Prohibition, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce get down and dirty

For my first ever movie blog I offer up “Lawless”. Based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant a grandson of one of the infamous Bondurant boys.

As our story opens up in rural Virginia we find the Bondurant boys, Shia Lebouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke , distributing mason jars full of their homemade moonshine amongst the county. Known to have the best whiskey around the boys are in high demand and raking in the profits.

Enter Guy Pearce as Special Agent Charlie Rakes. When first entering the county his attempt to blackmail the boys fails. This denial from the Forrest, the brother in charge, is just the catalyst needed for Mr. Pearce to turn on the creep button. I have rarely seen him in a movie where he wasn’t spot on. But in Lawless he is able to turn himself into what can only be described as an eyebrow-less, egomaniacal creep who comes off as hiding some type of perversion you would expect to find in the Silence of the Lambs. His portrayal of the special deputy gets you right on board and cheering on the boys and their bootlegging.

While Forrest runs the operation youngest brother Jake is aching to become part of the action and earn the snappy suit and pimped out ride the likes that mobster Gary Oldham drives. His chance arrives after Forrest and a new waitress at the family run gas stop and restaurant are attacked one night. Shia Lebouf took a lot of flack about his acting skills in this movie. I however found him to exactly what was needed to portray the whiney younger brother who constantly gets picked on despite his best intentions. ¬†As Jake grows the business and heads towards his dream of high fashion mobster a mis step with the local preacher’s daughter lands the boys in a sticky spot.

As the climax approaches we see the town coming together in a good versus evil stand-off leading to the much anticipated final interaction between the brothers and the deputy. Without giving away the ending I will stop here and encourage you to see for yourself how the Bondurant boys changed the face of bootleggers and how sometimes you just can’t help but root for the criminals.

My Frustrations with Ian McEwan’s Atonement

I don’t know about you, but I always have a collection of unread books on my shelves, picked up from used book stores or library sales. I always intend to get to them when I buy them, but sometimes they languish. Such was the case with a book by Ian McEwan, Atonement. I actually have two of his books on my shelves (the other is Saturday), but about a month ago a friend of mine recommended him as an author generally, and Atonement in particular, so I pulled the volume down and put it in the summer reading list stack.

On one hand, I should have good things to say about this book: I read it quickly, in two non-consecutive days, and so I can fairly say that I found it compelling. Additionally, McEwan’s prose itself is rendered with remarkable skill: it is evocative, with pitch-perfect tone. Despite my many frustrations with this novel, his writing alone makes me think that I’ll still get around to reading Saturday someday.

But oh, those frustrations. There were a few. Most notably how much I hated the main character of the book (I don’t think I, as the reader, was supposed to, no), but we’ll get to her in a moment.

Firstly, McEwan is a writer writing about writing in many parts of this novel, which is a pet peeve of mine. The above-mentioned main character begins to write little stories at the age of 10 (we see her primarily pursuing this hobby at 13). This is fair enough — I think that is about when kids who are so inclined start writing. But it is not merely a part of her character outline that she writes stories; rather, McEwan takes the opportunity to rhapsodize about the craft of storytelling. I’m exaggerating only slightly with my snarky italics. The problem with this sort of going on about the profound art of writing stories is that it’s self-aggrandizing horseshit. It is one thing to describe a character as one who likes to construct fiction, and to tease out what that might imply about that character: they have a tendency to live in their own mind; they are, perhaps, particularly observant; they are, perhaps, abstractly empathetic, by which I mean, while they can easily suss out the feelings and predict the (re)actions of others, they nonetheless are at a remove from other people, seeing others as objects of consideration rather than fellow subjects in the world. These are just my thoughts on the subject, perhaps others’ would be different, but my point is, it’s not a bad project for an author per se to make a character a writer. But there is some line past which the belaboring of the craft of storytelling becomes a reflection not on the writer character but on the author, and oh my, what a god of imagination he or she can be! In short, it becomes obnoxious, because all of the author’s reflections on the writer character and their pursuit of writing as an art are necessarily reflections on the author him/herself as artist.

I find this especially obnoxious because, as a failed writer myself, let me dispel a little conceit: writing is not a mystical labor of godlike intuition and profoundly creative compulsion. Being a writer requires natural talent, yes, and when one really feels inspired to write, doing so can be exciting and rewarding. But being a writer also requires practice, tedium, and, frankly, drudgery. Most writers are not successful; I certainly wasn’t. Being a writer is also a lot of luck, like any career in the fine arts. Most of the time, writing is just staring at drafts in frustration, and, let’s be honest, most writing doesn’t contain blinding insights into the human condition. It’s a skilled art, but its end result is usually not much more than an entertainment for consumers, and while it can rarely transcend that to become Important, that moment of importance is even still a brief brief moment in the life of a writer overall.

So basically, let’s take the self-importance down a few dozen pegs, OK Ian?

Moving on. The book itself as it’s crafted presented me with some quandaries. For one, the writing, although lovely, occasionally turns towards the … improbable. Take this passage:

“The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider at the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in her finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.”

Now that sounds just lovely. But seriously, what the fuck? Go back. Read the passage again. In the first place, these are the supposed musings of a sheltered 13-year-old — really? For another, 5 demerits for describing the human hand as a “fleshy spider” at the end of one’s arm and “a machine for gripping”. Additionally, there is something just too precious about looking for one’s soul(!) in the “crest” of one’s intention to move a finger. This looking for the “real self” (NB: dear fellow writers, if you find yourself musing about the “real self”, stop, take a nap, and come back to reconsider) by navel-gazing one’s own reflexes is writerly and unrealistic — this is not how humans, even very thoughtful, precocious humans, consider the world, and especially not in such abstract language.

But it sounds nice! It sounds … deep. This sort of tipping into absurdity is a problem McEwan has occasionally, it would seem.

Another problem with the way the novel is crafted: its engagement with World War II left me puzzled. Let me explain. The novel happens in three parts. The first occurs in 1935, on a single day and night during which we are eloquently introduced to a family and its moving parts (including that main character, the 13-year-old, whom I dislike so much), as they throw a small garden party in midsummer at their quasi-aristocratic British estate. This makes up the first half of the book or so (my copy is 350 pages), and it builds slowly, acquainting us with the characters of the novel until it concludes with an event the consequences of which play out in parts two and three. Part two of the book is set four years later; one of the characters is retreating from the Germans in northern France. I have sat and tried to think of why McEwan decided to stage this novel, at least in part, in battle in WWII. In the first place, the book did not seem to readily provide the answer to this question on its own. Don’t misunderstand, the book makes chronological sense and the plot is adequately tied to the setting, but: war is a loaded topic, McEwan is describing a loaded historical moment, and surely an author wouldn’t deploy such a time casually, for shits and giggles. I have considered that the transition from prewar to wartime Britain might usefully reflect on the maturation of the novel’s central character (the third part of the book takes place in London in 1940), and might parallel in some way the traumas and the strippings away of Briony’s (my loathed 13-year-old’s) adolescence, particularly in light of her crimes in the conclusion of Part One. (We’ll get there!) But that explains only the trajectory of the first and the third parts of the novel; the second part is set squarely in war-torn France as British forces fall back in hasty retreat, and again, this setting and this historical context seem too full, too fraught, to be deployed without larger symbolic purpose. One of the characters is at war, and it’s a trial for him, surely. But is that enough to justify 100 pages of disgraced battlefield? I kept looking for something that I don’t think was there, a significance the reader anticipates but is never rendered up. I am left with this feeling that McEwan — whom one can tell researched this portion of the novel ruthlessly for historical accuracy — wrote about the flight to Dunkirk because he thought it would be neat; I challenge this as a good decision, or, at least, as a fully realized component of the novel. McEwan left a lot on the field in this portion of the book.

Finally, let me come to Briony herself. To begin with, I should confess that books, movies, and television shows that are primarily about children and their concerns bore me. I have no desire to revisit the growing pains of my own youth, and I never found the reiteration of such struggles in art to be particularly useful or engaging for the adult version of myself. Again, frankly, I find children boring. But the recommender of this book does also, and so I took it on faith that McEwan must be doing something different in rendering youth.

Not really. Oh, how I hated Briony. The character as a young teen is precociously self-assured despite being so breathtakingly naive that I could not stop myself from spontaneously composing dialogue in my mind for the other characters to utter for the sheer purpose of humiliating Briony. She is also self-important and self-involved to the point of narcissism. These are deep character flaws, and yet they go unremarked upon by other characters or the author. And these flaws are not harmless — by the end of the first part of the book, her undeserved conceit — and her willingness to lie (though the character herself refuses to own up to the fact that she was lying, throughout the entire book, rather calling herself confused) — ruin the lives of a family friend and her own sister.

In the third part of the book, Briony is 18, but still cowardly, still apparently unclear as to the full dimensions of her own actions in the world, and, to me, still irritating for all that. But at this point in the book, I perked up a bit, as there seemed to be some hope for her — she seemed to be finally maturing, finally realizing her flaws. But then comes an epilogue. I don’t spoil much to tell you that it turns out a conceit of the book is that it is actually a non-fiction novel written by Briony, whom we encounter again in a first-person epilogue supposedly written in her late 70s. Still self-involved, still prattling about writing, the elder version of Briony is revealed to be profoundly uncharitable in her judgments of others, despite how much charity the forgiveness of her own young life requires. I was especially shocked by Briony’s lack of charity towards the character of her slightly older cousin (now an old woman as well) who was — again, I don’t spoil much here — a rape victim at 15. This ugly misogyny could be as much the unconscious fault of McEwan as of the character Briony, I couldn’t say for sure. But regardless, it’s a nasty note to bring the character out on.

And speaking of nasty, the “author” herself feels compelled in the final pages of the book to ruin its ending for “her” readers, out of what comes off as a selfish need to fulfill her own supposed obligations to truth, a compulsion I found laughably undeserving of the reader’s consideration; Briony, you have not earned the right to claim that you value truth above all else, or to be its defender in spite of its unpleasantness.

Long story short, I hated this bitch her whole life long. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think I was supposed to — I don’t think it was one of those books. So, you know, given that, that’s a problem, right? It actually might have been interesting if I thought I was supposed to hate Briony, given that the book is supposedly a true story written by her: the psychological implications of that are noteworthy. But even if that is the case, the revelation that the book is patially autobiographical comes too late, and is not given enough space on the page, for the reader to really work through those potential psychological implications. So while I don’t think I’m supposed to hate Briony, even if I am, the book still fails to give that idea the space and time it needs to really work on the reader’s experience with the character, assuming that forcing the reader to fully flip flop their understanding of a book after it’s already over is a cheap trick. (Which it is.)

Oh, Lordy, Ian McEwan. I don’t know what to say. McEwan’s writing talent is self-evident (not just in his prose, but in his composition’s balance and momentum, his characterizations, and his emotional acuity). But as I couldn’t stop myself from going on about above, this novel so frustrated me that I don’t know if I can call this a good book or not. I’ll leave it for you to decide. As I said, I will probably take on Saturday in the not-so-distant future, if you want to consider that. I hope there are no children in that one.

Crime and Punishment

I kicked off my Summer Reading List with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. By kicked off I mean, I read the first 150 pages or so of the book over Winter Break, and didn’t pick the book back up again until Spring Term was done on May 2. Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to read the greats of Russian literature that no one forced me to read when I was younger. Though I’ve been teaching in the Slavic Department for years, my formal education was primarily in English departments, so there’s been a fair amount of self education I’ve undertaken about Russian history, culture, and literature. (Though the interpretative skills and teaching techniques I was trained in while getting my degrees are the same across disciplines, so it’s more a matter of teaching myself the background than it is some actual skill.)

Anyway, over the past couple of years I’ve taught Dostoevsky’s The Double and Devils, and I’ve also read The Brothers Karamazov on my own. (I also read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I actually liked War and Peace — don’t let the heft scare you off. And do read Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album: it’s absolutely lovely.) So, y’know, on to Crime and Punishment. There’s an entire Dostoevsky Studies subdiscipline in Slavic Studies, and I don’t have anything to add to it here: these are just my impressions and observations. It strikes me that people don’t read a lot of classic literature for entertainment, and I think that’s a shame sometimes. Some of it’s really interesting.

But that having been said, let me just come out and say it: Crime and Punishment is about 175 pages too long. (My copy was 630 altogether.) All 175 of those unnecessary pages come in the first half of the book. (Though there are vivid gems of insight and powerful writing in this front half as well — the scene in which Raskolnikov dreams of a childhood memory of a drunken peasant beating an old mare to death for sport basically punched me in the throat, and I found myself hastily brushing tears away at the bar, where I was reading over a happy hour beer.) In one of my classes, the students read Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman“, Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman“, and Dostoevsky’s “The Double” one after the other, and we discuss the different forces that each author seems to posit as the starting point of madness. Pushkin and Gogol wrote the pieces I assign contemporaneously, and I basically agree with James Billington that Pushkin’s work highlights the overwhelming power of natural and historical (including political and governmental) forces as a source of chaos and madness for the common man — that is, the natural disaster of the flooding of the Neva coincides and works with the descriptions of St. Petersburg’s monumentality and the will of Peter the Great, who built the city out of a wasteland over the bodies of the thousands of men who died in their conscripted labor; together these forces assault the lowly clerk in ways he’s powerless not only to contravene but even to fully grasp. Pushkin’s Yevgeni might be the first “humble clerk” of Russian literature — he’s also the victim of forces that Pushkin seems strangely ambivalent about, which suits Pushkin’s biography: an aristocrat with a Western cultural bent, he points to the destructive power of government without indicting it. On the other hand, Gogol’s “Diary” is a partisan attack on social immobility and the toll it takes on his own humble clerk — read in tandom with “Nevsky Prospect“, another short work of his from around the same time that deals with the theme of madness, Gogol’s opinion of class relations in Russian society is harsh and clear: the cruelty of a social structure that puts people in their place will, in fact, make you crazy.

Dostoevsky’s work comes later, and his themes are much more psychological. When HIS humble clerk goes mad in “The Double”, it seems to be from a combination of his own existential crises; the inhumanity of others towards him; and HIS inhumanity towards THEM. Dostoevsky is consistently driven to explore this rift between people — it’s a central concern of Brothers K as well. He’s also the great psychologizer of characters: it’s not what’s happening around them, it’s what’s happening within them, at least in large part.

And yet, whereas we spend most of Crime and Punishment tracking Raskolnikov’s inner state, as he hovers close to insanity and is finally redeemed, what I find most unavoidable about the novel is the constant presence of the crushing poverty that Raskolnikov and all of his fellows are borne down under. For me, anyway, it’s impossible not to see Raskolnikov’s claim that certain Napoleons among men have a (a)moral “right to crime” as arising from his destitution. Though Dostoevsky doesn’t formulate it this way, it strikes me that the sheer unfairness of Raskolnikov’s situation — how hopeless and overwhelming is his lack — has to be the source material for the conclusion that certain men can and may do anything necessary to rise above the rest of the (squalorous) world. Maybe I just want to make Dostoevsky a Marxist critic because that’s my wont — he himself had no such leanings, as he was explicitly opposed to radicalism and particularly the nihilism of Russian revolutionary circles — but having accurately depicted the crushing world of Raskolnikov, he’s led me, probably against his will, to radicalism over the poverty Raskolnikov et. al. suffer under. (Though Dostoevsky DOES want to document the sickness of Russian society, and DOES want to fix it; however, he wants to fix it with a return to religion and “traditional” Russian cultural values, not with like, socialism. So he and I differ in that. Ahem. ANYWAY.)

And certainly, if whoring is a crime, poverty is directly responsible for Sonya’s sins, though she is actually the moral redeemer of the tale. This brings us to the seeming central concern of the book: Dostoevsky is desperately trying to convince either us or himself of the redemptive power of Christ. In the three major works I’ve read by him, Dostoevsky confronts again and again a problem that I myself — and I would suspect many modern Christians — have come up against over and over again: the problem of the desire for belief in an atheist world. (This is another idea that Billington has mused upon.) By atheist world, I mean that thinking people, intelligent people, like Dostoevsky and myself, are familiar with and are bound to accept the truth of scientific and cultural conclusions that situate one squarely outside the realm of traditional, orthodox teachings about Christianity (and many other religions). And yet there is the yearning for belief — how are these things reconciled? Dostoevsky once wrote in a letter, shortly after he was released from a labor camp, “If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth.” Such a thing may be an affirmative choice; but it is also, ultimately, an unreconcilable position. And so Dostoevsky spends literally thousands of pages “proving” the effectiveness, the affectiveness, of this choice. In Crime and Punishment, Sonya, who is described explicitly by Raskolnikov as a holy fool (a uniquely Russian concept that is deeply fascinating and maybe I’ll tell you about sometime), ecstatically reads the passage from John’s gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus to Raskolnikov — and though the breakthrough is not immediate, it is this encounter that forms the beginning of his redemptive journey: turning himself in, going to a labor camp, and, finally, arriving at a literally mysterious and apparently mystical epiphany of love and dedication, which Dostoevsky assures us, on the last page of the novel, is in fact a real and irreversible moment of redemption and transformation. Well, then.

The thing is, Dostoevsky writes so smartly about the interior of the human mind, he observes the outside world so acutely and precisely, that after he has demonstrated to the reader for many, many pages how sharp and how true are his observations and interpretations that he would seem to have built up the authority necessary to then render a mysterious, imprecisely drawn, and apparently unconveyable moment as though it, too, were the absolute and unavoidable truth. This happens at the end of Crime and Punishment, it happens at the end of the The Brothers Karamazov, and I’ve got The Idiot on my list, so I’ll let you know, but I’m not getting into any bets against it. I think Dostoevsky has a lot of people convinced — but I’m not sure I’m convinced, and I’m not sure Dostoevsky’s convinced, though both of us want to be. At the end of Crime and Punishment, I wasn’t thinking about Raskolnikov’s salvation, I was thinking about Dostoevsky’s doubt. The former is a great and hopeful triumph — the latter is profoundly tragic. Or maybe I’m wrong, and Dostoevsky was an unquestioning believer.

But I doubt it.

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

I recently finished the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Reckoning, and I’ve been debating whether it’s worth writing a review. I’ve written a couple Sookie Stackhouse book reviews before (Dead in the Family, All Together Dead and so I think my general feelings of affection for this series of books is well known and had not changed with the reading of this latest book.

Dead ReckoningSince I really have nothing new to add about my appreciation of Sookie Stackhouse, another option would be to comment on the quality of this book in comparison to others in the series. In all honesty, however, I hate when people nit-pick about how the most recent book or most recent season/installment, etc. of some line of previously beloved fiction is not as good or didn’t live up to expectations. Unless there is a serious, steep decline, or anomalous direction taken in a series, why be picky? What happens, I think, is that the first encounter with good fiction is such an unexpected and, in many ways, pure, unblemished experience that people put it up on a pedestal, and nothing can ever compare to that first, fresh encounter. I’m of the mind that good fiction is hard enough to find, and we shouldn’t nit-pick when we do.

This is not to say I found Dead Reckoning to be sub-par in any way. What I can say is that it was “quieter” than the last book, Dead in the Family, where there were a lot of conflicts crossing paths and stories coming to fruition. There are two major climactic moments in Dead Reckoning, and one, at least, is quite large in scale, but for the rest of the time this book is more mellow in terms of plot action.

A couple of things I noticed and appreciated about this book. First, the development of Sookie as a character gets more interesting and complex as the story goes forward. While the character of Sookie (and the books as a whole) don’t lose their whimsical, folksy nature, the dark and violent parts are well balanced; this point is increasingly an issue, as we would expect repeated trauma and violence to have an effect on our main character by this time in the series. Harris does a good job developing Sookie’s inner conflict of morality, without letting the story get bogged down by moralizing. Sookie struggles with, but for the most part accepts, her reality where she has become, not only a victim of the violence, but also a part of the violence. How much violence is too much for Sookie? Where does she reach her breaking point? These are major themes dealt with practically and believably.

The other thing I’ve been enjoying about the most recent books is that Charlaine Harris seems to be engaging in an odd sort of meta-fictional conversation with the television series based on her books. Sometimes it can be as simple as an inside reference (in the last book, folks in Merlotte’s bar are listening to the True Blood theme song on the jukebox), but other times she seems to be reclaiming her story as her own. Maybe it’s because she figures the TV show will never get as far as she has written now and so it doesn’t matter. The first major change was in the last book when she wrote her own version of the story of Bill being changed by Lorena, an element of back-story that the tv show had taken the liberty of making up already, and in doing so she is essentially reclaiming that plot element as her own.

In Dead Reckoning, she seems to be openly defying the show, albeit in a playful and good-natured way. One aspect of the books that was purposefully left out of the tv series was the vampire Elvis character. Supposedly, getting the rights from the Elvis estate to use his name and likeness would have been too complex and/or expensive. In the books, the character of Bubba, who acts as a body-guard and enforcer for the other vampires, is purported to be the actual Elvis brought over as a vampire right after death; however, because he was so drug-addled at the time, the vampire Bubba suffers from some mental and emotional limitations. Hearing his real name or references to his past life sends him into a state of rage and emotional distress, so people can only call him Bubba (and perhaps that’s how Charlaine Harris got around the name rights issue; I don’t believe the name “Elvis” even appears in the books, only clear, but euphemistic references like “the king” or “the man from Memphis”). While the Bubba character has always been largely cursory to the plot, in this book, he is made a pivotal and central part of the biggest plot point in the book.

Last but not least, Harris also reveals–again, in a rather quiet way–the true source of Sookie’s telepathic powers. Not only is this a major reveal for the series (perhaps the longest-awaited reveal), but it takes yet another stab at the mythology of the TV series, which has already taken the liberty of postulating the source of Sookie’s powers.

Quick Hit: A Tale of Two Nonfiction Books

Eleventy weeks ago, I started reading The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox. It is a history, stretching from Homer to Hadrian. I am a big fan of one-volume history books: they allow me to have a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things, and while some say this is dangerous, I do not think that that particular cliche applies to things like world history – yes, spending five minutes on Web MD will erroneously convince you that you have cancer, but spending two weeks with a history of Latin America, say, is bound to be good for you rather than bad.

The problem, here, is that I have not spent two weeks with The Classical World, I have spent eleventy, or thereabouts, and am still not half-way through. On the other hand, drained by continuing efforts to read the book, I picked up Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma last weekend and devoured it (har har) in two days. Pollan’s book details the origins of four meals: a fast-food dinner at McDonald’s, a Big Organic meal from Whole Foods, a locally, sustainably farmed meal, and a dinner that Pollan hunts and forages largely on his own. I learned about Big Corn, industrial slaughterhouses, and food “formulation”; how one has to have a device on their combine to chase away field mice before the wee organic spring mix lettuces are harvested; how pigs, alcoholic corn kernels, and wood chips can turn six months’ worth of cow shit into beautiful compost; and what sort of people go hunting for wild chanterelles, among other things. It was a fascinating, enervating, enraging, inspiring book about food.

So what’s the problem here? It’s not that Greek and Roman history aren’t interesting. It’s just that these two authors have come up against the dilemma of conveying facts to interested lay people. Sometimes nonfiction books are too concerned with the laity of their audience; they come off as more narrative fluff than factual discourse, and this is a rip-off. It’s is boring, but also condescending: I am reading your book to learn about this subject in an at least somewhat meaningful way, not just to listen to you jabber about the most superficial of supposedly “scandalous” points of interest regarding it; treat me like a curious adult, able and desirous to learn.

On the other hand, one can go too far in the other direction: nonfiction books for laypeople need also to be narratively interesting. I am not SO fascinated by this topic, dear author, that I have chosen to devote years of study to it; rather, I am willing to sit down and learn 600 or so pages of the material that will give me the best general outline of the subject. It can’t be dry – thorough, yes, but not pedantic or plodding. In other words, the book must be stylistically engaging; I’m reading for enjoyment, not to get my Ph.D.

And so there is a sweet spot: academically thorough but narratively engaging. It’s hard to pull off. Mr. Pollan has done it, and Mr. Fox has not, alas. I’m still slowly plodding through The Classical World, and I expect to finish it, but I doubt I’ll review it here when I do. It’s not fantastically dreadful like Travels in Siberia, and so ripe for a blog thrashing; its subject matter interests me or I wouldn’t have bought it in the first place, and its author, furthermore, doesn’t seem like a douchebag. It’s just dull.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good one-book history of Latin America, allow me to recommend Born in Blood and Fire by John Charles Chasteen.

The Theme of Today’s Books is: Panama.

Last year about this time I was in Panama. It’s not a spot I’d recommend visiting. Far and away the two best things about the place (we stayed in Panama City and on the truly depressing island of Taboga) were the Bed and Breakfast we stayed in while in Panama City, Casa Las Americas, and the touristing we did related to the Panama Canal – the canal itself, and the canal museum located in the “old section” of Panama City. Nothing in this museum is in English, and Ted and I speak no Spanish, but we still managed to spend almost three hours there, looking at all of the exhibits and trying through the decipherment of cognates to piece together what the panels of texts throughout the museum were trying to tell us – part of the fun actually turned out to be this construction of our own, poorly translated history: “Holy shit! Teddy Roosevelt conquered France!”

The front cover of McCullough's book, featuring a painting of a ship steaming through a canal bounded by forested hills.Anyhoo, while we were at the canal itself, which has many displays in English, and where you can (and we did) eat lunch while overlooking the Miraflores locks, waving to the sparse crews on the enormous ships that pass through on their way to and from the Pacific, we also hit the gift shop, ’cause, c’mon. While there, I got a Panama Canal t-shirt – OF COURSE – and a book by David McCullough, “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914”.

I finally got around to reading it, and the chief reflection I have after it is that reviews of good books are much, much more boring than reviews of bad books. “The Path Between the Seas” is a dense historical account, but McCullough, who won the National Book Award twice, once for this book, and the Pulitzer Prize twice, is an able narrator. The book must surely be the definitive account of the building of the canal – no stone is left unturned by McCullough, either in the account of the failed French efforts on the Isthmus or the triumphant American ones. Considering that the book was written in the 1970s, McCullough even does an admirable job of addressing the lives of the massive population of oppressed black laborers that built the canal, though his account is still very much a part of the “Big Men Doing Big Deeds” style of history. Despite its density of fact, the book is very readable. Basically, all of this boils down to, if you have any interest in the Panama Canal, American history at the turn of the 20th century, or engineering history generally, you should check this book out. Even if you don’t have an interest in any of those things, you might be surprised at how interesting this book actually is, if you’re patient with it.

The front of The Leafcutter Ants, featuring an ant cutting a piece out of a green leaf on a black background.The other book on the table for today is “The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct” by Bert Holldolber and Edward O. Wilson. You see, while we were having breakfast one morning on the shaded veranda of the Casa Las Americas, we had the pleasure of watching some leafcutter ants at work. They came up the side of the building, to the second story where we were seated, marched along the edge of the porch, and began to swarm gently over some flowering bushes that were planted in the large, deep planter that rimmed the entire porch. We could see them carefully chewing out pieces of the leaves and bright pink flowers, which, when finally freed, they then carried over their heads like little sails or parasols (in the southern U.S., leafcutter ants are known as “parasol ants”), marching off in a train that passed the incoming train of ants exactly. It was fascinating and lovely in its way, each little ant with its brightly colored confetti, tromping through the shade and sun. Said our host, the American ex-pat owner of the B & B, “They’re not good for the bushes. I guess I should kill them or something, but they’re just working so hard – it doesn’t seem right.” He watched them with us for awhile, and then went about his work.

A line of three little brown ants with pieces of green leaf held aloft over their heads.With these industrious little Panamanian ants in mind, Ted picked up, not too long ago, from the Borders as it went out of business, “The Leafcutter Ants.” It is a small, shiny book with lots of pictures, and I figured it would make a nice thematic coda to the book on the canal.

Well, let me tell you, just because a book is small and shiny and full of pictures doesn’t mean it’s going to be a light read. This book reads like a scientific paper. It is dense with particularized terms and scientific details – this chemical, this sensory lobe structure, this genetic marker, etc. Now. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting – these little ants inhabit a fascinating world, where they live in symbiosis with not just fungi but bacteria as well, and in competition with different fungal and ant foes, and the way they’ve evolved in tandem with their mutualist partners to cope with these threats is a testament to the beauty and intricacy of natural selection and the world of life in general. I’m just saying, don’t pick up this book thinking that it’s shiny and small and full of pictures and think that it’s going to be an easy read. Ants might be wee, but they are COMPLEX.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

I suppose the most accurate thing I can say about Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker is that I didn’t hate it. Further, I can credit it with keeping my attention. So many enormous epic fantasy audiobooks get returned to the library before I finish reading them (which did happen here) and never get re-ordered (this one actually did).

WarbreakerBrandon Sanderson is a newly crowned heavy-hitter in modern fantasy. His inaugural solo publications (such as Elantris) held promise, and then he was chosen to aid the terminally ill Robert Jordan in finishing his vast Wheel of Time epic. Sanderson is now a full-fledged epic fantasy author of large reputation. Problem is, I find the quality of Sanderson’s stories pretty middle-of-the-road.

Part of my unenthusiastic reception to this book comes from the fact that it is a certain shiny, glowing sort of epic fantasy, all about bright castles of polished marble, bored and snarky men-made-gods and characters who talk like modern day Americans. This novel comes down definitively on the “sorcery” side of “sword and sorcery,” and does not much medieval/historical sort of world-building. The center of this story is its high concept magic revolving around Sanderson’s invention of “bi-chroma,” a color-laden version of the concept of the soul (at least, a partial soul). Both of the main characters, while not one dimensional, are certainly not challenging in any way. They are both young, naive girls with the moxy to take on great odds and defy authority to make a difference in the world. They don’t wrestle with moral conflicts of any depth, or at least not ones the reader can relate to (Vivenna’s moral qualms over accepting a supply of bio-chroma isn’t exactly an issue burning in the heart of contemporary man).

Sanderson’s fantasy is “clean.” The story is crisply plotted, the concepts are well-explained, the characters are likable, if not incredibly nuanced. Despite a few moments of violent conflict, this novel is certainly not belonging to the genre of gritty realism within fantasy. It was simply not my style, but despite this fact, Sanderson did, at least, give me motivation to read on.

One more thing must, unfortunately, be said about this novel on audiobook. Normally I don’t mention much by way of review of the audio production unless it is downright fantastic (such as in the case of Sookie Stackhouse books or anything by Orson Scott Card). I must say that this audiobook reading rubbed me the wrong way. The more I listened to it, the more I managed to ignore it, but the audio actor (I’m purposely not looking up his name because I don’t want to blame it on him if his performance was prompted by the audiobook director) had a tone of voice in reading this novel that was a bit overdone. It reminded me of the way a teacher might read chapters of a book to his fourth grade class. Again, not fatal, but it affected my enjoyment of the book in a subtle way.

Cross-published on

“Travels in Siberia” with the worst traveling companion ever.

I’m a little behind on my summer reading list. First I read Ivan Turgenev’s “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album,” a classic short story collection from 19th-century Russia. I would recommend it. Turgenev was the first noble author to write about peasant characters as though they were people; also, his descriptions of the natural world are moving and transporting. And if you yourself are, or aspire to be, a writer, you should not go forward without reading “Bezhin Lea” – its composition is basically perfect.

Travels in Siberia by Ian FrazierFrom Turgenev I turned to Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia”. I hadn’t read any of Frazier’s past work, but I gathered from reviews of this book that he had gained fame for travel writing in the U.S., and that his trips through Siberia were equally entertaining. I love nonfiction, and I love travel writing – there are many places in the world I don’t anticipate getting to see first-hand, and it’s nice to get a glimpse of them through others’ accounts of their sojourns.

The book is about Frazier’s encounters with Siberia. He traveled to Russia for the first time in the early ’90s, and claims to have been beset with a kind of mystical “Russia-love.” He vowed to return, particularly to Siberia, which he became fascinated by through reading. He approaches Russia via Alaska in the ’90s, then returns for a full-length drive across Siberia with two guides in 2001. He makes a cold-weather sojourn several years later, and the book recounts all of these trips. The majority of the book is concerned with the extended 2001 road trip.

Frazier has done a lot of reading and research into the history of Siberia and its major players, and I found the parts of the book where he has condensed this research to be interesting; likewise, I found interesting his descriptions of the places and natural environments he moves through as he travels.

About a third of the way through the book, however, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the reading experience at all. It took me a few more pages of consideration, but then I realized why: I hate Ian Frazier.

Don’t misunderstand, I’ve never met the guy. But his book is a nonfiction, first-person account, and so obviously, you get to know the author as you read. And he’s … awful. He doesn’t seem to realize this, but as a traveling companion, Ian Frazier is just awful.

Most notably he is irritatingly nervous about everything. Yes, Siberia is a place where much could go wrong, and I can tell you from experience that it can be a little nervewracking to travel through a country where basically no one speaks English, and you speak none of the native tongue (though Frazier seems to know basic Russian, whereas I, when in Panama, knew no more than 10 words of Spanish, none of which involved negotiating taxi fares). But Frazier is well-outfitted, well-funded, and guided by two men who both speak fluent English. And yet he worries. Incessantly and obsessively, about things that seem not to merit any concern at all. When they camp near a ferry stop (one must camp in most of Siberia) he worries that his tent will be run over in the night by a vehicle coming to wait for the ferry. When they must travel with their van in a train car over a roadless stretch of territory, he worries for three days straight that there are not enough safety precautions, and the cars are full of gas, and what happens if one of them spontaneously explodes? He experiences a bout of food poisoning in St. Petersburg, and thereafter never eats a meal without worrying that it will murder him. He frets CONSTANTLY over the fact that Russians don’t wear seatbelts, even though the guides have provided a seatbelt for him! He panics when his guides are late returning to camp from a trip to a nearby village. This is but a sampling; his obsessive, half-irrational fears are chronicled on nearly every page of the book.

Besides these endless worries, and probably because of them, Frazier barely engages with the actual people and life of Siberia. His guides frequently visit the villages they camp near, for supplies but also for socializing; Frazier never accompanies them, staying by himself in the campsite. When he is offered vodka, he refuses. I can say authoritatively: unless you are a recovering alcoholic, or have a religious prohibition on its consumption, if a Slav offers you vodka, you should drink it. I’m not saying get wasted – but take one shot. Because it’s very rude if you don’t. This doesn’t seem to phase Frazier a bit. If he is a recovering alcoholic, and has not mentioned this fact in his book, I retract my statement. But I doubt that’s the case. Frazier turns down an offer for lunch from a random passerby who knows English and seems happy to meet an American; he often seems awkward and bored when Siberians in off-the-map places put on programs for the American author who has come, they think, to chronicle them. In all, Frazier seems much more interested in retracing the steps of the explorers of a hundred years ago that he has read about simply for the sake of doing so, rather than experiencing the Russia of here-and-now. I found myself wondering over and over again, Why would this person go to Siberia if Siberia as it is seems to leave him terrified and disinterested? Reading books would have more than sufficed for his purposes.

Besides all this, he is unpleasant in other ways. Let me illustrate with an incident he recounts without comment: he is in a regional museum in a Siberian city. Another man, an Englishman, approaches him, having heard him speaking English, and, in a friendly manner, asks him where he’s from. Frazier, who is from New Jersey, tells the man that he is from London. He says, “I didn’t even bother to put on an accent.” Obviously skeptical, the Englishman asks where in London; Frazier replies that he lives in a neighborhood by the Thames that the Englishman probably hasn’t heard of. Pushing on, the Englishman offers his name and the fact that he is writing a book. Frazier offers none of the same information, and shrugs the encounter off. End scene.

What the fuck is that? Does Frazier think it was a joke? Why would you be rude to the first person besides your guides that you have encountered in Siberia who speaks your language? Why would you recount the incident in your book? Does Frazier think he is a wit? I’m literally perplexed by his account of this encounter. What an ass.

[As an aside, Frazier notes that the man’s name is Simon Richmond, and says that Richmond exclaimed that he was going to put Frazier in his book. An internet search reveals that there is a Brit named Simon Richmond who authors and co-author’s Lonely Planet guidebooks, including one on the Trans-Siberian Railway and one on Russia in general. I do not know if he put Ian Frazier in one of these, but I feel inclined to buy one on principle – Richmond, I’m sure, deserves my money much more than Frazier did for his book.]

Frazier’s an ass on other occasions, apparently without realizing it. He’s also maudlin, overly nostalgic for his youth in Ohio, and deeply self-centered, irritatedly demanding that his guides take him to abandoned prison camps even though they’re clearly made very uncomfortable by this. In general, Frazier is preoccupied with his own needs and expectations … “privileged” is a word that kept recurring to my mind. And then we have this garbage, written after the passage in which the reader learns that Frazier coincidentally finished his Siberian road trip on September 11, 2001:

“But out in the rest of the actual world, people were thinking about us, in a larger sense, and specifically about [the World Trade Center]. The attack that targeted it represented not so much the beginning of a new war as a cruelly and ingeniously updated new wrinkle in an old, old war, one going back almost to the beginning of Islam. The recently ended Cold War, in whose ruins Sergei and Volodya and I had been wandering would have been difficult to explain to ancient ghosts who knew nothing about twentieth-century physics. But the September 11 attacks would have made perfect sense to, say, Saladin: the flying machines, the proud towers, the slaughtered innocents, the suicidal believers, are a simple story that exists out of time. To Yermak and the other Christian conquerors of Siberia’s Muslim khan, September 11 would have been easily understandable, and perhaps further inducement to victory, had they heard its story while gathered around their smoky Tobol River campfires.”

So. The conflation of modern-day Muslims with their ancient predecessors, exoticizing them and construing them as unevolving, ahistoric savages? Check! The depiction of terrorism and religious bigotry as a universal truth for all Muslims, in the past and present? Check! Bonus construal of the 9/11 attacks and America’s response to them as a religious war rather than a geopolitical one, thus casting all members of the “opposing” Muslim religion as combatants? Check and check!

People, that’s racism.

In summary, “Travels in Siberia”, though containing interesting facts, was a nightmare to read, basically because Ian Frazier seems like a nightmare to spend time with. The fact that he does not appear to realize that fact at all is mildly fascinating, but not fascinating enough to sustain a reader through 471 pages. Feel free to skip this book.

Zero History by William Gibson

Zero HistoryFamed for his canonical novel, Neuromancer, William Gibson is among the few classic SFF authors still producing regularly today. His latest novel, Zero History, echos my experience with some of his other recent works, including Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Which is to say, I like it… sort of.

This novel did not start off very strongly for me. The initial build-up and scene-setting was simply too abstract for my taste. I had a difficult time holding on to anything concrete, be it characters, scenes, plot lines, etc. It took me awhile to get a handle on exactly what was going on and who were the major players. Once I got situated in the story, I found some intriguing threads to follow, but the journey there was longer than I would have entertained in a print book (I read this novel on audiobook during my daily commute).

Characters Hubertus Bigend, Hollis Henry and Milgrim from Gibson’s Spook Country are back to find themselves entangled in a new round of semi-covert interactions. Bigend has hired Hollis to research a secretive clothing line called Gabriel Hounds, bringing Milgrim in to assist following a Bigend-funded off-the-grid stint in rehab. The concept of a clothing line so secret that nobody knows where to buy it is an alluring plotline in Gibson’s fashion. The characters of Hollis and Milgrim are appealing, the character of Bigend both larger-than-life and mysterious.

The problem with this novel, and the previous ones, is that it goes in and out of being compelling for me. It keeps my interest often enough for me to continue listening to the audiobook, but my attention fades for stretches and comes back. The characters and plots are interesting enough for me to pick up on for a time, but I feel that ultimately they are not compelling enough to keep consistent interest. This novel reads, perhaps, more like a conversation than a story. There are lots of intriguing bits, but I wasn’t terribly concerned with where they were going. I’d just tune in when the line of thought piqued my interest, and tune out when it lost me.

I’m sure Gibson fans would love this book, and perhaps readers with a better attention span than me.

Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning

Book CoverI recently popped in the audiobook version of Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning. I have not read any of the earlier books in the series, and perhaps that is partially where I went wrong, but I frequently start with later books in this type of series (i.e. semi-episodic paranormal romance/thriller) without trouble.

After listening to the first two CD’s of this audiobook, I found I simply had no motivation to continue. The problem I had with this book, I have come to believe, is the writing style. Usually audiobooks make up for a lot of sins in terms of writing style because the actors can change intonation for emphasis and clarity. Occasionally an audiobook narrator can affect my feelings on a books, but no complaints about the audiobook actress on this one. This book had an essential disconnect with my reading affinities.

The first issue is the fact that it’s written in present tense narration. Now, present tense itself is not a fundamental deal-breaker. But the present tense gives story-telling a more fluid, immediate quality. It lends itself well to faster paced story-telling as it gives the reader a sense that the story is happening right now up to the minute. The downside is that present tense narration loses a sense of the concrete, a grounded feeling that past tense (the much more frequently used narration style in fiction) storytelling gives.

The second issue is that Moning’s narrative style hinges predominantly on internal monologue. There are bits of action and dialog sprinkled throughout the internal monologue, but these are few and far between and told in such an internal monologue style that it’s easy to get lost. Most of all, I feel these first few chapters I read lacked a concrete sense of scene. The quick return to internal monologue after any snatch of concrete scene development made this story hard to follow; this problem is exacerbated by the use of present tense narration. The lack of definitive scene creation and the more fluid sensation of the present tense narration made this story too ethereal for me. There was nothing to grab hold of in terms of scene or character interaction, and the story kept losing my attention until finally, I stopped reading.

Originally published on ARWZ: Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning