Though it's not the fairest comparison, I couldn't help thinking of the movie Deep Impact. Famously, that movie dueled with another asteroid movie, ArThough it's not the fairest comparison, I couldn't help thinking of the movie Deep Impact. Famously, that movie dueled with another asteroid movie, Armageddon, and while the latter had a single-minded determination to blow its asteroid the fuck up, Deep Impact was a distinctly quieter movie that spent most of its time sitting with Earth's impending victims, weighing the consequences of a universal death sentence. Even when the movie sends its own mission to blow up the asteroid, President Morgan Freeman's confidence comes across not in Baysian cocksuredness but with the quiet desperation of a man playing the last card in his hand. The shuttle team have no idea what they're doing, and in the aftermath of the mission's failure, humanity kicks and flails in a blind attempt at meaning. It's not a perfect movie to this point, but in its quieter moments it does convey a vague sense of dread. Of course, then they go ahead and blow up most of the asteroid anyway, and HOPE SURVIVES because that is a better selling line than the alternative, but whether it meant to or not, the movie does pose a great what-if: what if the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions and ended that world full of hope?
The Last Policeman doesn't really have that much in common with Deep Impact content-wise, except obviously for the asteroid scheduled to hit the Earth. Also similarly, the world doesn't end, which isn't really a spoiler because this is the first book of a trilogy. But where I found the strongest connection was in tone and theme: this book spends a long time sitting with characters who really feel the gravity of what is happening to them on a day-to-day basis. The story follows a detective at a short-staffed New Hampshire police department who has a funny feeling about a routine suicide case--a natural, dime-a-dozen set-up. But what is so compelling about this book is the way it builds a sense of the hopelessness of the world at large through his case: no suspects, no motives, no leads, and a general apathy for the idea of law not only from the citizenry, but from his superiors. In a morbid way, I enjoyed living in that world.
Then, as Deep Impact before it, The Last Policeman takes a bit of a disappointing turn. Partway through I was so impressed by the writing I found myself guessing at solutions far more sophisticated than the typical detective novel. Unfortunately, it does eventually veer back to conventional territory, which is frustrating given how successfully it had been playing by its own rules. What was a meditation on meaning in the face of mortality becomes a procedural that holds the reader at arm's length, contorting itself unnaturally to fit what it seems to think is a proper detective story mold. Oh, and I guess it's the beginning of a trilogy? It seems like the end just wants to set up a cute little cliff-hanger, which feels a bit desperate. Like, if he'd just carried out the promise of the first two-thirds of the book, of course I'd come back to live in his world, without a bridge into it. Still, there's a sustained run of really excellent storycraft in here that is really worth checking out....more
I had read a few of Garcia Marquez’s more famous short stories a while back—“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” “The Handsomest Drowned Man In The WI had read a few of Garcia Marquez’s more famous short stories a while back—“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” “The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World”—as an introduction to the concept of magical realism, and really fell hard for his writing. I was a little thrown as I began this collection of short stories, which actually presents three volumes of his stories as they were originally collected, because the style was so different from what I remembered: these were languid, solipsistic single character narratives focusing mostly on death and loneliness. But this first volume (Eyes Of A Blue Dog) represents just one of Garcia Marquez’s styles—the second (Big Mama's Funeral) veers sharply into wry looks at quotidian village life heightened by circumstance, while the third (Innocent Eredira) opens into the magical realism of the impossible and scientific walking together. It’s awesome and humbling to go through these stories and experience his virtuosity in each style, and it provides an opportunity to step back and appreciate his novels all the more, which weave these elements together so fluidly. ...more
A great, fresh, funny novel with a gripping voice all its own. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t heard of Leyner before, because his brand of absolute drA great, fresh, funny novel with a gripping voice all its own. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t heard of Leyner before, because his brand of absolute dry devotion to demented premise resonates really strongly with the comedy canon I identify most strongly with – think Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Firesign Theater, They Might Be Giants; not in content per se, but in finding a new way to be outlandishly silly and running with it in a way that immediately feels familiar and makes you feel a little apart from people for being in on the joke.
I am a little glad I didn’t discover this earlier, because I can absolutely see a younger version of myself being swallowed completely by Leyner’s style, much in the way the Hitchhiker’s Guide series infected everything I wrote in middle school with an ersatz-Adams mediocre wackiness. Like Adams, Leyner makes carefully constructed passages feel effortless, as though finding the funniest word is like a stream of consciousness for him, letting each one drop and immediately moving to the next. His tendency to weave in topical references definitely makes the book feel dated, but at the same time his devotion to it goes far enough to make this feel like a historical artifact: a national zeitgeist (albeit heavily warped) frozen in time.
The ending was a bit of a letdown. At a certain point, it definitely feels like Leyner has run out of steam; to his credit, he jumps to a radically different style that works to disguise this. But I couldn’t help thinking of another obstinately weird 90’s work, Scud The Disposable Assassin. There, author Rob Schrab similarly had a really compelling premise that he kept pushing further and further, and eventually he lost the thread in a really obvious way. Schrab, working in comics, was able to put the series down for a decade and came back refreshed, finding a satisfying conclusion. Leyner is unable to avail himself of that solution here. ...more
Hell has a poet's sense of form, and uses it to craft a compelling account from the eye of a cultural hurricane. Smoothed into something like objectivHell has a poet's sense of form, and uses it to craft a compelling account from the eye of a cultural hurricane. Smoothed into something like objectivity by the passage of time, Hell does succumb to a couple of chances to settle old grudges, but these ultimately don't distract from a capable self-portrait of a fascinating personality....more
A really fresh, rewarding read. The format takes a little while to get into, and the sheer barrage of references to the Sci Fi literary canon is a litA really fresh, rewarding read. The format takes a little while to get into, and the sheer barrage of references to the Sci Fi literary canon is a little overwhelming, but somehow the author constructs a fascinating collage of a world from every piece she can find. I wasn’t familiar with the large majority of the works she referenced, but I found the book accessible nonetheless, and I’m excited to use it as a bibliography for compelling SF to check out. And of course, the protagonist guiding us through this world is smart and three-dimensional, a pleasure to follow. I’m glad this book exists....more
Disappointing, on the whole. To be fair, this is a gripping noir story that weaves disparate threads together in a phenomenally realized future sci-fiDisappointing, on the whole. To be fair, this is a gripping noir story that weaves disparate threads together in a phenomenally realized future sci-fi world. It tackles the real problems facing tough issues like energy consumption, bioengineering, and climate change, and sets it all in a part of the world that doesn’t get much focus in the Western canon. It takes a little while to get into the constantly shifting narrative focus, and with the huge scope of the stories going on, sometimes the small plot points that don’t lead anywhere can be distracting, but I did like how those elements painted a realistic, multifaceted world.
That said, the whole thing is problematically colonial and misogynistic. It’s a little odd that the story begins from the point of view of the one major White character, and this character goes about victimizing the characters around him while still being treated fairly sympathetically by the narrative. Most notably among those victimized is Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, though she is a glorified minor character. She is a genetically engineered servant who has been sold into sexual slavery, and we get multiple graphically described scenes of her degradation and rape; she also has an epiphany about the extent of her physical capabilities, which leads to her being about to do some really cool and empowering stuff, almost none of which is given any narrative treatment.
It’s not like Bacigalupi is alone among authors in treatments like this, but it’s disappointing in a world he has largely made compelling and three-dimensional....more
A really interesting work not just of history, but of historicity. The title made me assume it would concentrate on the Punic Wars, but this book consA really interesting work not just of history, but of historicity. The title made me assume it would concentrate on the Punic Wars, but this book constitutes an exhaustive history of Carthage, beginning with Tyrian Phoenician colonization and concluding with Augustus Caesar’s rebuilding of the destroyed city leading to the first Carthaginian-descended Roman emperor. The throughline here is the narrative of surviving texts, of which we have many Carthaginian primary documents (monuments, altars, etc.) but no historical records of the kind written by the Greeks and Romans. Carthage, as a trade rival to these civilizations, was vilified in general and specific ways in their histories, and its own records were destroyed when Rome razed its cities. The result is a narrative that must be taken with a grain of salt, but Miles navigates it deftly, checking it against archaeological records by era to call bullshit when necessary, and accept ambiguity when no alternative exists. I was lulled a little bit by Miles’s tendency to end each chapter with an extended “in summation” sequence, but this is a valuable history lesson for anyone interested in the Mediterranean over the period of Carthage’s rise and fall, as it sheds light on the actions and motivations of all players involved.
Interesting tangential fact: you have almost definitely heard of Hannibal, if you’re a little more historically versed you may have heard of his father Hamilcar, and the intrepid may have even heard of Hasdrubal. If you wade into this book, be warned that the Carthaginians had, like, five names total, so you’re going to run into a lot of characters with these names....more
The first is about rats, obviously: this is what I was expecting to read about, and it held my intereThere are essentially three threads to this book.
The first is about rats, obviously: this is what I was expecting to read about, and it held my interest throughout.
Second is a connection Sullivan makes between rats and people, using an allusion to Emerson's essay on "Representative Men" to spin histories of what he considers the important "Unrepresentative Men" of history connected to rats and rat behavior, sometimes tenuously: this took me a while to get into, but ultimately I was happy to get these profiles of men I would not have otherwise heard of, and in the end these sections do drive home the point he makes that rats are like a shadow species to humans in many ways.
The third is the story of Sullivan himself observing rats in New York City: this seems like a compelling idea in theory, but Sullivan proves an insufferable host. Unfortunately, the first thread composes a relatively small part of the book; the second, much more; while the third is frustratingly omnipresent. I would have been thrilled with the book if these proportions were reversed--as is, I'd recommend it with a caveat....more
This is a really good first novel. It falls into a lot of traps of inexperience, most notably the cliches--both structural and superficial, which he eThis is a really good first novel. It falls into a lot of traps of inexperience, most notably the cliches--both structural and superficial, which he even tries to lampshade more than once in an attempt to be endearing. Spoiler: it doesn't really work.
But beyond that I found it a compelling narrative that does its level best to take on big, unanswerable questions. Better critics than I have decried the heavy-handed plotting, the clumsy foreshadowing, the cartoonish quality of the token villain; I don't disagree. But I think there is something to be said for a story that can be as gripping as this one is, while reserving judgment of its protagonist for the reader as much as possible. It's a difficult task that I think Hosseini pulls off.
I've read a number of reviews on this site slamming the book for professing to be a story about hope and the ultimate goodness of people, and instead showing us a world of ultimately bad people doing selfish things. Again, I don't disagree, but I think that's where this book succeeds. If the story had ended with the protagonist's grand, sacrificial triumph, I would definitely be in the "good, but overly manipulative" school of thought on it. The fact that it continues, and that the protagonist continues to make choices that are difficult to square away morally, is what makes this a three-dimensional narrative to me....more
This book is funny, I should say first of all: it can't help but be funny, Oswalt being such a powerful talent of this generation of comedy. If that dThis book is funny, I should say first of all: it can't help but be funny, Oswalt being such a powerful talent of this generation of comedy. If that didn't manage to bubble through this material, it would be extremely strange, and probably funny in itself.
But something is missing, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly what. Maybe it's the innately self-effacing nature he affects onstage, the absence of which amplifies the acid in his more satiric works, upsetting the balance he strikes between silliness and self-righteous aggression. Maybe it's an editor willing and able to tell him which bits he's milked dry and which are begging to be fleshed out further. Maybe it's just experience with the medium that one day will be able to own his voice in the written word as well as he does orally, and turn what seem like flaws into features.
Actually, my biggest problem with the book wasn't really Oswalt's fault, as far as I can tell. See, the title of the book comes from a short essay in the middle about the categories of high school outcasts. It's a cool premise that probably could stand to be a little longer, better explored...and it's baffling that this was chosen as the title of the book. In retrospect, it's a little like naming an album after one of its songs, insofar as you wouldn't necessarily take that to mean it's a concept album about the themes of that song. Unfortunately, in all his media appearances selling the book, Oswalt was naturally asked about the title first and foremost, meaning that most of the promotion for the book centered around a small sketch within it. To this end, the titular piece struck me as disappointing under this lens, and this in turn colored the rest of the book. It's unreasonable to hold Oswalt to blame for bad marketing, but it does strike me as a misstep that he's likely not to make next time out.
This book reminded me repeatedly of George Carlin's written work. That's a lofty comparison, and maybe not entirely fair; Carlin largely packaged work he'd done on stage for decades, while Oswalt has gone the ambitious route of constructing material specifically for the medium--there are pieces here that would not work on stage. But I think ultimately the Carlin example is instructive, as he spent a hell of a long time honing his voice before translating it to the page, and it survived the transition better than most comedians' attempts. What Oswalt has shared with us is an early effort that feels incomplete, given how talented we know him to be. Unless you can't get enough of him, maybe wait until the next one....more
Lovecraftian fiction is a funny animal. By now, any kind of "nerd cred" demands a basic familiarity with the octopus-headed dragon-thing Cthulhu, andLovecraftian fiction is a funny animal. By now, any kind of "nerd cred" demands a basic familiarity with the octopus-headed dragon-thing Cthulhu, and perhaps a passing familiarity with Lovecraft's other elder horrors--Yog-Sothoth, the Old Ones, and so forth. Heck, this site's spellcheck isn't even batting an eye at Cthulhu, a testament to the enduring power of Lovecraft's most famous character.
This is funny, because while each story focuses heavily on one eldritch monster or another, the actual appearance of the monster always represents a very small fraction of the story, if it appears at all. Rather, to Lovecraft the conflict comes from struggling with the idea of the monster: conceiving of the inconceivable is the most monstrous prospect of all in these worlds. Each protagonist must fight his own mental fragility rather than the monster itself. If a physical fight does occur, it invariably happens elsewhere, outside the narrative.
This is a very compelling idea that runs into problems quickly. On the one hand, Lovecraft tapped into a basic human insecurity over the unknown, and did it perhaps more effectively than anyone. In Lovecraft's worlds, we are presented with frontiers, whether physical or in the mind: the unexplored, where gaps in our knowledge may be hiding our coming doom. Who is willing to enter the abyss alone? Lovecraft recognized that this is a raw nerve common to all of us and exploited it to great effect.
Unfortunately, this absolute focus on the psyche can easily devolve into self-indulgent solipsism. If a character descends into madness, and tells us so, that's one thing; but, without any evidence or consequences except him telling us so, what are the stakes of the madness? And what does it mean to us later, when he says it again? Are there layers of this undefined "madness," like Dante's Hell, that this character is tumbling down further with each successive revelation? Sanity has a very "if you say so" feel to it in these stories. Likewise, his use of the extreme gets out of control in a hurry. Everything mundane detail we encounter is horrifying, unspeakable, an abomination in the superlative. There's something to be said for trying to keep the reader on edge throughout, but fatigue sets in. If everything is horrifying, is anything?
This of course is critique of "Weird Fiction" in general, of which Lovecraft is the shining pinnacle. A tolerance for the quirks of the genre is rewarded with incredibly rich worlds crafted with love....more