Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"After the Apocalypse" by Maureen McHugh

Perhaps the highest praise I can give After the Apocalypse is that after I finished it, I desperately wanted to write a "quiet science-fiction" (my term for McHugh's writing) short story myself. I thought about it for a day or two, came up with an idea I was excited about, and even wrote a few pages (this is a breakthrough for me--I've written almost nothing creatively since middle school). When I reread my few pages a couple hours later, I realized they were total crap. So much for that dream, but McHugh's stuff is still awesome.

After the Apocalypse is a collection of short stories (shockingly) taking place after some sort of apocalypse. Most of the apocalypses are vaguely defined (lack of resources, employment, safety--though one story features zombies) because McHugh's not really interested in the facts of the end of the world. Instead, she explores how individuals deal with mundane situations once our normal has disappeared.

In this way, the stories are certainly "quiet." There's not a lot of action, nor is there a typical climax and resolution. Nonetheless, the characters are so well-drawn that the pieces are totally engrossing. There's the woman living alone who makes life-like newborn baby dolls; the computer programmer who comes to believe a system is aware; the woman signing up for clinical trials to get money for vacation; a mother and her daughter in a sort of anti-The Road. Most of the protagonists are women trying to find themselves and resist in some way. They're not heroes (you might even say the main characters of the last two stories aren't "good" people), but they're developed and full of life.

Though readers looking for hard sci-fi worldbuilding might be disappointed, After the Apocalypse's nine short stories are an excellent read for anyone interested in the dytopian/sci-fi genre.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton" by Edith Wharton

I don't know that I've ever read a ghost story before--watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon during my childhood was probably as close as I got--so reading a collection of ghost stories by Wharton is rather out of my normal tastes.  I feared they would be so terribly old-fashioned that I wouldn't be able to enjoy them. After all, even Wharton herself notes in the preface, "But since I first dabbled in the creating of ghost stories, I have made the depressing discovery that the faculty required for their enjoyment has become almost atrophied in modern man" (1). There's a sense that the modern era, with its electricity and phones and television, is not a place that ghosts can haunt. I was surprised, then, to still find the stories delightfully creepy and ominous. They're not "jump in your seat" scary, but Wharton does an excellent job of creating just the right atmosphere ideal for enjoying these tales.

Wharton was writing in a semi-modern area (e.g. the characters use electricity and drive cars), as the stories were originally published between 1910 and 1937, but she does have use of an important requirement for most ghost stories: the creepy, slightly decrepit, house. Unlike most homes today, houses in that era--especially the grand homes of Wharton's pieces--have history and personality, which are essential to creating the ghostly atmosphere. When this setting is combined with unusual servants, as it is in "Mr. Jones," the effect is perfect. In that story, a woman comes to inhabit an old home in the family, but is confronted with constant demands from the aged caretaker, Mr. Jones, who never appears.

Another of Wharton's skills is her ability to take the reader inside the mind of each protagonist as he or she slowly must come to terms with the unearthliness around him or her, as Charlotte must when her husband continues to receive troubling letters addressed to him in "Pomegranate Seed." In fact, women living alone or losing their husbands was a common theme, as it appears also in "Afterward" and "All Souls'."

Many of the stories were enjoyable. The poor Anne and her dead dogs in "Kerfol" were quite ghastly. I also quite liked the only one that didn't really involve the supernatural in any way, 'The Looking Glass," which depicts a middle-aged woman struggling to accept her loss of beauty.

I went in to the collection quite skeptical, planning to read only a few stories, but I picked up steam as I went along and finished the second half of the book rather quickly. I'm a fan of scary movies (but not the trash torture porn of Saw and the like), and I think Wharton's atmosphere and characterization is enough to appeal to any fan willing to savor the build up and leave tantalized with an unfinished ending.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned" by John A. Farrell

I've been teaching the play Inherit the Wind to my 9th grade students for five years now. The drama is based on the famous Scopes "Monkey trial" from the '20s in which Tennessee's anti-evolution law was challenged. The protagonist of the play is Henry Drummond, a fictionalized version of the real life defense attorney in the case, Clarence Darrow. Although I knew some details of Darrow's life from teaching of the play, I was interested in learning more from Farrell's biography.

Darrow truly is a unique and perhaps unparalleled character in American history. He's famous for his participation in a number of sensational trials. We often snigger when we watch a courtroom drama and an attorney makes a long, impassioned speech that moves the jury to tears, but that's exactly what Darrow so brilliantly did, time and again. However, though he's often touted as a defender of the underdog, he's certainly more complicated than that, as Farrell effectively shows.

Nonetheless, there were things Darrow keenly believed. Writes Farrell, "The great theme of Darrow's life, the long war he fought in his march through courtrooms and cases, was the defense of individual liberty from modernity's relentless, crushing, impersonal forces." This theme is clearly seen in the Scopes trial, but is also seen in his frequent defense of the trodden down accused of murder (as when he defends labor leaders who killed politicians or a group of black men who had been beset by a mob after moving into a white neighborhood and shot a bystander). He also was fervently against capital punishment, believing that little in our lives was the result of choice. For this reason he defended all types of murderers (including the infamous Leopold and Loeb) against the death penalty.

One of the most fascinating things about Darrow is the lasting image he created in the courtroom. He spoke directly to the jury and the public--I was shocked by how well Lawrence and Lee seemed to have captured him in Inherit the Wind. According to Farrell, "Darrow crafted an American archetype: advocate for the common folk, hooking his thumbs in his vest or suspenders, regarding the jury from beneath that cascading shock of hair, speaking with plain but emotional conviction of the nobility of man, the frailty of mankind, and the threat to liberty posed by narrow-minded men of wealth--'the good people,' he called them, with no shortage of sarcasm--and their legal guns-for-hire."

But Darrow was not always the noble hero that we might like him to be. He took difficult and hopeless cases, but he also faced a lifelong concern with money, and so he also took cases defending nefarious business interests and gangsters. He most certainly played "dirty" at times, by bribing witnesses or jury members. Darrow also believed strongly in free love and had numerous affairs throughout his lifetime (while his wife, it appears, did not).

Farrell's book is excellently researched, with quotes drawn from numerous sources. Each part of Darrow's life is told in detail, though the sheer number of names mentioned can be somewhat overwhelming. Farrell did spend a significant amount of time on Darrow's prosecution for bribery and relatively little time on Leopold and Loeb, a topic I found much more interesting. The book lacks some of the drama and excitement that Darrow was so skilled at injecting into the courtroom, but it nonetheless paints a fair and thorough picture of the lawyer.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Froi of the Exiles" by Melina Marchetta

Though I had some concerns with the first book in this series, Finnikin of the Rock, I enjoyed the character and relationship building enough to quickly request the sequel, Froi of the Exiles, when I saw it available on NetGalley. Froi puts the reader back into the land of Lumatere; Queen Isaboe now reigns with her consort, Finnikin, and they are trying to restore the land and people of Lumatere after the ten-year curse and exile. Froi, the savage boy they picked up in the last book, has sworn himself to the service of Queen Isaboe and has been training in fighting. Froi is recruited to travel to the land of Charyn, the country that had invaded Lumatere, in order to assassinate the king. Once in Charyn, he meets the damaged and wild princess, the object of a prophecy: she is the last born child in Charyn, and the country will have no children until she produces an heir with another last born child.

The above summary only begins to cover the story lines running throughout Froi of the Exiles. Although that's fairly standard for fantasy (Game of Thrones is no less bursting with characters and secrets), I also found it rather confusing, especially in the beginning.  I had a hard time keeping track of the characters and their allegiances, and so many secrets are revealed throughout the course of the book that it was difficult to remember what the truth was.

Froi is often an unlikable character in Finnikin of the Rock, and though he's obviously more sympathetic here as our primary protagonist, I like that Marchetta has still kept some of his dark side. He has a temper and is quick with bitter words; he holds a grudge and feels love and betrayal with equal passion. He's paired well with the mad princess Quintana, a young woman who has been whored to her country in hopes of producing a child and who lives with multiple selves inside of her. Because of their pasts, their relationship can't have quite the romance that Finnikin and Isaboe had (though theirs was also touched by horror), and the two can clearly have no happy ending.

In my review of Finnikin of the Rock, I discussed the pervasive presence of rape in the novel and the way in which it is used as a tool of war. I was concerned that the book seemed to focus more on rape's effects on men (when used against their loved ones) than the women. Rape is similarly present in Froi of the Exiles, though I could see why a little clearer. In some ways, Froi presents a dystopian society, exploring what happens--to the men and to the women--when women are used as tools of tyranny and destruction. Through characters such as Beatriss, Lirah, and Quintana, the reader sees different points of view. Beatriss feels shame for feeling relief that her rape was better than the alternatives; Lirah feels anger and fury at having been used as the king's whore; and Quintana has broken into a wild animal, a cold "ice princess," and a mimicking fool in an attempt to stay together.

Despite their tragic backstories, I couldn't feel for the characters quite as strongly as I did in Finnkin, perhaps because there are more of them and because I had a hard time keeping everything straight. Nonetheless, Marchetta has created an intense fantasy world. Though the story is young adult, it's very dark and sometimes graphic, and it wouldn't be right for all readers. But, the book ends on a huge cliffhanger, and I'll certainly read the third in the series.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.