I have seen this book for much of my library- and bookstore-going life, and only read into a chapter or so. By chance my local public library had an eI have seen this book for much of my library- and bookstore-going life, and only read into a chapter or so. By chance my local public library had an ebook available. Two very long flights lay ahead for me this month, and so this was a perfect fit.
Bury My Heart is a famous book, one I don't need to review in full here. You can grab all kinds of reviews and summaries here in Goodreads. Let me just mention some features which impressed or especially effected me.
Unsurprisingly, this is an immensely powerful, moving, and enraging book. I knew most of the history before reading it here, but Dee Brown had a genius for assembling a lot of research into a compressed, rich, and engaging narrative.
Bury has many powerful passages, like the awful scene of Black Kettle waving a big, presidential American flag in a vain effort to stop the Sand Creek Massacre (1864; 87-88), or the brutal historical irony of the Nez Perces saving Lewis and Clark's expedition, only to be wiped out in almost the same spot (316ff), or the way the Wounded Knee "battle" begins eerily, tragically like the Arthurian battle of Camlann. Then there's this introduction to the book's themes:
During the following thirty years these leaders and many more would enter history and legend. Their names would become as well known as those of the men who tried to destroy them. Most of them, young and old, would be driven into the ground long before the symbolic end of Indian freedom came at Wounded Knee in December, 1890. Now, a century later, in an age without heroes, they are perhaps the most heroic of all Americans. (12-13)
I didn't know that some thinking scalping was initially a European, not native American, practice (26).
I like Dee's habit of naming United States officials by their native American nicknames.
An interesting link to anti-black racism is the story of Cheyenne Lean Bear's interaction with a white couple. The native American man "noticed a bright shiny ring worn by an officer's wife. Impulsively he took hold of the woman's hand to look at her ring." We can imagine many ways for the husband to respond, but he did this: "The woman's husband rushed up and slashed Lean Bear with a big whip." I'm reminded of the deep, nearly hysterical obsession many white people had - some still have - with black men's supposedly dangerous sexuality. (72)
Ely Parker, nee Hasanoanda, is one fascinating person. First native American to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
As most of Wounded Knee is about the sustained, extensive, and ultimately successful United States drive to quash native nations, sometimes led by psychopaths and/or genocidal freaks, it does portray exceptional people on the US side. There's Edward Wynkoop, who comes to see native Americans as "superior beings... the representatives of a race that I heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty" (77). Ulysses Grant appears to be one of the few Washington residents who actually tried to be humane to native Americans . Likewise I appreciated learning that the natives won Red Cloud's War (1866-1868), when most of Bury is a string of defeats.
Let me end with one of Brown's great chapter closers:
Except for a small strip of territory along the southwest corner - where a small band of Southern Utes was allowed to live - Colorado was swept clean of Indians. Cheyenns and Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche, Jicarilla and Ute - they had all known its mountains and plains, but now no trace of them remained but their names on the white man's land. (389)
Slade House is a treat, an energetic, inventive, and very entertaining weird fiction.
The short novel concerns a mysterious house and its... interactiSlade House is a treat, an energetic, inventive, and very entertaining weird fiction.
The short novel concerns a mysterious house and its... interactions with people over time. I can't say anything more without spoilage, since the book is so strongly plot-driven, with major twists happening very frequently. I can say that the prose and dialog sparkle; that Mitchell continues his brand of well-crafted multi-voice, multi-narrative storytelling; that I had a hard time putting the book away, and shared passages online and out loud. You can see from the table of contents that the novel consists of historically located chapters (1979, 1988, 1997, etc), which gives you some idea of where the book goes.
I gather that Slade House is a sequel to another Mitchell novel, Bone Clocks, which I haven't read, but that didn't matter. This novel stands on its own. It is rich enough in detail and world-building that I can imagine links to other texts (who were the Bishops?), and yet that only whetted my appetite for more.
The novel's structure only proceeds in one temporal direction, unlike Cloud Atlas, but Mitchell does a terrific job of seeing details for each chapter in the preceding ones, so I found myself reading back to look for the first hints of subsequently important characters and objects. He does this so well.
Stylistically Slade is a pleasure. Mitchell delights in language throughout, from rich paragraphs to cackling dialog.
"I almost understand why you tolerate this plodding clerk, this risible thesp, this dim corgi who fancies himself a wolf. But come: between you and me, is he not a liability?" (223)
Or "Let's reminisce later, Sister. Dinner is served. It's warm, confused, afraid, it's imbibed Banjax, and it's ready for filleting." (34)
Generically, I'd call this urban fantasy, since it has fantastic elements and is all about situating the ontologically strange within a major city. It's also weird, maybe even new weird, with its surreal touches and sense of dread. That dread helps locate this additionally in the horror field, as do a series of bad demises. There's also a bit of alternate history.
Now let me rip the spoiler wall down: (view spoiler)[Slade House is a trap, a kind of Venus fly trap by which two evil magicians torment and kill the unlucky. Each chapter follows one person as they head down a mysterious London alley and fall in with the twins' creative fake worlds. It's very moving to get into the mind of each character, only to see them tricked and consumed, struggling with the realization of their dire fates. I also enjoyed seeing Mitchell gradually reveal the fantasy and historical structure for all of this.
The final chapter sees Jonah and Norah undone by enemy magicians, which was, of course, satisfying. And naturally, like a slasher movie, one gets away in the final soaring paragraph.
It's such a sad book! Mitchell really goes for the jugular right away, giving us a child who gets mistreated, then tortured, then slowly killed. Several other characters are brutally exploited, most notably poor Sally Timms.
So why not 5 stars? Partly because the villains are too thinly drawn. They are delightful, but not too credible as human beings. Even by the end they seem almost perfunctory. It's hard to buy Jonah's stupid and final error, and his sister's love is just tacked on. Jonah's monologuing is way, way too generous, a too easy trick to slide exposition our way. (hide spoiler)] I'd like to add more, but want to go read the few Mitchell chapters I haven't yet read. I hope I've teased you enough to plunge into Slade House. Find the right alley, then keep an eye out for the unusually small door. Go on and push it open. Treats await.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Here Beukes gives us the story of a deranged serial killer in Detroit, his crimes, victims, and the police trying to stop him. It succeeds on all kinds of levels.
First, the characters are diverse and well-drawn. Beukes risks cliches, but avoids them very well: a single mom/police detective and her daring daughter; a homeless man trying to help people around him; the mad killer, utterly confused by where his art has led him. Each feels real, goes through serious changes, and is distinct from the others. Minor characters are equally sharp, like the shocked parents of one victim.
Second, Broken Monsters plays well with genres. The police procedural is good, as is the serial killer; we know these forms, and Beukes carries them off well, with some freshness. The madman is confused and makes bad mistakes, unlike, say, the 1990s post-Hannibal Lector super villains. The detective acts on her own, which turns out to be a bad idea. The book is also a genre hybrid, a combination of these forms, with a serious dose of fantasy, and they bounce off of each other productively.
It's also very female-centric. Most of the lead characters are women, and they offer the majority of perspectives. This isn't seen as remarkable, perhaps positioning this as a post-feminist novel.
Third, so many details are solid. The art and art world, digital technologies, and Detroit all convince. (For Detroit, I smiled at seeing Charlie LeDuff name checked (my review) (8). It was good to see both ruins and optimism. And a knowing link to Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project. It's rare to see fiction making good use of social media and mobile devices without being cyberpunk.
Fourth, it's just tasty to read. I kept returning to it, savoring good lines, like "It's like her whole room is a Tumblr of things that make her happy" (175) and "her stepmom... still treats Layla like she's a pack of rotted dynamite that might go off at any moment" (435).
It's killing her not to tell her mom. The secret feels like moths fluttering in her mouth, bashing against her teeth. (224)
The dream knows what they are waiting for, even if they don't themselves. The end of everything. The moment when it reveals its miracle boy and all the eyes will look and their seeing will be horror and glory and wonder and it will pierce the skin of the world, collapse dimensions, and open the doors and the work will breathe and dance in his shoes and the dream will be able to escape. Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. (236-7)
It's an odd horror novel, given the genre mashup. Beukes keeps the Gothic bits offstage for most of the book, placing key scenes with horrific deaths and imaginations to shadow the rest. In that way it remains true to the murder mystery and serial killer genres. The finale is something of a horror novel staple, a battle combining fantasy and reality with the world (or at least Michigan) at stake.
Blood Kin is a loving and respectful Southern Gothic. I read it as part of my quest to find the best 21st-century horror novels. Steve Rasnic Tem hasBlood Kin is a loving and respectful Southern Gothic. I read it as part of my quest to find the best 21st-century horror novels. Steve Rasnic Tem has done a grand job with this sub genre, updating it slightly while honoring its glorious, ill roots.
The plot turns on stories. Indeed, it's all one old woman's recollections of growing up in a strange Virginia mountain family until the conclusion, when a frame story comes to the fore. Our present-day protagonist is staying with his grandmother, caring for her and coming to depend on Sadie's increasingly disturbing narratives.
Sadie grew up in the Great Depression, descended from a disreputable family and eking out life in poverty. Blood Kin fleshes out her family and community's history, from nearly magical elders to a manic snake-wielding preacher. It's a little suspenseful, with touches of horror. More of a bildungsroman, as we see Sadie learning about life, from family relationships to shoplifting.
What's to like? Characters, to begin with. Sadie is a fine, rich character who keeps revealing depths as the novel proceeds. Michael, her grandson and putative hero, starts as a mild version of this Night Gallery episode's villain, a lush and parasite, but grows up a bit. The preacher makes for a fine villain.
As Southern Gothic, Tem ticks all the check boxes. We have tangled family roots, the threats of incest and inbreeding, religion crazed and comforting, backwoods belief and folks, persistent poverty, violence, and a sense of doom, irresistible kudzu, touches of the supernatural. The Gibson family is not exactly white (Michael "was Indian or black. He was maybe part Portuguese or gypsy, or some throwback to a creature from another world", Kindle location143), and seems to have a mythic origin somewhere in Tennessee.
There are also plenty of classic Gothic features, such as haunted architecture reflecting mental and familial states, secret books, plus hidden objects of great portent. I think there's even a nice shout-out to the classic silent b+w vampire film Vampyr (1932, with an evil thing drowned in corn (Kindle 3350).
I was surprised that a major theme of empathy emerged from the book. Some family members have a form of psychic connection, and their ethical distribution shapes their response to it.
[T]he understanding didn't necessarily make you nice; it didn't even make you kind... You could use that power to make other people feel better, or worse. Once inside their heads, you could push them anyway you wanted to. (Kindle 3218)
The way Blood Kin handles this strikes me as optimistic, more like heroic fantasy and less than some horror.
Overall, a good Gothic. A nice sign of the genre being alive in the 21st century....more
I haven't read anything else by Jacobs, including the novella I believe this novel is based upon.
Oh, I wanted to like this more than I did.
How to describe Dread in the Beast... it's a visionary horror novel, a very ambitious epic about the rediscovery and reemergence of a forgotten and forbidden deity. To get there Jacobs runs several plot lines: an archaeologist pursuing an obsession that sometimes costs him; a young woman afraid of losing her mind as her identity unspools after a cruel sexual encounter; an enthusiastic serial killer, warped by a deranged childhood, aiming for transcendence amid gore and philosophy.
But don't let that description give the wrong impression. Dread in the Beast isn't driven very far by plotting. It's playing in a world different from that of the thriller or potboiler horror tale, a visionary and taboo-focused field, one sown and tilled by the likes of Octave Mirbeau and Georges Bataille with touches of Charles Fort. Jacobs uses this novel to explore obsession and the cracks in the world, letting characters and paragraphs press their boundaries.
The main taboo here is scatology. As the reader figures out very quickly, Dread is about the reemergence of an ancient goddess of human waste. Characters obsess over feces, eroticize shit, get victimized by crap, and die in the stuff. I can't think of a text that has this laser-like obsession with the human bowels' productions, except perhaps Sade's 120 Days of Sodom or the great sewer races of the Dunciad. But while Sade wants to demystify the world, tearing down religion and custom to reveal the material brutes we actually are, Jacob wants to build up a new order that offers its own transcendence.
I admire that ambition, which certainly makes Dread out in the current horror field. It splatters, yes, but not like splatter punks do (or did; are they still around?). Jacobs happily jettisons daily life for visions and obscurity. I also admire the novel's style, as paragraphs wander into philosophy and mysticism, then back into toilets and suffering, confused people.
Another car rolled up next to hers, the bass in their music so loud she actually felt it dissolving marrow in her bones. Its windows were down - as were hers since the funky air conditioning had expired. It was August and steamy hot. So hot the pollution at night seemed to mate with itself to spawn shadowy dinosaurs of poison, which stalked the roadways and climbed the skyscrapers and fought in the widest alleys. There were four young men in this car... (197)
Dread's language also turns on itself, winking:
Sheol's Ditch was made up of bricked crevasses and gulches or crumbling brownstone/brimstone. The alley running between the buildings on this side of the block... was what some might have called a "defile". A word which also means to corrupt. That was a passageway between mountains. And her he was in his part of the mountain on the left, Jason Cave, a hollow little boy being filled lately with the most frightful of enlightening and defiling esoterica, looking up from a defile to try to find a patch of emetic night sky. Damn! He loved language! (84)
Dread invents mythologies and fantasies energetically, sometimes with powerful scenes. We get the aforementioned goddess, but also a cosmic cyborg plumber, a damned world of torment that isn't exactly hell, people turned into floating eyeballs, a murderous street gang combining death by feces with literary quotations, human bonsai, and a Vatican conspiracy. That last bit made me thing this book is like some rogue parody of Dan Brown imported from an insane parallel dimension.
And yet. It doesn't work too well as a novel. Perhaps because it's an expansion from a shorter form, it suffers from repetition. Some interesting ideas and plot threads appear then vanish, and it doesn't seem to be an effect of decadence or experimentation. Several directions just falter, like the serial killer's philosophical explorations, which must surely be parodic, right?
It is certainly horror. Dread is filled with gore, torture, rape, dismemberment, cannibalism, and killings of all kinds, with side orders of depravity, blasphemy, and bitter human defeat. There's no point attached content or trigger warnings to this book. However, Dread doesn't actually embody the titular dread. It's too cheerful for that, weirdly. It even ends on a note of redemption, somehow.
Despite a lifetime of reading horror and depraved stuff, I found myself tiring by the last third of Dread in the Beast. Repetition was getting to me. I wasn't sure that the plots were actually getting anywhere. But after I finished it, rereading gave me new respect for Jacobs' inspired, mad, taboo-flushing project.
Definitely not for everyone. This is a book for people excited about the edge of humanity, and would have blown my mind as a teenager. It's an important volume in the history of 21st-century horror. It certainly makes me want to check out the rest of Charlee Jacobs' output... and I leave fecal jokes as exercises for the reader....more
I read The Troop as part of my October 2015 quest to find the best 21st-century Gothic horror novels. Cutter's novel came to the top of several lists,I read The Troop as part of my October 2015 quest to find the best 21st-century Gothic horror novels. Cutter's novel came to the top of several lists, including winning a James Herbert award and praise from Stephen King.
The story is straightforward enough. A group of Boy Scouts and their adult leader are stranded on a remote Canadian island, and Very Bad Things happen to them. That much is obvious from the book's cover, and also really covers the entire narrative. The cause of the horrors appears right away, although understanding the full basis takes some time (and spoilers).
I commend The Troop for squeezing terror out of that limited space and time. Most of the book consists of terror and suspense, turning on experiencing or desperately trying to avoid loathsome body horrors. It's a hard book to stop reading, as Cutter keeps the tension high throughout.
A frame device encloses The Troop's main storyline, documents from a post-event inquest. These papers (transcripts, depositions, etc) flesh out the story beyond what little our heroes can find out. This structure draws openly on Stephen King's Carrie (1974) - I say "openly", because it's pretty clear, especially when the author says as much at the end.
However, that reference highlights limitations of the novel. While King probed American culture and society in his book, specifically targeting bullying, toxic high school culture, sexism, and religious extremism, Cutter doesn't really offer such themes. I anticipated some engagement with masculinity, given the all-male cast and the tradition of male survival stories, but that doesn't really occur, especially as the death toll mounts and the biology becomes clear. Towards the end of the book the source of the horrors touches on society, once we learn that (view spoiler)[the monster was built as both a diet aid and weapon of war. But there isn't really much more than a quick joke at the diet industry, especially since the characters are male and largely pleased with their appearance. And the military bit is too thin, even blank, as the local commander stops asking questions. (hide spoiler)]The Troop is really just a white-knuckle scarefest.
The novel also draws on another, more recent horror text, Scott Smith's The Ruins (2006). Smith's popular story (sold well, filmed) has a very similar setting: a group of young people trapped in a small, isolated location, menaced by a powerful biological entity. The reference possibly inspired Cutter, but not enough. Smith's characters are better realized, so much more so that their ruthless fates actually feel tragic; Cutter's people feel more like slash film victims, lightly drawn, tending to the stereotypical, and not too badly missed.
Also present in this reader's mind was William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), with its group of stranded, suffering boys. As with the King echo, Cutter's book doesn't reach the ambitions Golding scaled, such as the damning final gesture at adult society or the more detailed exploration of boyhood. We get some sense of teenagers' dreams, which become poignant with their dooms (cf the promise of lifelong friendship, 646), but these don't go very far..
And yet I enjoyed this book a great deal. I could see where it was going, but wanted to follow its flight. I appreciated some of the writing, too, especially early on:
Mosquitoes wet themselves in his beading sweat. (Kindle location 253) Wind howl along the earth, attaining a voice as it gusted around the rocks and spindly trees: a low mutter some sound like children whispering at the bottom of a well. (262)
And it's definitely a horror novel. The body horror starts disgusting and just gets more awful as the chapters flow. Some serious gore in here.
More, spoil-y thoughts: (view spoiler)[Shelley's descent into serial killer made some sense, especially on the basic level of "humans can be as monstrous as gut-churning worm-things", but violated the book's focus on average, typical kids. I confess to being easily manipulated into liking Newton and wanting him to be the survivor.
I liked the monstrosity's scientific basis enough to add this book to my sf Goodreads shelf. (hide spoiler)]
So do I recommend it? Yes, as a kind of Gothic beach reader, or as a powerful ward against insomnia. It's not the kind of horror novel that is likely to stay with you, but you should really enjoy the trip. Unless you don't dig body horror, in which case AVOID THIS REMOTE ISLAND AT ALL COSTS.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is an excellent book for anyone looking into World War I, or for the general military history reader.
Germany Ascendant covers a very important anThis is an excellent book for anyone looking into World War I, or for the general military history reader.
Germany Ascendant covers a very important and criminally neglected part of WWI: the Eastern front, an epic war between the German, Austria-Hungarian, and Russian empires. I've found most English-language writing on WWI focuses overwhelmingly on the Western front. Which is just foolish, given that the Russian war was at least as important, not to mention bigger in scale.
This book is the second of a series that helps fix that problem. Prit Buttar's first volume (my review) addressed events in 1914, which were extraordinary. Three huge armies clashed, and the results included one of WWI's most complete victories (the Battle of Tannenberg). In this sequel Buttar explores what happened next, through the year of 1915.
1915 saw Russia defeated, simply put. Germany, with not much help with its Austro-Hungarian ally, pushed the tsar's forces out of Poland and other areas. The very well planned Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive shattered the Russian line. In response to that and continuous Central Powers pressure the Russian command conducted the Great Retreat, after which it licked the wounds of a shrunken, undersupplied, and increasingly despairing army.
That much I knew about, and so appreciated Buttar's excellent description in great, well sourced detail. He does a terrific job of laying out the decision-making process of each command structure. I didn't know about the spectacularly horrible, and failed, Austro-Hungarian winter offensive against the Russian army in early 1915, when Vienna sent exhausted, ill-led, and ill-trained forces against an enemy dug into mountains. Yeah, that went about as well as you might expect. (Check (this amazing photo from the Carpathian battles) I didn't know about another Austro-Hungarian disaster, the failed "Black-Yellow" offensive of fall 1915 (chapter 10). I've never seen the fall of Serbia described in such solid detail (chapter 13).
I appreciated little scenes and stories which bring the time to life, especially given the sheer size and complexity of operations. For example, in a parallel to the classic Western front Christmas in the trenches, "Easter Sunday fell on 4 April, and on quiet sectors of the long Eastern Front soldiers from both sides exchange gifts" (152; also 175). Or this little character sketch:
[Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand was not] particularly enamored of the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, once describing Franz Joseph as 'that idiot, that old dotard.' In an era of haughty aristocracy, Ferdinand was a colorful figure, and annoyed [German Kaiser] Wilhelm by playfully slapping the kaiser on the bottom during a state visit... (367)
Or in a classic piece of wartime black humor, Russian soldiers besieging the Austro-Hungarians within a vast fortress mocked the latter's desperate slaughter of their horses:
"What is the difference between the heroes of Troy and those of Przemysl? In Troy, the warriors were in the belly of a horse, while in Przemysl, the horse is in the belly of the warriors!" (60)
Or the spectacular fall of Vladimir Sukhomilov, who went from being Russia's minister of war during 1914-1915 to trial, prison, exile, and dying of exposure, homeless, on a Berlin bench (280).
Or this desperate speech to troops, by a Serbian commander:
"At precisely 3 pm, the enemy will be crushed by your fierce charge, destroyed by your grenades and bayonets... Our regiment has been sacrificed for the honor of Belgrade and the Fatherland. Therefore, you no longer need worry about your lives; they no longer exist. So forward to glory! Long live Belgrade!" (375)
Once again I'm stunned by the sheer horror and human devastation the first World War brought about. "The [AH] Army lost nearly 1.8 million men on the Russian Front in 1915" (360). In one campaign we learn of a command starting off with "a little under 135,000 men; by the end of the first week of February, nearly 89,000 were dead, wounded, or prisoners." (77) A primary source describes German forces caught between freezing and starving to death:
It drove you to despair, and there was no way out; we were threatened either by death, injury, and frozen limbs or by being taken captive. There was an incredible lack of courage among the soldiers, and it was only the terrible force of circumstances which fired us to bear it. (135)
All three armies regularly killed civilians or took them as hostages (170, 387, etc.). And here's how one Austro-Hungarian leadership team envisioned occupying a defeated Balkan state:
the Serbian intelligentsia was to be eliminated and the rest of the Serbian population reduced to peasantry, with the area resettled by German, Austrian, and Hungarian farmers. (387)
And there is the horror, including anticipatory horror, in reading about antiSemitic acts carried out in these lands, especially by Russians. There's even this grim bit, when Central Powers forces recaptured a great fortress town from the retreating Russians: "In view of the history of Central Europe in the decades that followed, it is particularly striking that the residents of Przemysl who showed particular enthusiasm for the arrival of the Germans were the Jews."(230)
Are there weaknesses in Germany Ascendant? Not really, given its carefully constructed scope and extensive work. I would have liked to see the war against Turkey integrated, but that really would double the book's size. Readers might want more diplomatic, social, or cultural history, but, again, this is a work of purely military history. Some reviewers have complained about too much detail, but I'm hungry for this stuff and devoured every paragraph.
The only issue I had was that some of the maps were occasionally hard to work with. Most of the maps are very good, being clear and well connected to the text. Yet some are only half-page in size, and perhaps my eyeballs aren't what they used to be, but I needed close inspection under a bright light to work 'em. Some towns and rivers mentioned as key locations in the text didn't appear (unless I just missed them). Overall, this book did far, far better than most WWI books with maps. And the photos were much appreciated.
Overall, a major contribution to the topic, and well worth the time of the WWI-interested reader. Military history buffs will also learn a great deal from Germany Ascendant. Prit Buttar provides powerful context for the rest of 1915, giving us essential history to lay alongside Gallipoli and the Second Battle of Ypres ....more
A very useful, hard-headed, and focused book, Will College Pay Off? covers exactly what that title promises. Peter Cappelli looks deeply into higher eA very useful, hard-headed, and focused book, Will College Pay Off? covers exactly what that title promises. Peter Cappelli looks deeply into higher education as an economic proposition for would-be students. As such, this should be handy for a lot of people, at least in the United States.
The answer to that titular question is: it depends (that's actually the subtitle for chapter 3). Cappelli is serious enough and well grounded in the literature to not offer flip answers. "[C]ollege per se isn't a clear pathway to a good job." (172) To an extent it depends on major, but also on the job market following graduation. Liberal arts degrees (as in well-rounded and interdisciplinary, not necessarily humanities degrees) are one good way to maximize value, he argues, since they often lead to higher lifetime earnings (lower in the first job, but better in the second and following).
One major theme of the book is that many of our discussions about college's benefits stem from a specific historical moment, whose time is now passing. Cappelli notes that the idea of companies hiring graduates for the skills they learned in college is really a post-WWII development (12-15), depending on the huge postwar expansion of higher ed, and its relatively low cost. High ed has ballooned since then into something much larger, and is now increasingly expensive. This observation helps explain a lot of intergenerational tension over higher education, by the way.
"We can understand why politicians don't want to say it, but unfortunately, education is just not a panacea for the difficulties that individuals now face in the job market." (187; emphasis added)
Another, wonkier theme is that the college premium may not be all it's cranked up to be. That term refers to the likely lifelong earnings boost one gets from having completed colleges (as opposed to sticking with, say, a high school diploma). Some studies find this premium to add up to a half million dollars for men, which makes even high student debt seem like a good deal. But Capelli thinks the premium is inflated, especially because of a recent development, whereby college grads compete with non-college grads for jobs that don't require a BA/BS (93). Moreover, the types of people who tend to achieve an undergraduate degree often have "advantages before he or she even starts college as compared to the average high school graduate" (93) - i.e., they have better K-12 schooling and/or more social capital and/or are wealthy or otherwise privileged. On top of that, the college premium research is based on a different historical moment (see preceding paragraph).
A major takeaway is that choosing a major for post-graduation job prospects is often a losing game. All too often too many other students make the same decision, which then depresses wages and/or reduces the number of available jobs in that field. It's a regular boom/bust cycle. (44)
The efforts to press public universities and colleges to turn out more students in the fields that employers say they want... is a fool's errand... [T]rying to predict what will be hot in the labor market several years in the future is almost impossible.(157)
In fact, majoring in a seemingly lucrative field only to see opportunities wither upon graduation can lead one straight to a second career, and hence the strength of liberal arts programs. Cappelli insists that companies say "what they want from recent graduates is less about classroom knowledge and more about experiences outside the classroom" (186).
Another takeaway: colleges and universities aren't necessarily well skilled at preparing students for employment. Some - many - don't publish useful data about post-graduation careers (72), with the notable exception of St. Olaf College. Not all offer a comprehensive support network, including tutoring and testing for course placement (76). A few hundred schools offer science master's programs and other co-op programs, which Cappelli finds to be actually really useful.
Will College Pay Off? is almost wistful in its admiration for what sounds like old-school schooling. Listen to this conclusion:
Maybe the appropriate alternative is to let college do what it is good at, which is educating rather than training, focusing on knowledge and life skills rather than job skills, and to find connections into the job market through other paths.(173)
But Cappelli immediately follows that with "Those paths might be low-paid, entry-level jobs, possibly boot camps or practical skills taught elsewhere, or even unpaid internships."
Another useful bit of advice to students: maximize job experience while at college, including internships and summer jobs (52, 160). Employers often complain about new hires lacking basic job survival skills. Cappelli thinks we need more apprenticeships - which can reduce the amount of postsecondary education, and are also lamentably thin on the American ground (65). Plus aim for grants, which tend to lead to better academic results than loans or work-study (132).
I did enjoy Cappelli's dry sense of humor. This appears right from the start: "The problem is, none of those people saying that more kids should go to college are offering to pay for it." (5) Or:
The famous Ivy League is actually an athletic league bound together by a set of principles that effectively limit the role of sports on campus. (129-130)
And this: "For a majority of colleges, the annual return on the investment in attending has been around 7%, which may sound great, about what the stock market earns, but the interest rate on unsubsidized student loans is also about 7%." (180)
So what's not to like? Cappelli's narrow focus sometimes leads him to miss some really useful point. He just touches on competency-based programs (86), which seem to have a lot of potential for improving one's passage through universities. He addresses policy implications late in the book, and doesn't cover them enough. His advice for academic institutions is scant.
That said, Will College Pay Off? is a fine book for parents of prospective students, and those students. Policymakers and campus leaders might find this a bracing inspiration....more
The Lord Came at Twilight is a superb collection, announcing the voice of a rising young author who could easily become a major player in the horror fThe Lord Came at Twilight is a superb collection, announcing the voice of a rising young author who could easily become a major player in the horror field. Keep an eye on Daniel Mills, my fellow Goths.
The stories here cover a good diversity of territory, which speaks well to Mills' range as a writer. There's a creepy King in Yellow universe story, a technological horror, and above all historical horror. The Lord Came at Twilight succeeds most in the latter sub genre, combining a rich period sense, psychological depth, an aura of mystery, melancholy, and a potent sense of dread. Most are set in New England, and Mills does a fine job of evoking that territory.
Let me pick out some representative tales and introduce them without spoilage.
"The Hollow": literally backwoods horror, about a young man, his disintegrating family, and a fearsome tree. In a few pages the story changes tack several times, races ahead in time, and achieves an effect somewhere in the land of Hawthorne and Charles Brockden Brown.
"MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room" takes place in the universe of Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow. This is urban fantasy, as the title suggests, and builds its fear steadily. There's a strong sense of dreamlike surrealism.
"Dust From a Dark Flower" takes us back to the pre-Revolutionary 18th century and a remote New England village, where creepy things are happening around a cemetery and new priest. Mills places us securely in the period with touches of contemporary phrasing, science, and piety. This story does into greater detail for body horror than most in the book.
"The Photographer's Tale" turns on an unusual camera, what it pictures, and the impact on its wielder. The setting feels like circa 1900, with photography being an exciting yet established new technology.
"Whistler's Gore" is the collection's most formally inventive tale, as it consists entirely of gravestone epitaphs from "[t]he old churchyard./ Two miles north of Plymouth, VT" (65). Across these accounts of lives all ending in 1798 stretches a story of violence, religion, and perhaps cosmic terror.
"The Wayside Voices" is also inventive, consisting of short speeches by the dead, overheard in a New England ruin. The story accretes from statement to statement, building into an account of quiet horror and intimate violence.
"John Blake" is a Revolutionary War story, concerning the advent of a scoundrel who takes the war's promise of freedom in a... unique way. Like a Hawthorne tale, "John Blake" sets up social pieties in order to undermine them, cruelly.
"The Falling Dark" takes place in the 20th century and focuses on a young man studying folklore. His studies do not reveal what he expected, neither in terms of content, a romantic interest, nor the structure of the universe.
"Louisa" is the most Poe-like story, concerning a love affair mediated by spiritualism.
"House of the Caryatids" is Civil War horror. It begins with soldiers on a looting expedition, introduces southern Gothic, then heads into cosmic terror.
"Whisperers" takes place in Brattleboro, Vermont. Our protagonist visits a friend who seems to have gone somewhat insane. I think Mills reaches here for Melville and Hawthorne, only to pull back at the last moment in the old tradition of not explicitly showing or explaining horror. Lovecraft is also on stage, with characters names Randolph Carter (we only get first or last name, never combined) and Ackley (I hear "Whisperer in Darkness"'s Akeley; don't miss the titular reference, too).
"The Naked Goddess" starts with a problem familiar to many travelers in my state of Vermont: getting lost and a bit disturbed at where you end up. In this story our protagonist stumbles upon a forgotten 19th-century millennial cult. Mills points to a little-known bit of local history, the late 19th-century agricultural collapse of Vermont (191).
"The Lord Came At Twilight" sees Mills tackle perhaps the most innovative horror writer of our time, Thomas Ligotti. This story depicts a mysterious city and its cryptic decline.
Observations of the whole: Mills is developing into a fine stylist. I've mentioned his ability to place the reader in historical situations. He also offers well turned, well ground, yet often poetic passages:
The snow continued. Nearly an inch had accumulated over the past hour, covering over much and dirtied snow. The clustered roofs and gambrels of the block opposite bore a fine dusting, as iridescent and fine as a poplar's cotton... Soon the city would be covered, first by snow and then by night - all beauty and squalor erased by the whispered sough of white on black. (54)
The ends of the paper curled upward, sloping toward the folds, causing her neat script to circle back upon itself: slouching and coiled, a bathing viper. (178)
I like the way Mills combines classic Gothic with Americana. This is deeply American stuff. For example, a throwaway line: "Placed against the far wall was a rectangular bench that held an assortment of musical instruments. There were guitars and lutes, even a saw." (129)
These are very short stories, with a great deal of content crammed into them. The reader cannot race through them, as there are no extra paragraphs or sentences. Mills is clearly following Poe's model.
Speaking of literary influences, Mills evinces classic dark fantasy and horror writers throughout. Poe, Lovecraft, Ligotti, Chambers are name-checked. I would add Machen and Blackwood, especially for the way many of the stories dwell in nature.
Dark Renaissance did a fine job with this book. The font is really well suited to historical fiction. M. Wayne Miller's art is splendid: moody, dark, and perfectly fitted to each tale.
On a personal note I've had the good fortune to meet Daniel Mills twice, once at a NecronomiCon in Providence, another time at a steampunk gathering in Vermont. Mills is outrageously young-looking, very friendly, and accessible to all comers. His reading of "Whistler's Gore" was a fine performance, combining a steady voice with just enough emotion to get the audience realize what they were hearing.
Strongly recommended to anyone interested in horror or historical fiction. Watch out for Daniel Mills. He should be going places....more
Greenmantle is an odd kind of historical novel about WWI, a spy story about a team of heroes trying to solve a mystWhat a strange, entertaining book!
Greenmantle is an odd kind of historical novel about WWI, a spy story about a team of heroes trying to solve a mystery and foil plots. What makes it unusual is that John Buchan wrote it *during* WWI, while serving in France and in British intelligence. Through the novel he reimagines the war, especially in the east, and ends up creating something of an alternate history.
But don't let my analysis distract you. To begin with, Greenmantle is a grand adventure. The action starts right off and never lets up. Nearly every chapter has a mix of disguises, chases, fine cars, the Kaiser (!), scary/creepy villains, fights, reversals of fortune, and codes. It's a cracking story.
It's also an interesting sequel to Buchan's first spy novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps (my review). We have the same protagonist, Richard Hannay, and he's up to his by-now usual tricks: bluffing, sneaking around the countryside, using his engineering and South African experience. Greenmantle expands the first novel's pattern, rapidly leaving Britain and Buchan's favored Scots countryside for central and eastern Europe, then the Ottoman empire. Also, Hannay is no longer the lone man on the run, but part of a team. This is definitely a group effort.
As World War I fiction... I can't think of another novel like this. It's an alternate present or near future, which is by 2015 alternate history. Buchan doesn't change the western front (he actually only refers to it, rather than showing it us), but posits a German-Ottoman conspiracy to set up a Muslim messiah (not a spoiler; occurs early on). That draws on actual German attempts, which never bore fruit. Buchan lets us imagine they could.
We also get an all too rare glimpse of the eastern front, as Russia invades Anatolia. The novel's finale takes place in the battle of Erzurum (1916), and I can't think of a fictional representation of this struggle. Russians appear as serious, even noble, a far cry from the usual British perception of a clumsy, collapsing army being ground to death by Prussians.
Indeed, one of the weirder scenes has Hannay, ah, (view spoiler)[meeting the Kaiser. Wilhelm appears as a sympathetic man, not the callous and not-too-bright warlord of usual British discussion.
A flicker of a smile passed over the worn face. It was the face of one who slept little and whose thoughts rode him like a nightmare... The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker's curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe ...
That's an enormous act of sympathy for Hannay, since he just came from the western front and clearly hates the Germans. And what an imaginative, compassionate portrait from Buchan, also a soldier *at that moment*. (hide spoiler)]
There are other weird scenes. One of the German villains, a ferocious and imposing bully, turns out to have an effeminate side in a somewhat erotic and scary passage. Another turns out to be a femme fatale of sorts, who terrorizes the band of heroes simply by existing. And our heroes possess a disturbing fatalism about impending death.
Other notes... as usual, Buchan balances stress and terror with humor and self-abnegation. We get to spend time with a character only mentioned in 39 Steps. There's a quiet portrait of a touch of PTSD in the veterans, including Hannay. There are references to the failure of Gallipoli, handled carefully. A very silly yet effective American character entertains (and, I think, suffers from the gut troubles that gnawed the author, and with which I sympathize).
The end is tremendous. We get epic action, thunderous war, the whole world balanced in the scales, our heroes in the middle of things. And then... (view spoiler)[the messiah comes. It's Sandy, I think, and he appears in the last paragraphs like something from Dune:
In the very front, now nearing the city ramparts, was one man. He was like the point of the steel spear soon to be driven home. In the clear morning air I could see that he did not wear the uniform of the invaders. He was turbaned and rode like one possessed, and against the snow I caught the dark sheen of emerald. As he rode it seemed that the fleeing Turks were stricken still, and sank by the roadside with eyes strained after his unheeding figure ...
Then I knew that the prophecy had been true, and that their prophet had not failed them. The long-looked for revelation had come. Greenmantle had appeared at last to an awaiting people.
Now history breaks wide open, as the Muslim world can be swept by a charismatic religious and war leader. Imagine how this titular Greenmantle would have struggled with the Young Turks and Atatürk! How Middle Eastern history could have changed. (hide spoiler)]
Enough with the mysteries. Dig into Greenmantle for a wild ride that offers an unusual take on the First World War.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
On the surface The Keeper looks like a familiar horror trope: a town to be destroyed by dark forces. (Think Peter Straub's Floating Dragon for one example) That kept my expectations down, especially as the book appeared in 2006. I was pleasantly surprised to see Langan offer a fresh take on this, offering a genuinely powerful horror novel.
Let me offer some observations before getting into spoiler territory.
The Keeper takes place in the Maine town of Bedford, a mill town having fallen on hard times. This is an important context for American horror. First, it's a form of rust belt Gothic in microcosm, especially as the mill's role becomes environmentally and historically vital. Second, it means working-class horror, still an unusual (and welcome) sub genre. The epigraph from Bruce Springsteen signals this class intent.
Langan populates the town with well-drawn characters. The horror staple of short-lived victim (the literary equivalent of gaming's NPC) is done nicely, but the main characters really shine. They are the Marley family, mother Mary plus daughters Susan and Liz. The Keeper is really their story.
That makes this a very gynocentric novel. It's mostly about women and their relationships, the latter often with each other.
At the same time all of the characters - yes, every one - are sad, sad people. Each person is heartbroken and/or defeated, ground down or self-deluded. The Keeper is mournful, almost elegiac in its tone and content. It is not cruel; Langan pays careful, indulgent, sometimes loving attention to these people. Some are tragic, while a few generate their fates on their own. One character redeems himself, but only though a futile death. There are only two villains, really, and neither receives much word count. Again, this is a novel about people in pain.
There is a terrible, monstrous force, of course, that brings about Bedford's doom. This is somewhat original. Now we must raise the spoiler shields before proceeding. (view spoiler)[Langan creates a mixture of haunted house, Carrie-like vengeful teen woman, and cursed town. Susan Marley is the Carrie, a broken, cursed young woman with knowledge of the future and of the dead. She becomes the town freak/whore, then a destructive undead. Her family's house isn't built on an Indian graveyard, but its basement is the scene of Susan's rape by her father, which combines with Susan's nature to create a haunted house. And the town's mill, it turns out, is not only a toxic nightmare but was built on false premises, a miniature version of a Gothic robber baron's scheming. That's a rich mix and an unusual synthesis. The town itself is haunted and terrible. "Was it Bedford that did this? Had Bedford done this to all of them?" asks the novel's most intellectual character. (94) "What if Bedford is like one giant haunted house that Susan brought to life?" asks Liz, our most sympathetic character. (236) The Rust Belt as the new site of American Gothic.
Also noteworthy is the way the novel's end is total. "The paper mill burned to the ground... There was silence as the rain became a drizzle, and then a patter, and then nothing. All was silent." (382) There isn't a redemptive out. We don't learn of our young lovers' fate. Nobody escapes. There isn't an epilog. THE END. I admire that.... clarity. (hide spoiler)]
So this is terrific for a first novel. There are some weaknesses. Some of it is repetitive - too many scenes of Susan's blue eyes, Lisa ranting at her boyfriend, Paul wanting a drink. The plot at the hear of the Marleys' house is a bit oversold, especially in these post-Jerry Springer days (it's very well described, though).
That said, I recommend The Keeper to any horror reader, and look forward to reading Langan's next books.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I read this one as part of my ongoing quest for the best 21st-century horror novel. Naturally I had to turn to Stephen King. Several of his recent titI read this one as part of my ongoing quest for the best 21st-century horror novel. Naturally I had to turn to Stephen King. Several of his recent titles have received attention for that crown, including Dr. Sleep and Under the Dome. I picked Revival because I knew less about it (no miniseries, not a sequel to a classic) and because what I had heard had hinted Lovecraft.
Overall, a decent novel, with a middle sag compensated for by a fine ending.
Revival is a biographical novel about one person and his odd relationship with another. The central character and narrator, Jamie Morton, is a musician. The other, his friend, mentor, and nemesis, Charles Jacobs, starts off as his minister and friend, then becomes his employer in several senses of the word. I wrote "biographical" because the novel simply follows Morton's life, starting with his earliest childhood memories, following him through the decades of adulthood and ending as he approaches death. Revival is about Morton, living in his head.
Morton connects with Jacobs as a child, coming to admire and love the older man as community priest, emotional supporter, and all around neat person. Jacobs leaves town after a disaster, but Morton finds him again, years later, when the younger man has ruined his music and life with heroin and the former reverend has become a carnival act. Jacobs' early fascination with electricity has become a job and obsession. The ex-rev frees Morton from his addiction using his mysterious electrical powers, and then.... then we get into spoilers. Suffice to say that things get good and bad. Very bad.
The middle third of Revival sagged for me. We spend some time in the carnival world, which is oddly flat. Then Morton moves into the music recording business, and King lavishes details there. Once again, this didn't do much for me. We get hints of horror, but they are only grace notes. The major religious issues of the first third, well evoked by Jacobs' family disaster, evaporate. And then the final third of the book kicks things up a few notches.
Yes, time to active the spoiler shields: (view spoiler)[Jacobs has been pushing the frontiers of his mad science, at first to generate vast, Tesla-ambitious amounts of power. Then we learn it's really about reaching the afterlife. Some of the people Jacobs has cured have had visions of a next world, and he wants to penetrate it, along with finding his dead wife and son. Morton turns out to be a kind of modem in this operation. Things turns out very, cosmically bad. (hide spoiler)] Here the novel finds its emotional strength and narrative drive. No, it doesn't really make up for the middle, which isn't scaffolding so much as a pause, but it's a solid conclusion.
Ah, but this is a Stephen King novel. It's tricky to review a work by someone who isn't just the most famous and influential living horror writer, but a cultural icon and powerhouse. Readers have to see each title in that context, which requires a lot of work, since King emits a novel roughly every three weeks, it seems. We're also reading in the light of the classics, like Salem's Lot and Carrie which can throw a harsh light on the other books. Well, in that context Revival is pretty good. The character of Jacobs and mythos around him are interesting and new, a kind of Lovecraftian horror via Tesla and the carnie circuit. But we also get a heap of King obsessions, which fail to do anything for me now: rural Maine, dangerous drunks, people misled by religion, 1960s rock, etc. I found myself skimming those, as they weren't new, and felt like padding.
It's an interesting entry into the Lovecraftian fiction canon, which King has contributed to previously (cf the classic story "Jerusalem's Lot", for instance) . As per King, we don't get a Lovecraftian hero (scholar, eccentric, artist, madman) but an ordinary guy. We get the expected references to Very Evil Books, with a fun little dodge: the Necronomicon is fiction, made up by ol' HPL, unlike the very real De Vermis Mysteriis. The emphasis on Jacobs' electrical mysteries suggested Lovecraft's "From Beyond", with its Tillinghast machine. That suggested to me that Jacobs was reaching beyond this world, which turned out to be correct. Nicely signaled, Mr. King.
I filed this novel under my "Baby Boomer" shelf. As a generation Xer (born 1967) boomers are our perpetual crosses to bear. We've grown up with a culture swarming with Boomer self-obsession, crawling with the Me Generation's endless appetite for self-scrutiny. I know that boomer nostalgia texts appeal to that demographic, and might intrigue younger folks with familial or historical curiosity. But they don't work for me, usually. I'm bored with them, and Revival fails to bring the period and people to life. As Morton ages the world thins out, details dropping away as the 50s and 60s recede.
It's a cliche to observe that boomers are aging (aren't we all? haven't they always been doing so?), but that saw actually applies here. Revival is definitely an old man's book. It's full of medical problems, with keen observations on the effects of aging. The world doesn't pass Morton by - one classic Boomer trope is not paying attention to much after 1975 - so much as exist mainly as a host for artifacts of the past, plus health care. And yet I don't want to be too cruel, since the book is ultimately very much about the fear of death, which is, after all, a universal theme. The Lovecraftian twist at the end gives this dread an extra bite.
Perhaps I'm being unfair to the staggering Mr. King. Revival carried me along during its first third, which has good observations about childhood, another of King's traditional foci. And when the conclusion heats up, we get some passionate writing:
Goat Mountain Resort hove into view - even bigger than The Latches, but ugly and full of modern angles; Frank Lloyd Wright gone bad. Probably it had looked modern, even futuristic, to the wealthy people who had come her to play in the sixties. Now it looked like a cubist dinosaur with glass eyes. (307)
Overall? Recommended for horror and thriller readers, if you treat the middle third like a flip book. Mandatory if you're a King fan. Useful if you're interested in modern horror.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I read this book as part of my October 2015 quest to devour as many fine 21st-centuy Gothic horror novels as I can cram in. I haven't read any JeffreyI read this book as part of my October 2015 quest to devour as many fine 21st-centuy Gothic horror novels as I can cram in. I haven't read any Jeffrey Thomas novels before, although I have enjoyed some Punktown short stories and admired his comments on an August 2015 horror convention panel.
Boneland is a curious blend of horror, fantasy, and alternate history. All three have a source in the arrival of strange beings on Earth during the late 19th century. Actually, there were two types of beings. First appeared the Guests, entities from far away in space, who could only manifest by meddling with human minds, leading to madness, violence, and possibly the first World War. After this, ah, embarrassment, the Guests sent an insect ecosystem, and this is where Boneland really shines.
You see, Thomas has these alien insects stand in for the 20th-century industrial era. The bugs serve as cameras, radios, telephones, televisions, advanced building materials, early computers (Kindle location 300), ocean liners (but not airplanes, 1628), and more. Their ecosystem evolves in parallel with the course of what we think of as technological innovation. Thomas has a great deal of fun (I imagine) with developing different insects for each need, giving us clever new forms. New human jobs and mutations appear, with persons paired with specialized bugs: Assassins who feed murderous imagery to their riders, Mediums ridden by brain bugs (example: 695). The titular Boneland is Hollywood, a nice grim joke on several levels (1183). I suspect the author was inspired by David Cronenberg's deliriously inventive film eXistenz (1999; strongly recommended), which imagines a biologically based, rather than silicon-based, digital technology.
I mention Cronenberg here as well because Boneland's technology is is also very disturbing. John Board, our protagonist/point of view character seems to be one of the few Americans in this alt.history who are, well, bugged by the bugs. He begins as a photographer, and the shutterbug version is even more intimate than the tech we know from our timeline (check Kindle location 176 for a sample). Our "hero" (because he isn't, really) sees his career implode, then restart on grim terms, and we follow him through death. Boneland is, in a sense, a biographical novel.
And that's what cost me a single star. Board is, well, fairly flat as a character. He lives in a kind of emotional suspension and worldly disengagement that sheds light on the world, but without revealing many of his depths. His main love interest, Mary/Louise Brooks, isn't that realized, and their relationship is pretty basic.
Board's uneasiness is a good proxy for the reader's. As the 20th century proceeds people tell us that the Guests are getting more humane and less scary, but culture seems to degrade, with dehumanization, growing warfare, and rape-themed reality tv (1758)
More on the world: Boneland plays with names. Most humans have object names, like Detective Shoe (242), Pete Spoon and Ronny Shingle (465), Henry Plough (675), Warden File (684), and so on. Conversely, objects have biological names, as Board lives on Sacrum Street (150) in the big Illinois city of Coccyx, formerly Chicago (1590). There are some fun altered instances of our world, like Taxi Driver appearing thusly:
This [poster], from 1941, was for [Howard] Hawks' Cab Driver, about a lonely and alienated WWIV vet who takes to driving a taxi at night. Though it ended with an extremely violent shootout, the film was unusually artistic rather than exploitative... Filming the cab as it coasted shark-like through hellish mists of steam on back lot city streets had been a rewarding challenge for him.(1879)
The book contains a short story, "Close Enough", which lives in the same buggy, Guested universe. I'll leave it off this review since I'm focusing solely on novels.
Overall, Boneland is a fascinating, engaging read. The world is creative and worth reflection. I'm not sure it's really horror per se. Yes, there are scenes of violence, but they don't appear to elicit dread. Their disgust is more political, with a dose of psychosexual unease. I recommend the book for anyone interested in contemporary horror, and look forward to more Jeffrey Thomas....more
I don't want to offer a scholarly analysis here. Instead I want to offer my impressions on first reading this work, andNotes on reading the Kalevala:
I don't want to offer a scholarly analysis here. Instead I want to offer my impressions on first reading this work, and assume you all can fire up Google for more information. (This edition's introduction is excellent, and I recommend it)
I read the Kalevala because I was visiting Finland for the first time and wanted to dive into that nation's culture. I ended up staying in a Kalevala-themed hotel, which was fun.
It's an unusual work to read, mostly for formal reasons. For starters, the book is a series of 50 poems. Stories or cycles stretch across several or many of them, like the tragic tale of Kullervo (poems 31-36). Knowing the contours of those stories helps the reader make sense of each poem.
At a smaller level, the poems have the frequent habit of having a line repeat the previous line with a twist: "the maids are sporting/the beauties are capering" (125), "he built a fence with no gap/knocked up with without a gate" (440). You have to be ready for this, withholding your expectation that the next line you read will advance things. And as with other, older epics, the Kalevala likes to repeat tag lines, such as "steady old Väinämöinen" and "wanton Lemminkäinen".
Tonally the Kalevala resembles ancient epics and mythic texts, combining heroic acts with tall tales and a touch of the supernatural. The supernatural appears through the power of song and poetry, which lets bards alter reality with well-performed verse. There aren't many gods, beyond the frequent evocation of some major, unnamed deity ("Old Man"). A scary witch is able to carry an army on her back when she shape shifts into bird form (depicted on this edition's glorious cover). A mother resurrects her son, a bit like the story of Osiris. And nobody's quite sure what the Sampo is, beyond a fine macguffin.
So what's the book about? There isn't a single plot, other than Väinämöinen's career, which frames the epic and constitutes some of the better parts. Instead the Kalevala works like a linked short story collection, each story capable of standing on its own, while making some links to other tales. There's an origin story, a hilarious magic contest, the epic Sampo raid, several marriage/kidnapping plots, and ultimately a version of Findland's Christianization.
It's a strange treat, at least for this reader who's new to Finland. Characters are engaging, like the manic Lemminkäinen, tragic Aino and Kullervo, and grumpy old man/Merlin Väinämöinen. The stories move in unexpected directions. Some scenes have the force of fairy tales. As a materialist I found much to dig into, such as the way poems reflect the conditions of living in a very cold climate (lots of hunting, little agriculture, many scenes with skiing and sledges). ...more
Dark Places is the first book I've read by Gillian Flynn. I know the outlines of Gone Girl, but haven't read it nor seen the movie.
The opening lines mDark Places is the first book I've read by Gillian Flynn. I know the outlines of Gone Girl, but haven't read it nor seen the movie.
The opening lines made me really want to like it:
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.
I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.
This novel is a very engaging and well put together thriller. The plot concerns a young woman, the survivor of her family's brutal mass murder when she was a child, who decides to investigate what really happened.
It's impossible to say much more with spoilers. I can get away with saying the novel works on two time tracks, following our heroine in the present day, interspersed with accounts of various participates in the old crime. Flynn handles these parallels well. I also liked the construction of the mystery and its resolution.
The characters engaged me, especially the heroine, who I found very appealing, and her brother, the main past character. Flynn creates in the former a well-realized damaged person, and does a great job of getting into the teenage boy's mind in the latter.
There's a Satanic cult panic in the novel, but that's not the focus, nor does it get really taken seriously as a sociological and cultural development.
I was pleased to see so many central and rich female characters, from the heroine to her mother to, ah, that would be spoilerizing. The male characters are important and vital, but the girls and women are really the point.
Dead Wake is an engrossing read, a compelling narrative that's hard to stop reading. Larson demonstrates once more his ability to select and present eDead Wake is an engrossing read, a compelling narrative that's hard to stop reading. Larson demonstrates once more his ability to select and present excellent historical details, tied together in appealing plot lines.
However, it's very disappointing as a World War I book. Perhaps I'm asking too much, but given the huge attention focused on WWI during the centenary period and the renaissance in its scholarship, I found Dead Wake unfortunately narrow.
Essentially, the book focuses precisely on what it claims to address: the last voyage of the Lusitania. We read many details of the ship's construction and operations, the actions and some characters of the crew, and above all the lives (and deaths) of many, many passengers. This is fascinating and ultimately poignant, although one can't help feeling echoes of James Cameron's (massively overrated) Titanic movie. I was especially interested in the U-Boat details, plus the story of Room 40, a British cryptanalysis outfit.
Some details seemed superfluous. I could have had less of Woodrow Wilson's love life, for example.
In Dead Wake's acknowledgements section Larson admits to not knowing much about World War I. "Am I an expert on World War I? No." (Kindle location 5185) While that's a nice bit of authorial self-abnegation, it also seems to be true, and reveals a weakness in the book. Let me outline some reasons why. (NB: I'm not an expert in the field, but a very interested reader, with some training in history and more in literary criticism with a historical perspective.)
For example,President Wilson ran for president in 1916 under a pledge to keep America out of the war, but in 1917 took the country right in. This contradiction is one historians often work through, and would be apparent to many readers new to the topic, but Larson skips it.
Also on the American side, the book quietly undermines itself when it fails to make a case for the Lusitania's role in taking American into WWI. When Larson describes Wilson's decision-making, he emphasizes the Zimmermann telegram, and notes the liner doesn't even appear in the president's war message to Congress. This slightly weakens the book, taking down its importance a peg. We also hear nothing of the critical role played by American financial investment in the Allied cause (here's an intro).
From the German side, we receive a few flashes of description: a brief sketch of the war leadership's debates about using U-boats, a note about the German people's pride in sinking a major British vessel. But we don't get more than that.
On the British side, we don't get much sense of the Impact of U-boats on that island nation and empire. That is, Larson looks into naval strategy and some sense of national pride, but not on the lives of people The German command hoped to starve out the British before Britain starved out the Germans. This vastly horrible facet of total war is almost completely invisible in Larson's account, which actually undermines the book's power. Bringing total war into play would raise the stakes for this one pair of voyages.
Larson sets aside one conspiracy theory too quickly. This is the idea that the British allowed the Lusitania's sinking in order to encourage the US to join the war. Dead Wake argues that the event was simply the result of multiple forces coming together, but never addresses the British scheme option seriously. I'm not a Lusitania fanatic, so I don't know how seriously people take it - Larson should have addressed this.
The climax of the book takes place off the coast of Ireland, and in that country is where much of the final action takes place. It seems odd to me that Larson doesn't mention Irish unrest, or that the Easter Rising comes less than a year after the Lusitania dies. Historically this is obvious; as a nonfiction book, you'd think the author would want to mention such a juicy bit of detail, especially for American audiences.
Strangest of all is the lack of discussion about the Lusitania's cargo, as she was carrying (among other things) munitions for war. It's easy to see killing the ship as a war crime, because of the loss of civilian life and property, but Germans at the time justified the act by pointing out the amount of ammunition, guns, etc, in the ship's hold. Larson notes this deadly cargo as part of the manifest, but not its role in subsequent debates.
So if I'm so unhappy with the way Dead Wake treats WWI, why would I recommend the book? Because Larson does a fine job with tracing the journeys of two ships, liner and submarine. He makes the machines and people fascinating. Even knowing the outcome, the reader is likely to be drawn in, wondering how things will turn out. That's successful nonfiction, and worth the ride....more
This is a reread for me. I read the book when it came out circa 1990, and read some of the stories in collections before that. "The Girl Who Was PluggThis is a reread for me. I read the book when it came out circa 1990, and read some of the stories in collections before that. "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" I taught in an ambitious literature class at the University of Michigan, around 1997.
Why reread now? My dear friend, podcast maven, and Goodreads user Jenny Colvin has been describing her reading of these stories in severalplaces. Her reflections (and an odd discussion with another podcaster/reviewer) made me want to revisit these stories. And another friend gifted me a copy of the Tiptree*/Sheldon biography, so I added that to my reading.
(In these notes I won't revisit that biography, nor offer a story-by-story review. I might do the latter, given time.)
So what was it like returning to these stories?
It's exactly like revisiting works of art you admired, and now find them even more powerful, impressive, and disturbing.
I found myself slowing down to reread paragraphs and whole stories, savoring Tiptree's astonishing ability to cram details and information into compressed sentences, admiring the way she built hints and clues throughout a tale to set up its conclusion. Even the longer stories ("Momentary Taste of Being") are as rich as novels.
The bleakness and melancholy struck me harder this time. “Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him.” (431) I'd forgotten how often the end of the human race appeared in Tiptree's fiction, especially by nuclear war or aliens. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is filled with humans wiped out, ruined landscapes, and people degraded as a species. These are tragedies and post apocalypses. John Clute's introduction arranges the stories in an arc towards death, which makes some sense at the risk of too much biographical criticism, but decay and doom are throughout the tales.
"You carry despair as your gift." (Well quoted, Jenny) Part of that degradation stems from hard science, a kind of biological determinism. The superbly realized aliens in "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (and have I mentioned the awesomeness of Tiptree's titles?) are largely driven by biological imperatives, and doom themselves when crossing them. Humans reveal hideous depths when probed or tweaked biologically in "Houston" and "Screwfly". Our noble desire to explore the universe, an sf staple, becomes entropic ("And So On, And So On"), a pathetic cover for sex fetish ("And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side"), or just a species-level cover for another species' sexuality ("Momentary").
The sheer power of anti-patriarchal outrage came across more clearly than before, too, possibly because of today's political climate. This is obviously the point of some of the famous stories, like "The Women Men Don't See", the truly terrifying "Screwfly Solution", and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" But we also see the ferocity and subtlety of men's oppression of women in other stories, like the nightmarish first 1/3rd of "With Delicate Mad Hands" or the gender imbalance between the two main characters of "Slow Music." Readers interested in gender and science fiction today *must* read these stories largely from the 1970s. These stories are such powerful howls of outrage, such deep critiques of patriarchal masculinity - "Houston" is a clear anatomy. At times Tiptree's women must defy the entire world, trying to overwrite it entirely ("Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!") or flee in desperation ("Women Men Don't See"):
"Please take us. We don't mind what your planet is like; we'll learn - we'll do anything!... Please. Oh, please." (146)
Her Smoke has other intersections with sf history. I see "Girl Who Was Plugged In" as a critical cyberpunk antecedent. "Her Smoke Rose Up" echoes powerfully John Crowley's criminally under appreciated Engine Summer. "The Man Who Walked Home" and "She Waits for All Men Born" are fine examples of science fiction engaging with the construction of myth, on two very different levels. Tiptree's use of hard science places this collection powerfully in hard sf's tradition, and also offers a fascinating path for feminist sf (a fine antecedent for Joan Sloncewski).
These stories verge on the horror genre, but are more horrific than generic. "The Last Flight of Dr. Ayn," one of my favorite short stories of all time (and a nice contemporary to J. G. Ballard's compressed stories") so elegantly summons up cataclysmic fear with quiet lines like "Birds are, you know, warm-blooded" (10). "We Who Stole the Dream" is based on moral horror, itself predicated on lethal torture. The final cruelty of "Her Smoke" is like Greg Egan's worst torments, and features desolation akin to that depicted by Lovecraft in "Mountains of Madness" or Hodgson's Night Land, but so much more economically expressed.
Read this book. Reread it. It's one of the great science fiction collections, and should be a fixture in 20th-century American literature.
*I'll refer to the author by her pseudonym here, partly for convenience, and also to reflect her choice of publication. Much like I say "Twain" instead of "Clemens."...more
Superintelligence is a grand-scale book, written at the level of human destiny. Nick Bostrom invites us to think at a cosmic scale, while contemplatinSuperintelligence is a grand-scale book, written at the level of human destiny. Nick Bostrom invites us to think at a cosmic scale, while contemplating a vast range of possible transhuman futures.
The focus of the book is the ways an artificial intelligence could grow into something greatly surpassing human intellect and control. It's a classic science fiction theme (think HAL, Colossus, Skynet, and of course the origin in Frankenstein); what Bostrom adds is considering the problem philosophically. That approach is Anglo-American analytical philosophy, not continental, which is a pleasant change of pace for me. This means many considerations of ethics, frequent definitional explorations, and many divisions of concepts into subcategories.
Frustratingly, Bostrom's discussion feels at times fruitless. When he breaks down superintelligence takeoff rates, for example, the reader might shrug, given the huge dependence on so many variables we don't know now and which the author doesn't settle. "It depends" seems to be the implicit conclusion of too many chapters.
This is a book rich with ideas. Superintelligence tosses off concepts like a speed-addled science fiction writer: AIs turning humans into paperclips, or transforming planets and stars into computational substrates based on varying information architectures. I appreciated the many forms meta-human intelligence could take.
Bostrom parallels his exploration of superinteligent AI with related human structures. He considers the possibility of massively augmenting human intelligence throughout the book, while pondering human organization in like manner. For example, a later passage posits a human singleton in order to counter an AI singleton, "a global superintelligent Leviathan" (182). Bostrom's discussions of how to uplift humanity is breathtaking, and also chilling.
Yet Bostrom leavens his reflections with very entertaining, sometimes visionary or disturbing passages.
The bouillon cubes of discrete human-like intellects thus melt into an algorithmic soup. (172) And so we boldly go - into the whirling knives. (118) A mere line in the sand, backed by the clout of a nonexistent simulator, could prove a stronger restraint than a two-foot-thick solid steel door. (135) (from a chapter positing the fun idea of "anthropic capture") The universe then gets filled not with exultingly heaving hedonium but with computational processes that are unconscious and completely worthless - the equivalent of a smiley-face stricker xeroxed trillions upon trillions of times and plastered across the galaxies.(140) ("exultingly heaving hedonium"!)
It's hard to issue a recommendation for this book. It really appeals to a very narrow set of readers, people interested in transhumanism and willing to work through British-style philosophical discourse. For those people it's a rewarding read. It may also be productive for science fiction writers, hunting ideas.
For the general public, eh, this leans too much in the specialist direction....more
"those 8 years in sf was the first time I could be really real" -Alice B. Sheldon (367)
This is a powerful, vital biography of one of modern sf's great
"those 8 years in sf was the first time I could be really real" -Alice B. Sheldon (367)
This is a powerful, vital biography of one of modern sf's greatest writers. It sheds light on an unusual life and career, while illuminating science fiction genre history _and_ connecting with major issues of our time around gender, identity, and science.
I read Tiptree/Sheldon's stories and novels during the last decade of her life and following years. As a teenager they awed and confused me. As a college student they wowed me even more, as my understanding deepened and I immersed myself in the American and British New Waves. I remember learning about the deaths of Sheldon and her husband. In my late 20s I taught one story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", in a graduate class. I knew something of that period's genre history, but didn't know enough about Tiptree, so was happy to be gifted with this biography. (If you're new to Tiptree/Sheldon, here's my review of the best short story collection.)
Julie Phillips takes us through Alice Sheldon's life, starting with her extraordinary mother and ending with her tragic death in 1987. Phillips gives us Alice's (always "Alli") privileged upbringing, including multiple African safaris as a girl (!), her education, first marriage, army career in WWII, second marriage, CIA stint, PhD in psychology, then the late in life stellar career in science fiction. Throughout Phillips immerses us in Alli's voice through her journals and always industrious letter-writing. We hear Alli being ferociously creative, deeply reflective, wracked by desires for love, sex, career, and impact. She keeps shifting her focus on different ways of being, ever seeking the right way for her to be in the world, and never ultimately finding it. She kept developing new identities, new masks for the world. Her last years seem to have been an agony of ferocious pressures on her marriage, her body, her sexuality, her friendships, and her creativity. It's an amazing read, an in-depth character study.
I was surprised to learn many details, such as Alli and her second husband's brief career as chicken farmers, or that she wasn't really a top-level lifelong CIA agent, or that she did major work in photo intelligence during WWII. I didn't know she came from such privilege (see below). It's amazing to think of her working and exploring in the Third Reich's ruins. Her drug intake was epic, akin to the more celebrated levels of Phil Dick. And I was unaware of her many close (if mostly epistolary) relationships with contemporary sf authors. I'm still trying to imagine what a Phil Dick-James Tiptree collaboration could have looked like (he offered, she didn't reply) (237).
Phillips does a fine job of connecting biography to art. I'm normally skeptical about this form of criticism, but The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon makes convincing arguments for "Tiptree" drawing on events and preconceptions in Allie's life. Her connections to feminist writers gave me new insights into the works of Russ, Leguin, and more. To her credit, Phillips also delves into the major stories and two novels on their own terms, farther than most biographers would go, revealing her to be a perceptive reader.
Phillips is also a fine nonfiction writer. She chooses superb passages from Alli's writing to cite, and reflects on them with subtlety and perception. For example,
"I love you so damn much it hurts," she wrote [to her parents in 1957], and her parents' friends were impressed by her loyalty. She did love them, but it did hurt. (191)
She teases out meanings from the many Sheldon texts, connecting them to diverse aspects of her biography. Moreover, Phillips isn't afraid to show Sheldon in a negative light, as when she learns that she hates teaching (206).
Phillips is also capable of disagreeing with Sheldon, despite her obvious admiration for her subject. Tiptree often wrote with an emphasis on biology's fierce power, and Sheldon as a psychologist and intellectual in general often saw evolution overpowering everything before it. But Phillips falls on the cultural side of this argument (292).
Despite all Alli's worrying at the biological foundations of male and female, her performance reminds us that gender is a social construct, one made by writers and readers both. (373)
One of the ironies of Allie's career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all. (294)
(I'm more on Tiptree/Sheldon's side, personally. Despite my training and professions as a cultural worker, as the UN says, and even after raising myself on 1970s sf and politics, I think we're been learning too much about the brain and human development to not credit the biological side. Plus much of current culture seems hell-bent on reifying gender division.)
The only criticism I have of the book is its blindness about Sheldon's class privilege. She was born into serious wealth - hence a succession of private schools (including a Swiss boarding school), international expeditions, lavish living spaces, coming out as a society debutante, and of course experiencing no material want as a child and teenager. Sheldon never lost this powerful money support through her life. When Alli announces her intention to wed a second time, her mother reacts with the powers of the 1%:
As soon as Mary heard the news she wrote her friend Lila, and former Mrs. Henry Luce, and asked her for the New York lowdown on her prospective son-in-law. Sources at Time could find nothing terrible on Ting in their files.(134)
While Phillips shows us her subject exploring and shifting careers, at no point does Sheldon select one because it will pay the bills. Later in life Tiptree/Sheldon "liked being paid", but clearly didn't need the money (233). This placed the author in a very unusual position as a writer, especially one writing as a woman in a field that sometimes devalued female authors. It would be good to learn how that shaped her approach to fiction. It would be useful to know how Sheldon reflected on being wealthy, if she did at all. Intersectionality is hard to do.
Otherwise, I strongly recommend this biography to anyone interested in science fiction, or contemporary women authors, or to readers who like well-written biographies. It's vital for anyone concerned about feminism in the 21st century, because, among other things, it shows previous instances of many debates we're still having, from biology versus culture to the representation of women in sf....more
I came to this book in a rush of nostalgia for Twin Peaks. My daughter had just started watching the show on Netflix, and, rewatching it with her, I rI came to this book in a rush of nostalgia for Twin Peaks. My daughter had just started watching the show on Netflix, and, rewatching it with her, I remembered that mix of delight and strangeness.
Posting about this on Facebook, a friend recommended Crouch's Wayward Pines stories, which just appeared as a tv series. So I Kindled the first book.
And it was fun, grabbing my attention and sustaining it, racing along at top speed. Pines begins with a cliche, the protagonist with amnesia, but it works, as we want to figure out what happened to this Secret Service agent and what's going on in this odd small town.
Other reviews describe not being able to summarize the plot without spoilers, and they are utterly correct. The plot heaves in different, sometimes surprising directions every few chapters, and so I'll erect the spoiler shield shortly. Suffice to say that Pines starts off as a mystery, and the mysteries keep coming. In fact, genres start.... spoiler shields, now! (view spoiler)[The book quickly gets into Prisoner territory, as it establishes the town as a charming and sweet, yet ominous place from which nobody can escape. Artificial features pop up, like a speaker playing cricket sounds. Then we branch off from the hero's perspective to follow his wife's point of view, as she grieves for her lost spouse. Then the book enters science fiction territory as we get teased by time travel, then attacked by mutants? aliens? (here I see William Hope Hodgson's House on the Borderland and its pig-people), then giant experimental bases, then suspended animation, the hint of nuclear war, and the Stapledonian sense of humanity's collapse in the passage of time. Whew. (hide spoiler)]
All of this transpires in extremely taut prose. Most paragraphs are a couple of sentences, if that. Some are sentence fragments. It's a bit like Koontz, plus Hemingway, especially the latter as we get a great deal of physical exertion and damage. Indeed, I wanted to check bits of this with my emergency services wife. This isn't a novel that likes description or lyrics, but grabs you by the lapels to throw you off another cliff.
Pines enjoys its references, or at least I imagine it does. David Lynch's tv series is here, and the book's author's note explicitly claims kinship. But we don't get Lynch's deep sense of weirdness and open-ended uncanny. Imagine Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper as an action hero, and the show racing through a third season which explains everything. That satisfies us to some extent, but cuts out the most powerful effects, unfortunately. (I mention some other big references in the spoiler section)
That lack of powerful effect is unfortunately true in general. While I felt compelled to finish the book, its details slipped from my mind very quickly. The main character is cardboard (I still can't recall his name) and no other person gets any detail. I really appreciated the final plot twists, which were carried off well, but they lacked emotional punch. Pines is a quick read, in short, a fun adventure. A snack between meals.
I haven't read the sequels, and am not sure I should. Any recommendations? ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Alternate history has many virtues, one being making the past more vivid to readers. The Narrows does this fine service for America in WWII, specificaAlternate history has many virtues, one being making the past more vivid to readers. The Narrows does this fine service for America in WWII, specifically Detroit. And how often does southeastern Michigan appear in historical fiction, or fantasy and sf, for that matter? Not often enough.
Irvine's novel focuses on wartime industry, and there's another unusual move for contemporary fiction. The main characters are factory workers, who (spoiler alert!) don't end up millionaires or leading a fantasy-fueled social transformation. Instead the book dwells with these people in their daily lives: working long hours, bickering with coworkers, worrying about bills, wrangling childcare, and making golems. I'm reminded of Richard Matheson's underrated Stir of Echoes in this regard. (Someday I need to do a study about the working class in Gothic lit)
Making golems? Yes. The Narrows is also a fantasy novel. Or, better put, it's an alt. history that includes some fantasy elements. The grand River Rouge factory complex busily produces bombers and jeep parts, while a secret department builds golem warriors out of clay. Another delight Irvine provides is making this credible, from the overworked rabbi in charge to workers trying to spot their products in newreels. Like Tim Powers, Irvine knits the fantastic credibly into the material world, as a kind of technology.
The novel's plot concerns skulduggery among different powerful actors around this golem line ("Frankenline"), and how they want to use our hero. Some of the book's emotional power comes from watching the protagonist cope with increasing weirdness, especially as it stresses his marriage. The Narrows comes close to cliches here, but usually stays clear.
Especially noteworthy is a second fantastic element, the inclusion of a Michigan folk character, the Nain Rouge. The dwarf attains mythic status early on, becoming something of a cthonic power over Detroit history and a demon to our hero's family. This pushes the novel more deeply into pure fantasy territory... until we learn to what uses Nain Rouge might be put.
Overall, The Narrows is an excellent alternate history and fantasy novel. It only weakens in the conclusion, which falls apart after a spectacular yet inconclusive climax. Many threads are left hanging, and resolution isn't really there. But it's a grand ride for the first 96%.
On a personal note, I found the novel compelling because I lived in Michigan for almost 20 years. I enjoyed reading about settings I know, and learning background I didn't....more
A very useful book for my research into the Progressive Era. Unreasonable Men focuses on the rise of the progressive movement as it emerged from stateA very useful book for my research into the Progressive Era. Unreasonable Men focuses on the rise of the progressive movement as it emerged from state and federal elected officials, most notably the fracturing of the Republican party.
Wolraich does a good job of following key players. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, but Robert La Follette is equally compelling as an effective insurgent. "Uncle" Joe Cannon is their foil, the book's leading conservative, or "stand patter". Presidents Taft and Wilson complete the narrative arc.
I appreciated the legislative details, which, though dry, are crucial for this period.
It's a decent book, formally. As a narrative historian, Wolraich is sensitive to chronology. He nails down every section by date, and follows a linear path, with a few useful flashbacks. He tries hard to offer personality details - no great effort when it comes to TR, but also colorful for the conservatives and La Follette, not to mention the sad figure of Taft.
However, this is entirely political history. There's very little about the society or culture of the times, making it hard to understand how the rest of America beyond the political class responded to these developments. Progressivism as a popular movement doesn't really play a role.
Weirdly, Prohibition doesn't show up. I'm not an American historian, but I'm coming to realize this is a huge blind spot in historiography.
Also absent is foreign policy.
So: a nicely focused book. Very useful for what it sets out to do....more
I read The Lost World when I was a kid, I think. The story is very familiar. Maybe I read part of it, or an abridgement, or a comic version. Or I'm coI read The Lost World when I was a kid, I think. The story is very familiar. Maybe I read part of it, or an abridgement, or a comic version. Or I'm confusing it with the many imitations, like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Land That Time Forgot (1918, a mere 6 years after Doyle's novel). Whatever my first encounter, my reread last week was a lot of fun.
The Lost World almost crackles with manic energy. The basic idea, finding a lost dinosaur land, would have been enough for any novelist. But Doyle adds a good backstory, bolts on a fun conclusion, and also populates the tale with solid characters, especially the awesome professor Challenger. *And* the action is manic and well told. We begin with Challenger beating up reporters (!) and never pause.
The novel also offers a fascinating microcosm of colonialism during the end of its global heyday. Our heroes (all male) leap into other societies, kill at will, commit something close to genocide, enslave an entire species, and also run off with precious gems. For which they are celebrated.
For me, reading about WWI, The Lost World is a fine text for the war's leadup. It's a book fairly obsessed with characters forcing themselves to be more manly, more virile, more violent, and more daring. Characters are quick to violence and ready to destroy... yet all within a meticulously maintained social hierarchy. You can see August 1914 and the western front about to appear.
I said more about this book on an upcoming SFFaudio podcast, and will defer to that when it appears....more
Oh, does this book come close to breaking my heart. I enjoyed the first two-thirds, but the conclusion stomped all over what I liked.
It's hard to talkOh, does this book come close to breaking my heart. I enjoyed the first two-thirds, but the conclusion stomped all over what I liked.
It's hard to talk about this without getting spoiler-y, so I'll give an overview, then dig in.
Aurora is about a human interstellar expedition, a generation ship aimed at settling worlds around Tau Ceti.
The first fifth of the novel establishes the ship, which is interesting, and several key characters. It's a plausible design, reminding me of the Kim Stanley Robinson who wrote Red Mars with such practical detail. The people are engaging, too (see below).
The next fifth or quarter takes the ship and its people to planetfall, and from there the plot's accelerates into things I will describe between spoiler tags below.
Aurora resembles Red Mars in another way, offering a combination of hard science and social science. Robinson is as interested in the precise mechanics that shape an alien moon's winds as in how a human society responds to crisis. He is an engineer as much as an anthropologist, convincing throughout the novel.
Aurora is also very female-centric. Two heroines, mother and daughter, dominate the book, each named after a goddess (Devi and Freya). The ship's AI, gendered female at first (named Pauline by Devi), becomes a major character by the middle of the book. In contrast, Freya's father, Badim, is nice but largely passive and reactive. The middle of the book's crisis features many often unnamed but clearly gendered men causing damage and pain, while Freya develops as a wise leader. A later confrontation scene involves men with beards acting stupidly, and Freya having to bash sense into them (427-429). A man named Speller (as in one who puts a spell on others) leads a negative-seeming political faction. A final positive setting is presided over by an old, wise woman (437). The title of the book is, after all, a reference to the Roman goddess.
Beyond the interstellar voyage, the novel's technology is strangely retro. Although the ship seems to have launched around the year 2400, most of its devices are circa 2015: 3d printers, mobile communicators, IV tubes. There's quantum computing, but it really doesn't matter. In fact, the detailed description of computing forms on 223-224 is precisely what's available to us now. I don't know why this is, having finished the book. It's definitely a book about technological renunciation, but Earth doesn't seem to have... ah, spoilers.
Some interesting references are in play. The ship's AI wanted to be called "ship" (230). This, plus the emphasis on human interaction w/an AI and on a generation which, plus several times when characters arrogate religious power to themselves (one as Yahweh, another as Moses, etc), suggests to me Herbert and Ransom's Destination: Void series. We learn of an important, chaotic year, ship year 68, which brings to mind the our critical and fetishized year of 1968. Given the author's politics, this could have gone in a Situationist direction (present in Robinson's Red Mars), or perhaps in some intergenerational politics, or maybe a critique of liberalism. The title may also refer to an older time, calling on the Russian cruiser Aurora, which fired shots to signal the start of the 1917 October Revolution. I think the end does call for a revolution, but not a dawn.
The book features other classic Kim Stanley Robinson concerns and obsessions. We get a lot of outdoor hiking, of course, although most is technically indoors, within big artificial biomes. At least one character has gone walkabout in nature. This means some weaknesses, unfortunately, starting from KSR's inability to take non-liberal voices seriously. Religion has simply vanished in the future, as has capitalism, I think. Reproductive politics are significant, but utterly free of cultural reasons. No explanation.
Now it's time for some spoilers, and why the novel infuriates me. (view spoiler)[One part was very good: the collapse of the Aurora colony. That was heartbreaking, a miniature of the end of Red Mars. The subsequent political chaos made a great deal of sense, as the options were reasonable (and uniformly bad) and the social situation well set up. Then the return voyage back to Earth was a fine piece of hard sf, from bootstrapping suspended animation to the crazed deceleration scheme.
Another item to spoil is the secret of year 68. It turns out that our spaceship had a partner craft, which was mysteriously destroyed, probably by human error or a suicidal gesture. Then the people on the surviving ship decided to remove that history from their thinking. The ship decides to dose anyone who speaks of the event with fospropofol, to keep memories from forming (236). Which is a bit creepy, and the creepiness never really addressed later on.
But then it goes off the rails. Aurora decides that space travel is a bad idea after all. We're better off staying home and hanging out at the beach. Like the notorious last episode of Battlestar Galactica, Aurora gives us the many delights of space travel and space opera, only to toss them aside, destroying beloved spacecraft in the sun. Like the movie Gravity this novel dwells on the degradation and ruination of spaceships, declaring victory when the point of view characters merely survive on a terrestrial beachfront. The revolution led by a goddess is to turn our backs on deep space It is galling.
There are other, perhaps unrelated problems. We never learn the fate of Iris. Did Robinson abandon them as he jettisoned interstellar exploration? I think a grim gesture on 383 is the last we hear. It's also not clear why Earth's communications were so lame. In fact, it's hard to tell what happened to Earth at all.
"It had not been planned for." (167) A major theme in Aurora is how the expedition's designers made weird mistakes and omissions. I wasn't sure where this was going until the end. There we learn that nothing better could be done. One of the surviving travelers explains that interstellar travel is just too hard to accomplish, for any species, period (428). Others see space exploration advocates ("space cadets") as not very wise people, as fools, sometimes dangerous idiots (430-431). A despairing disease victim proclaims that Fermi's paradox is explained by sane species deciding that
by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it's too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won't work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn't you? (179)
. Interstellar travel is a bad, bad idea. Even solar system travel isn't that hot. (hide spoiler)] Which isn't to say it's badly written. Quite the opposite. Robinson writes very well. We see a nice framing device of nautical travel, which unfolds exquisitely at the end. The ship's AI is solidly explored as a narrator. The deaths of some characters were very moving. The prose is always either lyrical, playful, or admirably economical. I love lines like this:
once a day or so, a flash of Chernenkov radiation sparks in the water tanks, marking a neutrino hitting a muon. Once in a blue muon. (327)
I really liked reading this book until the end. It engaged me. I didn't want to stop reading it. But now I wish I had. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Reading The Vorrh reminds me of the first time I read Gene Wolfe. Catling offers a very similar combination of mystery, allusionReading The Vorrh ...
Reading The Vorrh reminds me of the first time I read Gene Wolfe. Catling offers a very similar combination of mystery, allusion, tricky plots, some beautiful sentences, unpredictability, touches of horror, and a powerful sense of meaning just beneath the surface. The Vorrh is like Shadow of the Torturer in that it's a standalone book which is also, apparently, the start of a series. This is also my way of offering very high praise.
If the Hugo awards matter ever again, this is now my second nomination for the year's best novel.
It's the kind of book you reread parts of while reading, and which you begin again immediately upon finishing.
It's not a comfortable, friendly book. The narrative(s) isn't (aren't) built that way. The Vorrh doesn't offer much in the way of characters you empathize with. Instead it's a challenge, a lunge in unexpected directions, energetically doing work on multiple levels not all of which the reader can grasp right away.
I've been reading parts of this novel out loud, partly from pleasure, and also so dig more deeply into passages. It's that kind of book.
Alan Moore compares it to Voyage to Arcturus, and that makes sense to me.
...before I go further with impressions and comparisons, I'll introduce what the book is actually about. Then I'll head into spoilers.
The Vorrh doesn't have a single plot, but multiple storylines that intersect around a fantastic African forest of great antiquity, the titular Vorrh, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We follow a French writer who visits the forest, several Europeans living in a colonial city at the forest's edge, a local ex-soldier, the great Scots photographer Muybridge, and several local shamans and/or medical doctors, not to mention mysterious slaves, William Gull, a cyclops, monsters, robotic teaching puppets, a growing population of ghosts, a disembodied assassin, and, most importantly, a woman turned into a bow. Their stories dodge back and forth in time, especially as identities change or disappear.
A note on genre: as you might gather from the preceding, The Vorrh is a fantasy, or a work of magic realism. We see realistic details alongside objects and forces drawn from myth and imagination. The forest seems to exist somewhere all across North Africa, stretching down along the eastern coast, yet also near the Mediterranean. As with, say, the works of Tim Powers, this novel works fantastic elements into the nitty gritty of daily life. It also reads like surrealist art and fiction, with genuinely strange scenes and ideas: a cyclops going to a carnival, after being taught from mysterious crates by helpful puppets.
The Vorrh is also an adventure novel, with several characters engaged on epic quests, and including gunfire, ambushes, betrayals, curses, sex scenes, torture, and rebellion. *And* it's alternate history, positing a colonial enterprise that didn't exist, and including historical personages, such as Roussel, Gull and Muybridge. Additionally, steampunk fans may find some fun machines.
A note on style: Catling has a flair for surprising word choice and lovely phrases, with touches of sardonic wit.
Este had foreseen her death while working in our garden, an uncapping of momentum in the afternoon sun. (Kindle location 131)
He stepped over a gurgling drain and emptied the bullets out of the gun; they fell like brass comets into the speeding firmament below. (4291)
Cyrena Lohr combed the city and caught three names, which now wriggled in her teeth. (2589)
"I want to be forgotten for who I am, not judged for how I have been made." (5934)
For so it is among those who shed lives every few years: They keep their deflated interior causeways, hold them running parallel with their current usable ones; ghost arteries, sleeping shrunken next to those that pump life. Hushed lymphatics, like quiet ivy alongside the speeding juice of now. Nerve trees like bone coral, hugging the whisper of bellowing communications.(338)
...a great stench of hope rose... (3686)
The camera was a collector not of light, but of time, and the time it cherished most was in the anticipation of death. (1609)
She had found [a book] confused and obscure. No doubt it was art, for she knew him to be a man of dangerous appetites and total selfishness.(2001)
She had a smouldering attractiveness that hid beneath a face that melted uncontrollably between the ages of eight and eighty-one. (5507)
A note on references: The Vorrh opens with a flourish of entertaining allusions. Frobenius is there to make us think of German colonialism in Africa. Conrad brings up the European enterprise more generally. Zen and the Art of Archery teases us about the bow. Once the book gets going, Catling quietly builds up a larger referential world. The Bible is a touchstone throughout, sometimes literally. Flann O'Brien is namechecked once (2525) , to my delight.
A note on politics: The Vorrh soaks in Europe's colonialist past, and runs all kinds of risks in doing so. European characters exploit and literally enslave the locals. Catling, not from Africa, narrates from local points of view. The entire enterprise risks something like Orientalism by creating a fantasty world in a far-off, exploitable land for colonial people to explore.
But Catling pulls it off, I think. The Europeans don't fare that well, overall, resembling less Stanley and more Mungo Park. For example, (view spoiler)[several characters are killed, their slaves freed, and the crucial timber trade falls apart. We also never really learn about the heart of the forest, denying that grail to foreigners and readers alike. (hide spoiler)] And the Vorrh isn't really feminized. Kij Johnson goes further, arguing that "what this book is not, is about Africa".
Do I recommend The Vorrh? Do I ever. But with cautions. It's challenging, not often giving readers comfortable ways in. The plots sprawl and their actions often suspend themselves. Reading enough of this novel brings about a kind of trance effect, not onlike watching a Tarkovsky film. This ain't Dragonlance.
So read it. This may be the greatest fantasy of the decade. Here's one good review.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more