The OF Blog

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Felix Gilman, The Revolutions

For the past two and a half years Arthur had been employed by The Monthly Mammoth to write on the subject of the Very Latest Scientific Advances.  He wasn't any kind of scientist himself, but nobody seemed to mind.  He wrote about dinosaurs, and steam engines, and rubber, and the laying of transatlantic telegraph cables; or how telephones worked; or the new American elevators at the Savoy; or whether there was air on the moon; or where precisely in South America to observe the perturbations of Venus; or whether the crooked lines astronomers saw on the fourth planet might be canals, or railroads, or other signs of civilization – and so on.  Not a bad job, in its way – there were certainly worse – but the Mammoth paid little, and late, and there was no prospect of advancement there.  Therefore he'd invented Dr Cephias Syme:  detective, astronomer, mountain-climber, world-traveller, occasional swordsman, et cetera. (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Felix Gilman's fifth novel, The Revolutions, is set in that most fertile of alt-history settings, fin de siècle London, that retro-magical place of steam, electrical inventions, and decadent occultism.  Gilman takes full advantage of the images associated with this time period, referencing several period pulps, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the seances often referred to in contemporary penny dreadfuls, to establish a firm backdrop against which his tale of separated lovers and astral projection warfare occurs.  The result is a novel that possesses many of the charms and some of the shortcomings of its source material.

The Revolutions revolves around the relationship between the former journalist and erstwhile mystery writer, Arthur Archibald Shaw, and his stenographer fiancée, Josephine Bradman, who has been employed by an occult organization to transcribe their meetings.  Arthur and Josephine represent the divides in this alt-London society, as he works, somewhat reluctantly for the scientific community while Josephine's employers employ the dark arts to engage in a series of increasingly violent conflicts with other occult organizations in Europe.  When Josephine comes up missing, Arthur employs any means necessary to locate her, including delving into the very secret societies with which he previously held in disdain.

The novel is divided into nine "degree" sections, corresponding to the astrological division of heavenly bodies.  As the story shifts and Arthur's search for Josephine broadens from the physical to the utilization of astral projection to locate her, the story shifts from a subtly different London (one in which a "Great Storm" struck in 1893 as the novel opens) to an increasingly strange setting in which Arthur's astral projection ends up on Mars, itself a wasteland of previous magical battles of alien civilizations.  As fascinating as the early sections were, with Gilman describing late 19th century England with vividness, the narrative does not really take flight until the action shifts away from the more mundane explorations of contemporary life to the occultists' conflicts and how their secret warfare is related to their discoveries of what is on Mars.

The Martian sections contain some of the wilder scenes in the novel, with dragonfly-winged angelic beings flitting in and out of the picture as Arthur continues his search for Josephine's astral self.  Yet Gilman does not abandon the premise he established in the first few "degrees."  Arthur and Josephine both view these fantastical scenes through distinctly late Victorian era lenses, as can be seen in Josephine's descriptions of her new surroundings:

She saw everything, but she understood nothing.  Did they really have bedrooms, churches, business-meetings, Parliament?  She didn't know.  Their principal industries appeared to be flower-farming and bead-making, the latter of which took place in a multitude of hot little workshops.  She studied this as if she were preparing to make a report to Parliament on the progress of an African mission.  She supposed that they made the beads out of the gems they quarried from beneath the waterfall, though she never did quite understand the process; at least, any more than she had ever understood how coal got to London, or how steel was made. (p. 235)

Gilman does an excellent job in shaping his prose to fit the contours of these strange environs.  These settings feel realistic, despite their obviously fantastical qualities, due to how well he manages to present everything through the eyes of his protagonists.  By grounding the fantastic within more mundane character perspectives, Gilman captures some of the exotic appeal of the adventure literature of the 1890s and 1900s without straying into the more prejudicial excesses endemic in those early pulp fictions.  The plot too possesses some kinship with these adventure tales, sometimes for the worse, as the conclusion feels a bit too convenient and light-hearted in comparison to the early chapters.  Despite this, on the whole The Revolutions was an enjoyable take on late 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction.  It might not be Gilman at his most imaginative, but it certainly is a novel that shows his improvement as a storyteller in the establishment of plot and characterization. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You

She had been naked for less than ten seconds when the snow began to feel hot.  Her body, pale and lean and strong, biceps and things banded with black tattoos, lay basking against the glacial ice; a snow angel overcome by shadows and lights, calm and awed in whatever seconds remained.

The tower scaffolding from the rig flickered, and she could barely make out where the dark stacks cut into the white sky.  Just shapes and brightness.  And she thought of a silent shower of frozen sparks.  And the shhh and hush of sand and desert blindness; how it was here too in the snow where everything shone.  Where everything refracted and blazed and brought the world back to the simple material of itself, of its beauty.  This was all she had ever wanted. (p. 3)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is such a catch-all term.  Originally called "shell shock" and devised to describe a range of psychological and neurological disorders related to World War I, it now refers to a whole host of physiological as well as psycho-neurological changes the body and mind undergo in reaction to repetitive or traumatic stress.  Just saying someone has PTSD is not enough; people vary as much in their reactions as they do in virtually everything else in their lives.  But it does suffice to explain that someone has endured something and is trying to reconcile themselves to the effects.  Due in part to cultural expectations, men and women often manifest PTSD in different fashions.

In her latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman tackles the issue of combat-induced PTSD and how it affects a young, recently discharged female soldier, Lauren Clay.  Decades of post-war stories have perhaps conditioned readers to expect violent outbursts punctuated by withdrawal and depression, but very few stories have explored the effects of PTSD on women veterans.  Lauren's narrative is bracing, not just because of the subject matter, but in the ways that Hoffman explores certain burdens that are more unique in women vets compared to their male counterparts.  The result is a gripping story that unfolds at a steady rate, causing readers to want to pause at times to contemplate what is occurring and at others to want to speed on, to see what the results of Lauren's actions will be.

The main action unfolds over a two week period following a surprise Christmas 2000's reunion of Lauren with her family.  Hoffman chooses to open Be Safe I Love You with a prologue set at the very end of the chain of events.  The reader is thrown full force into a powerful scene whose import is not revealed until the same scene, with a few tweaks, is repeated in the penultimate chapter.  This first, poetic image sets the stage for the search to come, that of discovering beauty within a wasteland of emotion and destruction.  This is a very effective scene in that it establishes the internal battle before we are introduced to its causes.

Much of Be Safe I Love You is told in flashbacks.  We see Lauren, who was an aspiring classical singer, join the Army in order to provide the necessary money for her divorced father to afford the mortgage and for her younger brother, Danny, to continue to live there.  In these flashback sequences, we see the conflicts that Lauren feels as she desires to keep her family together while sacrificing much of what she loved in order to achieve this.  Hoffman does not linger overlong on these scenes, but instead she reveals just enough of Lauren's character to establish a strong, identifiable "before" character before contrasting it with the post-combat, discharged Lauren, who is struggling to reintegrate herself into civilian life.

The key turning point in the novel is when Lauren takes her younger brother, who used to dream of being an Arctic scientist before he began to undergo his own deleterious changes in her absence, to the Jeanne d'Arc Basin in northern Canada.  There she thinks to instill a sense of survival traits in her brother, but it quickly becomes apparent that she is fighting for her own survival.  For her, the snow becomes the desert, the solitude of glacial plains reflecting that of their Iraqi counterparts.  Lauren's spiraling state is revealed via a close third-person PoV, as those formerly close around her note the subtle changes in her demeanor shortly after her arrival, with these changes manifesting themselves in increasingly worrisome fashion over the course of these fateful two weeks.

Hoffman does an excellent job balancing the reader's desire to know more about Lauren's mental state with developing her surroundings.  Lauren's father and brother, along with former friends and relatives, are fleshed out with short, succinct scenes that never feel extraneous.  Hoffman's prose manages to convey a sense of the ethereal, where the sublimity of the natural serves as a counterpoint to Lauren's frustrated desire to reconnect with her old self and her former loves and hobbies.  Hoffman easily could have overplayed this, turned Lauren's tale into a maudlin affair, but her restraint in giving into these treacly touches makes Be Safe I Love You one of the most poignant postwar-related fictions that I have read.  As the story closes with the initial struggle over, Hoffman leaves the reader with the sense that Lauren's life is still unfolding, that there will still be peaks and valleys to navigate.  It is a fitting conclusion to one of the better novels released this year.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Richard Powers, Orfeo

The officers swung back toward the front door.  Off the dining room, a study stood open.  The room's shelves swelled with beakers, tubing, and jars with printed labels.  A half-sized refrigerator stood next to a long counter, where a compound microscope sat hooked up to a computer.  The white metal body, black eyepieces, and silver objective looked like an infant Imperial Stormtrooper.  More equipment covered a workbench on the far wall, glowing with colored LCDs.

Whoa, Officer Powell said.

My lab, Els explained.

I thought you wrote songs.

It's a hobby.  It relaxes me. 

The woman, Officer Estes, frowned.  What are all the petri dishes for? 

Peter Els wiggled his fingers.  To house bacteria.  Same as us. 

Would you mind if we...? 

Els drew back and studied his interrogator's badge.  It's getting a little late. 

The police officers traded glances.  Officer Powell opened his mouth to clarify, then stopped.

All right, Officer Estes said.  We're sorry about your dog. 

Peter Els shook his head.  That dog would sit and listen for hours.  She loved every kind of music there is.  She even sang along. (p. 7)

Richard Powers' eleventh novel, Orfeo, can be read on two levels:  a fugitive thriller and as a treatise of sorts on music and biology.  There certainly are grounds for both, as the frame story of a seventy-year-old former music teacher and amateur biologist, Peter Els, getting in trouble with the police for having what appears to be a homebrew bioterrorist kit certainly contains enough twists and turns to satisfy thriller fans.  But it is the flashback sequences, to Peter's former life and his love for music and his desire to encode music within bacterial DNA, that comprise the heart of the novel. 

Powers divides his frame and flashback stories through the use of cordoned-off epigraphs that end up comprising a related story whose impact on the main narrative is not seen until the end.  It is an effective device, as it allows for short, quick transitions without being too abrupt.  As Peter narrates his experiments with his dog Fidelio and her ability to discern tonality, the narrative tenor shifts subtly toward a slower, more rhythmic pace than the sharper, more staccato bursts of dialogue that comprise much of the frame story.  There is a discernible pattern to the prose, almost as if Powers were exploring tonality of a spoken sort within some of these passages.

There are times where the discussion of music and bacterial encoding become almost too complex, too full of jargon.  At these moments, thankfully few in number, the narrative devolves to a series of lists, barely connected to the lives enfolding around Peter's discoveries.  For the majority of the sections, however, Powers manages to achieve a layering effect by these lists of music and muses, such as this passage:

Reading wasn't possible.  All Els was good for was music.  Shelves in the front room held three dozen jewel boxes – road trip listening, left here in the vacation home alongside battered Parcheesi sets and moldy quiz books.  Ripped copies of Ella Fitzgerald's Verve Songbooks, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a smattering of emo, albums by Wilco, Jay-Z, the Dirt Bombs, the Strokes, and Rage Against the Machine.  There was a time when the proliferation of so many musical genres left Els cowering in a corner, holding up the Missa Solemnis as a shield.  Now he wanted alarm and angry dream, style and distraction, as much ruthless novelty as the aging youth industry could still deliver.

He found a disc by a group called Anthrax, as if some real bioterrorist had planted it there to frame him.  He looked around the cottage for something to play it on.  In the kitchen he found a nineties-style boom box.  He slipped the disc into the slot and with a single rim shot was surrounded by an air raid announcing the end of the world.  A driving motor rhythm in the drums propelled virtuosic parallel passages in the guitars and bass.  The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences.  The melodic machete went straight through Els's skin.  It took no imagination to see a stadium of sixty thousand people waving lighters and basking in a frenzy of shared power.  The music said you had one chance to blow through life, and the only crime was wasting it on fear. (p. 171)

Being familiar with each of the bands listed here, Powers's description of their sounds struck a chord.  There is an eloquence about his comments about Anthrax's sound that makes their music come alive for me twenty years after I stopped listening to them regularly.  There are numerous passages in Orfeo that speak to this love of music and how music is so interconnected with language and human desire.  As the story unfolds and we learn more about Peter's life, Powers manages to weave together the fugitive and flashback sequences in a complex double helix similar to the bacterial DNA he was studying.

There are, of course, other symbolic references within Orfeo, beginning with the titular reference to the mythological musician who sought to bring his bride Eurydice back from the dead.  Powers explores this in subtle ways, with an ending that is fitting without being too contrived or obvious.  Yet ultimately the plot, although for the most part executed well, matters less than how the reader comes to appreciate the musical topic.  For those who are not enamored with music or at least experience some wordless joy when listening to it, Orfeo may be a sonic wall that keeps them from understanding the novel's full import.  But for others, Powers' dexterity in mixing musical tonality with a deep, personal story leads to a deeply satisfying tale.  It may not be the easiest or most plot-centric of the Booker Prize nominees, but it certainly contains a beauty in its prose and thematic execution that make it a joy to read.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

the night was clere though i slept i seen it.  though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still.  when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.  a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.  none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness

none will loc but the wind will cum.  the wind cares not for the hopes of men

the times after will be for them who seen the cuman

the times after will be for the waecend (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paul Kingsnorth's debut novel, The Wake, perhaps has the least-traditional history of any of the 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted works.  Originally a crowdfunded novel, The Wake is set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  This period, until recent decades, had long been dismissed as being a mostly seamless transition from English to Norman rule, from Old English to Old French being the language of court and literature.  Yet evidence, ranging from folk tales to archaeological records, has revealed that there was at least a decade's long simmering rebellion against William the Bastard/William the Conqueror's takeover.  These rebellions, many of which were based in the fens of East Anglia, inspired tales of doomed heroes like Hereward, later given the appellation of "the Wake" in the 14th century.  Certainly in the early 21st century, as we bear witnesses daily via social media and television to struggles of downtrodden peoples to retain at least a shred of dignity in the face of oppressors that seek to wipe out their very languages and cultures, there is something of an echo of these 11th century "last stands" against the rising tide of Norman occupation and dispossession of English landowners.

The Wake is a historical novel that seeks to recreate the mood and feel of these struggles following 1066.  Set mostly in the fen country where the Isle of Ely rebels fought, it is a first-person narrative presented by an ahistorical character named Buccmaster of Holland.  The setting itself has a lot of potential for social commentary about disproportionate land ownership (a regrettable legacy of the Norman Conquest) and freedom fighters, but Kingsnorth makes the bold decision to create a "shadow language," an English that is stripped of French and Latin-derived cognates and which often uses a slightly-modernized form of Old English orthography, to narrate Buccmaster's tale.  This is a tricky endeavor, as much of the narrative depends upon the reader being ready to put in the necessary syntax parsing in order to make this enterprise work.  Use too many archaisms or utilize them incorrectly and the entire affair risks collapsing under the weight of its artifice.

However, Kingsnorth adroitly uses this synthetic language to great affect.  In particular, there are instances of clever double entendres, such as the use of "waecend" in the prologue quoted above.  There is the meaning of "the awakened," but it also bears the sense of "watchful," of someone who is aware of his or her surroundings.  Buccmaster is certainly "aware" of what has transpired in England; he is caught between several social tidal waves.  He observes the "old religion," seeing the old English gods in the trees and fens of his native land.  Many of his discourses are related to this connection he perceives between nature and religion, between home and hearth.  The language he uses brings out these connections more readily than any modern idiom would.  As he and others gather in the margins to ready for a final fight against the Norman trespassers, his reflections on his passing world add a sense of gravitas to the situation.

Buccmaster is more than just a passive observer whose reminiscences about the old ways illustrate a fading society.  He is a fighter, possibly touched with madness, and it is the complexities of his character, interlaced with his tales of what the "frenc" have done and how so many are falling in their fight to preserve their lives, that make The Wake such a fascinating read.  The following passage, from near the end of the story, demonstrates well Kingsnorth's ability to imbue the coming calamity with a sense of urgency without ever abandoning the Anglo-Saxon origins of his synthetic "shadow tongue":

well there is naht else to do then but tac my sweord and use it as great weland had telt me to cwell them what has torn down all that we is in angland.  this time grimcell is not fast enough he is not locan not thincan i wolde tac him on and no other cums betweon him and welands sweord.  it gan cwic into him with a sound lic the cuttan of mete undor his sculdor and he calls out and locs at the blaed what has gan right through and cum out his baec and he wolde sae sum thing but his muth is all blud.  i locs in his eages what is not agan me now not agan me no mor and i pulls out the blaed hard and he calls then lic a cilde and falls hard on to the fyr and for a sceorte moment he writhes lic an ael on the glaif and then he mofs no mor

well then there is all callan and runnan and roaran and annis mofs lic she wolde go to him but i tacs welands great sweord what is all ofer with his blud and i sae thu (p. 383)

There is a powerful economy of description here.  Whereas a "modern" writer might try to convey this warrior having a sword run through him with a metaphor, Kingsnorth's Buccmaster recounts this with poetic redundancies.  The sword goes quick into Weland with a sound akin to the cutting of meat, yes, but it is the "not agan" and "not agan" that reinforces the deadliness of this encounter.  This is followed with "all callan and runnan and roaran," which gives the sense of a burst of immediate, helter-skelter action.  In using this, Kingsnorth hearkens back not so much to Romantic accounts of medieval battle but to descriptions older than Mallory's Le Mort d'Arthur, to a time when such repetition comprised essential parts of heroic ballads.  Kingsnorth recreates these motifs faithfully without ever making his narrative feel like a dull xerox of medieval legends.

The Wake certainly is one of the more original of the longlisted Booker Prize nominees.  Its prose is challenging, yet once the reader becomes accustomed to its quaint rhythms, it becomes a very lyrical story, one which utilizes several narrative tricks not usually explored in novel form.  Its protagonist, Buccmaster, is a surprisingly complex character, one whose thoughts and actions resonate with readers well after his final words are spoken.  The themes, especially that of resistance in the face of an inevitable defeat, are presented well and are universal enough to address issues beyond those of late 11th century English society.  Taken as a whole, The Wake is an impressive effort and certainly justifies further consideration from the Booker jury.

The (Rabid) Squirrel of Truth: Terry Goodkind, Severed Souls

Nearly a year ago, Larry lost one of his most valuable and trusted Serbian reading squirrels, Stefan Veverica, to pulp-induced rabies after Stefan attempted to read and review Terry Goodkind's The Third Kingdom.  It was a terrible blow, as Stefan was now no mere squirrel, but rabidness manifest.  Much of the past year has been spent seeking a cure for Stefan's rabid state, until Larry made the controversial decision of applying lexico-shock to Stefan, exposing him rapid-fire to all sorts of literary styles and media, including Beat poetry and anagram construction, in order to help stabilize Stefan's mind...and to stop him from trying to attack Larry every time the words "good" and "kind" were ever used in a sentence.  After months of arduous reading rehab, it is now time for Stefan to face the ghosts of his past, to see if he can purge that spark of Death in his soul.  In other words, it is time to review Goodkind's latest novel, Severed Souls.

"Bring us our dead."

At the same time as he heard the voice, Richard felt the touch of an icy hand on the back of his shoulder.

He drew his sword as he spun.

As it cleared its scabbard, the blade sent its distinctive ring of steel through the hushed, predawn air.  The power contained within the weapon answered the call, inundating him with rage in preparation for a fight. (p. 7)

Monty Python?  *chitterchitter* Sranje!  Rage, though, yes, ohsosweet rage! Does anything ever change, my dear Marija, anything at all with G---d?   He repeats himself, repeats the same setup from the previous novel, spends over half of this wretched novel having Dick and Jan...err, Kahlan being sick from this death-poison, as if death could be a poison and not a sweet release from the pains and travails of life, oh my squirrely gods of Shatner and Bonaduce why oh why does he continue to describe using the same words the biting hunger of "half people" while more and more magic is aimed at them, making a charnelhouse of these pre-cannon fodder non-souled bodies while the bad men cackle and twirl their mustaches and talk yet once again about prophecy oh so sweet prophecy that makes absolutely no sense at all!  I feel a oneness with these "half people," wanting to eat bodies in order to get at souls, oh those delectable souls like those of Dick and crew.  The succulent flesh of these Objectivist stand-ins, their illogical logic deserving to be drowned in a Bearnaise sauce.  So sumptuous the feast will be once they have died through their own stupidity at last and then the squirrels can emerge from their trees and take over this world.  Yes!

With a sigh, Larry gently snatches Severed Souls from Stefan and gives him Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake to read instead.  Stefan's tics settle down into gentle chittering barks as he becomes engrossed in this tale of post-Hastings England written in an alternate English.  And now that the Squirrel from Scene 24 has been rescued from imminent rabies relapse, onto the rest of the review:

Severed Souls, hard as it may be to believe, may be Goodkind's worst novel.  Yes, it is very difficult to top the dreck found in the previous volume, The Third Kingdom, or images such as the iconic chicken that isn't a chicken but evil manifest, but somehow Goodkind manages to overcome these difficulties to write something that, if self-published, even Hugh Howey couldn't defend as part of a digital reading/writing revolution.  There really is no plot progression here.  If anything, the first half of Severed Souls could be viewed as a recapitulation of the final scenes of The Third Kingdom, with Richard and Kahlan still fleeing from the "half people" eager to devour their flesh, still infected with the ridiculous "death in life" illness that naturally deprives them of their magical powers (except when it doesn't, mostly when it comes to Richard's use of his Sword of Truth), still dealing with villains who seek to torture people to the brink of death to bring forth "prophecies" as though they were industrial items to be produced in a factory.  On the face of it, the entire premise is so ridiculous that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to contemplate just what is being splattered on these pages, unless perhaps they get some sort of masochistic thrill out of having their souls tortured with this claptrap. 

But that is just on the surface.  When one studies Goodkind's writings at a deeper level, like the "occult" powers he keeps referencing without ever really taking the time to examine just what this might mean beyond the Tiki god episode of The Brady Bunch, one comes to a different conclusion.  If advanced numerology, crossed with records of squirrel dropping patterns and the number of One Direction fans complaining that The Who ripped them off, is applied, then passages such as the following reveal an awesome truth about sorcery and objective truthiness:

At the cluttered desk, he went to the ancient-looking scroll that had caught his attention.  Unrolling it partway on the desk, he saw a complex tapestry of lines connecting constellations of elements that constituted the language of Creation.  Ludwig frowned as he leaned in, studying the writing on the scroll.

"This is a Cerulean scroll," he whispered in astonishment as he straightened.  He looked over at the old man watching him.  "This is a Cerulean scroll," he said again, louder. (pp. 249-250)

This is a key detail, as this is no mere chartreuse scroll, but an evidently dangerous cerulean version.  It is so fell and occult that only the color of its pages needs to be mentioned for a sense of awe to overcome one of the villains.  It is moments like this that Goodkind readers long for, for that misplaced sense of import that leads to powerful lines such as this one:

Not prophecy, as in revealing prophecy, but about prophecy itself almost as if it were a living thing.

The scroll spoke of a time when prophecy itself might be ended. (p. 251)

 The implications are just too terrible to consider.  Same holds true for the improbable distances covered in the few days of Severed Souls.  All those battles, punctuated with one of the more awkward major character assassination scenes that I have ever read.  While this scene is explained toward the end, it is so contrived and forced that it just falls flat.  And this is the toasted toad's truth...whatever the hell that might mean.  The only saving grace about this particular character death is that it seems sane when compared to the second major character death.  In a series filled with illogical plot twists, execrable character development, and horrid thematic expositions, this second death is so lame and is obviously so constructed as to allow for a greater commentary on the presumed value of living life (and also to allow the character most known for this to come back to life as a Jesus chock full of truthiness). 

This, of course, is just a long, snark-filled (and with way too many citations to support these sarcastic comments) way of saying that if it weren't for the fact that millions of people have bought this merde over the past twenty years, there is no justification for this poor excuse for an epic fantasy to have ever been published.  Yet somehow, Goodkind has managed to lower expectations even more for his next novel.  As people chant during a game of limbo, "how low can he go?"

And now pardon me while I continue to help Stefan rehabilitate from his traumatic Goodkind reading experience...

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls

The tanks blow their way down the street cloaked in a white pall of smoke.  Kawsar props herself up on her elbows and looks through the side window.  Her neighbours try to flee, hidden in a haze of cement dust, but bright sandals and dresses give them away and the soldiers drop to their knees and shoot at the ghostly figures.  Overhead there is the groan of a plane's engines and then sweeping down from the direction of the airport she sees a MIG with the Somali flag on each of its wings.  Kawsar feels the air swarm about her and steal the breath from her lungs as missiles peel off the clanging tin roofs of the neighbourhood.

She collapses back onto the bed and pulls a blanket over her face, fearing that a bomb will explode through her roof in a matter of seconds.  Both she and Guryo Samo have reached the end of their time; the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well. (pp. 204-205)

Before the civil war era of 1990s Black Hawk Down or the pirates of the Red and Arabian Seas of the 2000s, Somalia was ruled for most of the 1970s and 1980s by General Mohamed Siad Barre.  Already there were tensions between the military and the populace, between various groups, especially after Somalia lost its Soviet patronage to neighboring Ethiopia.  In her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, Somalian-British writer Nadifa Mohamed traces the lives of three women during the tumultuous 1987-1988 period that preceded Somalia's descent into civil war.  It is a snapshot of imperiled lives at the cusp of a cataclysm, but also a testimony to the endurance of hope when all seems to be turning to dust.

Mohamad's three characters represent different facets of 1980s Somalian society.  Kawsar, a widow in her mid-50s who has lost not just her husband but also several stillborn children buried in her fruit orchard, endures much in her life.  Her husband, a policeman, was abandoned by the dictatorship after he proved to be too honest and unwilling to take bribes.  Her assault by pro-government forces on the eve of a rally in the northwestern town of Hargeisa sets the stage for much of what follows.  Filsan is a corporal, the daughter of a prominent military official who has in turn berated her and protected her from practices such as female circumcision, who has been sent to Hargeisa to help quell the incipient rebel uprising occurring there.  Her story symbolizes the conflict between the Marxist-influenced government and traditional Somali customs.  Deqo is perhaps the most heartbreaking figure of the three.  Orphaned at a young man, never knowing who her father was, Deqo finds her way to the dictator's rally at a local stadium in Hargeisa, hoping that her dancing will earn her a pair of shoes.  She ends up being taken in as a maid at a local brothel, where the prostitutes are given names such as "China" and "Karl Marx" in reference to their clientele. 

Mohamed alternates between the three, devoting long chapters to establishing their backstories and the reasons why each has come to be in Hargeisa on the eve of this momentous rally.  These stories are gripping due to Mohamed's mixture of keen observant reflections from each of the three women with short, staccato dialogue bursts that break over the narrative like the distant gunfire of the latter chapters.  In each character, Mohamed explores gender and social divisions within Somali society, illustrating issues that became even more important after full-blown civil war broke out.  Moments such as this observation by Kawsar punctuate this sense of coming calamity:

It is not so painful to die when all that she knows is dying around her.  It seems as if the world has been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs. (p. 277)

Yet despite the setting and the events that occur within, not all hope is lost.  In her final section, Mohamed revisits these three characters after their first encounter in Hargeisha and through the wartime devastation, with body counts mounting and buildings, like the government, collapsing, there is still a desire to live, a need to create some stability in the midst of chaos.  It is fitting at Deqo, who has known nothing of family, has the final lines:

She is back in her familiar world; the war and all that time in Hargeisa just a complicated trial to achieve what she has always wanted:  a family, however makeshift. (p. 334)

The Orchard of Lost Souls is not perfect, as there are times where each of the three narrators seems to become too passive of observers in the conflict that envelops them, but it does serve as a vividly-told story of hope in the midst in destructive violence.  Mohamad's characters possess their own voices and views on the unfolding national tragedy and while at times they might slip too much into the backdrop, on the whole they serve as witnesses for what was happening to Somali women during this time.  There is a sense that their stories carry on after the concluding scene and with it, hope is carried with them out of the conflict, where it might bear fruit in a new orchard away from the fighting.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lorrie Moore, Bark

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off.  His finger had swelled doughily around it – a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends.  "I'm going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed."  The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine.  "Maybe I should cut off the whole hand.  And send it to her," he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society.  "She'll understand the reference."  Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his wedding tux – hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow-style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter.  "That sucker went up really fast," he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught too, and before he was brought overnight to the local lockdown facility.  "So fast.  Maybe it was, I don't know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid." ("Debarking," p. 3)

I had mixed reactions after reading the eight stories in Lorrie Moore's first short story collection in sixteen years, Bark.  It is a relatively slight collection, eight stories (two of which are perhaps more properly novellas than short stories, comprising roughly half of the book) spanning 192 hardcover pages.  In these stories, Moore covers some rather sober, perhaps dark, themes on mortality and human foibles, but there was just something missing from most of these stories to make them truly memorable.

The first story, "Debarking," is perhaps emblematic of this.  When I first read it several weeks ago, I recall quickly catching on to the narrative rhythm of this nearly fifty page story.  The protagonist, Ira, is that sort of familiar loser most of us know in passing in our personal and professional lives:  divorced, vaguely despondent, tries to use occasionally outlandish humor to make himself barely relevant in the lives of others around him.  "Debarking" describes his character being stripped down, being exposed for the flawed human being that he is, with a host of characters, particularly a divorcée he is introduced to at a party and with whom he becomes briefly involved in an affair, helping lay bare just what sort of a person Ira truly is.  It is a well-executed character takedown, one of the better-told in the collection, but there was also this sense of hollowness, a central emptiness that defeats purpose, that ultimately weakens this story.  Ira is so commonplace that perhaps his fate just really fails to spark any sort of sympathy.

The second story, "The Juniper Tree," is a ghost story, yet it is a curiously-plotted one.  The narrator's female friend, Robin, is dying in a hospital and the narrator is waiting for her boyfriend – who was an old flame of Robin's – to pick her up to take her to the hospital.  She fails to go in time and Robin dies.  What follows next is as much a dream sequence as anything truly supernatural, and a host of recriminations and those petty little jealousies that exist most strongly around close friends emerges over the course of an odd celebration in which Robin and other friends of the narrator flit about, often with some rather strange conversations and actions taking place.  It took three readings for it all to snap into place and while the story's structure is very well-done, just like in "Debarking," the conclusion to "The Juniper Tree" fizzled out, leaving me feeling as though I had drunk soda that had been opened a week before.

"Paper Losses" was the most vicious of the stories in Bark and perhaps the best in the collection.  Two soon-to-be-divorced parents take their children on a long-planned vacation.  Each has plotted and schemed what he or she is going to do to the other.  Moore sets the stage beautifully with this:

It was both the shame and the demise of them that hate like love could not live on air.  And so in this, their newly successful project together, they were complicitous and synergistic.  They were nurturing, homeopathic, and enabling.  They spawned and raised their hate together, cardiovascularly, spiritually, organically.  In tandem, as a system, as a dance team of bad feeling, they had shoved their hate center stage and shown a spotlight down for it to seize.  Do your stuff, baby!  Who's the best?  Who's the man? (p. 65)

The story builds upon this mutually-nurtured hate, as it manifests itself in several ways during this excruciating vacation in which each other and their own children get in the way of the various revenge/sex plans that each has developed.  This is not a rage story, however, but one of how contempt affects each spouse's views, not just of the present, but also of the past and present.  It is short, sharp, and very effective.  Yet its well-drawn, emotionally thwarted characters serves to point out just what was lacking in the majority of these tales:  a rage, a desire to howl at the moon in frustration, a burning desire to strip away the raiments of one's life and to start anew.  The near-deadness of other stories' protagonists is perhaps Bark's most noticeable flaw.

Bark ultimately is a collection that I can appreciate more than I can say that I enjoyed reading.  Moore's prose is full of clever, biting wit and yet too often her characters seem too exhausted, too beat down by life for their stories to sustain any sort of interest generated by these funny asides.  No story is actively bad, but rather they feel almost too well-constructed, too polished, to justify having such failed characters inhabit them.  Bark's stories are "just there" and that is a shame.

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