Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Blood Heat

The TARDIS malfunctions and deposits Bernice into the time vortex, while crash landing in a tar pit, leaving the Doctor and Ace confused at why England's buildings appear to be covered in a jungle, and dinosaurs roam the land. When they meet up with an older, more focused Brigadier, they are told that this trouble, the Silurians reclaiming the Earth, this trouble started with the death of the Doctor over twenty years before.

So begins the New Adventures' Alternate History arc, which continues loosely for the next four books. As for the beginning of an arc, as for the novel itself, this book is a stunner. This book has everything.

Not only does it feature dinosaurs (look at that cover!) but it features dozens of species: ground herbivores moving in herds of thousands, Silurian-mounted pterodactyls getting into dogfights, Sea-Devils leading giant aquatic monsters. Okay, so the dinosaurs are fucking cool, and there's an alternate timeline plot. It's like the book is tapping into my childhood. What else is there?

For a good portion of the first third of this novel, I had no idea how it was going to be 300 pages long. I didn't think there was enough plot to manage this, and that the author was going to have corridor-running scenes for 150 pages. But Mortimore does an interesting thing. In the first third of the novel, he sets up a rather large cast, moves them across the board, foreshadows some of the stereotypical crazy Seventh Doctor ploys, and then has an epic huge gunfight to close out the first half. And by epic huge gunfight, I mean it's fucking crazy. It's on the scale of the most blistering and visceral levels of Call of Duty or Crysis 2. This battle features airships, divebombing dinosaurs, the Brigadier manning an anti-aircraft gun, people yelling, and all sorts of chaos and violence. It's heart-pounding. It works entirely. And it's only the first half of the novel. This scene would work as a climax to a shorter work, but Mortimore has other plans.

After this battle comes to a conclusion, Mortimore ups the stakes, increases the danger and pushes the pieces into place for an ending that's so outrageous and so grand that it's almost guffaw-worthy. The end of the novel features huge metropolises under siege by thousands of mind-controlled dinosaurs, more aerial battles, and a submarine with nuclear missiles being attacked by Sea-Devils and aquatic dinosaurs. Plus, on top of this, Bernice is on a suicide mission to destroy the submarine. At the same time, Ace is exploring a volcano to find the body of the Third Doctor and recover the husk of this timeline's TARDIS! Okay, if that isn't enough, how about this? How about an epic showdown between the Doctor, the Brigadier and the leader of the Silurians in the top of a citadel overlooking the whole battle?

OH - MY - GOD. This is as epic as Doctor Who stories come. I have yet to read or watch anything on this scale. I think it's the size of the story that impressed me so much, that and the nostalgic factor of dinosaurs. The scale is unprecedented it seems, and this is commendable in of itself. This isn't a book of subtle characterization or careful nuanced development of relationships - although Mortimore handles the friendship of Ace and newly introduced Alan in a rather unexpected and tender way. Rather, Blood Heat is a novel of plot. It's the kind of novel that Tom Clancy or Dan Brown would write, but unlike those authors, Mortimore doesn't get bogged down in technical details or even modernity; this is a novel that tries to excite the reader by any means necessary, and if you end up caring for a few of the characters original to the novel or if you end up caring for the cast as a whole, then it's simply a byproduct of the plot. That's not to say that Mortimore doesn't pull off all of these things. Other than a slow beginning, Mortimore succeeds in writing an effective and gripping thriller. It's heartpounding and pulseraising. It's exciting.

Plus, Mortimore gets to play with all sorts of themes and murky moral dilemmas. The Silurians were the original owners of Earth and it belongs to them, in a way. But doesn't humanity have just as much right to the planet as they do? Of course, the book gets into more than simply elementary moral dilemmas than the one I just presented. There's even some personal morality dealt with: Bernice threatens to kill herself and the submarine in order to prevent more death, but she never thought herself as somebody who would die for an ideal. She and Ace struggle with the Doctor's "mission" if that mission itself is morally good or not. Of course, this comes to a head, and echoes many themes and issues brought up by other New Adventures, namely, can you trust the Seventh Doctor? Does he care about humanity at all, or is it some galaxy-level game of chess?

Yes, the New Adventures begin to darken perceptibly in theme and situation with this novel. If the New Adventures books weren't already dark already, that is. Deceit and Love and War begin to set this up, and Blood Heat is a logical outcome of this. And it's well done. The reader has never been more ambivalent about the Doctor before.

Obviously, I loved this book. But that isn't to say that there aren't problems. The first 100 pages of this book are interminably slow and somewhat opaque in revealing information. While this opacity is normally admirable, a little exposition never hurt anybody, I think. Plus, the pace is languid, introducing a bunch of similar-seeming characters, bringing in alternate versions of Jo, Liz, the Brigadier and even Sargent Benton. There's a lot of setup, and yes, it does have payoff in the end, but it's tedious to get through the first third of the book, unfortunately. This isn't insurmountable, as I persevered through it and reached an ending that exceeded my expectations.

Blood Heat is impressive in scope, scale and imagination. Often, these New Adventures remain steadfastly obedient to the structure of classic televised serials. You can imagine the cheap rubber suits on the villains. Blood Heat, and a few others, are in the minority, books that want to explore whole regions of the universe and story. Just the size of the story alone, contained in a paltry 300 pages, is commendable. I loved this book. This excitement I'm experiencing is the reason why I'm reading these books in the first place.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

French Doctor Who parody

Pretty hilarious Doctor Who parody in French. There are subtitles, for those of you who do not speak French. However, there's a line that isn't well translated, but whatever. The best part of this spoof is how the Doctor deals with Amy.... Very funny.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The problem with J. K. Rowling

Okay, click on this link and watch the first half of this video in which Rowling tells Oprah that she could easily write a eighth, ninth and tenth book in the Harry Potter series. Now, combined with Pottermore, billed as a "unique Harry Potter experience from" the author, we have almost a safe conclusion that Rowling is, unfortunately, a one-trick pony.

I mentioned in my review for the last film that Rowling doesn't know when to stop telling the story. Every writer who has ever written a novel or a short story has lived and breathed with their characters; they know the cast's lives in complete, from the moment they are born to their inevitable end. But that's not a story. That's simply a biography. Stories are different from a chronicle of a person's life in that stories have arcs. Lives can have arcs, one could say in rebuttal, but that's exactly the point: it's the storyteller's responsibility to focus on an arc and restrain themselves from offering too much detail.

There is no need to know what happens after Leopold Bloom gets home from drinking with Stephen Daedalus. There is no need to know what happens to Nick Caraway after Jay Gatsby drowns. Their stories have come to an end. Anything else is masturbation.

Rowling has proven that she cannot let a story end. She's told us details like Dumbledore being gay, which provides nothing to the reading of the texts. She's also told us that she knows exactly what happens to each character, and she teases her audience, threatening to reveal this information that could never compare with our imagination.

Now, I have to clarify here. I have no problems with the existing Harry Potter story other than the idiotic and amateurish epilogue at the end of the final novel (which is simply proof of my thesis). But to add to this vast story will merely dilute the impact of the original books. Frankly, with some tighter editing, the existing 7 books could probably be cut down to five or even four. They are far too sprawling.

This sprawl however speaks of Rowling's prodigious imagination and talent. She isn't an amateur anymore. She is one of the wealthiest authors in the history of the English language, if not at the top of the heap. Only Dickens, Austen and Stephen King have seemed to reach a similar ubiquity. While all three have some not-so-good books to their name, they didn't walk around threatening to add another five books to Bleak House, Emma or The Dark Tower. Oh wait, King did threaten to "fill in some blanks" between the fourth and fifth book. Ugh.

Rowling is slowly turning herself into the George Lucas of literature. After Star Wars, Lucas produced a handful of films, but not directing a single one until the prequels. After that, Lucas has been content to fiddle with his existing works - to what end? Because he cannot let a story go. Just like Rowling. If Rowling continues to produce Harry Potter fiction, then she is going down a path that many people will follow at first, but will slowly grow tired of rehashing the same scenario, no matter how complex and sprawling that scenario may be.

Maybe this speaks to the power of Star Wars and Harry Potter, how universal and singular they are. Both are examples of the monomyth, and both are example of building a mythology, an internal world so complex that readers could easily lose themselves in it. While this is probably true, I think a better explanation is the lack of self-censorship and self-restraint on the part of the author. It is the author's responsibility to understand how to tell a story - because they are, in fact, the storyteller.

Adding more chapters and more installment dilutes the original product. A good example of this is the American approach to television. In the usual case, American comedies and dramas pump out 22 to 24 episodes in a season. Often, successful seasons will run 5 to 7 seasons. So an average of 23 episode over 6 seasons is equal to 138 installments. I cannot think of a single, singular and organic story that needs to be this long. I love Seinfeld, but it didn't need to be 7 seasons long. I love Lost, but I could easily edit the entire thing down to four seasons. On the other side of the pond, the English seem to take a different approach. Most shows have between 6 and 13 episodes, rarely going beyond that (with the exception of soaps). Not only that, a lot of shows rarely last past five seasons. There's less of the show, therefore each episode requires more from the audience.

This analogy fits with Rowling's paradigm. If she insists of forcing more installments of a story that's already ended, there's going to be a sense of tiredness, of rehashing, of revisiting the same stories and subplots that she tied up. And if the subplot was left a loose end by the seventh book, then it wasn't important enough to tie up. There's a maxim by which all writers should live.

If only Rowling would learn to shut up or at least come up with a new idea.

Doctor Who - the bookshelf

I've said before that I wanted to sell most of my books and keep it to one bookcase. I did that... mostly. Then I had to buy textbooks and whatnot. Plus, I've been hitting up Value Village for books I cannot borrow from my library. Yes, we're starting to get to the same problem that I had before... the compulsive collecting of books. Except, this time, I've purchased cheap books that I plan to read and then discard, however I may choose to do it (sell, donate, toss, etc). However, books I do not plan on selling or tossing or donating are the Doctor Who New Adventures. Something that I thought was going to prove impossible, but I have started collecting. Here is a massive pictures of one of the highlights of my collection (and yes, I bought it for a third of the cover price, when it sells for >30 on eBay)

Here's a picture of some of the Missing Adventures and some of the later New Adventures.

Here's a complete list of what I have so far:
Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible
Cat's Cradle: Warhead
Cat's Cradle: Witchmark
Love and War
The Highest Science
Blood Heat
The Dimension Riders
The Left-Handed Hummingbird
No Future
Theatre of War
All-Consuming Fire
Blood Harvest
Strange England
First Frontier
Set Piece
Infinite Requiem
Human Nature
Original Sin
Sky Pirates!
Toy Soldiers
Head Games
Just War
Death and Diplomacy
Happy Endings
Christmas on a Rational Planet
Return of the Living Dad
The Death of Art

Isn't this nuts? Aren't I fucking crazy? Well, it's not like I'm going to let them sit on the shelf and gather dust. I love these books, even the ones that aren't so good (except I hated a couple of them). I'm going to try and avoid eBaying the rest of the books and just let them fall into my hands through time and perseverance.

Also, here's a massive picture of the only Eighth Doctor Adventure I have:

Oh boy. Here we go again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Things They Carried

This is a book of stories. Not necessarily short stories, because these stories are connected. Neither is this a book of connected short stories because some have nothing to do with each other while others are intimately linked. Neither is this a novel because it is made up of short stories. But it isn't a short story collection because the stories are connected. Rather, The Things They Carried is a book of stories, stories in the sense that these are stories we are compelled to tell, compelled to hear, compelled to live.

The Things They Carried, published in 1990, is written by Tim O'Brien, a winner of the National Book Award for a novel about Vietnam. This work, and I won't use the term novel to describe it, is also about Vietnam. Or rather, it's about the author's relationship to Vietnam. Or rather, it's about the stories about Vietnam, which seems circular and reductionist, but unfortunately, The Things They Carried is a difficult work to pin down, as aforementioned in the previous paragraph.

Rather than follow a central character, this work follows a small group of soldiers in Vietnam, one of whom is Tim O'Brien. The central story, or at least the section positioned in the middle of the book, is about Tim's difficult and complex feelings regarding the draft and joining up. As a youth, Tim didn't want to join, didn't want to go to war, so he thought about running away to Canada. He drove to a small inn near the border and spent seven days with an old man who didn't ask questions. On the last day, the old man took him fishing, where only twenty yards away on the other shore was Canada. Tim realized he couldn't run away so he sat there crying. Afterwards he went home. Later, he went to Vietnam.

It's a complex little vignette that's beautiful, tender and carries the sting of brutal truth. Unfortunately, not a word of it is true. This is the tricky part of The Things They Carried. While it purports itself to be a work of fiction, it is populated by real people, some of whom died in Vietnam, some of whom provided Tim with the seeds that Tim eventually grew into stories. Indeed, Tim even clarifies and qualifies certain stories by reframing them in the context of their original storyteller, and how Tim shaped it, helped it coalesce. This creates a tension between the story itself and the larger narrative, a tension between author and reader, and even, as Tim himself points out, a tension between the author and his own work.

This is metafiction, beautiful complicated hard to pin down metafiction, and O'Brien succeeds admirably. Not only is this one of the more poignant novels that I have ever read, but it's also surprisingly deep. At only 240ish pages, O'Brien manages to do what Karl Marlantes took 700 pages to do, plus add in a complex literary game.

Instead of being a work about the Vietnam War, this book is about the author's repetition compulsion. O'Brien admits to going back to Vietnam over and over again, in an attempt to work through the traumatic experiences and find forgiveness for himself. Whenever he thinks he has found closure, he finds himself coming back to the land, to the mystery, to the exoticism of Vietnam, and indeed to the horror. It's the classic Thanatos drive; to experience life we get dangerously close to death. O'Brien can't let go of Vietnam, despite writing numerous works about it, but he doesn't want to, not really. It's far too fertile for stories, his bread and butter.

The Things They Carried is a masterpiece. I've said before that I can often judge how much I like a book by how excited I would be to teach it to other people. In the future, when I'm assembling materials for a course on American literature, I'm going to include this work. It's thematically rich and technically complex. I could easily see myself writing scholarly papers on the wealth of symbols in this book, the complicated semiotics of Vietnam, the photographs, the fields, the paddies, the rivers, and the soldiers. And it's all delivered in small packets of dense information and heated emotion, these packets being stories but not short stories.

This book speaks to the storyteller in the reader because the book identifies that problem we all have: the razor thin line between fact and fiction. When I teach this book, the first thing I'm going to tell my students after they have read this is that it doesn't matter whether or not the stories are true. It doesn't matter. It has no bearing on the stories themselves. O'Brien cleverly deals with this by editing, adapting and reshaping stories for his own means, some of which absolve him and some of which implicate him. He is complicit in the things that happen, and by drawing the reader in, questioning the validity of the stories, he has made the reader complicit as well, but complicit in the fabrication, in the falsity of stories.

I loved this work. I haven't even discussed O'Brien's economic use of symbols, how he sketches complicated imagery with the barest of descriptors. I haven't discussed his expertise with dialogue or setting. I've mostly discussed O'Brien's use of what he calls verisimilitude - the meeting and mixing of reality and makebelieve. Regardless of what I didn't consider in my review, I thought this was a fantastic and mercurial work of... something. It's hard to pin down, just like the war itself. Oh the facts are all identifiable. Or are they?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Additional Thoughts on Fall on Your Knees

The more I think about it, the more I dislike this book. There's a scene in which Frances and Lily go to a movie theatre and Leo Taylor, the man whom Frances eventually "rapes" follows them. He recognizes Lily as similar to Kathleen, but the similarity is actually innerving. This is, of course, a reference to Freud's theory of the uncanny. MacDonald painfully points this out by having the narrative declare that resemblance is uncanny. She uses those very words. It's painful.

The movie they went to see is a real movie called "The Diary of a Lost Girl" - get it? Yes, MacDonald, I fucking get it. I understand that you are clever and you assembled a work of clever associations and connotations based off the graduate courses you took about the Gothic novel and critical theory.

One of the major elements of the Gothic novel features doubles, or the Other. We spent forty minutes in class discussing all the doubles-possibilities in the novel and this just reaffirmed in my mind that there are way too many characters in Fall on Your Knees. If everybody can be linked to everybody, does it still have meaning?

The professor said that the middle section, which I derided as painfully tedious, is an example of the psychoanalytic therapy and the concept of the repetition compulsion. The characters go over the same ground over and over, but they don't remember perfectly, or they tell themselves half-truths, which makes the final act of catharsis so meaningful because they worked so hard to get at it. Now, this is all very find and good, but I think the professor is rationalizing an extra 150 pages of repetition. Unfortunately, a novel is not an account of therapy. Even if it were, it would be fictionalized and streamlined and turned into a proper story. Therapy is not a story. The professor is essentially apologizing for the author's self-indulgence.

The basement and the attic are important symbols in the novel. The house itself is important. Oh ho! I wonder what they mean! Of course, in the semiotics of Fall on Your Knees, the basements means exactly what you think it means, which is to say that the semiotics of this novel is simple and drawn from every a ton of books that MacDonald clearly read in graduate school.

A clever bit is the death of Trixie, the cat. The cat finds its way into the baptismal gown (an important symbol!) and then gets stuck in the cedar chest (an important symbol!) and is considered missing for weeks, that is until somebody finds the rotting corpse and buries it (an important symbol!). The cleverness here is that Trixie is implicitly compared to the other characters who have died or who have worn the baptismal gown. What's clever about it is that despite the obviousness of the setting (the gown! the chest! the fucking attic!) the symbol of the dead cat is left alone by MacDonald's constant authorial prodding. She doesn't explain the symbol; she lets it lie there on the page and waits for the reader to figure it out. Which is nice. For once.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall on Your Knees

[Note: I read this novel for school, and any and all novels read for school will be tagged school. I mention this because being told to read something will colour one's perspective of that novel. If I seem unduly harsh or even apathetic, this might be because of school's influence]

[Note 2: This is a novel about secrets. I'm going to spoil everything. Do not read if you wish to avoid spoilers for this novel, which I encourage you to do]

Fall on Your Knees charts three generations of the Piper family, living in Cape Breton from the beginning of the twentieth century through both Wars and the times between. There's James, patriarch and a man who considers himself morally good, above his fellow men, there's Kathleen, the beautiful eldest daughter who dreams of being an opera singer. There's Mercedes, pious and devout, believing only in the power of God. There's Frances, a girl searching for meaning and goodness when all that is taken away. And then there's Lily, salvation and mystery or just a normal girl?

Let me say right from the outset that while I wanted to hate this novel, eventually I developed a grudging respect for its construction. That being said, this respect never evolved into admiration or fondness for this over-long mess of a novel. Fall on Your Knees suffers from numerous problems, the first of which being that it's just too damn long.

Perhaps we should start with why I ended up respecting the novel. Firstly, it's beautifully written. Ann-Marie MacDonald's background is in poetry and the composition of plays, so her prose is tempered by both delicate beauty and efficiency. However, and this is a strong however, this works only in the short term. When given the large canvas of a novel, MacDonald becomes too bogged down in the fecundity of her language. Scenes repeat and overstay their welcome, despite their prettiness.

Secondly, MacDonald's structure, which I disliked and will attend to in a moment, creates bookends, both of which are incredibly moving, fascinating and beautiful. The opening section, in which MacDonald sketches both the town of New Waterford and the two parents, is fast, bravura and extremely deft. The final section is a perfect novella on its own. Yes, perfect.

The final third of the novel is epistolary, taking the form of Kathleen's diary. Rewinding the narrative's clock to 1918, we follow Kathleen to New York, before she became pregnant out of wedlock, before she was brought back to Cape Breton to give birth and eventually die from the trauma. In 1918, she is taking singing lessons from a world famous teacher, who is accompanied by Rose, a mixed-race woman who may or may not be a musical savant. MacDonald skillfully plays with our expectations: we know Kathleen becomes pregnant, but we do not know by whom. Kathleen thinks that she falls in love with David, a soldier, and she ends up having sex with him. However, David goes off to war, and Kathleen's period makes its monthly return.

So it is not David. Instead, Kathleen slowly falls in love with Rose, told in the most beautiful and tender and gorgeous prose, not prose obsessed with similes and metaphors or metonymy. Instead, the power of this budding love affair comes from its simplicity and its honesty. We believe in the love because it comes from a place of truthfulness, which makes it a minority in a novel of dark secrets, many of which were revealed at the climax of the previous section. So Rose and Kathleen fall in love, become lovers. Of course, it ends badly.

James catches wind of this through an anonymous letter writer, and he comes to New York, rapes his daughters and impregnates her. We find out that Lily is not only James' granddaughter but his own daughter as well. This theme of incest was laid down in the first section of the novel, so it's not too much of a surprise. This section works not only because of the emotional suckerpunch of James' rape, but because of the beauty the rape destroys.

The third section could stand alone as a novella and I would have called it perfect. Unfortunately, it comes at the end of an incredibly long and painfully tedious middle section that runs around the same few points over and over and over and over again. MacDonald has Frances and Lily repeat the themes of the novel ad nauseum, all with the same repeated scenes and same repeated close careful prose. It's tedious because for 200 pages the novel goes nowhere. We learn nothing new of the characters. Instead, it's groundwork for more themes and secrets.

Fall on Your Knees is a thematically rich novel: music, incest, the nature of storytelling, the myriad ways love shows itself, race, power, war, economics. If I had to write a paper about this novel (which I will end up doing), I can honestly say I won't have trouble finding anything to talk about. And MacDonald gives us so many easy quotes because the characters just keep telling us.

In the middle section, which seems interminable, Frances becomes a child prostitute, giving handjobs and stripping in a speakeasy while James brews liquor for that same club, not knowing what his daughter is up to. Meanwhile Mercedes thinks that Lily is destined for sainthood so she starts saving up for a trip to Lourdes to possibly cure Lily of her limp (brought on by infant-era polio). Mercedes goes a bit squirrelly. Lily on the other hand is precocious and irritating in that way that child characters often are in novels. There's a ton of references to Jane Eyre and more references to jazz and music than you can possibly handle. What does it mean, this middle section? It's meant to highlight perspectives and conceptions of morality within the characters. They cogitate on the idea of good while things go bad in the world and in their lives. Or whatever. It means a lot, and it's all weighty themes because MacDonald's novel has no sense of humour whatsoever. This is a relentlessly dark novel, dark enough to be oppressive. There is not a single moment of levity. When there is a moment of possible humour, it's always in the context of sexual abuse or violence, so one cannot possibly laugh.

This novel desperately needs two things: the aforementioned missing sense of humour, and secondly, a fucking editor. We could easily cut one hundred pages out of the middle section, which creep dangerously close to magical realism: Lily's twin brother, who did not survive birth, becomes an almost spectral character. Lily never fucking shuts up about Ambrose. Never. It's exceedingly annoying. Yes, I fucking get it, MacDonald, stop grinding my nose into your lofty and pretentious themes.

Fall on Your Knees is clearly a first novel. It's an attempt to be everything to every reader. But it also feels like a checklist. As if MacDonald thought to herself, "hey I'm going to write The Great Canadian Novel, what are the stock elements I'm going to need?" And then she decided to set it in Cape Breton. For the reader, this translates to a reference to a church within the first five pages. MacDonald delivers, bringing a reference to a mine and a church in the third paragraph of the prologue, which is irritatingly titled Silent Pictures (get it?????? Yes, thank you, I get it). MacDonald then proceeds to tick off all the elements of the Canadian novel: isolation, the weather, incest, religion, and the barrenness of family, which is all reflected in the fucking weather.

It's not that I hated this novel. It's just that I hated reading it. I could go on writing about this, but I'm going to have to write 1,000 words on a minor character for an assignment due in two weeks, and I'm going to have to write about this book for the final exam. So I'm going to stop here and simply say that this novel needs an editor and a sense of humour. If the novel didn't try so hard at being important, I might have liked it a little bit more.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


It's 2006 and Earth is dying: overpopulation, pollution and the magnetic poles threaten to reverse at any moment. The UN has an Antarctic base, researching into reversing the reversal of the poles. Ruby Duvall, journalist, is sent to record the ultimate moment of triumph. Unfortunately, everybody runs into a) the Doctor and his broken TARDIS and b) the Cybermen, who are picking people out of the ice base and depositing them into Cybermen suits.

What a weird novel. I don't mean weird in the sense that the going-ons in the book are weird; I mean that the novel's construction is worth noting. David Banks isn't really an author. He's the actor who played the Cyber Leader in the 80's. With this background, it's almost like Banks has a possessiveness about the Cybermen. He translates this into a pretty decent chronology about the Cybermen up to this point; he explains the failed invasions and history of the Cybermen from their perspective, which would be different than the Doctor's perspective which is nonlinear to say the least. It's all very fascinating, and Banks manages to integrate this massive amount of exposition without tiring the reader.

But that's not the weird part, the fanwank continuity, I mean. What's weird is this bizarre sexual subtext running through the entire book. It's so very subtle that I'm almost convinced that it was subconscious on the part of the author. I'm going to give a bunch of examples, some with page numbers, some without. [Note, I'm copying and pasting from my own posts at the Gallifrey Base forum]

We watch Ruby, the protagonist work out, and observe her muscles rippling under dark skin (a paraphrase). We also see her scantily clad while her friend Leslie barges into her room, kisses her and "pats her thigh" while she tugs her T-shirt down to "cover her bum". There's also a terrifically exploitative scene in which Ruby, after a workout, gets naked and then gets stuck in the shower stall. We barely get into Ruby's head as a character; we simply watch her.

Not only is the reader being invited to be a voyeur. The general at the base listens to a couple have sex. She watches them touch each other in that intimate way that couples do. Of course, in the general's case, it's more that it's in disregard of rules and regulations, rather than in the context of sexual voyeurism. However, this extends further when sex scenes between these two (who just signal cannon fodder to me) are detailed.

On page 184: "Lord Straker was peeping between a gap in the curtains" and then further on page 185: "There was an eighteenth-century courtesan sporting such extensive décolleté that her entire bosom was exposed to devastating effect." There's another reference to Ruby being half in half out of her suit. When they arrive back on the ship, someone sees her and thinks the words "skimpily dressed" or something to that effect.

Now, obviously, I'm taking these things directly out of context. Regardless, the reader is often positioned as the watcher, observing these people, specifically Ruby, but instead of focusing on details of character, Banks focuses on details of her body, her skin, her muscles, her lack of clothing. This doesn't change the overall experience of the novel, to be fair, but it did pull me out of the narrative often.

In terms of the actual plot, the novel suffers and benefits from the desire not to reveal too much too soon. Yes, the Cybermen feel all the more powerful and scary when they're used sparingly in the first half of the novel, but Banks uses the same hands-off approach to the Doctor, who doesn't make a full appearance until the halfway point. Banks is surprisingly effective at creating tension within the narrative by holding back the Cybermen. He slows everything down conversely by holding back the Doctor.

When Banks does use the Doctor, he uses him in a more Mister Miyagi kind of way. That is to say that during Ruby's physical journey, she also undergoes a figurative journey of self-discovery. She reads the Tao and studies an Eastern fighting/meditating thing which is modeled on Tai Chi (which in classic Chekhov-style, she uses to beat up a Cyberman later). This journey of self-discovery is amplified when the Doctor shows up and speaks mostly in aphorisms. The pragmatic reason for this is so the Cybermen won't understand what he's saying but Ruby will. Which is fine, but as a reader, it's somewhat groan-inducing. Eastern philosophy is being implicitly compared against Western philosophy in this novel, as Banks brings in a lot of themes about humanity and cybernetic possibilities. While Banks obviously loves his Cybermen, he ends up concluding that a life of logic and survival at all costs is no life at all.

Now, you might think that I'm reading too much into Banks' novel and motives, that Iceberg is simply an adventure romp featuring classic villains. Unfortunately, I am not. Banks has an amateurish habit of having character announce the themes. When Ruby finally comes to her epiphany (in the literary sense, not religious), she declares that she thought she was an iceberg, holding all those emotions below the surface and revealing nothing. I guess the reader is supposed to be impressed that Banks connected the title, the setting, the plot and the characters in one word. It'd be impressive if Banks hadn't bent over backwards pointing it out to us.

I'm complaining a lot about this book, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. It's still a rather fun little Who adventure that features some pretty high stakes elements and a neat little chronology that takes into account the Doctor's nonlinearity. It's also nice to get a Doctor that isn't too powerful. He gets cold just like the rest of us.

Iceberg is a decent, but far from perfect New Adventure. In the history of the Who novels, apparently this is the last in a short string of terrible books, which changes direction with the next novel, one that features an alternate history arc. Yay.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Day of the Daleks

When a mysterious soldier tries to kill an important diplomat, UNIT sends the Doctor and Jo to investigate. They find remnants of future technology, as if the soldier was from the future. The diplomat is attempting to broker peace between the UK and China, and if he fails, it could mean war. Or will it? The Doctor gets sent into the 22nd century where it seems the Daleks have conquered all of Earth and it's all because of this one diplomat. Will the Doctor be able to save the present and the future?

This is the first Third Doctor serial that I have watched in its entirety. I've given up on a couple other serials from his era if only because they're... not very good, I guess. Lots of camp, lots of karate(?) and lots of frilly frocks and velvet dinner jackets. But this one, I chose this one specifically because of a couple reasons.

Firstly, it's one of the few Classic serials to truly use time travel. Although the TARDIS makes only a limited appearance, there is ample time travel, with both Jo and the Doctor going to the future and back, and even crossing over into their own time stream - which is a subplot that's tragically forgotten by the third and fourth episode. Day of the Daleks is also notable for its first appearance of the Daleks in over five years and the first mention of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, a very nerdy storytelling function that explains why a time traveler wouldn't be able to mess with his own timeline.

On top of these very important elements is the temporal paradox that exists at the heart of this serial. The guerrilla forces from the 22nd century have come to kill the diplomat because history tells them that the diplomat sets off a bomb killing his fellow diplomats during an important conference, including himself. History remembers this diplomat as attempting to seize power for himself, but miscalculating the bomb's timing. The guerrilla soldiers therefore go back in time to kill the diplomat before he has a chance to set off this bomb. Of course, the Doctor realizes that the guerrilla soldiers were always a part of the timelime: they set off the bomb and destroy the conference, leading to the conditions in which the Daleks take over Earth. It's their own fault.

This is an intriguing and fascinating paradox. When thinking about time travel, it's always good to remember that things will always happen and simply going back won't change the fact that it has already happened. Just because your perspective of the events might change, from history's perspective, it remains that way. It's complicated, and this is what excites me about time travel.

It's hard to judge this episode for not fully developing on this idea. First of all, the budget was ludicrously low. The producers only had access to three Daleks, which does not make for an impressive ruling military presence. Plus, their sets of the 22nd century were pretty much just parking garages and the studio set done up with tinfoil. Everything looks cheap. And the ultimate showdown between UNIT and the Daleks isn't very impressive.

But this is the 2011 critic judging a forty year old television show that had no access to computer effects nor the giant budget that the BBC hurls at modern Doctor Who, with the word giant being extremely relative. Therefore, we must judge Day of the Daleks on the criteria of its story and acting rather than its pedestrian special effects.

Largely, it succeeds. It's a rather tight story except for the dangling plot thread of two Doctors. At the beginning of the serial, the Doctor and Jo are mucking about with the TARDIS when suddenly, a second Doctor and second Jo show up. As a learned reader and watcher of time travel fiction, I assumed this was proper setup for a payoff later in the serial. Unfortunately, this never happens. We have to assume that it's one timeline having a brief intersection with another alternate timeline. It's never explicitly laid out.

Strangely enough, when the Doctor manages to save the present and change the future, there's very little mention of how he is able to change the future so easily. There's no consequences it seems. Instead of simply saving the world from the Daleks, he has, for all intents and purposes, wiped out from existence a whole planet, billions of people, and replaced with a world where Rose Tyler will eventually grow too small for her epic teeth.

Other than the philosophical ramifications, this is a pretty ripping good Who yarn: there's a few sweet laser battles between dog-men who look like Klingons and the soldiers, a pretty badass showdown between the Daleks and UNIT (most of whom are cannon-fodder), and the Doctor has a rare moment where he uses a gun and blasts the Klingons into nothingness. Yes, that's right, the badass Dandy Doctor uses a gun to up and murder some bitches.

One of the other reasons why I chose to watch this serial is that the special effects have been given an upgrade thanks to the BBC. For the DVD release, they hired an FX team to add some Daleks, improve the time travel effects, improve the laser battles and, to top it all off, had the iconic voice of the Daleks record new audio, replacing the original one with a more consistent voice. The absolute best compliment I can give to the team that did this, and I'm sure they will appreciate this, is that the special effects are seamless. It works tremendously. It improved and enhanced my experience and I'm sure that's the point. I wish they would do this with some more budget-constrained serials. It would make things a lot more interesting.

Day of the Daleks is a pretty hardcore Who serial that's fun, mind-bending and features a Doctor who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Look at that cover and tell me it doesn't make you want to read it. This might be the best cover painting yet - although there are many more books to come. Not only is this a fantastic cover painting, but it's also a pretty fun romp.

Benny has found herself in London, in 1909, with a dead TARDIS sitting on the banks of the Thames. All that she has is a key to the TARDIS and a key to a safe deposit box in a bank, set up by a Doctor John Smith. She must figure out where the Doctor is, where Ace is, and why women are being brutally murdered in the alleys, with the witnesses claiming large insectoid features.

Meanwhile, on a barren world in the far future, Ace finds herself sitting next to a dead TARDIS and no other clues. She gets whisked up in a guerilla resistance movement against a race of sinister-looking insects who are harvesting humans for protein. However, she encounters a mysterious man who knows more than he should about the TARDIS, a man who is helping the insects with some vast time-spanning quest.

This is said to be the first "Doctor-lite" novel in the New Adventures line, something that the New Series picks up on, like for example Turn Left or Love and Monsters or even Blink. I was not really looking forward to this book as I thought that a) Doctor-lite episodes are weak and b) the book could never live up to the promise of that cover-painting.

Luckily, the book does. Sure, there are a couple missteps - Nigel Robinson isn't the world's greatest prose writer - but the use of time travel is cleverly done, and he picks all the pieces separate as long as the plot needs them to be. Birthright has a plot that reaches thousands of years, with elements of Kublai Khan and Elizabeth I and even a young farmboy in twelfth century Scotland and it could get out of hand very quickly, but you feel the presence of the dark manipulative Seventh Doctor that I'm such a fan of. This is the Doctor at his most scary because he seemingly put the pawns in place so long ago.... Of course, this could all be tedious if it wasn't for Robinson shooing the reader along, asking them to ignore the heavy narrative straining at the seams of plausibility.

The worst part of this novel is that the climax features another dream sequence in which all the symbols are irritatingly laid out for the reader. We saw this before in Timewyrm: Revelations and in Transit (although this was virtual reality, but it's really the same thing), but this time it's Benny versus a crazed cult leader who is attempting to control the TARDIS. There's all sorts of symbols and even a serpent which echoes so many meanings. I say that this is the worst part because it lasts so much longer than it should. There's no danger either, because each time Benny is killed within the dream, the TARDIS seems to resurrect her. Plus, on top of this, the method by which the villain is defeated has nothing to do with the dream sequence. It merely happens and the plot moves on.

It's unfortunate, because the coolest scene in the book, in which the insects inevitably begin to invade Edwardian London and attempt to slaughter everybody, is glazed over in a matter of pages. Some police show up, gunfire is brought forth, and insects rip people apart. This scene, which sounds fucking brilliant, is only about three pages. The dream sequence? Twenty. Ugh. There's no justice in the world.

Other than these two problems, which aren't insurmountable, Birthright is a very enjoyable book. In "far-future" novels such as this one, usually it's fairly tedious watching an amateur build a world from scratch (see Robinson's previous Timewyrm: Apocalypse) but Robinson wisely keeps it low key and fast - extremely fast. Birthright flies by in a short 216 pages, but I think it could have been just a titch longer - just a titch. Any more and it would have stretched my patience.

This book is as good as Shadowmind was tedious. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Also, and this might have contributed to my bias (and my patience), but Birthright has the honour of being the first Doctor Who novel that I have read in actual physical form. Previously, they were ebooks, but I recently got my hot little hands on 19 paperbacks, all in decent condition. This might have helped me enjoy the book a little bit more. Maybe not. Who can say?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


     Ace grinned ironically. 'We do seem to find any trouble that's going spare, don't we? Or perhaps trouble finds us.'
     'Like cosmic lightning rods,' Bernice suggested, then frowned. 'Have you ever wondered, Doctor, if it is just chance? I mean the number of these experiences you keep getting into. . . '
     'Don't be coy, call them adventures,' Ace cut in.
     '. . . these adventures, then. The number does seem to stretch the rules of probability somewhat. Have you ever wondered if it isn't always chance?'
Shadowmind is a short but tedious book, and there are only a few moments of intelligence in the novel. This is one of them. The Doctor's explanation isn't nearly as delightful as the question posed by Bernice. This short of sums up my feelings about this novel.

Ace realizes that it is her birthday by her own personal clock, so she asks the Doctor to take them on vacation. The TARDIS lands on an idyllic planet in the future, but it appears that certain people have been replaced by duplicates, all scheming to steal equipment for nefarious reasons and take them to Arden, a forest planet being colonized. When these duplicates end up stealing the TARDIS, the Doctor is forced to get involved, vacation or no.

I'm not going to lie and say that I have any idea what to say about this novel. It confounds me. The plot is very simplistic, so it's not because of complexity that I find myself at a lost. Nor is it the themes or character development, which there is very little of. No, I'm finding it hard to think of something to say about this book because it's so stubbornly mediocre. If we took all of the Virgin New Adventures, gave them average scores based on hundreds of readers, we would no doubt see a Bell Curve of scores, with the majority of novels being somewhere in the middle. At the very center, right in the middle (I took Statistics, but I forget what this is called) would be Christopher Bulis' Shadowmind.

The plot seems more interested in the military than in the Doctor being clever or Ace being badass or even Bernice being clever. It also takes the plot more than half of the novel getting the cast to the planet being colonized for the action. All the little pieces that Bulis introduces in the overly long prologue-ish first few chapters come back for a payoff, but since I have no idea what is going on, and I don't really care about this characters, all of whom are thinner than parchment, so this payoff lands with a soft dull thud.

However, and this is what confounds me, the plot comes to a shrill climax in which some sort of bog stolen from the film Fern Gully makes its appearance. Everybody's screaming, things are happening, and then the cast piles onto a spaceship and travels to an asteroid. It's here, at this moment, that Bulis finds a moment of brilliance. Through intense and preposterous telepathy, the big bad manages to mind control the cast, with the exception of Ace, who then has to shoot them in order to save the world. This moment for Ace takes its cue from the previous novels, in which the badass Ace shows either no emotion or too much. It's an emotional payoff to a longer arc. It works.

I'm not sure if I should be ascribing success to Bulis, who manages the moment of excellence, or to the previous writers who have put all the pieces in place in order to create this moment later down the line. Or if it should go to the editors. Either way, this is the only part of the novel that works.

The list of problems continues with Bulis' novel, however. There's far too much exposition, and in addition, it's done so clumsily. One imagines that in his original draft, Bulis couldn't help himself and wrote "and then" between every paragraph. It's all very amateurish.

There's not too much to say about this novel. The asking of the question of the Doctor's capacity for trouble is far more interesting than Bulis' pedestrian answer, which isn't even really the point of Shadowmind. I just wanted to demonstrate that Bulis could never fulfill the expectations of such a loaded question.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Bradley Cooper is a writer with writer's block, but one day, he runs into an old friend who hands him a pill that unlocks the other 80% of the brain we supposedly don't use. Bradley Cooper finds himself smarter, more confident and without... limits. After finding a large supply, Bradley Cooper makes a lot of money and a few enemies, including somebody who may know more about the drug than he does.

Limitless is an American movie, in the sense that Bradley Cooper actualizes the American Dream. Let's start off by defining the American Dream. It is, for the sake of this review, to make something from nothing. This is different than alchemy: the American Dream is to pull one's self up by one's own bootstraps and make one's way in the world whereby the end result is the twin pillars of America, money and power. In Limitless, Bradley Cooper actualizes the dream of both money and power, but never reaches an end point. That is to say that his potential is... limitless.

Limitless is an American movie in the sense that it is about class. To quote Karl Marx, "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle" but put into the perspective of Limitless, an American film released in 2011, the history of Bradley Cooper is the history of his struggle with class.

In the beginning of the film, Bradley Cooper is dirty, appears to have a broken finger (that the film does not comment on or provide any explanation for its appearance and subsequent disappearance), and is a writer. Of course, "writer" is another way of saying "unemployed" in American film language, and of course, "unemployed" is another way of saying "poor" or in Marx's terminology, the proletariat*. Bradley Cooper is poor and dirty and without prospects. That is until the mechanism for the plot and for Bradley Cooper's meteoric rise through the classes is introduced: a drug dealer with something called NZT.

This drug, synthetic and chemical in nature rather than organic or naturally occurring, is able to unlock the potential of the human brain. According to this drug dealer, humans only use about 20% percent of our brain** and this drug is able to break this limit. Bradley Cooper takes this drug, because there is really no option, and he is able to use memories that are stored within his brain but were previously inaccessible due to inactivity. He uses this power to deflect and then impress his landlord's caustic wife. This translates into Bradley Cooper bedding this woman and then the film subsequently drops her without any explanation or followup.

After taking more of NZT, Bradley Cooper cleans himself up, cleans his apartment, and purchases new suits; the motive being to portray himself as upper class as to ingratiate himself within their ranks. His subterfuge is impeccable thanks to NZT's confidence boosting and intelligence increasing, but he finds the spectacle of the bourgeoisie to be empty. Therefore, he concludes, he must become them, and in archetypal American fashion, his next move is to understand then conquer the stock market.

The impenetrability of the stock market is a cliché that permeates American fiction. It is confusing and mercurial and only those with highly specialized education can possibly make any progress in the market, unless of course you are either a risk taker of epic proportions (see films such as Wall Street) or you are a savant. In Limitless, Bradley Cooper is positioned as savant via NZT. Within days, he has exponentially increased the seed money which he borrowed from a stock Eastern European gangster***.

Bradley Cooper attracts the attention of Robert De Niro who hires him to help facilitate a macro-merger between two corporations that deal in energy and power. De Niro, the self-made owner of one of the two companies, positions Bradley Cooper as consultant with De Niro as the father figure, the mentor of the younger more brash protagonist.

From here, Limitless examines concepts such as addiction and power, both addiction to power and the power of addiction and it looks at these themes through the lens of the techno-thriller. However, what makes Limitless so archetypal and perfectly "American" is that its story is so simple and so demonstrably American: Limitless is the story of the self-made man. However, what makes Limitless so interesting is that the film positions a pharmaceutical drug as the mechanism for the self-making.

Limitless tells a story that has been told many times before; one such story being Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray or even Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant. In both of these novels, the protagonist (not necessarily the hero) is motivated by upward mobility on the social ladder and this is usually done by either marriage or in Bel-Ami's case, wiliness. Both books were written in the age of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great social upheaval. While the face of the ruling class changed from nobility to industrialist, the ruling class remained that: ruling. The difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was clear and often easily identifiable****.

Bel-Ami and Vanity Fair (to a lesser extent) have the same story as Limitless, except Limitless uses a quintessential and very culturally relevant mechanism: the drug called NZT. Only in the 21st century would the story of class mobility, the primum movens of the story, be NZT.

In a lot of American fiction of the 20th century, the illusion of the American Dream is offered to the protagonist and by proxy the audience. There is a chance, however small and fleeting, that the reader could one day rise above their class and become one of the ruling class. The fantasy of the American Dream comes from obscuring the rigidity of the class strata. Limitless is the perfect example of this. The agency of veiling the class distinctions is pharmaceuticals. There is no more quintessentially American device.

In the 19th century, the illusion of blurring classes came through inheritance or secret family wills or more often than not, through the sheer persistence and determination of the protagonist, often a ragamuffin orphan or ne'er-do-well. Now we have come to the 21st century, a time of great economic hopelessness*****, where Limitless asks us, the audience, to believe that
one of the few ways to increase our lot is to self-medicate.

There is no doctor or pharmacist or even chemist who tells the audience that this self-medicating with NZT is inherently dangerous. The film shows us scenes of addiction and withdrawal, but then the film asks us to forget these not-so harrowing scenes because, in quintessentially American fashion, the end justifies the means. There isn't any question of what this drug is doing to Bradley Cooper's brain. There isn't any repercussion or consequence outside of material wealth and increased social standing.

What kind of film is this? What kind of message does this send to the audience? This is surely an escapist fantasy designed to bait the audience with the illusion that through science fiction, the audience can also better themselves and rise up through the ranks of society. Fantasy being the important word here. While Vanity Fair and Bel-Ami and countless other famous stories are heralded for their measured and even examination of the "self-made" man or woman, Limitless doesn't belong in their ranks. This film has nothing to say of the consequence of Bradley Cooper's actions or decisions to self-medicate and become, essentially, a long term addict to an illegal drug.

There's an interesting moment around the halfway point of the film that bears looking at. After suffering intense withdrawal, Bradley Cooper endangers his girlfriend by involving her with the drug. Bradley Cooper urges the girlfriend to take the drug in order to escape a pursuer. The next morning, once Bradley Cooper has had his fix, he tells her that he is going to handle it, that she is out of danger, (even though she just ingested an illegal substance) that he's "back". She asks, "Who's back? Because it's not the man I knew." The idea being here that NZT has ultimately changed Bradley Cooper the person, fundamentally changed who that person is.

At first, the film sort of positions this moment as a question of addiction and identity. Is the person as an addict merely a consequence of the drug, or is the drug simply exposing the addict as they truly are. After the theme of addiction is put down and set aside, the film never explicitly revisits the concept of identity again. Instead, the film asks the viewer to forgive this suppression of the true Bradley Cooper because at the end of the film, he is far more rich and powerful than expected, and that there is no limit to his potential, an idea explicitly referred to by a couple characters.

In the end, the film asks of the audience, it is completely worth it to change who we are in order achieve the American Dream. What the film is sort of hinting at, implicitly concluding, is that in order to achieve the American Dream we must fundamentally change who we are. These two things are not quite the same thing; one is much darker than the other. Limitless is the story of the self-made man who changes himself irrevocably into an ideal, of a paragon of progress and success. What the film doesn't do is ask us if a lifetime of addiction, fear and protean identity can justify the end result.

* I fully admit to reductionist practices and oversimplifications, but this film is guilty of the same crimes which I feel justifies my tactics

** Of course you know that this is a myth. I shouldn't have to link to any confirmation of its mythic status and I won't. I refuse to. Anybody who looks at an MRI or CAT scan will see the brain lit up like fireworks, constantly exploding and neverending (until brain function ceases due to injury or death)

*** This plot point will inevitably come back, of course, but in a way that is both frustratingly predictable and somewhat surprising.

**** eg. top hats versus cloth caps.

***** Many Americans live beyond their means thanks to the debt culture that has become naturalized and internalized by the constant media exposure of the rich and famous.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Animal Man #1

I love love love Animal Man the character. Not just Morrison's take on him, which is iconic and trendsetting, but Delano's horror take and Tom Veitch's spiritual take. Love Animal Man. There's something so irresistible about Buddy Baker, maybe his trippy powers, maybe his everyman status, or maybe even the fact that he's married with two normal kids. I was pretty interested in Jeff Lemire's take on him, not only because I found Essex County to be fascinating, but also because that cover! That cover is amazing! It's like somebody finally understood why Bolland was so good as his job.

But alas, all is not meant to be. In terms of first issues, Lemire manages to succeed on every superficial: he introduces an established character, gives enough background for us to understand him, and then gives us enough action to understand his powers and to keep us entertained. Then, there's a trippy dream sequence, which strongly reminds me of previous Animal Man-style stories, and then setup for the rest of the arc, including a pretty frightening cliffhanger.

Why then my disappointment? Oh god the art is awful. Just fucking awful. Look at this page layout and tell me that this guy isn't working with a full set of tools, specifically the fucking panel at the bottom. It's three separate images put together and not even in an artful way. Also what is Buddy Baker wearing?

Okay so that's a bad page. Does this artist have any grip on human anatomy? Nope. Did he design a costume that looks eerily like electric Superman? Yup. Here's proof of both statements with this full page splash panel:

Oh god my eyes. What's with his neck? What's with the bizarre perspective that skews the bottom half of his body? AAAGGGHHH

It's a shame because that cover is miraculous. Plus, the dream sequence is pretty well drawn. I think this artist does better with photo-reference than with drawing from imagination. There's nothing wrong with this. I think he should stick to his strengths.

As for the writing? Yeah, it's good, but it's not great. It didn't blow my mind, but sometimes it takes a bit for the writer to get a feel for the character and put their own stamp on it. I feel like Lemire expects that readers expects these kind of stories: trippy philosophical and weird. I think it fits Animal Man better than standard superhero fare. I just fear that we're going to have retreads of Veitch's or Delano's runs.

This wasn't nearly as harrowing as the first issue of Justice League. I have little to add to this review other than "can this artist please get better?" I think he can improve and I don't want to see him off the title; I want him to grow and mature as an artist. Let's hope this title continues!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Friend of the Family

Pete Dizinoff has a pretty perfect life: he's an internist, married to a beautiful woman with a PhD, he's best friends with Joe, a high-risk obstetrician, and he lives comfortably. When his aimless artist son Alec drops out of college, Pete tries to be cool about it. When Alec becomes involved with Joe's daughter, older than Alec by ten years, and harboring a dark secret, Pete tries to stay cool. Unfortunately, Pete wants what's best for his son, even if that means coming between Alec and Joe's daughter. Even if that means sacrificing everything.

This was an unexpected masterpiece. Yes, a masterpiece. While my synopsis makes the book sound like it's a thriller, it's really not. It's a careful vivisection of suburbia, of paternal love, of the modern Jewish man, of the professional, and of the lies we tell ourselves.

The novel opens with a complicated and virtuoso first chapter that has Pete, our first person narrator, yelled at by some angry former patient, for reasons unknown to us, and then a flashback to a multifamily vacation in 1991 when the Soviet union was about to fall. Pete remembers feeling disconcerted that the black/white morality of the Cold War was about to change into something far more murky. There's also some clever foreshadowing, some of which is extremely subtle (I didn't even realize the novel was a circle until I re-read the opening chapter) and some of which is tantalizing enough that I read this book over the course of one day.

The first chapter is emblematic of the rest of the novel: the nonlinear chronology, the foreshadowing, and the clever use of the first person narration. A Friend of the Family reminded me, at first, a lot of Updike and Cheever, both authors who scraped beyond the surfaces of the modern suburban man, but as I got further into Pete's head, I realized that it was more like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier than either of those two authors.

Pete is delusional, but not in the dramatic unreliable narrator kind of way. He isn't hallucinating or experiencing dissociative personality disorder. Rather, he's kind of clueless. He believes in a black white moral scheme, where right is right and wrong is wrong. At first, we're told this through conversations with Elaine, Pete's wife. Pete is determined to judge Laura, Joe's daughter for the crime she allegedly committed, whether or not Pete knows the full story.

Pete is rich and successful; with social stability, he's able to judge freely. He comes from a privilege reference point. What he doesn't see is that it is this privileged vantage point that doesn't allow him to contemplate a world beyond black and white, wrong and right. Because he doesn't see this, and the reader surely can, the tragedy is more heartfelt. We're always a step ahead of Pete because of this. It doesn't make the story any less or more tragic. Pete is just trying to do good.

Even when faced with a morally murky choice, Laura's crime is still at the top of the hierarchy of heinous crimes. Why not? For Pete, a physician who's job it is to save lives, the taking of life is the ultimate sin. He has no conception of any other option than to judge murder as sin.

There is a lot of subtext to this novel, and a lot is through the unreliability of first person narration. It's all done so skillfully and subtlety. Even without the subtext, the novel can be enjoyed on its own. Lauren Grodstein, the author, has a simple and clear style that manages to get into Pete's head and project masculinity (or at least, Pete's conception of masculinity). This is an author who hasn't written a novel in her voice but named the voice after somebody else. A Friend of the Family is narrated in an entirely new voice, not the author's and nobody else's. That feat alone is worthy of praise. Luckily, she blends this voice with a rather gripping plot.

It's a trainwreck, a tragedy that you can sort of see coming. You know how novels like this end: with heartbreak. But how the novel arrives at this point is surprising and extremely suspenseful. This isn't The Hunt for the Red October, but it is utterly mesmerizing. I rushed breathlessly to the end, hoping for some sort of happy ending but knowing that this wasn't possible. The structure of the novel, nonlinear full of prolepsis and tons of analepsis, is never confusing or off-putting. It's always clear, and Grodstein draws the reader into the web of plot with well-drawn characters.

Because Grodstein has made this voice so strong, it's hard to tell where Grodstein herself stands on this. Obviously we know that the world isn't a morally binary place, so we can safely assume that Grodstein pities both Pete and Laura for their respective transgressions, but what of her gentle pokes at suburbia? Both Joe and Pete make jokes and references to the much maligned and mocked affluent neighborhoods, and this piece of the puzzle fits in with Pete's position as judge and jury, but does Grodstein herself think less of suburbia? Or is it simply another place for tragedy to seed? Or is suburbia res ipsa loquitur? The difficulty of surmising this is praise-worthy itself.

A Friend of the Family is a modern masterpiece of plotting, character development and technique. There's only a few missteps, such as an overly long climactic showdown (or two) and sometimes the folksiness of the little town is grating. Otherwise, this is a fantastic enthralling and compelling read. A surprising delight.

[After writing this (and I swear this is true) I read the NY Times review and it mentions Ford Madox Ford as well. See? I can be insightful]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Seasons End

So watch the old world melt away
A loss regrets could never mend
You never miss it till it's gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
- Marillion

Summer of 2011 has ended, and it has been magnificent. Not just the weather, but my life. This has been one of the best summers of my life - maybe not the very best, but definitely in the top three.

The end of summer is often seen as a sad event, a transition to colder temperatures, school, the leaves falling off the trees, but I'm seeing this as the finale to a long stretch of wandering, searching for what I really want to do, and I think I've finally found the answer: what I wanted to do for years - get my PhD. This summer was the period at the end of a five year sentence, and it was a fantastic end.

Really, the beginning of the summer was the end of exams, moving out of my apartment, and into a new one, and then a trip to Kelowna BC for my grandfather's 80th birthday, which was a fun celebration. We hiked up a mountain. I got sort of drunk. I ate delicious salmon and avocado, as if they were both harvested that very day. It was fun to take a vacation for the first time since 2008, other than a terrible camping trip in 2010 which I'd much rather forget, honestly (everything was so fucking damp). It was even fun to take an airplane, a convenience which has ameliorated since the last time, I have to say. There was a screen in the back of every seat that charted our progress, provided altitude and weather information, and an estimated time of arrival. It was excellent. I read Stendhal's The rouge et le noir over the course of this trip.

I went back to work at Moxie's - normally I would say this is a step backward, and really, the whole summer was about stepping backwards, but at least this time, I really like my job. The crew in the kitchen is phenomenal, and I don't dread going to work. The kitchen is full of some of the wittiest people I've ever met, and I feel like I always have to stay on my toes in terms of comedy. Working at Moxie's is always going to be frustrating; the company makes some boneheaded decisions sometimes, such as the new veggie burger which contains rice, cottage cheese and mozzarella (I know, right?). But at least, I like the people. It's fun working at Moxie's again, even if that means a different location.

I moved back in with my parents. Definitely not ideal. But sometimes you have to take a step backwards in order to take a couple steps forward. They're letting me live relatively rent-free. They re-did my bathroom and my bedroom, so it's not entirely the same. Life is different. My parents are a lot happier and relaxed nowadays. I think they like having me around. My bedroom isn't as full as it used to be, thanks to the mass selling of my stuff, which makes the room feel bigger than it used to be.

Plus, it's nice getting away from the old apartment, a place of strong memories. As much as I loved the apartment, everything that I associate with it is just too much. I needed to get away from it. So I moved in with somebody else, which was okay, not bad but not fun by any measure, and then now into the parents' house. It's nice having pets and it's nice having access to all the amenities of a house, like a backyard and a large kitchen.

Other than the current situation, this summer featured the Pride Parade, which is in my top ten favourite fun things I've ever done. I had such a blast. I was really drunk and I was checked out by numerous guys and girls! I got my new favourite sunglasses there, which my mother hates, and I got a whole bunch of memories. It was awesome. The drinking didn't really stop there, either. I did lot of a partying with friends and coworkers over this summer. In the past two years, thanks to a not-so-healthy relationship, I was adverse to going out because that always meant my ex would become rowdy and drunk and annoying - "do this shot" "chug this straight vodka" as if the only way we could have fun was through copious intake of alcohol. But since I became single, I've been going out a lot, hanging out with people, getting tipsy. I got blackout drunk once or twice, which is fine with me, but not all the time. It was nice, letting go and being social. I don't think I've been this sociable since my previous breakup in 2008. I even went on a road-trip to Minneapolis with some friends.

I dated a couple girls. Neither of them worked out if only because I felt nothing for them. They were rebounds, honestly. After the second girl, I figured that I should just stop trying to date entirely and let whatever happens happen naturally. I found that the minute you stop looking for something is the minute before you find it, so I'm just going to coast amicably with myself and continue to work on the project that is me.

I weighed 178.5 pounds this morning. I feel fat and have been for a couple weeks, but I'm not sure why there is a disconnect between my mental image of myself and my actual presence. I've been eating poorly the past couple weeks but exercising a bit, so I think I'm losing muscle weight and gaining fat? Maybe? Or is there a cognitive disconnect between what I think and what I am? This is intriguing stuff. I thought I weighed 195 or 190, but the digital scale refutes this mental estimation. I know enough about psychology to figure that my mind is playing tricks on me, the kind that causes other people to develop serious body-image issues because all they ever see is fat when they're actually dangerously underweight. I'm not saying this is going to happen to me. I'm saying that I simply need to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle, including exercise and diet and with time, my two images will reconcile.

I think it's wonderful that over the course of the summer, not only did I manage to maintain a numerical weight goal, but I also managed to make new friends, be extremely sociable and read an incredible number of books. I read over 50 books since the beginning of May. A lot of people won't even read 50 books in their lifetime. I have eight books that I have read but haven't yet reviewed for this blog. Eight! The backlog is stunning. I never thought I would get to the point where I couldn't keep up on the blog end of things, where the reading would over take the writing, but here I am. I think it's amazing that managed a balance of friends, responsibilities, and pleasure. I went to the gym, read, went out and worked sometimes all in the same day. This is a big difference from where I used to be a year ago.

Now that university is about to start tomorrow, I'm about to finish the goal I set on Goodreads of 85 books in a year. At my current pace, I'll surpass last year's total no problem. I'm fully prepared to have my reading speed reduced by the onset of academic reading and assigned books (which still count as books read, I'll have you know).

University is going to be different this time around, I think. First of all, I'm smarter, older and more mature. I won't be as arrogant or as annoying. I plan to make friends. I plan to make important connections that will help in the future. I think I'm going to get a lot more out of school this time. I also need to get all A's across the board in order to increase my already decent GPA. I can do all this. I can manage this. I'm taking three honours courses and two undergrad courses, which is a lot, but I think I can do this. I'm excited and nervous about school. But I'm walking into these classes with five years of autodidacticism and a degree. I'm going to be older than most of the kids, and I'll have read a lot more than they have in the past five years... on average. I don't think I'm better than everybody, I just think I have the benefit of experience.

This summer has been fantastic, and it's time to close this particular chapter in my life. I wanted to capture that elation I feel, that excitement about the possibility of the future. I'm still looking forward to whatever happens, and as long as I can manage my weight, my social life and my real world responsibilities than everything is going to be okay. I've capitulated to the ongoing tension between what I really should be doing (PhD) and what I have been doing these past five years. This summer was the perfect climax to this wilderness of aimlessness. I couldn't ask for better friends or better times or better weather this year. I can't wait for next summer. I can't wait for the rest of my life.

Monday, September 5, 2011


On September 11, 2001, I went to school, I had just begun grade 12. When the attacks began, I was sitting in the cafeteria. Somebody mentioned it. I said something callous and cold, not thinking of the lives affected or how serious it was., I went to the music store to buy something at lunch time (because that's what I did on Tuesdays). I don't remember what. I listened to the radio in the car on the way back to the school. I imagined what it was like. In the afternoon, the principal made an announcement over the PA to try and quell any rumours or fears. It didn't work. We found out as a class that the newspaper was releasing an evening edition, the first in our lifetimes. I went home and found my father hunched over on the couch, smoking constantly and staring at CNN. The world had changed and I had no clue.

The next few days were business as usual. I live in Winnipeg, a city not directly affected by the attacks. We went to school, went to work, put gas in our cars, watched the news and thought about what we were going to do on the weekend. The chief difference was that everybody seemed a lot more quiet. Like a city-wide hush has descended on us like a fog.

In the weeks that followed, I was outraged that the US government was carpet-bombing Afghanistan. It didn't seem right. I wasn't swept up in the jingoistic fervor of rah rah we stand together or whatever. I rolled my eyes at people with "united we stand" bumper stickers, as if buying them meant anything at all. I was upset with the commercializing of the attacks so quickly: infomercials and ads asking us to buy. I was embarrassed that the government asked us to go shopping to improve the economy.

Or at least, this is how I remember it. I certainly don't remember thinking of the actual people who lost their lives or the lives affected. I certainly don't recollect taking the time to think about it in a larger historical sense. It was simply an event that I had been a witness to, an event where I was alive as opposed to not existing yet.

It really wasn't until about a couple years ago when the event really starting sinking in. I admit to being self-centered and self-absorbed, so external stimuli often take their time reaching my emotions. My difficult relationship with religion reached its current chapter (resigned to living with it) and this is in part to the religious fervor and (rarely) outright insanity brought on by the initial attacks.

I had never encountered before such idiocy before Sept 11. Everything I hated about religion was thrown in my face. Racism reached a zenith it seemed. I knew only a few "Middle-Eastern" kids in my school, and they didn't seem affected by it at all, thankfully, but watching the news and reading the Internet brought a different story. It seemed that the world had gone crazy, looked to their respective God and decided to blame it on the other side's God.

It had already become important to watch how one speaks. I was in grade 10 when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (names that I will never forget) changed high school irrevocably. Instead of being a place of learning, my high school became a hotbed of suspicion and fear. Innocent people were accused of malicious planning and our administration's investigations seemingly became their sole duty. By the time 9/11 had rolled around, a careful and precarious feeling had already crept into our school. This became exacerbated by the attacks. It know became important that you constantly watch your mouth and you hoped to God that nobody heard you say something anti-American, a sentiment shared but unspoken among my friends.

As religious invective became more heated, as the school environment became more tense, I was in the middle of my current cultural chapter: Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh, among others. This was the era in which I read No Logo by Naomi Klein and Adbusters magazine. My distaste for anything mainstream or anything my parents did was at its apex. I thought I knew everything. I was arrogant, annoying, and with only a few people I could confidently call my friends.

In the two or three years after 9/11, when I went to university and didn't make any substantial or real friends, I retreated further and further into myself. A lot of people my age became political and protested and became interested in the world outside themselves. I was the opposite. I walked in an internal world of my own making, where 9/11 didn't really touch me in the slightest. Instead of imagining the loss of thousands, and trying to understand how this new world works, I chose to read and write narcissistic, solipsistic fiction that didn't account for the outside world.

I grieve for my younger self. I'm embarrassed for my younger self, the hardened cynic who thinks he understands the world but really it was through the lens of "edgy" writers, movies and music. I knew that I didn't care about George W Bush and I was already tired of people calling him the worst president (honestly, he's not). I walked around jaded and uncaring, uncouth and without manners, alienating my friends and making zero new friends.

I rolled my eyes so much, I'm amazed I didn't injure them. Who the fuck did I think I was? When all these people, these untold thousands of people had their lives changed over a few hours, there I was reading fucking Fight Club and thinking I was above it all. Let the mere mortals fight over their oil, I seemed to say.

I'm 26 years old, turning 27 in November. I'm older, wiser, but I'm still not mature. Somebody called me immature for my age the other day. I'm still irreverent and self-absorbed, but not nearly as much. In the ten years since September 11th, I graduated high school and university, bought my first real car, had my first real girlfriend, had another one, moved out of my parents' house, got an apartment, had my heart broken twice, and read about a million books. To this day, I'm not personally affected by September 11. To this very day, I remain unscathed and untouched by terrorism.

On September 11, 2011, I could download the newest releases, go to class and make the same jokes, if I wanted to, because I have nothing personal staked in this day. But I'm not going to make my stupid jokes or say something overly political.

It's going to be business as usual: I'll go to class and probably work. I'll go to the gym and try and eat right. I'll probably read whatever book I'm reading. But I won't say something stupid. I won't do anything that could potentially hurt someone affected by 9/11.

I can't say that I understand the tragedy or the pain felt by millions. I can't say that in the past ten years, I came to an epiphany over what it feels like to experience real loss. But I can say this: since 9/11 I have emerged from myself and found the world to be a staggeringly scary place, filled with awesome and terrible things and people who hurt one another for no reason. The inhumanity and misanthropy shown every fucking day in my own city, let alone the rest of the world has made me understand, a quantum of knowledge, that the 9/11 was a tragedy that no one should have ever suffered through, but they did, and that is the reality of the world.

September 11 2001 changed the world, and it didn't change the world. It brought the reality of the rest of the world to North America. This is how it is every where and always has been, it's just this is the first time my generation has really seen it. Chaos, pain, blood, death and all without any logic. It's just violence, violence everywhere.

In solidarity with the rest of the world, now that I have this small tiny quantum of knowledge, I'm going to respect those affected by 9/11. I'm going to watch the news, the coverage of the memorials and events, and I'm going to reflect on this, and I'm going to hug my parents and thank them for providing me with my calm stable life where the only tragedies are when I don't listen to my mother's advice. I'm going to thank my lucky stars that I didn't have to live through what people are living through all over the world right now and before.

I understand now why people had bumper stickers proclaiming "united we stand". I get it now. It's not about superficially showing that you're getting on the bandwagon, as I suspected it was. The bumper stickers, or rather the sentiment of "united we stand" was to show that you could potentially conceive of such tragedy and that you wished it hadn't happened. The sentiment was to show that you could think of somebody other than yourself. It took me ten long years, but I can do it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Adults

Emily Vidal is a regular fourteen year old growing up in affluent Connecticut. Her mother and father is possibly getting divorced and her friend Janice is telling her that she's sleeping with the handsome and young teacher they call Mr Basketball. However, it turns out that it's Emily who has begun a relationship with the teacher, irrevocably changing her. Covering Emily's life from her first sexual stirrings to her 26th year, The Adults examines the fine line that separates the child from the adult.

I confess. I picked this novel up because the author and I are the same age. I started reading it hoping that it would be terrible, that the prose would be flat and the themes juvenile. I hoped that I would feel better about not being published and this author was. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Rather, Alison Espach, with talent and skill, blew my socks off. If this isn't one of the strongest debuts I've ever read, I'm not sure what is.

I've mentioned before that first novels often feel like short stories strung together. The Adults does not. This novel is singular in its vision and scope. It's a wide range of events and people, but it never loses sight of its protagonist, often too smart for her own good, and her complicated relationship with a man ten years her senior.

Luckily, Espach never comes down hard on one side or the other on this issue. It's simply a heartbreaking tale of the complexity of emotion between two people over time. The author never comes out and says that this sexual relationship with Jonathan, the teacher, is a negative thing. Neither she nor the protagonist ever admit that maybe it wasn't for the best. It just happened and that's the way things go. However, that's not to say that there aren't negative consequences. Every relationship Emily shares has changed, now coloured through the lens of this prolonged love affair. If it's even love. Emily seems to swing slowly between either side of this as time goes on, never deciding if she truly loves Jonathan or if it's simply infatuation.

It's a very complex and sensitive subject, but the whole novel deals with it with tenderness and sensibility. Espach never talks down to her audience, letting Emily narrate and obfuscate her true emotions. She tells it through a veneer of tangents and overly detailed descriptions of other people and other things, heartbreaking moments that hit the narrator far more than she lets on. It's stunningly astute novel, filled with perspicacity and humanity.

It's also a novel that seems to speak to me a lot more than I thought it would. Yes, this is another rich white person's novel, but it's so emotionally raw and real that I could get past it. It's also a glimpse into another person's mind, a mind so well drawn and detailed I suspect some element of autobiography. This is a portrait of a girl wanting to grow up and pretending to be a grown up, but she's always going to be a little girl.

If there's any issue to take with this novel, it's that any time Jonathan is offstage, the narrative spins its wheels with little vignettes of Emily's current situation and how withdrawn she feels. The emotional disconnect is purposeful, no doubt, but it echoes back to the reader. For example, after graduating high school, Emily moves to Prague with her father, her half-sister and Ester, her father's girlfriend. We're subjected to fifty pages of Emily feeling empty and aimless and Emily providing tidbits about how clever and cultured everybody in her house is. It's somewhat tedious and all it does is highlight how vapid Emily can be without any emotional grounding. Thankfully, each time, Jonathan returns into her life and provides the narrative some forward momentum.

As well, there's a lot of perceptible artifice with the characters. While the emotions might ring true, often Espach has the characters speaking in an all too clever manner, saying random things and witticisms, the point of which is to highlight their emotional disconnect, but again, this echoes into reminding me that I'm reading a novel. I can feel the author's hand in the characters.

Other than these details, this novel is strong and confident and powerful. I wish Alison Espach all the best and I eagerly anticipate her next novel, which can only improve on such a strong debut.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Model Home

Warren Ziller is father to Dustin, an angry teenager in a punk band, Lyle, a teen girl desperate for love and excitement, and young Jonas, craving for attention. Warren has been keeping a secret from them and his wife, Camille. He has gone broke, investing all of their money into building homes in the desert. Unfortunately, nobody is buying these houses, and after a devastating accident, the family is forced to move into one of the empty model homes. There, the distance growing in the family explodes, sending everybody on their own paths.
Lyle was beginning to regret the whole evening. She'd invited Bethany because she hadn't wanted to show up alone, but now she saw that this was clearly a mistake. Bethany did not understand her persistent friendship with Shannon. Lyle had tried to explain it, but the truth is she did not understand it herself. It had something to do with Shannon's beauty. Not just the long, flattering, irresistible shadow it cast, but the loneliness hidden inside it like a pearl.
This is a scene from about two thirds of the way through this novel. This is a long passage, but it exists on its own as a paragraph in a larger work, culminating in that beautiful climax of a phrase referencing the pearl. It's author Eric Puchner's subtle skill with prose that makes this novel so good, and this paragraph shows that perfectly.

Puchner's obsessions with words and meanings and puns is apparent. Lyle, the well-read middle child, often thinks of things in terms of interesting words, such as the girl suffering from cerebral palsy, whose mouth is "ajar". There are many instances like this, where Puchner's love affair with words is foremost in the reader's mind.

I wanted to read this book because it seemed to check off boxes on my mental list of pet themes: disillusionment with suburbia, check - California, check - family saga, check - Franzen-esque navel gazing, check - white people problems, check. I'm being facetious, but a lot of these themes are important to me. The fiction I tend to write is similar in terms of content and theme. However, Puchner manages to avoid amateurish posturing or obvious signals of "hey, check it out I'm writing a novel here!". That is, until about the halfway point.

The novel's beginning is as strong as the end is weak. A horrific tragedy occurs, and the novel's timeline jumps ahead one year, so that we don't have to stagger through hundreds of pages of scenes set near hospital beds or physical therapy rooms. The eldest son gets burned by the family's house exploding and he becomes angry and bitter and an alcoholic, but the guilt that the parents feel allows this to happen. It's another checklist being ticked off, except this time, a literary checklist, of novels previously written that cover these same grounds.

While the prose remains beautiful and tight, the playfulness of the wording gets dropped in favour of pure plot. So much happens in the final third of the novel, and it's simply tedious. Model Home stops being about the disintegration of the modern family unit and becomes a plot driven Oprah's Book Club novel. Of course the youngest child runs away and of course he realizes the error of his ways when the hippies that pick him up are irresponsible and leave a baby unsupervised. It's all very obvious and tedious.

Which is a shame. The rest of the novel is quite good, especially Lyle's sexual awakening and development. The novel could have been focused only on the eldest son and Lyle, and it would have been altogether stronger. Puchner wants to focus on too many characters, but some of them are going to gt short shrift. I never got a sense of who Warren or Camille are as people. We're told they did cool things in their youth and struggled through school and pregnancies, but we get superficial surface details of their current life. There's an agonizing moment for the reader when Camille kisses a man who is not her husband, and the reader cries out, "this is interesting, why are you dropping this like a hot potato?"

Puchner writes to the beat of his own drum. A tighter focus on less characters would have greatly improved this novel. But that's not to say I didn't like this. Far from it. It's irresistibly readable and the prose is often succulent and ripe. It helps that Model Home really does capture a feeling of the disintegration of family, the drifting apart and the inability to recognize or identify with those you shared your life with. In portraying this, Puchner succeeds spectacularly.