Friday, September 28, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss

As promised, I have finally gotten around to covering David Liss' latest novel, The Twelfth Enchantment. I have yet to meet a Liss book I haven't liked, even if they are historical fiction, a sub-genre I have a hard time appreciating. The Twelfth Enchantment gives a different view of 19th century England that we won't find in anything by Austen or a Bronte...maybe Dickens.

The Situation: Lucy Derrick lives an incredibly miserable existence with her miserly uncle and his harsh and unforgiving serving woman, Mrs. Quince. After the death of her father and the marriage of her sister, Lucy is left with little connections to family and no money to survive on her own. If this wasn't bad enough, Lucy is also a woman with a compromised reputation as she attempted to run off with someone four years before. It would appear that Lucy has no choice but to enter into a less than desirable marriage with a local mill owner, as he has condescended to accept her as a wife, and her uncle would gladly have her out of his house.

The Problem: If all of that wasn't bad enough, Lucy's life is about to get much harder, and much more dangerous, when a troubled Lord Byron (yes, THE Lord Byron) shows up at her uncle's house, warning her against her impending marriage and charging her with a cryptic task. This task is one that Lucy only learns the meaning of after much searching and more than a few adventures. And eventually, she has more questions than she does answers. But she must solve all mysteries, and soon, for the very fate of England, as well as herself and her family, depend on it. It would all be difficult enough if a woman in Lucy's position had to deal with impossible human beings, but they are the least of her concern. There are witches, demons, goblins, ghost dogs, spirits, and even a giant man-eating tortoise...yes, a tortoise.

Genre, Themes, History: The Twelfth Enchantment is decidedly historical fiction. And I am usually wary of novels that use real public figures, past or present, in their fictional narratives, but Liss pulls this off well. Lord Byron plays a huge role in this story, and even William Blake makes a couple of appearances and is just as delightfully erratic and eccentric as we would expect him to be. General themes include magic, sacrifice, life and death, rules of society, inheritance laws, and social (as well as political) revolution. The novel takes place during a time when the Industrial Revolution is really starting to gain momentum in England, and in general, the lower classes are not too pleased about it. The larger conflict surrounding Lucy throughout the novel is between those who are ready to usher in the age of machines and industry, and those whose backs would actually break in order for that to happen. For machines to truly take over, not only would many jobs be eliminated, but the ones who would keep their jobs to work those machines would be overworked and underpaid. This is what Lucy finds herself in the middle of.

My Verdict: Once it gets going, and that doesn't take long, this book takes you on a serious ride. But sometimes, it felt like there was almost too much going on, like there was too much story...if the makes sense. And it wasn't necessarily the stuff about the magic that made me feel that way, but there are so many mysteries that Lucy comes across. Every chapter would uncover some new twist or discovery that would shock her and change her whole way of thinking. It definitely helps in keeping the reader entertained, but I found myself able to believe less and less of what was happening by the time the giant ravenous tortoise showed up. Still makes for a great story, but it could be a little too much sometimes.

Favorite Moment: Yep, I'll have to return back to the giant tortoise...I mean, it is just so ridiculous, but Liss made it so interesting and cool at the same time. And the reader can't say they weren't given fair warning before it is just so out there that I believe very few of us would have ever taken it seriously. I mean, it's a tortoise!

Favorite Character: Mrs. Emmett is one of those characters who, on the surface, is the most frustratingly useless person alive. But really, they turn out to be a very important piece in the journey.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend Davis Liss' The Coffee Trader. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, this book doesn't have half the mystery and adventure and magic as The Twelfth Enchantment, but it is still surprisingly enjoyable, and will hold your attention until the very end.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Nonfiction: Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby

I picked up Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town because it's primary topic and setting is the small town of Utopia, Texas. As the child of parents who are both from small towns, I suffer from a sort of love/hate relationship with them. This is mostly due to being forced as a kid to spend vast amounts of time in small towns during holidays and other visits to family. But there is something about a town that is so small that the convenience store on the main street doesn't even accept credit cards...seriously, there are cities still like that...Google it.

The Situation: Karen Valby was given an assignment by her editor to find a place that was pretty much unaffected by popular culture. This would lead her to spend two years off an on in Utopia, Texas, getting to know the local people, the stories, the history, and maybe even a little bit of what the future holds. She would become somewhat of a fixture in the town as people start to open up to her and a few start to consider her as one of their own.

The Problem: This is very much a small Texas town with small Texas town sensibilities and beliefs. There are certain stereotypes about small towns that are just untrue, naturally, but there are a few that prove to be too true. And one of them, is the unfortunate belief that many of them are suspicious of outsiders or anyone different from the majority of the people that live there. This proves extremely true of many of the people in Utopia, especially the "old-timers." And for a lot of the residents, this suspicion and aversion to outsiders and those that are different breeds into full-blown racism. Valby is witness to casual uses of the 'N' word, and she gets the full story of what it is like being the only black student in a small high school when she talks to Kelli, whose family is the only black family in the town.

And this suspicion of outsiders extends to Valby herself. At first residents are fairly tight-lipped. But even once she gets enough for the initial article, people turn outright hostile as they feel deceived and mis-represented. And the fact that Valby is from New York City doesn't help engender any confidence in them. It is the general belief that New York is full of crime and evil, and is just one example of the world outside Utopia gone horribly wrong. But Valby sticks with it, and eventually she comes out with a book full of real people trying to navigate their lives in a town that half cannot wait to leave, and the other half refuse to leave, and hope that it never changes.

Genre, Theme, History: Welcome to Utopia has been categorized as a memoir, as it is a sort of snap-shot of one reporters time in a small Texas town. Obvious themes include small town life, racism, aversion to change, the reach of popular culture, and also, I think, the need to belong to a community. Many of the old-timers are able to give Valby a pretty detailed history of the town that often included some people that have passed on, buildings that no longer exists, and families that have moved away. For some it is that history that makes them want to stay, but for others that just isn't enough, and the future doesn't look bright enough to keep them from leaving.

My Verdict: For anyone who has an appreciation or even the slightest curiosities about small towns, this is a book worth reading. Utopia is a place that lacks many modern conveniences that we big city folk tend to take for granted. The people are holding onto certain values that many of the bigger places probably let go of too quickly, but they are also holding onto a few that they definitely should have let go of along with the rest of us. And most importantly with a nonfiction book, Valby is honest about her experience. Yes the people are endearing. Yes the people eventually welcomed her. And yes, there is a sense of community in this place that can be hard to find. But the people can also be extremely prejudiced, against a lot of different things. And even after Valby had spent two years here, upon leaving and upon publication of the book, she has come to feel she is no longer welcome in Utopia, once again becoming a suspicious outsider. She doesn't paint this quaint little town as just a hidden gem in the heart of Texas. It is a town like any other with its villains and heroes trying to usher Utopia through the 21st century.

Favorite Moment: Ralph, an old-timer believes he has offended Valby, whom he has nicknamed "Cricket," with one of his foolish (by his own admission) and racist remarks. While she is offended, she isn't quite as hurt as he believes she is. But it leads this hardened and usually unbendable older man to apologize to her. And his realization of what he thinks he has done almost brings him to tears. It almost brought me to tears too.

Recommended Reading: I decided to go with small town life in a different century and in a different country for this week's recommended reading. George Eliot's Middlemarch is a snap shot of provincial life in 19th century England. And I found quite a few similarities in themes between the two books. Although, I will warn you, Middlemarch is much much longer...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Classic Fiction: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Hard to believe, but I somehow missed out on this classic best seller during my many years in school. None of my teachers ever assigned Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and I never quite had enough interest to pick it up for myself, until now.

The Situation: Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II. He seemingly has an endless supply of schemes and ideas to save his own life and eventually get out of military service. He is surrounded by many colorful characters, some of whom he is friends with, others he is friends with out of convenience and proximity, and still others he absolutely loathes and would love to have nothing to do with. Many regard him as a coward for wanting to escape combat duty, when in reality many of them would do the same, or don't have the sense enough to know better. Almost all of Yossarian's colleagues frequent whore houses in Rome or other parts of Europe as means of escape between missions. But they all still eventually come back to their duties of having to drop bombs over specified targets, many times while being shot at by the Germans below. Eventually, Yossarian completes the number of missions necessary to be grounded, completing his commitment to the war as a bombardier.

The Problem: Yossarian actually completes the number of mission required to be grounded a few times. Every time he reaches the maximum number or gets near it, Colonel Cathcart raises the number of mission required by another five, or sometimes even ten. Naturally, many of the soldiers, namely Yossarian, are upset by this. And only someone out of his mind and truly unfit to fly would be willing to fly more missions. And such a person would need to be grounded. But to make such a case to someone would prove your sanity, and therefore make you ineligible to be grounded as you are clearly mentally fit to fly. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is "catch-22." Yossarian and his friends repeatedly meet the number of mission required, so the number gets raised. Meanwhile, people around Yossarian are dying and disappearing, he slowly reaches insanity, and the war just keeps getting uglier.

Genre, Themes, History: This novel has been regarded as absurdist fiction, satirical fiction, war fiction, and historical fiction. The book explores both the prisoner's dilemma and the social dilemma. The prisoner's dilemma has Yossarian constantly going back and forth between doing what is best for his entire unit, or doing what is best for himself so can get him out of the war quickly and alive, despite what it may mean for his colleagues and friends. The social dilemma has men around Yossarian who take advantage of others and act unethically in order to advance and get promotions and receive favor from their superiors. In other words, nice guys finish last. Other themes include sanity vs. insanity, the effect (and inefficiency) of beaurocracy, the idea of the hero, distortion of justice, greed, and capitalism as a priority over helping people.

One thing that struck me strongly about this book for the beginning is the tone of bitterness. And not necessarily that Yossarian is bitter (although he is), but more that the narrator is bitter. And then I read the Heller actually was in the military during WWII, and that explains a lot. A lot of how Yossarian and his colleagues feel about what is happening to them and around them came from Heller's personal feelings about his own situation during combat duty. When Catch-22 was published in 1961, it became very popular among college students as it gave voice to how they felt at the time about Vietnam.

My Verdict: At the beginning, I wasn't too thrilled by this book. But this book has a very slow, very gradual build until you find yourself extremely concerned for the well-being of some of these people (not just Yossarian), and eagerly looking forward to the destruction of others (not just Colonel Cathcart). Heller starts out by introducing the characters in somewhat of a confusing and jumbled mess. But eventually, as bits and pieces of different stories are told, all out of order, you come to know each major player a little better, until eventually, the full horrors of war are revealed. Some stories are told repeatedly, with a little more and a different point of view revealed each time. It is such a subtle thing that, even though it is happening throughout the novel, I was completely taken by surprise by how captivating and moving this novel really was. The story is told with a bitter humor that seems pretty light-hearted, like it isn't trying to take itself too seriously. But then the true horros are revealed, and you realize that this is all very serious indeed.

Favorite Moment: Like a lot of my favorite moments in books, this one isn't exactly a happy moment. Actually, I found it to be the most chilling and devastating event in the book, although some would probably argue with me there. It is a bit of a spoiler, so I'll have to be a little cryptic: Yossarian's favorite pilot to fly with, McWatt, has an annoying habit of playing pranks on Yossarian by flying too low over his tent because he knows it scares him. When Yossarian starts hanging out at the beach, McWatt starts flying over that too, until one day, he flies a little too low....and I'll just stop there. Anyone who has ever been teased about a very real fear will understand the anger Yossarian feels against with McWatt, until the pilot fixes things where anger isn't really the issue anymore.

Favorite Character: The very unlikely hero of Orr, Yossarian's roommate. He seems to be a little bit dense and possibly slighty OCD as he is continually "fixing" things by methodically taking them apart and putting them back together. But like a lot of the events in this book, a real conclusion can't be drawn until every last bit of evidence has been brought to the reader's attention.

Recommended Reading: I would love to take the easy way out and recommend Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But given Heller's ability to make me laugh out loud and then feel like a terrible human being for finding such truly horrific situations even the slightest bit funny, despite them being told in a humorous manner, I would like to recommend some Flannery O'Connor. She was also a fan of the absurd, and I think her short story, "Greenleaf," actually fits quite nicely. It'll make you laugh...but it probably shouldn't. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Horror Fiction: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Once again, I find myself breaking my personal rule of dealing with any book that has to do with an apocalypse, of any sort. And I really don't have any interest in zombies. And Colson Whitehead's Zone One has both. But I have been wanting to read a novel by Whitehead for some time now and Zone One is his most recent. Despite my initial aversion to the subject matter, I still feel like the book gave me a good sense for Whitehead's writing and what kind of style he brings to the table.

The Situation: This novel actually deals with the post-apocalypse - the clean-up and the aftermath. Zone One, which is more or less the island of Manhattan, has finally been cleared by the Marines, so now the sweeper teams have come in, going building by building, block by block, to make sure all really is clear and that there are no more "stragglers" left behind. Mark Spitz (not his real name) is part of the Omega sweeper team along with Gary and Kaitlyn. As we follow them through their somewhat tedious, and sometimes dangerous work, we also get a collection of memories and recollections from Mark Spitz of the days before Last Night, how it all started, what people did to survive the initial outbreak, and how people like himself came to work as a sweeper. 

The Problem: One problem with surviving something like this is that people like Mark Spitz often end up struggling with PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Then there is also the obvious issue of the entire country being in ruins and most of your loved ones have either died, or were turned into zombies and then died. Also, there are still zombies in Zone One, and while a few are the kind that will attempt to attack you and eat your skin, most of them are stragglers: a type of zombie that is sort of stuck in time in one position doing the same motion over and over. These types are harmless in that they show no awareness of anything else going on and don't attack. Sweeper teams find them, and then quickly dispose of them, and then they move on. Some like to play around with the stragglers, knowing they won't fight back, but Mark Spitz isn't too fond of this game, and eventually he realizes why he was right to be cautious.

Genre, Themes, History: I went ahead and put this novel in the "horror" category, you know, because of the zombies. And like most novels dealing with the apocalypse, there is the ongoing theme of survival. Also, because this novel starts after reconstruction is well underway, it deals with the far reaching consequences of such an event - consequences most people would not think about while trying their best not to get eaten alive. And Whitehead does a good job of playing with different character types who deal with the horrors of the disaster in different ways. Mark Spitz seems to be the mostly quiet and reflective type, while Kaitlyn is a hardcore rule follower, and Gary is the somewhat crude and irreverent type. The three of them have to work together to carefully, and methodically, make sure the world is safe once again for humans to inhabit it.

My Verdict: Once again, I regret picking this type of novel. But it isn't really the zombies that bothered me. Sure, there are some truly terrifying and creepy moments, but for most of the book I was incredibly bored. It also didn't help that the narrative voice was hard to follow. The book takes place over three days, but not a lot happens until the very last day. Most of the book is spent inside of Mark Spitz's head while he remembers what it was like before Last Night, and what he has had to do to come this far. Most of the time I didn't quite catch the switch between the present and the past, so I was often confused as to where some of the stories fit on the timeline. Also, I generally just could not grasp Whitehead's writing. I think a reviewer on Goodreads put it best when he said Whitehead's writing is good, there just isn't much "heat" behind it. It is very cold with a lot of great descriptions, but they are clouded in complicated wording and phrasing so they are hard to get a hold of. Well, I wanted a sense of his writing, and I got it.

Favorite Moment: When Gary learns that it isn't okay to mock the dead. You'll know the moment when it happens.

Favorite Character: This is hard. It is a random collection of broken people who have survived this horrific event and are trying to both make sense of it and rebuild from it. Some are more likable than others, but if any of them are friends, they are definitely friendships of convenience and circumstance. None of these people would hang out together if the world was still as it used to be.

Recommended Reading: Well, this summer I have managed to cover vampires, killer robots, and now zombies, and I wouldn't recommend any of them. But that's just me. This kind of stuff just doesn't appeal to me at all. There were some ways in which this book reminded me of Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, but comparing the two really doesn't work because they are two different styles and two very different approaches to the apocalypse.