Books this year).

I approached this book expecting to be entertained: I love pulp fiction and sci-fi, especially with a good whiff of horror or an apocalyptic bent thrown in. I wasn't expecting, though, to get the genuine chills I did from the predicament of the poor women of Midwich, some of whom, sadly, go on loving their cuckoos right until the end. And I don't mind it a bit when my fun makes me think!

ADDENDUM: the next day. Early this morning I did, indeed, watch the John Carpenter remake of Village of the Damned. I am usually a fan of Carpenter's special brand of sci-fi/horror cheese (In the Mouth of Madness is a film over which I chortle often, and the phrase "John Trent laughter" has become a personal synecdoche for a state of horror so profound you can only laugh through it), but in this instance I found it mostly inappropriate to the subject matter, and found the ending especially laughable. The film so badly glossed over the extreme moral pickle into which the children maneuver the village and the external authorities with their demands (and, arguably, by their very existence) that the decision the (largely invented for the film) main character takes, which in itself is sorta-faithful to the book, makes no sense at all except in that it is faithful to the book. Without the arguments for it being presented, however, it's a quixotic and melodramatic gesture even without all the silly brick wall mental blocking theatrics. Pah!

Mary & Max: Poignant Claymation: Yeah, It's a Thing

Mary & Max - Directed by Adam Elliot - Featuring the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tony Collette and Eric Bana - Melodrama Pictures

As you can see from the above trailer, "Mary and Max" is a gloriously dark and subdued piece of claymation filmmaking, with some top-notch talent behind it.

When I announced that I was finally watching it yesterday, a Twitter friend, Robynn McCarthy, counseled me to have a box or four of Kleenex handy, and she was not wrong. The story of a decades-long pen friendship between an awkward little girl in Australia and an even more awkward middle-aged man in New York City was as moving as it was funny even before the serious tear-jerker ending.

This film is a complete emotional roller-coaster of low-comedy pratfall (nary a bird is seen that doesn't crap hilariously on something), high camp (it's obvious long before the other shoe finally drops that Mary is basically her childhood crush's beard) and serious meditation on what it is to live with Asperger's Syndrome and how it might just be considered offensive to consider that a disability. The characters are all fascinating (I could watch Mary's mom "test the sherry" all day) and the soundtrack a thigh-slapping commentary on the action it accompanies (a famous motif from Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet" is used to especially amusing effect).

A wave of the tissue to Juan and Lee (and Juan's wife Marie) at Movies You May Have Missed, an excellent film-lovers' podcast of which I've long been fond but have lately decided is unmissable, for telling me about this fantastic little film. I had missed it and might not ever have heard about it were it not for them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

100 Books 7 - Marcy Dermansky's BAD MARIE

Bad Marie - Marcy Dermansky - Harper Perennial

I was often found to be laughing out loud as I spent a few hours in the pithily-rendered, coincidence-riddled, cringe-worthy life of Bad Marie. Sometimes it was just a tart aside, like "It occurred to Marie that famous people required people who were not famous to make them feel that way" -- but more often it was the sheer wrong-headed audacity of the novel's self-absorbed heroine, who has an unbelievable talent for making bad decisions and an equally remarkable strength of resolve to live free of regret.

It's this tension between her rash impulsiveness and her steely will to bull through the most uncomfortable and absurd situations that impulsiveness lands her in that makes Marie such an enjoyable character to follow. Whether she's cleaning up the vomit of her lover's dead grandmother's sickly cat in a squalid apartment or trying to hush the toddler she has haphazardly kidnapped -- in the line to ascend the Eiffel Tower, on a French train to the Riviera, on a rattle-trap chicken bus in Mexico, she never gives in to self-pity, though she often gives in to temptation.

She is already a woman with plenty to regret as the story opens, for Marie is an ex-convict (her crime was aiding and abetting "the love of her life", a bank robber with whom she ran away to Mexico, who later committed suicide in prison) who has unwisely taken a job as a nanny for the precocious daughter of a childhood "frenemy." Unlike Marie, Ellen is capable of regret, and recrimination, though not of forgiveness for wrongs, real and imagined, that the former inflicted on the latter as they grew up. Mutual contempt is never the foundation for a trusting business relationship, is it, even when there isn't an adorable toddler, Caitlin (the real love of Marie's life) and an attractive French husband (who happens to be the author of Marie's very favorite novel, which she read over and over again in prison)?

It would be easy to regard the narrative that spins out from this initial conflict as a trashy, guilty-pleasure read, an unappreciated nanny's vindictive fantasy come to life -- for of course when Marie leaves, she takes husband and toddler with her. But this is Bad Marie: the husband turns out to be a dud, and the toddler soon becomes a burden as Marie struggles to survive on what she managed to save up from her salary and steal from Ellen, in a foreign country after the husband abandons her. As squalid -- and, at terms, weirdly glamorous -- as Marie's adventure becomes, though, she never stoops to abandoning the child she loves, and who loves her back, a child so detached from her busy, career-obsessed mother that she only occasionally asks "Where is Mommy?" and is immediately satisfied to learn that "She is at work." And all the while, all that will, all that determination, all that marshalling of resources of which Marie is capable, is bent in the service of keeping this little girl well and happy. Not bad for a woman who is generally more concerned with objects -- a red silk kimono, a set of silver bangles, a green glass rabbit, a well-stocked refrigerator, a claw-foot bathtub -- than with people.

And yet ultimately, as the real precariousness of her situation becomes known, as Marie learns that even her understanding of her relationship with her original outlaw boyfriend may not be as she saw it, she is a sympathetic character, luckless, friendless, hopeless. "Marie had been caught every time, for everything she had ever done wrong in her life. there was nothing, Marie thought, watching Caitlin drinking her milk, that she could do right." Yet even then, she has love for Caitlin and a kind of charity for those who blame her, rightly or wrongly, for their misfortunes.

How this never manages to feel forced or over-the-top is a bit of a mystery to me. Yet in the end it's quite possibly the single most moving book I've read yet this year, and a genuine love story.

"Hi Marie." "Hi Kit Kat." "Hi Marie." "Hi Caty Bean."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

100 Books 6 - Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford's THE INHERITORS

The Inheritors - Joseph Conrad & Ford Madox Ford - public domain

I have a huge D'oh! factor going on with this book. The realization that Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford had teamed up for a sort of proto-science fiction novel "in the mode of their friend H.G. Wells" hit me just recently, when I saw a brief article about it in the Guardian. I'm a fan of both writers, but especially Conrad, of whom I made a special study years ago while a student at Beaudacious Bard College, so it is to my shame that I learned of The Inheritors this way, but so it is.

And then, I blushed even harder to realize that I already had it on my Kindle, as part, duh, of the Complete Works of Joseph Conrad, a large file there comprising exactly what the name suggests. Some wee, twee little part of my brain had it marked as "to read one of these days" but when I realized what it was, well, here it is, January 2011 and it's my sixth book for the big challenge.

Calling The Inheritors (full title: The Inheritors: An Extravagant Fantasy) a science fiction novel is maybe a bit of a stretch, though. While a kind of time travel is a factor in the intricate plotting at work in the novel, you shall find no slightly mad inventors at work on fancy Georgian gadgetry here. Rather, the mysterious woman at the center of a the plots nefarious machinations is an "inhabitant of the Fourth Dimension," visiting our hapless narrator's time along with two compatriots whose mission is to undermine and ultimately undo the British Empire in order to bring about their own world, the world they shall inherit.

They have a round-about way of achieving this goal, by means of promoting and then destroying a mad colonial scheme to build a railway across Greenland and thus civilize the island and make it a British protectorate. If the scheme works, it will bring about an international financial crisis, ruin the political careers of several prominent men and yes, leave the Empire in tatters.

Nor is their means to this end any more straightforward; in a very modern and premonitory fashion, it is through the power of the press, first really coming into its own as an engine of political change in Conrad's time, that all this is to happen. And how to manipulate the press? By manipulating one vain, snobbish, dissatisfied man: our narrator.

Arthur Granger is immediately fascinated with the lovely woman with the preposterous story, and is soon so completely smitten with her that he is powerless to contradict her when she starts boldly to assert that she is Granger's sister, an act of impersonation (of a non-existent person) she achieves so perfectly that even people who have long known his family claim to remember her as a tiny tot, to have brought her presents from abroad, to have found her the spitting image of Granger's mother.

I, too, find this "Miss Granger" (she is given no other name in the story) to be the most intriguing part of the tale. Were a whole novel devoted to Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes sort-of love interest and sort-of foe, it might be this one. She no more than bats her eyes and the protagonist is dumbfounded and completely incapable of exposing her deception; her victims walk willingly into her traps and she moves merrily along to marry one of her co-Dimensionalists despite her earnest protests that it's really Arthur she loves. Which Arthur, of course, falls for -- and this is even after the extent of what she has done, the harm she has caused to society as a whole and to people Arthur cares about (and to his precious name) becomes evident.

It all comes down to one exquisitely excruciating moment when Arthur, temporarily in charge of the newspaper for whom he writes, has the power to publish or pull a story that exposes the awful truth behind Miss Granger's and her partners' various schemes:

I suddenly understood that all the torturous intrigue hinged upon what I did in the next few minutes. It rested with me now to stretch out my hand to that button in the wall or or to let the whole world -- "the... the probity, that sort of thing" she had said -- fall to pieces. One guess as to what he does.

Reading The Inheritors from the point of view that we do in 2011, as the real inheritors of the world depicted, is a chilling experience. Not only does the book prefigure and describe* much of our current predicament, but also shares much, in close and unpleasant detail, of the kind of thinking that got us here, then and now. As you might expect from the period and the authors (especially Conrad) there is much musing on the good old "white man's burden," on the power of the press to manipulate the opinions of the few who matter and, yes, unavoidably, the rabble as well, but it's the few that matter who must really be addressed by Arthur's pen to further "Miss Granger's" schemes of building up a supposedly philanthropic enterprise until supporting it is practically mandatory, it's so noble, and then dashing it to pieces once everyone's in for it for all they've got. And how is the final blow to be delivered or withheld? By means of an article exposing the misery of the colonized, the ill-treatment of the Greenland natives this railroad is supposed to be helping. The horror, the horror, the Foxconn suicides.

I'm not scholar enough to tease out what in this brief read comes from Conrad and what comes from Ford, but one thing I didn't expect to see and found in spades is something I would not tolerate from either writer -- lots and lots of em-dashes and repeated words. At first I thought it would simply be certain characters; an early antagonist of sorts is regarded, through Arthur's perhaps envious eye at least, as intolerably pompous does it, but then I find it in the text of the narrative itself. The whole -- the whole book -- seems to read the way this sentence does. When was this ever okay?

It's still a great read, though, and not just as a curiosity. While some might complain that the notion of a land development scheme in a potential colony's being able to bring down the Empire is preposterous, the plot is admirably constructed, since at bottom it all plays on "Miss Granger's" ability to play her mark, which is great fun to watch, even as it reveals her mark as already a pretty reprehensible guy**, arguably way more so than is the femme, who knows and cares no better.

Imagine if Irene Adler never came against her Sherlock.

*A long and eloquent passage about how this ruin affects the common man will stay with me for a very long time. Quoted second-hand by an aristocratic older lady who is characteristically moved -- but not so far as to take any action -- by the story she relates, a common citizen of Granger's home county tells the story of another: "I might have been taken the same way but for -- for the grace of God, I'm minded to say. Well, Slingsby's a good man, and used to be a hard-working man -- all his life, and now it turns out that that prospectus came about by the man deMersch's manoeuvres -- "wild-cat schemes" they call them in the paper that I read. And there's any number of them started by de Mersch or his agents. Just for what? That de Mersch may be the richest man in the world and a philanthropist. Well, then, where's Slingsby, if that's philanthropy. So Mr. Churchill comes along and says, in a manner of speaking, 'That's all very well, but this same Mr. Mersch is the grand duke of somewhere or other and we must bolster him up in his kingdom or else there will be trouble with the powers.' Powers -- what's powers to me? -- or Greenland? when there's Slingsby, a man I've smoked a pipe with every evening of my life, in the workhouse? And there's hundreds of Slingsbys all over the country."

**By the time he's referring to the ordinary people most injured by the catastrophe he helped to bring on as "just the material to make graveyards, nothing more" and "little people of absolutely no use but just to suffer horribly form this blow coming upon them from nowhere" you're ready to reach across the ages and pages to slap him if you are at all human.

Friday, January 21, 2011

100 Books: 5-Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE

The Passage - Justin Cronin - Ballantine Books

We sure do love to read about the end of the world, don't we? Or watch it -- and I'm sure this book will be a major motion picture as soon as the next Fanning girl is old enough to play the lead, or barring that, Chloe Moretz's agent squeezes some producers for even more than she's worth. She'll look fine with black hair, though they might not even bother with that.

But as I was saying, we sure do like to fantasize about the end of the world. We love our disaster porn movies, our World War III (some folks insist it's up to IV or V, but let's go mainstream and say III. It's my blog) scenarios, our zombies and fallout victims and doomsday comets. We love to watch the world fall apart, and watch pathetic little stand-ins for ourselves cope with the aftermath.

We always imagine ourselves as being those few people, both lucky and devastatingly unfortunate, the survivors, and not among the billions of dead. We project ourselves into that weirdly romantic milieu in which we must fend for ourselves, free, true, from the artificial pressures of civilized life but free also from its conveniences, the infrastructure that enables us to spin out these very fantasies (only a writer with a comfortable home office and lots of leisure time, time not having to be spent hunting jackrabbits or defending the homestead or hoeing a pitiful plot of vegetables, can pen something so vast, so detailed, so sweeping and near-complete as The Passage, after all). It's fun to imagine being able to keep the lights on through our very own know-how and labor rather than depending on faceless bureaucrats and cog-like workers in a vast and impersonal machine that only cares that we pay our bill. It's satisfying to eat vegetables one has grown oneself. We imagine only the pride of self-sufficiency and envy our peasant ancestors who knew nothing else.

But then we close the book and return to the real world, in which blog posts need writing and hours must be put in at the day job to earn the imaginary currency with which we pay mortgages and keep canned goods in the pantry and keep the lights on by feeding the bureaucratic machine that delivers current to our homes. How many of us even really notice the power lines that deliver our electricity, to say nothing of the buried pipes that bring us clean water and carry away our wastes? They fade into the background of our lives unless we take a moment to specifically consider and appreciate them.

It's good to be reminded of this, and to take a moment to really feel the awe of what we, as a species, have achieved. Every building started as a plan and a few cement cornerstones, a few boards nailed together. Every pipeline started as a single shovelful of dirt being moved. Every snow fence was once a pile of lumber that was once trees in a forest hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles away. It's all happening all around us, all the time. It's hard to grasp, though, isn't it? And we don't like the imagery it inspires in us, of humanity as just another kind of termite, mindlessly cooperating to build its mounds.

So I'm not at all surprised to see how outrageously popular The Passage was last year. It delivers on every level. World-ending disaster: check (bonus points in that we started it ourselves. Extra bonus points that the project that got out of hand had military origins. Darn that military, always trying to kill stuff and blow stuff up and dream up better ways to do it!). Scary monsters who just want to kill and kill and kill but also breed: check. Rampant destruction and stories of agonizing, slow collapse: check. Plucky survivors who escape the carnage and find a way to hide from the monsters: check. A tenuous new world arising from the ashes, built and maintained by the descendents of the plucky survivors: check. A mysterious messiah whom no one understands and half of them fear: check. There's nothing new here, except perhaps a better prose style; Cronin has a deft touch with truly original similes that never feel forced, and never gets carried away with the gruesomeness of what he's describing.

The film, if it gets made with any faithfulness to the book, will be art house, not grind house. But not sexy art house; it's not that kind of romance, The Passage. Its romance lies in its fulfillment of that neo-pastoral fantasy. It's men and women living simply, loving each other frankly, raising kids and corn and cows and occasionally having to defend themselves from the ravening hordes outside.

Well, that and a couple of other ill-fitting pieces stitched on. The origin myth of the book's barely-there heroine, Amy, for instance, while beautifully and movingly told up until the nun into whose care she is dumped takes her to the zoo, feels like part of a whole 'nother book, prosaic and sad until suddenly it looks like it's going to veer into Philip K. Dick territory when the zoo animals somehow sense what she is going to become, a notion of time and causality as decidedly non-linear and the events of the story inevitable that is pretty much dropped by the time FBI agents appear and whisk her away to become part of that bad old military project that unleashes hell upon the world. Some cool ideas rear their heads along with the frightened giraffes and angry elephants and screaming monkeys, never to be seen again. I wanted to keep reading that book. But what I got was okay, too. I guess.

Lots of my friends have commented on how great it is to see vampires acting like vampires again and not like cast-offs from a neo-bodice ripper. The virals in The Passage are genuinely creepy even before the extent of what they really are is completely revealed. Cronin did his homework here, really making the virus that created them feel like something that actually could be in the world, a parasitic almost-life-form that slowly transforms the body and alters the behavior just the way, in an example I still love, certain flukes both move into the antennae of infested snails to make those antennae swell and darken until they look like big fat caterpillars AND produce in the snail's tiny brain an urge to seek the very tops of the plants beneath which it would normally shelter so it can be snatched up and eaten by a bird who thinks it's getting a meal of two tasty caterpillars but is really getting a bellyful of those same flukes who need a bird to move on to the next stage of their lives.

There's only the one stage for these vampires, but the idea behind them is similar and pretty cool in execution, even before we realize that Cronin has turned to another biological model to account for how they behave: the hive. Though this does lead to a too-tidy wrap-up for Amy's gang's final show-down with the monsters, it still lends a degree of plausibility that this reader, at least, appreciated.

The one down, twelve to go conclusion-that-isn't, though, left this reader pretty let down. Not only does this leave obvious room for a sequel (potentially twelve? Ugh) but it also felt entirely too abrupt, as though, exhausted and maybe needing to do some carpal-tunnel prevention exercises, Cronin just stopped typing and didn't start again.

There is also the small matter of a story-telling device that I don't always respect showing up here and there: the manufactured secondary documentation that breaks away from the narrative itself. Occasionally, but only occasionally, we get segments from what are basically diaries. This can be fine when it's consistently used -- the original vampire novel, Dracula, is nothing but diary entries and letters, after all -- but when it only pops up in a few, short segments it feels lazy and jarring, yanking the reader out of the visceral experience of the characters and the story and imposing a particular interpretation of events. That it also gives away a basic notion: that somewhere life has gone on, or else there would be no archive stamps and labels on the material. And the fate of a number of characters, whom we've closely followed for hundreds of pages, identifying with them and rooting for them, is summarily tossed out in one of these little epistles as an afterthought. Phooey to that.

As I said, I'm sure there will be a film version, and some sequels to The Passage, but I'm thinking that I, exhausted and a little disappointed now after finishing the book, won't be along for those rides. Once is enough on some, unless you're a cute little six-year-old kid who's never been on one before, looking up at her daddy-figure and yelling "Again! Again!"

I am a bit older than six.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

100 Books 4 - C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy

C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy - Jeff Sharlet - Little, Brown & Company

Somewhere out there in Twitterland, close to 2000 followers of mine are probably going to cheer as one to learn that I've finished reading this book. I've been spouting off about it at odd intervals for a week or more.

I was worse as I made my way last year through Sharlet's prior book on the shadowy "Christian"* fundamentalist group known variously as "the Family" or "The Fellowship", The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, a book I read with all the lights on, the way we always talk about reading genuinely scary horror novels. I said then and I'll stand by it now: Jeff Sharlet writes damned scary books.

Right away I've betrayed myself as a secularist and a rebel. I'm a fan of fully informed juries, workers' rights, the need for government to protect the people against force and fraud and the right of every nutjob with a voice and a magic marker (or, in this day and age, a keyboard, a few fingers and an internet connection) to spout off his views, however crazy or distasteful or true or saddening. I think Jenny McCarthy is nuts, but I won't advocate forcing her to shut up about vaccines. I think Fred Phelps is a sue-happy fraud and provocateur who makes a very good living off of baiting people who cannot stand to listen to the crap he spews that I don't even believe he believes. And I think freedom of religion is in the Bill of Rights for a very, very good reason. Lots of them, actually. Ditto all the other stuff that's in there.

So really, there is no reason for me to keep on reading Sharlet on the Family except for the same reasons that people keep reading Stephen King books or watching Friday the 13th remakes: it's a weird, fun little thrill to stare for a while at what scares you. It's entertainment in an activating, emotionally jarring way.

That said, I still find this second book of his on the subject to pale in comparison to the first. Where The Family exposed a secret history and named names, C Street... well, C Street mostly just calls out the same villains some more. That's not to say it's The Family 2: Electric Boogaloo: Sharlet's foray into the nation of Uganda and the story behind its infamous "death penalty for homosexuals" bill is shocking all by itself in all its painstaking detail, though it does drag on a bit (OMG, Jeff, we get it! Ugandan legislator Bahati and dictator Musevini aren't fundamentalists themselves so much as sucking up to the Family to get what they want). He spends a fair amount of time exposing how evangelism/fundamentalism has all but taken over a huge chunk of the United States' armed forces (especially the U.S. Air Force, but that's not news to anyone who knows any flyboys or pays attention to where they come from: the USAF Academy and James Dobson's Focus on the Family are both based, along with megachurches galore, in Colorado Springs, CO, surely a strong candidate for the capital city of Jesusland if ever there were one). And of course the scandals around Mark Sanford and Jim Ensign and Chip Pickering get a good airing out once again, with a chillingly amusing "what might have been" look at Sanford's future had his brothers in the Family chosen to continue keeping his naughty secrets.

But the real value of this book lies in Sharlet's interlineal commentary, his turns of phrase in summing up the scenes and backgrounds he's describing, for which he's taken off the gloves considerably more of a degree than we saw in The Family, here pointing out that the group takes a very different lesson from the story of David and Bathsheba than the rabbis or even the original Calvinists teach**, there holding forth on "the paradox of humility as authority that's inherent in the term 'servant leader'" as "the essence of the fundamentalist threat to democracy: not brute force but seduction... the promise of support and intimacy in return for power"... and wow of wows, can you tell I love the highlight function of my Kindle, which lets me highlight/mark thumping great blocks of text that strike me as especially important or meaningful or true without damaging my book?

And that's what Sharlet is good for. He provides fantastic talking points. It's important to always remember that when my Senior U.S. Senator (Mike Enzi) talks about his prayer group in Washington, D.C., he's talking about people who admire Hitler and Stalin and Ho Chi Minh as examples of men who changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their “brothers" and who supported dictators like Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos because they value access to power over holding leaders accountable for the fantastically un-Christian atrocities they commit with it. It's important to me to arm myself against the kinds of arguments that lead to the world of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, which, until I read The Family, I had always named as the scariest book I'd ever read ("In the days of anarchy it was 'freedom to.' Now you're being given 'freedom from.' Don't underrate it" says Aunt Lydia -- in the movie, flatly and chillingly delivered by the perfectly cast Victoria Tennant so as to give any democracy-loving uppity female of tender years a lifetime of nightmares).

But not everyone, in this day and age, has the time for reading that I have, and if you're one of those whose opportunities are limited, who really needs to read just one serious book on this subject, that book should be The Family. If you've time for another, read Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy (which, in devoting a great deal of its length to decrying the financialization of America's economy sounds a lot like a prediction of the current completely dumbass economic crisis we're experiencing now). And if you've time for a third, have a look at C Street.

And keep a flashlight handy.

*I put scare quotes around "Christian" here because I find the "screw the weak and minister to the strong so they can maybe someday get around to taking care of the weak like good daddies" ethos of the Family to be about the least Christian mindset imaginable.

**"The chosen politician does not take credit for his success, he does not suppose that it was his virtue that led the people to elect him. He is just another sinner. But God wants to use him, as He used David. 'God appoints specific leaders to fulfil a mission; He doesn't hold a popular vote,' writes John C. Maxwell, a management guru on C Street's Prayer Breakfast circuit, in a Bible study titled Leadership: Deliberate Selection vs. Democratic Election. The other side of such humility is the abdication of responsibility. Once chosen for leadership isn't accountable for his own actions."

Monday, January 10, 2011


The Confusions of Young Törless - Robert Musil - Translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser - Pantheon Books

Adolescence sucks, whenever and wherever it is endured. For most of us, we'll never experience such high drama at such a constant pitch ever again. And it's so easy, while going through it, to feel like one's suffering is unique, that no one will ever understand. But people do. There are volumes and volumes of stories and novels to prove it.

Of them all, I find Musil's little triumph to be the very best, and find it all but criminal that this book is never assigned reading for its hero's eternal contemporaries: high school kids. Of course, a certain shrill and puritanical element in our society would never allow this, for the story does contain more than a whiff of *gasp* homosexuality. But really, there's only a whiff, and Törless's sexuality is really not the foremost problem in this short, troubling, stunningly good novel.

So what is he confused about?

Power. Power illegitimately gained and exercised. Power ultimately abused. Power given to those who are ill-prepared to wield it and who do so without restraint.

In a German-speaking country.

It's impossible to read Young Törless now without thinking of Nazi Germany, though the book, originally penned in 1906, long predates those horrors and takes place on a much smaller, indeed clausterphobia-inducing, scale: a prestigious quasi-military academy in Austria during the waning days of the Hapsburg's Austro-Hungarian empire.

Out of what appears to be sheer, bored waywardness, Törless falls in with perhaps the two most disreputable and unpleasant students there, Reiting and Beineberg, who, soon after the story settles into its setting, discover that another classmate, the unfortunate Basini, is guilty of petty theft to settle his debts; stealing from one student to pay back another, a slave to his appetites. In sum, Basini is weak. He is thus a fine plaything for Törless's friends, who quickly decide there is much more to be had from tormenting the boy than from turning him in to the schoolmasters for formal discipline or to their fellow students for whatever punishment the larger group might mete out.

Basini is such a perfect victim, in fact, that he soon exercises a perverse sort of control over his tormentors; the more he surrenders to and fawns over the trio, the more extreme their behavior towards them grows until they each, in their different ways, attain a state of corruption that would seem unbelievable had we, the readers, not witnessed their seduction stage by stage. Törless stands apart from the depravity, but only to a certain degree; for while he could easily report it to the schoolmasters or act himself to stop it, he spends most of the novel in a moral paralysis to match the intellectual paralysis to which his studies of imaginary numbers in mathematics and his not-studies of Emmanuel Kant have brought him. Even when Basini succeeds in manipulating Törless into sympathizing with him at last, Törless is more interested in Törless and his experiences of the affair than in Basini's suffering. He is an adolescent; it's how we roll, at that uncertain age.

Which is to say that Young Törless is by no means a comfortable or a beautiful book, but rather an honest and disturbing one, Lord of the Flies without the island drums -- but by far a better book, I think. It's truly a pity that its brief and unflinching treatment of boarding school sexuality will probably keep it out of U.S. high schools forever, for it would be a far better way to help students come to terms with the fact that we're all capable of beastly behavior and it doesn't take a desert island or a large group to make us do it.

*Note: The edition to which the links above lead is not the same as the one I own and read. I suspect that modern translations (my copy is from the 1950s) may handle certain scenes and situations more directly and badly, but it's just a suspicion. Someday I may get my hands on the Penguin Classis edition and have a look, but I have a deep fondness for quality hardcovers from bygone days, so it will always be this edition on my shelves.

100 Books Challenge 3-Half Share by Nathan Lowell

Half Share by Nathan Lowell - Ridan Publishing

The first two books of Nathan Lowell's Solar Clipper series are not crammed with incident and adventure. There are no battle scenes or life-or-death emergencies, not a lot of conflict at all. Protagonist Ishmael Wang is not a swashbuckler or a warrior or a lost prince. Yet they are not in any way boring.

What they have in place of pulse-pounding excitement and crackling drama are simple, lovely character moments and, in young Ishmael Wang, junior spaceman, an impossibly likeable protagonist -- I say impossibly because, two books in, he is still seemingly without flaw: smart, hard-working, handsome (and, as we learn on a shopping expedition in Half Share, amazingly callipygious) and, above all, humble -- at least as he tells it, of course! His mistakes are all innocent and harmless; his instincts always sure. One might expect to roll one's eyes at his aw-shucks charm and his habit of making just the right uninformed-but-awesome suggestions that make everything better.

Yet one does not. Which is remarkable.

Perhaps this is because we have all been there. We have all been the new guy, unsure of his abilities, uncertain if he'll fit in but hoping he will, eager to please but ignorant as to how, possibly overqualified for the entry-level position but unwilling to be a snot about it. Ish has our absolute sympathy and identification from page one; Lowell knows his audience. We all want to be the diamond in the rough, found as such and polished into a brilliant stone.

As Half Share unfolds, Ish is taking on new duties on board the S.C. Lois McKendrick, moving from food service to environmental. His new crewmates already know him well from a prior episode in Quarter Share (the titles refer to the share in the ship's profits to which Ish is entitled as he takes on more responsibilities on board), in which one of his seemingly hare-brained ideas paid off, and while he is expecting a tough time they're glad to have him; they see his real value even if he doesn't (later in the story one will declare that she'll be telling her grandchildren that she knew him when). Meanwhile, Ish works to continue his forays into trading with a co-op he and a friend he served alongside in the mess hall set up -- and stumbles into the most intriguing story element we've yet seen: a set of mysterious statuettes the pair buys as trade goods, which turn out to be more -- possibly way more -- than just charming local handicrafts. I don't suspect, as the tale continues in Full Share, Captain's Share, and Owner's Share, that they'll turn out to have actual powers per se, but their quality, their use amongst the crew as tokens of special esteem, and their status as personal totems seem already to imbue them with something special.

As I said, there's not a lot that happens in these books, not even the environmental crisis Pip's new crewmates are always warning could happen. Half Share instead gently proceeds from discoveries (a new shipmate has a haunted past, and must be handled with care) to pranks (One of Ish's new crewmates tricks him into studying for a higher level of qualification than he thinks he's ready for) to shopping trips that crystallize a lattice of relationships that show promise for more intriguing moments in later stories.

Space, Lowell seems to want to tell us, will probably, eventually, be just as boring as any other job, at least if everyone is doing his job right. We get hints that things are not so rosy on other ships, but the S.C. Lois McKendrick that Ish calls home is competently led, well-maintained and has in place a strict set of policies to keep inter-personal friction to a minimum. It's like TNG-era Star Fleet, but with cargo ships and with no hostile aliens attacking. But since we're seeing it through the discovering eyes of a newbie, it has the subtlest gloss of excitement that's just right. It is, I would argue, a bildungsroman in space, and therein lies its charm.

The question for me now, as I look to the future: do I tune in for the free podcasts of the sequels, or wait for the print versions...

Friday, January 7, 2011

100 Books: 1-Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull
NYRB Classics

I had not even heard of Krzhizhanovsky before NYRB Classics announced it was publishing this volume a little over a year ago. Having just recently enjoyed Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, and also a big fan of Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Gogol and Victor Peleven, I was in the mood for more Soviet-era fabulism and this looked to fit the bill precisely.

Had the book been available on Kindle, I no doubt would have devoured it immediately, but as it was, I had to wait for a physical object to be located in a warehouse and packed and shipped to me, and by the time it arrived my mood had shifted and I was haring off after something else, like I do. It hit the to-read pile, which these days takes longer to get to because I do most of my reading outside the house and my Kindle weighs less and takes up less space and I never worry about finishing and being stranded, bookless, somewhere.

I'm sad now that I took so long, though this was not a seamlessly perfect read for me.

Krzhizhanovsky seems to have been largely ignored during his lifetime and writing career, which was contemporary with the Russian Revolution of 1917. This was probably dreadfully frustrating for Krzhizhanovsky, the man, but wonderful for Krzhizhanovsky, the writer. Under the radar and little regarded, he could write what he liked, and he did. And oh, what he wrote!

A lot of reviewers I've come across seem to like to compare him to Jorge Luis Borges (whom I absolutely adore), and I get the comparison, but I don't find it really that useful or accurate. Both are fabulists of a certain very elegant type, fond of intellectual games and exploring the impossible, but Krzhizhanovsky's stories are far more accessible and, weird though it is to say, grounded in the banality and grit of the Soviet world in which he lived; there are none of Borges' dizzyingly erudite Berkeleyan speculations and narrative hoop snakes here. When Krzhizhanovsky brings the Eiffel Tower to life and sends it rampaging, Godzilla-like, across Europe to join the Moscow comrades, western powers use radio, not wordplay or metaphysical puzzles, to defeat it, and its journey's end is tragic and moving rather than leaving the reader saying "Huh!" And when a man acquires a treatment that, when painted on the walls of his tiny living space in a communal apartment, makes his space expand TARDIS-like so that its outside is bigger than the inside, Krzhizhanovsky doesn't play with the metaphor of expanding walls and labyrinths as Borges would (though he does add Lovecraftian touches as some misapplied substance results in uneven growth and distorted geometry that only gets worse as the room gets bigger), but instead explores the implications of the transformation in a real Moscow where remeasuring commisions are an omnipresent threat as demand for space increases, and what happens when a space outgrows its electrical wiring and is plunged into eternal darkness.

The expanding room is the feature of the first story in the collection, "Quadraturin," which is very likely my favorite. The whole account feels like the sort of prank that Woland and his band of devils might have played on an unsuspecting citizen in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, or like an extra lesson from W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw." There is a dark humor here, in other words, that again gives lie to comparisons with Borges, who is many wonderful things but rarely funny.

Less funny is "The Bookmark" for all that it contains the Eiffel Tower narrative I mentioned above. That mini-narrative is one of many shared by a "theme catcher" who intermittently shares a park bench with the narrator. Each of the catcher's stories is more poignant than the last, expanding on a delicately critical metaphor for the changes that came to Russia with the Revolution. No wonder Krzhizhanovsky had publication troubles!

It is with one of the more intriguing-seeming stories, "The Branch Line" that my trouble with the book and its translation begins. A train trip into nightmares made concrete and are set to overthrow reality -- this should be my favorite story! And indeed it contains some powerfully interesting and original ideas and images. I fear, though, that here Turnbull got carried away with the need to convey dreaminess, to be poetic. For every arresting moment or observation* there is a passage of what threatens to descend to the level of word salad, clumsy allterations for the sake, it appears, of alliteration (perhaps trying to copy a similar degree of same in the original Russian?) and awkwardly florid word choices (almost nothing is blue in this story, but rather "azure", for instance). The effect of these choices was of constantly yanking me out of the story to notice the writing, which spoilt, somewhat, my enjoyment of this story -- especially since the language is in quite stark contrast to that in all the others, which are mostly in a plain and clear voice that George Orwell would praise.

That's all right, though, because my brain is still reeling from the titular story for whole different reasons. "Memories of the Future" is famously (for descriptions of a rather obscure Soviet-era short story writer's work, anyway) described as a time travel story, but again, it really concerns itself with the viscitudes of fate suffered by ordinary Russians through one of the most profound regime changes history has to offer. Max Schterer has spent a lifetime developing a thought experiment to build a "timecutter" which, when attached to the user's head, so alters his experience of time that the past and the future are a matter of to what he desires to pay attention. He almost completes it once -- only to get drafted and sent to Germany to fight in World War I. When he returns to the inheritance he has long awaited, the Revolution has happened and his resources are now the state's; it is only through the largesse and imagination of one of his fellow inmates from the German POW camp where he spent most of his war that he gets a second chance to build his timecutter, and to use it, but like Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact, he goes on a journey he can neither prove nor describe well, and sees only the goings-on in his room and through his window. Again, a moving fantasy, but Borgesian only in its barest outlines.

Really, if I had to chose a writer to whom to compaire Krzhizhankovsky, I would choose Philip K. Dick. The paranoia, the dystopianism, the sheer inventiveness both display make them brothers, as do their publication woes. And indeed, in his mind, Dick inhabited a universe not unlike Soviet Russia, where it was impossible to be good, where bureaucracy and isms do their best to trample and reform simple humanity, and where creativity and madness might just be interchangeable. And both, both are unforgettable.

My 100 Books participation is off to a lofty and amazing start.

*A passage lauding the "heavy industry of dreams" and a discussion of a line of pillows disguised as briefcases, "just tuck this under your elbow and you -- while standing up with your eyes wide open in broad daylight -- will sink into the deepest sleep: you'll dream that you're a manager, a mover and shaker, a public servant, an inventor of new systems" will stay with me for a very long time indeed.