11.18.2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
I freely admit that I read this book because of the movie trailer. I wanted to read the book just to figure out what the hell was going on. I'm glad I gave into my curiosity, because I found David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas hugely entertaining. Even though it was just over 500 pages, I was tempted to start reading it all over again to see the links and allusions I know I missed on the first run.

Cloud Atlas is a series of six stories, linked by a birthmark and themes of oppression and the cyclical nature of history. They're also linked through documents and images that pass down stories through time, sometimes across centuries. In the first story, we get a glimpse of the damage Europeans did to Polynesian cultures during the nineteenth century by colonizing the islands and enslaving the indigenous people through an American's journal. In the second story, we get the letters of an unscrupulous musician who is blessed with talent, but little consideration for his fellow human beings. He's also a big fan of Adam Ewing's journal. The musician's letters end up in the hands of a cub reporter working on a big story about an unsafe nuclear power plant. The reporter's story turns up as a novel in the hands of a vanity publisher who ends up incarcerated in an old folks' home in Britain. That story ends up a film that a clone enjoys in a dystopian future Korea. The clone's story of revolution ends up as a digital file that no one can understand the far, far future. Once we get to that future primitive Hawaii, Mitchel takes us back through time to Ewing, giving us the conclusions to the stories he started along the way but then left off in cliffhangers. In an interesting meta note, some of the characters make references to time as a series of Russian dolls or as ladders with people making their way constantly up and down.

On the surface, the stories are wildly different. They've got different tones, structures, and even vocabulary. But the theme of cycles runs through the whole thing. In the last chapter (set on a nineteenth century South Pacific island), a blithely racist preacher expounds on his ideas of civilization being like a ladder. Some civilizations are on their way up and others are on their way down. The racist preacher believes that it's because whites are destined to win out in the end because of God's favor. He is contradicted by a doctor who plainly states that civilizations rise and fall because the strong always devour the weak. The only reason whites seemed to be on the ascendant is because they are the most rapacious race on the planet at the time.
Of course everyone is shocked by this, but this very thing has played out over and over during the preceding 500 pages of the book. Sometimes the underdog wins, sometimes the favorite wins.

The stories also linked by documents and media, which made me question whether these stories were actually meant to be taken as history (fictional, but otherwise true) or if Mitchell was pulling a complicated variation on Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler and hinting that none of his narrators are reliable. The journal might have been edited for publication and the musician's letters only show his side of the story. The reporter's story might have just been a novel and the vanity publisher's just a movie. The clone's story is testimony recorded by a government that has a less than forthcoming attitude toward the truth (even to the point of pulling a Soylent Green). And the story set in Hawaii at the center of the book is told as a nascent legend to the younger members of the tribe. So, in addition to theories about the nature of history and civilization, we also get a sly commentary on historicity.

Cloud Atlas is masterful, skillfully written, and very profound. I can tell that every time one rereads it, one will get something new out of it. It's not brain candy; you're going to have to think about and question what you're reading. This book is good for the brain.

Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, by Thomas Harris

It's been a while since I read Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, so most of the details of what happened when and why were gone and I was able to be surprised at some of the twists. I mean, anyone who's heard of Hannibal Lector already knows who did it, but that doesn't mean the mysteries aren't intriguing reads.

The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is the better of the two books, to be honest. It's brutal and original. A lot of the gristly mysteries I've read since then owe a lot to this book. It's got the twisted serial killer story layered with the chilling intellectual game between Lecter and Clarice Starling. With what I remembered of the plot, I ended up reading the book in a very different way from the first time through. (This book was published in 1988, so I'm not going to worry about spoiler alerts. The statute of limitations has expired.) This time, I could see hints of Lecter's big plan before Harris drew aside the curtain on what the doctor was up to at the end of the book.

On this read through, the twisted serial killer plot actually seemed a little flat compared to what was happening between Lecter and Starling. This time it was like I was reading Silence as part of the larger story about the two, continued in Hannibal. Because I knew that Lector was using prior knowledge to give Starling dribs and drabs of clues to catch "Buffalo Bill," I wasn't so impressed with his oh-so-profound insights. I supposed with enough preparation, anyone can seem like a psychological genius. (Not that I would say that to Lector's face. Even though he's fictional, he still gives me the willies.) This was just another piece on the chess board for Lector. It's still pretty impressive to watch him mostly improvise his escape by taking advantage of those small bits of preparation. Apart from his utter lack of morality, the thing that makes Lector such a terrifying opponent is that he can see the larger game board, he can see further than any of the other characters.

Hannibal
In Hannibal, we learn more about what makes Lector tick. I know that readers really wanted to know this. Everyone wants to know where evil comes from, especially if we can spot infallible warning signs. However, this is more than a little odd considering Lector's line from Silence, about the futility of trying to reduce him to influences. Part of what made Lector so terrifying in that book was his control. No matter what the situation, Lector was in control.

But in this book, horrific memories from his World War II childhood cause Lector to start slipping. He has flashes of his murdered and cannibalized sister at inopportune moments. Ultimately, he tries to brainwash Starling into someone like his sister. It's very surprising flight of fancy, I thought--almost out of character. And the very ending strikes me as out of character for Starling as well. Maybe it's because I read the books back to back this time, I noticed it more. In Silence, the overriding impression I got of Startling was that she would do right no matter what the cost to her career. I never in a million years though she would get so fed up with bureaucracy that she would go over to the other side.

I wouldn't say I was disappointed with Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Lector stands head and shoulders above other villains in serial killer novels, who are usually so messed up by their own psychology that they seem more like animals than rational creatures. But Lector, who apart from his lapses in Hannibal, is highly rational and is just that much scarier for it. He's pragmatic. He'll flee to fight another day if things don't go to plan. Because he's not locked into a modus operandi (apart from his taste for the finer things), you never know quite what he's going to do next.

I'm kind of glad that Harris decided to stay away from writing the further adventures of Lector and Starling, especially considered what happened with Hannibal Rising. These characters work much between when they remain mysterious.

11.11.2012

Firmin, by Sam Savage

Firmin
Sam Savage's Firmin is an odd but interesting tale of a rat who grows up on a diet (literally) of classic fiction and a university's worth of nonfiction. Near the beginning of the book, Firmin says:
My devourings at first were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy--a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned--though I soon began to notice subtle differences. I noticed first that each book had a different flavor--sweet, bitter, sour, bittersweet, rancid, salty, tart. (p. 27*)
His whole experience of the world is filtered through his reading. In fact, there are quotes from all kinds of books in Firmin. Thus, Firmin is a pedantic little booger, but his erudition elevates the story from being just an elegy for Boston's old Scollay Square and a dying bookstore.

Firmin's introduction reminds me a lot of the opening of Tristram Shandy. He even starts the book before his birth in the bottom of Norman Shine's used bookstore. Being the runt of the litter, Firmin makes do by eating the pages of an old copy of Moby Dick. From there, he actually learns to read and enjoy the books in the more usual way. He starts to explore the shop and read even more. He starts to feel a kinship with Norman, until Norman betrays Firmin by treating him like a rat. Shortly after recovering from his near poisoning, Firmin makes the acquaintance of Joe Moogan. Moogan is a strange hippie who fixes broken electronics and writes odd apocalyptic science fiction novels. Joe is a sweet old soul, though, and he and Firmin develop as much of a friendship as they can, given that Firmin can't speak.

In the background of all this is the destruction of Scollay Square. Once a thriving part of Boston, Scollay Square has become a seedy area. The city has decided to renovate the area, but they need to bulldoze the entire square to do it. The businesses fail, one by one. Norman's bookstore is one of the last to go.

Over the course of the novel, we go from picaresque to tragedy. Firmin, pessimistic though he is, is an excellent narrator. Getting the story from a rat's eye view is an interesting experience. Though it has more downs than ups, it's still a very entertaining read.

* From the kindle edition.

'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King

'Salem's Lot
For some reason, people keep asking me if I've read this book so I finally bit the bullet and read it. I rather like King's early work, Carrie being my favorite. 'Salem's Lot is not a bad read. I could see a clear influence from Dracula. I enjoyed that a lot, what with what's happened to the vampire in fiction recently. It was good to see a monster being a monster*.

After a short preface, this book begins with a long, long introduction to the small Maine town of 'Salem's Lot (short for Jerusalem's Lot). Not much happens in the town, and people still talk about the big fire of 1951. King spends whole chapters telling the small stories, good and bad, of the towns' people. The first time I tried to read this book, I got stuck and gave up. But this time, I managed to roll with it. I saw that 'Salem's Lot is more a character than a setting. With all the foreshadowing of the town's immanent doom, reading these little vignettes actually helped set the mood for the rest of the book. Reading about the protagonist, novelist Ben Mears, was almost an anticlimax compared to reading about the town.

About the same time that Ben moves into Eva's boarding house, two foreigners named Barlow and Straker set up shop in town selling antique furniture. Barlow and Straker also shock the town by buying the old Marsten mansion. The house has a bad reputation and kids in the town dare each other to go up and look in the windows or steal something from inside. Soon after the furniture store opens, people start to go missing or dying after suffering from "pernicious anemia" and flu-like symptoms. Within about a week, there aren't many people walking around in daylight in 'Salem's Lot.

Ben, a boy named Mark Petrie, a school teacher named Matt Burke, a priest, and a doctor figure out that--in spite of all reason--their town is infested with vampires and that Barlow is at the center of it. After the long introduction, King launches into Ben's campaign against Barlow. The second half of the book is addictive reading. Sure, there are a lot of parallels between Ben's campaign and the fight against Dracula in the eponymous novel. But I didn't mind so much. As I said before, I liked to see vampires as monsters. They're supposed to be mysterious and terrifying. Barlow hits the mark on both counts.

* And not, say, sparkling.

Walking Dead, Book 8, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

I haven't reviewed the Walking Dead series for a while. But the most recent collection, Book Eight, gave me a lot to think about. The idea behind this series is that it's not supposed to end. It's supposed to be about what happens after the big zombie apocalypse, after the survivors find a safe haven. That's what I really love about this series: seeing what happens after the credits roll in the movie and the safe haven turns out not to be so safe. For the last seven books, I've gotten to see Robert Kirkman torture his characters by taking away the safe zones, creating human monsters, and making his characters wrestle with their consciences after having to make very, very hard decisions.

The Walking Dead
In Book Eight, we get to see our protagonist, Rick, finally trying to think about the long term future. A few volumes ago, Rick and his fellow band of survivors found a place to call home for a while. After seeing the changes in Carl, who has been becoming a hard little man over the series, Rick realizes that living day to day is not enough any more. In order to try and give his son at least a little bit of a childhood, Rick forms a committee to start working on fortifications and farming and all the rest. Sure there are zombies running around waiting to take a bite out of them, but you start to see a ray of hope. It just might be possible to make a good life. At least until Kirkman turns the screws again and reveals the next big challenge Rick and the gang are going to face.

As I read this volume and watched the characters lurch back and forth between emotional states, I started to wonder about the interplay between the book series and the TV series. The TV series has been shadowing the books for a while, with a few major rewrites but the book series has been soldiering on ahead. In this latest volume in particular, though, is saw conversations and events that seemed to me like Kirkman was trying to wrench his narrative around to make book Carl more like TV Carl. I could be wrong about this, but I couldn't shake the thought.

11.04.2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's
24-Hour Bookstore
I adored this book. In fact, I loved Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore so much that I couldn't pick a book to follow it. I wanted to stay in that world for just a little bit longer. This book was billed as the ultimate book for bibliophiles in a lot of the reviews I read. While I agree with that to a certain extent, this book is really about the intersection between the book and technology. This book is very much about what's happening right now, to the point where it has references to xkcd and Hadoop and crowdsourcing. The action takes place on the Google campus almost as much as it does in bookstores and libraries.

Our narrator, Clay Jannon, finds himself out of work after the bagel shop he did web design and social marketing for goes out of business. After much searching, he lands a job at Mr. Penumbra's shop. The entire interview consists of one question, "Tell me about a book that you loved." Jannon shares his love for a trilogy of fantasy novels written some twenty plus years before the opening of this novel, the sort of pulpy adventure novels that a lot of us have fond memories of. Clay is hired on the spot and his training consists of learning odd rules like retrieving books for members, not peeking into those books, and doing everything exactly as he's been told.

Of course, Clay has the kind of personality that won't leave little mysteries uninvestigated. Clay uses his Ruby skills to model the book store. He starts to see patterns in how the members are working their way through what he calls the Waybacklist, books that appear to be entirely unique--no ISBNs, no records in the Library of Congress. The books are encoded, full of dense puzzles. Shortly after he starts at Mr. Penumbra's Clay meets a woman who works for Google, Kat Potente. Kat encourages him to use Google's book scanner to copy one of the mysterious log books that track the members progress through the Waybacklist.

When Mr. Penumbra finds out about this, he's not angry as Clay expected. Instead, Penumbra lets Clay and Kat into the bigger mystery. Mr. Penumbra and the members of his bookstore are using the coded books (similar to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and the Voynich manuscript, but with more math) to try and learn to decode the unsolvable codex vitae of the publisher Aldus Manutius. According to legend, Manutius discovered the secret of immortality and left behind an empty tomb. Since that time, members of the Unbroken Spine (the name of the organization) have been trying to crack the code. With Clay and Kat's help--and with the help of Google's supercomputers--Penumbra thinks they might have a chance to finally break Manutius' code.

As if the plot weren't enough for me, Sloan takes care to create rich settings. You can almost smell the dust and eau d'old book of Penumbra's shop and the Unbroken Spine library. I was torn between racing through the book to see what happened next and lingering over the descriptions of strange books, ancient libraries, and fiendish codes. I think the thing I really loved about this book was that it wasn't just an elegy for books. Instead, Sloan shows that nooks and kindles and Google aren't the end of the book. It might be the end of the codex, but it's certainly not the end of the novel or of writing. In fact, by embracing technology, we might see new possibilities and formats open up.

Of course, the irony of reading this book in kindle format was not lost on me.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Every year around Halloween, I try to read some classic scary novel or story. Having recently watched the BBC's excellent miniseries Jekyll, I settled on reading the original story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Like Frankenstein, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not nearly as scary as the its various adaptations have made it. And also like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is more of a philosophical tale of man's true nature.

Most of the story is told second (and third hand) by a lawyer named Gabriel Utterson. Utterson hears a disturbing story about a man who callously knocked down a child in the street, but then made amends to the family with a check for £400. Utterson manages to track this man down. The unpleasant, dwarfish Mr. Hyde is not at all what I expected from all the other incarnations I've seen on TV and in movies, at least physically. Utterson is repulsed by Hyde, but doesn't worry overmuch about him until he learns that Hyde is the beneficiary of his good friend, Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll's will also covers Hyde should the good doctor go missing. Utterson visits his friend to try and talk Jekyll out of leaving everything to Hyde, but Jekyll won't budge.

Slowly, Utterson learns more about the tangled dealings of Jekyll and Hyde. But he doesn't discover the astonishing truth until he discovers Jekyll's papers late in the book. Jekyll finally reveals all about his potion and his transformations. What interested me was the reason Jekyll gave for inventing the potion in the first place. It seems that the good doctor was afflicted with more than the usual amount of guilt and remorse about the bad things he's done in his life (which are nothing compared to what Hyde gets up to later on). He muses that man must have a dualistic nature, as he is capable of both good and bad. If one could get rid of the evil tendencies, one could be entirely good. The potion was apparently designed to strengthen Jekyll's good side and minimize the evil.

I read Jekyll's conflict in a more Freudian light. (Interestingly, Freud works very well for literary analysis, if not for psychological analysis.) I saw Jekyll as ego and superego, and Hyde as id. Jekyll expends an awful lot of effort keeping his more animalistic tendencies under wraps, but Hyde gets to express and pursue all of them without care. Unfortunately, the potion basically wipes out the ego and superego's controlling influences. Eventually, Hyde comes out even without the potion. In this sense, the story is a great allegory for the struggle inside all of us, between what we want and what we're bound to by society or manners.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles
After falling in love with the reimagining of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock, I decided to finally read the original Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I've read a handful for the short stories, but never any of the longer ones.

The book begins, as so many of the Holmes stories, with a visitor stopping by 221B Baker Street with an unusual problem. In this cases, it's the somewhat mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville, an elderly man living in an ancestral estate on Dartmoor. The coroner rules that Baskerville died of a heart attack, but the visitor--Dr. Mortimer--to Baker Street also points out that Baskerville was living in terror of an old family story about a hellish hound that killed on of his more notorious ancestors. Mortimer also points out that he saw several large canine footprints near Sir Charles's body, though there were no marks on the body. Mortimer posits that Sir Charles died of fear. (Interestingly, there is a phenomena in medicine called the Baskerville effect, which states that heart attacks are more likely to be fatal if the victim is also under a lot of psychological stress.) The next day, Mortimer returns with Sir Charles's heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, who has been warned to stay away from Baskerville Hall if he values his life. Holmes agrees to take on the case, but from a distance, and dispatches Watson to Baskerville hall to serve as a bodyguard for Sir Henry.

Holmes actually spends a lot of time offstage in this book. Watson does a lot of the leg work, actually, traveling around the village and surrounding moor, questioning various parties. It becomes clear that there really is something going on after there are a couple of attempts on Sir Henry's life and the death of an escaped prisoner (who the murderer mistook for Sir Henry). Towards the end of the book, Watson tracks down a man he suspects might be the murderer or the recently escaped convict that's been roaming the moors. It turns out to be Holmes, who--of course--has pieced together a lot of the mystery already. The story ends with a rather thrilling trap, set by Holmes, almost ruined by the inopportune arrival of some extremely dense fog.

Even with Holmes out of the picture for most of the book, I rather enjoyed The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes, the original, works best in small doses. His sarcasm and ruthlessness would probably make any reader hate him if he was the narrator. But then, Holmes is one of those paradoxical characters that you know would drive you crazy if they actually existed yet still manage to inspire fierce loyalty around them. Thinking about it now, Lisbeth Salander reminds me a lot of Sherlock Holmes. Maybe its because, underneath layers of prickly psychological baggage, their friends know that Holmes and Salander would do anything for them if they got in trouble, so they return the favor. So even though Holmes abuses Watson's good nature in The Hound of the Baskervilles, it only takes a few pages before he's forgiven.