Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Alas, Babylon

Pat Frank
Completed 3/26/2015, Reviewed 3/26/2015
5 stars

This is my second time through “Alas, Babylon”, this time for book club.  It was one of the first books I read on this three year infatuation with SF and Fantasy.  I wasn’t writing reviews yet when I first read it, so now’s my excuse to do so.  Despite being a nuclear apocalyptic novel from 1959, its speculation on small town life after the Soviet Union bombs the heck out of the US still feels terrifyingly fresh and important.

Randy is a privileged bachelor living in the outskirts of Fort Repose, a small town in central Florida.  His prudish spinster neighbor thinks he’s a cad with his women and whiskey.  She even catches him staring at her house with binoculars.  But all this Mayberry melodrama quickly fades when the Soviet Union bombs every major city and military installation in one early morning swoop.  The aftermath of “The Day” forces Randy to assume responsibility and soon leads a small group of survivors through the day to day horrors of living in a contaminated zone.

This book is chilling and realistic in its depiction of the cold war nightmare.  Pat Frank’s multiple careers as a journalist and a government consultant gave him firsthand knowledge of politics and a sense of the aftermath of a nuclear war free of the duck and cover propaganda.  His cold, journalistic writing style reflects his pragmatic knowledge on the subject.  The survivors face radiation poisoning, starvation, the loss of all modern conveniences, disease, and predators, animal and human.  Nothing is romanticized.

Having been written in 1959, it feels dated only from the sociological perspective.  The depictions of the town’s inhabitants make you think of “The Andy Griffith Show”, with a lot less humor.  Women and African-Americans are stereotypically portrayed, boys have to become men of the house, and doctors smoke pipes and make house calls.  Some statements made me cringe.like (paraphrasing) “Can’t leave women alone without a man”.  But at the same time, Frank allows the women and African-Americans to rise to the task of surviving together as much as the white men in their small interdependent community.  No one is taken for granted, and neighbors work together.

But despite Randy’s little group of survivors coming together to help each other, they have to face the rest of the dangers around them.  This mostly comes in the form of the inhabitants of the main part of Fort Repose, its seamy subdivision, and traveling bands of highwaymen.  When I first read this book, it was exciting and scary.  This time through, I became depressed and terrified.  It invoked my worst fears of not being able to provide for myself.  I found myself reflecting on the differences between 1959 and now.  There are so many more people, and our reliance on technology and the supply chain make surviving such an event seem nearly impossible.  It makes me understand the doomsday preppers a little better.  For people who are too young to remember the societal fear of the cold war era, imagine Zombie Apocalypse without zombies, but with something invisible poisoning the air you breathe and the ground you walk on. 

I’m giving this book five stars out of five.  It meets the criteria of being an excellent book while producing a very strong emotional response.  Sure, the book has that “straight white male from the golden age of SF” problems, but it an awesome reminder of how close we came to destroying ourselves with politics, technology, and fear and how close we still are today.

Friday, March 27, 2015

I Am The Messenger

Markus Zusak
Completed 3/22/2015, Reviewed 3/25/2015
3 stars

This book was a selection of my book club, made by a member who considered this a fantasy.  Upon her second reading, she wasn’t as sure if it was really a fantasy.  I was excited about the book because I know a few people who really like the author.  I voted for it.  I enjoyed reading it, but in the end, it felt it was a pseudo-fantasy with a plot hole and a hit you over the head message.  It’s good, but not great.

The story begins with our young main character Ed foiling a bank robbery.  Afterwards, he goes back to his dreary life as cabby who spends most of his time thinking about the sex he’s not getting, drinking and playing cards with his friends, pining over his friend Audrey, and bemoaning the fact that his mother doesn’t love him.  Then he gets a playing card in the mail with addresses on them.  He visits them, finding situations, some good some bad, which need intervention.   Does he act?  Does he not?  When he seems to have fulfilled his task, he gets another card, and so on, until he comes to a profound conclusion about himself.

Ed is loser, a son even a mother can’t love, but I really liked him.  I pitied him and wanted him to wake up and do something to change his situation.  The playing card with the addresses is his catalyst, unknowingly making him grow in amazing ways, and helping those around him grow as well.

But this basic premise presented a huge plot hole for me.  I couldn’t figure out his initial motivation for going to these addresses.  It didn’t make sense to me.  It required a huge amount of willing suspension of disbelief.  Once I convinced myself to get past this issue, I was able to enjoy the rest of the book.  It’s told in first person present, and it engaged me quickly. 

The next part is difficult: was this fantasy?  Maybe.  The sender of the cards seems to be omniscient.  Perhaps it’s an angel, or even a devil granting him the possibility of redemption.  Or maybe it’s a terribly cruel joke.  There is an answer to this at the end, but I didn’t quite believe it.  It attempted to wrap it up nicely, but it left me very uncertain as to what really was going on.

It’s hard to write more about whether this was a fantasy because it would be a spoiler.  It’s also tough to discuss the ending, well, because, of course, that would be the ultimate spoiler.  But it’s a message and it smacks you in the face.  I did a lot of poking around goodreads and amazon looking for discussions about the fantasy concept, Ed’s motivation, and the ending.  The commenters’ focus was on the ending.  Some people thought it was an easy out, some thought it was brilliant.  I fell into the latter at first, but after reflecting on it for a while, I decided it was a little too much.

I’m going to conclude by saying this was a good book.  Three stars out of five.  It’s considered a YA novel and has won many YA book awards.  Perhaps that’s why the ending left me more nonplussed than ecstatic; its message is intended for young adults.  It’s a short book and an easy read, which really makes me want to recommend this book to see what other people think of it.  I’m looking forward to the discussion at book club in hopes that other people might have had the same experience with it as I did.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Silmarillion

JRR Tolkien
Completed 3/15/2015, Reviewed 3/23/2015
5 stars

I first attempted “The Silmarillion” when it was first published in 1977.  I read the first chapter and didn’t get it.  I wanted another “Lord of the Rings” or “Hobbit”, so I put it down and it collected dust ever since.  This year, I made myself a challenge to read twelve of Tolkien’s works, including the posthumously published ones edited by his son.  So it necessitated finally making a new attempt.   I was pretty nervous.  Then a member of worldswithoutend.com told me about tolkienprofessor.com, a site by an English prof at a small liberal arts college in Maryland who posts lectures on Tolkien’s work.  I also found a Tolkien atlas at the library.  With these tools, I decided I could finally give it a try.

I was amazed.  Sure, it reads like the bible, but I found I could read it, rather easily, despite the myriad of name and places.  Once I got into the rhythm of the writing, or perhaps more accurately, the editing, I simply gobbled it up.  And yeah, listening to the lectures and following along with maps enhanced the experience. 

I think the most important thing to remember is that the book is not one epic narrative, it is a collection of stories of significant events from the beginning of time to the events of the LOTR.  (I got this next part from the lectures)  The idea is that these are based on Bilbo’s translations of Elvish works from his later years in Rivendell.  They are told from the perspective of the Elves, and as such, it is as incomplete a history as one gets from any one group trying to tell the history of the whole world.  It’s a history through Elvish filters, like the Bible, the Old Norse Edda, or the Epic of Gilgamesh are filtered through the context of their authors.  Like the Bible, it describes the creation myth, important events in history, and the stories of the significant players in that history.

This time around, I was completely enrapt beginning with the creation myth.  Eru, the One, also called Iluvatar, uses music to tell the story of everything.  Joined by his first creations, the other gods, they sing a chorus that creates everything that will come to pass, including the evil that befalls the world from the discordant singing of the Melkor, the “fallen” one, later known as Morgoth.  Then when the singing is done, creation and time begin.

I have to admit, the main body of the book, the Quenta Sillmarillion, is daunting.  It covers the entirety of the First Age, beginning with the creation of the Silmarils by the Elf Feanor, jewels which captured the profound light from the two trees that lit Valinor, the land of the gods.  Morgoth destroys the trees and steals the jewels.  The rest of the section tells the tales of the development of the Elves and Humans, also called the children of Iluvatar, and the age-long quest of the sons of Feanor to get the Silmarils back.  There are TONS of names.  And readers of my blog already know that I don’t absorb well when I’m reading battles (there’s five plus one full on war in the First Age).  The way I survived, appreciated, and fell in love with it was by returning to the idea that I was reading the Bible.  The stories are more or less connected and linear.  The dialogue is grandiose at times, as you would expect in an epic.  Many figures are tragic and the bad guys are really bad.  At times there is too much detail, at other times, not enough.  But it comes down to this:  This is not the coherent narrative fiction I’m used to reading.  I’m experiencing Mythopeia, a fictional mythology, in its rawest form, and I loved it. 

My favorite chapter from this section is Of Beren and Luthien.  It’s the tragic story of the first love affair between a human and an elf.  However, Luthien’s father King Thingol, tries to stop the affair by requiring Beren to steal back one of the Silmarils from Morgoth before he can marry her.  Their plight is a foreshadowing of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwin in LOTR.  (And reflecting on the two tales, I can’t help to wonder if Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh stole some parts of the Beren/Luthien tale to fatten out the Aragorn/Arwin plotline for the LOTR film.  It’s not identical, but has stronger detail overtones than Tolkien gives in his LOTR appendix.)  Even though this story is only about twenty pages long, it is beautiful, epic, and tragic.  They are perhaps the closest you get to seeing developed characters.  Out of all the major characters, Beren and Luthien feel the most real.

The last two sections of the book, the Akallabeth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age were simply wondrous.  The first is an account of the rise and fall of Numenor.  It tells explains the history of the line of kings of men from which Aragorn is the heir in LOTR.  I was concerned about it being a horrendous list of names, but it was very engrossing.  It is another mythic wonder, as it also explains the rise of Sauron and what happens to the men who remained in Middle Earth with so no kings and so few elves to guide them.

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age is a sort of a fill in the backstory of LOTR.  It goes into more detail of the Rings, the Last Alliance that nearly destroyed Sauron, his return to power, and the larger role Gandalf played in the whole tale.

In conclusion, I have to say that this initial prospect of fear became a labor of love.  I rejoiced when I was done, not that it was over, but that the payoff was profound.  I felt as I did finishing LOTR.  Though I didn’t cry at the end, I felt that I experienced the profound spiritual fulfillment that comes with great literature.  Sure, the study aids helped.  But I think the greatest bit of help I got was from within my own heart:  being open to a new experience of the universe created by one of the greatest writers ever.  Five stars out of five.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Testament of Mary

Colm Tóibín
Completed 2/4/2015, Reviewed 2/24/2015
5 stars

Note:  This is the review of literary fiction.  It is not SF, fantasy, or horror.  I hope to integrate more non-genre fiction back into my reading lists.

I really enjoy science fiction, and literature in general, that deconstructs, satirizes, and/or reimagines theology, religion, and mysticism.  It speaks to my struggle with the darkness, ignorance, and hostility that organized religion has perpetrated upon humanity, demonizing not only dissenters but even those who ask the simple question of why we continue to perpetuate haughty, oppressive structures from ideas that themselves were iconoclastic, inclusive, and simple.  At the same time, I enjoy reading theology, mysticism, and contemporary research on things religious.  One of my favorite non-fictions is “Alone of All Her Sex” by Marina Warner, a history of the myths and cult of Mary and how that has helped perpetuate the inferiority of women.  “The Testament of Mary” is a fictional look at the mother of Jesus, demythologizing her.  It explores how a very human widow would cope with a dangerously famous son, his agonizing destruction by the powers that be, and the cult that forces her to continually relive her grief.  It’s a difficult and astounding read.

This book is a little like Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which put to question the dual nature of Jesus, extrapolating on what it means that he was fully human.  “Testament” asks us to peel away the layers of myth of Mary and presents us with an angry, bitter woman being protected and harassed by the followers of Jesus, pressing her for every detail of his life and death so they can write the gospels.  Mary’s memory is not of pious Hollywood scenes with swelling inspirational music.  She remembers the unnaturalness and implication of a resurrected Lazarus, the fear of having a publicly dissident son, and the horror and desperation of the crucifixion.  But rather than have to relive this again and again, she’d rather simply disappear. 

“Testament” reads like a monologue.  In fact, it originated as a monologue stage play and then adapted into a novella.  It’s short, but very intense.  Using this form, Tóibín drops you into the character of Mary and doesn’t let you off the hook until the end.  It’s a masterful piece of short fiction.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything like this.  I read it in under three hours, during which I probably breathed deeply only two or three times.  Afterwards, it took me about an hour to relax, and I needed a few days before I could begin my next book.   

I have to admit that it took me a long time to figure out how to review the book.  I couldn’t get past the single sentence, “Wow, that was intense!”  I spent a lot of time reading other reviews in Goodreads.  I was shocked by the negative reviews that complained about anachronisms, like the use of shoes rather than sandals, as if they were mutually exclusive, as if Hollywood got ancient footware right.  And of course there were the people who couldn’t deal with the concept of fictionalization at all, unless it’s “Ben-Hur” or “King of Kings”, which I might add took their own liberties.  Though even in the 1961 version of “King of Kings”, there’s the awesome short tense scene where Jesus is called away from making a chair and Mary says, “The chair will never be finished”.  To understand the concept of this book, extrapolate from that tenseness. 

But from all that, I was able to begin putting my own thoughts together.  I liked the concept; it’s right up my alley.  I liked how he makes a distinction between his fiction and the fiction of the gospel writers, that their purpose wasn’t to write history, but to convey a message.  To use contemporary slang, it’s really meta.  I liked the details of Mary needing control over her surroundings to give her some sense of control over her own life.  And I liked the thought of Mary being a real human, with real human reactions, not just a pieta or a Madonna painting. 

If you’re afraid of getting your iconography dirty, this book is not for you.  If you’re open to a relentless reflection on a human anguish, then you need to read this.  It’s beautifully written and won’t leave you unmoved.  Five stars out of five.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Last Policeman

Ben H Winters
Completed 3/5/2015, Reviewed 3/6/2015
3 stars

This is the March pick for my Science Fiction book club.  I didn’t vote for it.  I never vote for a book that’s the beginning of a series, because if I like it, then that’s a whole bunch of new books to put on my TBR list.  So I was glad that it engaged me so well that I was able to put away my bias.

The book has a fairly standard murder mystery plot.  A newly promoted detective is called to the scene of the suicide of a non-descript insurance worker.  Everything seems normal, but something feels wrong to the detective.  He suspects homicide, though he barely has any evidence.  Call it a hunch.  Everyone, including his superior, thinks he is wasting his time.  Here’s the SF twist:  the reason no one cares is that there are tons of people committing suicide because a six kilometer wide asteroid is about to slam into the earth. 

One of the reasons I liked this book is because it is a murder mystery.  I haven’t read much in the genre, so I couldn’t tell you if the mystery part is cookie-cutter or innovative.  I simply enjoyed the mystery process.  The books in the genre I have read have mostly been urban fantasy and cyberpunk noir-ish, which I haven’t always been able to appreciate. 

What really engaged me was the apocalyptic setting and the despair of the people.  It begs the existential question of why anyone would care about finding a murderer when in four months, half the population will be evaporated and most of the rest will die from the ensuing earthquakes, tsunamis, and desolate twenty-year winter.  Hank Palace cares.  His motivation is difficult to understand.  Sure, he’s only been a detective for a few months, so he might still be taking the new position seriously.  He also has an ambivalence, even a denial of his real feelings of the earth’s impending doom.  Perhaps this case gives him the ability to focus on something else, something tangible while the rest of the world wallows in existential angst.

The one part I didn’t care for was the conspiracy theory that his sister and her husband are chasing.  I’m sure it’s because that is the plot that continues through the next part of the trilogy.  But Hank is a likeable enough character that I just might continue reading this series.

This book is pretty good, not great mind you, despite winning an Edgar award.  It’s the quintessential three stars out of five.  It’s an easy read, and I liked Hank.  The author does an excellent job of capturing the despair of the other characters and their behavioral responses.  This is the perfect book when you want fluff, but still has a dark, toothsome premise.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

LOTR: The Return of the King

JRR Tolkien
Completed 2/28/2015, Reviewed 3/4/2015
5 stars

What a ride this trip through “The Lord of the Rings” has been.  It rightly deserves its title of the progenitor of the modern fantasy epic.  It took me through a full range of emotions, even leaving me weeping uncontrollably at the end.  Of course, I mean the end of the story, not the end of the appendices.  More about them later. 

Again, this review contains spoilers, mostly because they can’t be avoided in discussing some of the greater parts of the story.

Frodo and Sam, sans Gollum, finally get into Mordor.  The weight and temptation of the Ring becomes overwhelming for Frodo.  The two hobbits barely have any hope left, but somehow they trudge on, circumventing the numerous camps of orcs and men and traversing the hostile landscape to get to Mount Doom.  The rest of the fellowship heads for Gondor, rallying towns, and even ghosts to aid them in the impending attack of the Dark Lord on the White City. 

I feel like I’m always making reference to the films.  Unfortunately, I think there isn’t any way to avoid it as it is so ingrained in my head and part of my reading experience.  So what I found myself marveling at most were the chapters and scenes that weren’t in the films.  The first time was in the chapter entitled “The Houses of Healing”.  It was beautiful and powerful, conveying a holistic center of healing rather than an antiseptic place of dying.  Here, Aragorn reveals himself as the king with the healing hands as he treats Faramir, Merry, and Eowin with athelas, or kingsfoil, producing an overwhelming sense of the power of goodness, like the aroma of the herb that invigorated all who smelled it. 

The other chapters I loved were those between the destruction of the Ring and the Grey Havens.  I loved the detail of how everyone’s story came to conclusions.  At first I thought it would drag on, but instead, it felt very necessary and natural.  And The Scouring of the Shire is an amazing conclusion to the character arcs of the hobbits.  Not only was this book about the ultimate battle between good and evil, but also about how the four hobbits went from their quiet, pastoral existence to leaders in their own right.   

And now for the Appendices.  They are tough, particularly the first one.  It reads like a college history book, rushing through the lineage and major events of the Numenorian, Rohirran, and Dwarvish kings, as well as the stewards of Gondor.  The only respite is the short piece about the relationship between Aragorn and Arwin.  It’s a gentle story but all too short.  I think the reason that section is so nice is because you have a context for the two characters.  And despite her name in the title, Arwin’s presence is still too small.  Her only actions of note is the making of a standard, an emblematic banner, for Aragorn, and that she chooses to renounce immortality for a man.  You can see why in today’s context, the female character arcs are archaic.  Even Eowyn’s plotline in the main story boils down to finding a man, despite having a key role in the war for Gondor.  It makes me wonder how new first time readers perceive this. 

While reading the rest of Appendix A, new names and their actions are thrown at you, with no character development. All you know is what you may (or more likely may not) remember from their brief references in the story.  This is what I fear in reading The Silmarillion and the twelve volume history of Middle Earth series by Tolkien’s son.  Fortunately there are some on-line seminars on the Silmarillion by an academic who calls himself the Tolkien Professor to which I will probably listen to help me get through the heavy history.  It has come highly recommended by some of the folks on worldswithoutend.com, and having any sort of discussion on it will be a great help in understanding it.

The other appendices aren’t as difficult.  I particularly like the discussion of the alphabet and language, but I love reading about these topics.   Linguistics and the history of language are two of my “should haves”. 

There is nothing like “The Lord of the Rings”.  There are tons of other fantasy worlds out there comprising trilogies and even longer series.  Some of them are successful, even brilliant, others not so much.  And while the appendices are tough, they add the weight of a complete universe that only a few other writers have come close to developing.  But there’s a purity and effortlessness about LOTR that derives from Tolkien’s academic immersion in philology and ancient northern European classic literature, and living through two world wars.  It is the ultimate confrontation between good and evil in a universe grounded in a living history.  Five stars out of five.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

LOTR: The Two Towers

JRR Tolkien
Completed 2/22/2015, Reviewed 2/27/2015
5 stars

Whew!  I was relieved that in reading the Two Towers, I found it to be completely engaging.  In past readings, I thought it dragged compared to the other two books.  This time, I was more present, even for the battle at Helm’s Deep.  Usually, I fade out when reading battle scenes, but not this time.  I think it was because I had imagery from the films, so I was able to visualize the battle better.  And by making the battle more engaging for me, it made the book as a whole feel more chock full of exciting episodes and encounters. 

Note:  Because this is the second book of a trilogy, and because there is so much going on, there are some spoilers in the following summary.

Even though I made it through this book in fewer days than “Fellowship”, I actually slowed down my reading.  I spent more time reveling in the prose, drinking in the descriptions and dialogues, and treasuring the experience.  The story picks up as the fellowship is breaking up.  While Frodo and Sam have gone off on their own, Merry and Pippin have been captured by a large army of Orcs.  They escape when the Riders of Rohan attack the Orcs, hiding in Fangorn Forest.  There they meet one of my favorite characters, Treebeard the Ent.  Ents are tree shepherds.  They are some of the oldest creatures in Middle Earth.  They look like trees but walk and talk, and it takes a long time for them to say something.  It makes them seem like giant tree teddy bears, even though they could probably be classified as chaotic good in the gaming biz.  Merry and Pippin persuade Treebeard and the Ents to attack the evil wizard Saruman at Isengard.

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas go in search of Merry and Pippin, but Gandalf redirects them to Rohan.  There, they join forces with King Theoden as they prepare for battle against Saruman’s forces at Helm’s Deep.  In the meantime, Frodo and Sam continue towards Mordor to destroy the Ring.  They encounter Gollum, using him as their guide through the evil terrain. 

It’s difficult to say much more than what I already said in my review of “Fellowship”.  The prose is still stupendous.  One point that comes to mind is the characterization of Legolas and Gimli.  With the breaking of the fellowship, they get a lot more to say and do than before, which fleshes out their characters much better.

A second point is the lack of female characters.  I think this is more obvious reading it 30 years later and having the film in my head.  Eowyn, Theoden’s niece, is only seen briefly.  Having read the whole trilogy before and knowing her role in the third book, it is sad that she has little character development here.  Aowyn, if my memory is correct, isn’t referenced in this book at all.  I’ll be able to speak more of this once I get to the Appendices in the “Return of the King”.  When I read the book in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I probably didn’t notice this nearly as much.  Now, my response to the lack of female characters is the same as when I read golden age SF:  it’s a sad reflection of the time and culture of the writers. 

My last comment is about Grima Wormtongue.  I often find it difficult to swallow characters whose names reflect some aspect of their personalities.  I mean, really, did a person with a name like Grima Wormtongue ever have a chance at a good, happy life?  His name fates him to his miserable existence.  Unfortunately, it is way too common in fantasy for bad characters to have names that signify their wickedness.  I think it would be an interesting exercise to come up with names that more reflect the attractiveness of the temptation of evil. 

Again, rating this book separately from the whole trilogy just seems wrong.  But I will give it five stars out of five.  I loved reading it, getting deeper into the looming apocalypse, loving the Ents once again, feeling the despair and heroism, being surprised by the complexity and depth, and knowing that there’s still more to come.