Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Grift, by Debra Ginsberg

The G[r]ift is an interesting little read.  With my interest in the psycic/medium con peaked by Affinity, I wanted to read a bit more on the subject and picked to Debra Ginsberg’s modern twist on the tale.  The G[r]ift tells the story of Marina, a survivor of a shitty childhood in which her mother used her to make money by having her read tarot cards and tell fortunes.  Having learnt the art young, Marina now plies her trade by picking up the signals her clients put out (a flicker of the eye, a slight creasing of the brow, the twisting of a lock of hair).  Marina, having been driven out of Florida by competing fortune tellers, winds up in California, where she meets a man, falls in love, and has her heart broken.  During this upheaval, Marina suddenly develops a true gift for seeing the future and speaking to the dead, and now her grift is useless.

This, of course, if a simplification of the plot.  There are a lot of twists and turns that make this a great read.  The plot is a good one, and I’m admit, I tear-ed up at a couple of points.  If this book does have a flaw, it’s that the characters (and there are a few through whom the author develops the story) are a little one-noted.  They vary from men to woman, rich to poor, straight to gay, but for all those differences, it’s a little flat.  There are points where Ginsberg steps into the skin of the character effectively, but these instances only highlight the times that she falls flat in this regard.  It is possible that, having finished World War Z just before reading it, I was spoiled and looking for the same quality of character voice, but this book does a yeoman’s-like job in this regard.

Having said that, however, this was still a good read.  The plot twists were a little predictable, and there was no happy ending, but I can get over that.  Would I have paid full price for this book?  Nope - got in on sale at Chapters.  Would I lend it out and not worry about getting it back?  Probably.  So, I’d recommend reading it if you’re into new-age and/or a good con story, but it’s not going on my list of ‘must-reads’ to recommend to friends.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

One of the things I did during my tenure of un-employment was muse on how I could, and would, survive the zombie apocalypse.  I figured I had lots of food in my pantry that, with rationing, would last months; I lived in a high-rise apartment that could be easily defended from zombie-hoards; and I would be able to avoid cabin-fever thanks to all my books and DVDs.  Easy-peasy: I’d be a survivor, and you all would be zombie food.  Boy, am I ever glad I didn’t read World War Z during this hiatus from the work-force.

World War Z is a collection of oral histories from all over the world of the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.  Written as a side project to a UN-commissioned tactical de-brief on the war, this work tells of the human side of the global conflict.  Of course, because we all know of the war so intimately, the author doesn’t tell us when it happened, but I place this blight somewhere around 2004-2005.  No one seems sure where the plague first appeared, but it was in South Africa that it got its first popular nomenclature – African Rabies.  We now know that it is some sort of virus, much like a cancer though, that slowly takes over the cells in the human body until death (followed shortly thereafter by reanimation).  No country was safe, no socio-economic bracket was spared, and not many survived.  Miss-information and self-preservation led to The Great Panic, which infected everyone, as they tried to flee from the threat – but there was no fleeing.  There were reprieves, like camping out north of the snow-line, but come thaw, you were once again faced with the living dead.  Finally, the Americans (of course), decided to fight back and, after clearing most of the continental USA, began helping other nations clear their own lands.  We now live is a world where the occasional zombie sighting is reported (and the creature quickly dispatched to eliminate spread of the virus), but for the most part, we are a peace and working to re-build our population numbers, domestic production, and the global economy.  It’s going to be a tough slog, but we’re going to make it.  Humanity is going to make it.

But, in all seriousness, WWZ is a great read, if a little spooky.  I was about halfway through when I realized that the author, Max Brooks (son of wicked-hilarious film maker Mel Brooks) is a genius.  I realized while reading the book that my zombie survival plan was flawed: rationing food didn’t mean shit if there was no water to drink, and the water purification systems would be one of the first pieces of infrastructure to go; I might be in a high-rise building, but whose to say my neighbors aren’t already infected and turning into zombies as we speak?  Suddenly, the threat doesn’t need to get passed the security door – it’s already in the building; and the quickest way to get a zombie’s attention is with noise and lights: there goes watching DVDs or reading.  I’d be fucked. 

Putting my disillusionment aside, WWZ is a brilliant piece of creativity and research.  Brooks takes pieces of our modern world and cultures, and uses them as explanations for why zombies could so easily take over the world.  Economically, we are so globally interconnected that no domestic economy can function without importing and/or exporting goods.  Culturally, we’ve all got our heads in the sand and do our best to ignore problems until it’s too late.  Technologically, we have developed to the point where we don’t know how to do anything with our hands anymore.  Socially, we live individualize lives and don’t care about the collective as much as ourselves.  What does this mean to a zombie?  Nothing.  They’re fucking zombies – they have no thoughts beyond moaning and eating brains.  What does all this mean in light of a zombie apocalypse?  We’re fucked.  Our economy can’t support itself and, as we loose contact with the nations that supply us with basic goods like tube-socks and pens, we start falling apart at the seams.  Our ability to ignore what’s really happening around us if it makes us uncomfortable means we can rationalize away a problem like a zombie as someone suffering from a particularly vicious strain of rabies.  Our inability to repair basic mechanical items, coupled with the inability to import and buy new items means we’re going to have to go without things like cars and/or radios.  And no, there isn’t an app for that.  Our inability to care about our neighbor is going to be what really screws us over in the end: zombies are mindless drones – as we see in WWZ, humanity only succeeds when it bands together to fight them.

Beyond these thematic insights, Brooks provides us with a handful of direct examples.  Using current geo-politics and history, Brooks creates events within the zombie-context that are completely plausible and you can see as happening if just a little too much pressure came to bear on several nations.  Take Israel: Israel was the first nation to openly acknowledge the zombie threat.  Since WWII, Israel has operated on a ‘never again’ policy, and has been beefing up its military and political capabilities.  Zombies start showing up, and the first thing Israel does is close its doors – literally.  They offered asylum to all the Jews in the world, and displaced Palestinians, then they shut the gates.  France, considered to be cheese-eating surrender monkey by the world since WWII, got it into their heads that they would fight to the bitter end – and boy did they ever.  The Parisian underground system was used as a refuge and battle ground, and not enough international help was sought to clear out the City of Lights: the result were massive casualties of both military personnel and civilians.  But North Korea takes the cake.  North Korea refused to acknowledge to anyone if they were fighting the zombie scourge.  And, one day, they just disappeared.  Wait, what? you ask.  Yeah, everyone just disappeared.  Satellite images show no human movement in North Korea.  Did the zombies get them all?  If so, where are the zombies (because thanks to the mad dictator in charge of NK, you know the boarders were tight)?  Were the rumors true then?  Does North Korea have enough underground developed space to hide a nation?  If so, how are they getting food?  So many questions!  But Brooks taps into the fear of the Israelis, the insecurities of the French, and the madness of the North Koreans to tell his tale, and suddenly the zombie apocalypse is lent credibility.

What makes this books so believable though, is Brooks’ skill.  The style is that of multiple interviews, and Brooks nails every single voice.  From the traumatized woman who survived a zombie attack as a child only to go feral, to the Supreme Commander of Allied forces, Brooks’ subjects all come across as genuine and unique.  Considering the sheer number of ‘voices’ in this work, it’s quite a feat. 

This book is addictive and super-hard to put down.  They are currently filming a movie version (to star Brad Pitt), and I’m interested to see how they transfer the style (multiple interviews) into a flick.  Needless to say, being such a fan of the book now, I’m really looking forward to seeing it.  But, before you all rush out to see it too, read the book – find out how to survive.

Affinity, by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is an interesting little author that I stumbled across thanks to a Chapters sale last year.  Having read her book The Little Stranger, I was intrigued by her ability to use a male voice so effectively, her seamless blend of the supernatural with the mundane, and her ability to tell an effortless history of post-war aristocratic poverty.  So, having enjoyed Stranger so much, I set out to find some more of her books and landed on Affinity.

Telling the interweaved stories of a ‘spinster’ (God, I love that word) and a con-woman in Victorian London, Affinity allows the reader into various worlds within the period.  Margaret is the eldest daughter of a wealthy family who has recently lost its patriarch – depressed over the loss of her favorite parent, and heartbroken over loosing the woman she loves (to her brother of all people), Margaret is recovering from a suicide attempt when it is suggested she volunteer at the local woman’s prison as a ‘Visitor.’  While there, Margaret meets Selina, a young woman imprisoned for assault of her patron in whose home she was living.  Selina was living with her patron because she was a medium, and was acting as the vessel through which the patron’s mother visited her.  During a session with a friend of her patron (a teenage girl), a spirit got a little rowdy and the girl was hurt – the patron saw it, had a heart attack, and died.  Selina ended up in prison.  Affinity is the story of the growing connection between Margaret and Selina, and Margaret’s willingness to cling to anything in the wake of her heartbreaks.  (The Advocate gave this book a good review, btw.)

I found this book a little slow to get into at first – Waters took her time in the opening chapters to describe settings and surroundings, which might have been better served working to develop her characters.  The character development is slow in coming, so you’re basically thrust into the middle of a book before you’ve even started it (and Waters cleverly address that feeling up-front).

There is a fair bit of the supernatural and macabre running through out this book, so I was worried that Waters would be a one-trick pony and mimic her story development line from Stranger, but this wasn’t the case.  While the structure is similar, it couldn’t be more opposite.  Unfortunately, details cannot be provided without ruining both books, which I absolutely refuse to do.

The characters are all strong, but there are several who probably could have used more development for the role that they played in the book.  Very little is told about Margaret’s sister, and what we know of her is gleaned from her interactions that Margaret witnesses; Margaret’s sister-in-law was clearly her lover at some point, but we never do find out if it was a physical relationship, and it’s unclear what happened to drive them apart, and her into a marriage with Margaret’s brother; and Selina herself – the climax provides context for the beginning of her tale, but there are holes left in it regarding her friends, and what there role was in the events that led to her imprisonment.  Waters was clearly trying to play it coy, to match the tenor of the tale she was telling (all about the long-con and griftting), but the mood she was trying to set meant the story suffered.

All in all, though, I’d recommend this book.  I’ve got another Waters’ work sitting on my shelf that I’m looking forward to reading, so I think she’s an author that will appear in my regular rotation and that I’ll be looking for new works from.  

Shake Hands with the Devil, by Romeo Dallaire

Shake Hands with the Devil is a controversial read in my home.  My Dad, who is proudly army, has been against this book since it first came out while I, who has a softer heart than is probably good for me, has been a staunch defender of Roméo Dallaire since he first started speaking publicly about Rwanda.  While I still support Dallaire as a human being, I’ve been slowly coming around to my Dad’s point of view of this book.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here….

Shake Hands with the Devil begins with Roméo Dallaire’s account of his career leading up to his command of the UN mission into Rwanda at the end of the country’s civil war in the 90’s.  But, the meat of the work is his telling of his time leading that UN mission.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish this book.  I’m got about a third of the way through it and lost all desire to finish it.  Coming home from work and using my free time to read about a bureaucratic nightmare, a county imploding because of its own factions, and the guilt Dallaire is willing to heap on everyone for the situation bumed me out – I didn’t want to read any more.  

This is my major sticking-point with this book: the blame Dallaire is willing to dole it out to everyone.  The West is racist because it preferred to throw resources at the war in Bosnia; Canada fell down on the job by not committing enough resources to Rwanda (he makes a point about how hard he had to fight to get a support staff from DND); he blames the UN for being a red-tape loving, head-up-their-own-asses institution that was unable to respond quickly enough to mission demands (and, okay, he called that one right); and he blamed the UN-field staff that was unwilling to step outside their comfy 9-5 existence in what was clearly a deteriorating situation.  

Some of these people/organizations did fall down on the job – no doubt – but the part that made me uncomfortable reading this book (and the dynamic that set my Dad against it so early and quickly) is that you simply don’t speak about your chain of command like that (publicly) in the army.  There is an ethos amongst Forces personnel that is almost inviolate – you do the job they’ve given you, you work with the resources they’ve given you, and you shut up and get on with it.  While reading SHWD it felt like Dallaire, whose own account of his early career paints him as working hard to get into this old-school mentality, completely stepped outside what was/is acceptable for army personnel to speak about.

Now, I know what you’re going to say – as a historian, I should know better: History is written by the victors.  Dallaire gets to write his account and throw as many people under the bus as he’d like because he survived Rwanda (and his own personal conflicts), and he secured a book deal.  True.  But Dallaire’s bias does a disservice to the topic – the Rwandans are not best served by having an emotional account of their horror as one of the main publications on the lead up to the genocide.  What needs to be out there is an un-biased (okay, I’ll say it, historian’s) account of the events – Dallaire’s polarizing work doesn’t do the topic justice.

Before you get your dander up, I’d like to stress that I’m not a monster – I have the utmost respect for Dallair’s because he stepped into a situation in Rwanda that I wouldn’t have gone near with a 100-foot poll.  I used to see him every so often at the mall in Orleans where I was working, and it was clear that he’s a broken man.  There’s no happiness in him that I could ever see and, saddest of all, the one time I saw him with his kids, they had the same vibe to them.  Rwanda destroyed many families, and Dallaire’s was one.

So where to go from here?  Do I recommend this book or not?  I’m not sure.  I personally didn’t enjoy it, but not passionately enough to waive anyone else off either.  The writing style of solid, the book includes a glossary of names and terms that is easy to consult if you forget who someone is or what an acronym stands for, and you do get an interesting look at how international bureaucracy functions.  But for all the points that make it easy to read, countered against the points I had a problem with, the simple fact is that this is a depressing read; I fizzled out because I just couldn’t bring myself to welcome the negativity into my down-time.  While the victims of Rwanda need to be remembered and honoured, I’m not sure this is the book with which to do it.

I pulled a George R.R. Martin

Wow, has it ever been a loooong time since I posted! 

2 reasons for that:

1- I was trying to get through Shake Hands with the Devil for a while (didn't make it), so wasn't reading much of anything.
2- I've been pretty lazy and havn't been keep up with writing about the books that I have been reading.  Well, I solved that problem this morning by writing about the last 4 books I've read.

So, to be fair, it wasn't 6 years between posts (I'm looking at you Martin), but it was too long.  I'm going to try and be more dilligent in the future.  Now, dear reader, read on!