Wednesday, February 23, 2011

China Miéville/THE CITY & THE CITY

People who wear bifocals eventually acquire the knack: you turn your eyes straight ahead or a little up to focus on things at a distance; you look down to focus on things close to you. With so-called progressive lenses, it gets a little trickier. Somewhere between the see-far and see-near portions of the lens is an area on which you can't focus at all; you learn where it is, so you can avoid it and not walk around in a blur.

China Miéville's 2009 novel, The City & The City, posits a world in which a similar skill is practiced by the entire population of two neighboring cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, in what seems to be Eastern Europe.

At one level, The City & The City is a murder mystery, a noir-ish police procedural narrated by Tyador Borlú, an inspector in the homicide division of the Besźel police. He's investigating the murder of an unknown woman whose body has been dumped in an empty lot. In the course of his investigation, he must deal not only with his colleagues and the criminal element in Besźel, but with other interested parties: his counterpart in the Ul Qoma police force; archaeologists exploring a mysterious, extensive dig in Ul Qoma; the governing body -- The Committee -- which oversees relations between the two cities; and the shadowy and apparently all-powerful agency known simply as Breach.

At another level, the book is a dark urban fantasy. No -- no magic-users and mythical species here. What makes the world of Besźel and Ul Qoma a world of fantasy is a single, enormously weird feature: the two cities are (as Borlú says) geographically distant... but occupy the same geographical location: physically overlapping, yet functionally separate.

(It's like the opposite of that old Gertrude Stein quip about Oakland: in both Besźel and Ul Qoma, there are always two theres there.)

No one knows how this came to be. They know only that long ago, either a single city split into two, or two separate cities became somehow co-located. The event is known as Cleavage -- cleverly, one of those words which means both something, and its opposite. (And yes, British Miéville's protagonist acknowledges the unfortunate coincidence with the American slang term.)

What these people do know is that legally, they may be in only one city or the other. They may stand in Besźel, say, and from there they can look at and see Besźel... but not Ul Qoma, although they can sense it out of the corner of their eye, so to speak. Citizens of each city have trained themselves to unsee the citizens, buildings, and roadways of the other. (Importantly, this is a learned mental unseeing, not a physical one. Driving in one city is nerve-wracking, because drivers must avoid pedestrians and other vehicles in both cities.) Moving from one city to another by any means other than the most tightly controlled is a crime even more serious than murder, called breaching.

And breaching is dealt with swiftly, irrevocably, finally by the ever-watchful Breach...

You now understand, I hope, why I opened this review with all that about eyeglasses. On one hand it sounds strange -- impossible -- that two worlds should overlap so completely, yet be able to be "seen" separately; on the other, it's perfectly natural -- just a matter of training your eyes. (There are even blurry zones, not completely in one city or the other, called "crosshatches.")

I don't want to dwell too much on this device, lest I ruin someone else's pleasure in discovering the nuances for themselves. I will say, though, that Miéville has done an amazing job of working this all out. A good thing, too: the murder which Borlú investigates was committed in Ul Qoma; the body was then moved to Besźel. Imagine trying to understand geographic clues if the author had only a loose grip on his own gimmick.

That word "gimmick" raises an important question, though. Imagine The City & The City without it; does the book still work?

I think the answer is yes. Miéville's prose does just what you want the prose of a contemporary police procedural to do: explain clearly (and within the limits of first-person narrative) what Borlú and the other characters are up to; trigger empathy for the protagonist (and those he comes into contact with, however different they are from one another); give the detective amazing, but not too amazing, deductive powers; match mood and rhythm to the exposition or action of a given paragraph or scene; and lead to a satisfying cluster of conclusions (both for the characters, and for the mystery itself).

Yet the unique premise allows occasional small flourishes of language like this one, describing a park where foreign archaeological students working on that dig take their leisure -- and push the limits of what the no-breaching laws allow:
Maps made clear to walkers where they might go. It was here in the crosshatch that the students might stand scandalously, touching distance from a foreign power, a pornography of separation.
Finally, I imagine yet another possible reading of The City & The City: as a metaphor for real cities, inhabited by multiple classes and populations who carefully refrain from interaction. That might justify a second review, or a third. But this one is already long enough: let's just agree to unsee that other possibility for now.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

RED MAFIYA/Robert I. Friedman

I'm giving this a higher star rating than it probably deserves. It's scattered, as if Friedman is trying to cram as much as possible into the book about all the different crime figures he knows. You can feel Friedman racing. He was: he had contracted a rare disease while on assignment for Vanity Fair in the slums of Bombay and was dying as he wrote this. Friedman died in 2002. Given his ballsy way of handling himself when confronting Russian mobsters, I'm not wholly convinced they didn't get him in the end.

It's been approximately ten years since this book was published. How much more firmly entrenched is the Russian mob in our culture? I would guess much more so. Ten years is a long time to operate in the shadows, especially when there's very little reporting going on regarding their activities. (And why would anyone want to take them on? One reporter had acid thrown in her face for doing so.) Their influence is probably double what it was ten years ago, when they were, on the whole, making billions of dollars off of huge scams. As a matter of fact, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Wall Street and the like didn't take lessons from them before bringing down our economy in a crash two years ago.

The FBI was woefully slow in catching on to their presence, and their usual turf war mentality kept them from working with local and international authorities in compressing Russian mob activities, thus allowing this ruthless mob—one so violent it makes the Italian mafia look timid by comparison—to flourish. Local authorities in Brighton Beach, New York, could never get a foothold. Prosecuting members of the Russian mob is very difficult: they don't hesitate to go after cops, their families, prosecutors, and judges. Some convictions have taken place, but the mobsters often end up dictating mob activities from within the confines of their cells.

For all its flaws, the book is an engaging and terrifying—if slightly confusing—read. Friedman only gives us some broad brush strokes of how the Red Mafiya operates, giving us anecdotes of just how ruthless the Russian mob can be. Each chapter focuses on a major player of the mob. Some are linked to each other, some seem to stand alone. At any rate, the book is a good primer for getting an idea of what goes on behind the scenes. If you're a mystery or a thriller writer, I'd definitely recommend this. Four stars.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Emperor's Body by Peter Brooks

Where I got the book: another LibraryThing Early Reviewer win.

The Emperor's Body is a début novel by a professor who has published several works of non-fiction. So I'm going to assume that the historical detail in the book is reasonably accurate.* It is set around true events of 1840, and makes use of many of the personages involved in those events.

What happened in France in 1840 was that King Louis Philippe I, France's last king, took the slightly dodgy decision to have the body of Napoleon Bonaparte brought back from the island of Saint Helena where he had died in exile. It was a political maneuver at best, and at worst could be seen as a cheap publicity stunt (depending on where you stood at the time as to whether France should be ruled by a king, an emperor, or the people).

Into these events Brooks weaves a love triangle involving the real Philippe de Rohan-Chabot, the young diplomat placed in effective charge of the mission, the real writer Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal) and a fictional young woman called Amelia or Amélie.

And this is the point at which I ask, why?

As far as I'm concerned, the return of Napoleon's remains is a pretty interesting story to begin with. Brooks is a good writer and dramatizes the political intrigues well. There's a nice gloomy atmosphere of wet weather and big useless marble buildings, exactly like visiting certain parts of Paris on a cold day, and I could hear the ringing of spurs and the grinding noise of carriages on cobblestones. I would have thought that all this could have provided enough material for a pretty good political novel.

And yet somehow we have this story about this girl who doesn't really want to marry Philippe, quite fancies Beyle but isn't sure whether she should sleep with him, and would kinda rather write books anyway. Jane Eyre meets Days of Our Lives. And the POV jumps around between all the characters PLUS Older Amelia who is looking back on the whole episode. It just doesn't work for me. And there's something about paunchy, balding Beyle being a chick magnet that has me murmuring "wish fulfillment." Which is a pity, because as books go it's very well written and intelligent.

I'm going to check out Brooks' non-fiction work, though. He seems to have an engaging knack for telling a real story.

*No writer ever admits that another writer could possibly be extremely accurate. It's just not done.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dancing With Max by Emily Colson

Where I got the book - a review copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. Which is a great way to try out books you wouldn't necessarily buy, by the way. Give it a go.

I have a developmentally disabled child, and found myself nodding in understanding as I was reading Dancing With Max, Colson's account of what she has learned from life with her autistic son. The memoir also touches briefly on her childhood and her father Chuck Colson, who was implicated in the Watergate scandal, became a Christian in jail, and went on to become a well-known author and speaker. He writes the prologue and epilogue to the book, presumably to give it more heft in Christian circles. I'm not sure that was a good decision. Emily Colson's account stands quite nicely on its own, in my opinion.

And yet there's a fitting parallel between Colson's youth, living with the stigma of her father's very public jail sentence, and the feelings of humiliation and high visibility that she recounts when she describes what it's like having a child who melts down regularly in public. "It's remarkable how quickly space clears around you when your autistic child explodes in public. I tried not to care about the people staring at us. . . . I tried not to lose an ounce of energy to humiliation."

Colson's faith is evident in Dancing With Max, but she doesn't overemphasize it. Her tone is matter-of-fact and down to earth, and her theme - that Max brings out the best in people who have the best in them - does not need a faith-based filter to work.

I enjoyed Colson's writing, which is unpretentious and easy to read. I would recommend this book to anyone trying to understand more about the autism spectrum.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

HATING OLIVIA by Mark SaFranko

Hating Olivia by Mark SaFranko
Literary Fiction
Harper Perennial, 2010
ISBN 978-0-06-197919-4

*I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of writing an online review

From the back of the book:

Max Zajack's life is cheap rooms, dead-end jobs, and suicidal fantasies until he meets the alluring and mysterious Olivia Aphrodite, and everything goes to hell.

Max is a struggling musician and wannabe writer. His life is in a rut until one night, while playing a gig at a local club, he gazes out into the crowd and sees Olivia. Before long, they are sharing a bed and host of dark vices that begin to consume them. Their love turns toxic, sending them spiraling downward toward the inevitable. Violently romantic, viscerally honest, Hating Olivia is the story of two loners whose obsessive love brings them to the edge of destruction.

Even after reading the summary above and a handful of reviews on GoodReads, I still wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book. Within a few pages, I was hooked. The writing style and narrative voice in this story kept me turning pages without regard for the little number in the upper corner. Before I knew it, I'd blown through nearly half of the book in a single sitting, breaking only because the fam needed dinner. Those of you who have been following my reviews for a while know that I'm generally a slow reader. You probably also noticed that I don't usually read literary fiction. So for me to finish this book inside of two days is like watching Porky Pig win the hundred-yard dash.

A bit unreal. But I assure you, it happened.

This story is not for those who are sensitive to the intricacies of toxic relationships. It is raw and powerful, and intelligently presented. You start out thinking that Max is the hopeless case, but the more you see of Livy, the more you see what a whackjob she is. It's clear from the beginning that their relationship is far from healthy, driven only by sexual desire, and it is prime real estate for the wedge of financial hardship, yet you still have this niggling thought in the back of your head that maybe... maybe it'll get better and they'll be okay. Happy, even. For years, they ride a rollercoaster of volatile emotion together, and by the end of the book you're just hoping they get off the train alive and in one piece.

The core conflict is highly relatable. Max has dreams he's reaching for that keep getting pulled from his grasp by the realities of everyday life. You can justify his hatred for Livy and at the same time understand why he can't let her go. If you can stomach the darkness of their relationship, this book is definitely worth reading. It is one of those stories that sticks with you long after finishing the final page-- a masterfully woven web of awesome. 5 of 5 stars.