Thursday, March 27, 2014

Scattered Sermonizing

Death of the Black-Haired Girl
by Robert Stone
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
1 Out of 5 Stars

Maud Stack is a beautiful, vivacious, intelligent, and careless student. Professor Steven Brookman is a handsome, Hemingway-masculine, intelligent, and careless instructor. Of course, we know what this means. It's not long before office hours become after hours, and the classroom becomes the bedroom. In terms of plot, there's nothing new or shocking in Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Professor Brookman is, of course, a very married man who, despite his occasional sexual liaison, is very much in love with his wife, who has recently discovered she is pregnant with their second child. Taking a personal vow to be a better husband and a better father, Brookman decides to end his relationship with Maud, but hell hath no fury like an undergraduate scorned. It's not long before Maud spirals out of control, leading to her eventual death under questionable circumstances in front of the Brookman home. 

Despite seeming like the setup for a by-the-numbers whodunit,Death of the Black-Haired Girl is anything but. For those familiar with Stone's writing, this shouldn't be a shock and many of the negative reviews I've read come from readers who felt misled. I can't say that I blame them. With a title that conjures The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and blurbs and summaries that throw around words like "thriller" and "noir," it does seem to project the wrong image. However, I read and enjoyed Stone's Dog Soldiers, so I was eager to enter into Stone's morally-nebulous universe. 

That enthusiasm did not last very long.

Stone uses the aftermath of Maud's death to explore morality in both specific and broad terms. The novel's setting is a prestigious liberal arts college in New England, an academic institution whose motto, Lux in Umbras Procedet, or Light Will Go Forth Into Shadows, hearkens to a vainglorious past, its original mission to bring civilization and God's light to the wilderness. Ironically, in its 21st century manifestation, it has become the place that creates shadows, a place of locks and barriers--no longer seeking to interact with the world, it seems to insulate itself from it. In its attempt to protect itself from outside influence, it's evident that its insular nature is destroying it from within. It is a gray, dismal wasteland populated by the selfish and the insane. As Maud quotes Mephistopheles from Doctor Faustus as saying of the world, "Why this is hell . . . nor am I out of it" (15). After Maud writes a scathing indictment (although, from my perspective, a clumsy, rambling and ridiculously written diatribe that I cannot imagine anyone finding persuasive or brilliant) of the hypocrisy of Christian right-to-lifers that is published in the school newspaper, the college becomes a literal battleground between the secular and the sacred as hundreds of protesters flock to the campus and some go so far as to physically threaten Maud.

Many of the characters here seem to be in hell: Maud; her father, Eddie; the school counselor, Jo Carr; and Steve Brookman carry and create their own personal demons. There are also lesser angels presented in the form of the dean's wife, Mary Pick, whose tragic past in Ireland seems to have only strengthened her faith, and Ellie Brookman, who routinely leaves the college to return to the Garden-like existence offered by her Mennonite community in Canada. A woman of deep faith who believes her life to be firmly in the hands of God, Ellie serves as the embodiment of the platonic ideal for Brookman: a constant presence reminding him to do better and be better in light of his past. Discovering her pregnancy months after leaving their home to return to the fold of her family seems to remove her from the sordid sexual escapades at the college, making her pregnancy seem almost immaculate and her presence in Brookman's life divine. 

So, yes, there's a lot going on here in terms of spirituality, repeatedly dancing at the edge of existential angst and then pulling back again. There's a lot going on in terms of abortion, Christian fundamentalism/radicalism, adultery, marriage, and temptation. There's some beautiful writing (the scene depicting the reaction of Maud's father, Eddie, after he learns of her death is heart-wrenching). 

So what's the problem? Remember how I said Maud's editorial rant was rambling and clumsy? Ultimately, that's how I felt about the structure of the novel. The story isn't really about Maud's death at all, but splinters off into a dozen different directions, following secondary characters in such a hurried, abrupt way that the reader never finds resolution on any front. It's like Maud's death is a bare Christmas tree from which Stone hangs every vituperative, cynical, and nihilistic bauble he can find. But then he stands back and thinks something is missing. So out come the garlands of devotion and piety as a counterweight. But still, it's not quite right. Maybe some twinkling obvious symbolism lights? The plot becomes so weighted under these conflicting and ponderous messages that I just lost interest. 

But the real death knell? The host of unlikable characters. Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not suggesting they should be likable in the sense that they should be good (in fact, it is the intended saints in the novel that I find particularly obnoxious), but there should be something about them that I still find appealing. Not so here. Part of my complaint comes from the fact that the novel does far more telling than showing, so many of the characters seem two-dimensional. It doesn't help that these are self-centered, pretentious, beautiful people who are careless with the lives of others. Surprisingly, the only sympathetic character is the one I thought I would loathe the most: Steve Brookman. Despite everything, there's the sense that he did love Maud in some way that went beyond lust. He doesn't come across as a lecherous Humbert Humbert in that what he loved and celebrated in Maud had as much to do with her intellect and her potential as her youth and beauty. 

In the end, I can only state that Death of the Dark-Haired Girl ultimately seems tedious and unnecessary despite its grander aspirations.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Serial Killer--Who? Me?

The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
4 Out of 5 Stars

Looking for a good horror novel that will keep you up late at night? One that features the most remorseless, inventive, and successful serial killer to ever stumble into the written word? One whose body count grows exponentially as his appetite becomes more ravenous, never sated? One who is so adept at killing that he does so without even seeming to try? Well, I have just the ticket: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is as frightening as it gets, people, and the villain here is us: me, you, and everyone else inhabiting this little blue marble called Earth.

Throughout history, there have been five mass extinction events: the Cretaceous-Paleogene, the Triassic-Jurassic, the Permian-Triassic, the Late Devonian, and the Ordovician-Silurian. All of these involve a cataclysmic shift in environmental conditions, some the result of an external impact. And now Kolbert reports that there may be a sixth extinction: the Anthropocene, caused by the impact of humanity on the environment. Many may believe that this is a byproduct of the Industrial Age, but Kolbert shows us how humans have always had a knack for wreaking wide scale environmental havoc. Always needing and wanting more from our natural resources, we, like kudzu, multiply rapidly, take over every inch of land available to us, and choke out the life that surrounds us.

Kolbert makes the case for recognizing the Anthropocene as a mass extinction event by exploring its casualties and its future victims. As she relates the extinction of the American mastodon, the great auk, and the Neanderthal, as well as the near extinction of the Panamanian golden frog, Hawaiian crow, Sumatran rhino, and several types of bats, one truth becomes increasingly clear: most of these extinctions began to take place when humans entered the environment.

Despite the disheartening nature of the topic, Kolbert writes with dry wit and gallows humor which (for me) always made an appearance at just the right time before things became too depressing. While there is a lot of science here, Kolbert keeps it accessible for those of us who don't while away our days reading scientific journals (you know, while our basic needs and consumer choices destroy everything around us), and her first person narrative keeps it from veering into textbook territory.

There's a lot here that I enjoyed, but three highlights stand out:

1) Kolbert's early chapters about men like Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, who were among the first to speculate on extinction and evolution. From our modern perspective, it's easy to forget that extinction, in particular, is a relatively new idea. There was a time when many scientists believed that nothing could become extinct over the natural progression of time; the discovery of fossils began to shift human understanding of the world and of creation. Reading as these men stumble in their understanding of the world, shifting and revising hypotheses, and ultimately discovering that there was a world that existed before mankind is fascinating.

2) The chapters on the sea and corals (which may eventually become extinct, taking with them several organisms that live symbiotically with corals) is particularly interesting for someone like myself who is happily landlocked. For those who don't live near or have a relationship with our seas and oceans, it's easy to see it as a vast nothingness and forget about the world teeming below our waters. The rate of ocean acidification is frightening.

3) The concept of a new Pangaea is an intriguing one. The ease with which we travel to other states, countries, and continents has, in a sense, reconstituted Pangaea in that we knowingly (and unknowingly) introduce new and often invasive plant and animal species into new environments. In doing so, these new host environments haven't developed nature's evolutionary safeguards to keep the balance between predator and prey, often with disastrous results.

While Kolbert makes all of this lucid and entertaining, as well as terrifying, I must admit to some fatigue when I got to the final chapters. Reading about mass extinction can really take a toll on someone whose worldview can basically be summed up as "people suck." Reading such incontrovertible evidence, and knowing that I myself cannot escape the guilt of this accusation, is, in the words of Kolbert on The Daily Show, "kind of a downer." However, we need more downers. We need to be more educated about what we're doing to our environment. Early man deserves a pass: you come into a place and think, "Damn. Look at all these mastodons. We can feast like kings!" So you settle in, live a life filled with mastodon hunts and mastodon meat, have several children, dress them in mastodon onesies, kill more mastodons, always assuming there will be more. After all, you've found the great all-you-can-eat mastodon buffet! You have no concept of the impact your consumption is having on the environment. You haven't seen Disney's The Lion King and therefore don't know of the majestic power of the circle of life (nor of the comedic gold of pairing a warthog with a meerkat). Such days of ignorance should be behind us. We know better, so we should do better.

Although, many of us are 4% Neanderthal because apparently early homo sapiens just couldn't resist the seductive power of a ridged brow. So maybe we're not so smart after all.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Catnip for Bibliophiles

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
Published by Picador
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

A charming, quietly amusing book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the literary equivalent of a congratulatory pat on the back in recognition of loving books. "Oh, you read? Well, good for you!" It's a book designed to make the bibliophile break out into a near terminal case of the warm fuzzies, overcome with a sudden desire to break out a blanket, brew a pot of tea or coffee, and settle into a comfortable chair for a day of hardcore reading until--oh, wait!--I'm already doing all of that! Silly me! So the only thing one can do is snuggle into the cushions more deeply and turn the pages more quickly.

Now, for those who know me, that probably comes across as a bit snarky and, to be fair, it is and it isn't. I admit that there's a part of me whose switch isn't flipped by these books that so overtly and blatantly cater to bibliophilia. After all, I'm a lifelong reader and it seems a bit daft me reading a book about loving to read a book. But, damn it, there's a part of me that can't help but be beguiled by it and, if I'm going to go down that road, it might as well be with Mr. Penumbra and crew. Despite a certain predictability and a certain lack of suspense, there's nothing too twee or adorable about it, and the characters are quirky without being too eccentric and are amusing without being too culturally hip, self-referential, and smugly ironic. These are people I wouldn't mind knowing and people I can imagine existing. 

Clay Jannon is struggling in his career and in life. A victim of the recession, Clay's once promising public relations career has imploded. Having to redefine his vision of the future, Clay needs both money and direction. He finds both in a "Help Wanted" sign outside of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Thankful to find gainful employment, it takes Clay a while to acknowledge the peculiarities of a 24-Hour bookstore. An excited clientele eagerly returns night after night to check out books from the "Way Backlist," a group of books on impossibly high shelves. The bookstore doesn't so much sell books as loan them to members for purposes Clay can only imagine. It's not long before Clay finds himself embroiled in secret literary societies, an impossible ancient puzzle, an adorable Googler, and a breakthrough that may exist at the nexus of the written word and technology.

I loved the narrator's unusual sense of humor and, despite myself, even grinned over some predictable tropes. So why only a 3? Well, it's more like a 3 1/2. Despite enjoying it, it didn't linger long in memory and the unraveling of the mystery wasn't particularly satisfying. Granted, the mystery here serves as more of a MacGuffin that allows Sloane (via Clay) to wax at length about the glories of reading, whether they be in the form of a book, an ebook, or an audiobook (all readers are welcome here), as well as the glorious possibilities afforded the human imagination through technology, but I still wanted a resolution with more substance given the build-up.

Again, 3 1/2 stars. And I would be lying if I said that half star isn't being thrown in just because of the extra bit of delight in realizing that, when I placed the book on the nightstand and turned off the light, it freaking glowed in the dark! I felt like a 7 year old getting excited over those glow in the dark planetary stickers. I'm telling you, this damn thing is just a giddy machine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

An Uneven Effort for My Favorite X-Man

X-Men Gambit:  House of Cards (Volume 1)
Written by John Layman
Illustrated by Georges Jeanty
Published by Marvel Comics
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

Looking for a little non-X excitement, Remy LeBeau returns to Louisiana, lured by a job that he can't resist and a longing for home. Hired by the beautiful Lili Penrose to steal a deck of cards from her own uncle, Gambit takes on the heist as much for the excitement as for the payoff. However, he learns too late that there's nothing ordinary about this deck of cards--they're a powerful set of tarot cards that can tap into dark powers and blind those who look upon them. Of course, for Gambit, the added element of danger makes this an irresistible challenge.

I'm going with 3.5 stars here. It is a fun story, but there were a few disappointments along the way--first and foremost of which is the art. The characters look somewhat cartoonish and malformed, which is made all the more obvious when compared with the amazing cover work done by Greg Land. I also think the story should have taken advantage of the New Orleans setting. Oh, there's some stereotypical New Orleans-ish references here, but they're flat and unoriginal. It would have been nice to see Gambit's scoundrel side played up a bit more, too. While there are some witty quips here and there, he certainly doesn't read like the same cavalier, devil-may-care Gambit that I'm accustomed to.

There are some fun elements to the story, however. When Gambit and Wolverine rout several well known thief watering holes, I couldn't wipe the stupid smile off of my face. In addition, a sex tape featuring an encounter between Lili and Remy surfaces toward the end of the book, and promises to make for some interesting reading in Gambit: Hath No Fury

X-Men Gambit:  Hath No Fury (Volume 2)
Written by John Layman
Illustrated by Georges Jeanty
Published by Marvel Comics
4 Out of 5 Stars

There are 3 stories collected here:  Gambit versus zombies in New Orleans, Gambit trying to sneak into Rogue's room to retrieve a sex tape sent to her by a young woman with an unfortunate knack for hacking into surveillance cameras all over New Orleans and an unrequited school girl crush on Gambit, and Gambit returning to New Orleans only to run into Belladonna and her new beau during a heist.

While I still have the same complaints about the art work in this collection as I had for Gambit:  House of Cards (there's a bland formlessness to the facial features of most of the characters), the story lines were better and took more advantage of the New Orleans setting.  However, I still don't think they quite took advantage of Gambit being away from the X-Men.  These stories could have been grittier and not so "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" about things.  As one character says of Gambit, "I've seen evidence of a personality type that's narcissistic, kleptomaniacal, pathological, adrenaline-addicted, anti-authority, and given to reckless, suicidal tendencies."  That's the Gambit I was hoping to read about, but other than that piece of dialogue, that's not really the Gambit I got.  This is not the Gambit who saved Storm when she regressed into childhood, nor is it the Gambit who returned to New Orleans for the tithing.

The main reason I'm giving this one a 4 star is that I thought the narrative with Gambit trying to retrieve the sex tape before Rogue could discover it was much more in line with the kind of character I've come to expect.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Required Cyberpunk Reading

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson
Published by Bantam Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

Snow Crash is definitely unlike anything I've ever read. The novel is fast paced with moments of dialogue and original writing that made me laugh out loud (okay, perhaps just chuckle quietly in appreciation). I appreciate the book's originality and can only imagine how surreal it must have been to read when it was originally published in 1992 (by today's standards, the technology that plays an integral part throughout the book is eerily familiar, especially given the book's context). 

While I was sometimes lost during the technical discussions among the hackers about how computers work, I was still able to piece together what was going on (albeit, probably not at the level that someone with more knowledge about computer programming could). To me, the truly fascinating part of the novel involved its incorporation of Sumerian mythology and the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, providing a creative explanation as to the relevance of these ancient stories to a modern and technology based culture. While I enjoyed the novel, parts of it felt disjointed and it suffered a bit from the hype that surrounds it as this resulted in my having certain set expectations before I began reading the book. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable read that I think would be better served by a second reading. 

Been There, Done That

City of Bones:  Book One
Written by Cassandra Clare
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

Fifteen year old Clary is different: she can see the real world that's hidden from the rest of humanity. As such, she is the only witness to a murder in a hip nightclub and, when those responsible for this death find out, they have questions for her. Clary's world is turned upside down when she learns that what she witnessed was actually a demon-slaying at the hands of the Shadow Hunters, an elite group created by the Angel to rid the world of demons and protect the world of man. As Clary discovers the truth of her own connection to this world of faeries, vampires, werewolves, wizards, and demons, she comes to realize that she's not the person she thought she was.

This is yet another entry into the teen fantasy category and, as such, you can practically see Clare going down the checklist for popular teen fantasy. Like other books in this genre, it's well over 400 pages. There's also a love triangle between a girl and two guys, one of whom is oh-so-right for her and one of whom is oh-so-wrong (and later we find out just how really, really, really wrong he is). There's a smorgasbord of supernatural creatures and enough twists and turns to qualify for a ride at Six Flags. 

However, for the most part, the story takes some original twists and often veers away from the more predictable scenarios that tend to plague this type of book. There's also a dash of humor that was refreshing. The female character, while not as strong as Katniss in The Hunger Games and not as whiny as Bella, is a nice cross between the two, which makes her a little more realistic. However, the narrative could have been improved if the novel were around 300 pages in length and focused more on the shadow hunter story line (but, no, we must save that for the next two books, as all teenage novels are now required to spawn a trifecta). There is too much filler, which robs the story of any real momentum (the scene with the vampires comes to mind, a completely unnecessary chapter that seems to only exist so the novel can include the popular Supernatural Flavor of the Week).

Despite these weaknesses, it is overall a pretty good book for its ilk and I'm sure I'll read the sequels sometime in the future. The distant future.