Pulse: When Gravity Fails, by John Freitas / ** ½

4162bsfoa-el-_sx331_bo1204203200_I’m going to be blunt here: Pulse is a fairly maddening book. Not because it’s entirely bad – that, at least, would be consistent. No, what’s frustrating about Pulse is how wildly uneven it is – how it starts strong, with good prose, interesting characters, and great setup, then falls into some painful writing for a while, then picks itself up…and so on, until the end of the book.

The concept of Pulse is basically there in the title. All over the world, gravity is coming and going. At some points, it seems to fail completely; at other times, it increases. The effects are naturally disastrous, but the bigger question – what does it all mean, and where does it lead? – is what drives the story. And while Freitas has a decent enough explanation, what really matters is that we’re engaged with the plot and the characters along the way.

Freitas has a big cast of characters here, ranging from a fighter pilot who crashes in Russia to a firefighter and his estranged wife, from a scientist to a reporter, and so forth. What’s fascinating, though, is the way that some characters – and their chapters – are so much better written than others. The pilot, for example, is part of a gripping tale, one that mixes survival instincts, chases, and more, and it’s told engaging, moves well, and never feels awkward or stilted. The reporter and the scientist, though? It’s painful to read, with dialogue that feels painfully bad, descriptions that switch from past to present tense randomly, misspellings (when you can’t spell the name of the star system around which your plot revolves, there’s a big problem), run-ons, and more. And given that the reporter and the scientist occupy the majority of our time, that’s a big problem.

Then there’s the erratic plotting. Some parts of the story – say, the fighter pilot, or the firefighter’s arc – are engaging and well-crafted, driven by character needs, written well, and gripping beyond the basic plot level. We care about these people, their stories are interesting, their worlds fleshed out. Others are bizarre. There’s a brief interlude about a stepmother who comes right out of a fairy tale only to die in a ridiculous way that no one seems to care about at all except to laugh at. A religious meeting could provide an interesting window into how people cope with these events, but instead turns into easy jokes and jabs (and much the same could be said about the brief trip to a trailer park, which is snobby and condescending in the worst way). One character has been kicked out of NASA only to be drafted at the last minute to fly a space shuttle, which never seems to have been mentioned before. And so on.

The thing is, there’s some good material in Pulse, and some stuff that shows promise. I get the feeling that Freitas wrote the core of his story, then went through and added the other chapters later, and they feel stronger – they feel like the work of a better author, one who’s listening to feedback and improving in his craft. But they can’t make up for the deeply flawed and weak other chapters. I’m going to check out at least one of Freitas’s short stories, just to see which Freitas is the “real one”; let’s hope it’s the one who got me hooked into the book before I got frustrated with it.

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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders / **** ½

71ghfhh0mrlA little over a year ago, I picked up Tenth of December, the much-acclaimed short story collection by George Saunders, and was blown away. What I expected was stories about “upper class white people problems”; what I got was a collection of funny, sharp, satirical looks at America, with stories ranging from Renaissance Fairs to futuristic nightmares to corporate torture memos. I was floored and thrilled; here, I thought, was a short story writer who got away from tales of ennui and angst, telling stories that had a point but entertained, made you laugh, and still worked as rich, well-written works.

I didn’t realize when I chose CivilWarLand in Bad Decline as my follow-up that it was Saunders’ earliest collection; I knew it was acclaimed, like most of his work, and had a lot of love, and had a pretty great title. What I didn’t realize, though, is that it represented a point where Saunders was still finding his voice, to some degree. In the author’s note that follows the book, Saunders comments that there’s a reason that just about every story here revolves around amusement parks (even if they’re all dystopian nightmare amusement parks) – it was a way to force himself out of emulating Hemingway and Carver, and into his own more unique voice.

The downside, then, with CivilWarLand is that it doesn’t quite show as much range as the masterful Tenth of December. As mentioned, almost all of the stories revolve around bizarre Westworld-type amusement parks, and the few that don’t still revolve around escapist entertainment, by and large. As a result, the stories blend together a little more; while each has its own unique story and plot (the title story features the Civil War park forced to recruit mercenaries from Vietnam World to help clear out a gang problem, with predictably nightmarish results), the settings tend to blur together a bit more than you’d hope.

And yet, even so, that doesn’t keep the collection from being wildly successful, very funny, and even profoundly moving. Saunders has a taste for black comedy, and it pays off superbly here, with the tragicomedy “The 400-Pound CEO” being a real standout, as it tells the story of a morbidly obese man mocked by his co-workers who only wants to be loved. It’s both painful and hysterically funny, as Saunders contrasts his passive, lonely hero with the absurd cruelty of his co-workers and the bizarre actions of his employer. Meanwhile, stories like “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” show that Saunders is capable of profound emotion, as a man in control of virtual reality experiences searches for a way to escape his own painful life. And, of course, there’s that title story, that mixes world-building, violence, and satire into a potent and effective combination.

Yes, in some ways, these stories blend together, and sometimes hit a bit too hard on the same themes and tropes. But even so, it’s clearly the voice of an author that’s finding himself, and the fact that he brings such variation, even in similar tales, speaks well of the author that Saunders would become. And even here, where he’s taking his first steps, he’s still writing stories unlike much else out there, and creating worlds, characters, and prose that really demand to be experienced. It’s not as good as Tenth of December, but that doesn’t mean it’s not superb stuff indeed.

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Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo / ***** (and the difference an edition makes)

Les Miserables is one of those books I’ve always wanted to read, but just couldn’t ever get around to. Maybe it was the forbidding length; maybe it was pushback against the gushing fanbase of the recent film (despite the fact that I actually like the musical pretty well); maybe it was just laziness. Whatever the case, it was a book I knew I should read, but never did. And then, I found out I had to teach it this year, which has a way of motivating you to read things.

More importantly, though, it taught me a few things about Les Miserables – mainly, that for many people, the abridged version is all they’ll ever read. Even many fans of the book have their issues with the unabridged version – with massive chapters about the Battle of Waterloo, long digressions about minor characters, tours of the Paris sewers, and more infamously wordy passages (including a chapter named “Parenthesis” because Hugo wanted people to realize it was okay to skip it), the book is often cut down to let the story breathe and make it more accessible to people who want to experience the plot and characters without getting lost in the prose. What exactly gets cut, though, is up for some debate.

6b779fa4416a6d674929b4f728483783My students, for instance, are reading this abridged version, which seems to be the go-to default version for many people. It’s the one I first started reading, and in many ways, it’s a perfect starting point. The prose is whittled down throughout, and some of the more redundant or “unnecessary” passages are gone. But as I read more and more, I got increasingly frustrated at just how edited this version was. For instance, volume one of the book is named “Fantine,” a young woman who appears hardly at all in this version. One character abruptly gains a pair of pistols with little or no explanation. A young girl is rescued from her adoptive parents off-screen. Another character’s contemplation of death and suicide is excised entirely, leaving his final actions far more cryptic and less thoughtful than they should be. And those famous barricades? They appear almost out of nowhere, with little to no context. Yes, the book keeps the story more or less together, and it definitely abridges the book quite a bit. But you can’t help but feel that the scar tissue left from all that cutting is pretty noticeable, and that the cuts ultimately end up slicing out much of the heart, depth, and complexity of the book and its characters.

51xvr9blg8l-_sy445_ql70_In frustration, I started digging around to see what else I could find. I needed something that still abridged the story for me – I didn’t have time to read the uncut version in its entirety before starting the unit – but did a less brutal job than this one. And that’s when I cam across this “Ultimate Fan Edition” of the novel. (The Kindle version is cheap and nicely formatted, but it’s also available on his website for free.) Make no mistake: this is still an abridged version, cutting out nearly half the word count of the novel. (Mind you, that still leaves roughly 254,000 words behind. I told you, it’s a long book.) But the pruning is far less extreme, leaving in character arcs, chapters that add nothing to the story but create vivid interior lives, maintaining Hugo’s rich prose, and aiding in not only the comprehension of Hugo’s masterpiece, but also in the enjoyment. I liked the version of the book I read for school; I loved this edition, and in reading it, I understood more why people could fall in love with this book. And it’s this edition that ultimately made me more interested in reading the unabridged edition at some point; if this one is so good, I’m fascinated to see what else remains out there.

The thing is, though, is that whichever edition you read, you’re still reading one of the most astonishing works of literature that’s ever been written. There’s a reason that Les Miserables was a bestseller upon release, a reason that it’s continually being told and retold, a reason that a musical based upon it has been so successful. It’s an astonishing and moving story, one that’s undeniably rooted in a certain time period and yet applies just as much today as it did back then. It’s got characters that come to life and linger with you far beyond the page – the selfless Bishop, the guilt-ridden Jean Valjean, the rigid Javert, the lovestruck Marius and Cosette – and a story that grips throughout. It’s got rich themes – redemption, love, tolerance, respect, and more – that resonate even with a casual reader, and inspire us to be more than ourselves. And it does it all with style, excitement, and even a sense of humor. It is, in fact, every bit the book I always heard it was, and then some. Do I have an edition I prefer? Undeniably. But whichever version you read, you’ll be enjoying a truly masterful piece of fiction that earns its place in the literary canon.

The Kitchen Boy, by Robert Alexander / *** ½

95141Subtitled “A Novel of the Last Tsar,” Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy tells the story of the final days of the Romanovs – the family of the last Russian tsar – after their exile, as they move closer and closer to their pitiful execution in an isolated basement. It’s a grim story, to be sure, but Alexander brings it to life nicely, due in no small part to his choice of framing the story as the memories of their young kitchen boy, who waited on the family in their imprisonment. Alexander has done his research and then some; each and every character comes to life, and while we plunge fairly directly into the story, there’s never a sense of being lost or confused about what’s going immediately going on.

And yet, while the day-to-day plot is always clear, there’s a sense that limiting his focus so tightly on these final days hurts the book in some fairly severe ways. If you don’t know much about the Russian Revolution, don’t count on getting much background here. Want to know why the tsar has been imprisoned? Want to know what pushes their captors to kill them? You’ll get little help here, and that ultimately makes the book a little frustrating. Yes, it tells its narrow story well, and focuses in on its window of time. But in losing some of the context, the book suffers, with lots of decisions and ideas feeling vaguer or more uncertain than they should. In some ways, it almost feels like a sequel, with constant references to characters and events that we’re expected to know.

Of course, this being a historical novel, that makes some sense. Alexander is clearly an expert, and his choice of narrator frames the story as someone who assumes his listener is familiar with the context. But for the more casual reader, the experience is a little more frustrating. It’s still a gripping, involving story (the frame story aside, which never did that much for me), and his portrait of the tsar and his family is always captivating. It just feels like there’s so much context that the book needs to truly work as well as it should.

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Finn, by Jon Clinch / ****

513ncn55dgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Nowhere in the acknowledgments or praise for Finn that decorates the book will you find the name Cormac McCarthy. And that’s a little odd to me, because there’s little way to read Finn and not think of McCarthy, whose influence is evident from the first page and never vanishes throughout.

That’s not to say that Finn isn’t a solid enough book. Telling the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father, author Jon Clinch starts from the strange place where Huck finds his father’s body and works backwards, filling in the man’s life and using the strange objects that were present everywhere as representations of that life. Make no mistake, though: those objects take Clinch and the book into some dark, horrifying places, as Finn (the father, not the novel) reveals himself to be a far more depraved, abused, broken man than our brief glimpses might have revealed.

It’s in that aspect that McCarthy’s influence is most felt, as Clinch fleshes Finn out into something more human, a child warped by an unloving father and driven by impulses he doesn’t quite understand. Finn is drawn to African-American women, and loves them, despite (or maybe because of) the intense hatred and disapproval of his own father. And when his affair results in a mulatto child named Huckleberry, Finn finds himself torn between being true to himself and trying to appease the father that hates him.

It makes for generally compelling reading, even as we’re reading about a violent, drunken, broken man who’s often incapable of relating to people on anything approaching a normal level. And while Clinch’s book goes to some grim places – including murder, a sickening method of corpse disposal, rape, and even the abuse of a child – it all feels of a piece with Finn’s world, and of a piece with the dark underworld that Huck occasionally glimpses throughout his life. Moreover, Clinch’s idea to make Huck a mixed-race child is an interesting one; it certainly provides an interesting sense of why Huck is so different than the other children, and why he fits in so poorly everywhere he goes.

For all of that, though, Finn never really overcomes the question of “Yes, and?” that fills its pages. It’s a well-told novel, crafted nicely, and it brings this man to horrifying life. And yet, there’s never really a sense that this is a tale we needed to hear, or that it brings much new to Mark Twain’s classic beyond being a more literate and thoughtful piece of fan fiction than we’re used to. It’s compelling enough, and wonderfully crafted, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a book that would have worked just as well without relying on the name recognition of Twain’s novel.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens / **** ½

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterIt’s been frustrating waiting to write my review for The Force Awakens. I saw the film over my Christmas break with my son; however, I also spent much of the break recuperating from arm surgery, which left me unable to type. And in the meantime, the prevailing conversation about The Force Awakens has come to fixate on how much it apes A New Hope, rather than focusing on the film itself. So now that I finally feel like I can write again, I feel somewhat forced into a defensive position, explaining why I really enjoyed the film in the face of all of the grumbling and “plot hole” articles.

Because, yes, I really enjoyed this movie a lot. Sure, you could argue that it’s the nostalgia pop, or the chance to see a new Star Wars movie in theaters with my son, making it feel like a new tradition. Or you can argue that the film works because it’s “safe”; it doesn’t take many chances, instead falling back on the formula of A New Hope to a fault, and simply giving the fans a reboot of the series instead of trying something new. And honestly, I won’t argue with any of that. All of those made a huge impact on me. Yes, it was amazing to see a new Star Wars along with my young son, who was bouncing up and down in his seat in excitement before it even started. Yes, the nostalgia beats worked for me (I may have seen Han Solo step onto the Millennium Falcon in commercials over and over again, and I still got a little choked seeing it in the film, and I don’t want to even get into the goose bumps upon hearing that iconic blast as John Williams’ score kicked off the film). And I can’t argue in the least that the film plays it safe, echoing beats from the first film to the point of occasional distraction. (I agree a lot with Tasha Robinson, formerly of The Dissolve, who said that the film’s echoing of the Death Star is the biggest problem, because this is the third time we’re getting that, instead of the second.)

But for all of that, I feel like the film’s getting short shrift for the things it does right. The new characters are uniformly great, coming to life and resonating in a way that no one from the prequels managed. Some of that is thanks to performances, yes, but the roles are more complex and interesting as well, taking elements of all of the original crew from A New Hope but doing new things with them. John Boyega’s Finn is a great reluctant hero, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is exciting and likable, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron takes a small part and makes it great through swagger, and even BB-8 is impossible not to love a little. And none of that even gets into Kylo Ren, who takes what could have been a simple Darth Vader homage and makes it into something more flawed, tragic, and sympathetic. So, sure, I loved seeing the old crew, but it’s great that the film works every bit as well when it’s the new cast carrying things.

More than that, Abrams does a great job bringing back a sense of fun and wonder to the series. The action sequences are genuinely exciting, bringing a great kinetic style to bear and bringing the series into the modern era without the awkward staging of Lucas’s prequels. More than that, there’s a nice sense of the grit and grime of the original films again, as though we’re in a lived-in galaxy full of stories that exist all around us. And best of all, there’s genuine humor to be found, letting the characters breathe and exist beyond their plot constrictions.

Is The Force Awakens a little safe, a little too reliant on the past? Sure. But for all of that, it made me feel excited and joyous in a way the prequels never did, and made me excited for a new Star Wars trilogy in a way I didn’t think I would manage these days. I hear the complaints, and acknowledge a lot of them (well, not the plothole articles, which I find wearying, to say nothing of how much they often apply to the original trilogy just as much), and can’t even argue them. But in the end? I’m not sure I care enough about any of them, or that any of them are enough to take away the sense of fun, excitement, and joy I got from this film.

IMDb

The Hateful Eight / *****

Qthe-hateful-eight-poster1uentin Tarantino is a natural-born filmmaker, a director who has yet to make a truly bad film. (When the worst thing you’ve made is Death Proof, which is still really good, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.) So it’s not as though I was going to wait on seeing The Hateful Eight. But when the chance came to see the film in the limited roadshow format – in 70mm projection, with an overture, intermission, and a slightly longer cut of the film – it became a must-watch experience for me. And having seen this version of the film, I can’t imagine seeing it any other way; all I can imagine is that I’d spend so much of the film missing the spectacle, yes, but also the pacing, and maybe especially that intermission.

In a lot of ways, it’s the intermission more than anything else that makes seeing The Hateful Eight in the roadshow format so essential. Yes, Tarantino makes nice use of the 70mm format; for a film that’s set almost entirely within a single confined room, Tarantino’s use of the desolate landscape in the early going can’t be understated, helping to set the stark, hopeless mood of the film before the plot itself even gets going. And once you’re into the isolated walls of Minnie’s Haberdashery, Tarantino still makes the most of his wide frame, constantly letting you see what everyone’s doing, sliding the focus expertly, and just generally demonstrating his absurd talent at direction.

But, again, it’s the intermission that’s perhaps most essential, because it gives you breathing room in this black-hearted, brutal film. Yes, The Hateful Eight gets violent – absurdly so – in the back half, but that’s almost nothing compared to the vitriol, dark worldview, and brutal natures of the men who populate its world. In his uneven Django Unchained, Tarantino slowly immersed us into the horrors of slavery and plantations, letting us enjoy Waltz and Foxx’s revenge quests before pushing us to really look at the horrors of history. But The Hateful Eight doesn’t wait for that. There are no heroes here, no good people. Misogynists, racists, Confederate sympathizers, lynch mobs, thieves, murderers – that’s your cast here, and we’re left to decide who the least horrible among them is. And given the dark place where the film ends up, it’s hard to say that any of them are “good” at all.

And yet, that’s part of what makes the film so gripping. This is Tarantino staring straight back at the horrific society we find ourselves in – a world of Black Lives Matter, constant racism, sexism, hatred, Confederate flags, and more. It’s hard not to feel that The Hateful Eight is an exorcism of modern demons, put into the guise of a stage play about a group of bounty hunters who end up in a single location and start turning on each other. And by the time you get to the stunning, knockout monologue that closes the first half, you’re going to be glad for that intermission as a chance to catch your breath and brace for what’s still to come.

Yes, as some have argued, this is basically a play on film. But given Tarantino’s gift for dialogue, that barely matters, and matters even less when you have as fantastic a cast as he’s collected here, all of whom give themselves entirely over to the film. It’s hard to single out a favorite, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this is Samuel L. Jackson’s film; he gives his best performance in years, maybe since Pulp Fiction; mind you, he’s nearly matched by Walton Goggins, whose verbose, drawling persona makes him a perfect fit for Tarantino.

I have some small issues with The Hateful Eight, most notably in the final act, where a big reveal feels like a bit of a cheat to me. But none of that detracts from the draining power of the experience, Tarantino’s astonishing filmmaking, and the phenomenal acting on display. It’s not a film for all tastes; it’s black-hearted, bleak, nasty, violent, and grim. But for those who can weather it, it’s a knockout piece of work, and one worth seeing for so many reasons.

But, you may be wishing for that intermission if you don’t have it.

IMDb