Tenth of December.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of American short story writer George Saunders until a friend of mine here in Delaware (the father of one of my daughter’s classmates) recommended Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, which won the 2013 Story Prize and the inaugural Folio Prize, while it was shortlisted for the National Book Award (along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), losing to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Saunders has a clear gift for speaking in tongues, using wildly different narrative voices from story to story, sometimes to the detriment of the story, while the vignettes themselves capture dark emotions through the eyes of ordinary (if a bit off-kilter) narrators.

The title story closes the book, and tells of a chance encounter between an adult man who intends to kill himself by allowing himself to freeze to death, and a teenaged boy who believes or is merely fantasizing that the girl on whom he has a crush has been abducted by the first man. When the boy falls into a frozen lake, the man is forced to abandon his plan if he wants to save the boy, while the reader hears his internal monologue explaining why he wants to take his own life. It takes a while to get going, which is true of most of the stories in the volume, but the pace accelerates once all of the critical elements are in place.

The real centerpiece of the book, both the most complex story and the one with the most irritating narration, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” written by a suburban father who’s struggling to provide a middle-class upbringing for his daughters. The story is told as a series of journal or diary entries from the father, who often dispenses with grammatical niceties like subjects, so the whole thing reads like it was written by a three-year-old (with a big vocabulary) or by Cookie Monster. The father has a Willy Loman-esque quality to his yearnings for more material trappings for his kids, especially his oldest daughter, who’s feeling the social impact of being one of the least affluent students in her school, while he and his wife (who don’t seem to be any too sharp with money) slowly rack up strangling consumer debt. An unexpected windfall allows him to splurge on a gift for his daughter, the Semplica Girls, whose plight – I won’t spoil it – should open his eyes to what real poverty and hopelessness are like, but don’t because he’s so caught up in his own internal rat race.

Saunders gets some comparisons to Vonnegut, although I think the latter was more wry and cynical where Saunders finds far more humanity in his characters and shows more empathy for them. “Escape from Spiderhead” describes the experiences of a convict in an experimental prison where the prisoners end up test subjects for a variety of drugs used to stimulate or repress feelings of love and lust. It’s a Vonnegut-esque view of the future, but where Vonnegut would have used the setting as a commentary on our increasing reliance on the pharmaceutical industry or the dangerous intersection of technology and the human condition, Saunders instead uses it as mere backdrop for the central character’s inner conflict when the warden/director administers a drug that delivers horrible mental and emotional pain to another patient while he’s forced to watch.

As in any collection, fiction or essays, one author or many, the quality within Tenth of December fluctuates. “Victory Lap,” the opener, takes a disturbingly distant, antiseptic view of one young boy, whose parents are strict to the point of abusive, facing an internal struggle whether to stop the potential rape of his young neighbor, a girl who appears to have thrown him overboard as a friend as she became more popular and his parents restricted him from any kind of socializing. “Home” may be a highly effective story of a young veteran returning from Iraq, struggling to deal with his own emotional trauma while he encounters an absolute mess in every aspect of his home life, but the story left me thinking I lacked the life experience (as in, I never served) to appreciate or evaluate what Saunders was trying to tell me. The ending of “Puppy” didn’t click with me at all, as it seemed like Marie would have made the opposite choice when confronted with the horrifying detail that turns her away.

Saunders’ facility with language, not so much his vocabulary but his ear for syntax, affect, the sound of words whether spoken or thought, was by far the strongest aspect of Tenth of December, making it easy for me to get lost in a story even if I didn’t find the plot itself terribly compelling. And the fact that he has empathy for most of his characters (aside, perhaps, from the two leads in “Victory Lap”) made it an emotional read as well, given his ability to get the reader into a character’s mind. When Saunders’ stories are more just stories and less with A Point, Tenth of December can match any anthology I’ve read.

If you’re intrigued and want to read a bit of his writing, Saunders’ nonfiction essay “Manifesto: A press release from People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction,” which appeared in Slate in 2004, is a marvelous read.

Next up: Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, which uses the word “cock” more often than any book I’ve ever read.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.

I’ll be chatting on Thursday this week at 10 am Eastern rather than my usual afternoon slot.

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: is sort of an older-young-adults novel, a very superficial, breezily-told biography of a relatively young widower who runs an independent bookshop on a fictional island near Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Fikry, the bookseller, finds his life turned upside down through an absolutely ridiculous turn of events, which eventually leads to him reentering society while Zevin gets to tell us about all of her favorite short stories.

It’s hard to imagine how Fikry was even married in the first place, given his near-misanthropic attitudes; he is the stereotypical bookworm who enjoys books more than people, and who shies away from nearly all relationships, even shunning the eager young female publishing sales rep whose first visit to his store opens the novel. (I bet you can’t guess where she figures in!) But the absurdity of Fikry coming downstairs one night to find a toddler left in his bookstore with a note asking him to take care of her – and then Massachusetts’ social services department, the same idiots who put the Amiraults in jail for over a decade on fabricated charges of child abuse, just going along with it turns the book into something akin to magical realism. Fikry raises Maya with him in the bookstore, cultivating a love of reading in her (if only parenting were so easy) and, as a narrative device, assembling a list of his favorite short stories with a page of explanation about each for her to read.

There’s a second plot strand running through the novel, eventually merging with Fikry’s own story in a moderately surprising way. Fikry’s late wife’s sister and her philandering author husband (talk about stock characters – he teaches writing and sleeps with some of his students) weave in and out of Fikry’s life, with their failed marriage and inability to conceive hovering in the background. Zevin’s picture of Alice Island is somewhat paradisical and sanitized – these are nearly all upper-class white folks (Fikry is half-Indian, a fact mentioned once and essentially discarded) who really love to read. The one non-white character is an interloper. That’s not to say anything about Zevin’s writing is racist – that’s a pretty accurate depiction of the racial makeup of Cape Cod and the nearby islands – but the lack of ethnic diversity in her characters seems to contribute to the lack of character depth.

The book truly flew by, as Zevin, who has written for younger audiences before, carries the vocabulary and sentence structure of YA novels into The Storied Life. Unfortunately it comes with the same clumsy, predictable plotting; it was clear early on in the book that it would end with the death of one of the three central characters, both from the content itself and because there was no other obvious direction to the narrative other than the mere passage of time – and it was quick, skipping huge chunks of Maya’s childhood, including the formative years that might have told us something more about Fikry’s evolution from a solitary, insular widower into a loving parent capable of entering another relationship with an adult. It’s book-club fodder, written to make us all feel good about books, but if you love books like I do, you should read something better.

Next up: I’m behind on my writeups, but the next one will be on George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.

Ancillary Justice.

My latest boardgame review for Paste magazine covers the 2014 engine-building game Evolution.

Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) ran the table of major sci-fi awards, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards for Best Novel (among other prizes) in 2014 and spawning two upcoming sequels to complete the “space opera” trilogy. Leckie devised a clever twist to give Ancillary Justice a different flavor from any novel I’ve seen before, but that didn’t infuse the story with the narrative greed I’d expect from an award-winning science-fiction book.

The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is an “ancillary,” a human body with an AI cognitive function, one recently separated from the ship that previously ruled its actions. In the world Leckie has created, spaceships run on powerful, all-seeing systems with their own artificial intelligences, and they extend their reach and powers via ancillaries – various prisoners who’ve been placed in cryogenic suspension, reanimated, and fitted with various technical implants, from armor to the system that connects them to the ship’s central nervous system. That means that each ancillary functions as a small part of a larger whole – Breq, the protagonist, can recall seeing with dozens of pairs of eyes when she was still part of the ship Justice of Toren. These ships and ancillaries are all under the command of the Radch, a mysterious authority that rules a large swath of its galaxy, adding to its dominion via ruthless “annexations” that tend to involve a lot of killing of innocents.

Breq’s ship is gone, described in one of the book’s many flashbacks, essential to understanding why Breq is trying to obtain a rare weapon and go kill one of the many bodies of the Radch’s monarch, Anaander Mianaai, even though such a move won’t actually destroy the ruler herself. The novel itself begins with a long tangent where Breq, arriving on the snowbound planet of Hilt (why is there always a frigid, snow-covered planet in these books?), comes across a dying woman named Seivarden lying face-down in the snow. Recognizing the former lieutenant, Breq chooses to save the woman’s life, further complicating her own mission yet giving Leckie more room to explain the Radch’s history.

That lengthy introductory section lasts maybe a third of the book, and while there may be a payoff later in the trilogy, it contributed to the novel’s lack of plot interest. I understood why Breq wants to kill one of the many Anaander Mianaais running around the galaxy; I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much, at least not to the point where I was reading because I wanted to know what happened next. The plot is antiseptic, fully functional yet without color or emotion – befitting a story that is ultimately about a battle between artificial intelligences, I suppose.

Leckie’s use of an atypical protagonist likely contributed to the slew of awards she won for Ancillary Justice, and it allowed her to touch on a pair of themes that resonate quite strongly today, perhaps also boosting her stock with judges. One such theme is the question of privacy in an increasingly wired, digital era. Every ship and space station is “alive” via AI, and sees and knows everything that’s going on within, to the point of monitoring individuals’ heart rates and facial expressions, analyzing them for potential threats. The Radch continues to annex more territories, giving the targets no choice in the matter, forcing them to cede their land and any individual freedom they may have had prior to the Radch’s arrival.

Leckie also explores the question, although I suppose it’s settled within the novel, of how much control we’re willing to surrender to our computers. AIs rule every ship, station, or planet we encounter in the book, and there’s very little thought given to whether this is optimal because it’s been that way for at least a thousand years. The Radch is ruled according to a quasi-mystical (rather Confucian) set of principles, including Justice, that considers the Greater Good without giving any visible weight to the individual. On the one hand, that means personal freedom gets trampled by the Radch whenever there’s a conflict. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure everyone in the Radchaai empire is vaccinated.

Leckie gets too cute by half with her forays into language and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, never committing to it enough for a real exploration of its relevance, choosing instead to toy with questions of gender or Arabic/Korean-style questions of declensions that vary based on the level of respect due to whoever you’re talking to. It reads like an idea she had early in the novel’s development, then gradually abandoned as she became more enmeshed in the broader AI-focused plot.

Ancillary Justice reads more like a novel you’d analyze and discuss than one you might read for pleasure. The lack of any emotional connection between the reader and Breq, or even to the specific incident that triggered her rebellion against Anaander Mianaai, makes it a desultory read, failing to generate enough interest in getting to the book’s conclusion – a strong one, easily the book’s best segment, but not enough to make up for what came before. If you’re more invested in the backstory of why Breq ended up severed from her ship, and why she’s engaging on a seemingly futile one-ancillary mutiny against a ruler who can’t be killed – and as I type that I think that sounds like a pretty good story – you’ll likely enjoy the book more than I did.

The Diamond Age.

Neal Stephenson won the Hugo and Locus awards in 1996 for his novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a postcyberpunk bildungsroman that can’t survive under the weight of its own self-importance. While Stephenson managed to create a credible Gibsonian universe in his earlier hit, Snow Crash, here his worldbuilding detracts from the story about the titular book that might be able to reprogram the future of humanity, and his hifalutin language doesn’t meld well with the story’s focus on a child protagonist.

The “primer” of the book’s title is a “ractive” book (short for “interactive” … I’m not a fan of this kind of conlang/argot shit, which ends up little more than an annoying distraction), designed by the engineer John Hackworth for Lord Gussie Fink-Nottle (close enough) using nanotechnology and I think what we’d now call a 3-D printer, designed to raise a young girl – the Lord’s granddaughter, and, via a pirated copy, Hackworth’s daughter – to be a hypereducated, worldly, creative young adult. The copy intended for Fiona Hackworth ends up in the hands of an impoverished, abused girl named Nell, brought to her by her scapegrace brother, Harv, setting in motion a great and possibly unintended sociological experiment pitting nature against nurture – not a mother’s nurture, but a surrogate in the form of the actress, Miranda, who performs nearly all of the “ractive” functions in the Primer for Nell.

The Primer itself is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure hepped up on nanotech; in fact, Stephenson’s whole universe here revolves around nanotechnology, where static objects can be built in Matter Compilers, and nanosites – microscopic entities designed to perform specific functions in the air or within someone’s body – abound, including security infrastructures that must have the NSA seething with envy. (The book’s very title was coined by cryptography pioneer and nanotechnology researcher Ralph Merkle, whose great-uncle made a certain boner with which you, being a visitor to this particular blog, are likely familiar.) Stephenson’s vision of an age of nanotechnology, combined with a dark post-nationalistic viewpoint where communities are organized in “phyles” that called to mind the guilds of early RPGs, is so overly and unnecessarily complex that it overwhelmed the core storyline of Nell’s education and maturation through her experiences with the Primer. The “Drummers” hive-mind phyle is one of the novel’s bigger messes, ambiguously-described yet central to the operation of the Primers and, ultimately, to the resolution of the plot.

My other, secondary problem with The Diamond Age was the absurd vocabulary Stephenson used in it – perhaps a nod to its underpinnings in Victorian literature, but coming off as stilted and sometimes inappropriate to the characters in question. Nell is only about eleven or twelve years old when she has this thought:

It was just that the story was anfractuous; it developed more ramifications the more closely she read it.

Now, maybe all of you knew the word “anfractuous” from childhood, but I only encountered it sometime in the last two years, somewhere in The Recognitions or Gravity’s Rainbow or some classic from the 1800s that routinely sent me to the dictionary. It’s a valid English word, actually a pretty useful one, but you’re never going to hear that or “ramifications” in the internal monologue of a preteen. Stephenson’s either showing off or incapable of capturing the vernacular of someone that age – and the whole book is full of maddening word choices like these.

The shame of this incoherence is that Stephenson buried what might have been a remarkable novel of ideas, one that merely uses the platform of his nanotech universe to explore the roles of community, government, family, education, and religion in a world where we’re that much closer to the singularity. Even one of those topics would make the foundation for a good novel, although I can’t blame Stephenson – who’s not afraid to be prolix in his prose – for aiming high. Unfortunately, the resolution of the story is so muddled, both in plot and in philosophy, that by the end of the book it wasn’t even clear how we’d gotten there, much less whether there was a point to any of this.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m tackling Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is indeed an excruciating read.

Rendezvous with Rama.

A brief Insider piece where I rank the top ten prospects by position went up this afternoon.

I’m gradually working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, mostly concentrating on recent winners, but jumping back for a few of the classics I missed when I went through a heavy sci-fi phase as a teenager. Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama won the Hugo in 1974 (and the Nebula and a bunch of other significant awards in the genre) and remains highly-regarded four decades later, even though it’s extremely light on conventional plot elements, focusing instead on hard science and some philosophical questions around what an encounter with a superior alien intelligence might entail.

Rama itself is a giant alien vessel that enters our solar system on a parabolic trip around our sun in the year 2131, by which point humanity has colonized several other planets and bodies in the system (including, bizarrely, Mercury and the Neptunian moon Triton), and has also set up an early-warning system to detect possible threats to earth after a meteorite fell on northern Italy in 2077. This system identifies Rama first as a fast-moving asteroid or meteorite, but when it comes closer it becomes apparent that it’s some sort of extraterrestrial ship or device, larger than many asteroids, a giant cylinder spinning at a rate impossible for a natural object. The confederation of planets sets up a manned mission to Rama to explore it, assuming the world itself is dead, which sets up the bulk of the book as a description of what the mission finds once they reach Rama and make their way inside of it.

Clarke’s interests here seem to split into two areas – the internal construction of Rama as a self-sufficient entity with a sort of artificial intelligence powering it (Rama has been in transit for so long that no purely biological life remains, if it ever existed), and some of the moral and ethical dilemmas around the exploration of the world. Since its creators are not present, and could not have left any explanation of their intentions, how would the explorers balance scientific inquiry with the moral imperative to do minimal harm? At one point, the Mercury colonists (“Hermians”) – and let’s not even get started on the absurdity of that – decide to set up a preemptive strike, even though there’s no clear sign that Rama has been sent to attack anything in our system; again, where is the inflection point beyond which the proper response is self-defense?

Because Clarke moves everything so quickly, and sets up just the briefest tensions, there isn’t much discussion or even time for thought about these issues – he’s sort of throwing the questions out there for the reader, then moving on to whatever’s next. I’m not suggesting he had to go Full Tolstoy and give us 80 pages on the morality of space exploration, but a novel that wants to confront these philosophical questions probably should have a little more internal debate among the characters than Rama did. Clarke tries to include this by jumping from the actions of the crew on Rama to the conferences among the various emissaries from the various colonies across the solar system, but these focus as much on problem-solving as on ethical concerns.

I’ve read in a few places, including (but not limited to) Wikipedia, that filming Rendezvous with Rama is a longtime goal of Morgan Freeman, but I can’t imagine this book as a successful film without major script changes. There are no aliens, so there’s no antagonist. The explorers fight a little bit against time, a little against the “elements” within Rama (which is essentially a world turned inside out), but the standard sources of tension are simply absent here. Clarke creates narrative greed only by keeping the chapters short and the action quick, but once it becomes clear he’s not going to kill off a large section of the crew, we’re just watching the explorers peel back layers of the onion and racing a little bit against the clock. The purpose of Rama itself doesn’t become clear until near the very end of the novel, and the crew has little or nothing to do with the revelation. It would likely be a spectacular film visually, but it needs a stronger plot to be a commercial success, and I’m not sure that could happen without throwing the science out the window.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

Rainbows End.

I’ve written an organization report for each MLB team, including a list of that team’s top ten prospects; you can find them on the full index of all thirty clubs. The Rays’ piece is free; the rest are Insider.

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel, beating out four books I don’t know by authors I’d never heard of (although one of them, Peter Watts’ Blindsight, also received high critical praise). In a world ripped straight out of the fiction of William Gibson, a plot to undermine humanity in the name of saving it ends up foiled by an 11-year-old girl and a virtual entity known only as the Rabbit. It’s a book so in love with its setting that the plot is unfortunately drowned in a sea of irrelevant details.

In 2025, everything and everyone is connected, constantly online and accessible via wearable technology, coding via hand gestures, with their movements and actions easily tracked by the government (okay, that last part might be closer to truth than I’d like to admit). A global intelligence investigation has uncovered a plot to make humans more suggestible via coded transmissions within ordinary broadcasts like commercials – a sort of ‘mind virus’ – that was in fact developed by one of the people supposed to be leading the investigation. He hires the Rabbit to unwittingly help him retrieve the technology before it’s discovered, only to find the Rabbit is more feline than leporine when it comes to curiosity and doesn’t stop where his orders end.

Meanwhile, Robert Gu, a once world-renowned poet who was stricken by Alzheimer’s, is miraculously cured not just of that malady but of old age, restored largely to the body of a teenager, but without the one thing he’d most like back – his ability to craft poetry. He’s approached by an earnest graduate student – virtually, as most meetings in this book seem to be – to help with the latter’s thesis, only to have that student’s online persona hijacked by another entity that offers him a Faustian bargain: help with this project (tied into the same investigation into the UCSD bio-research facility where the mind-control experiment lives) and you’ll get your muse back. Gu was a miserable wretch before his dormancy, lashing out with intent to wound at anyone near him, but after doing so once to his granddaughter Miri, the two end up with a tenuous bond that draws Miri into Robert’s endeavor, without his knowledge at first, and gives her a pivotal role in the attempt to stop a global takeover.

Vinge is himself a transhumanist who has written on the inevitability of the merger of man and machine known as the singularity – an idea first encapsulated by Ray Kurzweil in his non-fiction treatise The Singularity Is Near – and here he has created a world where the singularity is quite close, so much so that he can’t stop telling us about it. The story is overburdened with the minutiae of the operations of these net-enabled clothes, with their own lingo (either you’re “wearing” or you’re hopeless), and the same attention to detail turns the climactic passage, a battle waged on the ground as well as over the net from points around the world, into nearly two hundred pages of confusing, slogging prose. We get the conclusion we expect – did you really think Vinge would let the bad guy take over the world with a mindworm? – and a minimum of damage to the protagonists; the only way the resolution could have been more maudlin would have been to have Gu reconcile with the ex-wife who dumped him for his malicious behavior.

I think a big part of the appeal of such books is the predictions inherent in the writing – wearable technology is certainly getting closer, with the mild success of Google Glass, and our access to the Internet is becoming broader, which makes our movements easier for someone like the NSA to track. Vinge doesn’t seem to worry much about the enormous energy requirements of his near-future vision; virtual-reality remains stubbornly separate from real reality, we don’t hold meetings with overseas colleagues via projections or holograms; and the silent instant messaging he has the more sophisticated wearers use seems too much like the Red Herring telepathic-email device called orecchio, which was an April Fool’s hoax.

I’d recommend anyone interested in this particular branch of science fiction to read William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash instead. Both cyberpunk novels deal with the melding of man and machine in a more humanist light, keeping the narrative moving without the juvenile obsession with sci-fi trappings.

Next up: Going old-school with Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, winner of the Hugo Award in 1974.

Anansi Boys.

This will serve as your umpteenth reminder that my rankings of all thirty MLB farm systems go up on ESPN.com on Wednesday, for Insiders, with the global top 100 on Thursday and each team’s top ten and farm report on Friday.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys takes one of the many pagan deities he invoked in his magnum opus, American Gods, and repurposes him as a peculiar Florida father who constantly mortifies his son, Fat Charlie, who isn’t fat, and then mortifies Fat Charlie further by dying in ignominious fashion. Flying back from a somewhat grim expat life in London, Fat Charlie runs headlong into his past, only to discover that he has a brother, known only as Spider, who appears to have inherited all of dear old dad’s powers – including the power of persuasion, which comes in rather handy in this story. Spider’s arrival turns Fat Charlie’s life inside out, costing him his job, his fiancée, and his freedom, eventually leading Fat Charlie back to Florida and the four crones who helped him bury his father and reconnect with Spider.

Anansi Boys – there’s a pun in there, in case you missed it – is two books in one: a madcap farce, and then a more serious meditation on dualism and the nature of identity. The shift is jarring; you’re laughing for 150 pages or so, and then you realize you haven’t laughed in a while, even though the pace of the narrative hasn’t shifted or slowed at all. The farce starts the moment Spider shows up, turning Fat Charlie into the straight man and the mark for no end of cons, with Spider using his apartment as home base for what looks like a long, unending con that also brings Fat Charlie’s unctuous, embezzling thief of a boss into the circle, a move that endangers Fat Charlie’s freedom and perhaps his life. Spider hones in on Rosie, Fat Charlie’s ill-matched fiancée, even trying to use his irresistible (because they’re magic) charms on her harridan mother, who has wanted Rosie to dump Fat Charlie since the moment they got together. Key to all of this is everyone else’s inability to distinguish Spider from Fat Charlie, even though they don’t look alike.

The eventual denouement comes about when Fat Charlie ends up in jail, accused by the sleazy boss of the embezzlement he himself undertook, triggering a come-to-Anansi moment for Spider that puts Rosie on a cruise to the Caribbean with her mother and without either man, the boss on the run with blood on his hands and money in various Cayman Island bank accounts, and Daisy, Fat Charlie’s one-night stand/arresting officer, going all Falling Down over the boss guy getting away with murder. One critical coincidence, where Gaiman has Rosie run into the boss on the fictional island of St. Andrews, speeds us towards a single climax that involves every character, one that forces Fat Charlie to cross over into the “beginning of the world,” the homes of all of the animal-deities, including Anansi himself, to undo the bargain he once made with Tiger and to finally understand who Spider is to him.

While American Gods had the feel of an epic, almost a great-American-novel attempt, Anansi Boys is a romp, both for the reader thanks to the Wodehousian man-in-trouble segments where Spider is screwing up Fat Charlie’s life, and for Gaiman, who gets to indulge in the sort of otherworld-creation that helped make American Gods particularly memorable. The inclusion of some (presumably Gaiman-authored) folk tales around Anansi slows the story down at times, although they tend to be short and I imagine Gaiman intended to give Fat Charlie’s deal with Tiger and subsequent attempt to unravel it more context. What Anansi Boys might lack in scope, it more than makes up for in narrative greed.

Next up: I’ve just about finished Vernor Vinge’s 2007 Hugo winner Rainbows End.

The Lowland.

I wrote about the Yankees signing Chase Headley, the White Sox signing Melky Cabrera, and the various signings of Jed Lowrie, Alex Rios, Brett Anderson, and others for Insiders.

Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999 for The Interpreter of Maladies, a scintillating collection of short stories that focused mostly on the experiences of Indian emigrants to the United States, beautifully crafted stories with empathetic characters and gorgeous prose. Her second collection of stories, 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth was just as impressive, but didn’t earn the same acclaim because it wasn’t her debut work and because in the interim, she only published one work, the 2003 novel The Namesake, a less well-received book turned into a mediocre film that starred Kal “Kumar” Penn in a serious role.

Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland, came out late in 2013 and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award, with stronger critical reviews than Namesake received as well. It’s a melancholy, introspective book of lives destroyed by the ripple effects across generations caused by one seemingly small choice made in the passion of youth. It features Lahiri’s evocative prose and strong characterization, but with the longer form available to her, she takes the opportunity to grab your heart with both hands and wring it out like a damp towel, yet without the critical or philosophical payoff I’d demand of a novel that delves so deeply into personal pain.

The lowland of the title is a swampy area near the Kolkata home of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who are as close as any two friends can be despite very different personalities. Subhash, the elder brother, is shy, cautious, scholarly, and eager to please; Udayan is more daring, outwardly emotional, and, ultimately, politically motivated. As the brothers come of age in the mid- to late 1960s, Udayan gets involved in local communist movements, eventually joining the real-life Marxist-Maoist movement known as the Naxalites, which still exists today primarily as a terrorist organization with only superficial political aims. While Subhash is studying marine biology in Rhode Island, the Naxalites’ activities turn deadly, after which Indian security forces arrest and kill Udayan, leaving his barely pregnant wife Gauri living with in-laws who can’t stand her and pushing Subhash to sacrifice himself to save her from a miserable future and raise his brother’s daughter. That choice has far-reaching and unexpected consequences for all three of them, covering the last two-thirds of the novel, during which we also receive more details on Udayan’s actions and his murder by way of explaining Gauri’s alienation and depression.

The resulting book covers four generations of this family, from Subhash’s traditional parents to his daughter (in all but the biological sense) Bela, who is nearly 40 at the end of the book and has a daughter of her own, with an especial focus on Subhash, Bela, and Gauri dealing with the holes left in their lives by Udayan’s death and in particular Gauri’s emotional withdrawal after it. I found it almost impossible to process Gauri’s lack of connection with Bela and eventual decision to leave her family to pursue an aimless academic career; that her sudden widowhood destroyed something in her is realistic, and Subhash would certainly never replace what she had lost, but for her to bear and raise Bela without forming an emotional bond or attachment just didn’t compute for me.

The ultimate problem with The Lowland its lack of any clear direction or point; it’s an engrossing, tragic story of people broken by history, carrying the fractures across an ocean and through generations, but what is Lahiri trying to get across? She is one of the preeminent writers of immigrant fiction, yet with her second novel, she has only added a good story without saying anything new about the experience of Indian-Americans coming here and returning home after the United States has changed them.

Next up: I’m nearly done with China Miéville’s Hugo Award-winning novel The City & The City.

American Gods.

She smiled at him, looking suddenly, and for the first time, vulnerable. She patted him on the arm. “You’re fucked up, Mister. But you’re cool.”
“I believe that’s what they call the human condition,” said Shadow. “Thanks for the company.”

Author Lev Grossman (The Magicians) also serves as arts critic for TIME magazine, helping assemble their list of the top 100 novels from 1923 with Richard Lacayo. In early 2011, Grossman also put together a list of the ten best novels from the first ten years of the century, of which I hadn’t read two, Lush Life (which I read in 2012 and loved) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. This was my first encounter with Gaiman, whose reputation as a fantasy writer seriously undersells both his erudition and his ability as a crafter of plots.

Shadow is just about to get out of jail after serving three years of a sentence for nearly beating two men, who cheated him out of his share of a robbery, to death. He finds out that his wife has been killed in a car crash, and on a much-delayed flight home for the funeral, encounters a strange man who calls himself Wednesday (a nod to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and knows more about Shadow than any stranger should.

Wednesday is no ordinary stranger, though; he’s a small-g god, a modern incarnation of Odin, the Norse god and “all-father” who ruled Asgard. It turns out that immigrants who came to the United States and brought their pagan beliefs and superstitions with them brought their gods with them as well – and those gods are about to go to war with the new gods of America, gods of television and computers and other things we worship today. And Wednesday wants Shadow’s help in preparing for the battle, a story that turns out to be as tangled and complex as any culture’s mythology and that involves gods from numerous pantheons, a dead woman who can’t quite stay dead, a lakeside town in Wisconsin, a tree in Virginia, and Rock City in Tennessee.

Gaiman’s assembly of all of these gods and myths into one coherent story by distilling them each into single human characters is brilliant and imaginative, to the point where the novel felt like nothing I’d read before. It’s not magical realism because it’s almost too realistic for it, aside from the whole gods walking around thing; Gaiman plays it all so straight that it’s easy to accept them as regular people, even when they shapeshift or defy the laws of physics. It’s an ensemble cast, with Shadow at its center but not the central character, as his personality matches his name; the plot revolves around him, but he’s never the most interesting man in the room.

As the plot develops, both sides are fighting for Shadow’s allegiance, which allows Gaiman to move Shadow into various orbits and introduce a widening array of his god-characters without creating multiple plot strands. American Gods is mostly linear, which helped make it a quick read, as did Gaiman’s fluid prose and frequent use of dark humor (especially from the mouth of Wednesday, who turns out to be a bit of a cad).

The denouement is just as imaginative as the rest of the book, defying convention and expectations while deftly tying up the various threads of the novel, without short-changing the novel’s themes of mortality, clashes of culture, and the importance of myth. Gaiman’s prose, imagination, and embrace of these big ideas reminded me in parts of Fforde, Vonnegut, Dick, and García Márquez. Grossman’s list turned out to be a tremendous collection of modern fiction; even the titles I didn’t love were worthwhile reads, and the best books on the list rank among my all-time favorites.

Motherless Brooklyn.

My annual “guys I got wrong” piece is up for Insiders.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s bizarro paranoid detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, which felt like a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick with a dose of Jasper Fforde added like the bitters that completes a cocktail. At least one of you recommended one of his other detective novels, the equally strange but more straightforward Motherless Brooklyn, in which the lead detective isn’t really a detective, but a flunky working for a half-assed detective agency. The boss is killed on a mission gone wrong, and the protagonist and narrator, Lionel Essrog, begins to investigate the murder – in part because he’s involved, but even more so because he has to, as he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.

Essrog’s tics are minor, and his coworkers at the L&L Car Service, a front for the detective agency run by Frank Minna, all treat them as a fact of life, mostly ignoring them or bestowing unkind nicknames on him (like “Freakshow”). The four underlings, including Essrog, were all at the same orphanage together, from which Minna plucked them first to work as day laborers on suspect jobs like moving what appeared to be stolen goods, then later on to be his team of lookouts and stooges while he played detective. When Frank dies on what at first looks like a normal job gone wrong, with Lionel and dim-witted colleague Gilbert serving as his backup, Lionel starts an independent investigation of sorts, one without a lot of direction at first but that he can’t stop once he gets enmeshed in it – just like he has to complete his series of taps or work out vocal tics that come out of his mouth like random attempts at anagrams and wordplay. (Lethem credits the work of several neurologists in his acknowledgements, including Oliver Sacks.) But Lionel isn’t any more a freak than anyone else – his eccentricities are just more visible.

The case itself is more convoluted than that of your standard hard-boiled detective novel, and the resolution is less clean and partially happens off-screen, but Lethem nods to the conventions of the form, perhaps a little too much so, with Lionel getting knocked out and waking up somewhere else, and sleeping with one of the only female characters in one of the book’s most improbable but funnier scenes. Making Lionel the narrator allows Lethem to draw humor from his condition without ever seeming to mock him for it, and in some ways the obsessiveness that often accompanies Tourette’s is an asset for a would-be sleuth. Some of his conversations with suspects would come off as unrealistic if he didn’t have the condition; Lionel’s tics and utterances punctuate the interrogations in such a way that his blunt questions don’t come off as starkly, which makes the suspects’ candor easier to believe.

I could have done without the stereotyped Italian wiseguys, particularly the older mobsters who are straight out of central casting and would have to inhale just to be two-dimensional, even though they probably had to be Italian to fill those roles in a book set in Brooklyn. They’re secondary, at least, playing limited on-screen roles, as Lionel himself is truly the star – and will apparently be played by Ed Norton in the upcoming film version. If you read this as an amazing character study first and a detective story second, you’ll find the book much more enjoyable than you will if you’re just looking for a good crime novel.

I picked up another detective novel, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat, because the author’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote one of my top 100 novels, A Grain of Wheat, a seminal work of Kenyan colonialism and the struggle for independence. Nairobi Heat is a detective novel that takes its protagonist, Ishmael, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Kenya to investigate the murder of a white girl whose body was found on the doorstep of a hero of the Rwandan genocide. The book itself is a mess of detective-novel cliches – including the knock on the head, waking up bound to a chair, sleeping with the unbelievably good-looking woman who plays an important role in the investigation, and lots of needless violence – but the resolution evoked a powerful reminiscence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, my favorite hard-boiled detective novel by any author. And perhaps that fits: the violence and lawlessness of Hammett’s book certainly seems to apply to modern Kenya, at least in wa Ngũgĩ’s rendering. He could use a lot of help with his characterizations and needs to craft a fresher plot, but at least his influences seem to be the right ones.