Late to the Party: Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser (1969)

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Musical Accompaniment: “The Rake’s Song”, by The Decemberists

Flashman cover

Harry Paget Flashman is basically a real asshole, but he’s an entertaining one to say the least. After getting kicked out of Rugby School in the late 1830s for “excessive drunkenness”, the young, rich and completely cowardly Flashman joins the army in relative peacetime with the hopes of getting a nice easy job with a pension (the uniform’s attractiveness to the opposite sex is a nice bonus). Unfortunately for our cad of a hero, he soon finds himself in the position of having to marry a relatively rich Scottish man’s daughter, Elspeth, after hooking up with her after a carriage ride. As he’s obviously married below his station, Flashman loses his cushy position in the 11th Hussars and finds himself instead in Afghanistan. Like every military adventure in Afghanistan, this works about as well as expected and Flashman finds himself present at the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842.

Flashman is the first of the “Flashman Papers”, a series of memoirs written by the eponymous hero long after his retirement from his Majesty’s service. This is an entertaining narrative conceit, as real-life author George Macdonald Fraser adds footnotes to go alongside the main character’s systematic dismantling of his sterling(ish) reputation of being a hero and a true-blue Englishman. A parody of the classic English military hero, Flashman is a coward, a toady, and a lecher; he’s greedy, lustful and doesn’t care for the social mores of the time unless they help him get a leg up (or over). Flashman exists in a kind of liminal space for the reader, who are themselves presumably pretty ignorant of early Victorian social culture, but he’s also capable of some pretty abhorrent things, including buying slaves, allowing comrades to die without lifting a finger, and, at one pivotal juncture, rape.

Flashman has its origins in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which to my knowledge has faded into the distance much more than the Fraser books, which started in the late Sixties. There, Flashman is a relatively minor character who’s most notable for being a bully, and for the drunkeness incident. (Rugby School is actually where the sport was invented, and it’s a pretty posh Grade 4-12 facility these days). So imagine if Biff Tannen from Back to the Future went on to star in a series of movies where he never really became a better person, and instead kept on being a douchebag who ends up covered in unearned glory for accidental military exploits. That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here.

I found Flashman very interesting in light of the current vogue for discussing “likeability” in fictional characters. While he does some terrible things in this book, the confessional tone and the snappy writing makes you like the guy in spite of yourself. That being said, I completely understand how other people might not be able to get over some of the events as presented, though, and I’m interested/kind of dreading to see how equally delicate topics like slavery (Flash For Freedom!, 1971) and Settler/Aboriginal relations in North America (Flashman and the Redskins, 1982) are handled in the subsequent novels. (Myself, I couldn’t get over Thomas Covenant’s similar actions in Lord Foul’s Bane, so I know from experience that this kind of material doesn’t work for everyone.) The tone of Flashman reminds me somewhat of Ian Fleming’s early Bond novels, but while we’re supposed to kind of like the brutish Bond, and be shocked by the shitty things he does, with Harry Flashman it’s the exact opposite. The greedy, cowardly and lustful Flashman kind of shines a new light on England’s colonial adventures in Afghanistan, and invites the reader to wonder why we’d root for any of these people, much less our “hero”. If one of Queen Victoria’s most beloved, most rewarded subjects is completely undeserving of any of it whatsoever, what does that say about his contemporaries?

Still, the research that went into this book was occasionally confounding to me, as I don’t really know much about English military history from this time. I confess, some of the names and dates got really confusing once Flashman made it to Kabul, and I felt the book drag a little there. I much preferred the sneaking around and trying to sleep with other mens’ wives to the back-biting among the English commanders.

I’m absolutely positive that Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde must have been fans of the Flashman novels, as the use of well-researched and archly funny footnotes comes up often in their books as well. A cursory Google search tells me that the meta nature of this story has made its insertion into other Steampunk, Victoriana and alternate histories like the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman and The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling a fun Easter egg for those who are in the know.

Review: The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel (2015)

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Mystics of Mile End cover

The study of the Tree of Life is one of the most hallowed and important facets of Jewish mysticism. The allure of “climbing” the tree, of learning more and more and eventually ascending into another form, is so enticing, that the study of this branch of Kabbalah is for the most part only allowed to be undertaken by married men over the age of forty. Such is the danger of losing oneself to the beautiful dream.

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, follows the fortunes of the Meyer family of the eponymous Montreal district. When his wife dies after being hit by a car, professor of Jewish mysticism David Meyer turns almost completely inward, and his actions and thoughts become constant sources of anxiety and anguish for his two children, Lev and Samara. Adding to this family chaos is the forbidden study of the Tree of Life, which effects each of the Meyer clan in its own way, leading the younger child Lev into a life of Hasidic isolation, David into confronting his faith, long left shattered after his wife’s untimely demise, and Samara into, well, you’ll have to read to find out.

The setting of Mile End is interesting, and somewhat unique in the current CanLit scene, which feels awash in Atlantic province miserablism, Prairie province family sagas, and northern territory survival stories. Mile End wears the culture clash at the heart of the novel as a badge of honour, with cloistered Hasidic Jewish inhabitants often brushing up against over-caffeinated hipsters on fixie bicycles. We spend most of our time learning about the area in Lev’s opening segment of the novel, which is told in his charming, eager-to-please voice, somewhat reminiscent of Ava Bigtree from Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! or Gray from Corinna Chong’s Belinda’s Rings. Lev even takes up with one of the more colourful denizens of Mile End, local weirdo Katz, whose doomed attempts at his own versions of the Tree provide a sense of there but for the grace of God goeth the rest of the cast. Lev also becomes friends with a local boy named Alex, whose ultra-rationalism in the face of all the mysticism is a useful tonic for non-believers.

My favourite part of the book belongs to Samara, who is a bit of a cipher for the prior two segments. It is through her eyes that the true cost of subsuming one’s being into the pursuit of knowledge, into ego death and transcendence, entails for those of us stuck back in the mortal plain. The writing recalls both Henry Roth and Philip Roth in this regard, as the religious awakening undergone by Samara echoes the former’s Call It Sleep, and the vulgar state of her corporeal remains resembles that of the wayward daughter from the latter’s American Pastoral. In Sigal Samuel’s hands, one should count themselves lucky to not encounter the mysteries of Kabbalah, as they seem to invade the body like a disease leaving only brokenness in their wake.

There are a few writerly tics that mark this off as a first novel, with all that entails. Samuel, to my mind, relies a little bit too much on lists and emails written by her characters, and a few of the late-game revelations seem a bit too pat, especially those involving a family friend. Still, for a first novel, The Mystics of Mile End is exceptionally crafted and a fascinating look into a place and people sorely under-represented in the current Canadian literary scene. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern-day Montreal life, the conflict between religion and science, or families undergoing strain.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Also, I work at the press that published Belinda’s Rings.

Review: Consumed, by David Cronenberg (2014)

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Musical Accompaniment: “The Purple People Eater”, by Sheb Wooley

Consumed cover

“Electronic stores in airports had become their neighborhood hangouts, although more often than not they weren’t there at the same time. It got to the point that they could sense traces of each other among the boxes of electric plug adapters and microSD flashcards. They would trade notes about the changing stock of lenses and point-n-shoots at Ferihegy, Schiphol, Da Vinci. And they would leave shopping lists for each other in emails and text messages, quoting best prices spotted and bettered.” (12)

Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math are a globetrotting couple of freelance photojournalists tracking down weird stories in the realms of medical technology, crime and academia. They stumble upon what might be the scoop of their lives when they come into the orbit of Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy, neo-Marxist philosophers of commodity fetishism who are household names in their native France. When Celestine’s body is found horribly mutilated, some parts even eaten, and Aristide flown the coop, Naomi sets off to track him down in his last-known whereabouts in Tokyo. Meanwhile, after investigating an unorthodox eastern European breast doctor, Nathan finds himself with a bad case of Roiphe’s disease, a sexually transmitted infection that he decides to investigate by going to meet the physician whose name it bears. While at first these two stories don’t seem to have a lot in common, eventually Nathan and Naomi peel back the layers to uncover a strange psycho-sexual conspiracy that criss-crosses the globe.

Consumed is the first novel from David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker whose works include such classics as Videodrome, The Dead Zone, A History of Violence, and Crash, among many others. As such, the publication of this book caused a minor stir in Canadian literary circles, eventually netting the author the front page of Quill and Quire magazine in addition to reviews, interviews and retrospectives in basically every major publication.

I wish I could say I liked this book more, but it was a real disappointment. Cronenberg’s keen eye for human fraily and body horror (something he basically invented) are certainly on display in Consumed, but unfortunately these concepts are tied to some of the least interesting and stock characters I’ve read lately. Naomi and Nathan are almost interchangeably dull, with journalistic and sexual ethics that they abandon at the drop of a hat, and a curious fetishization of cameras and other tech that wears incredibly thin while reading. Now, two seemingly bland characters either being parts of a whole, or merging together somehow is a big part of many of Cronenberg’s films, like the twin gynecologists found in Dead Ringers, Seth Brundle and a housefly in The Fly. The inverse can be found with the almost split personality of Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen’s character in A History of Violence. So I’m sure these two ciphers we’re saddled with throughout the course of the novel were created with this in mind, but there’s a big difference between watching a movie with a boring half-character and reading a book, inhabiting their thoughts. As I noted above, and in the quotation that begins this review, I’m sure the ad nauseam recitings of different camera settings, cell phone purchases and photo editing software found throughout the novel are supposed to say something about Nathan and Naomi, but whatever the message is, the medium through which it’s delivered is deadly dull (shout out to Professor Brian O’Blivion on that one).

Speaking of O’Blivion, as a respite from Nathan and Naomi’s fawning over whatever they last bought at an airport kiosk, we do get two mad scientist characters, a classic archetype for Cronenberg. Aristide Arosteguy’s weird blend of commodity fetishism and plain regular fetishism is at least interesting, and a sequence in which he details the events spiralling out of a failed Cannes Film Festival judging session is probably the highlight of the book. In Toronto, Dr. Roiphe could be a second cousin to Videodrome‘s Marshall McLuhan stand in O’Blivion, or perhaps Dr. Paul Ruth, Patrick McGoohan’s kindly psychic researcher in Scanners. What is a little bit disturbing and regressive, though, is the continued degradation and transformation of every female character in the story with no equivalent male undergoing the same. I found this to be a little out of character for Cronenberg, who doesn’t usually stick to any gender bias in his body horror tales. Scanners were unisex, as were the unfortunate viewers of the Videodrome signal, and everyone got off on car crashes in Crash. The STI Nathan Math gets is hardly comparable to what happens to Naomi, or Roiphe’s daughter, and he eventually just shuffles off the stage into irrelevance anyway, so why bother? The overall effect recalls Cronenberg’s earlier exploitation flicks like Rabid or Shivers, with maybe a touch of the bad divorce story of The Brood.

So, with Consumed, what we’re getting is a late-period Cronenberg work, a story that is desperately uninteresting despite its salacious subject matter. I will say that interest did pick up for me about halfway through, once we start to realize the depths of the depravity on display. I just wish I hadn’t had to read 120 pages of boring to get to what kind of ends up being a Cronenberg spin on a Tom Clancy cyberthriller, with weird character names Pynchon left sitting on a shelf somewhere.

Review: The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, by Robert Hough (2015)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Bully in the Alley”, one of the sea chanties in the Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag OST (Nils Brown, Sean Dagher, Michiel Schrey and Clayton Kennedy.)

“As I said, it was a pretty little place, with no way to fend off the unwashed likes of us. Still, every man amongst us believed the people living in that pretty little Spanish town had it coming. We believed it because we were filthy and hungry and to a one we’d been born poor. We believed it because we’d braved their hot woods, because we’d survived their insects, because we overcame the tight-chested feeling that comes when thick jungle rubs against you. We believed it because we wanted to, morality being a thing dreamed up by men, and put to use when and only when it’s convenient.” (58)

The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan cover

It’s 1664, the height of the Age of Sail. Benny “Magic” Wand is a professional chess player, a hustler, really, who immediately (within two pages!) finds himself shipped out of England and on to Jamaica in lieu of jail time after getting caught plying his trade once too often. Upon arriving in Port Royal, the “wickedest city on earth”, Benny joins the human flotsam that populates the place in the off-season, living on the beach and eating beached turtles, and, well, waiting for something to happen. The name on everyone’s lips in Port Royal is the same: Henry Morgan. When will the famous English privateer return to Jamaica? And where might his next raid against the Spanish be headed?

Luckily, Morgan returns not too long after Benny arrives in Jamaica, and he immediately begins crewing up for an attack on the small town of Villahermosa, which our hero opines upon in the quoted passage above. Benny starts off at the very bottom of the barrel, a scrub boy, but soon his hard-won knowledge of tactics marks him as a useful tool for Morgan’s ongoing war in the Caribbean. The two men then start a strange friendship, one marked by rivalry over the chessboard as much as it is adventure on the high seas and back alleys of Port Royal.

Robert Hough’s latest novel is fantastic, a perfect realization of swashbuckling action and tense interpersonal conflict. This shouldn’t surprise anyone too much, considering how great his last novel, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, was. Where Dr. Brinkley had many different viewpoint characters detailing its story of unchecked capitalism running rampant over a small Mexican town, the eponymous Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, Benny, is our sole narrator of events this time out. He’s a clever and engaging companion, always trying to figure out a new angle and make a name for himself. The real mystery at the heart of the book, though, is Morgan. At times, the story recalled to me Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master, as it has a similar interplay between two strong personalities, one an open book to the audience and the other a cipher.

In addition to the psychic war that eventually results between Wand and Morgan, Hough, like he did in Dr. Brinkley, also transmits some interesting economic ideas in the text. Hough is interested in how economies, especially those shackled to boom and bust cycles, can be hijacked by individual interests. Where Dr. Brinkley’s radio tower first brought prosperity to its small town, then chaos, revolution and confusion, the world of Port Royal is much more cyclical. Unlike the tony streets of St. Jago, where Morgan lives with other wealthy plantation owners, Benny’s environs are completely dependent on the plunder brought back from sacked Spanish holdings. When times are good, the pubs are full, the “knocking shops” are busy, and everything proceeds smoothly in the frontier economy. As the money leaches away, though, more and more men finds themselves back on the beach at Turtle Crawles, waiting for the tide to come in. It’s a kind of Great Man economic theory, albeit one that shows how precarious such cults of personalities can become, especially when the man at the top becomes more and more unhinged.

I’ve been reading a lot of great Canadian historical fiction lately, between this book, Ian Weir’s Will Starling and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, even going as far back as Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers. While Boyden explicitly deals with Canada (well, really, the territory that would eventually be called Canada once European colonization completely takes hold), I find it interesting that Hough, Weir and de Witt are writing stories that take place outside of the country. I guess I’m kind of lumping de Witt in here unfairly, seeing as how he lives in the States now, but isn’t it just the most Canadian thing ever to excel in telling the stories of others?

The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan is a must for fans of historical adventure yarns, especially fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean films who’re looking for something meatier, more full of well-researched detail on every page, or those who enjoyed the marketing blurb-mentioned Master and Commander, but are looking for an outlaw, unofficial narrative. But aside from that, it will also appeal to readers who’d like to see a tight little character sketch of a relationship between two men who are descended from drastically different circumstances.

Review: Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, by Sara Gran (2013)

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“I hugged myself against the cold. The fog of the Kali Yuga. Paul deserved so much better. He deserved a grand theft, a jewel heist, a murder by a crazed fan. Paul deserved to die in a duel, to tumble down the Himalayas, to be mauled by wildcats on the Serengeti. Instead, some asshole wanted his guitars, shot Paul, and took them. He should have been killed in a high-speed chase in a Lamborghini, poisoned by a duchess, taken out with the candlestick in the conservatory.

Or he could have just lived.”

Clare DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway cover

Claire DeWitt is currently the greatest detective in the world, a rank she achieved after the death of her mentor Constance Starling. After the events of The Case of the Green Parrot, related to us in book form by Sara Gran as Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Claire has left New Orleans and returned to San Francisco. It doesn’t take long, though, for trouble to rear its ugly head once again, as her old flame, Paul Casablancas, turns up dead in what appears to be a burglary of his house. Paul was the one Claire never really got over, and the death hits her doubly hard as she introduced him to his future wife. No one really hires Claire to look into this case, but she does it anyway, adding The Case of the Kali Yuga to her ongoing workload (alongside the decidedly lower-stakes Case of the Missing Miniature Horses).

Interspersed with Claire’s return into the Bay Area rock music world, we also get the story of young Claire and her best friend Tracy solving another mystery in post-punk ’80s New York City, The Case of the End of the World. A young party girl has gone missing in the sleazy underworld of the East Village, and only these two plucky teenagers stand between her and total oblivion.

Probably the most distinctive aspect of the Claire DeWitt novels, apart from its main character’s heroic drug regimen that puts her in the league of Doc Sportello and various Philip K. Dick protagonists, is the element brought to the text by Claire’s bible of sorts, Détection. Written by a French detective named Jacques Silette long before the events of the story, the book essentially changes everyone who comes into contact with it into a P.I. Andray, a major character in City of the Dead, has become a detective, and it’s this book that changes the lives of Claire and Tracy as teens in addition to about half the cast of the story. Gran goes back to Silette quotations throughout the story of Bohemian Highway, sometimes for an ironic counterpoint, sometimes as a way to dig into Claire’s dogged character.

I love this idea, that becoming a detective is kind of a curse, a transmitted infection not unlike the Cthulhu Mythos transmits madness in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. If the Claire DeWitt series was ever to follow another great California detective story like Inherent Vice into the world of film, my preferred director would be Wes Anderson, who’d make great use of this device. I think he’d also get a lot of mileage out of the idea that there are various schools of detection (the Silettians being only one warring faction), and that detectives seem to occupy a much bigger part of the public consciousness than they do in our world.  Detective quarterly magazines are still popular, and detective shows are seemingly always on television. It’s a fun updating of the pulp world in which the original hardboiled types rose to the surface back in the 1920s.

I ended up being a little perplexed after the previous outing in Gran’s series, as I thought she maybe dwelled a little bit too much on the wreckage, both mental and physical, left in New Orleans after Katrina. I have no such reservations with the followup, as this book is all-around great. Like a true noir PI, Claire moves through the various social strata of San Francisco and environs with ease, and various entertaining new (and hopefully recurring) characters are added to her world. I especially liked “the poker chip guy”, who can ascertain the provenance of poker chips almost by magic if given a pie first, and the Red Detective, a Southern guy who lives in the redwood forest outside the city and dispenses cryptic PI wisdom and fortunes.

The scenes set in the 1980s are also a delight, as the well-worn worlds of “girl detective” and “punk nihilism” collide with a lot of entertaining parallels. The descriptions of an infinity of grotty punk bars and sex clubs are appropriately gross, and The Case of the End of the World might be even more satisfyingly solved than the modern-day mystery.

I’m really looking forward to future instalments of the Claire DeWitt series, and heartily recommend this one, even if like me you didn’t love City of the Dead.

Followup Questions: An Interview with Robert Repino, author of Mort(e)!

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In February, I reviewed Robert Repino’s debut novel Mort(e), which is the story of a simple housecat who has been uplifted into becoming a stronger, taller, sentient soldier for a mad Queen of the Ants and her war against humanity. And that’s only the beginning! The book is a lot of fun, so I suggest you check out my review and pick it up if it sounds up your alley. Repino has been gracious enough to answer a few lingering questions I had about the book, as well as gauging how well he’d do in a war between man and beast, and even hinting at what’s to come in the Mort(e) universe.

Robert-Repino

Robert Repino earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize among other awards, and has appeared in The Literary ReviewNight TrainHobartThe Coachella Review, and more. Repino is the pitcher for the Oxford University Press softball team and quarterback for the flag football team, but his business card says that he’s an editor. In addition to Mort(e), Repino is also the author of the forthcoming novella Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles).

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This Nerding Life: So, when you were formulating how the uplift of the animals would work, did you make a taxonomy of which ones would be affected? In the story, we see cats, dogs, a bobcat, a pig, birds (briefly mentioned). We’re told that insects seem to not have been affected, but what about things like dolphins and whales? Reptiles? Apes? (already-tread ground, this…) The sizes of various animals would seem to make integration into society difficult, like if you had to design civic buildings for both cats and elephants. Also, while the book takes place primarily in the continental United States, would there be similar fighting everywhere else? Australia would have a good variety of dangerous animals…

Robert Repino: I suppose calling it a taxonomy would be giving me too much credit. As you note, I eliminated insects from the list of animals that would be affected by the hormone. Instead, they remain loyal allies to the Queen in their present form. Two reasons for this: first, if insects grew to an enormous size, the population would immediately crash because there wouldn’t be enough food for them. Second, the Queen’s decision to uplift the surface animals is intended as a massive experiment to see if the animals will fall prey to the same tendencies that destroyed the humans. In terms of evolution, insects are probably too far removed from humans for them to be a useful component in the experiment.

The animals I work with in my book are restricted by their location, which is hinted at as being a metropolitan area on a river that feeds into the Atlantic, somewhere between New York and DC, both of which have been destroyed. In other words, Philadelphia. So, there are pets, feral animals, and livestock associated with the region.

There is an entire world outside of this region waiting to be discovered, where different species have built (or failed to build) new societies after achieving sentience. This includes not only the other continents, but the territory under the sea. I hint at fighting in other lands; for example, in the backstory for the character Miriam, I mention that most of the apes in Africa have been killed because people mistakenly think that primates are behind the animal uprising. Anyway, I’m working on the sequel, in which the main characters will try to make contact with these other species. And, as you would expect, the results are mixed.

Morte cover

TNL: I had a lot of fun trying to figure out your reference points for events, characters and situations in Mort(e). I think I nailed down a few in my review, like the ’50s atomic ant film Them! and the works of Orwell and possibly Robert C. O’Brien, but were there any others you’re surprised no one’s picked up on? Any that people have been completely off-base in comparing the book to? (As I said in my review, just because someone is investigating a mystery doesn’t mean they’re automatically Sam Spade, cough Slate cough)

RR: You’re definitely right about Them! and Orwell, though I haven’t read O’Brien or the Sam Spade novels referenced in the Slate review. (Slate was very nice to my book, so they can compare it to detective novels all they want.) Publishing this book has reminded me of how poorly read I have been in so many areas. On several occasions, people have said, “Well, you must have read [insert allegory here],” and I’ve had to admit that I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I think the idea of achieving sudden sentience can be found in many bits of pop culture that influenced me. Neo’s discovery of the real world in The Matrix comes to mind. I also worked with the idea of a person sharing another person’s memories; there is, for example, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Inner Light”—often regarded as the best of the series—in which Picard lives another man’s life while a mere twenty minutes have passed in real time.

I’m still waiting for some reviewer to go into detail about the religious content, which is all over the book. There are biblical passages, hymns, theological debates, blasphemy, holy relics, prophecies, references to the Islamic tradition, references to atheist/humanist thought. People have mentioned in passing that the book discusses religion in general, but that’s about it so far. (Honestly, I think your review was the first to spend more than two sentences on it.) I work in the field of religious studies for Oxford University Press, so I’m immersed in these issues. But I have to remind myself that most people don’t really care, which I suppose may be a good thing.

Poster art for Mort(e) done in Mars Attacks! style, by Jeff Wong

TNL: How do you think you would fare in a genocidal war between humans and uplifted animals? For the record, as soon as I see a giant ant just covered in normal-sized ants, I’m using the Hemingway Solution because that’s just terrifying.

RR: Not good. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I’m not trained in hand-to-hand combat, I’m probably below average in terms of physical strength, I’ve forgotten what little I learned about living in the wild from the Boy Scouts, and I live in New York, which will probably be a big smorgasbord when the ants start to feed.

A couple of years ago, there was a fire in my apartment building, and I had to retrieve my glasses in the smoke. As a result of that, I decided to get the laser surgery on my eyes. I can now see perfectly, which I hope has slightly improved my chances of survival. So, I got that going for me.

TNL: “The Story of Sebastian and Sheba”, which comes early on in the novel and serves as the main reason why Mort(e) fights so hard later on, is a pretty beautiful examination of a marriage falling apart in dangerous times told through the perspective of an unlikely narrator. Did you have any rituals or anything that you used to get so perfectly into the mindset and perspective of a housecat examining these events? I’m reminded of Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, the writing of which found the author visiting the beach and pretending to use it as his litterbox. Anything like that?

RR: See, there’s another reference I’m not familiar with! I suck.

There was no particular movie or work of literature I read to get into the mindset of the housecat. What dictated both the writing and the direction of the story was, first, the fact that animals would be more in tune with their other senses than we would be. Thus, Sebastian is ruled by his hearing and sense of smell. Second, I wanted to have this constant tension between a feeling of wonder as the cat explores this world, and a feeling of isolation, as the cat realizes, in fleeting moments, that he is not a member of the master’s family, but is instead a mascot, a piece of property. In other words, the cat lives in a state of constant awe and constant fear and loneliness.

Animal Farm cover

TNL: Going back to Orwell and Animal Farm for a moment, did you feel any pressure while writing the book to stay away from this earlier allegorical story using animals, or to kind of lampshade it while telling your bigger tale? Bonaparte the pig is a pretty clear nod to Animal Farm, but he seems more like a knowing aside than a reference. Mort(e) is also a lot more about the interplay between faith and science than the political allegory found in Orwell, but how well do you think a society of animals would function after the war?

RR: I can’t say I felt pressure to steer clear of Animal Farm. I thought that a lot of the ideas in Orwell’s novel serve as the bedrock of my own book: the folly of human exceptionalism, the inevitability of corruption, the manipulation of willing subjects in some political cause.

Whenever the allegory question comes up, I usually say that my book is allegorical, but it’s not really an allegory, if that makes any sense. In other words, the characters don’t represent particular people in the world today, but they do personify certain tendencies, from hubris to compassion to a desire to find meaning. They are supposed to be original creations with their own wants and needs, as best as I could construct them.

I was less concerned with mimicking Orwell and more concerned with borrowing too heavily from the pop culture elements that have probably influenced me too much over the years. For example, I wanted to have a scene in which Mort(e)’s commanding officer, a grizzled bobcat named Culdesac, gives the soldiers a pep talk about killing humans. But then I saw Inglourious Basterds, which has a similar scene with Brad Pitt’s character, and I had to drop it. There was no way I could write it without stealing from Tarantino’s script.

TNL: The storytelling mechanic of alternating between individual character’s histories and the events currently at hand was probably my favourite part of Mort(e), apart from the irresistible notion of a hard-bitten cat war veteran. I was particularly struck by how each animal interacted with the humans in their lives, or perhaps the absence of humans in Bonaparte’s case. Was it tough to switch between the pre- and post-uplifted animals when writing?

RR: Thank you—I’m glad that worked for you, because the multiple POV structure was truly the biggest challenge of the book. But it needed to be done. If the whole book was from Mort(e)’s perspective, then the other characters would be props for him to use and discard in his single-minded journey. Wawa, Culdesac, Bonaparte, and the Queen needed their own space so we could see what motivated them, what scared them, whom they loved. I couldn’t do that with Mort(e) simply observing them, or through some clunky informational dialogue.

It was always a letdown to finish one character’s chapter, and then say to myself, “Okay, back to Wawa,” or whoever. In order to start again, I would have to read the last chapter from that person’s POV and think about it for several days, until I realized I was talking to myself in that character’s voice. Only then could I start again. And then I’d love the process of writing until the next POV shift, when I would want to jump off a bridge.

***

Thanks again to Robert for taking the time to talk with me. Mort(e) can be found wherever good books are sold, like the Soho Press website.

Review: Humans 3.0, by Peter Nowak

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Humans 3.0 cover

It’s easy to get worried about the future sometimes. Climate change, an unstable economy, terrorist groups, government spying on its citizens, the combined impact of all this can really get you down, especially if you’re an avid consumer of cable news. In the grand scheme of human history, though, we’ve actually got it pretty good right now, especially in the increasingly irrelevantly-named “developed world”. In the “developing world”, said development is occurring at a staggering pace, especially in the fields of infant mortality, tech acceptance, access to services, etc. We now live longer, eat better, kill each other less, have fewer babies and have more access to information than at any other point in human history.

Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species is an excellent wrap-up of where Homo sapiens sapiens sits at this very moment. In taking the temperature of the planet’s inhabitants, he comes to the conclusion that to people of only a few centuries ago, we would appear as gods (or perhaps vampires) with our advancements in longevity, economics, health, knowledge and culture. As we now find ourselves in the Anthropocene epoch, the period in the Earth’s history in which humanity is the biggest determinant of the planet’s future, Nowak posits that we’ve reached the third level of human evolution: the first being cave dwellers and hunter gatherers, the second being pre-Industrial revolution.

With this subject matter, which is undoubtedly interesting on its face but could be a little dry in the wrong hands, Nowak finds a sweet spot between the (often surprising) facts and figures. In a smart move, Nowak tempers his examination of humanity’s advances with pop culture references, knowing winks at well-loved properties like the X-Men, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, MinecraftInterview with the Vampire, and others. One particularly inspired example uses The Joker’s experiment with the two boats from The Dark Knight, itself an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and extrapolates it across the planet. Essentially, as humanity becomes more connected across national, racial, religious and ethnic borders, living conditions for everyone will become better all around as our differences fall by the wayside. It’s a very appealing notion, and one that I hope comes to pass.

I came into this book thinking it’d be a little bit different from what I got, a misconception perhaps brought about by the vaguely cyberpunk image used on the book’s cover. I thought that this might be an examination of transhumanism, of what will happen with the Singularity comes, for instance, or when we make more advancements in nanotechnology. As it turns out, though, what we do have in Humans 3.0 is a great summation of what it’ll take to make those futuristic notions happen, and how our current course will hopefully lead to better health, happiness and prosperity for everyone across the globe. Nowak has done an excellent job here, collating the data, talking to futurist luminaries and making a highly readable account of our science fiction present.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino (2015)

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Morte cover

Mort(e) opens after most human beings on the planet have died. The Queen of the Ants has spent millennia planning for this eventuality, with her masterstroke coming in the form of a DNA upgrade for the planet’s animals, who gain sentience and strength before attacking their masters in a world-spanning conflict with no name. Mort(e), whose slave name when he was owned by the Martini family was Sebastian, is a grizzled war veteran, a special forces operative who served with a mostly-feline unit called the Red Sphinx. When human resistance to the animals and their insectoid benefactors has slowed to a crawl, Mort(e) and the surviving members of the Red Sphinx find themselves dealing with a legacy of the conflict, the dreaded human bioweapon EMSAH, which drives its hosts mad before they kill themselves.

While most animals seem to have completely abandoned their old lives, content to move into their old masters’ homes and take their new marching orders from the Colony, there exists in Mort(e) one small flicker of his pre-uplifted existence: the beautiful memory of a brief period in his life, where a dog from next door named Sheba would come by and rest with him. When Mort(e) hears word that Sheba still lives, he sets out on a quest that will determine the course of his changed world.

Robert Repino’s debut novel is pretty strange, as the above synopsis would suggest. It recalls the classic ’50s atomic monster movie Them! with a similar fixation on giant ants laying waste to things, as well as recent post-apocalypse stories like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Victor Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse and Brian Francis Slattery’s wonderful Lost Everything. I’ve described it to friends and family over the past week a few ways, like “Milo and Otis meets Starship Troopers“, “Tom Perrotta’s The Secret of NIMH“, or “A Boy and His Dog, but the boy’s also a cat.” The book recalls the Fallout series of video games with the detailed way in which Repino has laid out his altered world history, and there’s also a dash of post World War II narratives where veterans find it difficult to re-integrate into society.

I find that this review at Slate is a little bit out to lunch when it compares the book and its hero to classic detective fiction like Chandler and Hammett, as the tone is much more mournful and yet more bombastic somehow than that would suggest. Sure, there’s an element of mystery, and at one point our protagonist does take part in an investigation, but the book is far more concerned with exploring and subverting war narrative tropes and the guilt that plagues the victors of conflict, rather than any tired detective archetypes.

(Side note: Reviewers, would you cut it out already with referencing Hammett and Chandler when you talk about genre? Seriously, there’s been eighty years or so full of crime fiction since they were on the scene, and bringing those two up when any story is remotely noir makes you look like dilettantes. Find some newer cultural touchstones, please! Can you imagine if every single literary novel needed comparing to Virginia Woolf?)

Mort(e) is an interesting character at first, but I found him to become a little tiresome. While he can be construed as a white knight in the Chandler mould, as Slate notes, he’s also definitely not a detective. Given his background, and his relationship with superior officer Culdesac (a bobcat-turned-general, never tamed by humans before The Change), he’s closer in tone to a character like Snake Plissken, or for that matter Solid Snake or Big Boss (all the talk of genetic manipulation is also very reminiscent of the Metal Gear Solid series, too). What could be construed as hardboiled sangfroid is more like shell shock from a war that defies the imagination. Mort(e), whose name is a very roundabout reference to Le Morte d’Arthur, is single-minded in his quest to find Sheba, who represents a less complicated time, certainly one before he grew in size and started shooting people. While I appreciate the way in which Repino gets you into the mindset of an animal who only wants one thing, this and a later complaint made for some occasionally repetitive reading.

Luckily, Repino provides fantastic backstories to many of the other characters in Mort(e)’s world: in addition to the affectionate tale of Sebastian the housecat and Sheba the neighbour’s dog, we also see multiple millennia through the eyes of the Queen of the Ants; we meet Mort(e)’s former commander Culdesac; the extremely sad tale of Mort(e)’s replacement in the Red Sphinx, Wawa, a dog bred for fighting; and Bonaparte, an alcoholic pig who escaped a somewhat familiar farm filled with animals…

There are a few references to that other book with talking animals who rise up against their masters, but these are mostly winking asides, albeit ones that raise the possibility that Orwell’s story might coincide with the world wide devastation caused by the Nameless War. The main philosophical thrust of the book comes as an argument between theism and atheism, and there lies most of my problem with the story. I loved the histories of this war, and I thought that Repino did an astounding job with the pre-uplift backstories of his animals. The writing has an amazing sense of how a creature that has not yet gained sentience might understand things like marital infidelity, mental illness, and general human cruelty. When the story shifts gears halfway through, when Mort(e) learns the secret of EMSAH, the endless bickering over whether or not God is real derails it for me. It feels like there was a definite axe to grind on this subject, and at times the narrative slows to a crawl as characters debate theology. It was interesting to note ways in which religion changes in a world where your dog probably did try to murder you, but I much preferred other parts of the story.

Still, the sheer imagination on display in Mort(e) definitely makes it worth checking out. While I still had some questions about the scope of the whole thing by the end, the crazy fun action and affecting depiction of our animal friends is definitely worth celebrating. I listened to this book through Audible, and while Bronson Pinchot’s use of different sound effects and voices was pretty great, for general narration it sounded like he was on the verge of tears the entire time. It was a little bit distracting, although there are quite a few moments that made me tear up too. This might not be a book for animal lovers, although it might appeal to those who wonder what their cat gets up to while they’re away.

Media Consumption 2014

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books / comics / film / sitting in the dark with strangers

Here’s a pretty thorough list of all the media I consumed in 2014. We’ll start with Sitting in the Dark With Strangers, my yearly movie list. I’m basically happy with this preferential ranking, although a few things could move around.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

2. Under the Skin

3. Inherent Vice

4. The Wind Rises

5. Gunday

6. John Wick

7. Jodorowsky’s Dune

8. Blue Ruin

9. Guardians of the Galaxy 

10. Godzilla

11. A Most Wanted Man

12. 22 Jump Street

13. The Lego Movie 

14. Edge of Tomorrow

15. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

16. Fury

17. A Field in England

18. Noah

19. The Guest

20. Nightcrawler

21. The Lunchbox

22. Gone Girl

23. Why Don’t You Play In Hell?

24. The Raid 2

25. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

26. Life Itself

27. Snowpiercer

28. Neighbors

29. X-Men: Days of Future Past

30. The Fault in Our Stars

31. Big Hero 6

32. Interstellar

33. Anchorman 2

34. 300: Rise of an Empire

35. Journey to the West

36. Dracula Untold

37. Only Lovers Left Alive

38. Muppets Most Wanted

39. How to Train Your Dragon 2

40. Jersey Boys

 

Movies I still need to see:

Boyhood

The Rover

Foxcatcher

The Purge: Anarchy

Birdman

Selma

The Interview

Enemy

The Double

The Final Member

We Are the Best!

Lucy

Frank

The Congress

The Babadook

Unforgiven

The Duke of Burgundy

Citizenfour

 

Next, here’s all the books I read this year in chronological order. Links are to reviews here on the blog. Stars indicate books of exceptional quality.

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance, by Adam Bertocci

Low Town, by Daniel Polansky

The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing

*Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories, by Karen Russell

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

*The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

*Cataract City, by Craig Davidson

*The Honourable Schoolboy, by John le Carré

The Weirdness, by Jeremy Bushnell

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran

*Smiley’s People, by John le Carré

Declare, by Tim Powers (audiobook)

Economics: The User’s Guide: A Pelican Introduction, by Ha-Joon Chang

*The Martian, by Andy Weir (audiobook)

*The Orenda, by Jospeh Boyden

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya

The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure, by Shawn Micallef

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

Tokyo Vice, by Jake Adelstein (audiobook)

Glow, by Ned Beauman

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David Ewalt (audiobook)

*Augustus, by John Williams

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

*Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein (audiobook)

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner (audiobook)

*Will Starling, by Ian Weir

Perfidia, by James Ellroy

They Came From Within (Second Edition), by Caelum Vatsndal

A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King

Nice Day For Murder: Poems For James Cagney, by Kimmy Beach

Nineteen Seventy Four, by David Peace (audiobook)

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, by Tejaswini Ganti

The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño

*The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and The Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein (audiobook)

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

For comics, books I enjoyed included Fables, Satellite Sam, Saga, The Fade Out, Sex Criminals, Blacksad and others.

I don’t watch too much TV these days, but Game of Thrones was really good, as was Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Archer Vice, Fargo (which I still need to finish), True DetectiveMad Men, naturally, and maybe a couple of others I can’t think of off the top of my head.

For video games, I liked Dragon Age: Inquisition, 80 DaysCrusader Kings II, Saints Row IVEuropa Universalis IV, The Wolf Among Us, and I spent probably an inordinate amount of time playing Dynasty Warriors Gundam III. No regrets. GTA V was a letdown.

For good podcasts, here’s another list, this time alphabetical.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

The Dollop

El Diabolik’s World of Psychotronic Soundtracks

NPR: Planet Money

Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men

Shut Up & Sit Down

Trash, Art and the Movies

The Worst Idea of All Time

You Must Remember This

For YouTube channels, I watched a lot of The Dice Tower, Machinima, Oliver Harper, Super Bunnyhop, Filmmaker IQ, Crash Course and CGP Grey.

That about covers it. I occasionally went outside sometimes too.

Did you like anything this last year? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Rick Perlstein (2014)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Underdogs” by Liz, feat. RiFF RAFF

The Invisible Bridge cover

Rick Perlstein’s fantastic Invisible Bridge picks up where his equally excellent Nixonland left off: as the skullduggery and intrigue surrounding Watergate begins to bubble up through the surface of the American imagination, leaving terror in its wake. It ends with an event that I, ignorant Canadian, knew next to nothing about: the 1976 Republican National Convention, which saw the incumbent president Gerald Ford go head to head with the ascendant Ronald Reagan for the leadership role of the Party. In between these two touchstones, Perlstein immerses readers in the fear and loathing of the era, perhaps less in your face than the 1960s, but still troubled times. The OPEC oil embargo, the SALT nuclear missile treaties, stagflation, all of these huge events are presented alongside the day-to-day concerns of the populace through periodic check-ins with newspapers and magazines. Capsule reviews of popular movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, The Parallax View, and Nashville help take the temperature of the American filmgoing audience, and links are made between concerns as they appear on celluloid and how they interact with (and are perhaps shaped by) those found in newspapers. The importance of TV in political discourse is addressed, as many campaign ads are dissected alongside the popular shows of the time.

I was initially a little skeptical of The Invisible Bridge, which is weird considering how much I loved Nixonland. While I’ve been interested in Nixon and his pals for a long time, the only emotion prior to reading this I was really able to rouse for Reagan was a simmering dread, as the changes he’s wrought upon the world are pretty much antithetical to my taste. Nixon was a terrible rogue, this is true, but he’s a fascinating one, a kind of American Richard III whose machinations and petty hatreds are at the very least somewhat entertaining in hindsight. To me, Reagan is a much more benign evil, an evil that wears on its face blithe optimism about the doctrine of American Exceptionalism co-mingled with conservatism and the religious right.

So, imagine to my surprise that I kind of felt for Reagan after reading this book? I found the sections about his life growing up and then working in Hollywood pretty riveting, and I was even on his side on some things, at least until he dropped a dime on some Hollywood fellow travellers to the FBI. I listened to the audiobook of The Invisible Bridge, so perhaps it’s difficult to maintain a loathing for the guy after spending 35-some hours with him? As opposed to Nixonland, which was for the most part told in chronological order, The Invisible Bridge jumps around a lot in time, checking in with Reagan at various points in his life when there’s an interesting connection with events in the 1970s modern day. I don’t know if this is always successful in telling the story of this time period, but it is a good way around rehashing some of the historical happenings that would have also occurred in Nixon’s day. Reagan coming to politics later in life than Nixon also means that less of his story is directly related to the Republican power struggle that is the book’s main focus. We see his difficult upbringing, his time spent as a radio sports announcer, his Hollywood career, and then a really fascinating section where he hosts a TV program sponsored by General Electric. The book has also helped me to gain a newfound appreciation of Gerald Ford. At times, even the audiobook narrator seemed to feel bad for the guy, who inherited some of the most fractious and dangerous times in American history with little to no easy fixes in sight. Still, it is funny to hear about how new media venues like Saturday Night Live parodied the gaffe-prone Ford, who I really only knew from that one episode of The Simpsons (again, ignorant Canadian).

I don’t think Perlstein ever hits upon a central metaphor to Reagan’s life that has the same power as the “Franklins vs. Orthogonians” one found in Nixonland (in short, these two groups of people were originally student organizations at Nixon’s school, but they eventually come to symbolize the method by which Nixon’s politics of division worked so well, basically by inculcating a “snobs vs. slobs” mentality). Perlstein continually brings up Reagan’s wanting to see his best self reflected in the eyes of others, and his perpetual search for strong father figures, which works well enough. The book also shines when talking about the rise of “anti-politics”, post-Watergate suspicion about the democratic process that led to the election of ultimate underdog Jimmy Carter (and a few years later, Reagan).

My favourite moment out of these two books, though, remains Perlstein’s putting readers into the shoes of a person watching the 1968 Democratic Convention on TV, which is found in Nixonland. There, he made sure to mention all of the increasingly incongruous commercials going alongside the bizarre events happening onscreen, in a way that really made me realize the enormity of what was happening in Chicago that week, and how little sense it might have made to the lay person. I don’t know if anything in The Invisible Bridge really reaches that height, apart from maybe the play-by-play of the 1976 Republican Convention, which was by all accounts a nail biter. It’s a little weird, actually; I could easily Google these events and find out what happens, but I’d rather not, as Perlstein has a way of making the driest parliamentary jargon and chicanery seem like a tense thrill ride. He also deserves to be commended for almost never ever “breaking character” and telling the reader what’s going to happen with certain recognizable names, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc. I can’t recall a single occasion where he winks at the reader about these kinds of guys, or hints at darker undercurrents behind their actions.

Before the Storm, Perlstein’s examination of the 1960s through the lens of Barry Goldwater, has immediately risen to the ranks of books I’d like to read as soon as I can. What Perlstein has given us here is a way for people like myself, who are about as far from cultural conservatism as possible, to understand the allure of the concept and why it has gained so much power. The conservative movement is made much clearer by these tremendous excavations, and the writing actually makes it fun to see how it came about! Perlstein does an amazing job of collating what must have been thousands of newspaper/magazine articles and hundreds of hours of TV broadcasts and interviews into an appealing and monumental work. Definitely seek this book out, as well as its predecessors, if you have any interest in American history.