Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I don't even remember what the other offerings from the inaugural "Kindle First" selection were; as soon as I saw this pretty spiffy cover and read the blurb, I knew I wanted to read this, and soon!

Silent Echo is probably going to be marketed as mystery or crime fiction; I gather the other, J.R. Rain, is somewhat an established name in those genres, at any rate, and there is a mystery plot forming the novel's narrative backbone, but really, the mystery is the least interesting thing about the book.

The private eye tracking the killer - who turns out to be something of a serial killer, with signatures and weird motivations and the will to play games with the people trying to catch him and all -- is dying, you see. Of AIDS-related lung cancer. And it's not just a someday sort of dying; as the novel opens, Jimmy Booker has already lived two months beyond his prognosis, and is struggling every day to do basic things like get out of bed. Fortunately -- and this is where Silent Echo really stands out -- he has an amazing, selfless, generous and wise friend to help him through everything.

Numi, a Nigerian artist who has transplanted himself to Los Angeles and met Jimmy many years ago while Jimmy was investigating a case, skirts the "magical negro" trope for the most part, though he has moments. What saves him from just being one is the degree to which he has devoted himself to keeping his friend Jimmy alive; he's not a guru, not an impassive dispenser of wisdom, nor is he merely a helpmeet, though he is that as well. He is a kind and loving friend, who lets Jimmy occasionally act like a selfish jerk, calls him on it only very gently, helps Jimmy with even the most intimate of tasks, and has become the benevolent dictator governing who, in Jimmy's last days, gets to bother him.

A childhood friend of Jimmy's makes the cut, and that's where the murder mystery comes in; Jimmy's specialty is missing persons, and Eddie's wife (a sort of unlit old flame of Jimmy's as well) is missing, under circumstances that echo the missing persons case that started it all for Jimmy back when he was a teenager: the disappearance and murder of Jimmy's kid brother.

The plot, in other words, is dead simple, even a tad predictable, even given the twist of this being the detective's last ever case and one he can't investigate without an extraordinary amount of help. But this book is not to be read for the plot, it's to be read for the relationships, for the honesty and regret and bitterness and extraordinary (platonic) love and the chillingly plausible descriptions of what it feels like to be facing the very end of life, how a person's outlook and priorities change and how one real friend can make all the difference.

Quite a nice little read.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's LAST POST

A lot of people -- including no less a figure than Dorothy Parker -- have bagged on this final novel in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End quartet, but Last Post might actually be my favorite of the sequence. And largely for the same reasons that Parker et al have found it an unsatisfactory read.

I suspect this is largely because everyone expects this last novel to just wrap up Chrissie and Valentine's love story -- which it does, sort of -- but Last Post throws a bit of a curve ball, if I may use an American baseball metaphor about this veddy veddy British novel. For Last Post is told almost entirely from the points of view of Parade's End's ancillary characters, particularly Chrissie's much older brother, Mark Tietjens. And Mark Tietjens had some kind of stroke or attack or idiopathic something* on Armistice Day, leaving him paralyzed and speechless, communicating with eye blinks alone.

Sharing internal narrative duties are his life-long lady love, the French actress he "took up" in a very businesslike arrangement early in his youth and only married after his idiopathic violent unknown event left her potentially financially vulnerable to the machinations of Chrissie, or, really, Chrissie's estranged wife, the magnificent and malicious Sylvia.
Marie Tietjens has only been obliquely referenced before this novel, but swiftly becomes a character whose experiences and perspectives are a pleasure to share, the only Tietjens-or-Tietjens-by-marriage who actually appreciates the thousand-some acres of Yorkshire, the famously massive cedar tree and the ancient grey house of Groby. Marie has long had her heart set on someday retiring to the French countryside, marrying some nice undemanding landholder, and ending her days as mistress of a nice old agricultural establishment; since the war put paid to that and so Groby becomes her paradise instead, where she does a nice job dealing with the chickens and the cider presses and doesn't seem to mind that she also has to minister to an invalid.

Marie's pleasure is contrasted with the displeasure of Sylvia's life-long tantrum, which in this last book takes the form of renting out Groby (control over which Mark and Chrissie turned over to her earlier in the quartet) to an insufferable rich American woman who entertainingly claims "spiritual descent" from Madame de Maintenon (but who keeps insisting Marie Antionette was mean to her. Um.) and who considers it to be rich Americans' job to take over for the ancien regime, not by replacing it with democracy, but by supplanting Europe's hereditary aristocracy like a brash young understudy edging out the aging prima donna.The fact that the unseen (for the whole novel!) Chrissie is now making his living selling off the prima donna's clunky old unwanted antique furniture to furnish the understudy's homes in America is an enjoyable irony on which no one in the story comments. The hereditary aristocracy, both Tietjens brothers have been seen to observe in these novels, is pretty much played out, exhausted, never really up to the task of governing the simpler pre-War world they ruled, let alone this complicated modern one everybody sees coming.

It all serves to comment somewhat bitterly, perhaps, on how completely things both have and haven't changed as a result of the Great War. Which is really, after all, what these novels are for, pitting as they do "The Last Tory", the "18th Century" Chrissie Tietjens against the 20th century. We don't have to do much thinking to figure out who's going to win that one.

It would thus be easy to dismiss Parade's End as so much reactionary harrumphing, but that would be an error. As I've mentioned, both Tietjens brothers come around to the idea that maybe the existence of a hereditary "administrative class" was never all that great an idea to begin with, so while neither of them is eager to embrace the new world they see coming, unlike the types that nowadays bray about being conservative, the brothers Tietjens are trying neither to hang on to power nor to use what power they do have to thwart progress. The world can go harum scarum if it wants; they're going to stay in their little corner of the 18th century and enjoy it while it lasts; it looks like it can last at least until the next generation is grown up. That, they seem to say as "Last Post"** is blown over the story, will have to do.

*A doctor describes what's wrong with Mark as "fulminant hemiplegia" which is one of those Latin terms that basically just describe what is wrong (in this case, extremely sudden paralysis of half of the body) in Latin and sheds no actual light on what is wrong. Various others in the novel -- including Mark's lover and later wife Marie -- seem mostly to regard this as something Mark chose, as his final withdrawal from the stupidities of early 20th century social life and his responsibilities therein. There may be an actual medical component to Mark's problem, they concede, but it could have been overcome or at least accommodated had he wanted to, but Mark's not even going to try to overcome it, and prefers his new life as someone to be waited on hand and foot and propitiated like a god.

**Sort of the British version of "Taps".

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's CHECKMATE

There was a big part of me that did not ever, ever want to read Checkmate, because that would mean coming to the end of the Lymond Chronicles, and you only get one first read through of things and I didn't want my first read of these books to end, ever.

But... Since about halfway through the third or fourth book I knew I wanted to start the series over again because I obviously had missed some things, or missed the importance of some things, or misinterpreted some things and... look, I can see why some people call Dorothy Dunnett the only author you'll ever need, because it's obvious that many a reader could be perfectly happy just reading these books over and over again over a lifetime. And I might do that, though there's still the House of Niccolo series of which to partake, yet, too.*

In order to engage in either of those reading projects, though, I had to rip off the band-aid and let the Lymond Chronicles end for me.

And I gotta tell you, guys, I kind of wish I hadn't. But not for the reasons one might expect.

I'm not going to say that Checkmate is awful; it's still Dorothy Dunnett, still a Lymond novel, which means it's way, way better than 99.999999% of the books that have yet been, or ever will be written, but...

Gosh, I wasn't ready for this grand and elegant tale to descend into melodrama. And not just melodrama but the kind of melodrama in which the reader fantasizes about slapping the hero (as the hero's amazing mother, Sybilla Crawford, gets to do -- has to do -- at one point late in the novel) and heroine silly. Because both hero and heroine -- but especially the hero -- are being whiny little emo bitches.

Married to the awesome Philippa Somerville, who has been taking no crap from him for five novels now, since the end of the fourth novel (Pawn in Frankincense), Lymond has been sort of half-assedly trying to wiggle his way out of his marriage, assuming, for the most part rightly, that Philippa, who started out the Chronicles hating his guts, would probably rather be married to somebody else; they only tied the knot to preserve her reputation after she spent some considerable time as a (still undeflowered) part of the Ottoman Emperor's harem and had to travel some considerable distance with a lot of men who weren't related to her, but without a suitable female chaperon (unless you count the mysterious Crawford by-blow, Marthe, but you really shouldn't. Ever). As Checkmate opens, he is given an offer he can't refuse by the King of France, who dangles a divorce before Lymond's jaded eyes as an inducement to stick around and put his and his company's martial talents in the service of France against Bloody Mary's dear husband Philip of Spain. So of course he accepts.

But then...

But then circumstances first lead Philippa to realize she's had the hots for him all along, and then lead Lymond to reveal that he has also, at some point, realized that they're perfect for each other, which should be great but isn't because Emo Lymond has decided that passionate love is the worst possible basis for a marriage and is actually the worst and most destructive thing that can happen to two people (which, he has a point there, IMHO) and so he still insists on the divorce. He's got his next bride -- a high-ranking French heiress -- all lined up, and Philippa, in true Ugly-Duckling-to-Swan-by-way-of-Seraglio fashion has more suitors than can fit comfortably into a massive royal audience chamber, so really, they'll both be fine.

Except, of course, they're not fine, because they're in LURVE. And also because there is still all the untidy mess of Lymond's lineage and parentage and all of the enemies he's made around the world that are still alive and people who still insist on willfully misunderstanding him and his motives and gossiping about him and plotting to kill him (and his wife, too -- their escape from a whole passel of murderers early in the novel is one of the best scenes in all of these chronicles, exciting and ridiculous and hilarious and perfect in every way until Pip has to spoil it all by saying something stupid like "Francis, you fool. This is what you should be." Which, durr, but anyway.

But amid all that I'm complaining of, there are still some marvelous bits, like the aforementioned chase, and the reunion with Lymond and his readers of so many of his former sidekicks and helpers and partners in not-quite-crime. Archie Abernathy above all, but also Jerrot Blythe and Adam Blacklock and Alec Guthrie and... the list goes on. We even get to see Lymond's older brother and learn a thing or two about him we weren't expecting. I would not have been surprised at all to finally get another appearance of the entertaining and annoying Lady Agnes from The Game of Kings. Which is to say that narratively and in terms of character arcs, the loose ends mostly get tied up very well.

And there are seriously WTS moments like a visit to a possibly haunted house where the mysterious Dame de Doubtance once lived and told fortunes and collected alchemical and other junk. And so on.

But mostly what there is, is being annoyed at Lymond and Philippa, suddenly acting like teenagers continually inventing new excuses for being unhappy. And let me just say that these are two people who are very, very good at everything they do, so the excuses they generate for their continued misery are staggering, and more than a little icky.

So, like so many readers before me, I have terribly mixed feelings about this last volume of the Lymond Chronicles. Yes, it gives everything a proper and mostly happy ending, but if you're not a reader who gets off on "will they or won't they" "hurry up and make out already" drama, the path to that ending is a bit like, well, like this:

But yes, I still want to go back and re-read these books right from the beginning. Perhaps even more so than before I hit Checkmate, because I am longing quite passionately to hang out with Lymond while he was still awesome and enigmatic. Sigh.

*I actually started the first book of that series as a teenager, but got bored about 20% into it. I might again, but I'm far from being a teenager now; my tastes have changed, my attention span has grown, my knowledge of the period and appreciation of the mercantile/economic side of life have deepened, so I'm thinking maybe I'll actually enjoy it this time. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


So, it's pretty well documented now that I really love Locke Lamora, and I've been eager to read more of his adventures. Especially since this new book, The Republic of Thieves, promised finally to let us get a first-hand look at the character whose absence has been such a presence in the first two books, Sabetha, the only female Gentleman Bastard. Or, I guess, the Token Lady Bastard.

Which is to say that this is where a lot could have gone wrong at this point in this series, in which Scott Lynch has so far managed to avoid incorporating anything dumb or cliched or annoying or infuriating; a Token Female could be the worst possible thing to happen in this universe, could deform and warp everything about it -- or, if handled right, could make the series even more awesome.

It's handled right. Oh, is it handled right. Because yes, Sabetha is beautiful. And super-accomplished. And super-smart. And all the male characters pretty much just want to fling themselves at her feet, the better to look up her skirt. But Sabetha deals with it the way a real heroine should. She acknowledges it, occasionally takes advantage of it, but mostly, she calls bullshit on it, clearly and distinctly. Especially where Locke is concerned. The more he declares his undying admiration and devotion, the more she skewers him for not acknowledging that she is a person in her own right who maybe never asked for said admiration and devotion and resents the idea that because he wants to give it to her, she not only has to accept it but has to in some way reciprocate it, or owes him something in exchange for it. Which, it turns out she does reciprocate it, which just makes her angrier at his presumption that his attentions are welcome. It's all very fraught, this Locke/Sabetha business.

We get to see all of this play out in three layers of storytelling. In the novel's present we get a sequel to the first two books, being the further adventures of Locke and Jean after their high seas heartbreak. Intercut with this is another extended flashback to the Gentleman Bastard's teenage years, when Sabetha was a part of their crew and Locke, Jean, Sabetha and the wonderful and much-missed Sanza twins were sent off to do a tour of duty treading the boards in a far-off city, there to perform in a deeply allegorical play called The Republic of Thieves, which, Gene Wolfe-style, forms a third layer of storytelling as bits of its plot and text are doled out at irregular intervals to serve as a sort of meta-commentary on what's going on in the two main plots.

Weirdly, though the stakes are higher in the "present" plot, it's the flashbacks that were my favorite. One could attribute this to the presence of the Sanza twins, but one would be wrong; Calo and Galdo are barely there, hardly even bit players in the theater troop drama that unfolds, as if Lynch having killed them off, can't bear to try to bring them back to life even in flashbacks now. They have some amusing moments, sure, but they're not very Sanza moments. No. The flashback plot is wonderful because of the Locke and Sabetha show, because of the drama attendant on a messed up theatrical troupe and the built-in tension that comes with any theater story: will they pull it off?

Of course, will they pull it off is also the question in the "present" plot. Red Seas Under Red Skies, you may recall, left Locke on the verge of a nasty and painful death by poison, a poison that had been administered by a nasty wizard to both Locke and Jean but for which one antidote existed, so of course Locke trick-forced said antidote on Jean. The Republic of Thieves picks up from there with a representative of the same enemy force that poisoned the Bastards offering to save Locke's life for a price: he and Jean have to come to their city and help fix an election for the amusement of the nasty wizards. With the extra catch being that both sides get help rigging said election, and the other side's mastermind is to be Sabetha, who will once again have to be twice as good as the males because she's actually up against two males.

That the resulting contest, while entertaining, turns out to have even higher stakes than originally appeared the case should come as no surprise to Lynch's readers. Something big has been building through all the books; the Elderglass strewn here and there in his realms is not just set dressing but clues to the destruction or flight (or both) of an ancient and powerful race of somethings that made/built the towers and bridges and walls still standing and usable in Locke's day. The nasty wizards haven't just been pursuing the Bastards for revenge. I now feel the need to re-read the first two books to see what other signs I've been ignoring or discounting as just background color for the Bastards' antics.

But that's going to have to wait. I never thought I'd ever say this, but I'm kind of Bastarded out for a while. Hmm.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Hungarian filmmaker BélaTarr has made something altogether wonderful in The Werckmeister Harmonies, a film in which a lot is going on but still doesn't have a lot of plot, a film which is meant to be watched and listened to and absorbed and yes, probably argued about, but not necessarily enjoyed for the narrative.

I would undersell it to describe it as a two and a half hour music video, but in some ways that's what it is, and what the title might almost make one expect; the work of Baroque era composer and musical theorist Andreas Werckmesiter is alluded to (negatively) but is not present in the soundtrack, replaced by Strauss' Radetzsky March, Bach's Prelude No. 8 in E-flat minor from The Well Tempered Clavier and, most importantly and thoroughly, a gloriously beautiful and haunting score by Hungarian composer Vig Mihaly, in which a simple and repetitive piano motif is amplified, possibly canonically (I'm no music theorist myself) by beautiful string arrangements that alternately meditate and weep and amplify the film's stateliness (if the film grabs you) or glacial slowness (which you'll complain of if it doesn't).

What story there is concerns a tiny village on the Hungarian plain, the kind that seems suspended in a strange 20th century timelessness until the spell is broken toward the end with the brief appearance of a modern helicopter in a vaguely (and slowed down) North by Northwest-ish chase scene. It's winter, or the start of winter, and the mercury has dropped to way below freezing; the season of "nothing to do but drink and fret" has begun. To liven things up of an evening, our sort-of-hero, Valuska János (Lars Rudolph) takes it upon himself to arrange the drunks in the town's only cafe into a living, staggering orrery to explain an upcoming eclipse (which, violating Chekov's gun rules, does not occur in the film except maybe in a very metaphorical sense).

But soon more interesting entertainments are on offer: a traveling circus! Tarr both does and does not partake of the "sinister carnival" motif we see so often in film with this: the circus consists of just two "acts": a taxidermy whale and a nasty non-character called "The Prince", alluded to but never seen, who allegedly has the "power of magnetism" but seems principally to exercise that power in the form of hate speech that has startlingly violent consequences.

All of this unfolds in 39 long and languid shots, sometimes several minutes long, that will either madden or entrance the viewer. The taxidermy whale arrives slowly in a giant corrugated metal crate and we watch its ponderous arrival in real time with János as the light ripples along the crate's surface. János puts one "uncle" to bed and prepares his house for nighttime, then goes out on a newspaper delivery "run" that's really more of a stroll. He pauses with another "uncle" (I think maybe "uncle" is an honorific for your elders in Hungary?) who expounds on his theories that Andreas Werckmeister's tuning theories have distorted the Music of the Spheres (which idea János sort of demonstrated in the cafe) and are why everything has gone wrong in the world. He meets with the theorist's estranged wife (Hanna Shygulla), who insists on János drafting the old man into doing something about the growing disturbance in the town the circus has touched off. A group of cudgel brandishing men slowly march to the facility they will do their best to destroy. Etc.

Really, for me, it's all about watching the light play on Shygulla's beautifully aging features, on the shadows and hollows created in Rudolph's face, and the rhythm of the film's dancelike movements to Vig Mihaly's amazing, amazing score.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gene Wolfe's PEACE

On the surface, Peace seems the most quotidian Gene Wolfe novel I've yet read, but the surface is never to be trusted with this guy. Oh, no. This is very likely the most elusive, occlusive and deceptive writer ever.

And this is -- and I say this as a passionate fan of all 12 books of Wolfe's maddening Solar Cycle but especially of the Book of the New Sun -- one of his most remarkably elusive, occlusive and deceptive books. And also, and this is probably because of its quotidian elements, the most tantalizing, because grounded in ordinary reality, mostly, and thus promises a certain possible relative ease of interpretation.

Not that it delivers on same. Or at least, not very much. Ahh, Gene Wolfe.

So on the surface this is just the regretfully nostalgic meanderings of an old man who lived an idyllic and improbable (to the modern reader -- c.f. how I felt reading Philip K. Dick's In Milton Lumky Territory) early 20th century small town in the American midwest, with all the Normal Rockwellian pastoral pleasures and soda shop scenes that implies. Albeit with a slightly sinister flavor, in that there's an awful lot of death and talk of death. And of course there's the way the narrative skips around in time, which may just be a dotty old man free associating but may also be a bit of a Billy Pilgrim-unstuck-in-time thing. And you can totally just stop there and read Peace as Gene Wolfe's Slaughterhouse-Five. But...

But then you notice all these recurring themes. How every single story that our man Alden Dennis Weer (usually called Den, one of the many onomastic clues that led good old Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski to spin out a whole involved theory about how Peace is Wolfe's version-cum-inversion of Goethe's Faust, with Den as Mephistopholes) tells or is told has certain repetitive elements that fractally echo other parts of the story that all relate back to Den's childhood sin of pushing a little boy down some very dangerous stairs.

And then there's that ending. Not since I first read Infinite Jest have I felt so compelled to go back to the beginning of a novel and read the beginning again because only now did I finally have the clue I needed to understand what was going on there. Except Peace is not over 1000 pages long. It's not even 300. You can read that in a night.

And Bog help me, I did. Yep. For the first time ever in my life, I read a novel twice in a row, with not so much as a short story, poem or internet article in between. And when I got to the end, even after hours and hours of figurative light bulbs popping and exploding over my head, I was still somewhat tempted to start again from the beginning*. But, as you'll see shortly, I have other reading and blogging obligations in the offing, and none of them allow for re-reading a novel almost as old as I am.

There. I almost read a book three times in a row. If that's not a ringing endorsement, nay, command, to drop everything and go read Peace at your earliest opportunity, what is?

*Neil Gaiman has famously observed that he only realized that Peace is a horror story on his second reading. And while elements of horror and ghost stories were noticeable the first time around -- I was especially seized by the theme of humans slowly turning to stone while they were still alive (there's even a mention of the Cardiff Man hoax! Hooray!) and the whole creepy carnival theme that springs up in the novel's second half -- I still don't read it so much as a horror story in the sense that term is usually used. The horror is that of guilt realized, of atonement rendered as impossible as redemption. Peace is simultaneously the most ironic and most perfect of titles for this book.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky's ROADSIDE PICNIC with remarks on Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER

I recently and for the first time* saw Andrei Tarkovsky's glorious lo-fi sci-fi (before that was much of a thing) adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, Stalker, and loved it so much I watched it four times before I could bring myself to send it back to Netflix.** And it turns out that I love the source material just as much, which doesn't always happen with books-adapted-to-films. But then again, this is Tarkovsky doing the adapting.

The film is a stripped down version of the book, its trio of main characters deeply abstracted and Tarkovskified from the cast of Roadside Picnic, partly due to the constraints under which the director was working -- hence the low-fi part of the sci-fi, i.e. nothing near the special effects budget that would be required to render all of the alien artifacts and gadgetry the novel's characters encounter -- and partly because Tarkovsky, as always, had his own things going on. Like creating breathtaking underwater Cornell boxes while contemplating the bitter hilarity of our mortal existence:

But what's this all about, you're probably asking?

Roadside Picnic and its adaptation concern the aftermath of an alien stopover on Earth by beings so incomprehensibly different and presumably advanced that they might not even have realized (or cared) that this planet was inhabited by at least one species that presumes itself sentient. Like careless travelers stopping for a picnic lunch, the aliens left behind a fair amount of crap, to which we humans are drawn as ants are to the wrappers and napkins and food scraps human picnickers might leave.

But what crap it is, glorious and dangerous and mysterious and powerful and did I mention dangerous? As are the Zones themselves that were visited and contain the Alien Crap (a list of which can be perused over at Wikipedia but ware spoilers!), in which the laws of physics, life and death, etc. are profoundly different from those prevailing in the good old ordinary universe as we know it and may also change from time to time.

So of course humanity is studying it (carefully) at very high levels and of course at lower levels there is a black market in Alien Crap and in unauthorized trips to the Zones to acquire more Alien Crap and also to exploit some of its properties like the Golden Sphere (which in Tarkovsky's film is changed into a Room), which grants wishes! Hence the existence of folk like our main character (and the title character of the film), Red, who is a Stalker -- a guide into and smuggler out of the Zones, who starts off his career as an unskilled research assistant, takes up a line in Stalking to make a little beer money, and then, when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, realizes he's got to keep breaking the law to keep his new family in groceries.

So even though the novel has a lot more gee-whiz sci fi elements than the film did, it's still a bottom-up view of a world transformed by an alien visit; Red is a working stiff, not an eminent scientist or astronaut, something which critics have made much of when writing about this book over the years; this book, of course, predates the "high tech/low life" scenarios to which cyberpunk and its spawn have long accustomed us. But just as we never get tired of working stiff stories in other genres, there's still plenty of room for working stiff sci-fi, especially when it's this good.

Roadside Picnic manages to be a slightly farcical (in that dry, dark and Russian way) quest narrative, a meditation on how small and insignificant we very probably are in the universe, a family drama and a cautionary tale. With Alien Crap.

In other words, it's completely wonderful.

But what really keeps it intriguing is the novel-world's central mystery: is there an overall, coherent, logical system behind all the Alien Crap and how it works, as in did the Brothers Strugatsky plan it all out and develop it as a complete puzzle for us to solve -- one with a solution -- or is it just a whole bunch of weird phenomena that they thought would be cool and just brainstormed one night over, say, some mushroom tea a la Babylen and Andrei in the fantastic Generation P (an adaptation of some more amazing Russian science fiction, my beloved Victor Pelevin's Homo Zapiens, and which film contains more than a few visual and narrative homages to Stalker. It's fly agaric all the way down, yo.)? Which might mean it's still weirdly meaningful, but not in a systematic way that one can tease out with mere reason... an exercise all the Alien Crap and Zone Traps which Roadside Picnic offers pretty much irresistibly invites the reader to try.

The film, of course, has other things with which to bake one's noodle, big philosophical and religious questions without which a Tarkovsky film would not be a Tarkovsky film, as well as long, slow, meditative and dreamlike scenes like this travel sequence:

This sequence should be required viewing for anyone who thinks he or she could pull some lo-fi sci fi cinema. It's just three guys sitting on a railroad car watching the scenery go by, but Eduard Artemiev's perfect musical accompaniment (which I played on a loop for a while during my reading of Roadside Picnic) and the transition from gritty industrial sepia-toned film stock to full color film*** and a lush green landscape**** makes Tarkovsky's Zone feel just as strange as the Strugatsky's but in a completely different way.

 Wonderful as Stalker is, though, now that I've read the novel from which the film is abstracted, I kind of wish Tarkovsky used more of the source material, not so much the Alien Crap as  the novel's social dimensions: the novel takes us inside the Institute which studies the Alien Crap and has a lot to say about the difficulties being encountered in figuring out how it works, why it works, what some of it might be for; it also spends some time with what must surely be the organization behind the Professor's mad scheme in the film, with those who oppose the exploitation of the Zones and regard them and their products as EVIL. Too, a movement within the Institute charged with policing and shutting down the Stalkers introduces a huge friendship and betrayal plot/theme that adds layers of intrigue to the novel (but also, sadly, winds up not being resolved within its text). But all that would require a different filmmaker altogether to develop. Richard Linklater, say.

It's hard, too, to read this book now without perceiving a lot of Soviet themes and thinking, spotting allegories about the dangers of Western-style materialism, for instance, as well as a certain environmental/pollution-themed cautionary tale. Careless aliens made whole swathes of our planet uninhabitable and hostile. Careless people have the same effect on other species' habitats. Species have evolved that are entirely dependent on our artificial impacts; in Roadside Picnic, we are in danger of adapting irrevocably to the impact of the Visit. Which, for all the novel's cast knows, might just be the whole point!

Oh, so much to think about, when we think about The Other...

*This to my shame, because I do consider myself a fan of Tarkovsky. But I'm a fan of a lot of things, and it takes time to get to them all!

**And no, this was not just so I could keep looking at Anatoliy Solonytsin. No, really!

***This is probably due to another one of the famous Soviet austerity/resource choking constraints that left directors like Tarkovsky having to work with little bits of lots of different kinds of film rather than a deliberate choice to do some Wizard of Oz-ish gimmicky contrast, I'm pretty sure. But that's Tarkovsky, making lemonade. But, you know, the lemonade might transform your digestive tract and eventually your whole body into more lemonade if you drink it.

****And the whole theme of a gorgeous natural landscape transformed into something still beautiful but deadly as hell strongly prefigures/predicts what would become of the environs of Chernobyl as you can observe in Michelle Boganin's 2011 Stalker-esque tour of Terre Outragee.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's A MAN COULD STAND UP

I read most of A Man Could Stand Up, the third volume of Ford Madox' Ford's Parade's End, on Armistice Day, which lent a certain extra poignancy to the central image evoked by the title, of a man being able safely to stand up to his full height, above ground, without worrying about thereby meeting instant and violent death. The experiences of trench warfare as evoked in the book's middle third reduce pretty much everybody there to longing for a world in which that simple act, which nearly everyone who has ever lived has probably never even thought about, so ordinary is it, would again be possible.

That the other two thirds of the book take place on Armistice Day itself, the very first one, was interesting too, in a way, but like those sections themselves that fact paled in comparison to the thought of thousands of Tommies dreaming of the day when they could stand up again.

In a similar way, the focus of Parade's End has also narrowed to something simple, elemental, and boring, its core as an (admittedly unconventional) love story. While the newly introduced and the already known subordinate characters -- the Head of the girls' school where Valentine Wannop has spent the war as a games mistress (aka gym teacher), the subalterns and brother officers and members of the battalion over which Christopher Tietjens assumes command -- are all fully realized and get their moments to shine, this book is really all about Valentine and Chrissie. This makes it a leaner and sharper (and yes, shorter) read than Some Do Not or No More Parades, but also, surprisingly for a story that contains all of the tension and drama and horror of the fighting in France during the Great War, rather a pallid one.

I attribute this mostly to its most glaring absence: Sylvia Tietjens. We do not know for certain that she has ceded the field to Valentine, but she is, at any rate, not on it at all; she is barely even mentioned except in passing. We feel her most strongly in another absence: all of the furniture is gone from the flat she shared with Chrissie in London, a plot point on which a lot of Valentine's story turns as Lady MacMaster, once Valentine's close friend but now "siding" with Sylvia out of hatred for the man who kept her husband financially afloat and supplied the idea that got MacMaster his knighthood (it has been observed before that sometimes there is no more hateful figure in one's life than one's benefactor) seizes on it as a way, perhaps, to manipulate Chrissie via Valentine into forgetting that MacMaster owes him pretty much everything. Look at to what a sad state of affairs Chrissie has come home, Lady MacMaster says, none too subtly hinting that Valentine owes it to everyone to be his reward. Ugly stuff, this.

But of course, Valentine doesn't care about the ugliness, even though the possibility looms that the gossip that this news has started could cost her her job. Though there has been no contact at all between Valentine and Chrissie since he returned to France at the end of Some Do Not, though they've never spoken of feelings for each other and have barely even admitted to themselves that they even have feelings, Valentine's thoughts go immediately to the notion that she shall live with Chrissie now that the war is over.*

That Chrissie's thoughts have gone in much the same direction is pretty much just conveniently coincidental. These are neither of them people who air out their feelings to their closest chums or analyze them or think about romance at all; indeed, the way in which they are actually very well matched is that both cherish an idea about couplehood that is very much outside the norm: that domestic and (presumably) sexual intimacy is merely the means to the end of getting to talk to each other whenever they want, to have the kind of long and deeply involved conversations that are impossible to have in public, where any old idiotic acquaintance can interrupt them, where any old busybody can half overhear and misinterpret and blow into a scandal or a misunderstanding with ridiculous consequences (as is pretty much the very nature of the overall story of Parade's End!), where closing time or the end of a party or a car crashing into the horse pulling their cart can put a premature end to things.

Of course, Sylvia might very much have liked to have that, too. As we learned in No More Parades, Chrissie is the only man she's ever talked to who didn't bore her to death. And he was hers by law. But she'd gone about accomplishing this all wrong: Chrissie was probably the only man left in England for whom the first move of jumping his bones in a railway carriage was the worst way to begin the relationship. Had she let her brains show first instead -- and Sylvia, though perhaps not a great Latinist, is no dumb blonde -- she might have gotten all she could wish for. But how was she to know that, in Edwardian England?

Yeah, I'm still Team Sylvia, even though I also find myself kind of happy for Valentine as she stands shyly next to her man, holding his hand for the first time as he toasts the very first Eleven Eleven toast with his army buddies. I missed Mrs. Tietjens terribly, this novel, and hope against hope to see her again in the last volume, The Last Post.

Otherwise, I'm not sure there's any point to finishing this. Hmph.

*Though she does entertain some thoughts against making a move toward him, and they're very good thoughts:  "What was the coming together that was offered her? Nothing... but being dragged again into that man's intolerable worries as machinists are dragged into wheels by belts..." I read that and punched the air, but alas, Valentine gave herself very good advice and didn't follow it. Le sigh.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


I'd read a handful of Edith Wharton's short fiction (the most memorable of which "Xingu" especially prepared me for the title story of this book) before taking up The Descent of Man and Other Stories, so I was pretty sure about what to expect from this collection. Wharton is always a graceful and insightful writer, but in her shorter fiction, she's a bit wicked, in the best possible way.

Take, for example, the title story, "The Descent of Man", which concerns an eminent scientist who has decided to have a bit of a joke on the general public by publishing a perfect parody of the kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense that never goes out of fashion, always needs debunked or at least critically examined, and is often just a little bit too believable to make disproving it an easy task. His book a resounding success and the public clamoring for more, the professor faces a dilemma: let everybody down by exposing his satire, thus earning eternal enmity and likely ostracism, or give in to the public demand for more of the same. The title of the story should give some idea of how this goes. Like I said, a bit wicked, in the best possible way, is Ms. Wharton.

Wharton also explores upper-crust divorces and their exquisite discomforts in "The Other Two" as a man who is happily married to a twice-divorced woman keeps running into her prior husbands as he goes about his business, realizing he sort of has them to thank for her skill at making men happy even as he comes to like one of them and learns to tolerate the other, who is, after all, the father of her child. As this story was originally published in 1904, it also shows us that all of these entanglements are nothing new -- and they've rarely been treated so incisively and with such dispassionate amusement as Wharton, herself to later become a divorced though not remarried woman, gives them here.

Another amusing reflection on "modern" family life, "The Mission of Jane" almost reads like a long and drawn-out joke as a couple, disappointed in their marriage, adopts a child in the hopes of improving matters. Their resulting parenthood winds up being an even bigger disappointment as Jane turns out to be an insufferable know-it-all, but does eventually fulfill her purpose after a fashion. One can almost hear Wharton chuckling, genteelly, to herself as the story moves briskly along.

Other entries are almost farcically romantic, like "The Letter", which concerns a last letter penned by an Italian patriot executed by the Austrian regime, a letter which was never delivered to his grieving wife and sister. The tale is told from the point of view of an English adventurer in love with the sister, who in finding the titular letter finds an advantage he can use to discredit the rival for the sister's affections! One can hear the violins all but screeching in the background; sometimes in the foreground threatening to overpower the narrator's voice! Pass zee smelling salts and steer me towards the fainting couch! This together with the ghostly gothic silliness of "The Lady's Maid's Bell" seem more like pages from Vita Sackville-West's juvenalia than the work of the author of The House of Mirth. But hey, she wanted to stretch herself. I respect that.

Even those stories, though, aren't what one could call bad. Indeed, they might be taken as very delicate and subtle satire, which seems more Wharton's style. I'm just not sure.

What I am sure of, though, is that this collection is still a must-read for Wharton fans or those who are curious about her, if at least for its inclusion of the searingly amazing "Quicksand", in which a woman finds herself struggling to dissuade her prospective daughter-in-law from marrying, not because the girl is not good enough for the woman's son, but because the woman sees herself in the girl and also sees that her son would make it too easy for the girl to lose herself and all the qualities the woman admires, repeating the woman's own experience of marriage. It's exquisitely done, painful and challenging stuff, the story most like an Edith Wharton novel in this collection.

So, The Descent of Man and Other Stories is a bit of a mixed bag, but it shows off Wharton's versatility, talent and, perhaps most importantly, that she refused to take herself too seriously. She would have been fun to know socially, I'm pretty sure.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's NO MORE PARADES

Where the Great War was just a trace element of Some Do Not, the first volume of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy, in the second, No More Parades, it's the main event, the setting. From its first pages we are plunged into the tumult and confusion of Christopher "Chrissie" Tietjen's efforts to get a brand new draft of over 2000 Canadian soldiers ready for their posting -- and they've turned up with their uniforms and nothing else. All part of a day's work for Chrissie, pulling tin hats and identification discs and soldiers' wills out of thin air all because some military bureaucrats back in Blighty are earning themselves knighthoods by cutting corners and saving the taxpayers' money.*

Interestingly, for the first several chapters of the novel I found a certain ambiguity as to where these events fit chronologically with those of Some Do Not. From that first novel, we know that Chrissie has gone to the Front at least twice: which time is being depicted here? The ambiguity adds an extra intensity to Chrissie's struggles to outfit soldiers, survive a German air attack, not think about his wife, Sylvia, or about "his girl" (who is not named for quite some time but whom we know is Valentine, but... does he know that? Has he sustained his traumatic brain injury and come through it or is that in his future?) and to write a sonnet in two and a half minutes.** Which his fellow captain is then to render as Latin hexameters in the same amount of time as a sort of friendly competition to divert them a bit from the pressure and the horror. Good God I love this book!

But mere scenes of war and chaos are never enough for writers like Ford Madox Ford, who (quite properly) cannot resist messing with things by introducing his other brilliantly vivid characters into the mix at the worst possible times for them to be introduced. Enter Sylvia Tietjens, beautiful and bored and cruel like a neglected cat, who as a high society beauty, a lady of fashion, a veritable queen in her own right, can pull all sorts of strings (an image that recurs towards the end of No More Parades when Chrissie phrases her actions in terms of her having "pulled the string of a shower-bath", meaning her thinks of them as pranks and nothing worse) and manages to barge in on Tietjen's commanding officer demanding to see her husband.

Oh, Sylvia! I feel for her even more after the second half of this novel, which is mostly told from her point of view. Her respect and admiration for Chrisse have only grown together with a strong sexual desire for him that makes her "tremble" and "vibrate" even when discussing him with the man she once eloped on him with (who is in every way Chrissie's inferior and who, we learned, bored Sylvia to tears almost before they made landfall in France back in 1912 in Some Do Not). Nothing she has managed to do from home seems to have gotten a rise out of her husband, so she'll do her best to achieve that in person, war and duty be damned. This is selfish of her, of course, but the reader has already decided that the surname "Tietjens" is probably the word for "the most stubborn person like ever" in some obscure dialect of medieval Dutch; Chrissie is stubborn in his clinging to his rationality and his outmoded ideals (he tells his C.O. at one point that he took all his public school education on morals and conduct seriously, never outgrew it, and seems to be the only member of his generation so afflicted); Chrissie's brother Mark was stubborn, last novel, in believing the worst of his little brother and in determining to bring Chrissie's imagined shortcomings to their father's attention whatever the cost, and, in this novel, in making all of that up to Chrissie in well-intentioned but unworkable ways that only wind up making things worse for Chrissie; Sylvia is only a Tietjens by marriage but is just as stubborn as the born Tietjens about how her marriage was supposed to be and how she must settle for nothing less than exactly what she wanted, which was a loving and passionate life-long twosome with the most brilliant and capable man she has ever known: her husband.

Sylvia's desires are natural and understandable; her "villainy" if such it must be called lies in her limitations: she is a wealthy, well-born Lady of Fashion; men fall at her feet; her job is simply to keep herself beautiful because her purpose in life is decorative, is as an object of desire. She's more than doing her job, but the rest of society is not living up to the bargain she has always understood to have been struck since someone first noticed she was pretty. The rapt adoration and constant attendance on her of her chosen consort is her due! But having never had to be anything but pretty and fashionable and socially adroit, she's never learned how to actually deserve said adoration and attendance. It's tragic, really.

As is the way things are left at novel's end, which leaves Chrissie with no choice but to go to the front and probably be killed. His marriage is his undoing in every way: the lies he allowed to be spread to protect Sylvia the consequences of her earliest tantrums, the malice and jealousy exercised upon him by her other admirers, and, yes, the feelings he's allowed himself to develop for "the girl" who is his true match -- feelings he's not acted upon, but is believed to have done so by everybody, including his wife, which is what set her on her trajectory to pull the string of the shower bath. Oh, if only what had doused Chrissie had really only been water!

*This puts the current war's ongoing controversy over body armor and lack of toiletries into a certain perspective, doesn't it? Except of course the modern counterparts to Tietjen's faceless adversaries don't get knighthoods; they just get to keep their jobs.

**Of course I love this bit above all others, though I find his methods differ strongly from my own. My own record for speed sonnetry before witnesses is two minutes and about ten seconds, on October 8, 2009 at Chicago's Argo Tea House. But I was among friends only and no one was bleeding out at the time.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's THE FORTUNE OF WAR

Very nearly everything bad, or at least unpleasant, that can happen to an 18th century sailing man happens to Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in The Fortune of War, the sixth in Patrick O'Brian's amazing chronicles of life in England's Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, making this novel perhaps the most aptly titled of the series. Though maybe it should be The Misfortune of War instead?

And they don't just happen for the sake of happening, these misfortunes. Pretty much everything that befalls our splendid duo is in some way a consequence of a prior adventure of theirs, or of suppositions relating to those adventures, to wit the "horrible old Leopard" which they barely survived commanding in Desolation Island and limp into New Holland after having been given up for dead at the beginning of The Fortune of War. The Leopard was an actual and infamous ship due to an incident in 1807 when its crew attacked the USS Chesapeake as part of an effort to capture some deserters from the Royal Navy, causing a diplomatic row and earning the Leopard a bad reputation among Americans*, with which reputation Jack Aubrey is tarnished when a series of calamities land him as a sort of convalescent/prisoner in Boston.

All that, though, is merely prologue to the land-based adventures of Maturin in Boston! For at its heart, The Fortune of War is a spy novel, and Maturin has been a very effective secret agent, even to planting a heap of poisonous misinformation on American spy Aphra Behn Louisa Wogan last novel, a feat that has resulted in serious disruption of the French intelligence effort, who weren't suspecting a pretty American dilettante would be so manipulated until it was too late and several of France's own agents were dead, dismembered, exiled, etc. This and other feats of espionage and counter-espionage render Maturin a marked man once he and Jack Aubrey find themselves prisoners of war in America, and in Boston specifically, which is crawling with French agents now that America, too, is at war with Britain. Yowza.

And of course, this is also the novel in which Maturin sort of half-assedly gets his heart's desire -- meaning the dashing, courageous, graceful and good-looking Diana Villiers, who has broken said heart several times but is now as trapped in America as are Maturin and Aubrey and Needs Stephen's Help. Just as Stephen has sort of decided maybe he's not in love with her anymore. Ah, me.

On to the next Napoleonic War adventure!

*And is also considered by some to be one of the causes of the War of 1812.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


I started reading this collection quite some time ago, when it landed on my devices via the Humble Bundle, but as I've discussed before on this blog, I've had trouble fitting short fiction into my reading life, to my detriment. At the time Stranger Things Happen came into this life again* I thought, hey, I'll put this on my phone so I have something to entertain me when I'm waiting for things like friends to show up for social engagements or doctor's appointments or oil changes. Yeah!

Only I have discovered that I'm not in those situations very often. All of my current circle of real life friends are as punctual as I am, for instance. I know!

So anyway, I had dawdled to about the 25% mark in this collection when I hit on this whole Bedtime Stories thing. And I couldn't remember any of what I'd read to that point, really, because my bout of waiting around with my phone were too few and far between. I realize I am probably a huge freak in this regard. That's okay.

All this is a roundabout lead in to the fact that I think I am now an unabashed Kelly Link fangirl. What really did it for me was "Travels with the Snow Queen" which re-imagines Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" (possibly my favorite HCA, though it's one I've always felt I've understood the least well. Deliciously enigmatic, is "The Snow Queen") in terms of an autopsy on a failed romance and the idea of a business that capitalizes on the need for these, all while still feeling very true to HCA's original story. This is quite a feat since the narration is in the rare and difficult-to-pull-off second person, a la, say, Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night A Traveler...

Other stand-outs include "Louise's Ghost" which tangles the reader in threads of ambiguity as it tells of not one but two characters named Louise and not one but two ghosts, one a more conventional (yet unconventional) haunting and one a bit more metaphorical that only comes into play halfway through the story. Like a good ghost story should be, this one is creepy as hell, but not necessarily in the way the campfire stories it evokes are; more in the way Margaret Atwood's stories of female friendship and female rivalry tend to be.

And some of the stories are just strange, like "The Girl Detective", a weird juxtaposition of Carolyn Keene (who didn't really exist, which still weirds me out) and the Brothers Grimm, and "Survivor's Ball, or The Donner Party" which threatens to get really terribly over the top creepy but stops short of that and settles for merely uncanny.

Link does have some tics that get cumulatively annoying, though; she loves breaking up her stories into discrete and often non-sequential sub-narratives, leaving the reader to struggle to relate them all together at story's end. Sometimes this winds up being more of a struggle than others, as in "Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water" which I'm still pretty sure I just didn't understand at all. I guess it's some kind of will-they-won't-they romance? With a fair amount of sex but not between the two who are framed as gonna-maybe-be-lovers? Meh. Maybe it's just because she tries to cram a Philip K. Dick salute in there where it really doesn't fit? Anyway, the night I read this one, I went to bed frustrated.

After all the others, I went to bed enchanted. So, ten out of eleven are brilliant. Not bad!

*Originally, I received a paperback copy from a friend in a book swap a few years ago, but this was right at the time my octuple elbow tendon trouble started making dead tree books a painful proposition, so yeah.