Archive for July, 2012

Review: Tasteful Nudes

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

I’ve never seen Dave Hill perform, though I have heard some of his work on This American Life, including a version of at least one of the essays in Tasteful Nudes.  Most of these essays would appeal to that audience, in my opinion.  They’re fairly light, thoughtful, well written personal essays from a fellow who’s lead an interesting young life.

And I don’t have a whole lot more to say.  I enjoyed reading them, but they also didn’t knock me out.

Review: HHhH

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Laurent Binet helpfully subtitles HHhH as “a novel,” but that’s probably intentionally misleading. It’s more of a book that intertwines a historical novel, with the commentary track of that novel, with the story of it being written.  That kind of thing can come off as too clever for its own good, but Binet remains engaging throughout.

The topic of this combination of introspection, research, and literary project is Operation Anthropoid, a WWII assassination carried out by Czechoslovakian resistance fighters trained in London by the Allies.  It is indubitably the stuff of high adventure.  Daring secret agents strike a symbolic and pragmatic blow against the mastermind of the Final Solution in their occupied homeland.  The stakes couldn’t be higher and there’s drama in both the execution and the aftermath.  Binet’s not the first to see the literary potential here.

This kind of story basically has to become a myth, but Binet – having set out to write about it – spends a lot of his time writing about how he wants to write about it and what others writing about it has meant.  He doesn’t want to change the people involved from heroes to protagonists, though writing about them in a historical novel will certainly do so.  And thereby make them more heroic, but less human.  By writing himself into the story thinking about these things he makes himself into a character.  Now his concerns become as much a part of the story as the history.  That’s always true, of course, but he makes it explicit.

It’s a saving grace of the book that Binet the character is friendly, thoughtful, and great company.  He may be concerned with the effect of telling the story, but he also does a great job of doing it.  He brings the men to life compassionately, describes the times and places with telling detail, and relates his feelings sympathetically.  The overall effect is one of hearing the history with a well-read and interesting friend.

Binet the author has researched his topic in nearly obsessive detail.  He knows the history of the operation in every particular, and the versions told in literature and popular fiction even better.  It’s great to think deeply about the nature of fiction, but nothing gives those concerns weight like being able to point at the telling details one author uses and another discards.  Especially when the truth gets slippery.

HHhH is unique and fascinating.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Prepare To Die

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

As a long-time comics reader, it’s been strange to watch them become so prevalent in popular culture.  When I was a kid, something like Super Folks was a genuine anomaly – commenting on real life through comics in a way that indicated a love of that medium was never done.  Lately this has become a more common lens through which to get at the world.  Prepare To Die! is Paul Tobin’s entry.

Tobin has built a world of superheroes in the 90’s comics sense.  His heroes (and villians) sport colorful powers and celebrity stature backed with realistic characterization and real failings.  His hook is that when confronted with the cliched command “Prepare to die!”, Tobin’s hero, Steve Clarke,  negotiates a 2 week cease fire to do just that.

From there the history of the world and the protagonist unspool as we follow Steve through his bucket list.  Following Steve is fun and moving.  Superheroics is mostly teenage boy wish-fulfillment and yanking his protagonist into that world at that age lets Tobin riff on celebrity and the differences between childhood dreams and adult aspirations.  Steve’s reflections are resonant and believable while the suddenly ticking clock gives his introspection real stakes.  This is good stuff.

And then it all comes off the rails for me in the last chapter.  The tone and what I thought was the theme all change and the world finishes in a place that makes a lot of that soul searching seem moot.

That may be my limitation, of course.  And heaven knows that so many promising comic series come to an unsatisfying conclusion that it’s practically a genre trope. But, still, the ending really felt too arbitrary and at odds with the rest of the book for me.

The ending would not have disappointed me if the vast majority of the book wasn’t excellent.  Tobin has a knack for getting inside the head of young men and putting them on the page for all to see – good and bad.  He also puts together a propulsive adventure story and comics plot. There’s a lot to like here, but that final chapter just doesn’t work for me.

Review: Redshirts

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is an affectionate look at the worst job in fiction – the doomed minor character. As soon as I start writing about the inner lives of minor characters, I wind up twisting myself around the axle of noticing that they’re fictional.  Saying a doomed character doesn’t know he’s doomed forces me to confront the fact that they’re a character – they have no inner life at all, but that’s true of  a main character, too, and  their inner lives are what fiction’s made of, and look there’s that axle again.  Fortunately for his readers John Scalzi doesn’t have these problems.

Scalzi deftly breathes life into minor characters running around the irrational and dangerous Star Trek universe (actually a knock-off of that universe).  He does a fine job both bringing those characters to life and showing us the world in which they live without changing the essential nature of either.  This is a fictional Sci-Fi universe that only makes sense as fantasy; these are not the heroes of that series. Creating interesting characters without breaking those rules is quite a trick.

It’s far from the only trick he pulls off.  As the characters begin to understand their world, they  figure out the tropes of the genre they find themselves in.  This allows plenty of room for commentary on the sorts of world serial fiction creates by looking out from that world.  It’s an interesting and fun perspective.

It’s fun because Scalzi knows these tropes intimately. He can smile with  genre conventions and inside jokes that grow from necessity. He also decries the lazy writing or the corner cutting that springs from a tight schedule, limited talent, or laziness. That distinction is important to him and,  he implicitly argues, should be to us as well.

It’s one thing to point out through meta-fictional games that genre characters are often written worse than they deserve.  The trick that makes Redshirts powerful is that without leaving this world that he constructed to expose all faults and inconsistency of bad wriing, he writes several moving, absorbing, meaningful arcs while sticking to those rules.  It’s one thing to point out hackwork; it’s quite another to show how to transcend genre in the same breath.

Even if you couldn’t care less about what this all says about writing and genre, Redshirts is a fun read. If you do care, it’s quite a lot more.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Undaunted Courage

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition with an emphasis on Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson may seem out of place in that sentence.  He never travelled west of the Mississippi, but as Ambrose demonstrates, he did groom Lewis extensively and shaped the goals and principles of the expedition.

Lewis is a fascinating individual. Already a patriot, soldier, and woodsman, he eagerly takes up Jefferson’s training to become a enough of a jack of the trades of writer, botanist, and navigator to turn the expedition from a look around into a scientific endeavour.  Between the two men it is also clear that this is to be a political and business expedition as well.  Understanding and cultivating the trust of the natives, and determining the extent of the land Jefferson bought and how to exploit it take up at least as much time as looking at new plants.

A fair amount of time is spent understanding Lewis’s relationship with Clark, of course.  Their unique shared command of the expedition was key to its success and the two men fought the prevailing structures of society to make it work.  The Army expected one commander, but Lewis (their choice) made it clear to the men and the brass that he and Clark would be equals.  Ambrose illuminates this key relationship.

When exploring something that is as much a part of the American mythos as this expedition, it would be easy to gloss over the real men and real pressures inherent to it.  Ambrose does an excellent job of keeping the magnitude of the task in focus while pointing out places the expedition errs.  There’s no sugarcoating, either.  When Ambrose thinks Lewis has messed up, he is blunt about it.  This is a considerable merit.

As I sit down to write this, some weeks after completing Undaunted Courage, I remember that it did take a while to get through it.  But, I also realize that I remember much more of it than I would have expected.  This is a pretty good selling point for Ambrose’s writing.  I don’t remember any flashiness, but I do remember the narrative and interesting perspectives on a monumental undertaking in American history, undertaken by real humans.  Tough to do better than that.