Reviews by Author: K-N
William Kennedy's Billy Phelan's Greatest Game
Kennedy gets compared to many writers, but I think that he and Faulkner are dead-ringers. Both are concerned with the pervasiveness of time’s influence, both center the majority of their work around an area that becomes mythical in their hands, both concentrate on character, and both are sometime extravagant stylists. Of the Albany trilogy, I have come to think Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game perhaps a shade better than Ironweed. The reason for this is simply the pull of plot in Phelan. Ironweed is something of a paean to sadness and bum luck, but Phelan has a pull from its beginning chapter with its nearly perfect bowling game ended by a fatal heart attack to be quickly followed in the next chapter’s opening with a kidnapping. It’s the latter that provides the pull in this novel, along with the tandem narrations by Martin Daugherty and Billy Phelan, the pair that opened the novel with the bowling game, a pair separated by a generation. Daugherty’s fretting over Billy, over his own son Peter (who’s committed to becoming a priest), and over the kidnapped Charlie McCall provides a touching thematic motif in this novel. “Free the children” becomes a refrain in Martin’s mind, a refrain made all the deeper because he is caring for a senile, Alzheimer-ish father, who had not always taken the best care of his own son. Go for it with this novel. Two small warnings: Kennedy, as mentioned can dip his pen a bit heavily into the purple at time, but for every time he does this, there are ten times he writes wonders: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.” The second warning floats along the zeitgeist of political correctness. This novel can seem heavy-handed on the male side of matters, but I would encourage readers to consider the depiction of Martin’s mother chastising a Christian Brother much as Christ chastised the moneylenders. I would also encourage readers to read the chapter where Angie bests Billy in a game of wit. And the terrible “N” word floats in frequently enough, I guess. Billy, at the bottom of his game, borrows $25 from Slope, a black man. They buy whiskey from a bootlegger and build a trash fire by the river. “How is it, being a nigger, Slope?”/ “I kinda like it.” / “Goddam good thing.” / “What, bein’ a nigger?” / “No, that you like it.” Minutes later, Slope saves a drunken Billy from getting a police beating by yanking him down as two wiseacre cops pass by. Kennedy touches humanity at every level with his truths.
Jessica Fordham Kidd’s Bad Jaime
In the spirit of Byron, Chaucer, Berryman, Dorothy Parker, Larry Beckett and others, Jessica Fordham Kidd’s Bad Jaime comes marvelously close to being a novel in verse. That it does not, does no dishonor, for Bad Jaime offers sly humor and building pathos while examining the king of all dysfunctional families, starting with Bad Jaime himself—a ne’er do (too) well country father addicted to drugs and alcohol—and ending with his three progeny, two of which are illegitimate. And one of those illegitimate remains unknown. This unknown son, however, carries a strong blood link to his father, for he sings spirituals backwards: “Arose he arose he grave the from up.” Just so, Bad Jaime himself seems incapable of living his life any way but backwards. “On a stormy night if he can find a spot / in Granny’s house where the water doesn’t pour in, / Bad Jaime dreams of his children.” But dreaming is just about all he does, though he sometimes leaves his Lil Jaime a beer or two—which Lil Jaime never drinks. And Granny’s house is falling down and abandoned, for Granny herself lies dead, though she and her own mother reincarnate as woodpeckers to watch over Jaime and his dissolving family. Was there a time when Bad Jaime could have been good? Perhaps so: “Bad Jaime’s second grade teacher saw his heart. / It was a big thing, / if wrong and muddled. / She loved the way he wore crayons / down to a chip / trying to color paper into waxy mess. / / She’s so much older now. / And Bad Jaime sees Orion / rise over her roofline, and to him / the map of the stars looks like the path / someone was supposed to take . . .” Oh and there’s an older brother whose personality splits between Town Clarence and Pasture Clarence. Town Clarence gives Bad Jaime occasional doles; Pasture Clarence wallops Bad Jaime every chance he gets: “Where are the checks Town Clarence has cashed? / Saving Bad Jaime’s ass . . . // Sometimes Town Clarence is Pasture Clarence/ Naked to the waist, sitting in the rocky creek, / letting the water run over his gut / until he feels the water snails / creeping up on his fingernails.” Bad Jamie offers a satisfying excursion into linked poems, with touches of humor and fantasy lightening the overriding pathos. Highly recommended.
Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad
295 pages. 4 stars. Preamble ramble: If you are a fan of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, you will likely find affinity with this collection. And, if you’ve read only Lem’s Solaris, you will be given a bounce by the change of style. So okay . . .
While I did mention Cosmicomics and while the two collections share a humorous approach to made-up fantastical worlds, I want to point out that Calvino’s collection delves much harder into emotion and terse fabulism to entertain the reader, while Lem’s treads the waters of satire and wordplay for that same purpose.
Cosmicomics’ tales are typically short and poignant; the tales in The Cyberiad typically are plotted with antagonist/protagonist involved in a complex task or search. The Cyberiad involves two robot “constructors,” Trurl and Klapaucius. Both are brilliant, capable of any invention, no matter how far-fetched: story-telling machines, identity transformers, brilliantly elusive big-game creatures, perfection-making microbes, and more. Trurl is impulsive and this often gets him into trouble.
Fortunately, his fellow friend and robot, Klapaucius. seems willing enough to bail him out. Lem’s predilection for wordplay—Trurl and Klapaucius successively land their rocket on the planets “Eenica, then on Meenica, then finally on Mynamoaca”—is for the most part, delightful. As with many sci-fi novels, however, the overwrought newness of the words can become tedious. Lots of science and philosophy in these linked stories, though, so worth the reader’s work.
Elmore Leonard's Hombre
184 pages. “At first I wasn’t sure at all where to begin,” to quote the narrator of this novel. I’m not sure because this novel is much more of a character study than a western. And I suppose that the genre “western” invokes cacti, gunfights, and general bravura clichés. There are cacti and gunfights, and there is also bravura. But you can forget about clichés in Hombre. First off, Leonard takes a risk by creating a narrator, Carl Everett Allen, who isn’t particularly likeable. He’s so because he’s too much of an Everyman—a bumbler, a romantic dreamer, and something of a coward to boot. But he does have a story to tell, and that is about John Russell, a part Mexican, part white man who was kidnapped and consequently lived with the Apaches for several years, then “rehabilitated” (in the white man’s eyes), and finally returned to live with them on his own. Conflict first arises in a bar, where two white men are giving two Apaches a racist hard time. Russell slams the barrel of his rifle into one man’s mouth, telling him to leave money for the mescal that the man knocked form the Apache’s hand. Then another conflict: Russell has inherited the boarding house that his adoptive father left him. Should he take it, as his Mexican friend Mendez suggests, or should he simply remain with the Apache? He sells it. And then comes the stagecoach ride with the infamous hold-up. There is this twist, however: the stage is being held up because a government reservation agent has bilked money from the nearby Apache reservation, shortchanging them on beef, leaving the Apaches half-starving. The agent is carrying this money, and the cowhand whose mouth Russell smashed knows it because he works for the cattle ranch supplying the beef.
Overall a very moody read because the narrator, Allen, continuously wonders about all the characters, especially John Russell. But everyone’s motives, including the narrator’s, come under inspection, and that makes this novel well worth the read, even if you’re not a fan of Westerns. Come on, be adventurous . . .
Alan Lightman's Einstein’s Dreams
4 of 5 stars Italo Calvino, my literary hero and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (not necessarily in that order), said of this book that he hadn’t “been so excited by a novel . . . for a very long time.” And Dreams hit the NYTimes bestseller list in fiction. But is it a novel? Let me back up a bit. Whatever Dreams is, it is wonderfully moving, thought-provoking, well-written, and emotive. To return: is it a novel? We normally think of novels as having a central character(s), plot(s), and theme(s). As far as character, the theory of relativity itself might fill that item. After all, this work purports to give us Einstein’s dreams in the months before he published his paper about relativity. But human characters? Here’s what we often read: “A man or woman suddenly thrust into this world would have to dodge houses or buildings. For all is in motion. Houses and apartments, mounted on wheels, go careening. . . .” And this chapter stands as typical for all the brief chapters. The preceding chapter to the one just given offers a different glance of another world: “This is a world of sudden opportunities, of unexpected visions, for in this world time flows not evenly but fitfully, and as a consequence people receive fitful glimpses of the future.” Oh, there is sparse (very sparse) dialogue from characters: “Stop eating so much . . . you’ll die before me and who will take care of my silver.” This is spoken in a world where time is trapped within a flock of nightingales. Naturally, everyone wants to capture a nightingale, but this rarely occurs, for children have no interest in stopping time and the elderly are too slow to catch it. Whenever someone does manage to capture a nightingale, they “savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness.” But guess what? The nightingale soon expires, “its clear, flutelike song diminished to silence.”
You can see that there is a central theme building, the differing perceptions of time. And this, it strikes me, eventually reveals the work’s real central character, not time, but Everyman. For all of Lightman’s worlds affect the people within that specific world, and all of those specific people are then forced to make a life choice. In the second world I wrote of above the conclusion becomes, “Who would fare better in this fitful world of time? Those who have seen the future and live only one life? Or those who have not seen the future and wait to live life? Or those who deny the future and live two lives?”
So while there is no central plot but a mishmash of tiny plots or situations, there certainly is a central theme—and I reluctantly suppose, a central character, the human comedy itself. Two out of three. So yes, Einstein’s Dreams is a novel, and it’s a novel well worth reading, maybe even twice, if your world of time allows that.
Tao Lin's Richard Yates
Stuck and Liking it? 3 of 5 stars This novel by Tao Lin will challenge the reader’s concept of art in much the same way that Andy Warhol did with this Campbell’s Soup can and his eight-hour movie of a man sleeping. Lin’s novel has insistent deadpan dialogue and a slew of emails just as insistently deadpan. A random—I swear—choice: “What’s going to happen”” said Haley Joel Osment. / “I don’t know. I can’t leave here. She won’t let me leave.”/ “Is she calling the police?” said Haley Joel Osment. / “No, I don’t think she will. I have to go. She’s here.” / “ I don’t know what to say,” said Haley Joel Osment. . . . And that was one of the more exciting exchanges. Just as Warhol argued that the act of freezing something completely realistic into an artifact de facto turns it into art, Lin must believe that freezing banal conversations between a sixteen year old girl and a twenty-three year old young author too constitutes art. And I’m not arguing the fact.
Moreover, I believe his two—three if you count the mother—characters all change in this novel. For the worse, unfortunately for each. The two younger characters seem involved in a folie a deux much akin to the characters in Angela Carter’s lovely but depressing novel LOVE. I’m not a stickler who claims that there must be at least one likeable character in every novel. Nope. Not at all. My overall reaction to this short novel (206 pages) is that it was painful to read. Painful in a good way in that the wandering exchanges were so angst-filled and young; painful in a bad way in that there seemed to be little or no arc in the novel’s plot—which is nearly non-existent, other than the changes that the characters undergo ever so slowly.
One last criticism, and this isn’t of the novel, but of a review I read of it: I’m loathe to identify Haley Joel Osment with Tao Lin. I’m also loathe to believe that Osment is inspired by a Richard Yates novel to leave the 16, then 17 year old Dakota Fanning at novel’s end. Rather, I believe that this novel could have continued for a thousand or more pages of painful dialogue before Dakota Fanning’s suicidal urges came to fruition, from the imbedded urges of both her mother and her lover. The two characters are stuck and intend to stay stuck.
Roy Lisker's In Memoriam Einstein
My favorite quote from this book: "Providentially for some, cosmology is a subject in which almost all relevant information is either inaccessible or unknowable." If you're interested in amateur physics, this book, which follows a then-young math dropout turned reporter's bluffed foray into a centennial celebration of Einstein's birth, is right up your alley. Lots of tidbits about the bureaucracy of scientific academics. The saddest part of this book: a waitress whose niece suffers from a disease similar to Stephen Hawking's has a chance to talk with the great man, who is in attendance at the conference, but cowers out after Lisker sets up a meeting. The caste system, Lisker notes, is overwhelming.
Maurice Manning's Bucolics
94 pages. I just received, from a well-known and distributed book review magazine, an assurance that Christian erotica is alive and well, complete with a photo of a sultry woman seductively pulling a rosary through her lips. So? So it’s good to know that there are authors who take spirituality seriously. And Maurice Manning is just such an author, though you should take the word “seriously” with advisement, since his collection of 78 poems carries a charm and ease that often belie the underlying seriosity [if you can excuse that neologism] of his theme.
For starters, Manning has the persona of all 78 poems address God as “Boss” in every poem: “you’re the hay maker Boss / you light the candle in the sun / dip the water in the rain.” Since I opened with a reference to Christianity I should make it clear that this “Boss” remains decidedly non-sectarian, sometimes pushing a pantheistic view: “Is that you Boss is that / you hooting in the hollow / are you a night bird Boss / is that your face behind / the moon is that your hand / cupped to the cricket’s ear / do you tell the cricket how / to sing do you say that’s it / now softer softer now.” Manning’s insistence on employing lower case and no punctuation throughout this entire sequence of 78 poems seems to highlight that pantheism. Everything flows: “the river looks so level Boss.”
While the folksy “Boss” conveys a simplicity and calm ease into the poems, this doesn’t mean that Manning’s persona is a Pollyanna: “do you put your trousers on one leg / at a time like me or do you just snap / your fingers Boss you fancy-pants.” The poem (LV, 55) continues to note that the sun is spending less time in the sky, that the green leaves are turning red and this prompts these words: “ . . . I wish sometimes / you’d stop it Boss I wish you’d cut / it out the way you muddy up / the water you’re like a dirty fish / you always get away. . . / . . . / . . . I’m getting tired of all / your games I’ve had it up to here / O Boss I’ve had enough of you.”
As others have noted, some repetition of images and themes does work its way into this sequence. Perhaps it could have been . . . say, eight poems shorter. But let me admit that I sure wouldn’t want to be the winnower, for every poem emits its own wonderful charm and a field of wildflowers is all the more wonderful for its repeating pattern, yes?
Yann Martel's Beatrice and Francesca
228 pages. Some critics considered this novel a tour de force, that is, an extraordinary work of art that excelled at least in part due to its use of form and style. Some did, many did not. I am one of the latter. But let’s b ack up a bit. The author, Canadian Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi, which indeed was overwhelmingly considered a tour de force. I concur with that judgment. Whereas Pi concerned itself with the many forms of religion that the human imagination concocts when confronting the wonder and depravity of man and his life on earth, Beatrice concerns itself with the depravity of man as exhibited by the Holocaust and perhaps imagination’s failure to overcome that capitol E evil.
The novel has five components: 1) the life of the narrator, who is an author remarkably similar to Martel; 2) a synopsis and flimsy analysis of a Gustave Flaubert novella entitled St. Julian the Hospitaler; 3) fragments from a fable-like play concerning a donkey and a howler monkey (Beatrice and Francesca); 4) the interaction between the narrator and the author of the play; and lastly, 5) a card game made for a dead boy. The combination surely should be intriguing and entertaining, no? No. The first part, the narrator’s life, is much too self-absorbed and self-conscious. We almost can hear Martell weeping because his agent didn’t care for his new novel idea, which is about . . . tarump dum da . . . the Holocaust.
The second part, the synopsis of the Flaubert novella, is entirely too artificial. Even when the narrator overtly explains the connection between St Julian and the playwright, we’re still straining for our bearing. The third part, the play fragments, are indeed, mostly wonderful and entertaining. And humorous and sad. And intriguing. The fragments do eventually build into reflecting upon the Holocaust and the Third Reich’s Final Solution in a touching way. The fourth part, the interaction between the narrator and the playwright (who is a taxidermist), offers some moody scenes and a very interesting plot climax. The fifth and final part, the card games for a dead boy, are stunning and devastating.
However, put them all together and they spell neither “mother” nor “tour de force.” At times they barely congeal into a novel. So, if you have only five hours to give to Yann Martell, stick with Life of Pi. You’ll be well rewarded, entertained, and surprised. Rating: C+
Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil
Autobiographical Elements Work only in Retrospect 4 of 5 stars Four elements form this novel, listed in order of appearance: 1) A narrative following a thinly disguised Yann Martel; 2) fragments of a story entitled “St. Julian the Hospitaler” by Gustave Flaubert; 3) a play concerning a donkey and a monkey—Beatrice and Virgil ; 4)a set of “cards” describing Gustav’s Game(s). Don’t let the disguised narrative bog you down as it did me the first go around. It serves a purpose. The Flaubert story too, serves a purpose. The play—ah, the play has marvelous moments! And too, does Gustav’s Game. This is a novel that grows more intense with a slow build. While it is worth reading for that intensity, most readers will come away wishing that the build had developed in a more orderly, less biographical fashion and that the ending was not thrust on them in the last twenty or so pages.
After re-reading this novel, I can appreciate the structure a bit more, and even come away with some appreciation of the (auto)biographical wanderings in the first part. The narrator, I suspect, is meant to be an Everyman. In an odd way, I think I like this one better than Pi. BUT, you do have to get past the trumped-up autobiographical bits and then, only in retrospect, do they work.
Yann Martel's Life of Pi
4.5 of 5 stars
The Pi(e) Plate: Half full, half empty?
Early in this novel, an elderly man tells the supposed author, as they sit in a Bombay café, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And this story winds up being about a teenage boy who survives on a large lifeboat for (ahem) nine months, supposedly with a crippled zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a fully grown Bengal tiger who were part of the ship’s freight being shipped to various zoos. That’s a gulping lot of supposeds. And when Pi and the lifeboat finally come ashore in Mexico, two hard-nosed Japanese insurance adjustors impatiently listen to Pi’s beautifully fantastic story of survival with these same animals, a story wherein all but Pi and the tiger are killed. (The tiger has supposedly escaped into Mexico’s dense forests—one more supposed.) Finally the insurance adjustors question the tale’s veracity, and Pi replies, “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. . . . You want dry, yeastless factuality. . . . You want a story without animals.” The two Japanese adjustors happily agree. So Pi asks for a moment to collect himself, and then he delivers a story just so. The problem is that the story he delivers is horrific—believable, but horrific. He finishes and asks the two Japanese men whether they didn’t prefer his first story about how he trained the tiger and fed it raw fish and in essence co-existed with it, much the same as Pi himself co-exists spiritually as a Moslem-Hindu-Christian. Yes, they admit, they did like the Bengal tiger story much better. “Thank you,” Pi answers. “And so it goes with God.” Now I must admit that Pi scene Molitor Patel’s second and horrific story had just the opposite effect on me: it confirmed the impossibility of any God interested in compassion, justice, or mercy. You, along with the Japanese and Pi Patel, may conclude differently: for you the God plate might turn up half or even completely full. Regardless of your final spiritual stance, if you are drawn to stories about animal behavior (used in the loosest of terms) and zoos, and if you are curious about other religions, you will be enthralled with Martel’s novel about a zookeeper’s young son who survives on a lifeboat in the Pacific for nine months. The details surrounding Pi’s survival of the hyena’s wrath, the “murders” of the crippled zebra and orangutan, and the peace-making process with a Bengal Tiger are informative and mesmerizing. Indeed, that story, which claims nearly two-thirds of the book, is highly preferable to the grisly “true” account.
Charles McNair's Land O’ Goshen
Four stars Margaret Atwood taught a year at The University of Alabama and reportedly derived inspiration for her dystopic and completely dark religious novel The Handmaid’s Tale from that stint. Charles McNair was born and raised in Alabama, on the other hand. Perhaps this explains the addition of not only humor to his dystopic novel, but a visionary impulse as well.
McNair has a Southerner’s penchant for imbedded metaphor and colorful language. Of a barroom fight, he writes, “His hands gripped that pool cue so hard . . . I thought sawdust might come out between his fingers.” And he has a Southerner’s penchant for the grotesque since surely one main character in this wondrous novel is “The Wild Thang,” an outlandish, smelly full-body disguise that the young fourteen-year-old hero, Buddy, snitches from a circus. In the circus tent, the Wild Thang struck fear into the onlookers. With Buddy’s additional dead animal skins and feathers garnered from the wild woods, the disguise becomes nearly supernatural, instilling complete surrender and pandemonium. It’s Buddy’s plan to use the Wild Thang, aka “Sack,” to correct the hatred that has been fomented by “The New Times,” a religious right movement separating people into Christian Soldiers (literally) and Devils (figuratively) and bringing on a second bloody Civil War.
Early on, Buddy’s plans encounter a snafu when during one full moon rampage, a young girl spies Buddy lifting off Sack’s headpiece. Ah, but romance sets in. This positive impulse is certainly something else that separates McNair’s novel from Atwood’s. Read them both, for they serve as an artistic warning to theocracy.
Kat Meads' Miss Jane: the Lost Years
168 pages. Meads’ choice of narrator, a chorus of what passes for Greek Furies, gives this novel’s anger the perfect distance in our #Me Too age. For young Miss Jane, a “cracker chick,” comes under the clutches of a predating professor—a teacher of women’s studies, almost inevitably. She moves into his various domiciles to be bullied and belittled. She is sent to “counseling” sessions with his collusive female friend, and these sessions send Jane ever closer to self-annihilation. The chorus remains wonderfully ironic and angry through all of this. To imagine the novel narrated by Jane herself, we’d need bottles of pills and whiskey and pillows to weep upon. Jane’s depression comes to us through a filter, and said filter allows us to cheer on her bumbling efforts at emancipation onward to their justly angry completion. The text of this short novel, with the aid of a few sketches, moves quickly through its stages, never bogging into depression. This isn’t to say we don’t feel young Jane’s confusion: oh yes, very much so. And we certainly feel her exhilaration as she manages to put at least the physical aspects of #MeToo in her past. An angry read that will make you smile despite your anger.
Stephen Moles' All the World’s a Simulation
347 pages. Four stars. When I was first reading this novel, I thought, What a clever piece of meta-fiction. And then, on page 89, I ran across a reference to Julian Jaynes oddball non-fiction book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind. Bang! (To steal a trope from Moles’ own novel) Something other than clever humor is going on here, I realized. And indeed, my take on Moles’ novel then becamse that it is something of a disguised essay on language’s nefarious influence on our world outlook. Moles, through his characters Professor Blackstone and Professor Dewey (The Meaners) and Miss Craze (the Meta-fictioner), seems to be arguing that the fact of language’s existence irreparably influences, nay colors, nay alters, nay hallucinates not only our world view but our psychological view of our very selves. Despite there being no plot as such, there is a seductive pull provided by the ongoing battle between the Meaners and the Meta-fictioners, not to mention the quest for a defining self that several characters (Isaac, for instance) undergo. Of the appended novellas, which are constantly referred to in the novel, I highly recommend Life.exe for it crisp and innovative language. Oddly, that novella has something of a plot involved with the characters Sally and Betty, business partners of sorts. This plot, however, plays a heavy second fiddle to the language: here’s the novella’s second sentence: “She was leaning against the wall with a fresh helping of darkness behind her as I discoursed crudely with my heavy suitcase.” Nice, eh? Oh, and beware of the buckarastanos!
Christopher Moore's The Lust lizard of Melancholy Cove
4 of 5 stars. This is a fun, quick read that blends fantasy with some satire. Things happen pretty much the way the reader wants them to happen when a prehistoric monster--named Steve by a retired porno action star--starts emitting pheromones to turn a quiet tourist town into a hotbed of lust. A goofball town sheriff appointed by the county sheriff for nefarious reasons we learn, a blues singer who once tried--too successfully--to give his best friend the blues so they could sing together, a psychiatrist who decides to put all her clients on a placebo rather than real antidepressants--lots of fun characters. And of course, both love and lust interests as the title indicates. Now, the cover compares Moore to Vonnegut. Well . . . partly so. But you won't find Vonnegut's existential sadness floating through this novel. Which may be good or bad, depending on your taste.
James Morrow's Towing Jehovah
4 stars Through no fault of Nietzsche’s, God is dead—at least that’s the case in James Morrow’s comic fantasy Towing Jehovah. In his novel a sea-captain suffering immense guilt after causing a devastating oil spill has been appointed by the angel Raphael to tow and bury God’s corpse in the Arctic. Wait, God has a body? Captain Anthony Van Horne asks. Raphael answers: “Bodies are immaterial essentially. Any physicist will tell you as much.” While Raphael convinces Captain Anthony, Gabriel convinces the Vatican, “Let me be explicit: we want an honorable internment. . . . No stunts. . . . no carving him up for relics. . . . You run a tenacious organization, gentleman. We’re afraid you don’t know when to quit.” Gabriel’s right: the Vatican doesn’t know when to quit, for they mandate a deadline for Captain Anthony to tow the two-mile long corpse into Arctic waters in case God’s brain cells are still capable of being resuscitated. When responding to an SOS will put them behind schedule for reaching the frigid, brain-cell preserving waters, the Captain faces a dilemma. Steps in Thomas Wickliff Ockham, a Jesuit priest and physicist. Ockham convinces Captain Anthony to respond: “Believe me, Anthony, acts of compassion are the only epitaph He wants.” The shipwrecked woman they rescue brings further complication, for she’s a feminist, and the corpse of God represents what she’s fought all her life: a white, bearded male. Sink Him, cremate Him, lose Him, she insists, hiring a band of World War II recreators to do just that. And here comes the grandest plot complication, for if God is dead, then all is permitted. Indeed, an island replete with pagan idols pops up—attracted by God’s corpse, a “strange attractor” if ever was one—and Captain Anthony’s supertanker once more flounders. On the island, the crew go berserk. Death, famine, sickness, and war reign.
The Denver Post compared this novel’s author to Salman Rushdie, “only funnier and more sacrilegious.” Funny yes, and at times sacreligeous. But the brunt of Morrow’s novel covers theological and moral implications with anything but disrespect. First, let it be noted that God once more (Jesus and the crucifixion) dies of empathy for humanity. And, as noted, the absence of God causes unwanted moral results. While the Jesuit Ockham invokes Immanuel Kant (a philosopher) and his rational moral law within, we’re never certain that it isn’t a bizarre act of communion that really saves the crew from its chaotic amoral behavior.
The novel is fast-moving, it’s funny, it’s provoking. You may not catch all the intellectual jokes (Thomas Wickliff Ockham’s name being a prime example as it’s composed of a church apologist for Aristotle, Thomas; a reformer who wanted to translate the Bible into English, Wickliff; and another church father whose infamous “razor” was to dissolve the “how many angels fit on a needle” debate, Ockham) but there are plenty of other jokes and situations to laugh at and ponder. Highly recommended.
Thomas Nagel's Mind & Cosmos
Nagel has received a good deal of criticism over this book, whose point is that consciousness is so very qualitatively different that it cannot be explained by natural means of Darwin's evolution. The sliding scale doesn't work, according to the book's argument. If I were going to argue for an intervention on some extra-natural scale, I would push this argument back to either the appearance of life, or to the creation of matter in general. I am not so arguing, however, and would not push forward either. Nor do I agree with Nagel that the concept of consciousness is so vastly different: I think we can see that is indeed on a scale, running from viruses to porpoises, to take this planet’s highest life form (chortle, chortle). Nonetheless, this is an engaging book and certainly worth the read for anyone interested in this controversy from a non-Bible-thumping perspective. The book requires some concentration, so take your ginkgo and don't sip whiskey.
John Nichols' The Milagor Beanfield War
Okay, so this is a sprawling novel with lots of characters and by-ways. But, guys and gals, the read is certainly worth it. If I might pry into Nichols’ mind, I think that he’s concerned with giving a feel for two cultures clashing—with perhaps Horsethief Shorty and Lawyer Bloom in the middle—and thus his Russian novel approach. The sense of build works well, moving from a small beanfield planted by a “half-pint sonofabitch” to armed standoffs and sheriff’s posses and near riots.
Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler’s Wife
4 stars Not to fear: The Time Traveler’s Wife is to science fiction as Wuthering Heights is to a ghost story. While both novels employ these respective modes, both also rise above mere genre to deal elaborately with human passions. And Niffenegger’s novel presents passions—most especially love—in compact scenes with such clarity of place and action that there’s no wonder why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston opted Time Traveler’s Wife for film rights. Nor is there any wonder why United Kingdom’s Random House will bring the book out this January. To the novel: Henry DeTamble suffers from a genetic disease called chrono-displacement. His consequent time-traveling trips are brought on by stress; indeed his brain scan resembles that of a schizophrenic. Nonetheless, Henry’s doctor, who believes Henry only after being convinced in a most jarring manner, thinks Henry the forerunner of a new breed. Henry himself remains unconvinced, for other than the soothing trips back to a younger Clare, whom he eventually marries, his time travels are mostly dangerous as they land him unexpectedly nude in places and weather unknown.
The novel moves narrations between time-traveling Henry and his wife Clare. Multiple narration can be a reader’s nightmare, but Niffenegger deftly places the narrations in bundles concerned with either a specific scene or emotion, where each subsequent narration illumines the previous. In a grouping entitled “Secret,” for instance, we learn that Clare has “cheated” on Henry with their best friend Gomez, a lawyer representing abused children. Since she did this before Henry met her in real, sequential time, does it count, she wonders as she stares at him lying next to her. Henry himself has just returned from a time-trip where he made love to a virginal Clare on her eighteenth birthday, the age they’d agreed upon throughout his multiple time visits to her younger self. Now, a married thirty-three year old Clare watches him lying next to her “happily postprandial, sated with the charms of my younger self, and the image of . . . Gomez’s bedroom in morning light flashes across my mental theater.” The real-time Clare soon confesses her indiscretion. Henry’s reply? “Since I just got through telling you to go out and experiment I can’t really . . . I dunno.” He means that his time-traveling self just finished advising the eighteen-year-old Clare she should experiment during the two-year separation when they would not see one another. Subsequent vignettes in “Secret” have 1) Gomez’s wife admitting to Henry that Gomez is still obsessed with Clare and is “just waiting” for something to happen to Henry in his time travels; 2) a younger Gomez aggressively approaching an unsuspecting younger Henry who has yet to meet Clare in sequential time.
To aid in tracking such time jumps, Niffenegger prefaces narrations with the narrator’s name; she also places headings above each narration, noting Clare’s and Henry’s respective ages. Sometimes Henry has two ages listed, for his time travels allow him to visit himself. This duplication highlights another aspect that raises the novel above genre: a fine, understated humor threads throughout. At their wedding, a future Henry steps in for the real-time chrono-stressed Henry at the altar, while the real-time Henry time-travels to his apartment, only to land indecorously naked, after the ceremony, in the church’s men’s room. Henry’s lifelong friend Kim notices the switching duplicate Henrys and asks Clare if they’re planning a ménage a trois for their wedding night.
Humor aside, this novel threads a completely serious theme throughout. Henry’s father is a former concert violinist unable to work because of growing alcoholism after his young wife’s death in a car wreck five-year old Henry survived because he time-traveled at impact. When Clare meets the long-grieving father, she says, “But don’t you think . . . that it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?” This serves as the novel’s theme, since Henry and Clare have been allowed what many lovers wish for. Who hasn’t said, “I’d give anything to have known you as a kid.” Henry and Clare live that fairy tale, though as Niffenegger clearly knows, fairy tales are just that. But the tragic thread’s inexorable movement does shift bittersweet by the end. “Do you really believe that?” Henry’s father asks Clare. She pauses and thinks over the many times that Henry time-traveled to her for comfort during her youth, from six years onward. “I do,” she replies. Just so, Niffenegger’s novel provides its final summation.