This Town, by Mark Leibovich

15814168As a politics junkie, I thought I would love Mark Leibovich’s This Town, which is billed as an inside look at Washington, DC. But I hated it, for a reason best captured by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein:

“This Town” isn’t a book about Washington. It’s a book about members of Washington’s political-communications complex. The key characters are mostly people who, in some way or another, get paid to talk about politics. . . . The bad news about “This Town” is that the political-communications complex is kind of an awful place. The good news is that it really doesn’t matter. The political-communications complex gets a lot of press for itself because the political-communications complex includes the press as well as the key political staffers whose job it is to talk to the press. But the attention is far out of proportion to the complex’s power.

Too true. This Town read like a high schooler’s memoir about his social life — all-consuming to the subject, utterly meaningless to a disinterested outsider.

What’s disappointing is that Washington has some genuine problems — including the cliques that dominate certain areas of policymaking. (The fight between Larry Summers and Janet Yellen for the Fed chair highlights one of the problems with deep insider politics.) That is to say, the type of society Leibovich (sorta) lampoons — connection-driven, content-free, intensely exclusive — exists and causes major issues for the rest of the country.

But the privileged hangers-on whom Leibovich features? Pfffft. At the end of the day they’re nothing.

★☆☆☆☆

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Among Others, by Jo Walton

8706185I tried. I really tried. I love Jo Walton, but Among Others is so dreadfully dull that I couldn’t finish it.

The book is a series of diary entries from a young schoolgirl who makes her way through a difficult school transfer and a move-in with her father by reading tons of speculative fiction. Like all diary novels Among Others is meandering and reflective but here the faults of the form are at an extreme. Well over a third of the way through there was no conflict and no semblance of a plot — really nothing but nostalgia for old books (with weirdly detailed descriptions of specific titles and authors) and a concededly convincing portrayal of a tedious and trying school year.

I should add that the book is technically “fantasy” but that angle is so slight (at least at the beginning) that it’s basically nonexistent.

Now this is Jo Walton so notwithstanding my inability to abide the book as a whole, there were occasional passages where she just crushed it. My favorite bit is where she (or rather her narrator) discusses the nature of magic:

You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.

N.B.: I’m fully aware of the irony of praising this passage while criticizing the seeming absence of magic in the plot. But there’s a big difference between explaining something beautifully and forcing readers to live through it for hundreds of dull pages.

★☆☆☆☆

Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

22288I don’t get the point of this book. It’s ostensibly a collection of gross-out stories billed as the sickest you’ll see in print. But it’s not even close. Maybe I’m jaded but despite being relatively sheltered from the depravities of online forums like 4chan and parts of Reddit I didn’t feel nauseated even once reading these stories. It’s a little funny citing this as a weakness (I generally prefer my reading to be at peace with my eating), but I approached this book and its hyperbolic marketing with the thrill of the forbidden and it ended up being a bunch of warmed-over camp tales.

The first story – the most infamously gross, I gather – is about an unfortunate onanist whose autoerotic swimming pool exertions lead a vent to suck his intestines out of his ass. This is a genuinely grotesque thought, but that’s all there is to these stories: they mix sex and excretions and nasty little people and expect the mix to shock you. Later stories somewhat up the ante by having people abuse each other in horrible ways. A shameless journalist fabricates a horrible child porn fetish about a source and then kills him after strewing incriminating evidence all around. A progeriac adolescent swindles women into sleeping with him and then uses that single act of indiscretion to blackmail them into more degradations. Etc.

Like I said: unpleasant. But if the purpose of the collection is to gross you out, these stories pale in comparison to the shock material available in the dark corners of the Internet (see the last paragraph of this article, for example). And if the purpose of the collection instead is to say something profound about the debasement of the human condition, then the stories still fail to live up to the horrors that real life has to offer: North Korean prison camps; the Rwandan genocide; Unit 731; children held in hopeless captivity for years; etc. etc.

Whether your goal is titillation or a better understanding of the nature of evil, you’ll find better sources for these objectives than Haunted.

★☆☆☆☆

The Voyage of the Sable Keech, by Neal Asher

9329581Neal Asher’s The Voyage of the Sable Keech raises an important question: how many extremely graphic episodes of giant whelk rape is too many? As the book conclusively demonstrates, the answer is: even one.

But, asks Asher — pursuing this intriguing line of thought — is it perhaps acceptable to recount a rapacious male whelk “extruding the long, tubular, glassy corkscrew of his penis” and using it to “grop[e] around between her organs” while the female uses her “four tentacles” “to snap harpoon shafts one after another” into the male’s surging body, if this climactic (so to speak) episode of alien-on-alien BDSM tentacle porn is preceded by endless chapters about the female whelk’s pointless pursuit of a ship? Again, The Voyage of the Sable Keech provides a conclusive answer: no way.

Yet consider this variation on the question, Asher cleverly posits. Add to the giant whelk’s meaningless story a hive mind avatar’s dorm-room obsession with “killing death”; a standoff between two space crabs that plays down their entertaining psychotic-ness in favor of some mechanical puzzles; and a wholly inert story about a reif-staffed cruise that is literally pointless because the ship slowly chugs its way to its destination no matter what happens on board — can an author miraculously transform an entire collection of such tedious narratives into a single compelling whole? Once again, the answer is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt: not even close.

And finally Asher poses the most vexing philosophical question at all. Suppose that in a previous book you had concocted an outrageously entertaining tale, filled with florid violence, outsized events, and larger-than-life characters; suppose that the best part of that book had been your ability to one-up every crazy idea page after page and give the reader every major confrontation that you had been teasing from the start; and suppose you took all of these amazing features away. What would be the result?

The Voyage of the Sable Keech: res ipsa loquitur.

★☆☆☆☆

Wool, by Hugh Howey

wool-uk-cover-finalI’ve read up on the back story behind Hugh Howey’s Wool, and I feel great personal warmth toward the author and his tremendous ascent from the slush pile of self-publication to an actual publisher, rabid fans, and (I sincerely hope) material wealth, but the actual book at the center of this heart-lifting tale is terrible.

There are so many issues I’m not even sure where to begin, so let’s just say there are some big problems and some little problems, with the biggest big problem being the basic concept behind this book. I have no issues with the idea of a massive underground silo being built to house the survivors of some apocalypse. I can accept that the survivors might have a deep fascination with the outside world, even if their only view of that world is through a fuzzy video camera. I don’t even really have a problem with the idea that such a society would devote extremely scarce resources to maintain computer servers for a purpose that most of the population doesn’t know.

But here’s the really stupid idea (note that I’m about to spoil the first story). The principal purpose of these servers — their principal, super secret purpose — is to create a virtual reality program. That program is used in the helmets of hazmat suits worn outside the silo, displaying to the user a verdant scene of renewed life rather than a barren wasteland. The users of those suits are criminals or crazy people who have expressed the forbidden desire to leave the silo. And the point of the deceptive view is to trick those people into cleaning the lenses of the cameras that beam a view of the outside world to the silo’s residents.

Jesus, that idea sounds even stupider now that I’ve typed it out.

There are just a lot of things that don’t make sense about all this. Why are people so obsessed with these cameras? If the cameras are so important, why are only criminals or crazy people sent outside? And is it really the case that a deceptive virtual-reality program is the best use that people can imagine for super-powerful computers and a staggering amount of electricity?!

This is not even to mention that the point of this entire scheme is apparently to maintain social order. I’m afraid to even explain exactly how that’s supposed to work.

Pile onto this silly concept some terrible writing (including an excruciatingly extended passage about knitting) and an unconvincing love story (“I told my mom about you,” the male lead says dramatically at one pivotal moment) and you have a book whose big problems are only the beginning of its troubles.

Because there still remain the little problems, which I’ll address in a series of questions:

  • Where does this very resource-limited silo get manufactured products such as manila envelopes?
  • How can the silo’s mayor — essentially the president — have so much free time and so few responsibilities that she can spend days away from her office just interviewing people?
  • In the last story, is Juliette really going to abandon the people she found, at the very moment when they need serious medical care?
  • And why, in God’s name, doesn’t the silo have an elevator?!

★☆☆☆☆

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

47212It’s a little odd to say that a story involving demons, vampires, and an honest-to-god wizard council feels like a plain old detective novel, but that’s the best description I can give of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, the first in his long-running series about the magical private eye Harry Dresden. Replace the mystical beasts with ordinary low-lifes and the spells with bullets and you’ve got yourself a story that every mystery fan has read a hundred times, down to the sultry femme fatale and stone cold mob boss. It’s not wholly devoid of interest — there’s a reason this framework is so well known. But it feels stale.

Now Butcher (who by the way has an awesome name and should consider writing horror) does do a few nice things in this book, but most of them don’t seem like they will really bear fruit until later volumes. I’m referring in particular to Harry’s frequent intimations about his past — apparently he, like Luke, was once sorely tempted by the dark side — and also to the never seen but oft invoked White Council, which sits schoolmarm-like in judgment over wizards’ ethical choices.

Also intermittently successful are Butcher’s stabs at humor, which nearly all take the form of poking fun at traditional views of wizardry. Dresden is for example quite defensive about wearing a robe (it’s cold in his lab, he reminds us), and while mixing potions is still a thing the ingredients used wink at how ridiculous the concept is. My favorite bit by far is Morgan, an agent of the White Council, who is as hilariously tight-assed as any pencil-pushing bureaucrat at the DMV you’ve ever met, except that he carries a giant sword and materializes out of thin air to advise Harry that he’s violating such-and-such subsection of the wizard code and now must die. That’s good stuff.

On the other hand this book contains lines like “Things were bad. They were very, very bad!” Yeah, the writing is not a high point.

I did some poking around on the Internet and found that most fans of this series agree that the first books are not really good, but things pick up steam later. Seriously? I mean the books are not too long — I finished this one in a few days while taking a break from an emotionally difficult nonfiction book — but I’m not running a charity with my reading time here.

★☆☆☆☆

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

MV5BMTczMTgxMjc4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjM5MTA2OA@@._V1._SY317_David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an outstanding book — one of the best I’ve ever read. The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas is a terrible movie. But quite aside from being confusing and even racist the movie’s biggest flaw is reducing the book’s complex themes to a simple, cheerful message.

In the movie, that message is delivered by Adam Ewing, a 19th-century plutocrat, who upon being told that he is just one drop in an ocean responds stirringly, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” From the editing and the rising music we are clearly supposed to take from this slogan the lesson that so long as one does good (in this case, fighting to end slavery) then however futile an individual effort may be it will contribute toward the long-term fulfillment of justice.

To be fair, this dialogue is taken directly from the book. But in transposing Ewing’s words to the screen the Wachowskis have transformed what I took to be a fairly naive sentiment into the thundering lesson of the six interconnected stories. By my reading at least, that is not at all a lesson that the book supports.

Ewing’s story is Cloud Atlas‘s first, and in many ways the most optimistic. Every subsequent story takes us further into the future, and deeper into the barbaric variety of human oppression. Ewing’s “multitude of drops” leads not to freedom, but to a heartless corporate conspiracy, a high-tech totalitarian dictatorship, and ultimately to a devastated wasteland in which slavers once again hold the upper hand. True, in each story the individual in question ekes out a personal victory of sorts. But jump ahead a few generations and what we see is not that brave legacy carried forward, but a massive social regression in which the individual’s triumph is badly distorted, if it is remembered at all.

Unlike the movie, Cloud Atlas the book is ambiguous about what matters more: the little triumphs or the larger movements. Mitchell could be read as saying that each individual’s efforts spark an improvement in his or her present day — a positive social change that he perhaps deliberately does not recount — and that the spark persists as an inspiration for future generations when the arc of the moral universe reverts to injustice. In a way the structure of the novel supports that interpretation. The stories are nested together like Russian dolls, so that we get six beginnings in a row, chronologically, and then six endings, reverse-chronologically. It could be that the reverse order of the last half of the book is meant to provide a lineage of sorts to the ideas about freedom, and resistance to oppression, that are repeated to each successive character.

But Mitchell never outright says so. And in a way I think it’s more plausible to read Cloud Atlas as a bleaker story about the futility of fighting humanity’s worst tendencies. However courageous Ewing, or Luisa Rey, or Sonmi-451 may be, the world still ends in nuclear disaster and generations dying in captivity. It’s this harsher interpretation that gives the book its edge, an undercurrent of unease and even skepticism about the tidy genre stories Mitchell tells. The movie mostly ignores this darker reading — and suffers for it.

★☆☆☆☆