I can’t remember where I first heard about Dan Vyleta’s novel Smoke, which I think falls somewhere in between the YA and adult literature genres, but I’d had it on my shopping list for a year when the paperback version appeared in June for under $10. Offering a gothic-themed setting in an alternate reality where sin is revealed as visible Smoke emanating from the sinner’s body, Smoke follows its trio of compelling characters through a physical and metaphysical journey that leads them to question everything they’ve been told by their parents, teachers, and every other moral authorities in their lives.

Set some time in the late 19th century, Smoke begins, as so many young adult books do, in a boarding school, where we meet Thomas, a volatile child with hidden rage and some sort of secret in his family background; and Charlie, his new best friend at school, a more mild-mannered, rule-abiding kid. The school is for children of the upper class, who send their kids there to learn to avoid producing Smoke – easier said than done, as it turns out – as part of the complex social hierarchy that has evolved to protect those who don’t smoke, the gentry, from those who do. The opening scene, which does a wonderful job of pulling you right into the story, sets Thomas up against his antagonist for the remainder of the book, Julius, a Malfoyesque character who runs the school’s unofficial but apparently tolerated inquisitorial squad. What appears at the start to be a conflict among boys, two good against one evil, takes a hard and unexpected right turn when they visit Thomas’s aunt and uncle over the holidays, only to find themselves plunged right into the heart of the mystery of Smoke and on a quest to try and solve it, to save Thomas’s life and perhaps overturn the entire autocracy the aristocrats have constructed with Smoke as their weapon.

Vyleta takes the story from there into some surprising places, and does well to create a panoply of opponents for the two boys and Thomas’s cousin, Lydia, as they work on unraveling the knot of Smoke. There are some agents who are clearly evil, but many others who are working at opposing purposes to the kids for independent, moral, or even banal reasons. Eventually, we need and get a showdown with the worst of the baddies, but it is not central to the book the way it is to so many YA fantasy novels. (I’ve seen it referred to in video games, especially for RPGs, as the “Kill the Big Foozle” plot device.) It’s the other stuff that makes Smoke … um, sizzle, because the varying motivations and understanding of what’s actually going on beneath the skin, literally and metaphorically, open up the characters to natural discussions about right and wrong, moral authority, and historical revisionism. The most obvious target of Vyleta’s satire is the Church – Catholic, Anglican, you pick – although much of Smoke‘s subversive subtext works quite as well when applied to the pernicious effects of classism, environmental racism, or how people respond to totalitarian regimes.

By setting up a multi-threaded conflict, Vyleta set up a delightfully unconventional ending with plenty of tension, including the big fight that some readers will demand, but also resolving other plot threads in unexpected ways, not always thoroughly (by design) but at least hinting at what the End of Smoke might entail for whole groups of people whose identities are tied to the status quo. The book itself was inspired by a line from Dickens’ Dombey and Son, but the vibe of Smoke is much more along the lines of Lev Grossman’s superb trilogy The Magicians: It’s a bit dark, but not overwhelmingly so, and there’s plenty of humor and empathy to balance out the sinister elements. It’s too well-written to call it a true YA novel, but the themes would be appropriate for teens.

Next up: I read James Gould Cozzens’ Pulitzer-winning novel Guard of Honor, and it was just so bad – boring in story and prose – that I’m not going to bother with a full review. I’m now 2/3 of the way through Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which is $2 right now for the Kindle.

Inglourious Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds won widespread accolades, including eight Oscar nominations, for its portrayal of an alternate ending to World War II that involves Jews killing Nazis while working in enough allusions to other movies to fill a film studies major’s thesis. As someone insufficiently schooled in the genres Tarantino reveres, however, I didn’t get the full value of the work and found the movie, judged mainly on plot and character, a little less than fulfilling.

The movie interlaces two plots to assassinate members of the Nazi high command in a Paris theater during the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film called Nation’s Pride. The Basterds of the film’s title are a ragtag group of soldiers, mostly American Jews, led by Appalachian-born Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who informs the crew that their mission is to kill “Natsies” (rhymes with “patsies”) and scalp them. The second plot involves the sole survivor of the massacre of a French Jewish family in the opening scene, a young girl named Shoshana who ends up (improbably) as the owner of a small theater in Paris that is chosen for said premiere. Seeing her opportunity for revenge, she hatches a plot to burn down the theater full of Nazi officers and soldiers, unaware that the Basterds are planning to blow the place up during the same event.

By far the star of the movie is Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, an effete Nazi “detective” who prides himself on a particular talent for finding Jews and, as it turns out, traitors. Humanizing the inhuman has become something of a cliché, but Tarantino/Waltz don’t humanize this central Nazi character so much as smear him with a veener of normality, beneath which lies a venal, selfish soldier who takes orders without question until it is in his own personal interests to do otherwise. He bears a superficial charm with his upper-class manners, speaks several languages fluently (always with a proper, urbane accent), and moves seamlessly from one to the next, and engages in small talk even though he knows he is about to commit or order a murder. It takes multiple scenes to reveal the depths of his personality and how that surface layer is merely a cover for a man who will make good for himself any way he can. His pleasure in identifying a situation where he holds all the cards (the “Bingo!” scene) shows how willingly he will change his strategy to suit his own needs while also revealing how much he revels in something as trivial as correctly utilizing an English-American colloquialism. One small flaw in Landa’s design, however, is that we are given only the slightest glimpse of what makes him a good detective, and that comes from his own soliloquy about how he thinks as the fugitive might think – nothing terribly clever or enlightening.

The film’s best scene doesn’t involve Waltz, however, and only resorts to Tarantino’s cartoonish violence at its very end, once the story within the scene has played out. Three of the Basterds are meeting with a German actress/double agent in the basement* of a tavern in a small town outside of Paris, but their rendezvous is compromised by a group of low-ranked German soldiers getting plastered because one just became a father, which leads to the intrusion of a much higher-ranking officer who eavesdropped on the conversation and believes, based on one of the Basterds’ accents when speaking German, that they are frauds. We know it’s not likely to end well, and that any chance of the Basterds’ escape would mean extermination of everyone else in the room, but instead of racing to the obvious conclusion, Tarantino draws it out with natural dialogue, long pauses, and shots of the most volatile of the three Basterds slowly coming to a boil as the conversation with the German officer drags on. It’s tightly shot with no wasted words or unnecessary delays, leaving you as the frog in the pot of cold water as someone gradually turns up the heat.

*Which leads to Brad Pitt’s character warning about fighting in basements. Pretty clever, Q.

Unfortunately, a few minutes later, Tarantino draws out the worst scene in the film to excruciating result, trying to extract comedy from the blindingly obvious as Lt. Raine and two of his Basterds attempt to infiltrate the theater in the guise of Eye-talians, with comically bad accents to match. You know they have no shot to pass any inspection, but where drawing out the scene in the tavern created tension, drawing out the scene in the theater lobby made me want to reach for the fast-forward button.

I’ve also read some criticism of the film for turning its Jewish heroes into sadistic killers along the lines of the Nazis they’re fighting. It’s an interesting point, one I raise here (even though it is not my own – it didn’t really occur to me as I watched the film) for discussion purposes. My immediate reaction to the argument is that the film is so obviously fantasy that the heroes’ bloodlust is merely a physical manifestation of the deep desire for revenge that would be difficult, if not impossible, to display without having the characters channel it into outright violence.

Overall, however, there’s a restraint here I don’t associate with Tarantino, and in this case I think it detracted from the movie as a whole. Of course, there’s no restraint from violence – we see scalpings, stabbings, shootings, and even a strangulation up close – but the story itself is small despite the seemingly grand ambitions of the plot. The commercials for the film indicated a grossly comic romp of daring American misfit soldiers wreaking havoc behind enemy lines, killing Nazis in a glossy revenge fantasy that mixes highbrow dialogue with lowbrow humor and graphic violence. Inglourious Basterds is nothing of the sort, which made it much less funny than I expected while leaving most of the revenge for a single extended scene at the end of the film. It’s an homage to spaghetti westerns and World War II films with references to art films and even fine arts, nearly all of which went right over my head. If you follow the allusions, it is probably a far more enjoyable film. As a devourer of plot and a philistine in all of the fields to which Tarantino alludes, however, I was disappointed and even a little confused.

Shades of Grey.

I did a quick chat today on my flight back from the SEC tournament, although the connection was a little sluggish and I didn’t get to as many questions as I usually do. I wrote about Drew Pomeranz and Anthony Ranaudo on Wednesday evening, and did a now-somewhat-dated first-round projection on Monday. I’ll update that projection over the weekend, and the new version should be out on Memorial Day.

I’m an unabashed Jasper Fforde ffan, recommending his books to friends, family members, and just about any of you who ask for a book recommendation. His original series involved the literary detective Thursday Next and was set in an alternate reality where the world inside books exists and can even interact with and be manipulated by people in our world. (Oddly enough, this reality also has Wales as an independent communist state.) The first book involves a villain who kills a minor character in Martin Chuzzlewit and stops the plot of Jane Eyre in its tracks. His second series, Nursery Crimes, branched off from Thursday Next’s world, instead playing with the characters from childrens’ stories, including a menacing Gingerbread Man and the happily married Punch and Judy, who still beat the tar out of each other.

Fforde has left this literary realm for a new series, with the first book released in December after a delay of over a year. Shades of Grey has its own alternate reality, a world many centuries (perhaps over a millennium) in the future where humans have devolved (or bred) to where most people can only see a single color, and which color you see and how strongly you see it affects your social and economic standing. The society of the book is called The Collective, a socialist enterprise with a long and strict set of rules known as the Word of Munsell – a reference to Albert Henry Munsell, who devised a three-dimensional taxonomy for classifying colors. And there seems to be a chronic shortage of spoons.

Enter the protagonist, nineteen-year-old Eddie Russett, who has been sent with his color-healer father to the distant town of East Carmine as a punishment, ostensibly for a prank played on the son of a prefect in his original town, but who begins to sense that East Carmine is rife with corruption and might have even seen a murder, allegedly a thing of the past in Chromatacia. As Eddie begins to dig – while trying to avoid Jane Grey, who has a reputation for doing violence to anyone who crosses her or mentions her quite retroussé nose – he runs afoul of the Gamboge family, who wield tremendous power in East Carmine, and is also taxed in trying to maintain his half-promised engagement to Constance Oxblood, a wealthy family desperate to marry its daughter off to someone with high red perception like Eddie.

Shades of Grey is macabre, twisted, and funny, like all Fforde novels, but with a stronger undercurrent of even social criticism. Much of Chromatacia’s social structure resembles that of the old Catholic Church, from strict adherence to scripture (the aforementioned Word of Munsell) to the ruling class’ use of fear and uncertainty as a tool to keep the lower classes, particularly the laboring Greys, who are one step above slaves, oppressed. Chromatacia’s socialist system also comes in for some withering satire, as the system is inherently corrupt and open to abuse by people at all levels who shirk their duties or find ways to line their pockets outside of the official reckoning. And, of course, there are obvious parallels to racial or socioeconomic prejudices, although Fforde doesn’t overplay them, and the perceptive-versus-Grey dichotomy is muted by all of the infighting among Yellows, Reds, and Purples.

Fforde’s wordplay, a huge element in his earlier series, is still in evidence here, including the references to Munsell and the name of the test used to determine color perception – Ishihara, named for the man who devised those circles of dots used to test for color blindness. He has fun with names, delving into some obscure colors while also offering some puns and other almost-unforgivable combinations like the Grey named Zane, and he even crafts a little slang for his artificial world, such as the term used for people who abuse certain shades of green that heal pain or give pleasure when viewed – “chasing the frog.”

The great benefit of Shades of Grey for anyone new to Fforde is that it requires no foreknowledge – you’ll catch more allusions if you’re familiar with colors and a little of the science of color, but you could read this book cold and still enjoy it. The Eyre Affair and its sequels are fantastic, but if you don’t know a little about British literature, you’ll miss too many of the jokes – I ended up re-reading the book after reading Jane Eyre, and only then did I fully understand why the book’s conclusion is so funny. Even the Nursery Crimes books, starting with The Big Over Easy (starring detective Jack Spratt and … well, you probably know about his wife), need a little knowledge of nursery rhymes for maximum enjoyment. I recommend everything he’s written, but Shades of Grey gives you an opportunity to enter the demented, witty mind of Jasper Fforde without having to finish any prereq’s.

Next up: Dawn Powell’s Angels on Toast.

In a Perfect World.

Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World soft, ethereal prose with a distinctly dystopian vision hauntingly grounded in current reality to tell a story about grace and maternal love in difficult, unexpected circumstances. It’s a little like The Road as written by the female version of Richard Russo.

The protagonist, Jiselle Dorn, is a flight attendant who has just married a handsome pilot and widowed father of three named Mark and moved into his house with his three kids just as a virulent illness known as “the Phoenix flu” is starting to spread, killing, on page 9, Britney Spears, as well as a few other celebrities. Rather than drop us into a post-apocalyptic world as McCarthy did, Kasischke focuses on minutiae, with the relationship between Jiselle and two of Mark’s three kids – her immediate bond with his youngest child, Sam, and the animosity she faces from middle child Sara – at the center of the novel’s first half. The flu’s spread accelerates and society begins to slowly crack around the family, while Mark ends up stuck out of the country, leaving Jiselle to run his house and family and cope with large and small issues simultaneously while evaluating the choices she’s made, the factors in her life that made her make those very choices, and the evolving situation around her.

The novel ends almost mid-sentence, without clear resolutions to macro plot questions like how far and wide the epidemic spreads. The resolution resides in tiny gestures and words and little symbols of hope and grace, and I had to re-read the last few pages to grasp where Kasischke wanted to leave us while shaking off my innate desire for some sort of clear conclusion to the Phoenix flu storyline, which was, after all, just background. It’s a bold way to end a novel, risky for anyone looking for a mass-market audience that likes its chapters short, its villains villainous, and its endings neat. But because Kasischke crafted the Jiselle character so well, I empathized with her to the point that, after the second read, I got the ending by standing in the character’s place.

The one flaw in the novel mirrored Russo’s work as well. Russo has never been great at crafting female characters, and nearly all of the men in In a Perfect World are two-dimensional or worse. Mark in particular is more plot device than character, and I found it very hard to understand some of his actions toward Jiselle and his children. Outside of Mark’s son, Sam, the rest of the men seemed like props, and a potential plot thread involving neighbor Paul Temple went nowhere.

In a Perfect World was published in 2009 and I assume it was written in 2008, before the H1N1 threat emerged, making her choice to build the book around a scary communicable disease a little prescient. Beyond that, however, Kasischke touches on issues like climate change, energy costs, and distrust of government, dropping accent colors in the background rather than giving us long-winded sermons by central characters. It’s a thoughtful, compelling read if you appreciate books driven by small events and emotions rather than major turning points, and the gradual decline in the world inside the book provides more than enough narrative greed to get you to the end.

Next up: As promised, Aldous Huxley’s Island. I received both books gratis from the publisher.