The Snow Child.

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a grown-up fable, a fairy tale in the more traditional sense of the term (where endings were seldom happy), a very simple story in one of the most striking settings I’ve come across in contemporary literature. In a quick read with only a half-dozen characters of any import, the book manages to delve into questions of love, parenthood, loss, grief, and meaning, without becoming cloy or mawkish. The novel was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist in 2012, losing to Adam Johnson’s amazing novel of North Korea The Orphan Master’s Son.

The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in 1920, where we meet a childless couple, Mabel and Jack, scratching out a life as farmers in the forbidding landscape, where starvation is a threat each winter if you haven’t grown enough crops and killed enough game to get through the season. The pair lost one baby in childbirth many years ago, and it appears the death and subsequent inability to have another child has left them in a permanent state of barely-there depression, culminating in Mabel’s suicide attempt at the start of the novel. Shortly after, during an early snowfall, the two end up building a snowman – or snowgirl, giving her mittens and a scarf and talking about what this girl might be like (and yes, it’s like that sappy movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but only in setup). The next morning, the snowgirl is gone, but both Mabel and Jack spy a young girl running around in the woods with a fox, a girl who turns out to be very real, at least in the tangible sense, but only appears in the winters and says she lives by herself in the mountains in the summers. Mabel recognizes similarities between this child, named Faina, and an old Russian children’s book she had growing up in Pennsylvania, while Jack learns more about Faina’s life before they found her that seem to ground her firmly in reality.

Ivey never bothers to clear Faina’s backstory up for the reader, allowing the character’s reality to flicker before us so we can experience the uncertainty of Mabel and Jack. It reminded me of nothing so much as the saying that being a parent is like learning to live with your heart outside of your body; not only did the couple suddenly find a child years after such a thing seemed impossible, but her appearance defied reality and she would disappear for months at a time without explanation. Mabel in particular seems to vacillate from high highs to deep funks around the girl’s appearances, while Jack is trying to grapple with his rational side even as he comes to love the girl like a daughter.

Faina’s story arc is a bit predictable, and Ivey doesn’t even try to hide it, providing plenty of foreshadowing (and, I thought, winking and nodding at the reader all the way) through the Russian folktale, but despite the girl’s status as the title character and hinge for the story’s action, this book is far more about everybody else. Faina herself has no depth; she’s a wisp of a thing, in physical and emotional sense, but whatever her true identity might be, she’s ultimately the book’s primary plot device. Ivey crafts this forbidding setting that combines breathtaking natural beauty – her landscape descriptions are some of the most evocative I’ve come across – and dark, menacing conditions that seem unfit for human habitation, then drops two characters, already drenched in melancholy for the life they didn’t expect they’d live, into it. Finding moments of joy or even simply of humanity – the relationship the couple develops with the Bensons provides a second emotional center, not to mention lots of great talk of jams and preserves – without resorting to pure sap is a deft trick of both plot and character development. Ivey manages to celebrate life and all that is good within it even in the face of the certainty of sorrow and the realization we all face that we have less control over our lives than we’d like, right up to our endings.

Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, comes out on August 2nd. Given how much I enjoyed this book, including the detailed yet quick prose, I imagine I’ll read that one fairly soon.

Next up: I’m most of the way through Zia Haider Rahman’s Tait Prize-winning novel In the Light of What We Know, an expansive, erudite novel of ideas that seems to grow in scope with every page.

Honeydew.

I was totally unfamiliar with the American short story writer Edith Pearlman until earlier this year, when I saw her name and her latest collection, Honeydew, on a list of likely candidates for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (eventually won by Thanh Viet Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer). Honeydew didn’t end up on the short list, but I’d already bought it and I’m stubborn like that. Most of the stories in the book run around 10-12 pages yet manage to create totally believable, well-rounded little worlds, usually with at least one three-dimensional character, yet with a very light touch that keeps the prose moving.

Pearlman’s stories focus on some little detail of ordinary life and exploring its effects on one or more of the characters, but all seem to tie around the idea of finding enough happiness to get by. Several stories are set in or around an antique shop in the fictional Massachusetts town of Godolphin, owned by the slightly eccentric Rennie, who lives by a very specific code in dealing with her clients, but seems less able to apply similar rules and limits on her own life. We experience her shock, when, for example, the wife half of a couple who frequently shop with her falls ill and requires hospice care, and the husband refers to Rennie as one of her closest friends. But is this the sadness of a woman who was simply without friends, or is the problem Rennie’s for failing to recognize the meaning she held in someone else’s life?

In “Hat Trick,” four teenage girls are mooning over boys when one girl’s mother, a bit drunk and bitter, concocts a game where the girls put the names of various boys on slips of paper and place them in a hat, to be drawn at random but never revealed; each girl then must pursue the boy whose name she drew. It is a realistically-drawn fable; the girls take the pledges seriously, or at least three of them do, and the results, while hardly what the reader might expect, feel real. Each girl pursues happiness and finds some – the “happy enough” bit I mentioned above comes directly from the mother in this story – even though her fate was determined by a sort of rigged random draw.

“Castle 4,” one of the longest stories in the book, has a bit of a Hollywood ending, but the core character, the introverted anesthesiologist who rejects copious advances from women (dude, what are you doing), is so alienated from other people that you can feel cold just reading about him. He drifts through the job and social functions like a shade, making only the barest minimum of contact with others, yet his story resolves when he falls for a patient whose back pain turns out to be terminal, stage 4 cancer. The conclusion is forced, but his attraction to a woman who has been forced into an isolated state by circumstance fits with the way Pearlman has defined his impalpable character.

The title story ends the collection but was one of my least favorites in the book, as it’s less realistic and uncharacteristically overwrought. The headmistress at a girls’ prep school in New England is concerned about an anorexic student, yet is having an affair with the girl’s father, and is six weeks’ pregnant with his child. None of the characters gets the full development of those in other stories, although Pearlman does write brilliantly about the eating disorder itself, and there’s the whiff of the hackneyed in the setting itself.

There’s a bit of dry wit in many of her stories as well, which helps keep the stories moving even when the themes could be depressing, none more so than in “Blessed Harry,” in which a Latin teacher at that same prep school gets an out-of-the-blue invitation to speak at a conference in England on “the meaning of life and death.” The teacher’s kids, sporting varying degrees of cynicism, all immediately suspect it’s a hoax, while he at first allows himself to soak in the feeling that he’s wanted, that he’s been more of a success in his working life than he actually has. It’s a bit more respectable than a 419 scam, but Pearlman milks it for humor before the teacher begins to realize where the success and meaning in his own life lie. These little moments of grace or insight in an existentialist context, coupled with her ability to quickly define and fill out her characters, carried me through Honeydew as if I were reading a single, gripping narrative.

Next up: Connie Willis’ Bellwether.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

My friend Samantha has been touting the work of Nathan Englander for a while now, and I finally cracked open his first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, last week. Even though the subject matter couldn’t be more foreign to me – many of the stories revolve around Hasidim, adherents of an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism – Englander’s prose and his insight into human emotions are uncanny, especially given his age when he wrote many of these stories. He deftly blends humor into stories that get at serious questions like spirituality, gender equality, and finding hope in the hopeless.

The nine stories within the collection all encompass Jewish themes or characters, but range from World War II to a modern Hasidic community in New York and the aftermath of a bombing in Tel Aviv. The first story, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” evokes the Night of the Murdered Poets with a story of the roundup of 27 Jewish writers in the postwar Soviet Union, a number that should have been 26 but mistakenly includes a shut-in writer whose work has never seen the light of day. “The Tumblers” reads like a fable, telling of the Jewish residents of a European city’s ghetto who are deported to a concentration camp but manage, however briefly, to stave off their fates by pretending to be a traveling circus of acrobats, a tragicomic story because you know it can’t really end well, but the individual moments are light even in extreme darkness.

My personal favorite in the collection, “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” takes the concept of the gilgul, a belief of Jewish mysticism of the transmigration of a Jewish soul from one body to another, and turns it into a story that is by turns a slapstick comedy and a serious look at what happens in a marriage when the two partners have divergent spiritual beliefs. A nonbelieving Christian experiences an epiphany while riding in the back of a taxi in Manhattan: He realizes, or perhaps it just hits him, that he’s Jewish. And it’s not just a lark, as he rather quickly becomes orthodox, keeping kosher, adopting various rituals, seeking the advice of a sort of iconoclast rabbi who also believes in this doctrine of transmigration. The wife, however, is not having it, and tries to get her husband’s psychiatrist to talk sense into him, culminating in a painful, awkward dinner with the four of them (eating kosher) where Englander refuses to give us a true resolution, because there isn’t one: when two people disagree on such a fundamental issue, one that in this case would pervade most of their mundane lives as well as their spiritual ones, there’s no easy answer.

“Reb Kringle” is just what you’d expect – a Jewish man who bears a strong resemblance to Santa Claus reluctantly plays the part every December, until he meets the child who causes his hidden self to rebel against the subterfuge … and yet his overreaction doesn’t negate the truth of the injustice the child faces. The closing story, “In This Way We Are Wise,” goes in the other direction, ditching the comedy of the earlier stories to look at how ordinary people can survive living in an environment where terror is banal, ten brief pages that walk one survivor through the immediate aftermath of yet another cafe bombing in Israel.

Englander’s great gift is the intense realism of his dialogue – the spoken words, and the interior thoughts – of each of these characters, who seem so very normal because Englander can paint them quickly with broad strokes that hit the canvas with precise edges. The mentally ill Jewish father of “Reunion” could be a clown, or a nut, but in fact is a very regular guy with some sort of mania that is destroying his family. The central character in “Gilgul” is also run-of-the-mill, but even when what he says – like announcing to the taxi driver, “Jewish, right here in your cab” – is absurd, the voice, the scene, the specific words make it plausible. Englander’s fiction reads like fact because he writes people as people are.

Next up: More short stories, this time Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew.

The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the debut novel of Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and if nothing else is a truly fascinating work of fiction for its new take on the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator is a communist sympathizer and sleeper agent in the south of Vietnam, and recalls the conflict and its aftermath from the perspective of a Vietnamese national, as opposed to the countless looks back at the war from western perspectives (The Things They Carried, Tree of Smoke). The narrator himself is a walking dichotomy, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father (a priest, no less), living in the south and then in the U.S. while professing loyalty to the communists, with very bourgeois sentiments that compromise his work as a spy and an unwilling assassin.

The closest parallel I can think of for The Sympathizer is Graham Greene’s novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, written later in his career after he’d become disillusioned with his country and his faith, a bleak picture of the war that included more than just a cursory consideration of the conflict’s devastating effect on the people of Vietnam. Nguyen’s look at the war is similarly derisive, suffused with parody and gallows humor, but ultimately an indictment of everyone involved, not least the United States.

The narrator tells his story as a confession to an unseen commandant and “faceless” commissar, as he’s apparently in a postwar Vietnamese reeducation camp despite serving the People’s Liberation Front during the conflict as a mole and assassin both in South Vietnam and then in the United States, where he works with a disgraced General from the South’s army who seeks to stage a Bay of Pigs-style invasion force that goes roughly as well as that real-life attempt did. His story involves time as a student in California, where he writes his thesis on the works of Graham Greene (in case you missed that allusion), as well as his work as a “consultant” on a thinly-disguised version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella into a Vietnamese setting. The director, known only as the Auteur, is a fatuous, racist pig who fancies himself an artist and tries to work from a script that doesn’t give a single line to a Vietnamese character. The narrator’s job is to try to undermine the pro-American tone in the film, but the entire story turns into an elaborate farce of the film, the movie industry, and subsequent American attempts to retell the story of the war in terms that the American public would buy.

The last quarter of the book takes a sharp turn toward the more serious territory of Darkness at Noon or 1984 as we switch to real time and the narrator’s ordeal in custody, where, we learn, he’s been telling and retelling his story to his jailers, but hasn’t given them the particular truth they demand of him. The climax is graphic and hard to read, worse than the two assassinations in which the narrator takes part, but works better as a metaphor for the damage the North Vietnamese inflicted on their own people and the psychic scars that endured long after the conflict.

Nguyen can be a bit heavy-handed with the allusions and metaphors. The narrator’s two best friends are Man (the blank canvas) and Bon (the good one of the three). He encounters a go-getter journalist named Sonny, and an ice-cold Japanese woman named Ms. Mori (think memento mori). The Auteur and the older lead actor in the film border on caricature, while the film is called The Hamlet presumably because the Auteur views his work as comparable to Shakespeare. And the prose can get a little purple, although I found myself flying through it anyway.

But Nguyen’s strength lies in the main character, both as the vehicle for retelling the war’s story in a new light, and for his own dichotomy. The narrator is not truly accepted by his fellow citizens because he’s half European; he’s not accepted at all in the United States, even though he speaks perfect English, because he looks “foreign.” He lives in the South and serves in their military, but his loyalties are with the North … only to find himself in a communist (which was the North) political prison after the war. These splits all parallel the way his self was broken by an incident he witnessed during the war but has buried in his subconscious, the nauseating passage I mentioned above; only by reliving and acknowledging it can he move on with his life.

Next up: I actually just read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time; I read a few chapters with my daughter, but she found it boring, so I finished it myself. At least now I know the true story behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The Forever War.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel in 1975 and Hugo and Locus Awards in 1976, has the biggest disconnect between its value as a metaphorical take on a real-world event and its value as a straight work of fiction. While Haldeman manages to create a unique way of looking at the then-ongoing conflict in Vietnam, a war without apparent end, the story itself is dull and rote, enamored of its own technological descriptions of battles to the detriment of plot of character development.

The war in the book comes about because humanity has discovered “collapsars,” relativistic oddities in space (not that dissimilar to black holes) that allow for travel at speeds approaching that of light, leading to a brief period of exploration that hits a wall when one ship is attacked by an unknown alien species called the Taurans. The protagonist and narrator William Mandella is a physics student and conscript for one of the first strike forces asked to go out first to the fictional planet of Charon beyond Pluto (the book was written before the moon of Pluto given that name was discovered) and then to attack the Taurans in a suspected base on a hostile planet beyond one of the collapsars. Due to time dilation, Mandella and the other surviving soldiers have aged just two years but return to an earth vastly changed by several decades, a bombastic, unintentionally comic vision of an overpopulated planet under a one-world dictatorship that seized power in response to the Tauran threat. The novel then deals with Mandella’s difficulties handling the gaps in time between his returns to civilian life and the harsh reality of fighting an enemy for unknown reasons with no apparent goal or exit strategy.

Haldeman had served in Vietnam, and it’s only possible to read this book as a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel that serves to lampoon the military structure that sent American boys to die in a war without purpose while also displaying the effects the war had on the soldiers who survived. The war against the Taurans is a dull one, and Haldeman is not, here, much of a storyteller: the prose is dry and the descriptions technical, with lengthy explanations of futuristic weaponry and tactics that suck energy even out of the battle scenes, let alone the lengthy description of the soldiers’ training on the impossible world of Charon.

The sequence back on earth several decades after the soldiers have left reads like a short story inserted into a novel, bearing little resemblance to the story before or after, and on its own is just bad dystopian fiction by someone who read The Population Bomb. Haldeman drops in the usual food-shortage stuff along with the fear of authoritarian governments, but where he gets really bizarre is when he has “homosex” rising first as a natural consequence of the overpopulation and eventually something encouraged by government, becoming the new normal for humanity further into the future, with heterosexual urges treated as a mental illness. It seems to treat homosexuality as deviant and repulsive, using it as a tool to show the awful future of the human race.

Viewed as allegory, however, The Forever War seems to hit its mark. The war itself is as pointless as it gets: Humanity’s immediate response to the possible attack on one of our ships – which was somewhere else in the galaxy than our solar system – is all-out war, along with building up terrestrial defenses against an attack that isn’t threatened or even particularly likely. There is no attempt to communicate with the Taurans, or even any idea what they look like; soldiers are sent out to kill and destroy. The subsequent war becomes one of attrition, with battles waged over lifeless rocks that have no meaning to either side, and with neither side ever gaining anything like an advantage in the overall battle – with gauging advantage made especially difficult by the time dilation, so ships are sent off in one stage of the war and return in another entirely. (Haldeman obeys the laws of physics to the point of omitting faster-than-light communications.) Soldiers are given posthypnotic suggestions to make them want to kill the Taurans on sight, treating the aliens as enemies regardless of what actually happens on the field of battle.

One could make the historical argument that the Vietnam War was justified because the United States was trying to prevent a hostile dictatorship from taking over an entire country, subjecting millions of people to what turned out to be twenty-plus years of poverty and suppression. The U.S. justified it at the time by invoking the domino theory that each country that fell to communism further enabled the next revolution; perhaps showing the Soviet Union that funding additional insurgencies would cost them more because we were willing to spend to fight them. The war against the Taurans in The Forever War can’t even rise to those levels of reasoning, because the Taurans aren’t clearly threatening anyone; the metaphor works in the sense that neither the Taurans nor the Viet Cong were threatening “us,” so why were we trying so hard to kill them, putting our own men at risk by doing so? At best, the logic extended to protecting our ships if another should encounter the Taurans randomly beyond another collapsar, but without understanding what caused the first incident, even this – given the enormous expense involved – seems specious.

Books that seem to work strictly on that metaphorical or allegorical level generally leave me cold because of how much they miss, and The Forever War did just that, more than anything else because the characters are so one-dimensional. Mandella is intelligent but hardly wise or smart, and his return home after his first tour of duty – into the dystopian section of the book – is surprisingly emotionless. The closest thing the book has to another core character is his girlfriend Marygay, who has no personality to speak of, and of necessity disappears for a few chapters at a time. Without a compelling individual character at the heart of the book, the read becomes stolid and dull, even when we should be feeling the intensity of a battle scene. So for all its accolades – and the book’s cover has some very impressive quotes from other authors – The Forever War fell very short for me.

Next up: I’m currently reading Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.

The Magician’s Land.

I loved Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, reading the entire book (a review copy from the publisher) on a single cross-country flight right when the book came out, for the deft blend of parody of the coming-of-age magic saga subgenre (Harry Potter, LotR, Narnia) with a fantastic, original story. Quentin Coldwater’s journey from alienated youth to magic school to fighting a save-the-world sort of magic battle followed familiar conventions in structure but always took unanticipated turns, and brought us a small group of well-developed, engaging characters to follow through the trilogy.

I disagreed with most of you on the second book, The Magician King, which felt transitional to me and took away some of the magic (the reading sort, not the kind in the books) for me that had me loving the first book. So I held off for a bit on book three, The Magician’s Land, to see if it would redeem the whole series for me or give me another downer note that detracted from the joy I experienced in book one. It gave me much more of the former, another rousing story that again walks away from cliched plot lines, moving the giant fight scene (masterfully written) to the middle of the book and concluding the series on a fitting note that manages to be a victory lap without giving the main character an improbably perfect ending.

When the book begins, Quentin is an outcast, having lost his crown and even his right to live in Fillory, and is recruited to join a mysterious magical heist. We jump back and forth for the first half of the novel, learning how Quentin returned to Brakebills briefly to teach, then lost that position while rescuing a student, also encountering a demon who appears to be after him personally. Meanwhile, in Fillory, the world is quite literally ending, and Eliot and Janet have to set out on a quest to try to save it – but, this being Quentin’s trilogy, really, he’s going to have to help them do it. Grossman turns several conventions of the genre on their heads with the complex resolution, and while he leaves a few strings poorly tied (such as Betsy’s adventure) and we get the unlikely conclusion where no major character dies, he settles the Fillory timeline in a way that makes internal sense while also giving Quentin and some of his friends a sensible ending.

Aside from the usual references to other classics of the genre – the Russian professor mocking “Dum-blee-dore” and the nod to seven-league boots (found in C.S. Lewis’ and Diana Wynne Jones’ books, among others) were my favorites – Grossman seems to have centered much of this final leg of the trilogy on the relationship between reader and story, and what stories can tell us about us. All three books have sought to undermine the sense of life as story, that our narratives are arranged for us and that life’s plot threads will all be neatly tied together for us. Grossman has to balance between the use of “destiny” in the constructed world of Fillory – constructed by whom, it is never revealed, although we do learn that it is indeed turtles all the way down – and the lack thereof here in the real world of the books; Quentin and friends have to piece together solutions without magical or divine guidance, don’t always get what they want, and face frequent disillusionment when their lives don’t unfurl like the stories they loved. (Grossman also gives us more of the story behind the stories, although nothing could match the revelation about Martin at the end of the first book.)

Where the magicians do benefit from their lives in two worlds is how Fillory specifically and magic in general gives them a second lens through which to see their secular lives. Most YA magic novels are coming-of-age stories where the characters come of age through defeating enemies in the magical realm. The Magicians novels have characters coming of age in both worlds at once, one supporting the other, not always in clean or planned ways. Where Grossman diverts from this path, keeping everyone intact for the end of the series, it makes for a satisfying conclusion because we like most of the characters, but it does shift a little from the thread of realism in the first two books. A few redshirts die this time around, but the core characters get their mostly happy ending. I’m okay with that, just like I didn’t want to see Harry, Ron, or Hermione die (and I’m still bitter about Fred), but it conflicts with the book’s theme about fiction failing to capture the the freedom and chaos of real life.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but I did just begin Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War today.

Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.

I read Rabbit, Run in 2009, shortly after the death of author John Updike, because it appeared on the TIME list of the greatest 100 English-language novels from 1923 (the year the magazine started publishing) through the year the list was published, 2005. I truly disliked the book because I disliked the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a wildly immature young adult who peaked as a high school basketball player and can’t adjust to adult life and responsibilities.

Updike wrote three more Rabbit novels, the last two of which, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read both books this month, skipping the second book in the series (Rabbit Redux), as part of my effort to read all the Pulitzer winners, and now, after reading over 1000 pages of Updike’s writing about Rabbit, I can say with great confidence that Harry Angstrom is an asshole.

I suppose someone better equipped to diagnose a fictional character’s psychological issues could have a field day with Rabbit, who can’t stop cheating on his wife, resents her and her mother for the way they’ve made him financially comfortable, can’t connect with or even fully trust his own son, and has a puerile, almost perverted obsession with sex that would be appropriate for a teenager but hardly for a 56-year-old man, as he is in the final volume. Even when faced with his own mortality after a mild heart attack at the end of the first section of Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit can’t even be bothered to grow up enough to follow his doctor’s rather obvious advice – eat right and exercise – try to prevent a recurrence, instead continuing his old-man leering while facing the unwelcome stress of a crisis with his wayward son.

In Rabbit, Run, we meet Angstrom, who still can’t quite get over the fact that his basketball career – and, we later learn, his life – reached its apex in high school, after which he experiences a long if nonlinear decline across four books and almost four decades. (Updike revisited his character every ten years, and we are fortunate he stopped writing when he did, or he would have won the 2001 Pulitzer for The Five Rabbits You Meet in Heaven.) The first novel is unpleasant, but has a clear direction and point. Rabbit’s refusal to grow up is rooted in recognition that it’s only going to go downhill from here, and with the ennui of a lower middle-class existence, tied to a wife and child he didn’t plan to have so soon, staring him in the face, he runs. By the third book, however, he’s at least come into money via his marriage, and is now running a Toyota dealership in the late 1970s as fuel economy entered the lexicon – Updike seems to be at great pains in each of the last two books to remind us of the mood of the time, as well as lots of brand names and details that seem like quaint product placement in hindsight (although I doubt Sealtest cared for Updike’s flavor suggestion). That shifts Angstrom’s angst (built right into his name!) to his desultory marriage, his ne’er-do-well son, and a simmering conflict with his wife over their son’s role in the family business.

The marital antibliss culminates in a couples’ weekend in the Caribbean where the eight participants agree to a one-night swap of partners – if ever there was a 1970s anachronism, there you have it – which puts Rabbit not with the woman he lusts for, the youngest wife of the four, but with Thelma, who has been in love with him for years. Rather than giving the scene any kind of emotional depth, or exploring what it might mean for Rabbit to see a woman truly (if rather perplexingly) in love with him, Updike has the entire book climax (sorry) in a scene where the two engage in anal sex, a moment he has Rabbit revisit in his mind in utterly bizarre fashion for the remainder of that book and in book four. I’d credit Updike with a clever metaphor if it weren’t so distasteful.

The escalation in Rabbit at Rest makes the book read like a Very Special Episode, where Harry’s son, Nelson, ends up a cocaine addict, destroying the family business and possibly contributing to Rabbit’s heart problems. After an angioplasty that’s designed to tide him over for a few months, after which the doctors recommend he have coronary bypass surgery, Rabbit goes to recuperate in his son’s house the first night, only to have his daughter-in-law, Pru (a nickname given to her because she was prudish as a teenager), seduce him while Nelson is away at rehab. I mean, this is what you do with a man twice your age who’s fresh off heart surgery, right?

Despite his frequent dalliances with women other than his wife, and desire for even more, Rabbit is one of the most outright misogynistic characters in modern literature, increasingly out of step with the times in which he lives. He frequently characterizes women as his enemy, referring to them by the most vulgar term you can use (and thus reducing them to a single body part), yet harbors a long-running obsession that he has a daughter by one of his former lovers. His relationship with Janice worsens in Rabbit at Rest when she begins to assert her independence, pursuing a career for herself after years of Rabbit telling her she was stupid. It’s hard not to root for her and quietly enjoy Rabbit’s accelerating decline, although Nelson’s mistakes and initial refusal to take any responsibility for his actions (just like dear ol’ dad) are infuriating in their own right. What could have been a thoughtful meditation on a man facing his own mortality at an age when most Americans are still working and looking forward to a long retirement is instead a pathetic coda to 1500 pages written about a terrible husband and father who is unworthy of any of our sympathy.

Next up: Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science.

Station Eleven.

I ranked the top ten prospects by position (plus ten more starting pitchers) for Insiders today.

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven joins a recent tradition of literary works set in a post-apocalyptic setting that sits beneath the story rather than dominating it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with The Road, an impossibly bleak setting that McCarthy uses to depict the lengths to which a parent will go to protect his or her child. David Mitchell worked it into the innermost story of Cloud Atlas. Margaret Atwood may have been the first to write a novel of high literary merit in this sort of setting with The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrating the possibilities of telling a story that transcended the typical tropes of science fiction. St. John Mandel’s work, which won the Clarke Award and was a finalist for many other honors, goes as far as any of these works in creating a story that exists and succeeds independent of the setting, because she has been able to populate her universe with compelling, realistic characters before placing them in a possibly-unrealistic setting.

Station Eleven opens on the last night of normal life on Earth, at a production in Toronto of King Lear where the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies of a heart attack during the performance, a scene that introduces us to several major characters in the book. That same night, a devastating virus from the Caucasus known as the Georgia Flu has shut down a major hospital in the same city; the virus kills within 48 hours, and in a matter of days global civilization collapses. Over 99% of the human population is wiped out by the disease, leaving the handful of survivors to return to subsistence living.

One group of survivors forms a traveling company to perform Shakespeare’s plays and classical music concerts to the small gatherings – “towns” of 20 or 30 people, usually” – around what had previously been the lower peninsula of Michigan. The group’s motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, is “because survival is insufficent,” referring to one of the book’s constant themes of the survivors’ way of clinging to culture as a reminder of what came before. One member of the troupe, Kirsten, was on stage as a child actress during that performance of King Lear, and of the group of central characters she is the primary protagonist, with nearly all of the present-day action swirling around her. St. John Mandel also presents a series of flashbacks revolving around the life of Arthur, who came from a tiny town on an island in British Columbia and rose to become a famous film actor, rolling through three marriages and many friendships, with some of the characters appearing after the collapse along Kirsten’s path. One of Arthur’s friends grants us a window into another survivors’ colony located in an airport outside of Chicago, a speculation on how a group of strangers thrown together by fate might start to form a community in the face of a global catastrophe.

St. John Mandel’s prose is wonderful, but it’s the characterization that sells this book. The core characters are indirect victims of the pandemic – orphaned children, widowed spouses, but even people who came through with some family intact have lost essentially everything. She mentions unnamed characters who die from a lack of necessary medications. The few who survived suffer some guilt, but are more crushed by the weight of having to start everything over while trying to forget what they’d lost. Within this context, she shows remarkable insight into human thought and behavior, especially in response to trauma – the survival instinct, the nostalgia, the desire to be social, to form communities around shared interests or needs, along with glimpses of the darker side of humanity in the form of one person who takes advantage of the vulnerability of certain survivors.

Kirsten, who remembers virtually nothing from before the virus and absolutely nothing of the year she spent walking south into the former U.S. with her brother, receives the most three-dimensional depiction, a woman capable of ruthless behavior when her life is at stake, but still grappling with guilt and remorse when she has to resort to violence. The troupe has become her surrogate family, as it has for most if not all members, and she has complex relationships within the group that resurface when three members go missing after a visit to a town that has become the headquarters of a doomsday cult. We also get a full depiction of the charmed life of Arthur Leander, a men whose ambition led to great success, but then who ends up with a life full of regrets for what he hasn’t done or for friends and wives he’s hurt or discarded along the way. His friend Clark ends up playing a significant role post-collapse, although to say much of his character’s development would spoil a bit of the plot.

The book’s title comes from a comic book in Kirsten’s possession, a very rare but beautifully rendered sci-fi story about a space station that has become lost in space, and its hero-scientist Dr. Eleven. The story within the comic book is never revealed to us, but the book’s existence serves as a tie between multiple characters, a plot device for the resolution, and one of the most potent symbols of loss and remembrance within this emotional book that thrives on the heart it finds in a world where everything that seemed to matter is gone.

The novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014, but didn’t even make the final six. If I’m getting the year right, it lost out to Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautifully written but dull The Lowland, Donna Tartt’s smart but overlong The Goldfinch (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and the eventual winner of the Baileys Prize, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (on my to-be-read shelf). The book may have been on the 2015 longlist instead, in which case I can’t offer an opinion since I haven’t read the winner or the five shortlisted titles, but if it was eligible for the 2014 prize and missed the shortlist, boy did the judges ever screw that one up.

Next up: I’m trudging my way through John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest after finishing Rabbit is Rich last night. They’re both Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners; after I finish this I’ll have read all the winners from 1980 on.

The Executioner’s Song.

Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980, is the longest work to take home that award, a strange historical footnote in the prize’s history because it’s almost certainly not a work of fiction. Mailer, who had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Armies of the Night, had access to an unbelievable depth and breadth of source material on Gary Gilmore, the very real subject of The Executioner’s Song, and just about everyone else involved in his life, crimes, imprisonment, and eventual execution, producing a work that moves as quickly as any thousand-page book I’ve ever read*. It would have been more than enough for Mailer, using the recordings and notes compiled by his collaborator Lawrence Schiller, to produce a work of great academic scholarship by providing all of this detail on Gilmore’s life and ultimate desire to rush from sentencing to the firing squad. Instead, Mailer manages the nearly impossible task of humanizing Gilmore without making him the least bit sympathetic, while populating his world with countless well-described, three-dimensional characters, into whose private struggles we gain access thanks to their candor with Schiller and to Mailer’s ability to turn their thoughts into richly developed portraits.

* N of 6.

Gary Gilmore was a lifelong ne’er-do-well who had spent much of his childhood in reform school, then ended up in jail, and just a few months after he was paroled at age 36 after serving about four years of a term for armed robbery he committed while on conditional release, he killed two service workers in the course of two separate armed robberies, with both murders taking place after he’d already obtained the money. The Supreme Court had suspended the use of the death penalty across the United States in 1972 after a 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which held, among other things, that sentences of death were applied inconsistently based on the races of the defendants – black defendants were much more likely to be sentenced to die than whites, which three of the five justices ruling for the plaintiff held to be a violation of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth (equal protection of the laws) Amendments to the Constitution.

(Two other justices held that the death penalty was per se unconstitutional, which I think should be blindingly obvious but, sadly, is not. The death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime, and is not cost-effective, which means its use is merely a case of the government providing vengeance for the victims’ families.)

Shortly before Gilmore committed the two murders, the Supreme Court ended the suspension of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, as long as the trial in question contained two separate phases for the determination of guilt and for sentencing. Gilmore’s case was egregious and his lawyers, recognizing that they had no defense (there was a witness in one of the cases who saw Gilmore leaving the scene with the gun in his hand), merely hoped to get him life imprisonment. However, Gilmore not only accepted the death penalty but attempted to waive all appeals, asking the court to carry out the sentence as quickly as possible – within 60 days, as required by the Utah statute at the time (which, by the way, did not include a mandatory appeal of any death sentence, because Utah). That stance turned Gilmore into a national celebrity, drew in the ACLU to give Gilmore a defense he didn’t want, and resulted in some darkly comic scenes of legal wrangling that went on right up until a few minutes before Gilmore was executed in January, 1977, the first person to be put to death for his crimes in the United States in nearly ten years.

Although Mailer’s name is on the book’s spine as the author, Schiller, a filmmaker and screenwriter, gathered all of the source material. Several journalists descended on Utah after Gilmore’s sentencing and pronouncement that he wished to die in search of a story; Schiller came out victorious, using various schemes and intermediaries to gain hours of recorded dialogue with Gilmore, Q&As that Gilmore filled out, and interviews with dozens of people relevant to the case, including the widows of the two victims and the girlfriend whose relationship with Gary was, he alleged, the reason he snapped and went out in search of someone to kill. (It’s a facile explanation not supported at all by everything Mailer and Schiller give us in the book.)

Gilmore himself was a complex character, which Schiller realized, driving him to keep attacking Gilmore with questions – asked by his intermediaries, Gilmore’s attorneys – designed to provoke more revealing responses about his childhood. Schiller was clearly looking for something, like a history of abuse or repressed sexual urges, that would explain the killer’s psychopathic behavior, including his controlling, manipulative hold on that girlfriend, 19-year-old Nicole Baker, herself a badly damaged child with a history of drug use and sexual victimhood. But Gilmore was in no way sympathetic, and Mailer doesn’t try to make him so; if you feel anything on Gilmore’s side of the battle over his sentence, it will be for his family members, including his invalid mother, and some of the people who poured their emotions into stopping a punishment that they believed to be morally wrong, only to lose thanks in part to a last-minute flight from Utah to Denver to overturn a judge’s stay. Indeed, the rush to kill Gary Gilmore does nothing to rehabilitate his image, but paints Utah in particular as a state so driven by bloodlust that it comes across as a sort of nightmare totalitarian society. (Mailer also seems to have little use for the domination of the state’s government, including its courts, by Mormons, other than Judge W.W. Ritter, who twice ordered stays to Gilmore’s execution; the book includes Gilmore’s accurate paraphrase of the speech given by Brigham Young where the preacher and openly racist Governor of the Utah Territory said that it would be right and just if he, finding one of his wives in the act of committing adultery with another man, ran them both through the breast with a knife, sending them to the afterlife where their sins would be cleansed. I don’t think you include that passage unless you want the reader to know just where you stand on the Mormon church.)

The first half of the book proceeds like a disaster unfolding in slow motion; we begin with Gilmore’s parole, and get an almost daily look into his struggle to assimilate himself into normal life outside of prison, especially in relations with women. When he meets Nicole Baker, who comes across as a space cadet throughout the book and is always described as stunningly beautiful (you can judge this for yourself, but I don’t see it), he finally gets the reliable outlet for his sexual desires – including disturbing threesomes with an underage friend of Nicole’s – but enters into a relationship toxic in both directions. Nicole, pressured by family members concerned about Gilmore’s manipulative tendencies and violent temper, breaks it off with Gilmore, after which he commits the two murders that ultimately send him to jail.

The second half diverages from your standard true-crime, non-fiction novel, however, by making the chase for Gilmore’s story the actual story. Schiller enters the pages and never lets go of them, while we also get a cast of lawyers with conflicting interests, other journalists, Hollywood producers seeking film rights, and enough clowns to fill a clown Escalade. The media takes a special beating in the book, largely well-deserved. Geraldo Rivera was apparently a soulless hack at the time, trying to do a live TV interview with Gilmore’s cousin Brenda right after the execution while she was still in the hospital recovering from major surgery. (He actually asked to do the interview in the hospital room itself.) Newsweek cited a couple of verses of poetry that Gilmore wrote, failing to recognize that the verses were from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant.” Reporters and photographers throw all ethics out the window to get images of Gilmore or Nicole, or a quote from anyone in the case, even barging into people’s houses without permission. While I’m sure such things still happen today, the frequency of such events in this book – with no apparent repercussions – is nauseating.

Mailer and Schiller even manage to humanize the many lawyers involved in the case, those seeking to uphold the death sentence and those trying to at least delay it and push through what we would, today, consider a standard process of appeals. Gilmore became a peculiar folk hero and a target for letters from women and girls across the country (gah) because of what was perceived as his stoic acceptance of a just penalty, but as the first execution after nearly a decade-long gap, the last four years under a Supreme Court moratorium, Gilmore’s trial and execution had ramifications for many capital cases to follow. He may have been okay with the sentence handed out to him – and his lack of emotional response to it would seem to support Schiller’s belief that Gilmore had some sort of mental infirmity, like dissociation – but groups like the ACLU needed to fight for his rights to try to establish rights for future defendants.

I don’t see how anyone could read this book and avoid at least feeling a tug toward the side of the debate that opposes capital punishment. It is a brutal sentence, and an expensive, wasteful process to adjudicate it and carry it out. It is also increasingly seen in the developed world as barbarous. Only one other country in the entire Western Hemisphere actively uses the death penalty, and that one, St. Kitts and Nevis, has executed one person in the last 17 years. The only country in Europe that has the death penalty at all is Belarus, ruled by a repressive dictator and serial human-rights violator. Japan still has the death penalty and executed one person in 2015. The United States has more in common with countries like Iran, China, or Saudi Arabia than with any western democracies when it comes to capital punishment. So while the death penalty is decreasing in usage in other nations to which we might compare ourselves, it has little or no deterrent effect on violent crime, and it’s damn expensive to put into practice, Mailer, without appearing to take a side, shows the real human cost of a death sentence by focusing on all of the people besides Gilmore who were hurt by his execution. And while Gilmore destroyed many lives – the two men he murdered, their wives, the three infants left without fathers – killing Gilmore did not restore what he took away. (Both widows cooperated with Mailer and Schiller in providing their stories with their late husbands, acts of significant grace given the amount of shock and grief they must have been suffering.)

Apropos of nothing else, I caught two quotes in the book with some connection to baseball. Gilmore’s first comment or question to a reporter after he was first sentenced to death was, “Who the hell won the World Series?” (That was the Reds, four games to none.) And both Gilmore and his cellmate after his final conviction, the enigmatic Gibbs, had “used the same drug, Ritalin, a rare type of speed not in common use” as their first experience with illicit substances. Yes, Ritalin and Adderall have valid pharmaceutical uses in the treatment of ADHD, but there are far more MLB players with exemptions to take these drugs – Adderall is a combination of two amphetamine salts; Ritalin is not technically “speed” but is also a CNS stimulant and dopamine reuptake inhibitor like amphetamines – than you’d expect from a random sample of men in that age range. And the evidence that these stimulants are performance enhancers, while still anecdotal, is strong.

I read the book via the Kindle app on my iPad – it’s also available via Apple’s iBooks – since, at nearly 1100 pages, it seemed like it would be a bit much to tote around. It was also on sale for $2 on Christmas Day on amazon, along with the book I’m reading now, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.

Paladin of Souls.

Lois McMaster Bujold has won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, matching Robert Heinlein for the most wins by any author, winning for both works of science fiction and of fantasy. Her most recent win was for her 2004 novel Paladin of Souls, a high fantasy work that seemed to me to have an extraordinarily strong religious or spiritual component, but one that was fully integrated into the story rather than one that beats you about the head like a certain large feline, sorceress, and armoire may have done.

Paladin of Souls starts about as slowly as any fantasy book I’ve read (disclaimer: I haven’t read that many) and appears to be another one of them ol’ “let’s take a long long time to get from one place to another” sort of books, which has to be the most overused plot device in fantasy or sci-fi. Ista, the dowager and former queen (royina, in the book’s vernacular) of Chalion, is bored with her fate as shut-in, having recovered from the curse that inflicted madness upon her for many years (apparently covered in the preceding book, The Curse of Chalion), and sets off on a journey with the requisite motley crew of associates, with no particular destination in mind. The group includes the portly and slightly fatuous divine dy Cabon, the courier turned lady’s maid Liss (who was the most interesting character by a mile), the warrior brothers Ferda and Foix, and a bunch of guards. The group first runs into a raiding party from the neighboring state of Jokona, then takes shelter in the town/castle of Porifors, only to find that entity fall under siege by an incredibly powerful Jokonian contingent. But there’s a mystery afoot in Porifors, and it turns out that the gods are not done with Ista – one god, the Bastard, in particular seems to have further plans to use her as the vessel to save Porifors and stop the Jokonians’ Hitlerian plans for expansion.

Ista’s madness does not return but she regains some of the powers she held during that earlier period, including her “second sight” that allows her to see souls as light and shadows on their possessors – including demons, who figure heavily in the plot, and souls damaged by the ill usage of others. Ista must learn how to utilize this ability and its related power to manipulate souls so that she can save Porifors, and Chalion by extension, while also granting salvation to several of the people around her, including those posssessed by the novel’s many demonic forces. While I know nothing of Bujold’s religious beliefs, I found it impossible to read this as anything other than a metaphor for the Christian notions of dualism, redemption, and salvation through Ista/Christ. Ista becomes the only means of saving one character whose soul is otherwise doomed to damnation because of a demon’s trick that has given him physical life beyond death – I’m being ambiguous on purpose here to avoid fully spoiling it – and also must find ways to save the various characters directly possessed by demons, a sort of absolution by exorcism that comes at the end of personal battles between man (or woman) and demon for ultimate control of that person’s soul. Whether you find that angle compelling may depend on your views of religion or of dualism; I think it works on two levels, one a spiritual one, but the other a compelling way to give a story a climactic battle scene with somewhat less bloodshed than normal and without relying on ill-defined “magic” the way so many fantasy stories do. And, unlike George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novel, there’s no gratuitous violence toward the women to try to up the plot ante or otherwise depict the world as brutal and dark.

Ista herself is a less than stellar protagonist, however, because she’s strong but plain: She wishes to fight her role as Chosen One, accepts it, and powers through the final showdown on her intelligence and her strength of will, but there’s little or nothing inherently interesting about her persona. Her handmaiden, Liss, appears less frequently on the page but has more depth to her character: A well-born courier who chose that career for its potential for adventure, she spends more time helping execute Ista’s plans for battle than helping her lady dress or fix her hair, and her generally badass nature reminded me of the character Medea from Atlantis, played by Amy Manson, who now portrays Merida (with a silly wig) in Once Upon a Time. Manson’s Medea was indeed badass in several ways, and gloriously conflicted between Pasiphäe and Jason while fighting like you’d expect a stock male warrior to fight. Bujold injected Liss with that fierceness, and with that anti-feminine nature, but then gave us far too little of the character while embroiling her in an out-of-character flirtation with Foix.

The weak characterization of Ista combined with the slow start to the apparent journey plotline meant that the first third or so of Paladin of Souls plodded along without much promise, made worse by my lack of familiarity with the backstory. Once Ista reaches Porifors and the mystery starts up, followed by the intense siege and subsequent battle, the pacing was much more satisfactory and in line with better genre works (which I always find read faster than more literary and/or hifalutin works), but it didn’t leave me with the same wonder as better Hugo winners like Hyperion or Among Others, or even novels that were more clever but a bit less successful in plot like The City and the City.

Next up: Graham Greene’s England Made Me.