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.


I reviewed the boardgame Orleans for Paste this week, and my latest Insider post breaks down the Aroldis Chapman trade, including my disdain for the Yankees’ decision to trade for someone with an unresolved domestic assault accusation attached to him.

I decided last year to start working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel (there are now 64 winners, and I’m through 27) because I’m obsessed with lists, but more importantly, because it seemed like a good way to find the kind of big, immersive, ambitious novels I enjoy most, works that stick with me long after they’re done. The Left Hand of Darkness was one such discovery; To Say Nothing of the Dog was another; Among Others totally blew me away. There are duds, like Red Mars, but I’ll take a couple of those along the way when some of the winners are as amazing as Dan Simmons’ 1989 novel Hyperion, winner of the Hugo in 1989.

Hyperion is one of the most remarkable sci-fi books I’ve ever read – a highly literate, ambitious novel with an unusual structure and a delightful habit of defying reader expectations at multiple turns. Modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and presaging the very similar structure used by David Mitchell in his nested novel Cloud Atlas, Hyperion follows seven pilgrims on a journey to the planet of the book’s title, where they go to meet the mysterious creature known as the Shrike, a trek from which most pilgrims do not return. The fate of their requests of the Shrike may connect to the fate of humanity, which has spread itself around the galaxy and spun off a splinter group of violent rebels called the Ousters as well as an independent entity powered by artificial intelligences that became sentient and seceded from man.

The meat of the novel is those pilgrims’ stories, each told in a different voice and different style (as in Mitchell’s novel), from the priest who reads from the diary of his friend who died on Hyperion to the private investigator whose story unfurls like a detective novel to the Consul whose paramour, Siri, is the original time traveler’s wife. Simmons infuses each of these characters, some of whom are, shall we say, less than entirely sympathetic, with depth and complexity, enough that any one of them could have carried an entire novel by him/herself. The story of the father who makes the journey with his infant daughter is just heartbreaking, and while Simmons probably pushes one sorrow button too many, his description of that father’s experience watching his daughter’s pain is stunning and never forced.

Simmons has also created, in one book, a literary universe the size and scope of that in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, one that Simmons revisited in three subsequent novels (about which I’ve gotten mixed reviews from all of you over the last ten days). His vision of a distant future is bleak in spots, but he hasn’t given up on humanity entirely, while his incorporation of unrealistic or impossible scientific advances (such as interstellar travel using “farcasters”) at least brings the veneer of realism – and many of these technologies are critical to the book’s stories. Simmons created a mind-boggling world, then put his characters through grueling life tests within it, showing us their reactions and their development in response to these trials.

However, Hyperion doesn’t deliver what I expected most from it: an ending. The journey is the story; the pilgrims do not reach the Shrike at the end of the book, and the resolutions of their various stories come in the sequel, Fall of Hyperion, which I understand departs from this book’s narrative technique. Simmons leaves so many questions unanswered, from Rachel’s fate to Hoyt’s real purpose to the Consul’s ability to achieve his goal, that even though Hyperion is an immensely satisfying work on its own, the ending felt too much like a cliffhanger to think of it as a completely self-contained work. “All Prologue” is fine and good up to a point, but giving us all back story and virtually no present works against the power of the book as a whole.

Next up: I’ve finished Michio Kaku’s Beyond Einstein, a 1995 book on the history of superstrings, and just started another Hugo winner, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls.

Double Star.

My latest Insider post covers Mike Leake’s contract with St. Louis. I don’t think I’ll be able to chat this week, but will get the word out if that changes.

I picked up Robert Heinlein’s short 1956 novel Double Star just before Thanksgiving when the e-book was on sale for $1.99, but it was already on my to-do list since it won Heinlein the first of his four Hugo Awards for Best Novel. While it wasn’t among his first novels, Double Star was only his third novel geared toward the adult audience rather than the juvenile readers of most of his early work, and presaged his turn around 1959’s Starship Troopers toward this sort of more serious literature.

Double Star is the fictional memoir of the actor Lawrence Smith, a.k.a. Lorenzo Smythe, who is coerced or tricked into a job – or perhaps he just took it because he was desperate, and concocted the reasons later – that involves serving as a stand-in for a major opposition politician in the solar system-wide government, a constitutional monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom. The politician is indisposed for at least a few days, and Smythe needs to stand in for him at a major function on Mars, after which he’s to be paid and sent back to wherever he wants, but as you can easily predict, the job lasts longer than Smythe expects.

Although Heinlein’s milieu was science fiction, with Double Star taking place on Mars, the Moon, and various ships, the science aspects of the novel are almost irrelevant to the plot itself, and often serve as a distraction. The only meaningful addition from the sci-fi setting is the hostility between humans and Martians (described in the book as an intelligent if rather horrifying-looking species), which seems like a strong metaphor for ethnocentric policies in the racially and politically divided human world, such as the nascent civil rights movement in the United States at the time Heinlein was writing the book. Most of the other science fiction elements could go by the wayside without affecting the core story; some seem patently ridiculous now (Heinlein loved to depict settlement and/or native life on Venus) or incongruous (he was fine writing about travel as far as Pluto, but has characters doing tabulations by hand rather than on computers).

Instead, Double Star is a character study that happens to have a sci-fi backdrop. Smythe/Smith is a fatuous, egotistical actor of only modest success, down on his luck when he’s first approached about the job, yet playing the prima donna in all negotiations with his employers/captors. He’s the stereotypical method actor, inhabiting the part rather than just playing it, but also manages to grow somewhat even as he’s spending less and less time being himself. The fool we laugh at in the book’s first half becomes a modest hero in the second half, as he’s asked to do things that would stretch even the strongest personalities. With Heinlein often saying that readers shouldn’t look for metaphor or subtext in his work – I don’t buy that, but hey, it’s his writing – I do think his own argument for Double Star would have been built around the character first and the story second. Here’s a cleverly crafted individual, well-rounded, capable of growth, put in a situation that starts out as difficult and ends up nearly impossible.

It’s only about 140 pages, barely even novel-length, and since most of the sci-fi stuff feels tacked on or superfluous I’m not sure about this as Hugo-worthy, although I’d guess the competition at the time was mostly pulp anyway. I’m not terribly fit to judge the book in Heinlein’s canon, though, since I still have two more of his Hugo winners, the more widely acclaimed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, left to read.

Next up: Almost done with Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.

Language Arts and my year of 100 books.

Stephanie Kallos’ 2015 novel Language Arts first crossed my radar over the summer when I saw that Paste named it the best novel of the first half 2015, shortly after which I spotted it for $2.99 for the Kindle and picked it up to save for … well, the MLB winter meetings, as it turned out. It’s a bit sentimental with some purple prose, but the story itself is engaging and thoughtful, tied together by a surprise near the novel’s end that, with hindsight, makes clear so much of what was going on beneath the text in the first three-quarters of the book.

The center of the story is Charles Marlow and his autistic son Cody, whose sudden withdrawal as a toddler precipitated the breakup of Charles’ marriage to Alison and triggered a long-dormant memory of Charles’ childhood friendship with a developmentally disabled classmate. Through staggered flashbacks and shifts in present-day scenes from Charles to Cody (living in a group home) and a nun suffering from dementia that has caused her to revert to her young adulthood in Italy – a few too many abrupt shifts for me – Kallos unfolds what is really the story of Charles overcoming a series of mental obstacles to find some way to connect to his son.

While florid language often gives the book the feel of pop literature – the moon as a “melting scoop of vanilla ice cream” was a metaphor too far – Kallos invests the three mentally infirm characters (Cody, the nun, and Charles’ classmate Dana) with the complexity normally reserved for the not-disabled. While Cody is, of course, limited in expression and cognitive powers, he’s still given a broad range of emotions and treated like a whole person, both by other characters and by Kallos herself in describing his movements, habits, and attempts to communicate. Charles himself is the most fully fleshed-out character in the book, but there’s a hint of a sad-sack cliché about him, whereas Cody is one of the most refreshing, novel (no pun intended) portrayals of a developmentally disabled person I’ve ever seen.

Whereas Kallos’ phrasings often detracted from the book, she avoided many obvious plot pitfalls that would have turned this into a Hallmark movie of the week. Charles wrote an award-winning story as a fourth grader that resurfaces when his elementary school is slated for demolition; at a reunion with other students from that Langauge Arts class, he meets up with one of the other prize students, who’s also divorced, and … nothing happens. It would have just been too easy to have them date, or sleep together, or fall in love and give Charles a well-rounded, happy ending, but Kallos doesn’t go there, just as she doesn’t give Cody a miraculous recovery or reunite Charles and Alison or choose any of a dozen other easy ways out. The cathartic climax of the book is of the small kind, and it feels genuine, the kind of tiny miracle that can happen any day through nothing more unlikely than the kindness of others.

There’s a hint of pop spirituality, a sort of false ecumenicalism, running through Language Arts that did ring a bit off-key for me; it’s certainly true that we see many people turning away from organized religion while retaining some kind of spiritual belief system, but here Kallos wants to ask the Big Questions without doing much more to address them than point out that we’re all looking for answers. Between that and the prose, I could never quite get over the disconnect between the intense, thorough characterizations and the feel that Kallos was talking down to the reader – not from a point of intelligence looking down on the less clever, but the way we might look at a self-help guru dispensing empty platitudes. I can forgive quite a bit for a story and cast this compelling, where the conclusion delivers in a huge way without diverting from the book’s relentless realism.

This was the one hundredth book I’ve read in 2015, a peculiar goal but one I’ve wanted to reach for a very long time. I was on track to do it back in 2002, my first year working for the Blue Jays, one where I spent a lot of time on my own in Toronto (and prowled many of that fine, fine city’s many used bookstores … I remember a wonderful one near Little Italy where I went nuts), and read 75 books by early September. It was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that stopped me cold; I’ve tried so much Hemingway before and after that, but his prose is so cold and his depression so thoroughly reflected in his stories and characters that I’ve found his work more of a chore to read even than the labyrinthine language of Faulkner. That year I just hit a wall, and went as long without reading anything as I have at any point since then.

The year that my daughter was born (2006) was, naturally, another low point, although I still got to about 50-55 books read that year; I didn’t travel between spring training and the Futures Game, which cut down on reading time, and of course if I tried to read when my daughter was an infant I’d just fall asleep wherever I sat. But I’ve steadily ramped back up the last few years and read religiously for an hour or more just about every day. My therapist back in Arizona encouraged me to do it when I expressed some reservations about devoting time to such a solitary activity when I had a family and a job and, like everyone, a million other things I “should” (dangerous word there) be doing. She insisted I consider it part of my “self-care” regimen, the way I would meditation or exercise or getting enough sleep or eating well. So I have, going through 70 to 80 books a year most years since my daughter started sleeping through the night.

This year’s been an exceptional one though, even though I’ve had my share of longreads, because of my daughter. She’s supposed to read for a half an hour every night, so our deal, when I’m home, is that we read together, usually sitting next to each other on the couch (or her lying on top of me, which was a lot easier before she got to be more than half my weight), although if she’s annoyed at me for making her do her homework she might exile herself to the other side of the couch. She’s even been cheering me on towards the 100-book goal, which is wonderful encouragement, and delights me to see that she’s acquired some of my own yearning for achievements, no matter how arbitrary or meaningless to anyone but myself.

This year’s list of books has been suitably eclectic, with everything from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s epic Wizard of the Crow to Jasper Fforde’s two most recent Chronicles of Kazam books (which I read to my daughter a chapter or two a night), from books on quantum entanglement to the last two-thirds of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. The list included fourteen Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners and one for Non-Fiction; ten Hugo Award for Best Novel winners; and two titles from Nobel Prize for Literature winners. (I didn’t like either of those two.) Three books were collections of works from various authors; of the other 97, twenty-two were written by women. Eighty-seven of the titles were works of fiction. Eight were audiobooks to get me through the drives to and from Bristol or the occasional bout of yardwork. I read four titles each from Agatha Christie and Rex Stout; three by Waugh; and two apiece from Fforde, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, and P.G. Wodehouse. And one was by an author I know personally, a rare pleasure and a case where I didn’t bother to feign objectivity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just begun John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (just $5 on Kindle right now!) and you’re keeping me from my reading…

Too Many Cooks.

I have new Insider posts up on the Wade Miley-Carson Smith trade and the Hisashi Iwakuma contract. My latest boardgame review over at Paste covers 7 Wonders Duel, the new two-player game that uses the theme and some mechanics from the outstanding original 7 Wonders.

I don’t normally post on books in series, since part of any series’ appeal is the familiarity you get from title to title, but Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, the fifth of what would eventually be his thirty-three novels starring the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe and his milk-swigging sidekick Archie Goodwin. (I’ve now read thirteen of them, plus four books of short stories or novellas.) But this book merited some comment for two reasons, or perhaps two and a half if you consider the new meaning of the book’s title:

The story itself is one of the few that has Wolfe leave his famous brownstone, from which he solves most of the cases that come to him, usually in a climactic scene where all of the suspects gather in his parlor for the Big Reveal. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe and Goodwin travel to a spa/resort in West Virginia for the festivities of the Quinze Maîtres, a collection of chefs (fifteen in name, with only twelve attending due to the deaths of three since the previous meeting) from around the world who gather every five years for enormous meals, presentations on food, and, in this case, murder. When one of the twelve is killed during a tasting experiment he’s running, Wolfe first has to clear the chef who invited him to the shindig, and eventually solves the murder when the killer takes a shot at Wolfe himself.

Wolfe’s view of the world always involves food and drink (usually cold beer), as he employs a full-time chef, Fritz, and cooks frequently himself, but Stout outdoes himself in the descriptions of the dinners the Maîtres enjoy, as well as the sauce printemps that’s used in the tasting test during which the murder occurs. I found it fascinating to see how different haute cuisine – or, I guess, what Stout considered haute cuisine – looked in 1938, when the book was published, from what it has become now. The sumptuous meals in Too Many Cooks are almost entirely derived from French cuisine, directly or through some translation on the American side of the ocean, with nothing from outside of Europe, and the overemphasis on animal proteins is almost embarrassing to an educated eater today. The test in question is clever, although I wonder how feasible it would be in practice: One chef prepares the same sauce nine different ways, each time omitting one critical ingredient, and the other chefs must taste each sauce once and fill out a card indicating which batch was missing which ingredient. The test is tangential to the main plot, more red herring than essential element, but I also inferred that Stout was having a little fun with his fascination with food.

On the flip side, however, of all of the Nero Wolfe works I’ve read, I don’t think any used the n-word as frequently as Too Many Cooks does, even though most of the time it’s used it comes from the mouth of one of the southern whites in the book – such as the redneck local sheriff who shows up to investigate the murder. This prompted a question in my mind that I’ll pose to the group. In general, I don’t support the idea of bowdlerizing older works of art – film, literature, etc. – to remove language that was in the common vernacular of the time but has since become objectionable or effectively prohibited. This is how people talked and acted, and removing those words or actions (such as the awful blackface scene in Holiday Inn) not only reduces the works’ historical accuracy but has the possibly unintended effect of allowing us to pretend that this crap never happened. At the resort in Too Many Cooks, the kitchen staff members are mostly black, and everyone but Wolfe refers to them in derogatory terms, liberally sprinkled with that odious epithet. In reality, you could clean this text up, removing most of those uses of the term and replacing with less offensive words that still express the racism of the speakers, without materially impacting the text. Failing to replace those words makes the book much less enjoyable to read, and I would guess many if not most African-American readers today would find it unreadable. (Don’t even get me started on Gone With the Wind.) So what would you prefer: Leave these works as they are, as I believe we should, as testaments to our history, or “edit” them to be more culturally sensitive?

Next up: Stephanie Kallos’ 2015 novel Language Arts.

The Keepers of the House.

My thoughts on the Jeff Samardzija contract are up for Insiders. I’m still waiting for details on Hisashi Iwakuma’s reported contract before writing that one up.

Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The Keepers of the House, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1965, is an outstanding work of seething rage that manages to address themes of race and racial injustice by telling the story of a white family, of all things, in rural Alabama, from the late 19th century through the period just before the book’s publication. It is obvious to me why it won the award, and baffling to me that it has all but disappeared from reading lists, with no film adaptation or anything else to keep it alive.

The book nominally details seven generations of the Howland family, but the focus is primarily on two of them: the fifth William Howland and his granddaughter Abigail, who returns with her mother to live with her grandfather after her father abandons the family to fight in World War II, and ends up raised by her grandfather after her mother dies shortly after. William brought a young black woman named Margaret in to be the housekeeper after his own wife died in childbirth, and Margaret eventually became his mistress, bearing him three children, each of whom was sent away to schools in the north where their mixed heritage would not be held against them. While the relationship was commonly known in the area, the locals – depicted by and large as the sort of upstanding racists you might associate with the South of the 1950s – overlooked it as a quirk of those crazy Howlands.

After William dies, Margaret moves back to the black section of town with her family, and Abigail and her ambitious politician husband John Tolliver move into the Howland estate. When John runs for Governor of Alabama, a post he’s favored to win in a landslide, one unknown detail emerges about William and Margaret that derails his campaign and marriage while bringing the wrath of the town upon Abigail, thereby unlocking within her generations of outrage at the hypocrisy all around her, from the local whites who would tolerate such miscegenation up to a point to William and Margaret’s children who try to reject their black heritage.

The first three-fourths of Grau’s novel feel like many other novels in the subgenre of southern literature, telling a vast story of a family that once ruled a vast estate or accumulated great wealth but watched it fritter away via complacent or dissolute descendants. But Grau plants many seeds (no pun intended) in the early going to set up a dynamite climax (same) that gives Abigail two shots at revenge on her family’s tormentors, taking advantage of the unspoken dependence of the townfolk to enact a vicious vengeance. Abigail serves her revenge piping hot, and because of its genesis, it’s an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion for the reader.

It’s even more potent for Grau’s decision to tell the story with Abigail as the narrator. Imposing that fog over the family history – it’s passed down orally, so bits of it seem embellished, perhaps impossible – meant that images become clearer as the story approaches the material Abigail herself would have seen, and allows us to trace the development of her identity as a Howland, especially from the time when she goes to live on the family estate. In the time when Grau wrote Keepers, it was unthinkable to have a black character enact the sort of revenge Abigail gets – as it was, Grau ended up with a cross burned on her lawn after the book was published – so giving us a white woman who was raised in a house where black children were treated as cousins was probably the closest Grau could get. And in so doing, she never spared the white racists who smiled and said the right things but harbored the same centuries-old bigotry in their hearts.

Next up: I just finished Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, a Nero Wolfe mystery, and have begun Stephanie Kallos’s highly lauded 2015 novel Language Arts.