All the Light We Cannot See.

Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, defies the standards for that prize in its complete lack of American characters or themes, but the work itself overcame the prize rules’ stated preference for a work “dealing with American life” with exquisite plotting and searing character portraits. The novel seems ripe for sentiment – I can only imagine what Hollywood will do to the conclusion – but Doerr manages to dance on the line separating emotion from mawkishness without crossing it, building up to a single moment lasting no more than two pages that brings his two protagonists together in one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in years. (It’s only out in hardcover in the U.S. but is available in paperback in the U.K.)

Doerr gives us two narrative threads for most of the book, adding a third a bit later on to help tie the first two together, with each of the pair of primary subplots featuring one of his two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind 12-year-old girl who flees Paris with her father, a locksmith at the French Museum of Natural History, when the Nazis invade in 1940; and Werner, a German orphan who saves himself from a life in the mines by showing an early aptitude for working with electronics, especially radio transmitters. Marie and her father, who may have been entrusted with a priceless jewel from the museum’s collection, end up in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the northern coast of Brittany that was badly damaged by Allies near the end of World War II; when her father is taken prisoner by the Nazis on questionable pretenses, her care falls to her shell-shocked great-uncle Étienne, who has a sizable radio transmitter in his home’s hidden top floor. Werner ends up in a draconian military academy before a little age-modification lands him a spot in a roving military unit that’s assigned to locate and snuff out Resistance radio transmitters within occupied Europe. When Marie and her great-uncle join the Resistance and begin such transmissions, it’s obvious that Werner’s unit will end up in Saint-Malo to try to find the source … but she’s also sought by the Nazi treasure-hunter von Rumpel, who believes her father took the genuine diamond and is desperate to retrieve it before he runs out of time.

The story comes to the reader in very short bursts, too short to be called chapters, with interludes toward the very end of the war interspersed throughout the longer sections that lead from 1934 (when Marie-Laure and Werner are still little children) to the war’s outbreak, eventually catching up to the second timeline in the interludes where all three subplots collide in Saint-Malo. Flashbacks are themselves a tired technique, but the brevity of each passage gives the novel the quick-reading feel of an epistolary work, and in this case there’s value in forewarning the reader of the tension of the final denouement while also tipping us off that certain secondary characters might not be around for it.

Doerr relies a bit too much on coincidence to deepen the tie between Werner and Marie, a detail that in some ways overshadows the generosity of spirit in their single encounter, where Werner takes multiple actions that save Marie’s life. However, he avoids so many other hackneyed devices both in the path to that scene and in that meeting itself that still manages to explore new emotional territory, looking into the possibility of kindness within the heart of darkness in ways I’ve only seen before in fictionalized parent-child relationships. (All the Light is also one of the only contemporary novels for adults I’ve read recently that has very little sex or profanity, both of which are frequent and overused crutches in modern adult fiction.)

Marie-Laure is a bit romanticized, the innocent girl waiting for one of various men – her father, her uncle, and eventually Werner – to save her, but Werner is a fully-formed character with ambition and remorse, driven by emotional and physical needs to succeed at his task yet haunted by knowledge of the results of his triangulations and scarred repeatedly by assaults on the shreds of his innocence. He is the moral center of the book, this teenaged Nazi soldier through whom Doerr shows us the horrors of war via an unusual and new lens.

Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo winner Lord of Light.

Foreign Affairs.

Alison Lurie’s 1984 novel Foreign Affairs is a comic drama with two interconnected narratives, each involving an American in the UK who becomes involved romantically with someone we might say was an unexpected match for each of them. Her prose is lofty but laden with wit, while she’s simultaneously exploring existential questions for each of her two protagonists. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985, and while I often say I can’t understand why such-and-such a novel won that award, this time I absolutely get it: This is what I’d expect a Pulitzer winner to look like, a book that is strong but not an all-time classic (the Pulitzer board never seems to get those right), and that addresses a theme that lies at the heart of the American experience. In that sense, it’s a little disappointing that the book hasn’t endured at all – even the adaptation, a made-for-TV movie, has all but vanished – because it’s better than many highly-praised contemporary novels.

The two protagonists, the fifty-something divorcée Virginia “Vinnie” Miner and the young and married-but-maybe-separated Fred Turner, are both part of the faculty at Corinth University in upstate New York, and are both in England for roughly six-month research sabbaticals, Miner on English folk rhymes and Turner on the poet-dramatist John Gay. Vinnie is the more prominent of the two within the book, although Lurie weaves their stories together by connecting their social circles, in part via Turner’s affair with the rather high-maintenance TV actress Rosemary Radley, whose penchant for melodrama goes beyond her soap-opera role.

But it quickly became clear to me that Lurie enjoyed writing Vinnie more than she did Fred, both through the depth of the characterization and through her evident enjoyment of the more ornery parts of Vinnie’s personality:

For a moment she speculates as to what sort of man would embark on a transatlantic flight without reading materials, categorizing him as philistine and as improvident.

This is what we around here like to call foreshadowing, but, more to the point, this is exactly how I view people who get on a long flight without bringing any kind of distraction. Vinnie fears that her seatmate will try to initiate a long, boring conversation to occupy himself, something she dreads because she has prejudged him, and while I’m not quite so quick to one-look a fellow passenger I would generally rather read my book or write whatever it is I intend to write than spend a flight in idle conversation. (There have been exceptions, of course, and those tend to be pretty rewarding, which should encourage me to chat more often, but I don’t, because then I wouldn’t be me.) Vinnie is a woman who judges everyone in comic fashion in her internal monologues – she terms someone else “a person without inner resources who splits infinitives,” although I personally keep a silver axe on my desk specifically for infinitive-splitting – which, of course, is a window on her problems forming long-term relationships, both platonic and romantic.

Lurie drops words like “percipient” and “meretricious,” although she saves that voice for Vinnie’s chapters, but her shifting tones make it seem as if she looks down somewhat on Fred, who has squabbled with Roo over a subject simultaneously trivial and credible and thus went to London alone even though they’d planned to go together. Fred ends up having the affair mentioned above, with a woman who’s older than he is but whose emotional development appears to have been arrested, and, like many men who believe themselves deeply in love, he acts like an idiot. Vinnie’s affair is more sensible, if sedate, whereas Fred just makes you want to reach into the page and smack some sense into him. Vinnie, of course, can’t quite figure out what Fred’s up to – seeing him at a cocktail party shortly after her arrival, her thoughts run, “she knew he was alone here, having somehow misplaced his wife, though she had no idea how he had done this” – and ends up having to get involved against her own insular nature, which dictates no nonrequired interactions with other people.

Neither affair ends happily; they are affairs, after all, which end more or less by definition (cf. Greene, Graham), although one gets a comic ending while the other a tragic one. Lurie seems more focused on the effects of the dalliances on the characters, and indeed the effects of being out of one’s home country on two characters who see the experience so differently, which comes back to why this seems such a fitting winner of the Pulitzer. This book’s core theme is distinctly American, and by depicting two of us abroad in different emotional circumstances, she delivers some insights on what defines Americans and binds us together.

Next up: Ah, I’ve fallen a bit behind, but in addition to ripping through the Nero Wolfe mystery (I do love those) Death of a Doxy, I’ve finished Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (and now need to see the movie) and am halfway through Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

A Scanner Darkly.

I love the works of Philip K. Dick, prolific author of science fiction novels and short stories that often dwelt in paranoia and paradoxes, unrespected during his lifetime but finding a cult following since his death in 1982, with an increasing interest lately from Hollywood. The upcoming Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle (based on his best novel) and the Fox series Minority Report (based on a short story) are both derived from his works, as were the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau. So you know PKD’s writing even if you haven’t ready any.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his least speculative novels, hewing very closely to reality other than its depiction of a war on drugs that has gone even further than it ultimately did, using some futuristic technologies (and yet still relying on payphones) and putting its protagonist narc, Fred, undercover with suspected drug dealers where he ends up a user himself. The drug in question, Substance D, is a highly addictive, synthetic, psychoactive drug that has become hugely popular while stymieing attempts by the feds to discover its manufacturer. Fred, posing as the low-level dealer Bob Arctor, tries to learn the source via another low-level dealer Donna, for whom he also has unrequited feelings. His adoption of these dual roles is exacerbated by his use of Substance D, which can cause the hemispheres of the brain to stop working together and start competing with each other, so that he’s no longer aware of what his other persona has done. When this occurs, the story shifts into high gear, as Fred/Bob’s real role in this charade becomes apparent and he has a chance to carve some meaning out of his experience in addiction.

Dick’s paranoia is still present in A Scanner Darkly, with the government using increasingly invasive methods and technologies to investigate Substance D’s distribution; the novel, written in the mid-1970s, foresaw much of what our government now does in the name of fighting terrorism. But the focus of the novel is on the effects of the drug itself, the terrible spiral into which it sends addicts, with Fred/Bob’s descent into cognitive failure taking over from what appears for the first half of the book to be a demented detective story. Dick even concludes the novel with a postscript that discusses drug addiction and laments the many friends he lost to death or disability as a result of their use of drugs, although he argues that drug “misuse” isn’t a disease but “a decision,” a position on to which modern medicine has at least cast some doubt.

Whereas many of Dick’s novels offer incomplete resolutions or deliberately unsatisfying endings, A Scanner Darkly ties up its story in a neat and clever fashion, but in a bait-and-switch manner that leaves that first half to two-thirds of the novel feeling like it was irrelevant. Perhaps Dick meant for the the structure of the novel to mimic the timeline of a drug addict’s (bad) experience – you’re fine for a while until you’ve gone too far, when everything goes pear-shaped – but the result is a novel that feels disjointed, and not in the good way that many PKD novels feel disjointed. We also don’t get to know any characters, least of all Fred-Bob, in any depth, although characterization was not a strength of Dick’s overall – his greatest attribute as a writer was his ability to craft unnerving settings and scenes that often struck at the heart of metaphysical matters like consciousness, perception versus reality, and privacy. A Scanner Darkly veers away from those strengths, and the result left me somewhat cold.

The novel was also adapted into a 2006 film by Richard Linklater, but I haven’t seen it.

Next up: I just finished Dorothy Sayers’ second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Clouds of Witness, and have begun Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Foreign Affairs.

A Bell for Adano.

John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.

Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.

While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.

So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Red Mars.

I have a scouting blog up with notes from three games I saw last week, covering Jeff Hoffman, Gleyber Torres, Matt Strahm, Spencer Adams, and Brad Markey.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy won a Nebula Award for the first book (Red Mars), Hugo Awards for the second (Green Mars) and third (Blue Mars), and Locus Awards for the second and third, as well as a passel of other awards and nominations. I just finished Red Mars, the dense 570-page opener, on Friday, and I can’t fathom why it won the Nebula or has spawned a cult following that appears to be leading toward a scripted series on Spike TV.

The Mars trilogy covers the first human attempt to colonize Mars, with a mission leaving Earth in 2026 (heh) with 100 colonizers chosen largely for their scientific and engineering skills. The goal is merely to establish a permanent settlement that may open the door for further research and potential economic activity like heavy-metal mining, but as conditions on Earth deteriorate due to war, pollution, and overpopulation, emigration to Mars becomes a reality and accelerates beyond the point that the red planet can handle it – especially since Mars is freezing and its thin atmosphere comprises mostly carbon dioxide. This in turn exacerbates the initial philosophical divide among the “first hundred” of whether humans should attempt to terraform Mars and make it suitable for long-term human settlement, or if humans have any responsibility to maintain the planet’s environment and, if present, any ecosystem that might exist at a microscopic level.

Red Mars is hard science fiction, very heavy on the technical aspects of its subject, with painstaking attempts to keep it as scientifically accurate as it can be. That means the book is about as dry as the Martian equator, as Robinson devotes paragraphs and even pages to details that contribute nothing to the plot and only serve to show that the author has indeed done his research. I can understand the desire to convince the reader that something like the space elevator transportation system is feasible, for example, but the point of including it in a work of fiction should be to show its effect on the characters within the story, not merely to say, “hey, cool, a space elevator!”

Robinson seems so caught up in demonstrating the technologies required for the mission and his mastery of their specifics that he spends very little time developing the book’s central characters, roughly a dozen of the first hundred who play significant roles in the novel’s multistranded story arc. Two of the most significant ones are dead before the book even ends, as are a few characters of less importance, and while many dramatic works benefit from the uncertainty around characters’ fates, Red Mars isn’t one of them. There’s no sense of impending jeopardy to raise tensions, and when the novel ends with a lengthy journey where several of the first hundred escape from Terran forces, I never doubted that they’d succeed in reaching their destination. And, most damning of all, I didn’t really care if they didn’t, so long as Robinson didn’t bore me to death first with details of how their little rovers worked or more about that bizarre flood that, even with all his descriptive text, I still could not for the life of me manage to picture in my head.

So my question to those of you who’ve braved this series is whether it’s worth it to continue, as I’ve been reading past Hugo winners, which would include both of the next two books in the series. My instinct is no, that the issue was Robinson’s writing style, and that seems unlikely to improve from book to book, at least not enough for me to plod through another 1200 pages.

Next up: I just finished A Bell for Adano, a wonderful satirical war novel by John Hersey (author of the famed New Yorker piece Hiroshima) and have begun Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Einstein’s Cosmos plus seven other books.

I’ve fallen way behind in book reviews, so rather than procrastinate further and get upset with myself for letting this many pile up, here are my thoughts on eight books I’ve read recently.

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku does a remarkable job of taking a dense scientific topic and making it accessible in Einstein’s Cosmos, part of the same Great Discoveries series that includes Everything and More by David Foster Wallace and Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstein. Part biography of Einstein, part survey course in theoretical physics, Einstein’s Cosmos takes the reader back to Einstein’s childhood, dispelling some myths about his youth and eventually leading to the best lay explanation of special relativity I’ve come across. Kaku doesn’t stint on some of Einstein’s less flattering moments, such as his early opposition to quantum field theory, but presents him as a man of great principle as well as an uncommon ability to visualize difficult problems in physics, a skill that first allowed him to formulate the theory of special relativity by asking what would happen if he could chase a beam of light while he himself was traveling at the speed of light. Kaku has to give the reader a substantial amount of information to get to the point of special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy, including a basic discussion of Maxwell’s equations, four partial differential equations that describe the formation and behavior of electromagnetic fields (above the quantum level, which Maxwell’s equations can only approximate). None of this is easy, but Kaku’s explanations are accessible even if you’ve never taken calculus, because his focus is on the meaning of these formulas and theories rather than on their precise functions. He also gives color the portrait of Einstein, who was an eccentric and widely beloved figure, without reducing him to caricature by repeating old tropes about him being a terrible student (he was a superb student when he cared about the subject) or a mere patent clerk (university politics kept him out of academia at first, not a lack of skill or background). I recommend it very highly if you’re at all interested in the man or his discoveries and, like me, are a long way removed from any coursework that might otherwise be necessary to understand it.

Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief tells the story of rare map dealer turned thief E. Forbes Smiley III, and follows in the footsteps of an earlier book about another crook who cut rare maps from ancient atlases, Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. While Blanding’s book is better written and organized, giving a breezy history of cartography and explaining why some of these maps are so rare, the subject of the book, Smiley, is a fairly milquetoast character, even when Blanding tries to give him more dimension by talking about his attempts to remake a small town in rural Maine. This sort of non-fiction book tends to work best when the central narrative involves a literal or figurative chase, but Blanding spends scant time on the portion of Smiley’s story between the discovery that he may have taken some maps (or even that maps were missing) to his arrest. Harvey’s book, on the other hand, tells the story of the appropriately-named Gilbert Bland, an antiques dealer with no apparent personality, by turning into more of an old-fashioned crime book, documenting his crimes and the process of tracking him down in a way that covers up Bland’s lack of character. Both books are solid reads in their own rights, with Blanding’s shorter and more tightly organized, while Harvey’s has more narrative greed.

I’m still gradually working my way through the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners, and read two winners from the 1990s that were good-not-great, although in one case I could at least easily understand why it won. Steven Millhauer’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer reads like a fable, detailing the titular character’s rise from his youth as the son of a cigar-store owner to successful hotelier and entrepreneur, only to find with each new venture that his ambition is unsated, eventually pushing himself to build a hotel so grandiose that it fails. Along the way, Dressler marries the wrong woman, an entirely unconvincing subplot that undermined much of the novel’s narrative force. I could see the Pulitzer committee loving the book for its exploration of the superficiality of the American Dream.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, later adapted into a Best Picture-nominated film that starred three of the best actresses of its specific time (Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf), seemed to fit the Pulitzer Committee’s loose standards less, but was a more literary, well-rounded work. Cunningham crafts three vaguely interconnected novellas and weaves them together with frequent shifts between them, setting them in three different times, with the only overt connection via Mrs. Dalloway: one story follows Woolf as she’s writing it, the other two revolve around women who’ve read the book and felt a deep connection to it. I would probably have enjoyed or appreciated The Hours more if I’d actually liked Mrs. Dalloway or had at least read it more recently, although the way Cunningham eventually connects the two non-Woolf stories, while somewhat predictable, is touching without devolving into mere sentiment, and still left me wanting more of that unified storyline.

I love Evelyn Waugh’s novels, but Helena, a short work of historical fiction, did nothing for me. It’s missing most of his trademark humor, instead telling a fictionalized version of the life of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, who made a pilgrimage to Syriana and, according to legend, rediscovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Waugh converted to Catholicism after writing his first novel, Vile Bodies, and while there are strains of his religious belief through all of his later works, Helena feels maudlin and ends with a passage that you might characterize as magical realism depending on your point of view on Christianity. Waugh apparently considered this one of his best novels, but since his satirical prose and eye were what made him a great novelist, Helena feels inconsequential in comparison.

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, winner of a National Book Award in 1982, came recommended by my friend Samantha, an avid bibliophile who favors shorter fiction where I go for novels. So Long is a 135-page novella that explores loss and memory through the eyes of an old man remembering his broken connection with a friend when the latter’s father committed a shocking murder. The narrator goes back to the time of the murder and recounts the circumstances that led up to it, although I imagine his account is supposed to be unreliable (as with the imagined recollections of the narrator of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime). Maxwell depicts the life of the small town in Southern Illinois in often painful detail, walking through the minds of the three principals in the affair that led to the murder, and actually devotes little page time to his friend, the unfortunately-named Cletus, whom I couldn’t picture as anything but a slack-jawed yokel.

Dodie Smith’s name may not be familiar to you, but you know her work: She wrote the children’s book that Disney adapted for 101 Dalmatians. She also wrote a novel, I Capture the Castle, that’s highly regarded in England but seems to have never caught on here, perhaps because its subject is so very British. The 1949 novel starts out like a Jane Austen book: Two sisters move into a remote castle with their author father, who subsequently falls into severe writer’s block and finds himself unable to produce another novel – or any income, with the girls’ stepmother only barely more able to provide. A wealthy family moves into the neighborhood, with two very eligible bachelor sons, one of whom takes a fancy to the narrator’s sister … but Smith avoids the predictable and crafts a compelling narrative by having the younger sister, Cassandra, tell the story through her journal, with scrupulous honesty. I was hoping for a little more humor, but the seventeen-year-old narrator’s voice doesn’t have Austen’s wry comic style. The descriptions of the family’s privations early in the book wore on, but the denouement justified much of the time spent to get there.

The final book in this list gets the shortest writeup. Cesare Pavere’s The Moon and the Bonfires tells of an Italian expatriate’s return to his hometown after the devastation of the Mussolini regime and the second World War, and the tragedies he uncovers while obviously hoping to return to a town unchanged. Without any knowledge of the specific history of Italy under fascism, however, I failed to connect with the story or any of the characters. The isolation of the protagonist and the sparse prose reminded me of Camus, and not in a good way.

The Goldfinch.

I have Insider posts up on Troy Tulowitzki trade, the Ben Zobrist trade, and the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

Donna Tartt’s nearly 800-page bildungsroman The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, sparking an ongoing controversy over its worthiness, with some highbrow critics arguing that its prose was too pedestrian while other critics and authors railed against the inherent elitism of those claims. I think I come down in the vast middle between the two camps: It’s a good novel, certainly not dumbed-down for anybody, elaborately plotted and written in an adult voice, yet it finishes weakly and doesn’t seem to fit the admittedly vague guidelines for the Pulitzer (“for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”). It is, however, one of the only books I’ve ever read that seems to take a serious view of post-traumatic stress disorder and tries to bring it to life in an empathetic yet unstinting fashion.

Theo Decker, the protagonist and narrator of The Goldfinch, is a typical, bookish thirteen-year-old boy, living in Manhattan with his adoring mother after his alcoholic father walked out on them a few months earlier, when the two of them are caught in a terrorist attack on an art museum that’s exhibiting Dutch painter Carel Patritius’ (real) painting of the book’s title. The blast kills Theo’s mother, while Theo, in another room at the time of the explosion, tries to comfort an older man who’s dying near him and who tells Theo to take The Goldfinch from the wall, perhaps to protect it. Theo ends up carrying the painting with him for years, a physical manifestation of the PTSD (reminiscent in a slight way of Emma Sulkowicz’ Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)) from the attack, which he chooses to self-medicate via substance abuse and reckless behavior. The story takes him from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam, where the novel makes a sharp left into this weird noir-ish crime-story territory, losing much of the emotional impact from the first five hundred pages or so, losing the thread of the PTSD exploration in favor of, I think, finding a way to wrap up the book.

Some critics called the portion of the ending that eventually gets the painting back to the authorities too obvious/predictable, something Theo should have done far earlier, but I think that ignores or dismisses the idea of the painting as a symbol of Theo’s PTSD – he can’t get rid of the painting just by wishing to do so, but has to find some way to start to heal himself before he can do so. I could argue that Tartt fails to establish his healing well enough by the ending, but then again, the book was already too long by a third and by that point the escapade around the painting’s theft was approaching the ridiculous.

Theo is a flawed character but a well-developed one, and with almost 800 pages to spend in his head we get a full picture of his personality and his struggle to come to any kind of grips with the death of his mother and everything bad that comes after. He’s the only character in the book to get that treatment, however, as everyone else has a two-dimensional quality, from his angelic mother to the similarly wispy Pippa (a crush who is, herself, tied to the museum bombing and thus remains in a tangible way just beyond his reach) to the furniture restorer Hobie who becomes a surrogate parent to Theo in the latter half of the book. Even Boris (why always Boris?), Theo’s best friend during his time in Las Vegas, is half character and half caricature, not to mention capable of consuming unfathomable quantities of drugs and alcohol … although fictional Russians have a preternatural capacity to metabolize vodka.

The Pulitzer committee gives only a terse explanation for each winner’s selection, so we’re left guessing what they saw in The Goldfinch that many critics didn’t see or didn’t value. The only explanation I can conceive that fits the guideline about “American life” is the PTSD angle: the National Center for PTSD says about 8 million U.S. adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, with causes ranging from military combat to rape to disasters like the book’s museum bombing. PTSD isn’t quintessentially American, but it is a fact of life all over the world today, and it’s increasing in our consciousness if not in prevalence, especially with soldiers returning from lengthy tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the disorder. If that’s the book’s greatest strength, however, the slapdash finish undermines the exploration of the disorder and its effects. Theo’s recovery, such as it is, is unsatisfying from a reader perspective and, I’d guess, from a clinical one too. The Goldfinch spends two-thirds of its bulk as a serious literary work, but by its final pages it has devolved into a smart page-turner, diluting the impact of its more ambitious passages.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.


My Futures Game recap is up for Insiders.

I read six books on my vacation – fortunately, my wife and I both subscribe to John Waters’ philosophy on lovers and books – including four of my favorite authors/series (Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Flavia de Luce, and a standalone P.G. Wodehouse novel), as well as two new authors, including Larry Niven’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel Ringworld. Like Arthur Clarke’s similarly-acclaimed Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld is a work of hard science fiction, in this case playing off a popular concept in physics and speculative science (the Dyson Sphere) and turning it into a lengthy adventure story involving the discovery of a distant world. It’s also surprisingly dull for a story that has as much action as Ringworld does, perhaps because most of the plot elements are so hackneyed.

Set in a distant future where man has explored a wider corner of the galaxy, encountering at least three alien races, the story has four explorers setting off on a mission to reach the structure of the story’s title, an artificial planet of sorts shaped like a ring around a distant sun. The crew is assembled by a two-headed creature called a puppeteer, who has deliberately selected three specific members – two humans, and one giant feline creature called a kzinti – for this mission, itself a response to the discovery that the Milky Way’s core is going to break down in a massive chain reaction in about 20,000 years. The puppeteers have already begun a massive migration, but it becomes clear that they want to see if copying Ringworld would accommodate them in another system.

Niven has explicitly said that he modeled the world after the Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical structure built around a star capable of capturing all of that star’s energy to supply the needs of the species that built it. Dyson recognized that per capita energy usage rises as a civilization becomes more technologically advanced – how many devices are you charging at the moment? – and conceived this structure as a totally crazy, speculative solution as well as a theoretical maximum on the energy available to that civilization, given that solar energy would dwarf any energy from nonrenewable sources. Niven has the unfortunate tendency to give the reader too much of the physics, generally in awkward dialogue between these impossibly-educated crew members, which doesn’t do much to help keep the story moving. Where Niven has to deviate from known or even hypothetical physics – the familiar “hyperdrive” of most science fiction gets stretched even further than normal – he spares us the details, which works much better because you’re only reading this book if you’re already willing to suspend your disbelief in things like travel at or faster than the speed of light. (Niven actually has an amusing bit of handwaving about this that I won’t spoil.)

Science fiction that relies this heavily on the science portion for seizing and maintaining reader interest worked for me when I was a teenager, but now it leaves me cold; I want fiction that tells me a story, preferably one that examines some fundamental aspects of human nature. (Granted, that’s tricky with a kzinti who might eat his shipmates or a puppeteer who rolls into a ball when scared as part of the crew.) Niven could have used his plot device as a way to consider the eventuality that we will fill the planet, or reach a point where we can’t increase our per capita energy consumption, but he blows right past that to get his quartet on Ringworld, where they find … well, not very much. And what they find is bizarre, often inexplicable, and impossible to picture with Niven’s rather stolid prose.

Ringworld isn’t a slow or arduous read, however – the writing isn’t complex, the sentences are pretty short, and most chapters function as self-contained stories. It may have been more praiseworthy in its day, but given some of the recent Hugo winners that have put storycraft over the sci-fi or fantasy elements, it feels very dated.

Next up: I just finished Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and started Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours on the flight back from Humid City this morning.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

David Hadley Chase was a prolific British author of American crime fiction, writing numerous novels (under this pseudonym) that were, for the time, controversial for their graphic violence and implied sexual content. His first novel, the grim No Orchids for Miss Blandish, remains his best-known work, and it’s just $1.29 for the Kindle through that link (or just £4.99 in the UK). It’s gripping despite an almost nihilistic view of its characters, the rare story where the venal criminals are more compelling characters than the hard-boiled detective attempting to find them. George Orwell was a fan of the writing, but Raymond Chandler was not, calling it “half-cent pulp writing at its worst” in a letter to Cleve Adams. (Chandler later won a lawsuit against Chase, accusing the latter of plagiarizing a section of a later book.)

Miss Blandish is the heiress at the center of a theft and ransom kidnapping plot that involves two different groups of crooks, the latter, the notorious Grissom Gang (reminiscent in many ways of the Australian Pettingill family), run by a sociopathic matriarch and her mentally challenged, ultra-violent son Slim. Their plan is to steal her new diamond necklace, collect a ransom for her from her wealthy father, and then dispose of her rather than risk her identifying them … but then Slim takes a fancy to her, complicating their plans even after they get their money and try to use it to run a slightly more legitimate business.

Miss Blandish’s father hires reporter-turned-private detective Dave Fenner to try to track his daughter down several months after he’s paid the ransom without any word on her whereabouts or even whether she’s alive, and Fenner – about as cliched a detective character as you’ll ever find – uses his knowledge of the town’s underworld to find the one lead police didn’t uncover. Chase spends most of his energy and the bulk of the verbiage on the interactions between Slim Grissom, his mother, and the other dissolute members of their gang, including how they respond once it becomes clear that their faĉade of respectability in their new venture has been cracked.

The violence in the book is par for the course for the era, although No Orchids was apparently one of the first to raise the violence to this level; I don’t enjoy violence for its own sake, but to paint the picture of the Grissom gang as unrepentant and likely sociopathic killers, the violence serves a literary purpose. Less necessary and much harder to stomach is the largely off-screen rape of Miss Blandish by Slim, repeated over a period of months. When Fenner finally finds her near the end of the book, however, all of the dialogue seems to indicate that there is no recovery from this sort of trauma, both from the extent of the crimes committed and from the shame of being a victim of kidnap and a presumed rape. It’s true to its era, but fortunately we live in an era that is both more enlightened and better equipped to help trauma victims recover from their ordeals, which gave the novel’s resolution a very antiquated and somewhat misogynistic flavor. A female author would never have written this ending – or at least I’d like to think one wouldn’t. (For the record, I don’t agree with either of Orwell’s interpretations of the ending; I think he’s ignored or dismissed a third possibility, that the motive was shame.) However, for fans of noir fiction, No Orchids offers a swift, exceptionally dark take on the genre, one where the payoff is less important than the way there.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won substantial acclaim, with rave reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post, and winning a slew of minor awards and earning nominations for several major ones, including a finalist nod for the National Book Award. It’s a meticulously crafted tragedy, offering painstaking and painful detail on its setting in the ruins of Chechnya (in the Russian-controlled portion of the north Caucasus), telling the story of unexpected connections between a suddenly orphaned girl, her “disappeared” father’s best friend, and the female doctor at the barely functioning hospital who reluctantly harbors them. It also left me completely cold, which is hard to believe given how easily I find myself sucked into emotionally-driven stories, especially ones featuring children.

The eight-year-old girl, Havaa, manages to hide herself according to her father Dokka’s instructions when one night the secret police arrive to arrest him. His best friend, Akhmed, rescues her the next morning and, knowing of no other possible safe haven, takes her to the local hospital. Sonja is one of only two doctors remaining in the damaged facility and its de facto director, running it thanks to a black-market connection that provides just enough supplies to handle the births and landmine injuries that keep her busy. Akhmed, the proverbial doctor who graduated last in his med school class, is grieving the mental decline of his wife, who is bedridden with an unknown malady and suffers from memory loss even though she’s only in her 30s. Sonja, meanwhile, grieves the disappearance of her sister, Natasha, who left twice, once for a traumatic experience in white slavery, the second time for reasons to be revealed later. Their stories are connected, like constellations, by faint lines that appear drawn by fate. Their lives are always under threat by Ramzan the snitch, who has ratted out so many townsfolk that his own father denies him, although Ramzan himself has a tragic (and disgustingly graphic) backstory that has led him to this point.

Marra has constructed his novel beautifully, working through flashbacks without losing the plot line of the present, linking the stories in slight but realistic ways, relying just barely on coincidence to complete the segments. But I felt totally detached from the story, and the only explanation I can come up with is that I did not relate to or even sufficiently empathize with the main characters. Marra’s cast includes characters who are either too pathetic to accept, like Akhmed, a sad-sack in every aspect of his life who undertakes this one (likely last) heroic act to give his life some meaning; or too walled-off, like Sonja, to allow the reader (or this reader) to feel an investment in the character’s development or outcome. Even Ramzan just goes from an object of scorn to an object of pity once we find out what exactly turned him from man to rat.

I may just have whiffed on this book, despite its careful crafting and often beautiful prose – the descriptions of the scenery around the Chechen village are the best phrasings in the novel – because I couldn’t connect to the story. There’s so much cruelty, much of it the result of Marra’s research on the two brutal wars Russia waged to reclaim control of the largely Muslim breakaway republic, that perhaps, while real, the story was too foreign to me, although I did not have the same experience with Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict. But I also have a bit of a conspiracy-theory hypothesis, that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a book written by a highly trained and educated writer who has expertly implemented the lessons he learned, producing a novel that earns a perfect technical score but loses points on artistic impression. If writing a good novel were merely a matter of painting by numbers, many more writers could do it.

Next up: Still plowing through Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.