Smoke.

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

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

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

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

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

Hominids.

Robert Sawyer’s name might be more familiar to those of you who watched the short-lived ABC series Flash Forward, based on his novel of the same name, but his one Hugo Award for Best Novel came four years after that book with Hominids, the first book in a trilogy that posits a parallel universe where Neanderthals won the evolutionary battle over Cro-Magnons and have since become the dominant species on their version of Earth.

The two parallel Earths are joined briefly during a quantum computing experiment gone awry in the Neanderthals’ universe, opening a portal that rather rudely deposits Neanderthal physicist Ponder Boddit in our world, smack in the middle of an underground heavy-water tank at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s real, located in the Creighton nickel mine a bit north of Lake Huron, and the director of the neutrino-detection experiment just won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month. Sawyer grounds everything in the Homo sapiens world in reality, using real place and brand names, although some of them (Palm Pilot? Handspring?) already sound comically out of date.

Boddit’s appearance in our world and sudden, unexplained disappearance in his creates two separate storylines: one here, focusing on the mystery of his arrival and the very short-term impact on him from a substantial shock to the system; and one there, where his coworker and sort of life-partner (sexual orientation in Sawyer’s Neanderthal world is fluid) Adikor Huld finds himself accused of murder because he was the only one present when Boddit left the building. The latter story ends up the more interesting one despite what would appear to be a simpler premise, as Sawyer uses it to explore both the Neanderthals’ culture and the individual personalities of several characters, primarily Adikor himself. Boddit’s adventure on our side – which, it is clear from the beginning, can only end properly with the opening of a new portal and his return to “his” earth – feels rushed and somewhat rote, as if Sawyer had a sort of checklist of things he wanted to cover and felt compelled to hit them all.

For example, Sawyer has made the Neanderthals a nontheistic and nonreligious society, primarily to set up a scene where he attacks the Catholicism of the main female character, Mary Vaughn, who develops feelings for him during the few days they spend together; it feels forced, and a bit unlikely that the entire culture of Neanderthals would be without religion even before it had a scientific explanation for the existence of the universe or of consciousness. Mary’s character herself is also problematic – her first appearance on the pages is as a rape victim, which serves no purpose within the novel as a whole except possibly to make her more open to seeing Boddit as a fellow human because he is, in our terms, more of a “gentleman.”

Sawyer’s Neanderthals fall too much into the “noble savage” cliché, as their universe has no war, pollution, poverty, or even crime, with a global population of just over 150 million and all citizens equipped from birth with a Companion, an electronic device implanted in the wrist that measures vital signs and records locations, movements, and actions for later storage. It’s a crime-prevention device, a walking encyclopedia, and a near-complete abrogation of individual privacy in the Neanderthals’ Marxist society. It’s also terribly convenient because it allows Boddit to communicate with the people who find him on our side of the portal within a matter of hours, as the Companion can “learn” English and translate for him. (Granted, without that, the book would be a very frustrating read and probably quite boring.)

The two plots are so thin, in fact, that Hominids feels more like an extended prologue for another story than like a standalone novel. While Sawyer’s explanations of quantum mechanics and the existence of this second, parallel universe are quite clever and mostly grounded in real science, once he gets Boddit here, not a whole lot happens either in terms of action on the pages or exploration of the many ramifications of such a discovery, both scientific and anthropological.

Oh, by the way: Not that anyone should take my predictions seriously, but I’ll say Mets in 5.

Next up: Graham Greene’s first novel, The Man Within.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

My draft blog post on Jacob Nix’s pitching and Dillon Tate’s role is up for Insiders.

Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my radar for years, both as a book recommended by others and something I knew I should read given its genre and critical acclaim. It is a remarkable, harrowing, often infuriating novel of a very specific type of dystopian society, one that goes beyond mere questions of personal freedom to probe issues of gender roles and identities, as well as the difficulty of regaining any sort of agency under severe repression designed to strip subjects of that very power.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States has fallen somewhere in the late 1980s, replaced in a violent coup by a fundamentalist Christian state, one that imposes strict Biblical prohibitions on nearly all areas of life. Women are now second-class citizens by statute, deprived of the ability to work, to drive, to assemble, to read, even to think for themselves. Decisions about their reproductive lives are made largely by the state, which is entirely dominated by older white men. Think modern-day Saudi Arabia. Or Texas.

The narrator, known simply by her assigned name of Offred, is a handmaid, a role of a highly specific form of sexual slavery. Handmaids are assigned to older men in powerful positions whose wives, due to age or other conditions, can no longer bear children. Their role is to try to bear their masters – Atwood doesn’t use that term, but I don’t see a better one – a child, after weaning which they’ll be assigned to a new house and a new master, while the child will be reared by the master and his capital-W Wife. Women who refuse to subject to this new order are sent to the Colonies, an unspecified location where they engage in manual labor from farmwork to cleaning up environmental disasters, or are simply disappeared.

Offred’s story is made all the more uncomfortable because she’s one of the first generation of Handmaids, and was ripped out of her old life where she was married with a young daughter, both of whom are now gone – to where exactly I won’t say to avoid spoiling it, but there’s nothing comforting about any of it. The idea of a regime so repressive that it would break up families for religious/political reasons seems so far-fetched, and yet we still have elements in this country fighting federal orders that should force them to recognize same-sex marriages. (Atwood, herself an ardent humanist, places surprisingly little blame here at the feet of the unspecified sect in charge of the new nation, apparently called Gilead, instead showing the religion as the tool of the oppressors.) When Offred’s master, called the Commander, tries to initiate a relationship with her that’s more than their perfunctory monthly Ceremony of sex – one so bizarre the reader can only wonder how Atwood came up with it – it begins the unraveling of Offred’s little world, one that replaced happiness with a modicum of stability, bringing back actual emotions beyond her regular state of depression and thoughts of suicide.

While The Handmaid’s Tale has a superficial purpose as a warning to all of us about how easily a repressive element like this might take over a previously peaceful, democratic society, or simply to caution us that such groups always exist at the fringes and will try to pounce on any opening they might see to exert their will on others, Atwood’s primary purpose seems to be explore the plight of a woman in a hopeless condition of subjugation. Can such a subject find any reason for hope beyond impossible dreams of a reunion with her family (where there’s life, there’s hope)? How can she claim some sort of agency – here, a capacity to form a desire for action, then to act upon it of her own will – within the confines of a societal structure that deprives her of everything right down to her identity, reducing her to a mere vessel for the propagation of the species? When she even has limited ability to choose whether to live or die, can such a woman find any form of freedom, and are such forms – like illicit sex – worth pursuing simply because they represent a rebellion against oppression? Offred learns of other handmaids who’ve taken their own lives, an expression of their limited agency, and ultimately encounters other “fallen” women who’ve taken to using sex for the same purpose.

Where Atwood might have gone further is in exploring the reasons why victims of such repressive regimes are not more willing to resist. In her alternate history, many women are willing participants in the scheme that subjugates their compatriots, becoming instructor-disciplinarians in reeducation centers set up to turn formerly independent women into Handmaids, or snitching on subversive or illegal activities to try to curry small, temporary favor with their overlords. There is a resistance movement, but it appears to be small and weak, and the idea that women, who constitute just over half the population, would be demoted to the status of mere chattel without more of a fight seemed unlikely to me. Atwood does give us a secondary character, Janine, who seems to embody Shakespeare’s frailty-of-woman, with her excessive emotional displays and subservience to any authority, male or female, that seeks dominion over her. Janine’s character is alternately pitied and despised by Offred and the other Handmaids, but their tacit acceptance of their fate is no different than her explicit version.

Discussing the issue of non-resistance – which is a major philosophical question that arises when we examine real autocratic regimes, notably the Third Reich – further might have led Atwood into the trap that far too many science- or speculative-fiction novels fall, providing excessive detail about the world and its inception, which ruined both Rainbows End and The Diamond Age for me. I’m glad she provided less detail here rather than more if the cost was giving us a lengthy exposition on, say, the power structure of Gilead. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that it became clear that the former university converted for the use of the government’s secret police and for events like the “Salvaging” was actually Harvard, more evidence of Atwood’s willingness to forego irrelevant details to focus on the plot and her themes.

There is another dimension to this book that will always be beyond me, as a man, because I’ve experienced none of the discrimination or even condescension that women face in what is still a patriarchal society; as a white, straight male, I don’t even have a good analogue on which I can draw. The horror of having her daughter taken from her and given to another childless family is always present with Offred, and that was the point with which I had the hardest time because it was the one aspect of her de facto captivity that I could imagine. Nothing else would drive me to madness so quickly.

Next up: Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, winner of the 2014 Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Locus Awards.

Life of Pi.

Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi was 97th on the last ranking I did of my top 100 novels, a brilliant book that employs multiple literary techniques to tell a story that may or not be a powerful fable, or a commentary on the enduring nature of faith, or a testament to our capacity to handle tragedy and face unimaginable adversity. Or maybe none of the above. It also seemed like the story itself was written to be adapted into a movie, yet its details would make it almost impossible to film.

Computer graphics software has advanced so quickly in the ten years since the book was released that Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) managed not just to film the book, but to do so without making any major modifications to or sacrifices from the original text. The film is wonderful because the book is wonderful; the film is gorgeous because of Lee, and because of technology, but it’s a great film because of the strength of the underlying story and the performance of Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenaged Pi.

The story of Pi, born Piscine Molitor Patel, begins in Pondicherry, India, where his father runs the local zoo, as a business rather than for any affection for the animals. Pi’s given name causes him obvious problems at school, after which he adopts the nickname “Pi” while also developing an affinity for the number itself. The same exploratory spirit leads Pi, raised in the Hindu tradition by his mother, to also follow Christianity and Islam, something given longer treatment in the book, with more humor involved as well; in the film, it’s primarily a source of strife between Pi and his secular father. Pi and his father also clash over the zoo’s recent acquisition, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, which Pi views as a fellow creature with a soul but Pi’s father sees as a soulless carnivore that would eat Pi as soon as look at him.

When economic and political circumstances in India change, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo’s animals to North American zoos and move the family to Canada, booking passage for all of them on a Japanese freighter across the Pacific. In a massive thunderstorm, the freighter sinks, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, beginning a 227-day odyssey of survival on the ocean where Richard Parker, having dispatched the other three non-human passengers on their modest vessel, and Pi eventually come to a detente, albeit one where Pi does all the work in exchange for what may be a tacit agreement that Richard Parker will not eat him. They eventually encounter a mysterious floating island before eventually hitting the shore of Mexico, after which Pi tells his story to the Japanese insurance company investigators who want to know why the ship sank.

The film’s biggest change from the book is a narrative device that has the adult Pi telling his life story to an unnamed writer who was sent to Pi by Pi’s uncle, who said that the writer would hear a story that would make him believe in God. Pi is lightly dismissive of the promise, but tells his story just the same, with quite limited narration overall, as Lee lets the bulk of the story on the lifeboat unfold on its own.

That decision means that Sharma must carry a large portion of the film by himself, with no interaction with another human (and, to be fair, not even with another creature, as nearly all of the tiger’s scenes involve a CG version, not a real feline). His performance is remarkable as he must convince us he’s resourceful, terrified, grieving, and devious, without the benefit of real dialogue, although Pi does attempt to engage Richard Parker in conversation on a few occasions. The only real help Sharma receives is from the stunning visuals in the film, mostly wide shots of the open ocean, as well as two significant storms and the aforementioned island that stands as one of the most incredible aspects of Pi’s story. I saw Life of Pi in 3-D, which usually seems to me as more gimmicky than useful, but Lee made excellent use of it to convey Pi’s isolation on the open water or the sheer size of the sinking freighter, only engaging in a little special effects-turbation as he does when a whale flips over Pi’s boat (which was actually pretty cool, just not entirely necessary).

The film ends with a twist as the adult Pi concludes his story, one taken directly from the book as well that casts some doubt on what Pi’s tale actually means, and what Martel may have been trying to tell us, if anything at all. I thought the novel was a touch more ambiguous, but the film’s conclusion has the same effect of opening up a panoply of questions not just about what’s in the film, but about the nature of faith, of human psychology, of evil, and the nature of truth. Pi is a classic, if flawed, hero, whose emotional maturation over the 227 days sits in inverse proportion to his physical deterioration due to exposure and malnutrition. He speaks to the Writer, and the audience, with the wisdom of a teacher, but a teacher who is wise from experience, not just because he has a foreign accent. Lee’s use of this device to replace the first-person narration of the book might be the best decision he made on the film, one of many good choices from casting to effects to angles that bring us into the lifeboat between man and tiger that make his work here as good as any director’s in 2012 except Kathryn Bigelow’s for Zero Dark Thirty.

If you haven’t read Life of Pi, I’d recommend doing that before or after seeing the film, as it’s a quick and totally engrossing read that gives a little more depth to portion of the story that comes before the lifeboat, and also spends more time following Pi’s survival planning in his first few weeks alone. The film may have dragged for me in the middle just because I knew almost everything that was to come, but I still enjoyed the craftsmanship in it, including Sharma’s performance.

This is the sixth Best Picture nominee I’ve seen, and I’d place it clearly behind Zero Dark Thirty but comfortably above Silver Linings Playbook (fifth) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (last). I’d also favor Lee over the directors of those latter two films for Best Director, but haven’t seen Lincoln (yet) or Amour (might skip that one entirely). Life of Pi will probably crush a few of the technical awards, but the absence of Sharma from the Best Actor category is disappointing, given how strong his work was and how much the film depended on him to perform at that level. I’ve only seen one of the five films represented in the Best Actor category, though, so I can’t say whether he was jobbed or just squeezed out in a strong year.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Alan Bradley walked away from a career in broadcast engineering to become a writer but didn’t produce his first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, until he turned 70, likely unaware at the time that he was about to embark on a new career at a point when most people are satisfied with retirement. The book, the first in a planned series of five (book four comes out in November), is a murder mystery of sorts, but succeeds because of the appeal of its protagonist, the precocious eleven-year-old amateur chemist (and sleuth) Flavia de Luce.

Flavia is intelligent and quick-witted, and takes no interest in the trappings of young girlhood like dolls, dresses, or makeup (all favorites of my five-year-old), instead comforting herself with her sophisticated home chemistry lab, where she pores over classic texts in the field (such as Henderson’s An Elementary Study of Chemistry) and replicates the experiments of chemistry giants such as Lavoisier … and his wife, who, along with Madame Curie, is one of Flavia’s idols. That comfort is necessary because her family is – although it would be early for the word, as the book is set in 1950 – dysfunctional; her widowed father has completely detached himself from his family, her two older sisters have no use for her and are each wrapped up in their own worlds, and only the gardener, Dogger, seems to care for Flavia in a familial way.

When Flavia discovers a dying man in the cucumber path on her family estate in Buckshaw, a death for which her father will eventually be arrested, she begins working to unlock the mystery in stages: Who was he? Why was he arguing with her father shortly before his death? And did he steal the missing piece of Mrs. Mullet’s custard pie? The case, of course, revolves around poison (Flavia’s particular obsession within chemistry), but also requires a lot of legwork, a lengthy exposition by her father (more interesting for the way he delivers it than for its content), and the inevitable face-to-face confrontation with her prime suspect, putting her in danger that she has to think her way out of.

The resolution of the murder mystery is rather perfunctory – while perhaps realistic given the setting, it’s pretty obvious who killed the stranger and what the motive for the murder was – but Flavia steals the show. Bradley notes in the afterword that she was a secondary character in another novel he was trying to write, and took over the pages to the point where he realized he had to start over and write a book starring her. The Sweetness is written in the first person, and the combination of her adult-like powers of deduction and her childlike energy, with a degree of innocence somewhere in between the two, is infectious, especially when an adult character – often Inspector Hewitt, charged with solving the murder – puts her on the spot and she has to dissemble. Her desire to solve the crime is matched only by her immediate bent toward revenge on anyone who wrongs her, usually one of her sisters, which hatches a minor subplot that lasts for about two-thirds of the book. The one downside to Flavia’s personality is that she is extremely observant, and as the narrator she shares all of these observations with us, often to the detriment of the story at hand.

I rarely recommend reading a book just for a character, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie would be an exception. It’s a very quick read; my wife gave me the book as a gift for Christmas – which shows you how far behind I am in my book queue – but I believe she’ll like it more than I did, as she’s a fan of what I’d call the “light murder” genre. It will not satisfy anyone looking to solve a difficult puzzle, but if you can step back and just enjoy Flavia’s effervescent character, you’ll find it worth the time.

Next up: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel Some Buried Caesar. Also, the DVD for Black Swan just arrived in the mail today.