Monday, August 26, 2013

Soon I Will Be Invincible: Why can't we all just get along?

The book opens from the perspective of Doctor Impossible. He's the smartest man in the world, according to . . . himself. And thanks to a lab accident, he also happens to be stronger than the average man and have bullet-proof skin. Oh and he’s in prison for the 12th time.
“I’m not a criminal. I didn’t steal a car. I didn’t sell heroin, or steal an old lady’s purse. I built a quantum fusion reactor in 1978, and an orbital plasma gun in 1979, and a giant laser-eyed robot in 1984. I tried to conquer the world and almost succeeded, twelve times and counting.” (pp. 4–5)
Super-villain problems.

And here to provide the hero perspective is a cyborg named Fatale. She used to be a woman of average appearance vacationing in Brazil, until she was hit by a dump truck and scraped 40 feet against the side of a building. When she woke up 4 months later, she didn’t remember why she was in Brazil or who she had been there with, and she had no hope of leaving her hospital bed unless she took the deal being offered to her by a mysterious corporation. So she signed the contracts, and they made her into the next generation of warfare, replacing 43% of her original body weight with metal and plastic.

But after running only one high-profile mission, the super soldier program shut down and disappeared without a trace, leaving Fatale a lonely cyborg without a past or a purpose.

Sincerely, The Military.

UNTIL she received an invitation from the Champions, a disbanded group of heroes reuniting and recruiting a couple of new members to search for their missing once-leader, CoreFire—Doctor Impossible’s nemesis and one of the few truly invincible superheroes.

The overarching theme is a question Doctor Impossible poses in varying ways throughout the book:
“But why do we rob banks rather than guarding them? Why did I freeze the Supreme Court, impersonate the Pope, hold the Moon hostage?” (p. 7)
Why try again and again to take over the world when you know you must lose?

There’s a lot to keep you entertained. The cast of heroes and villains alone is endlessly fascinating, some clear parodies of familiar comic book characters (e.g., Blackwolf: former Olympic gymnast, millionaire, user of bare knuckles and gadgets, haver of zero superpowers) and others . . . something else altogether (e.g., Mister Mystic: Two-bit magician and con artist who apparently discovered real magic at some point, although no one is exactly sure what his powers are).

Let's not get carried away.

The tone is equal parts earnest and slapstick, with a dash of satire thrown in for good measure. And while the plot isn’t much more than you would find in the latest Pixar animated feature, that just means it doesn't get in the way of action like this:
"We faced off a moment in silence, and then he reached for me. He put his hands on me, a scientist! I recall there was a brief pursuit around the command console. I may have flailed at him once or twice. I managed to inform him, before passing out entirely, that he hadn't heard the last of Doctor Impossible." (p. 206)

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Keep: It MIGHT sound like I didn't like it

I should preface all this by saying that something strange happened when I read the book jacket: I didn’t comprehend a word of it. Standing in the bookstore, I was convinced this was a gothic novel about two young female cousins living alone in a castle . . . which didn’t necessarily grab me, but Jennifer Egan’s name was right there on the cover.

I kinda like her.

Well, when I got it home and the first page opened on some dude named Danny, I was like, “That’s no lady.” And then when there was a portable satellite dish in his bag, I was like, “MODERN times. What am I even reading right now?”

I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to you, because it’s jarring. The book is about two BOY cousins. Adult ones. And the story is set in present-day Europe. Austria maybe? No one seems to know. But Howard, the one boy-cousin, purchased an old castle he's planning to turn into a resort. And Danny, the other boy-cousin, was in the middle of some drama in New York, so when Howard said he would pay Danny's travel expenses if he helped prepare the castle, he was amenable to that idea. The trouble is, Danny hasn’t seen Howard since they were kids, and there’s a big Past Event hanging over their relationship. So Danny has the nerves about seeing Howard again, and it doesn't help that it's happening in this crumbling, ominous castle in Germany or possibly the Czech Republic.

If you think you have a grasp of what this book is about because of my excellent summary above, I should also mention this is a story WITHIN a story. And you also get some gothic, borderline-supernatural elements as a bonus.

Just for being you.

I think this was only Egan’s second book, and it has some hint of the perspective-shifting style she went on to perfect in that shiny, splendiferous novel some years later. But it’s not quite there YET.

I had one foot out the door for at least 3/4 of the book. I’ll be honest. She does a weird thing where she prefaces each line of dialogue with the speaker’s name, followed by a colon; there’s nary a quotation mark to be found. And if her shunning of traditional punctuation isn't enough, there are some other . . . odd occurrences.

But the last 1/4? Something clicked, and I saw that the stuff I’d been wary of wouldn’t have worked any other way. And the shift was so subtle and perfect that I almost didn’t notice it happening. And then I backed up several pages so I could experience it again. And it was beautiful THAT time, too.

Surprise blog-post twist!
On the basis of the whole experience, I’m gonna go ahead and recommend that you read this one. Just . . . remember it’s about boys.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Motherless Brooklyn: WebMD doesn't list symptoms for Rebel Against Society

Motherless Brooklyn is a take on the classic detective novel, sure to appeal to the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett/James M. Cain set. Aside from being staged in present-day Brooklyn, what primarily separates this book from the classics it pays homage to is its narrator, Lionel Essrog. He was a young orphan tapped to work for small-time mobster Frank Minna. Now he's a grown man trying to uncover the truth behind his boss-type father figure's brutal murder, under the guise of Minna's limo service/detective agency/front-for-ill-doings-about-town. Lionel also happens to have Tourette's syndrome.
For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain—same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back.
Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer. (pp. 5-6)

I'm not super familiar with Tourette's, but this is the best description of the condition I've ever heard. Ever-ever. And Lethem keeps DOING that.
My own name was the original verbal taffy, by now stretched to filament-thin threads that lay all over the floor of my echo-chamber skull. Slack, the flavor all chewed out of it. (p. 7)
So I'm sure you can imagine that Lionel's Tourettic impulses play a prominent role in his interactions. When he's around Frank and the other Minna Men (also orphans recruited as children from St. Vincent's Home for Boys), all of whom have known him since his symptoms first started manifesting in childhood, he can boop a 6-foot-tall man gently on the nose, shout "EAT ME, BAILEY," or whisper "doublebreasts" in the middle of a conversation, and no one will bat an eye.

But as he plays the role of detective to solve the mystery of Frank's death, he's thrown into situations where his Tourette's constantly threatens to interfere with his goal of uncovering valuable information. I mean, you can't just go around caressing strangers, says Polite Society.

And sometimes an impulse can put Lionel in physical danger. For instance, in a battle of wills with Albert the private security guard:
I began to want to grab at the nightstick in Albert's holster—an old, familiar impulse to reach for things dangling from belts, like the bunches of keys worn by the teachers at St. Vincent's Home for Boys. It seemed like a particularly rotten idea right now. . . .
As we brushed past Albert I indulged in a brief surreptitious fondling of his nightstick. (pp. 32-33) 
Aside from being positively edible, the writing FEELS classic. I would forget sometimes that the story wasn't set in the '40s. Then there would be a reference to Mariah Carey or power windows, and I would go, "EH?"

Oh look, moregoodwriting:
A part of each of us still stood astonished on the corner of Hoyt and Bergen, where we'd been ejected from Minna's van, where we'd fallen when our inadequate wings melted in the sun. (p. 79)
Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway. And characters mentioned early on but never sighted, just lingering offstage, take on an awful portentous quality. Better to have them gone. (p. 119)
Now . . . I just need to make it about me for a quick sec.

For as long as I can remember, I've had these random impulses to do inappropriate things at just REALLY inappropriate times. I'll be sitting in a quiet room (church, for example) and think, "What if I just stand up and yell, 'I HAVE TO POO'?" Or I'll be making with the small talk at a restaurant and think, "What if I poured my coffee on this person's head?" Or, slightly more concerning, I'll be standing at the edge of something very high up (say, just for example, the Golden Gate Bridge) and think, "What if I jumped?"

The impulses aren't particularly strong. I have never, in fact, done any of those three things mentioned above. But is it weird that I even THINK about it? Do I have some excessively watered-down form of Tourette's? Or am I just a badass rebel, propriety be damned?

More important, will I be thinking about pouring hot liquids in your lap the next time we get together?

Me, at any given moment. Right now even.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Last Policeman: An original novel from the man who gave us Android Karenina

There's a relatively slow-moving asteroid heading straight for Earth, and it will almost certainly wipe out all organic life upon impact. Thanks to modern science, everyone knows the exact day this will happen. NO thanks to modern science, there's absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop it.

Nope. You're all gonna die.

With roughly 6 months until the end of the world, people are coping primarily by walking off the job (going Bucket List, as they say) or committing suicide (skipping the List and going straight for the Bucket). So what we step into is a barely functioning pre-apocalyptic United States where there are so many suicides each week that the police department doesn't even bother to investigate them anymore. At the same time, the powers of local law enforcement have been amped up to help prevent widespread chaos, and being arrested for even a minor offense could mean sitting in a cell until the Big Kaboom. So the stakes are high, you see.

We find Hank Palace—a young patrolman recently promoted to detective when his predecessor decided he would rather be racing yachts—at the scene of an apparent suicide in the stall of a McDonald's bathroom. But he's the only one, including the dead man's family and coworkers, who isn't convinced it's a suicide, and he'll get to the bottom of this and bring the guilty party (if there IS one) to justice if it takes the rest of his time on Earth.

Because he IS the law.

He's not literally the LAST policeman, but he seems to be the last one in the city who cares to do his job responsibly, rather than to satisfy a power trip or get a reliable Internet connection. But the whole point is that doing his job at all is a little more complicated these days.
Still, the conscientious detective is obliged to examine the question of motive in a new light, to place it within the matrix of our present unusual circumstances. The end of the world changes everything, from a law enforcement perspective. (p. 115)
So there's THAT mystery to solve. There's also a little something in the realm of a conspiracy theory, which isn't resolved in this book because something had to be saved for the sequel (Countdown City, available now at a fine independent bookseller near you!).

I don't have feelings of love for this book. And I can't put my finger on what it was that fell flat for me, because the premise is clearly intriguing and I usually like stories about the end of humanity. It could be that I never felt fully connected to any of the characters. It could also be that my heart is made of aluminum cans and plastic wrap (fully recyclable). But I DID gasp and say "OH NO" out loud when a thing happened to one of the characters. So it wasn't a complete failure in the character development department. And I DO think I shall read the next in the series . . . eventually.

Can you just read this one and tell me if I should definitely like it?

Look how helpful I am.