A life in public service is like the five stages of grief. And like O, Democracy!'s protagonist, Colleen's, experience with the five stages of grief,...moreA life in public service is like the five stages of grief. And like O, Democracy!'s protagonist, Colleen's, experience with the five stages of grief, the public servant (especially the lower-mid-level one) experiences them all at the same time, superimposed on top of each other and without the luxury of time to space them out and put the raw and screaming emotions they awaken back to rest. It is also like the movie Groundhog Day, in that this cycle repeats over and over again, several times over the course of the public servant's career.
The five stages of grief are (if I remember correctly without consulting the Internet): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five indices of civil service ennui are more specialized, and include frustration, cynicism, isolation, fatigue, betrayal, and a general feeling of impotence (wait, that's six...). For an ideological Gen-X/Y/Milennial, these feelings hit even harder. We tend to feel the "betrayal" part the most. And this cycle, like it does for the protagonist, frequently pushes the, quote, "conscientious," bleeding-heart generations out of public service before their souls acclimate. Kathleen Rooney captures all of this, spot on, in O, Democracy!
There were many times Rooney's book made me want to exclaim, "Yes! That's happened to me! That's my life!" while reading O, Democracy!, particularly the observation that great passion is required to compensate for loss of individual agency. At the mid-lower-level, the public servant is shut out from the decision making processes, is not given the real reasons behind certain decisions, and is asked to toe the line without question. The low-mid-level person is meant to keep the water smooth so that the organization can operate in a stable environment - that is, one that protects the organization's most fiercely guarded goal: continued existence. Government organizations want only to continue; they do not want to change.
This is tough on the "conscientious" generations, who trusted their social science and liberal arts instructors and believed they would change the world if they found the right organization. This is double tough on those of us who set aside projects, such as photography or screaming in a band, to join the machine and be disenchanted. Waking up at 28 with the realization that civil service is less romantic than promised - coupled with the realization that you never got that MFA and/or that you're now too old to grow your hair long again and start a new band - is tough. And, again, the author has perfectly captured it.
O, Democracy! isn't quite All the King's Men, but then Dick Durbin is hardly a Huey Long. O, Democracy! isn't Game Change either. Rooney employs all of those real world characters and drama - and more - but without the use of names. Characters are referred to obliquely, as the Illinois governor who is grotesquely Elvis Presley-esque or the tortured singer-songwriter who stabbed himself in the heart. The book is full of codes. The more closely the reader's life resembles that of the protagonist, the more unnamed mise en scene is understood. I found this aspect of the book immensely enjoyable. And it also reminded me that - oh my God, 2008 was six years ago!
The protagonist, Colleen, made it out. Presumably it is now 2014 for her, too, and she's 34. We hope she's happy doing whatever she's doing (though I'm not sure she will be). For those of us who are still in the public service role, trying to project competence, trying to be pleasant, patiently waiting for the old guard to get old and retire so the apparatus will select us as their replacements, O, Democracy! can be a little confrontational, reminding us how bleak it is out here. O, Democracy! is a little longer than it needs to be.
But it ends on a high - a high the reader (presuming s/he is Democrat, I suppose) can remember and relate to. The novel ends in Lincoln Park, with the 2008 presidential election called - with Senator McCain's concession speech and President-elect Obama's hopeful aria. It doesn't seem to matter that the novel's cast has divided by this time - with the lower level staff doffing margaritas and reveling in the park and the upper level staff entrenched in their policy bunkers already planning the next phase. The reader was, literally there, man, with them (whether in Chicago that night or in a bar or a living room in middle America). I remember how warm it was that Tuesday night. And what it felt like. And how the world seemed to have changed. Turns out it didn't, but it turns out it never does. Rooney's novel captures the majesty of this beautiful and maddening reality wonderfully.(less)
The Girl in the Road is a dystopian, surrealist, Rorschach mindfuck initially disguised as a simple trashy book for ladies. Thankfully, it isn't anyth...moreThe Girl in the Road is a dystopian, surrealist, Rorschach mindfuck initially disguised as a simple trashy book for ladies. Thankfully, it isn't anything nearly as classifiable. To the extent anything can be in this day and age, TGITR is a completely new literary form.
I don't like writing "I can't explain this book" anymore than anyone likes reading such a cowardly sentence. I'm tempted to compare The Girl in the Road to Middlesex, A Thousand Splendid Suns, or even (at a stretch) to Swamplandia! just to have something to, you know, say. But that would be colossally foolish.
One doesn't so much read TGITR as go deeper and deeper into the fractal of Monica Byrne's prose. When - if - I ever get tempted to stop trying to detangle her observations on sexuality, globalism, religion, rites of passage, and pilgrimage I have the author's own words to urge me forward: "Such beauty cannot amount to nothing or the universe would not cohere." TGITR is a tough book. I won't sugar coat the fact. But like all "tough" books, there are deep rewards waiting for the reader with perseverance. A work of rare beauty.
(Now they just need to something about the horrid graphic design and typeface used in the proof I was given to review.)(less)
Neptune's Brood suffers from too much: pirates, mermaids, interstellar warships, corrupt high church officials, replicants. The phenomenal parts - pai...moreNeptune's Brood suffers from too much: pirates, mermaids, interstellar warships, corrupt high church officials, replicants. The phenomenal parts - painstaking speculation on interstellar commerce and the implication of long distance travel and the human body (and a hive of communist squid people!) - are offset by the many things going wrong in the novel.
The prose shifts from third to first person, past to present tense without any logic. The approach is less that of a deliberative literary cavalier than that of someone in dire need of an editor.
The ideas in Neptune's Brood are some of the best I've encountered in science fiction since my original, teenage fixation with the canonized heroes of the genre (Arthur C. Clarke being front and center). But the writing! Egad. The only times I enjoyed something that just stopped mid-sentence was Space Ghost Coast To Coast and The Good Soldier Svejk. The latter didn't deliberately end in mid-sentence to advance a literary concept (the author actually died in the middle of writing a paragraph) and Space Ghost was a much larger cultural enigma, existing outside of any one genre - arguably existing outside context itself.
Neptune's Brood just fucking ends, almost mid-sentence. The story is not over, but the author curtly informs his readers that he's done, man. One minute, the narrative is at the crescendo of an (admittedly cumbersome and unnecessarily convoluted) whodunit, then the writing stops. Personally, it left me feeling(less)
I've never considered Dorothy and The Wizard in Oz a particularly good installment in the Oz saga. As the author admits in his introduction, Dorothy a...moreI've never considered Dorothy and The Wizard in Oz a particularly good installment in the Oz saga. As the author admits in his introduction, Dorothy and The Wizard was written as a concession to the numerous fan letters appealing to keep Dorothy and the Wizard bound together as a fixture in the ongoing stories of Oz. As only the fourth book - well before the full cast of characters and the complete dimensions of Oz itself were defined - Dorothy and The Wizard doesn't actually go anywhere. Apparently, Baum condescended to surlily give his audience what they asked for, but didn't feel his commitment to his fans necessitated a carefully crafted story. Dorothy and The Wizard feels like a cranky "screw you" aimed at little kids who shouldn't be blamed for wanting more of a story they love than today's kids can be faulted for wanting their Mario Bros. or Batman content to stay current. Taking this as a document, one can only imagine L. Frank Baum in 1908 as a bitter, sad, little man.
I wouldn't have re-read Dorothy and The Wizard at all on my own under ordinary circumstances; I already prepossessed the impressions laid out in the preceding paragraph before re-reading the story today. It's only because of Dorothy and The Wizard's recent adaptation by Marvel comics and the subject of my family's inaugural family "reading circle" that I revisited it at all.* Dorothy and The Wizard sucks at being an Oz book: (A) It isn't even set in Oz, for Christ's sake. (B) Baum's moral inconsistency/ambivalence is on full display. Conflict is created as a result of characters' uncouthness (the Wizard's first line, go-to solution for most problems is genocide), when conflict need not even exist. The actual structured world of Oz, once the characters actually arrive there (in the last 20% of the book) is anti-democratic and anti-humanist.
The only enduring parts of Dorothy and The Wizard come near the very end, in the form of two vignettes tacked on as an afterthought. The race between Jim the horse and the Sawhorse asks quality questions about the value of being real (or fallible) versus engineered (or perfect) - essential early 20th century existentialism. The trial of Eureka the cat may be a shining point in the early Oz books - but it's hard to contextualize. I'm afraid the things that seem to be happening are the result of mistaken associations not contemporaneous to Baum's America - what we internally cross-reference when we read the Eureka trial come out of other things we know, from later material, not from turn of the century thinking. For example, Eureka's trial is as farcical as the show trial in Darkness at Noon or the Sacco and Vanzetti case - but Dorothy and The Wizard was written in 1908, so do the math... If Baum didn't display such overt anti-democratic tendencies, one might assume the trial in Dorothy and The Wizard was cautionary satire. But it's not. It's just an anomaly accidentally occurring in the middle of a squalid, serialized pablum with little (if anything) of value to say.
I'm open to criticism for being too demanding of L. Frank Baum. He - after all - may or may not have submitted his stories for moral scrutiny. However, children (both yesterday and today) have nearly limitless literary options. I do not think I am wrong for calling attention to how poorly executed Baum's body of work actually is, despite the sentimental halation.
*My son is learning to read. We're starting a "reading circle," hopefully to last for years, in which all three of us read together. Oz is a logical beginning because of the all-ages nature of the MGM film, the cultural necessity, and the tie-ins with targeted marketing, ranging from comic books to Happy Meal toys.(less)
It's nothing less than astounding that Gore Vidal gives the full impression of personally knowing Lincoln (and the Washington satellites), despite mor...moreIt's nothing less than astounding that Gore Vidal gives the full impression of personally knowing Lincoln (and the Washington satellites), despite more than a century separating them. No other author has accomplished this level of intuition. Actually, "intuition" isn't the right word. Not being Gore Vidal, I am unable to come up with a suitably enigmatic word to describe his greatest enigma. (less)
To say The Big Reap suffers from silliness is a little unfair. The Collector series has built its entire cache on indulgent silliness. Collector stori...moreTo say The Big Reap suffers from silliness is a little unfair. The Collector series has built its entire cache on indulgent silliness. Collector stories are engineered for long flights, vacations, and general escapism. They're not exactly literature. Nevertheless, the first two exceeded expectations (for different reasons). The Big Reap was, sadly, more in line with more mainstream expectations for genre fiction.
Which is not to say The Big Reap isn't enjoyable. The Collector premise still has a lot of miles left on it. Like it's predecessors, The Big Reap will make a fine movie, with multiple boss fights and false endings. Like it's predecessors The Big Reap is a book most people will finish in 2-3 sittings. It was good; just not as good as the first two.
Note: Spoiler below!
Does anyone remember when Doctor Who was in a mid-season break and then came back with a much touted episode titled "Let's Kill Hitler?" When the Doctor and companions did indeed try to kill Hitler, the actual product fell short of viewer's baited expectations. The Big Reap begins with the exact same teaser and augments the splash with other stock villians from recent history. The end result - like Doctor Who - is a little less than the reader's excited anticipation.
The problem certainly isn't that Hitler and Mengele and Dracula and Jack the Ripper aren't titillating. It's that we've been titillated by them so often over the course of our genre consuming lives that they've lost some of their edge. On a psychological and sociological level, this may actually be a huge problem (a society that grows a callus to Hitler's inhumanity to the point that information about Hitler feels staid or boring is in danger of losing its soul). Thankfully that's not a crisis for purveyors of paranormal detective noir to suss out. It does introduce a new bar, however. Purveyors of genre fiction now have to draw on alternative sources for their salacious twists. The good old days are gone; one can no longer, in 2013, whip out Hitler as a go to device for shaking a story up. Frankly, this speaks badly of all of us.
Try to remember what made Game Of Thrones so compelling: It was a stylish medieval soap opera without the standard cheese that came stock in every Lor...moreTry to remember what made Game Of Thrones so compelling: It was a stylish medieval soap opera without the standard cheese that came stock in every Lord Of The Rings clone of the past fifty years. Specifically, there were no goblins or orcs or dwarves or elves. No Gandalf figure. And, most important of all, no cinematic battles in which all the myriad armies of man convene to slaughter a demonic foe. Yes, the time came to introduce wights, Others (draugen), giants, skin changers, green seers, and resurrection sorcery in the name of a flame-based god. But when those things inevitably came, they tended to be informed more by Edda, saga, and folklore than AD&D. (Everyone with HBO and/or a 10th grade reading proficiency knows this; why am I laboring the point?)
But in addition to the tasteful balance of soap opera, Saxon-Scandinavian chic, and pagan magic, Game Of Thrones had some decent philosophical fodder. Among other things, it tells the story from multiple sympathetic angles, a la Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. One may not like (choose one) House Lannister, House Targaryen, House Baratheon, or even the vaunted Starks of Winterfell - but one can, nevertheless, see their self-interested points of view.
Lots of readers lament how the series begins to drag in the following installments, to the point where A Feast For Crows feels almost like a chore - not because it's bad but because it spends comparatively less time on koans and more time on the soap opera.
The payoff comes to those who stick it out. A Dance With Dragons brings back all the things that worked so well in Game Of Thrones and A Clash Of Kings (wights, skin changers, folklore/green seeing, arctic wastes, giants, sorcery) with philosophical koans that are not only thought provoking but topical. The prime motif in volume five is slavery, but it also manages to include the debate over a homogenous, intolerant plutocracy versus a diverse, pluralistic democracy and even throws in "the talk" minority parents have to have with their adolescent kids to teach them how to fly low and remain "inoffensive" in a majority white society (the "talk" we now all know about thanks to coverage of the Trayvon Martin case).
A Dance With Dragons is an easy tie with Game Of Thrones as the best in the series - arguably the most culturally significant fantasy since C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (in other words, in a LONG time). But it is not without its problems. There's silliness to be found in the 1,000+ pages of medieval soap opera. Not least of all Tyrion's trippy boat ride and Arya's Mossad training. And I could do without the Monty Python and Star Wars references (which I assume are meant to be subtle?). And it finally dawned on me that Varys The Spider is probably a Who reference ("Boris The Spider" from the second record). Still, one could alternately argue that it can't be 1,000+ pages of cloak and dagger seriousness; some levity is probably in order.
I'm willing to give this advice to prospective readers: Pick and choose which books you want to read and come back to the others only if you want to be a completist. Think of it like a record collection. Most people only need the first three Ramones albums but can be forgiven for buying even Brain Drain and Subterranean Jungle in the name of completing a collection. One may choose to read A Feast For Crows despite its marked dearth of major (likeable) characters, but casual readers can totally get away with only reading volumes one and five. In fact, I don't think it's wholly bad advice.(less)
The Ginger Man is so many things at once: Like the best book I've ever read, as well as the worst. It's easily the worst book because of its hero, who...moreThe Ginger Man is so many things at once: Like the best book I've ever read, as well as the worst. It's easily the worst book because of its hero, who makes Humbert Humbert look like a pious man.* It is easily the best book because of its manly, sturdy, energetic prose. What man and the Celtic-Saxon race and red blood were made for.**
Overall, I prefer Sir Digby Chicken-Ceasar to Sebastian Dangerfield, as that former old gentleman is less of a misogynist and has his drinking problem under better control. But S Dangerfield has good times and tells the truth. It's just a shame so many lives are ravished in the process.
*At least with Humbert Humbert there was a moral basement. All he really wanted to do was sedate and serially rape a twelve year old. There's no moral basement with Sebastian Dangerfield. He has no mission and there is no limit to what he will do.
**The PROSE. The prose is what I refer to as sturdy and red blooded. Not the debauchery itself, but the outstanding way it is described. (less)
Karin Tidbeck admits in her afterward that she has a "Nordic voice." Anyone who's ever acquired a taste for saga or Edda or skaldic poetry - and subse...moreKarin Tidbeck admits in her afterward that she has a "Nordic voice." Anyone who's ever acquired a taste for saga or Edda or skaldic poetry - and subsequently gone on Nordic pagan folklore benders - will be stunned by what happens to the traditional themes when run through a sensual, feminine filter.
Gardening, home preserves, and cardigan sweaters should mingle more freely with pre-Christian folklore. This collection of stories is sorely overdue. It puts things in a way I could not, no male writer could... It shares in a thrill I had long presumed a male phenomenon. Jagannath is (among other things) like feminine black metal. Do not imagine Etsy as black metal: imagine black metal as Etsy. (less)