The Obelisk Gate.

N.K. Jemisin won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel for her 2015 book The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, set well into the future, on an Earth that is plagued by massive tectonic shifts that result in lengthy Seasons where nearly all life on the surface is extinguished and humans must huddle underground to wait the Season out. (You might call this “cli-fi,” although it’s not clear that this kind of climate change is caused by humans … at least, not through two books.) The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award again this year, but while it follows the first in chronology and setting, it has a thoroughly different tenor than the first book did.

Where The Fifth Season followed three distinct storylines set apart in time, The Obelisk Gate focuses on just two simultaneous threads: Essen’s life in the underground commune (“comm”) Tarima, which finds itself under threat from within and without; and her daughter Nassun’s journey with Essun’s husband south toward a comm where the father, Jija, hopes his daughter will be “cured” of her gift of orogeny – a sort of magical, innate ability to alter the very molecules of one’s environment, including starting tectonic shifts and communicating with the orbiting obelisks of unknown origin. A massive Season is imminent, likely caused by Essun’s former lover Alabaster, who created the Rift that provoked this season but is now himself turning to stone as a result. Essun wants to find her daughter, but as an orogene in a world where such people are often killed (even by their Guardians) when a Season approaches, she’s also driven toward self-preservation. Nassun, meanwhile, is barely scratching the surface of her own powers, but when she and Jija arrive at the southern comm, she meets the former Guardian Schaffa, who recognizes her limitless potential and begins to train her even as Jija believes she’s going to be made ‘normal.’

The twin but parallel plot strands make The Obelisk Gate a much more straightforward read than its predecessor, in which time seemed deliberately obscured from the reader and the relationship between the three subplots far from clear. That conceit ended up working in the book’s favor, increasing the tension (and perhaps baiting the reader’s impatience), so that The Obelisk Gate feels like a book in the same universe by a different author – not better or worse, just different, more conventional, and thus more dependent on the nature of the two primary characters.

So where Jemisin has created a grim, realistic, almost tangible setting for these books that elevated The Fifth Season, here in the middle book of the series, her weaker characterization becomes more of a problem. Essun and Nassun are both good people, with credible emotional reactions to setbacks and obstacles, but neither is particularly interesting or compelling; you root for these characters because they represent hope, for themselves and humanity, not out of any direct empathy for or interest in either of them. Some of the secondary characters have that interest, such as the complex motivations that drive Schaffa or the bizarre nature of the stone-eaters Alabaster and Hoa, but the two main women lack the texture or depth to carry the book.

Instead, the story itself has to do all of the lifting, and it’s mostly up to the task, although there’s still some Middle Book Syndrome as Jemisin gets further into her world-building and explains more of what’s happening in the book’s present. The nature of the Obelisks is at least partly explained, and she sets up what I assume will be the narrative of the third book, The Stone Sky, how Essun and Nassun will interact with the Obelisks to save the world (or at least parts of it). It’s compelling enough to keep me reading, but I thought this was a step down in ambition and in characterization from the first book.

Next up: I’ve finally begun MacKinlay Cantor’s Andersonville, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

Chris Cleave has written several global bestsellers, notably the 2008 novel Little Bee, but his 2016 book Everyone Brave is Forgiven was his first foray into historical fiction. This quick-moving novel of four young people caught up in World War II is heavy on both action and emotion, but the character development lags behind the pace of the text, and it can’t help but suffer in comparison to a contemporary novel that does so much more with the same setting.

The quartet of characters at the heart of the book are Mary, Tom, Alistair, and Hilda, although Hilda is secondary to the main trio and bizarre love triangle that occupies the first half of the book. Mary and Tom are a quick item, meeting by chance at the start of the war when the manor-born Mary signs up and runs into Tom at the war office. Alistair, Tom’s more worldly, witty roommate, meets Mary later and the attraction is instant and mutual – but she and Tom are already engaged by this point and Alistair is heading back off to war after his first stint ended in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Mary is beautiful, so of course Hilda, her best friend, must be ugly, in what I believe is the 4th or 5th law of popular fiction (I get the order wrong sometimes), and attempts to set Hilda up with Alistair go nowhere.

Cleave can really write – the pace is brisk but never skimps on evocative imagery, especially the scenes of Blitz-plagued London or the privations Alistair suffers while stationed in Malta. The section where Mary, Tom, and Mary’s little class of non-evacuated students are caught in a bombing is the most memorable passage in the book, especially in how Cleave communicates the characters’ confusion in the shock of the attack – everything was fine, and now it’s not. His rendition puts the reader in the fog right next to his characters, so you feel the disorientation and the revelations seem to come in reverse, as if time has rewound and played back at half-speed.

He adds to the sense of disorientation, however, through the way he reveals big twists, such as the death early in the book of a side character whom Alistair has just befriended. The nonchalant description of the death, in the final sentence of a chapter, feels manipulative, although Cleave uses the aftermath to explore more of Alistair’s character in the first real window the reader gets into his emotions. But the regular use of jarring reveals wears thin very quickly and gives the novel a pulpy feel that doesn’t marry well with the subject matter.

Alistair is easy the most interesting character of the four, as Tom is a blank page and Mary’s appeal must lie in her looks rather than anything about her personality. Cleave builds the characters and then puts them through the ringer, but they come out on the other side relatively unchanged, just older and short a limb or with a visible scar. This is the real disappointment of Everyone Brave is Forgiven: Cleave set a novel during the Blitz, put real thought and energy into depicting the city in ruins, and then had his characters drift through the setting without sufficient growth or development.

This book appeared just one year and one day after Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his own WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See, one of the best contemporary works of fiction I’ve read. Doerr crafted a more complex, meticulous plot, and in the soldier Werne gave readers a memorable, thoroughly-developed character who faces real moral challenges, without falling into the sentiment that traps Cleave. Doerr doesn’t skimp on the narrative greed – his novel moved faster and worked with higher stakes than Cleave’s, but along the way we get much more insight into Werne, and even Marie-Laure, who bears a few marks of the stock character, is better developed than Mary or Hilda. I find it hard to judge the latter novel without considering Doerr’s work, given their settings and how close the release dates were, but even on its own Cleave’s book is more a well-written page-turner than a work of good literature.

Next up: Still reading T.S. Stribling’s The Store, which has managed to pile a dash of anti-Semitism on top of its pervasive racism.

The Last Days of Night.

Graham Moore won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015 for his work on The Imitation Game, particularly impressive for a first-time screenwriter with just that and one novel under his belt at the time. His second novel, The Last Days of Night, came out last August and just appeared in paperback this spring, and is about as good a work of popular, contemporary fiction as I’ve come across.

Moore takes the term historical novel to a new extreme here, creating a coherent narrative around the War of Currents of the late 1800s – the public dispute over whether the nation’s power grid should run on direct current, favored by Thomas Edison, or alternating current, favored by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse – by relying on the historical record as much as possible for descriptions of characters, scenes, and even dialogue. This type of novel typically makes me uncomfortable because it potentially puts words and thoughts in the mouths of real-life personages, potentially coloring or distorting our impressions of them; Moore includes an appendix explaining source materials for many of the depictions in the book, even explaining the origins of some of the dialogue, and also delineating which events and timelines in the book are real and which he created or rearranged to fit the narrative. I’ve read “non-fiction” books that played faster and looser with the truth than Moore does here in his work of fiction.

The War of Currents was kind of a big deal, and a lot more public than you’d expect a scientific debate to be, largely because the two figures at the center of it, Edison and Westinghouse, were both famous and powerful at the time – Edison the revered inventor and showman, Westinghouse the successful businessman and an inventor in his own right, the two embroiled in a public dispute over whether DC or AC was the safer choice for the nation’s emerging electrical grid. (AC was the inarguably superior technology, and eventually won out, but not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons.) Moore wraps this battle, including the bizarre entrance of one Harold Brown, inventor of the electric chair, into the debate, in the larger one over who really invented the incandescent light bulb, spicing things up a little bit with some fictional details like the firebombing of Tesla’s laboratory and a hostile takeover of Edison’s company.

Told from the perspective of Paul Cravath, a young attorney who handled Westinghouse’s side of the various lawsuits back and forth between him and Edison and later founded the Council on Foreign Relations, The Last Days of Night manages to turn what could have been dry history into a suspenseful, fast-paced novel (aided by lots of short chapters) populated by well-rounded characters. Edison’s depiction might be a little too on the nose, but Westinghouse, Cravath, and even the enigmatic Tesla – whose Serbian-accented English is recreated in clever fashion by Moore, who explains his technique in the appendix – come to life on the page in three dimensions even with the limitations of their roles. Moore relied largely on historical information to flesh out the characters, with the main exception of Agnes Huntington, Cravath’s wife, on whom there was very little documentation, leading Moore (or perhaps simply allowing him) to create her backstory and eventual romance with Cravath out of whole cloth. The trick allows Moore to give the book its one proper female character, since the War of Currents was fought entirely by men in domains – science and the law – that were closed to women until the last century.

I found the pace of Last Days a little frenetic, definitely aimed more at the popular end of the market than the literary end; events move quickly, as Moore compressed almost a decade into about two years, and the book has short chapters and tons of dialogue to keep up the velocity. That meant I tore through the book but found it a little balanced towards action over meaning; there was just less to ponder, especially after the book was over, but I also never wanted to put the book down because there are so few points where the pace slackens. That makes it a rarity for me – a book I could recommend to anyone who likes fiction, regardless of what sort of fiction you like.

Next up: Still playing catchup with reviews; I’ve finished Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle) and Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

The Strangler Vine.

M.J. Carter’s historical novel The Strangler Vine has the feel of a murder mystery without an actual murder, instead sending its two central characters on a quest in 1837 India to find a missing Briton who disappeared into the north, likely of his own volition, but whose importance to the East India Company has grown in his absence. It’s a fast read thanks to the tremendous narrative greed in the story and the yin/yang Carter created in her two protagonists, but I found the dialogue completely inappropriate for the time period, as she gives her characters modern vernacular and even sensibilities that feel very out of place in this setting.

The story opens with the young Captain (soon to be Lieutenant) William Avery in Calcutta, chosen seemingly as a last resort, to delivery a message to the reclusive company agent Jeremiah Blake and later to accompany Blake on the mission to find the missing author and poet Xavier Mountstuart (which sounds like an Orioles prospect), who has stirred up quite a bit of trouble with the publication of a novel that paints both the Company and the behavior of British expats on the subcontinent in a rather unfavorable light. This comes just as the Company is trying to expand its influence over greater portions of what we know now as India, which at the time was split into many nation-states or local fiefdoms as with pre-unification Italy, and the disappearance of the author has only further complicated the efforts to bring more of the region under the British company’s control. The Europeans are also combatting the plague of Thuggee, a supposed band of marauding bandits who worship the goddess Kali; rob and murder travelers in heinous, ritualistic fashion; and threaten stability in the region as well as local trade. (Thuggee, or at least the campaign against it, was real, and the English word “thug” is derived from its name.) A handful of real historical personages, including the famed William Sleeman, appear in the book, so portions of the story will be obvious if you happen to know something about the time period.

The core suspense story in The Stranger Vine is well-crafted and manages some unpredictable elements even though you’ll see some of the ending coming because we know some of the macro results of the British role in India (especially that the Company was eventually removed from power and replaced by a colonial administration that lasted until independence and Partition in 1948, creating the modern borders of India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh). There’s a bit of a whodunit here, but the identity of the ultimate bad guy is subordinate to the journey, which Carter animates with strong action sequences and vivid descriptions of both the landscape and the various battles that befall our heroes. Blake is the stronger of the two main characters, an erudite humanist unhinged by the death of his native wife, disillusioned by the Company yet still nominally in its employ, and a spy-like investigator who keeps Avery in the dark for much of the story. Avery, while amiable in his naivete, is more simply drawn and serves as a chronicler whose involvement in the action of the plot is less than Blake’s in total but includes a couple of high points that allow for some character development.

However, Carter hasn’t captured the vocabulary or rhythm of speech from the time period – an observation I make based on novels I’ve read from that era – and has given some of her characters decidedly 21st-century views. When a man makes a (sexual) pass at Avery, the religious 21-year-old politely rebuffs the attempt and the matter is simply dropped – difficult to accept in an era when homosexuality was illegal and seen as a grievous sin. Blake’s concern for the plight of locals under the Company may have been apposite for the time, yet he speaks and acts with an egalitarian perspective that would mark him as a progressive in 2017, let alone in the 1830s. And the antagonists of the story, notably those with the Company who seek to control the subcontinent, are kind of not racist enough, with their opinions of locals marked more by cultural elitism than outright prejudice – the Indian people need the Brits to install a government, to teach them democracy, to raise them out of heathenism, but in a paternalist sense rather than the overt bigotry I’d expect from that time. (She hints at phrenology once in the book, but only to have Blake dismiss it as junk science.)

If you prefer to read for story, The Stranger Vine will be among the more satisfying contemporary novels you read; the plot works, and even with Carter’s missteps in dialogue, she never talks down to the reader or takes easy outs with her characters. I would still say I really enjoyed the book even as the inaccurate tone irked me, because there’s something so meticulous about the story’s construction. It’s merely a bit flawed, but in a way that may only matter to certain readers.

Everybody’s Fool.

I loved Richard Russo’s peak novels, including Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Nobody’s Fool, all of which combined great characterization (of men, at least), well-developed settings, and a mix of humor both lowbrow and high to present slices of life in declining Northeastern mill towns. The last one I mentioned followed the exploits of Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a charming ne’er-do-well who twists the folk hero archetype around and makes us cheer for him as he puts one over on his various nemeses in their small community. Sully returns in a sequel, Everybody’s Fool, set ten years after the original story, and while it’s a pleasant read on its own, it can’t stand up to the shadow of its predecessor.

This time around, Russo gives us two protagonists, Sully and the cop he was jailed for punching in the first book, Doug Raymer, who is now the chief of police, and is Sully’s antiparticle. Where Sully is confident to the point of rashness, Raymer is constantly worried that he’s doing the wrong thing, whether in his job or in his now ended marriage to a woman who died by falling down the steps as she was preparing to leave him for an unknown lover. Raymer and his assistant, Charice, are clearly going to end up an item by the end of the book, although he’s hesitating both because of their work relationship and because they’re different races. Meanwhile, Sully has ended his affair with his paramour Ruth, but her daughter Janie is now a mother herself, and Janie’s ex-boyfriend is an abusive asshole who keeps showing up despite an order of protection. Carl and Rub are still around from the first book, Wirf and Miss Beryl aren’t. Peter, Sully’s son, just shows up in passing; the missing cobra at the heart of the funniest subplot gets more page time.

Everybody’s Fool is similar to the first book, but it’s not the same because it can’t be, even though Russo seems deadset on recreating the past. By setting this book ten years in the future and continuing the stroke of good luck that hit Sully at the end of the first book, Russo has flipped his world upside down and has to give Sully a new stroke of bad luck – a bad diagnosis on his heart from a VA doctor – to try to rebalance the scales, but it doesn’t work. Sully was charming in the first book because he used his charisma and wiles to get by; now that he’s living on Easy Street, he comes off as more of a jerk. His best friend, Rub, is a pathetic character, and Sully’s good natured ribbing now appears mean. Carl probably deserves what Sully gives him, but there are moments where Carl is at least trying to reach across the divide for a moment of shared humanity, and Sully can’t be bothered. I loved Sully in the first book, but here, I found him exasperating.

Raymer, meanwhile, ends up with more time at center stage, and the results are mixed, as he’s certainly not as compelling a lead as Sully was. Russo tries to infuse some depth to him by giving Raymer a sort of devil on his shoulder (after he’s hit by a lightning strike) who pushes him to be bold and decisive where Raymer would ordinarily be reticent. In some scenes, such as the resolution to the cobra story, it works beautifully, the sort of serendipitous denouement at which Russo excels; in others, it comes across like Russo is trying to make Raymer sound like a crazy person, and it instead feels like a bad comic device.

I can understand an author wanting to revisit some of his favorite creations, both characters and places, but for a second novel in the same setting to work, it has to tell us something new, and I don’t think Everybody’s Fool accomplishes that in the least. Russo creates new problems for old friends and solves them in mostly expected ways. The one surprise of the book is a new character, Jerome, Charice’s brother, a side character whose depth is slowly revealed over the course of the book, and who probably should have been its main character after all – although if Russo were anxious about writing a book with an African-American protagonist, I could certainly understand that. Jerome and Charice were just what this fictional town needed: a dose of something completely different, an injection of otherness into a sea of white blue-collar folks that could have made Everybody’s Fool feel like a fresh look at an old milieu. Instead, we get a pleasant read that breaks no new ground. It’s like a Pixar sequel, where we’re glad to see the characters we loved, but realize at the end that we didn’t learn anything new about them.

Next up: I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and the next review will cover Allen Drury’s Pulitzer winner Advise and Consent.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Adios, Cowboy.

The Croatian writer/poet Olja Savičević’s first novel, Adios, Cowboy, is a bizarre, darkly comic, postmodern fable set in Zagreb’s “Old Settlement,” a part of the city untouched by the Croatian war of Independence. (Zagreb itself is closer to Slovenia than Serbia, but was attacked by Serbian air and ground forces over the war’s five years.) This isolation drives the plot and the mood of the novel, where protagonist Dada, her mother, and her sister are trying to understand their brother’s suicide in the wake of their father’s death from an unspecified disease. And somewhere in here an American film crew shows up to film a western just outside of the Old Settlement because … I actually don’t know why, to tell you the truth, although its grizzled John Wayne-like co-director, Ned Montgomery, hovers over Dada’s family in posters and old VHS tapes.

The war may not have reached the Old Settlement, but the village exists in the war’s shadow. This is a town of survivorship, and the postwar generation is inured to suffering and crisis; Dada says early in the book that “people who have been lucky talk about the worst and the best days of their life. We who have been less lucky don’t talk about that.” Her name is no accident, as Dadaism emerged after World War I as an antiwar, anticapitalist, “anti-art” movement in reaction to what its adherents saw as the bourgeois underpinnings of that pan-European conflict. Here Dada exists in a circle around life rather than within it, heavily detached from her romantic affairs and the problems of her addled mother, yet obsessed with solving the mystery of why Daniel took his own life.

There’s no single plot thread in Adios, Cowboy, in case you couldn’t tell from those two paragraphs; the narrative, such as it is, is as scattered as the prose, producing a constant sense of unease in this reader, similar to that of reading the work of an unreliable narrator. Here, Dada isn’t unreliable so much as muddled, only partially present in her own life as she tries, like a bad noir detective, to unravel what drove Daniel to throw himself in front of a train Anna Karenina-style. She uncovers a partial plot involving their veterinarian neighbor who is probably gay but doesn’t appear, despite the suspicions of the local thugs, to have molested Daniel or any other boys, and finds some of Daniel’s last correspondences to the professor, which only serve to show how confused Daniel himself was becoming over the last few months of his life.

The main story of Dada and Daniel sputters out when she learns some of what was bothering Daniel but fails to find the smoking gun you’d expect in a story like this – if those books, where a survivor finds out some big secret that drove a loved one to suicide, are a type of art, then Adios, Cowboy is its anti-art – and the narrative jumps to the film shoot just outside of the Old Settlement. This bit reads like a related but disconnected short story, where the shoot descends into comic tragedy over a dead chicken and a local Roma woman whose grip on reality is tenuous. Ned Montgomery, of the posters on Daniel’s wall and the VHS tapes that Dada discovers, appears in the flesh on these pages, but as a relic, past his prime, trying not to admit it to himself, dependent on his assistant to function, working on this film as a last gasp back towards the embers of his old career.

Adios, Cowboy appears to have been met with universal praise when it was first published in English in 2015, and it is indeed a highly literary novel, rich with allusions, with a unique prose style and an unconventional structure. But I don’t think I fully understood Savičević’s point(s) here, perhaps because I don’t know much about the Croatian War of Independence or Croatian culture since the war, or perhaps because I couldn’t follow her peripatetic plot. It’s probably best for folks who like reading experimental literature, but not for those who read for story first.

Next up: I’ve finished Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and have movde on to Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.

My Brilliant Friend.

I’ve been guest-hosting the Baseball Tonight podcast this week during Buster’s absence; today’s show featured Eric Karabell and Tim Kurkjian, and yesterday’s show featured Jayson Stark and WATERS singer/serious Dodgers fan Van Pierszalowski, whose newest single, “Fourth of July,” came out last month.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a quartet of books documenting the lifelong friendship between two women, from early childhood in Naples onward, have sold over a million copies in the U.S. since their translation into English in 2012. All four novels ended up on various bestseller lists. And yet their author is unknown, writing only under a pseudonym, while the stories themselves are mundane, devoid of the violence or suspense that tend to dominate fiction sales. The tetralogy, which Ferrante considers one novel published in four installments (a true bildungsroman), tells a very ordinary story in compelling, realistic detail.

I was aware of the books – it’d be hard to be a bookworm without encountering them at some point – but hadn’t picked one up until Lindsey Adler (writer for Deadspin) recommended them, saying she couldn’t put them down. My Brilliant Friend, the opening novel in the series, did not grab me quite to that extent, but it is a superb work of modern realism and characterization, especially of the two women, who get the kind of depth rarely given to female characters in fiction, even contemporary fiction.

Those two characters, the narrator Elena and her friend Lila, are two halves of a whole, different in many fundamental ways but complementary in times when they’re close to each other. (Like any friendship between kids, this one has its vicissitudes, including periods where they’re not really speaking to each other at all.) Elena is booksmart but has to work to get there; Lila is precocious, autodidactic, but has a devil-may-care attitude to schoolwork and life. Both girls come from poor working families averse to continuing their education; Elena’s family reluctantly permits her to continue her schooling thanks in part to the efforts of her teacher, while Lila’s family won’t hear of it and Lila has to continue her learning on the sly. The possibilities of their lives seem limited to them at an early age, and while Elena has at least the sliver of hope provided by an education, Lila’s only real way out of poverty appears to be through marriage, even though she has the idea for a business and the spirit of an entrepreneur.

The novel lacks the intrigue of a modern bestseller. There’s a murder in their town, but it’s tangential to the main characters and only seems to exist to set up some later circumstances. There’s an affair, with consequences, but again it’s sort of off-screen and serves as backdrop for the younger generation of girls and boys. The town itself is tiny, like Jane Austen’s three or four families in a country village, and the social circle of Elena and Lila is small and constantly rotates them back into view with the same handful of kids. Lila’s withdrawal from school when Elena continues sets them on distinct paths that strain their friendship but, apparently, don’t break it, even when the way the two girls are treated by others starts to change.

My Brilliant Friend is definitely an incomplete story; I haven’t bought the next book yet, although I will at some point because I’m interested in what the future holds for the two characters and found Ferrante’s spare, descriptive prose highly readable if a bit dry. The novel doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, which would be untrue to its spirit as a story of two ordinary lives and the bond between these two women. It just leaves you wanting to know where they’re going next.

Next up: I just finished Olja Savi?evi?’s strange postmodern novel Adios, Cowboy and have begun Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table.

The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.