The Living and the Dead, Book Review

Want to know where Hitchcock got his idea for VERTIGO? It turns out a tiny French crime novel called THE LIVING AND THE DEAD by Boilea-Narcejac inspired the film. I picked this one up from a random French bookstore in Boston not knowing that it was the inspiration for Hitchcock’s strange film about double or triple identities. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a detective that is hired to follow a  rich businessman’s wife Madeleine. She commits suicide to his dismay. He disappears while the cops investigate only to discover a woman that resembles Madeleine. But isn’t she dead? Is the detective crazy?

The book is well written and has good pacing. Its main problem is that it takes too long to develop the idea of double identity. Madeleine is followed because her husband thinks she is possessed or something is wrong with her. Then, she commits suicide. It isn’t until she reappears as a different woman that we understand what is occurring- someone is lying. Either the detective is crazy or Madeleine is still alive.

It is fitting that I should read a novel like this while visiting LA, land of masks and actors. I have often felt in large cities that we never truly see the faces of others on the streets. It is only in intimate spaces that people reveal who they are. That is why I like intimate interactions versus those with large groups of people. For example, I was sitting at a Starbucks reviewing my manuscript for TREE WARS and an older gentleman was sitting next to me. Let’s call him A. A had all the signs of being homeless- a scruffy, dirty blonde beard and torn clothing. Enter another sun-burnt man, much younger, B. B greets A as if they were longtime friends and says, “Namaste.” It turns out they are a part of a cult. They spend their time talking about Satan and Chakras and beer… Like I said, double and triple identities- the story of our lives.

 

Tokyo Ghost, Issue 1 Review

A young man walks into a comic store in Baltimore and asks the owner,  an Asian lady with broad shoulders, what she would recommend for someone who is a fan of the cyberpunk genre. 

“I’m old school,” he says proudly, “I’m into Akira and Ghost in the Shell.” 

Her lip piercing gleams as a smile crosses her face. “You heard of Tokyo Ghost?” 

She walks away from the cash register counter toward the comic aisles, revealing a Pikachu tail pinned to her pants. She hands him a magazine whose cover shows a brawny man riding an Akira-style motorcycle. He reads it…

Tokyo Ghost hearkens back to the greats, like Akira and Transmetropolitan, and adds new spins to familiar things. Los Angeles is addicted to the web- thousands of shows stream on screens and bio-augmentation gives users super-hero bodies and rushes. Constable Debbie is trying to convince her husband Led to kick his addiction to technology. This lucha-libre style Led is always distracted by shows always playing on his screens covering his eyes (Ahem, Google Glass, I’m looking at you).

It is great and dark and scary. The comic genre is one I have followed for a while, watching as it has matured from the stereotypical super heroes (X-Men and Spiderman) to much darker iterations of those former forms.

Tokyo Ghost is certainly not for the faint hearted. It’s an adrenaline rush that mirrors its world addicted to violence and games. I am curious about the relationship between Debby, an anti-technology constable and her husband Led, an addicted muscular freak. If you’re a fan of Akira and Ghost in the Shell and Judge Dredd, it’s worth a read!

 

Book Review: Dark Tower, Book 1

I confess to not having read any of Stephen King’s books beside his memoir, which I found startling and insightful. The writing advice, like most, can be skipped, but the parts about his alcoholism were a horrific image at his process of writing.

First question: what was King on when he wrote Dark Tower? I picture him writing it right after seeing Clint Eastwood’s movies at a drive in. When he envisioned his mutants in the caves, what exactly was he thinking of?

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It is clear that King is a great writer. But I feel that his writing in this book is a little too vague and mystical. One specific gripe I had about it was his flashes to the Wanderer’s past, when he was a child in training. Throughout the book, the Wanderer has no name yet in the past he does. Figuring out who he was in the past was jarring and confusing to me. This seems like a minor detail, I know, but it seems to be symptomatic of the lack of direction the rest of the novel has. What are the main points of this first book in the series? How much should we get to know a protagonist to set up the rest of the books?

In my humble opinion, there was too much left out from the Wanderer’s past. A man just chasing another dude in black. I suppose it’s as good a plot as any… yet you can admit to its deficiencies. Admittedly, I have not read the rest of the books. A  question for the few souls that read this blog- how much detail should a  writer provide if he plans a series? Should the chase for the dude in black be so open ended?

The Three-Body Problem- Chinese science fiction

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once argued in his essay “The Art of Telling Stories” that there are very few tales humanity returns to:

  • the story of a warring man
  • one of an exiled man who encounters wonders at sea
  • and the God who was a man or a man who thought himself a god.

I kept thinking of Borges as I read The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, a celebrated Chinese hard science fiction writer best known for his trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Why Borges while reading Cixin, you may ask?

Because The Three-Body Problem is another retelling of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds. I would argue, and perhaps this is too bold a claim at my young and tender age, that there are essentially a certain number of science fiction plots that are retold, most of which fall into the categories Borges observed:

  • Man wars (with an alien race)
  • Man explores (the seas of space)
  • Man creates (machines, Gods, etc)

Now that my literary theory rambling is done- let’s chat about the book. The plot- humans finally get in touch with an alien race- the Trilsolarans, who inhabit a world surrounded by three planetary bodies (which means a lot of uncertainty and chaos). The Trisolarans, once they discover how stable earth is, set sail to destroy the human race. Of course, these are the macro movements of the novel. On the micro scale, the story follows Wang and Ye, two scientists who represents the opposing forces- Ye wants the aliens to invade and Wang is our salvation.

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The novel begins with the Cultural Revolution in China and Ye’s involvement and family tragedy and fast-forwards to our time to describe Wang’s research and his discovery of a game called Three-Body. The Three-Body game, it turns out, is a representation of the Trisolaran planet. The Human Traitors use it to profile people that might fit their criteria to join their mutinous cause.

Though I found the parts about the Cultural Revolution to be beautiful and sad, I found the game portions to be dry and gimmicky. Perhaps it was that on the Trisolaran planet (represented in the game), people die frequently because of the instability of the three planetary bodies, preventing the reader to form an attachment to any one character. Or perhaps the scientific explanation that are key components of those parts of the novel were long and dry. While it is clear that Cixin knows his science, he fails at times to mask it well like Asimov, whose writing never struck me as overly technical.

Despite the dryness and contrived portions of the novel, I found that those parts do not undermine the overall beauty of it. The story of Ye and her family’s trials and her hatred for humanity certainly stand as the most moving and real parts of the novel, and it is that character that makes me want to finish the trilogy, not the story of the Trisolarans.

And so I am left with the keen desire to pick up The War of The Worlds and analyze the plot that Wells once used. Borges was right- we wrap the same plots in different ways- and that is the beauty of literature.

Borges argues at the end of the essay that novels must evoke the epic (in the classic poetic way), and that is what most resonates in Cixin’s novel: the moments where humanity seems to still have hope despite the impending war with the Trisolarans.

There are moments of such poetic beauty, e.g. when the aliens send humans a message: “You are bugs.” A police officer character takes Wang to a field of locusts and says that despite humanity’s efforts at eradicating the bugs, they have survived and that the war against bugs is still uncertain. It is always a question of poetic beauty in these grand-scale books.

Overall, Cixin’s novel is great if dry at times. His moments of poetry are truly a feast for the imagination. I will return to him only after contemplating the three plots of science fiction. There is much to be learned from Borges, alien invasions, and Chinese science fiction.

Asimov’s Foundation: Senseis in Space

Another giant for another day… Meet Asimov- the master of hard science fiction.  Biochemist by trade and sci fi lover by passion. An avid reader of the pulps and a guru of all things atomic.

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I began reading Foundation a couple of days ago and found the first book to be brisk and entertaining. I was surprised at how quickly the book spirals into its plot about the Foundation that Hari Seldon creates to develop an encyclopedia of the universe, aptly entitled Encyclopedia Galatica.

The novel jumps time periods, each one a part of the grand narrative of the Galatic Empire’s downfall and unification. The most intriguing component of the novel’s internal workings is the way Asimov revisits the past at each subsequent epoch and reveals a truth that completely undermines or dispels what you previously thought about where the plot was going.

Example- you think the Foundation is made to compile an Encyclopedia Galatica to prevent the collapse of the empire, but in the second section of the book, after Seldon has died, you discover that the Foundation is located on a distant planet with no resources to embroil it in the political tension of the planets surrounding it.  Seldon has planned specific crises for the heroes that will  lead to the glory of a re-united Galatic Empire. In the scenario where the Foundation is pitted against the warring planets near Terminus, The Foundation defends itself successfully using its scientific prowess, specifically its nuclear power.

Overall, Asimov succeeds in this movement of revisiting history, balancing the intimate struggles of the heroes and the grand historic design Seldon has. More importantly, he continually surprises the reader by pulling the rug, so to speak, from under them. Though I think the novel falters near the end when Asimov introduces the idea of trading and barbaric factions, a section that is weaker than the novel’s glorious beginnings, that is a minor grievance for such a masterful work.

Another scifi technique one notices is the re-encountering of certain technologies. Nuclear technologies always play a role in the political tectonic shifting in the book,  and those technologies change every time they appear in the different epochs of the novel. First, it’s nuclear power- closely related to our technologies. Then, ships with nuclear blasters appear. Finally, it is pocket-size nuclear shields and guns.

There is much to be learned from Asimov. Nearly ten-plus years after his death, his fiction has lessons for every sci fi writer, from pacing to structure. He is one to revisit and one to be as ever-lasting as Seldon and his Foundation.

Book Review: Promise at Dawn (La promesse de l’aube)

I am no night owl. Though the night be long, the promise of repose always lures me to a deep sleep. I am awake at such unusual hours, and I just finished the book Promise At Dawn, an autobiographical narrative about a WWII pilot and the relationship with his mother. Though you could say Gary has major mommy issues, so much so that he writes an entire book about it, his book explores the way our relationship to our parents colors our relationships with people in our adult life. Gary is no follower of Freud, and I think is suspicious of psychology that pins people to their past.

Books move us for different reasons, and perhaps that is the glory of literature. Certain passages from the novel capture the unconditional love a mother gives you and the ramifications of experiencing it as a man. “With maternal love, life makes you a promise at dawn it will never keep,” Gary writes as he wrestles with that suffocating yet necessary maternal love that got him through WWII, a time of collective madness, as a good friend of mine once put it.

Gary describes his childhood with his husbandless mother, and the huge expectations she had of him: that he would be a famous musician, a new Tolstoy, an ambassador. Throughout the narrative, Gary returns to that role he has to realize  (miraculously he does). While many scenes are beautifully written, one particular one stands out in my mind- one dealing with the blackouts in London. He drifts at sea during that impenetrable darkness and thinks about his mother- what she must think of his time at war- and her presence swells even in that endless wandering and battling against men and nature.

I feel the same way at times, except that I never knew my mother’s expectations; what did she want me to become? What would she think of me as a man, a deranged writer that has the urge to help people? Whenever I think these thoughts, I, too, am on a boat that drifts, her presence like the pulsing life you know is there yet cannot see in a city about to be bombarded.

The memoir as a genre is difficult because the writer must detach himself enough from his own narrative to develop structure. Our lives, for the most part, are a series of incomprehensible and tedious moments, but Gary, in centering on his relationship with his mother and its evolution, anchors the reader. Every digression, which memoirs and autobiographical pieces suffer from, in Gary’s book seems to be tied to the deep and complicated relationship he has with his mother.

Though there are heartbreaking moments in this book, just like in any life, Gary says near the end that his time at war has not made him a cynic but rather that his life is often filled with a desperate kind of hope.  I’d like to think that all men with mommy issues can achieve great things…I must cling to my desperate hope then.

The Left Hand of Darkness : A review

I write this as Juno the blizzard wreaks havoc outside. It has been almost a week since I finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I can’t help but feel that we have suddenly been transported to that far away planet, Winter, where our sexes don’t exist, at least not permanently.

The story, told in first person, follows an envoy, Genly, that arrives on Winter, representing an association of planets, The Ekumen, which wishes to have Winter join their league of nations. Though the Ekumen promises the transfer of knowledge and technology, it means very little for the people that survive on Winter’s icy and unforgiving surface.

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I have spoken about the fantasy and science fiction elements of the novel in a previous post- how Ursula creates an isolated world without technologies on Winter and the science fiction one of the Ekumen.

Ursula succeeds in immersing us in a world where people war over land and power unaware of the larger universe and its people. Sprinkled with parables, legends, and notes of Winter, the book is slow and steady in its pacing.

Though I know the political questions- those of Winter joining the league of nations-like Ekumen are important- the most intriguing component of the novel was the love between Genly, the envoy, and Estraven, an alien politician of Winter. Their journey through Winter across mountains and precipices was beautiful and mysterious. What would it be like to meet a being whose sex was undefined until the moment of copulation? They spend hours together in the same tent and not even a kiss comes of it.

The love story at the center of the book is what really mattered to me, and I almost wish Ursula had developed it more rather than focus on the political questions of the world. What can I say- I’m a hopeless romantic that believes humans and aliens should have the right to marry and procreate.

While the political tectonic shifting was interesting, it mattered little in the face of burgeoning love between human and alien. The scene where Genly and Estraven emerge from the Winter wilderness and look back at the glaciers and crags of their journey only to realize that it is over was truly magnificent and heartfelt and sad.

It would be unjust to not talk about the absence of sex on Winter and the reading experience. Ursula’s thought experiment sometimes had strange effects on me because I caught myself imposing sex on Estraven and the narrator, often in unexpected ways. For example, I sometimes thought the narrator Genly was a female since I knew that Ursula was writing it, and I often fixed Estraven as a male even though the biological mechanics of Winter contradicted that. As I experienced this desire to impose a sex on characters, I realized what a powerful and mysterious and dangerous thing our binary ways of thinking can be. What kinds of prejudices and biases do I, without acknowledging it or even being aware, impose on females and males.

The power dynamics between males and females are apparent in the workforce, where men have less to worry about it in terms of harassment and sex appeal. We just throw on a suit and go to work.  Even before I interact with a woman, what kind of ideas are already at play?

The only thing I can liken the issue of sex to is that of race. Ursula creates a world where sex doesn’t matter, but our minds are programmed to give it importance. I have often wondered what it must be like to be white and not think about race on a day-to-day basis. Being able to pass like the narrator in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man could be likened to the sexless world of Winter. Despite how conscious we are of our actions, the schemas and prejudices our mind imposes elude our understanding though they persist in their ability to color our world.