Sunday, November 30, 2014

Foster's Lost and Found and Grossman's The Magicians

I've had for two more books since I've posted last (I really need to find a second job...):


     This was a fluffy thing about a modern Flash Gordon type who gets kidnapped into space along with a random dog. Now, I've read a lot of Alan Dean Foster, but most of those books have been movie or TV adaptations. It's something that he's very good at, fleshing out characters without deviating too much from a script. Without that script, he's a bit of a Terry Pratchett style humorist, with the same inclination to pose light moral situations. Here, it's all about not judging alien lifeforms by the way the look, but by how they fill in slots on the team, because we're all in the same gang, et al. His writing style on this is very thesaurus heavy, utilizing as many long words as possible to fill up the pages. That's not really a complaint, but it was a surprising change in tone compared to his earlier novels. I was, however, really annoyed by the dog character, who comes off as a refugee from a muppet movie. His intelligence has been artificially enhanced by the aliens, which gives him the ability to talk, but also gives him the ability to know about human concepts such as expressways and restaurants, which a dog wouldn't have experienced. I'm sure it's all in the name of comedy, but it comes off as irritating and stretches the fourth wall too much.

     I guess this is the sort of thing that people read on their long commutes. There's no real point to it unless you want obvious ideas of heroism and companionship confirmed for you. It has some funny moments, but not enough for me to recommend this outright. There are other books to read:


     I picked this one up because the sci-fi/fantasy crowd had been raving about this as some sort of post-modern masterpiece. I found it to be a badly written mess with some interesting ideas. Our main character, Quentin Coldwater, as befits his name, ends up going to the American version of Hogwarts. This actually skews toward an older student base, picking up at the end of high school. But the characters never stop acting like generic high school students, which I suspect is meant to be the "point" of the novel. Living in a world based on elements from Narnia and Harry Potter results in the production of adults without any emotional coping skills. Which would be fine, if reading about such things didn't come off as annoying. Every time Quentin comes to a point in his life where a normal person would mature and move on, some little deus ex machina occurs that prevents any character development from happening.

     The novel also isn't plotted very well and is presented in a ADD style where events and people are mentioned and then disappear for chapters at a time, without any sort of proper narrative segue. Perhaps this is just the new "post-modern" style, meant to mimic reality. In practice, it just makes the book confusing and makes one wish that there was an index. Sometimes entire passages appear which appear to be from an entirely different book. There's a chapter about the wizard school game "welters" (where everyone makes references to Quidditch, ha-ha post-modern again) that ends with this paragraph:

"He whipped his shirt off over his head. Ignoring the rising yelps of dismay on all sides -- it was so easy to ignore people when you understood how little power they really had over you -- he walked over to where Alice stood, dumbstruck, on her square. He would probably regret this later, but God it was good to be a magician sometimes. He hoisted her over his shoulder fireman-style and jumped with her into the freezing, cleansing water."

      This is supposed to be the culmination of a game that appears to be very important to the group of friends involved, but isn't presented with any clear resolution (the rules of the game itself are barely presented to the reader) and is never mentioned again. This whole chapter is spent on the welter tournament, but has no effect on the plot, or apparently, the characters. And I really can't figure out what, if anything, HAPPENED there. Is that a celebration of a winning move? Is Quentin purposefully losing the game? Is he losing beyond his control and trying to do something "manly" to prove that he doesn't care? I just can't tell.

     The frustrating thing is that this isn't an entirely terrible novel. There's a lot of thought given in to wizardly things; a chapter wherein the kids have to turn into geese to fly to another school and are then transformed into primal arctic foxes is particularly powerful. There's just no cohesion to these ideas, they're thrown out without any thought to the reader's place in the story. It's as if the reader is expected to be as directionless as the anti-hero Coldwater. Grossman just isn't a good enough writer yet to pull that sort of non-narrative off (as when we're given random, repetitious reminders that that Quentin really, really likes the "Fillory" (Narnia) books that he grew up with).  In the end, I'm disappointed, but intrigued enough to give him another chance in the future. Perhaps the next book in the trilogy will be better.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ray Bradbury's Long After Midnight (Part Two)

Continuing with my reading of Long After Midnight. Spoilers, as always.

original cover artwork for the 1976 Bantam Books paperback
by Ian Miller

Interval in Sunlight

For me, this was the highlight of this collection. Like the last story, this is a contemplation of wrong choices made in adulthood. A couple are vacationing in Mexico, hoping that this visit to a foreign country will help save their relationship (Shades of Jack Kerouac?). There is a terrible, passive-aggressive dynamic at work; the woman, a successful writer, is constantly giving in to the demands and verbal abuse of the man. I hadn't realized before reading this how rare it is for Bradbury to use a female as the focus of his storytelling, leading me to wonder if this is his way of obscuring an event that actually happened in his life.  It's also rare to see him move into this darker territory. What in the usual run of popular magazine stories would be a bittersweet and hopeful reunion holds no redemption here. The writer is trapped in her ties to this man who is jealous of her career (escape is blocked by panic attacks and the general need to not be alone). Powerful and honest.

A Story of Love

Another one of the Spaulding clan, a young Douglas, falls in love with his teacher. Awkward, and peters out without any kind of direction. As innocent as he tries to write, even Bradbury can't make this end well.

The Wish

An interesting variation on "The Monkey's Paw," and a Christmas story to boot. A man makes a wish at midnight on Christmas Eve and gets to meet his father one last time. Of course they get to say "I love you" to each other, which they never did in real life. Fairly maudlin, and a bit embarrassing.

Forever and the Earth

Another one of his "tribute" stories. Thomas Wolfe is kidnapped in time to a far future where, apparently, no one can write. He's commissioned by a eccentric rich man to take a rocket to the moon and write a novel about it. Some of Bradbury's best writing, with a nice poetic ending, but I doubt that any modern readers feel as strongly about Wolfe as he does.

The Better Part of Wisdom

This one stands out as an early attempt at expressing tolerance of a male/male relationship. A dying grandfather visits his grandson and finds a young man in the place of where he expected a young woman. If it was left at that, the story would work better, but it goes into one of those Bradbury childhood flashbacks. Instead of just accepting an adult relationship, it has to be justified with the ideal of innocent love. This is probably Bradbury's biggest fault as a writer; he constantly goes back to the idea that everything was better for those few years when one had no responsibilities. Even heartbreak is somehow purer for children.

Darling Adolf

An unlikely scenario wherein a Hollywood crew are filming a Hitler movie at the actual places in Bavaria where he came to power. It all leads up to a re-enactment of the Nuremberg Rally and a refutation of anyone who expresses nostalgia for the Nazi years. Doubly embarrassing is Bradbury's attempt at casual swearing as one of the Hollywood guys calls Hitler's inner circle "superfags." 

The Miracle of Jamie

I found this one to be an interesting failure. It starts out as a typical Bradbury story about a young man who is convinced that he can create miracles by just thinking really hard. Towards the end, it veers towards realism as Jamie realizes that he can't actually affect everything, and his mother dies. And it's this change in tone that doesn't work. I found myself so trained to take the author's magical realism for granted, that the "true to life" ending came off as the artificial part.

The October Game

This is one of Bradbury's masterpieces. As a kid, I read this and didn't get the nuances at all, more intrigued by the Halloween game where people pass around parts of a "dead witch" in the dark. As an adult, this is a bitter story about a husband who feels threatened by the domesticity of his wife and daughter. One of the few times where things are left as unspoken as is possible within the bounds of the story, letting the reader put the pieces together in their own mind. And one of the few stories about murder which is somehow still acceptable enough for children's anthologies.

The Pumpernickel

A wasteful few pages about an older man reminiscing about his youthful days. Probably meant to have an ironic ending, but this territory has been covered many times in better ways by our author.

Long After Midnight

A twist ending story about a crew of ambulance drivers who pick up a young suicide one night. There's a question of whether changing the sexual identity of the victim changes the feelings one has for them, but no discussion of the question thereof. Probably just meant to give magazine readers something to talk about at the water cooler.

Have I Got A Chocolate Bar For You!

A story of a priest's re-gaining of his faith, triggered by a man who comes to confession because of an addiction to chocolate. Cutesy and forgettable.

And that's it. This collection really peters out at the end. Too many of these are filler, obviously written for last century's magazine market; stories meant to be read for the moment and then tossed away. Instead of hunting this paperback down, the general reader may be better off purchasing The Stories of Ray Bradbury, which contains "Interval in Sunlight" and "The October Game" or the most recent edition of I Sing The Body Electric which contains "The Blue Bottle" and "Drink Entire." The rest of the stories here are probably skip-able to all but the most die-hard fans.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ray Bradbury's Long After Midnight (part one)

I'm halfway through this collection:


It's a better than usual collection of short stories, helped by the fact that there are a number of Mars and Green Town stories that read as outtakes from Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine. A few of these are from the 1950s, but most appear to have been written for Playboy in the 1970s and show more of his "adult" side.

Some thoughts. Spoilers ahead.

The Blue Bottle

This first piece is a beautifully written Mars episode. There is a legendary bottle that confers upon its discoverer their heart's desire. The interesting twist is that the people crazy enough to hunt after this relic are neurotics who want "an end to doubt, to torture, to monotony, to want, to loneliness, to fear, an end to everything." An ordinary guy, just along for the ride, picks up the bottle and discovers bourbon. The 1950s rat-racers, destroying crystalline Martian skyscrapers with their coarse yells, find the final peace they've subconsciously wanted all along.

One Timeless Spring

This is a "prequel" to Dandelion Wine. Douglas Spaulding is the first of the boys to realize that they are soon to lose interest in games and past times. As it was in the novel, the Waukegan ravine from Bradbury's childhood is the focus point for change, as Doug ends up kissing a girl in the wild area that once provided him with imagined adventures.

(photo by Pam D. on Yelp)

The Parrot Who Met Papa

Here we have a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, who I could care less about, but appears to be a hero of Bradbury's. The main interest for me here was the amazing take on Truman Capote and his entourage. A Cuban parrot whom Hemingway had been whispering secrets to for years has been kidnapped by "Shelley Capon," with an intended auction to the highest bidder. The dialogue between Bradbury's and Capote's avatars are marvelous, with the author being non-judgmental, yet showing the ridiculousness of Truman's hipster scene.

The Burning Man

A slight scare tale involving Doug Spalding and his Aunt picking up a hitch-hiker in her famous car on the way to Lake Michigan in the middle of a drought. Interesting mention of the Waukegan asbestos factory that in modern times is best known for destroying the lake shore with pollution, but skippable.

A Piece Of Wood

One of the few sci-fi pieces that justify the cover blurb. A man has come up with the means to turn all weapons into rust in his presence. This is an obvious threat to the military-industrial complex, leading to an ambiguous ending involving reversion to the wooden club. A bit heavy-handed, even for Bradbury.

The Messiah

A fascinating counter-point to "The Martian" from The Martian Chronicles. The thought-sensitive shape-changing native who is running from the mob in that story ends up in a cathedral and picks up the stray thoughts from the local priest. This priest had been entertaining some of his fellow religious leaders, expressing the wish to meet the Messiah when he ever returns. As tough as it was for the characters in the previous story to let go of their dead, the need of this humble man to be in the presence of Martian-turned-to-Jesus is heartbreaking in Bradbury's prose.

G.B.S. - Mark V

An odd space-faring tale about a man who talks to a robotic version of George Bernard Shaw. This consternates his ship-mates who would prefer he spend his time with the sex-bots in the rec room. A not quite successful comment on manly peer pressure, but fun for its faux Shaw dialogue.

The Utterly Perfect Murder

Another Green Town story. Doug Spalding, as an old man, decides to go back home and kill his childhood bully. This is a problematic story about how, as children, we really love our tormentors. For the attention, I guess? Didn't work for me at all. I don't care how starved someone is for friendship, no one really harbors secret love for their bully.

Punishment Without Crime

A very rich man rents a robot version of the woman who turned him down. He "kills" her, which turns out to be a crime equated with actual murder. No real deep philosophy here; more of a meditation on guilt.

Getting Through Sunday Somehow

Every now and then, we'll get one of these Ireland stories. Here, Bradbury is inspired by a fellow pub-drinker on a dreary Sunday to go out and thank the people who give him a little pleasure in life. He then encounters a street harp player, and almost ruins her playing by making her self-conscious of the effect she may have on those around her. It sound trite in description, but this has some of the better poetic passages so far, and doesn't have an easy solution for needing a non-religious way of thanksgiving.

Drink Entire: Against The Madness Of Crowds

My favorite piece so far. On a burning New York day (oh those pre-air conditioner days...) a failing middle-aged businessman is randomly riding the trains and wandering the city when he comes across a storefront sign for MELLISSA TOAD, WITCH. A chance at changing his life is offered, presenting the possibility of contentment and success, but also presenting the threat of change and domesticity. The central symbol of this story is the woman who sleeps in a block of ice, used here as in Something Wicked This Way Comes as an expression of closely-harbored male desire.
"There she slept the nights away, a Princess of Snow. Midnights, he and other boys snuck out to see her smile in her cold crystal sleep. They stood half the summer nights staring, four or five fiery-furnace boys of some fourteen years, hoping their red-hot gaze might melt the ice..."
This is the Bradbury that affected many of us as young readers, an author who knows the dark fear that separates the young boys from their futures. He's an author who gets accused of dabbling too much in nostalgia, but a closer look at the bright summer days of his youthful fiction reveals adult fears and neurosis lurking within the deep ravines.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Let's Go Shopping (Like It's 1988)

Hey, kids! Today, we're going to visit 1988! What do people do in the late 80s? They go shopping, of course!

Hooray! Fertilizer!

Like most children's book publishers, Western needed to update their core titles every decade or so. This one was performed by writer Steven Lindblom and artist Kathy Allert, who illustrated many of these 80s Golden titles, and worked on an extensive line of paper doll books.

...and sometimes Daddy locks her in the closest until her medication kicks in...

This is a beautifully rendered, but truly horrifying, document of the values that were meant to be instilled in Generation Xers, pastels and all.

Five cans! That's more than your daddy!

For the most part, there are no workers illustrated in these wonderful layouts. Just aisle after aisle of sterile, repetitive consumer goods. It's as if this family lives in a Dadaist art installation. There is no high-interest credit, no low-paid labor, all these things just EXIST  in some sort of Platonic shopping mall.

Poor people have it so easy with their empty carts!

The shopping trips are also interestingly divided among generic sexual lines. Daddy takes our Punky Brewster clone to the hardware store, bookstore, and auto-parts store, buys oil and a canoe paddle at a department store, and then stops to buy "flowers for Mommy." Mommy gets to go to the grocer, the candle shop, the pet store, the clothing store and the shoe store. Then, Daddy goes to the "farm store (!)" and takes his daughter shopping for a toy for her brother. The brother who doesn't exist in this world of shopping.

"No dear, we just had guinea pig for dinner last night."

Now I don't know about you, but I never found shopping to be a fun childhood experience. Even in 1988, with computer registers and extended shopping hours becoming fairly common-place, it was still a grueling marathon of marching and waiting in line for long periods of time. Still, it was understood that part of this process was the consequence of having to spend the least amount of money in one place.

So many pre-determined sex roles to choose from!

Treating shopping as a magical activity just makes things worse all around. Unless you are one of the few who really can buy anything you want, whenever you want, there is a whole world of responsibility and consequence that children should be learning about. A world like the one talked about in this 1958 Golden Book:

In the 1950s, even dogs were well-educated consumers.

Which brings us to an interesting cultural point. In the space of one generation, Americans turned from Eisenhower-era fiscal responsibility to Reagan-era credit spending. Now that my generation has to deal with the consequences of their parents not paying for things, who is going to stand up and take the blame?

"Have a balloon America, don't worry about who's steering the cart."