Saturday, December 28, 2013

Our Potential Virtual Worlds

A couple of takes on the near-future as the virtual world becomes just a little more real than the real world. Although neither is a total nightmare, both are just disturbing enough to make you rethink your online life.

More Than This by Patrick Ness
(Candlewick Press, 2013)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments, losing his life as the pounding sea claims him. But then he wakes. He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is that possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks. So how is he here? And where is this place? It looks like the suburban English town where he lived as a child, before an unthinkable tragedy happened and his family moved to America. But the neighborhood around his old house is overgrown, covered in dust, and completely abandoned. What’s going on? And why is it that whenever he closes his eyes, he falls prey to vivid, agonizing memories that seem more real than the world around him? Seth begins a search for answers, hoping that he might not be alone, that this might not be the hell he fears it to be, that there might be more than just this. . . "

After the Chaos Walking trilogy, I expect the following from Ness: boys on the brink of manhood, thrown into the deep end of a world that is not what they thought they knew, navigating it with the help of well-met new companions. More Than This delivers it all, though in an alternate present (or near-future, perhaps) rather than on another world. Seth wakes in his deserted childhood hometown after drowning a continent away, and his mysterious solitude is no more explicable once he finally meets some fellow recently-departed teens. As he struggles with the traumatic memories of his life, this post-life world is sometimes hell and sometimes just a mystery, until it turns out that reality and life were not at all what he, or perhaps anyone, expected. 

The Circle by Dave Eggers
(Knopf / Random House Audio, 2013) 
Format: audio via library (narrated by Dion Graham)

From Goodreads: "When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge."

Here's a fun thing: think of all the online stuff you do - social, financial, recreational - and imagine it was all bound up in one identity. One username - a real one, tied to your government ID and banking info - one password, everything linked so you can chat about a product and buy it from one place, and the fact that you can't hide behind an anonymous sobriquet means there aren't trolls 'ruining' the conversation. Sounds convenient, until you put it all in the hands of someone with a brain like Eggers's, and then all the Ways It Could Go Wrong build, slowly at first, a little from one side and a little from another, until suddenly: yikes. Sure, high-res cameras to show the surf conditions! and make them little and cheap so they can be hidden in political hot-spots and catch para-militants in action! or, maybe in your elderly mom's kitchen so you can ensure she's taking her pills! Never mind that, just as you can access your friend's beach camera, she can also access the one trained on your mom. It's totally fine. 

Mae is an interesting character, accessible but infuriating - zigging when I wanted her to zag. Of course, those zigs are what allow Eggers to push her deeper and deeper into the Circle's world, unwitting though she sometimes is, and make the unfathomable seem almost reasonable. I willed her to just snap out of it long before I gave up on her, but her unwillingness - or inability - to untangle her life from the Circle was creepily effective and thought-provoking. 

Dion Graham grabbed ahold of the tone of this book, sounding placid and accessible and assured as he moved inexorably forward, allowing just a hint of menace to steal in even as Mae, blindly trusting, removed every filter between herself and the entire online world. He could be giving a wildly successful TED talk, and everyone would want to share and replay, spreading his message across the globe.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Night Film

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
(Random House, 2013)
Format: hardback bought at the wonderful Blue Willow Bookshop

From Goodreads: "Night Film tells the haunting story of a journalist who becomes obsessed with the mysterious death of a troubled prodigy—the daughter of an iconic, reclusive filmmaker.

On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.

For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.

Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world.

The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more."

So, I actively disliked Scott McGrath pretty much from page one. (Or should I say pretty much from page one.?) (The of italics in this text was gratuitous and inexplicable, unless the purpose was to assist in my disliking the narrator.) In addition to the italics, we've got his crappy parenting and his egoism and the very fact that he was obsessing over all this Cordova stuff. On the other hand, he went for it. He chased his story, he endangered himself and others, he tossed around piles of cash in pursuit of leads. He was all about taking action. Which meant that even though I disliked him, I was very much along for the ride.

Cult horror films aren't my typical milieu, but I enjoyed this deeper and deeper delving into the world of Cordova and his fans. Pessl did fun things with her interactive portion of the book - not just the pages made to mimic web sites or sheaves of notes, but the scannable photos that took me to additional content. (The additional content was pretty much all about Cordova's films in some way, the kind of thing that his obsessive fans would compile for their invisible internet sites. It wasn't necessary for the narrative of the novel, but made the world McGrath was investigating all the more real.)

Ultimately, the mystery unraveled to reveal something not terribly mysterious, and I think Pessl could have done more to make each character an individual - they weren't any of them all that distinguishable from McGrath, which made them all a little hard to like - but I found myself turning pages and looking forward to more as the story developed, so I'm very happy to have taken the leap down a disused elevator shaft and into the world of this book.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

One Minute There, Then She Was Gone

Have you been waiting with bated breath? Thought so! Well, dear readers, wait no more, because here is the second half of 
Book Eight - The Wicked Poor Man
Drama! Action! Suspense!
The odor of burning
human flesh!

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables gets pretty dramatic here at the end of Volume 3: Marius; as you'll remember, young Marius is standing on the commode spying through a hole in the plaster at the con-man next door, who has just been given cash and gifts by the sweet ol' man, father of his beloved angel, but wasn't able to follow her to her house because he gave all his cash to the con-man's bedraggled daughter. WHAT WILL HAPPEN? Well, I'll tell you:

  • Jondrette (the con-man) says he recognizes the old guy, makes his daughters leave, and whispers the old guy's identity to his wife. She doesn't believe it, and furthermore, is outraged when Jondrette whispers the girl's identity. Wife's not happy. "Surprise, rage, hate, wrath, were mingled and combined in one monstrous intonation." (p.508)
  • Jondrette's not as pissed as his wife. He's ready to rake in the cash. "Thunder! It was not so very long ago that I was a parishioner of the parish of die-of-hunger-if-you-have-a-fire,-die-of-cold-if-you-have-bread!" (p.508) he says. 
  • He's got the old guy returning at six that evening to bring some more cash, and is going off to set a trap. Machinations! Plans! Schemes!
Now, Marius can't let this lie. He's got a beloved to protect! So he creeps out of the house (his neighbors think he's been gone all this time) and heads to get the cops. And here's an interesting twist! The commissioner isn't in, but there's an inspector filling in, so Marius goes to talk to him. "This man's air was not much less ferocious nor less terrible than Jondrette's; the dog is, at times, no less terrible to meet than the wolf." (p.512) (This is not the first time the wolf and dog have made an appearance when discussing this particular guy's appearance.) (Have you guessed who it is?)

Marius tells the inspector that he has an urgent, private matter to relate. He goes on about the plot and the accomplices and the girls setting a trap and then says where it's all going down. "[A]ll this was to be carried out at six o'clock that evening, at the most deserted point of the Boulevard de l'Hopital, in house No. 50-52.
"At the sound of this number, the inspector raised his head and said coldly:-'So it is in the room at the end of the corridor?' " (p.513)

Marius is like 'oh, you know it?' and the inspector's all 'yeah, yeah, can't hide there, too exposed, gotta make a plan - oh, you say all those bad guys from Book Seventh will be there? Fine, here, take these guns, shoot as a signal if there are urgent problems, we'll be there about six - oh, and if you need me, send a message to Inspector Javert.'

Marius heads home and takes up his position on top of the furniture. Jondrette is doing a lot of stage-
setting: a coal brazier with some tools heating in it, dark corners, oiled door hinges, etc. He sends his daughter next door to be sure Marius is gone, but she is so distracted by her reflection and teenage dreaminess that she only claims to have looked under the bed where Marius had hidden himself. (If you're wondering, yes, this is all just as farcical as you might be imagining.)

Everything's finally ready. "The Jondrette lair was, if the reader recalls what we have said of the Gorbeau building, admirably chosen to serve as the theatre of a violent and sombre deed, and as the envelope for a crime. It was the most retired chamber in the most isolated house on the most deserted boulevard in Paris." (p.519)

Of course, they don't have enough chairs, and Ma Jondrette dashes over to Marius's room to borrow his. Lucky for him he's in a dark corner and she's in a hurry to get back to the action. He's got his pistol cocked and his ears alert as the old guy enters; he knows the cops are nearby, and he hopes to learn some stuff about his angel before the night is over.

As Jondrette accepts the man's cash and chats about his injured daughter's hand, and various sob stories about work and wages and being under the boot of The Man and so forth, a few quiet brutes enter, one at a time. Jondrette is all 'hey, that guy? Just a neighbor, no big. Ignore him. And him, too. You can't see their faces 'cause they work with coal, it makes them dirty. How 'bout them Knicks?' Once everyone was in place, he starts yelling at the old guy, wants to know if he's recognized, can't believe the old guy's denials. Jondrette says that he was an inn-keeper, named Thenardier. The old guy still denies knowledge.

"Marius did not hear this reply. Any one who had seen him at that moment though the darkness would have perceived that he was haggard, stupid, thunder-struck…. Let the reader recall what that name meant to him! That name he had worn on his heart, inscribed in his father's testament!…That man, to whose service Marius was burning to devote himself, was a monster! That liberator of Colonel Pontmercy was on the point of committing a crime whose scope Marius did not, as yet, clearly comprehend, but which resembled an assassination!" (p.526)

"He shuddered. Everything depended on him. Unknown to themselves, he held in his hand all those begins who were moving about there before his eyes. If he fired his pistol, M. Leblanc [Marius's name for the old guy] was saved and Thenardier lost; if he did not fire, M. Leblanc would be sacrificed, and who knows? Thenardier would escape. Should he dash down the one or allow the other to fall? Remorse awaited in either case." (p.527)

Thenardier, meanwhile, is heaping invective upon Leblanc. Here are some of his exclamations (p.527-9):

  1. Done for! Smoked brown! Cooked! Spitchcodked!
  2. Mister philanthropist! Mister threadbare millionaire! Mister giver of dolls! you old ninny!
  3. Old charity monger, get out with you! Are you a hosier, Mister millionaire?
  4. you old blackguard, you child-stealer!
  5. And with his goody-goody air!
  6. I said to myself: 'Blockhead! Come, I've got you! I lick you paws this morning, but I'll gnaw your heart this evening!'
  7. Ah! you folks warm your feet, you have Sakoski boots, you have wadded great-coats, like archbishops, you lodge on the first floor in houses that have porters, you eat truffles, you eat
    asparagus at forty francs the bunch in the month of January, and green peas, you gorge yourselves, and when you want to know whether it is cold, you look in the papers to see what the engineer Chevalier's thermometer says about it.

In the course of this diatribe, he not only confirms to the eavesdropping Marius that he's the same guy who saved ("saved") Marius's dad Colonel Pontmercy at Waterloo, but he speaks not so sweetly about the beloved patriarch.

"Moreover, there was in all these words of Thenardier, in his accent, in his gesture, in his glance which darted flames at every word, there was, in this explosion of an evil nature disclosing everything, in that mixture of braggadocio and abjectness, of pride and pettiness, of rage and folly, in that chaos of real griefs and false sentiments, in that immodesty of a malicious man tasting the voluptuous delights of violence, in that shameless nudity of a repulsive soul, in that conflagration of all sufferings combined with all hatreds, something which was as hideous as evil, and as heart-rending as the truth." (p.529)

So now Marius has a quandary: protect the father of his angel, or do service for the devil who (he thinks) protected his father? He starts to shoot (to summon Javert's men), he fails to shoot, more thugs show up in Thenardier's room. Thenardier is pacing and ranting, "with full confidence that the door was guarded, and of holding an unarmed man fast, he being armed himself, of being nine against one, supposing that the female Thenardier counted for but one man." (p.530)

A battle ensues, and as strong as the old man is, the odds are bad, and they end up capturing him, searching him, and tying him to the bed. Being a clever criminal, Thenardier comments on the fact that Marius (and I) missed: during all of this ruckus, the old man didn't cry out for help. Why? Because he wants to evade the law himself. And this makes Thenardier all the more sure that his request will be fulfilled. He merely wants 200,000 francs from the man. Thenardier dictates a letter for the old man to write to his daughter, asking her to come to him at once, with the bearers of the letter.

In the course of this, we discover that the old man's actual name is Urbain Fabre, which means Marius has been carrying the father's handkerchief all along, but never mind. Fabre writes his address on the letter and one of the thugs, along with Thenardier's wife, head off to deliver it. Everyone settles in to await their return. Marius is still unsure where his conscious stands with all of these men, but he does know he'll give his life to protect Mademoiselle Fabre, so he has an action plan, at any rate.

It turns out Thenardier instructed the thug to abduct the angel, and hold her until he got the ransom from Fabre, which horrifies poor besotted Marius. Eventually the outraged Madame Thenardier returns. The address Fabre gave was false! It's not even a house! Marius breathes a sigh of relief - his angel is safe. But why bother with the false address, Thenardier demands to know.

" 'To gain time!' cried the prisoner in a thundering voice, and at the same instant he shook off his bonds;
they were cut. The prisoner was only attached to the bed now by one leg." (p.538) Fabre reaches for the iron-hot chisel resting in the fireplace and brandishes it before the seven conspirators can react. How did he do it? I love this part:

"The judicial examination to which the ambush in the Gorbeau hovel eventually gave rise, established the fact that a large sou piece, cut and worked in a peculiar fashion, was found in the garret, when the police made their descent on it. This sou piece was one of those marvels of industry, which are engendered by the patience of the galleys in the shadows and for the shadow, marvels which are nothing else than instruments of escape. These hideous and delicate produce of wonderful art are to jewelers' work what the metaphors of slang are to poetry…. The
unhappy wretch who aspires to deliverance finds means sometimes without tools, sometimes with a common wooden-handled knife, to saw a sou into two thin plates, to hollow out these plates without affecting the coinage stamp, and to make a furrow on the edge of the sou in such a manner that the plates will adhere again. This can be screwed together and unscrewed at will; it is a box. In this box he hides a watch-spring, and this watch-spring, properly handled, cuts good-sized chains and bars of iron. The unfortunate convict is supposed to possess merely a sou; not at all, he possesses liberty." (p.538)

Fabre makes it clear through vicious means that nothing Thenardier and his thugs can do will cause him to name his actual address. "[H]e extended his arm, and laid the glowing chisel which he held in his left
hand by its wooden handle on his bare flesh.
"The crackling of the burning flesh became audible, and the odor peculiar to chambers of torture filled the hovel.
"Marius reeled in utter horror, the very ruffians shuddered, hardly a muscle of the old man's face contracted, and while the red-hot iron sank into the smoking wound, impassive and almost august, he fixed on Thenardier his beautiful glance, in which there was no hatred, and where suffering vanished in serene majesty." (p.539)


Fabre throws the chisel out the window, and the ruffians attempt to grab him, which the Thenardiers decide knifing their prisoner is their only option.

Marius is freaking the heck out. "For the last hour he had had two voices in his conscience, the one enjoining him to respect his father's testament, the other crying to him to rescue the prisoner." (p.539) As he looks around despairingly, he notices the scrap of paper the older Thenardier had written on that morning in her attempts to impress him. Her words were, "THE BOBBIES ARE HERE," and they give Marius an idea. He wraps it around a bit of plaster and tosses it through the gap between their rooms, where the Thenardiers find it and assume it came through the open window.

All bad guys dive for the rope-ladder that is resting by the window, jostling and pushing in an attempt to be the first to escape. They can't settle on an order, and one of the ruffians suggests drawing lots to see who leaves first.

"Thenardier exclaimed:- 'Are you mad! Are you crazy! What a pack of boobies! You want to waste time, do you? Draw lots, do you? By a wet finger, by a short straw! With written names! Throw into a hat!-'
" 'Would you like my hat?' cried a voice on the threshold.
"All wheeled round. It was Javert.
"He had his hat in his hand, and was holding it out to them with a smile." (p.540)

The next chapter is titled One Should Always Begin by Arresting the Victims. So that's promising.

Javert and his guys spent a long time sitting around, surrounding the Gorbeau house. His first move was to capture the Thenardier girls, though Eponine got away. Then they waited, and waited, and watched all the well-known bad guys arrive, and Javert had ants in his pants, so up they went, even though Marius hadn't signaled them.

"He had arrived just in the nick of time.
"The terrified ruffians flung themselves on the arms which they had abandoned in all the corners at the moment of flight. In less than a second, these seven men, horrible to behold, had grouped themselves in an attitude of defense, one with his meat-axe, another with his key, another with his bludgeon, the rest with shears, pincers, and hammers. Thenardier had his knife in his fist. The Thenardier woman snatched up an enormous paving-stone which lay in the angle of the window and served her daughters as an ottoman." (p.541)

Javert suggests mildly that instead of exiting via the window, the gang should use the door. One of the crooks passes his gun to Thenardier, whispering, " 'It's Javert. I don't dare fire at that man. Do you dare?' " (p.541) Javert is all 'hey, go for it, you won't hit me no matter how close you are' and Thenardier is all 'bang!' but he misses and Javert is all 'told ya!' and the ruffians proceed to toss their weapons at Javert's feet and surrender. The other cops come in and start cuffing everyone, but one person challenges them:

"The Thenardier woman had entrenched herself in one of the angles of the window, and it was she who had just given vent to this roar.
"The policemen and agents recoiled.
"She had thrown off her shawl, but retained her bonnet; her husband, who was crouching behind her, was almost hidden under the discarded shawl, and she was shielding him with her body, as she elevated the paving-stone above her head with the gesture of a giantess on the point of hurling a rock.
" 'Beware!' she shouted….
[everyone backs off and she calls them cowards]
"Javert smiled, and advanced across the open space which the Thenardier was devouring with her eyes.
" 'Don't come near me,' she cried, 'or I'll crush you.'
" 'What a grenadier!' ejaculated Javert; 'you've got a beard like a man, mother, but I have claws like a woman.' " (p.542)

She throws the rock at him, which he ducks easily, and it lands at his feet. He collars the couple and had his men cuff them, and tells them, FYI, your kids are in jail, too.

And now Javert shows off a little, to make the ruffians fear him even more. He tells them to keep their masks on, lines them up, and names them one by one. While he's at it, he notices the dude tied to the chair, and orders the cops to untie him, and also to not let anyone leave the room. Javert sits himself at the table and starts writing his report. After the standard opening lines, he says, " 'Let the gentleman whom these gentlemen bound step forward.'
"The policemen glanced round them.
" 'Well,' said Javert, 'where is he?'
"The prisoner of the ruffians, M. Leblanc, M. Urbain Fabre, the father of Ursule or the Lark, had disappeared.
"The door was guarded, but the window was not. As soon as he had found himself released from his bonds, and while Javert was drawing up his report, he had taken advantage of confusion, the crowd, the darkness, and of a moment when the general attention was diverted from him, to dash out the window….
" 'The devil!' ejaculated Javert between his teeth, 'he must have been the most valuable of the lot.' " (p.543)

And all that's left to end this long entry, Book Eight, and Volume III: Marius is this: the next night, a ragamuffin lad came singing down the road, tossing insults at an old woman who turns out to be the portress of No. 50-52. She recognizes him as the imp (who Hugo notes we met back when we first went to the Thenardiers' inn in Volume II) whose whole family was just carted off to various Parisian jails. The portress takes a certain grim pleasure in informing him of their current abodes. The boy turns on his heel and walks back out into the night.

(Happy birthday to me! I am "only" two volumes away from completion of this silly self-imposed task. It's been fun, if time-consuming. But I'll go on.)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Survival Lessons

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
(Highbridge Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CD via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Xe Sands)

From Goodreads: "Fifteen years ago, Alice Hoffman received a diagnosis that changed everything about the life she'd been living. Most significant aside from the grueling physical ordeal she underwent was the way it changed how she felt inside and what she thought she ought to be doing with her days. Now she has written the book that she needed to read then. In this honest, wise, and upbeat guide, Alice Hoffman provides a road map for the making of one's life into the very best it can be. As she says, "In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss. There were many times when I forgot about roses and starry nights. I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, and that it's impossible to have one without the other. . . . I wrote to remind myself that in the darkest hour the roses still bloom, the stars still come out at night. And to remind myself that, despite everything that was happening to me, there were still some choices I could make."

Good things come in small packages sometimes, and it's very much true in this case. After cancer and treatment and the mental blows that accompanied the physical ones, Hoffman was moved to think deeply about the choices she made with her life. I don't get the impression she was living such a bad life before the diagnosis - certainly her career was already going very strong - but it's not the overall course of things, it's the small decisions and moments that pass without a lot of thought that concern her here. 

Choices, deliberately and thoughtfully made. Choosing friends, pleasures, heroes. Choosing to accept or reject burdens, when that's possible. Choosing to eat brownies. Allowing that deliberate thoughtfulness about so many aspects of your life to strengthen and sustain you, both in fine times and in troubling times. In many ways, these aren't startling or new ideas, but Hoffman is a stylist, accessible and thoughtful and unique. It's a pleasure to have her Survival Lessons compiled like this, and though I teared up frequently listening to her words, I was left feeling peaceful and a bit wiser at the end of this short collection.

Xe Sands is a beautiful narrator for this book. Here's how much I love listening to her voice: there's a section at the end, just a few minutes, giving a knitting pattern. I'm not yarn-adept, it meant nothing to me and I could easily have skipped over it, but there was something soothing about her mellifluous voice. Purl and knit and cast off and so forth - if Sands narrated a book of knitting for dummies, I'd be tempted to learn just to have an excuse for it. 

I recommend the book, and the audiobook. If you follow my advice, you'll need the brownie recipe (and butter, and a double boiler, and possibly some doilies) so I've got it here for you: