On William Gibson’s “The Peripheral” and Gibson in Person

25 Nov
The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson was released on October 28, 2014.

Hankering some hardcore sci-fi with a mystery-thriller twist? Want to get wound up in a story of space-time continua and causality? Daring to depress over desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes and creeped out by human mutation? Guess who’s got you covered? That’s right: Stephanie Meye–HAHA, NOPE! William Gibson! In his latest novel The Peripheral, the living legend Willaim Gibson stays true to form in an epic science fiction story about two people separated by time and alternate realities who both must come to terms with the irrevocable consequences of their effect on each other’s universes. Buckle in for another Gibsonian ride through nanobots and Chinese servers with the usual cast of stupefyingly brilliant future people with cool, monosyllabic names.

In some backwater American town in the near-distant future, everything sucks. Flynne Fisher and her ex-Marine brother scrape by on contract jobs playing rich men’s video games where a win equals a paycheck. Stuck in musty, rusting trailers and living off of fabricated, or “fabbed,” food from the one Hefty Mart in town, the Fisher siblings do what they can to take care of the ailing mother and survive to the next day. When Flynne picks up a job from her brother acting as security detail in an eerie new beta game, the Fisher’s lives and the lives of everyone in their podunk town change forever, because the game Flynne plays isn’t a game at all, and the murder she witnesses their isn’t an assemblage of programming and pixels.

The beta game is, in reality, seventy years in the future. The horrific assassination Flynne watched while on the job was a real horrific assassination. As the only one who saw the killer’s face, Flynne becomes an asset to her futuristic contractors and the main target for an unknown power trying to tie up loose ends. Wilf Netherton, a publicist in London and seventy years ahead of Flynne’s time, is just as much of a pawn as the Fishers–just small moving parts in a game played by political, financial giants. Wilf’s involvement with the victim’s sister ties him inextricably to the growing conspiracy. Now, Wilf and Flynne must team up using futuristic technology, which allows Flynne to virtually tap into Wilf’s reality through the use of a peripheral body and a giant virtual reality helmet.

Let virtual reality take you to the future!

Let virtual reality take you to the future! It’s super fuuuuuuuunnnnn! And nothing bad happens there!

In Wilf’s future world, Flynne’s consciousness inhabits and controls an biologically human body like a player controlling a video game character. Wilf and his cohorts show Flynne’s peripheral a world after disaster, a world completely reconstructed by nanotechnology called “assemblers” that picked up the pieces after a near-apocalyptic era called “the Jackpot.” In Wilf’s past, the Jackpot killed off 80% of humanity, but his involvement in Flynne’s world will change it irrevocably and hopefully for the better. There’s always the chance that his tinkering in her alternate reality could cause an apocalypse worse than the Jackpot.

Beneath layers of complexity and Matrix-level reality shifts, The Peripheral is, at heart, a murder mystery, and–once readers fend off the blunt-force trauma Gibson calls prose and claw their way through an intricate plot that spends the first half of the book confusing readers and the second half answering too many questions–they will most likely have some kind of fun reading this. I didn’t get hooked on this book until the introduction of a compelling side character named Ainsley Lowbeer: an androgynous, all-seeing, law-enforcing extension of the state who, in my mind, was like a gun-toting Tilda Swinton, but for other readers, the hook could be the ever-present Gibsonian nanotech or the mob bosses and drug king pins or the government SUVs with tinted, armored windows. There is plenty of fodder for finding the good in this novel, so while I don’t think it comes near to Gibson’s best work, I think The Peripheral is a fine addition to this established author’s résumé and it was well worth the read.

In Wilf's world, nanobots called "assemblers" destroy and build everything.

In Wilf’s world, nanobots called “assemblers” destroy and build everything, even lives. How can Flynne–just a normal gamer from pre-apocalypse America–contend with this kind of technology?

Read this book if … you need your sci-fi fix and you aren’t afraid to work for a it a little. It’s true that Gibson’s prose requires more intellectual labor than your average genre book, even among other similarly academic authors’ works, but The Peripheral still meets all the requirements for an entertaining read.

Don’t read this book if … your version of “enjoying a book” doesn’t involve slogging through unwieldy vernacular. One can’t help but wonder if Gibson uses language to deter any possibility of casual readers, and I don’t blame people for getting discouraged and throwing the book across the coffee shop gently setting the book down and finding something more accessible.

This book is like … the novels of Greg Bear or Philip K. Dick. All three authors construct their worlds as palimpsests over our own, using their sharp minds and visionary fiction to prophesy our future. Their futuristic stories are both alien and familiar–sometimes eerie for how familiar they are. In The Peripheral especially, Gibson presents a military aspect that Bear uses frequently in his novels.

William Gibson

William Gibson irrevocably changed the science fiction genre (whether he likes it or not) with the publication of Neuromancer and the forging of the cyberpunk sub-genre.

 


 

William Gibson, Reading from The Peripheral

On the evening The Peripheral was released, William Gibson spoke at the University Bookstore of Seattle’s University of Washington, reading to and answering the questions of a packed house. The man’s soft voice belies the hardness of his writing and the sharpness of his wit. While it was hard for me to imagine this voice writing the fast-talking hackers and government conspiracies and gruesome deaths by nanobot he’s known to write, I had no trouble imagining it after hearing the sharp, sardonic wit of his Q&A. Watch the video of his Oct. 28, 2014, reading below.

On Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina” (Seraphina #1)

18 Nov
seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman takes readers to a world entirely believable and logical. It just happens to have dragons in it.

If there’s one thing pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons. And impressive female protagonists (who aren’t played by Katherine Heigl). So if there are two things that pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons and non-Katherine Heigl female protagonists, so thank the saints that Rachel Hartman has appeared gloriously on the scene with her epic young adult fantasy novel Seraphina. In a setting that feels like alternate reality Renaissance France, Seraphina, a young prodigious court musician, must navigate the prejudices and politics between humans and dragons. The land of Goredd is struggling with an uneasy 40-year peace treaty that bind the two species, but old habits die hard. Seraphina has her own secrets and troubles to worry about, but her curiosity, stubbornness, and compassion team up to embroil her in the middle of Goredd’s cold war with the dragons.

Dragons. They're so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Dragons. They’re so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Seraphina’s deep dark secret forms the foundation of the novel’s plot, and is an age-old, very human conflict: racism. Seraphina is a half-breed–her father, a human solicitor, married a dragon. She must hide her partially scaled body and her inhuman mental abilities from a world who would sooner stone her or drown her than accept such an abomination. As the assistant to the court musician, the task of remaining incognito is difficult enough, especially as her renown as a musical prodigy begins spreading, but when Seraphina gets wrapped up in a murder investigation lead by the headstrong Prince Lucian Kiggs, she finds it imperative but nearly impossible to keep her deadly secret hidden.

Seraphina’s dragon half gives her a logical strength Kiggs begins to find invaluable in his search for the cause of his uncle’s murder, but this half also brings nightmares–nightmares filled with grotesque, malformed beings–that nearly cripple Seraphina with their intensity. Facing her grotesques is the key to learning more about her own origins and learning how to reconcile her dual identity.

Music--combination of mathematics and passion

Seraphina’s dragon-like logic and human-like soulfulness makes her the best musician in all of Goredd. Think Mozart, but prettier and without the crazy.

Seraphina is not your run-of-the-mill spunky, female lead who doesn’t care what boys think, who kicks down doors, and takes on the world with her scathing, witty remarks. She’s not your Elizabeth Bennett protagonist. She’s your Fanny Price protagonist. She is ever in the background, trained since birth to stay out of the spotlight. Seraphina is unsure of herself, having never been told her abilities are outstanding, but she is undeniably logical and intelligent. In this first installation of Hartman’s fantasy series, one can only assume this is Seraphina’s coming-of-age story and that her unique, relatable character will only continue to grow. Right now, she is a fledgling hero who steps up into the role because she must. When she discovers a unique ability that ties her to other half-breeds like her, Seraphina knows she must put aside her insecurities to do something no one else in Goredd can do. It’s the greatest sacrifice for a shy, introverted outcast like her: to shirk her ignominy and take up the mantle of “hero.”

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes ... like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina's identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes … like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina’s identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Read this book if … you’re looking for fantasy and/or young adult fiction that breaks molds. Seraphina is a protagonist I can get behind, someone to whom I can relate. She isn’t some world-class hero or unbelievable beauty–just a normal young person who steps up when forced into an impossible situation. My empathy for her and Hartman’s world-building ability makes Seraphina the perfect book for some intelligent escapism. And for the saints’ sake, we need something other than post-apocalyptic teen romances in the YA genre.

Don’t read this book if … you generally avoid high fantasy–with swords and princes, magic and arranged marriages–or if your version of fantasy is more along the George R.R. Martin blood-and-incest stories. Seraphina is definitely a young adult novel, though geared toward an older teen.

This book is like … the lovely novels of Diana Wynne Jones, but without all the silliness and snark, something I have started attributing to the unique qualities of British fantasy authors. Hartman’s Seraphina brings to mind all of my favorite girl protagonists, like Sabriel of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series or Harry Crewe of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword or any lead from a Hayao Miyazaki film. If you’re looking for content with female protagonists, secret hybrid powers, and a bunch of dragons for an older demographic, check out J.A. Pitts’s Sarah Beauhall series: Black Blade Blues, Honeyed Words, and Forged in Fire.

Rachel Hartman's sequel to Seraphina is due to be released on March 10, 2015, and will be titled Shadow Scale.

Rachel Hartman‘s sequel to Seraphina will be titled Shadow Scale and is set to be released March 10, 2015. My horses are being held, but just barely.

On Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)”

11 Nov

After receiving incredible reception for her first novel Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie very quickly turned out the Imperial Radch sequel Ancillary Sword. I’m guessing she’s just a greedy S.O.B and her Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards weren’t enough for her, because Leckie will most likely rake in a few more with this novel. Ancillary Sword continues the story of Breq, a ship’s artificial intelligence program in a human shell of a body. Once made up of hundreds of bodies that crewed a massive troop carrier, Breq is now a single body with a single mind, and that single mind has set her on a quest for revenge against the empire that destroyed her life. In a similar captivating fashion that made Ancillary Justice such a success, Leckie delivers an entertaining sequel that only serves to make me love Breq and her supporting cast even more.

After uncovering a millennium-old conspiracy that threatens to tear the Imperial Radch apart from the inside, Breq leaves Omaugh Palace on a ship of her own, now the Fleet Captain of Mercy of Kalr with Seivarden as one of her three lieutenants. Breq’s mission is to find and protect the sister of her beloved Lieutenant Awn Elming, over whom she spent much of the first novel lamenting. But when Fleet Captain Breq and her new crew arrive in the Athoek system, they are met with more dangerous conspiracy with an underlying culture of socioeconomic prejudices that stand between our AI hero and her goals. Between the hostile environment, sociopath heiresses, and an emotional baby lieutenant foisted on her by the Lord of the Radch herself, Breq has her work cut out for her. Luckily, she just happens to be the most badass ancillary in the universe.

Athoek Station and the planet below gains its notoriety for the high quality tea it provides to the Radch, an important commodity that separates the “civilized” (the literal translation of “Radchaai”) from the “uncivilized.” Foremost in the industry is Citizen Fosyf Denche who has a near monopoly on the tea plantations planet-side. The station governor and station security head Captain Hetnys seem to be in cahoots with the wealthy Fosyf, and all seem set on disrupting Breq’s plans, ambitious as they are. After all, Breq only wants to save Awn’s sister, bring socioeconomic equality to the universe, and defeat both factions of a warring, multi-system galactic empire, but for some reason, people won’t just let her do it.

On the tea plantations "downwell" on Athoek, the near slave-conditions of the Valskaayans are made clear to Breq.

On the tea plantations “downwell” on Athoek, the slavery conditions of the Valskaayans are made clear to Breq, and the discovery of missing Valskaay transport ships points to something more sinister.

Leckie stutters through an introduction as she brings AJ‘s story line back into focus for the sequel, and then proceeds to spend the majority of the book on a subplot of socioeconomic challenges on Athoek that has tenuous connection to the overarching–and much more captivating–plot of the conspiracy that threatens the Radch’s existence. AS seems to lack the same forethought and sophisticated plot design as AJ, which I attribute entirely to the fact that Leckie churned this sequel out a mere 12 months and six days after the publication of AJ.

Despite the plot structure feeling a tad wobbly, Breq is still a fascinating voice to read, despite the novelty of her nature as an ancillary worn off. Seivarden is still present but takes a back seat to Breq’s new supporting cast, and Breq’s relationship with them, her own unique voice, and the pervasive and captivating sorrow present in everything she does is all enough to keep AS successful. Leckie spends less time on building out the Radch universe, and less time developing the unique personality of Breq, who appears more like a kindly philosopher-king meting out justice and infallible wisdom to the less fortunate humans of Athoek Station, and spends more time with her social commentary and building an argument for socioeconomic equality.

The plot escalates as Fleet Captain Breq begins uncovering a case of bodies missing from storage.

The plot escalates as Fleet Captain Breq begins uncovering a case of bodies missing from storage.

Nevertheless, continuing Breq’s saga and reading the now-familiar cadence of her thoughts were enough to balance the unwieldiness of the plot flow, and there wasn’t anything in this universe that was going to stop me from enjoying more Imperial Radch action. The true tragedy of reading Ancillary Sword is it’s the harbinger of the trilogy’s end.

Rumors has it that the third book doesn’t have to be the end of the Radch, though: apparently someone bought options for a TV adaptation. But this is one book I don’t want to see adapted for any kind of screen. Unless, of course, networks suddenly give the green light to a bunch of beautiful, polyamorous, pansexual, androgynous astronauts being fabulous together, and I honestly don’t think this society is ready for that much fabulousness, which means they’re going to botch it and I’ll be the saddest girl in the world.

Read this book if … you read Ancillary Justice. Read Ancillary Justice if you’re tired of status quo sci-fi and bro-driven hero stories. Ann Leckie flips it upside down with the first installation of the Imperial Radch series, and Ancillary Sword is worth the read if only to immerse one’s self in the universe for another several hundred pages.

Don’t read this book if … you need to feel the g-forces of a spaceship dogfights or smell the singe of laser blasts. AS, like its predecessor, doesn’t get the heart pounding until the end (and then you’ll just about pass out from hyperventilation), and instead relies on its characters and the inherent mystery of the series-arching plot to carry readers through.

This book is like … few other books. I may not be well versed enough in the science fiction genre to compare this book to anything other than its own prequel, Ancillary Justice, because its characters are relatively unique and Leckie discovered a new way to discuss artificial intelligence. I compared the first Imperial Radch novel to Kazuo Ishiguro because of his similar style and penchant for stories of heartbreaking regret. AS is completely different, leaning more toward conspiracy thrillers.

I wanted to know what other beautiful things could come from Ann Leckie's mind. Wish = fulfilled.

I wanted to know what other beautiful things could come from Ann Leckie’s mind. Wish = fulfilled (mostly).

On F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned”

4 Nov
The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read its original review published in the New York Times.

What do get when you put a shallow, narcissistic, entitled, lazy man in a room with a shallow, narcissistic, entitled, selfish woman? Now add classism, money (or the lack thereof), and a pinch of self-loathing. Congratulations. You have the recipe for an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of ultimate gloom. A year after his first novel, and three years before his magnum opus The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald published The Beautiful and the Damned. It tells the sweet, sweet story of Fitzgerald’s romance with Zelda Sayre through the thinly veiled fictional representations Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert. Set in the robust backdrop of early 20th Century Manhattan, the Prohibition, and a young, wealthy nation on the brink of global war, the story of Anthony and Gloria is the perfect example of the youthful wantonness of the Lost Generation, and the horrors that oppose them: poverty, boredom, and the loss of beauty.

1922 film adaptation

The film adaptation of The Beautiful and the Damned was released at the end of 1922, a handful of months after the book was published. Rumors say another adaptation is due, and will star Keira Knightly.

Anthony Patch carouses his way across Manhattan with his bros Maury and Dick, living off and taking advantage of his grandfather’s millions. When Anthony meets the inimitable, youthful Gloria Gilbert, he is entranced and, for the first time, believes he is in love. Gloria accepts Anthony’s love as superior to her other suitors’ affections, and the two end up married. They make the most of Anthony’s allowance. They chip away at their savings and bond funds to stave off boredom through endless parties and constant libations. They are young and beautiful and dole out their razor judgment to everyone around them, including each other.

…there were the high-piled, tight-packed coiffures of many women ad the slick, watered hair of well-kept men–most of all there was the ebbing, flowing, chattering, chuckling, foaming, slow-rolling wave effect of this cheerful sea of people as to-night it poured its glittering torrent into the artificial lake of laughter….

Through all the wantonness, selfishness, and carelessness, Mr. and Mrs. Patch establish themselves as paragons of the Lost Generation. In their youth and with the promise of Grandaddy Patch’s inheritance, both gloried in the ephemeral. They made a point to revel in all things mortal and temporary, because, after all “only the romantic preserves the things worth preserving,” and there’s nothing worse than being a romantic. But when the promise of wealth is suddenly at risk and our heroes wake up to find their youth flitting away, they stand in horror on the precipice of an unknown future. Mortality turns from a goddess to a monster, especially as war looms in Europe.

The real life happy couple: Zelda and Scott. I bet they're both tight in this photo.

Anthony and Gloria’s blissful marriage is modeled after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s amorous relationship with Zelda Sayre.

Anthony and Gloria’s relationship–made tenuous already by their equally narcissistic personalities–begins to truly crumble under the weight of relative poverty and onset middle age, and each of their most wonderful characteristics are strengthened. Anthony paints himself a pitiable victim of a cruel system, and I’m not sure how much Fitzgerald doesn’t agree with the attitude he created. According to Anthony, the worst traits Gloria exhibits are being quarrelsome (read, “opinionated”) and unreasonable (read, “won’t submit to me”). But her worst flaw has to be being a straight-up sociopath. Gloria simply cannot imagine anyone else’s pain or inconvenience. Walled off as she is behind her fortress of superiority, she is as inaccessible as a partner as she is a character, and my own schadenfreude only lasts for so long. The length of The Great Gatsby is just about right for Fitzgerald’s heavy-handed devices, unsympathetic anti-heroes, and melodramatic themes.

Your life on earth will be, as always, the interval between two significant glances in a mundane mirror.

Read this book if … you are a patient person; if you don’t mind misogynistic, racist, classicist, white male writers; if you love the Lost Generation and everything it stands for: mindless frivolity, aggressive self-destruction, getting what you want when you want it. Even if you don’t love Fitzgerald and his American modernist peers, you have to admit that they throw the best party among the most pathetic circumstances.

Don’t read this book if … you despise drama queens. TBatD is the story of the suffering of the 1%, and it is virtually impossible to feel any kind of sympathy for the novel’s two central characters as they “struggle” to survive their quickly shifting circumstances. Fitzgerald can also be a little heavy-handed with his themes, and if the banality of the protagonists doesn’t drive you crazy, the petulant Irony and Beauty will.

This book is like … the original Gone Girl. It’s the story of two people systematically destroying each other with the age-old weapon called “marriage.” Maybe I made the connection because I just saw Gone Girl the movie twice in theaters, but the second I thought it, all I could see was an ice-cold, sadistic Rosamund Pike as Gloria, manipulating a vapid, narcissistic Ben Affleck as Anthony, both too absorbed with love-hating each other to notice that the light at the end of their tunnel of aristocratic suffering isn’t daylight but the steam-rolling train of tragic realization.

The inimitable F. Scott Fitzgerald

The inimitable F. Scott Fitzgerald in his military get-up. Fitzgerald didn’t see the front, but his experience in camp makes an appearance in TBatD.

On A. Merritt’s “Dwellers in the Mirage”

28 Oct

On a recent pilgrimage to the great Mecca of independent bookstores–Powell’s in Portland, OR–I raided a whole section dedicated to books with awesomely pulpy covers, and one of the results was A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. There’s just no way I could resist the half-naked Norseman defending a helpless maiden from a shadowy octopus monster. Originally printed in six parts as a serialized novel in the Argosy, this 1932 publication displays everything great about the era’s adventure genre and obsession with science.

Now, forego your judgement of this book by its cover. Iknow it’s difficult, but we can’t blame Merritt for the pulpy, entirely inaccurate depiction of events and characters depicted here. The cover shows some demure blonde being defended by a shielded warrior with rippling muscles. The lovely Evalie is actually dark-skinned with black hair. (Not to mention, Lief dual-wields.) In reality, DitM features a multiracial couple, relatively feminist warrior women, and a Cherokee BFF–progressive for its time, if you ignore what would today be considered racial slurs and sexist epithets.

Lief Langdon is a normal scientist who happens to have a penchant for picking up languages and being beautifully blonde and Norwegian. While on expedition in Mongolia, a strange series of encounters with a reclusive tribe called the Uighar awakens ancient memories in Lief, memories of a great conqueror name Dwayanu, warrior-priest of the almighty Khalk’ru. Lief’s identity wavers as his Dwayanu identity grows stronger and the warrior personality fights its way to take hold of Lief’s body. When Lief and his Cherokee blood-brother Jim become trapped in a strange phenomena they refer to as “the mirage,” Dwayanu takes full control and prepares to fulfill a prophecy to unleash the kraken Khalk’ru and resume his ancient throne as ruler of the land. Lief must struggle to hold onto his identity while battling the seductive wiles of the wolf-communing, witch-woman Lur, evading the deceitful plots of the jealous captain Tibur, avoiding all-out war with the noble Little People, and save his true love Evalie from the clutches of the kraken. All in a day’s work for Lief-Dwayanu.

If Lur were any more like San from Princess Mononoke, Lief would be done for on page one.

If Lur were any more like San from Princess Mononoke, Lief would be done for on page one.

Merritt’s writing is anything but subtle, and the journey Lief takes through the mirage world of Ayjirland is predictable at every turn. Dwellers in the Mirage takes advantage of every familiar adventure trope that would have been common even in 1932, thanks to writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard. None of this has any ill effect on the book’s pure value of entertainment. From sultry seductions to grotesque alien wildlife to brutal battle scenes, DitW has it all and then some. Nothing like a little conspiracy and fulfilled prophecies to spice things up a little, so much so that J.J. Abrams would be the only director who could possibly stomach a film adaptation.

While I have no trouble going with the flow of these prophecies and giant squid god from ancient Mongolia who eats pregnant women, I do have trouble reading the few character-development pet peeves that Merritt employs:

1) People falling in love with other people over a weekend. I get it. It happens. But sometimes authors want it to happen multiple times in a single novel, and I want to just slap some protagonists silly. Get a grip, man! Love takes time and communication!

2) Protagonists being emotionally and intellectually flawless. Lief Langdon is a victim of a kraken-god-driven multiple personality disorder. Every mistake he makes is at the direct hands of an external force. Literally, the devil made him do it. Well, that’s peachy.

Other than that, it’s totally fine. Nothing to see here.

The Kraken holds a place in many cultures' mythologies. In DitM, it is the "Dissolver," the greater-than-gods, and the key to Lief's true identity.

The Kraken holds a place in many cultures’ mythologies (and just happens to be my favorite rum). In DitM, it’s called Khalk’ru. It is the “Dissolver,” the “Greater-than-Gods,” and the key to Lief’s true identity.

Read this book if … you revel in the pulpiest of pulpy fantasy stock. This book is loads of fun if you’re a reader who can turn off the baby skeptic inside all of us readers and let the white waters of Nanbu carry you out into Ayjirland. Read Dwellers in the Mirage for some mindless escapism–perfect for a summer read on a beach or while curled up under a blanket, in front of a fire, ignoring all your worldly responsibilities.

Don’t read this book if … you’re too pretentious to be seen carrying books with half-naked, sword-wielding, blonde demigods on the cover. With all its coined, fantastical words, its witchcraft, and its high fantasy swordplay, DitW isn’t a book for everyone. Steer clear if you’re one of those mythological folks who can only read about “real” things. (No, but really, this book is kind of silly.)

This book is like … H. Rider Haggard’s She, and H.G. Wells, especially The Time Machine, and other sci-fi/fantasy novels written my authors who abbreviate one or more of their names. These were probably the books Merritt grew up on.

Abraham-merritt

A. Merritt was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1999, among esteemed individuals like Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.

Manzanar

One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.

SPL

Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.

 

On John Darnielle’s “Wolf in White Van”

14 Oct
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle follows the meandering voice of Sean Phillips–disfigured and left in solitude by a tragic event in his childhood–into the Trace Italian, in the hope of finding refuge from reality.

If it weren’t for a friend of mine, I would never have heard of John Darnielle’s debut novel Wolf in White Van or John Darnielle’s acclaimed band the Mountain Goats (Thank you, @shriver!). Yes, I know. I’m a dirty philistine, but my eyes are open now. I may not throw on the Mountain Goats’ bouncy tunes by choice, but I will pick up any other novels Darnielle decides to write, because Wolf in White Van was an absolute thrill to read.

In Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips narrates his reclusive life with an only half-lucid, meandering voice that leads readers through the maze of his memories and fantasies. Sean is the inventor of Trace Italian, a mail-in role-playing game set in post-apocalyptic America. Players from around the country send Sean their moves, and Sean mails them their results in return. Encroaching hunters offers players the choice to run, hide, or forage for food; finding a hut in the desert offers the choice to explore it or move on. Each choice leads to another. Each road destroys the possibility of other roads. Trace Italian is a universe of infinite possibility, and though the goal of the game is to find the Trace Italian–a safe refuge hidden from the horrors of this barren world–readers will learn that sometimes the goal isn’t at the end of the game but at the beginning, where it all started. When Lance and Carrie–two teenagers looking for escape–find themselves lost in Sean’s creation, even Sean’s fortified sanctuary begins to crumble.

“I feel my own freedom remembering this turn, what it means to find a place where the world’s shut out for good at last, where all signs point back at one another and the overall pattern’s clear if you look hard enough.”

Everything unravels and points backward in time toward the event that both destroyed and rebirthed Sean’s life, and event that directly led to his creation of the Trace. As a teenager, Sean was grossly disfigured and hides away to save others the discomfort of seeing him, hearing him speak, enduring his presence. Trace Italian provides most of the contact Sean has with the outside world, and he forms bonds with its players through small, insightful signs they give him with their handwritten game turns.In the astrologer’s hut. Through fragmented passages and no semblance of linearity, Darnielle etches out a schizophrenic narrative that circles a single tragic event in Sean’s past, and try as he might, he cannot shut out his own memories. There is no refuge that can protect Sean from himself. Everything he does traces inwards into a dark interior, more complicated than his ruined exterior.

Trace Italienne

A trace italienne, or star fort, is a type of gunpowder-age fortification designed to minimize risk by cannonball to the main walls of the fort. To Sean Phillips, the Trace Italian is a mythological sanctuary and the goal of his mail-in game.

If there is any criticism I can offer of Darnielle’s debut novel, it’s that WiWV is too brief. I’m a big fan of escapism and so is, supposedly, Sean Phillips. But we spend very few pages in the meat of Trace Italian. A couple of paragraphs of Sean’s second-person, choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game gives readers a glimpse of a vast, alien world, but I felt like I was told I was looking at a Brachiosaurus while being shown a single vertebra. I didn’t quite believe the Trace could be a real haven for Sean or a real danger to Lance and Carrie, because I didn’t quite believe the Trace was a real place. I wonder what Darnielle could have done with another hundred pages.

All you need to say is, "White van," and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility.

All you need to say is, “White van,” and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility. Add the word “wolf,” and you have yourself the worst kind of predator.

The area where he excels is creating incredible, surreal images in a way that reminds me of Don DeLillo or Haruki Murakami. Young Sean Phillips spends his post-event time watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the wee hours of the morning, bingeing on talk shows hosted by pink-haired pastors’ wives and evangelistic specialists on the evils of popular culture. Sean is drawn in by the bizarrely repetitive segments that cover the same topics using almost exactly the same words over and over again. One specialist warns of the rock and roll lyric that, played backwards, actually says, “wolf in white van.” It’s a message from Satan. It’s a sign of evil. Sean wonders what it means. He explores the ludicrous but inherently dangerous image of a starving, predatory wolf in an inherently dangerous vehicle like a white van. There is a monster, lying in wait, setting the trap, luring its next meal.

The question becomes, who is the wolf? Is Sean the disfigured monster luring innocent victims into his trap of a universe? Or is Sean the victim, the lured one, the innocent one? As Sean lies prone–both in the isolation he created for himself as an adult and in the hospital in his past, recovering from an unbelievable tragedy–and builds the Trace Italian within himself. He raises walls of dirt and forgotten things, and cloaks himself in his own version of the truth.

“When I was a child, I dreamed of powers like these, but I no longer have those dreams. I am free.”

John Darnielle

John Darnielle reads Wolf in White Van for the Macmillan audio book. Check out first few minutes on SoundCloud!

Read this book if … your body is ready. WiWV is a crazy ride, short as it is. Read it also if you’re already a fan of The Mountain Goats. The novel reads as if Darnielle expounded on one of his angsty death ditties–short chapters feel like verses, and the rhythmic prose moves the story along to a steady beat. Make sure you listen to “The Sunset Tree” on repeat while you read.

Don’t read this book if … disjointed narratives bother you. This plot doesn’t move linearly, and it may take some careful reading to follow along. A casual reader may still find it entertaining, and Darnielle’s voice is captivating whether you know what he’s talking about or not, but WiWV requires a good deal of attention to keep pace with the experimental story structure and keep track of the heavy symbolism.

This books is like … the dark, scary version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which a virtual reality game is substituted for a written one and the whole story is told from the perspective of players instead of the creator. On the level of narratives, WiWV reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and, on a lesser scale, of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist or maybe Mao II, but without the over-the-top, self-adoring postmodern mumbo jumbo (mumbo jumbo that I deeply love, so don’t get me wrong).

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