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Friday, February 21, 2014

When Gravity Fails

When Gravity Fails
George Alec Effinger

I read this book because it was recommended to me by someone who said “Hey, this book is really cool. It treats the idea of gender and transgender in a really cool way.”

If you don’t know, I am very active in the local LGBT community and so this piqued my interest.

And yes, the book does indeed treat gender in a way vastly different than is typically done in society and fiction: it makes it totally moot.

In this futuristic world, one can change one’s gender easily (for a price to be sure) and there is very very little stigma attached. Of course, this world also features personality cartridges that one clips in and out of one’s head. The idea of interchangeable personality traits, whole personalities, and also gender is so commonplace that it is just background noise to the “free lance PI investigates a series of murders and gets in over his head” story line.

That story, by the way, is engaging and full of nuance. It is classic hard boiled but it has a dash of color and flair not found in classic noir stories. The main character, Marid, is both totally believable and easy to root for. The twists are good twists, the fem fatal is done extremely well, and the mystery unravels as a good and steady pace.

Set in an Arabic ghetto, some readers might have trouble with the names and local language, but I found the fact that this wasn’t a New York based detective story a nice change of pace. I loved the way that Effinger handled world building… both with broad strokes and with little details that helped one get more than a sense of things, you really felt that this was a real place full of complex and dynamic real people. The quirks and futuristic flourishes didn’t feel forced or there for shock or shtick value.

I won’t go too far into the plot because I would love for each and every one of you who read this blog to go out and read this book. Suffice it to say, I highly recommend it… and not just because of its treatment of gender politics, but for the story it tells and the phenomenal way in which it tells it.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah
Joshua Max Feldman

The Amazon description is as follows:

The modern-day Jonah at the center of Joshua Max Feldman’s brilliantly conceived retelling of the book of Jonah is a young Manhattan lawyer named Jonah Jacobstein. He’s a lucky man: healthy and handsome, with two beautiful women ready to spend the rest of their lives with him and an enormously successful career that gets more promising by the minute. He’s celebrating a deal that will surely make him partner when a bizarre, unexpected biblical vision at a party changes everything. Hard as he tries to forget what he saw, this disturbing sign is only the first of many Jonah will witness, and before long his life is unrecognizable. Though this perhaps divine intervention will be responsible for more than one irreversible loss in Jonah’s life, it will also cross his path with that of Judith Bulbrook, an intense, breathtakingly intelligent woman who’s no stranger to loss herself. As this funny and bold novel moves to Amsterdam and then Las Vegas, Feldman examines the way we live now while asking an age-old question: How do you know if you’re chosen?

This is mostly accurate, but if you think this book is full of Christian allegory or life lessons learned through connection to God or the divine, you would be wrong.

Instead, this is a book that attempts to tell two interwoven stories about two very different people who find something supernatural and healing when they find each other. Except that it doesn't.

What we have in a confused convoluted plot, the introduction of a second main character late in the game and then ignored, a check list of vices, and a picture of God as a cruel puppet master. I don’t think any of those things were intended.

The plot: Jonah gets a vision. It makes no sense to him. He tries to ignore it. He gets another and then another and then another.. but at no time is he given actual (or figurative) instructions by God. There is no “Go there, do this” there is just visions of death and nakedness. There is, in short, no context. How then should he act? He hasn't a clue. He attempts to become a slightly better person (breaking up with his mistress, coming clean to his fiance, alerting the media to the shady deal his law firm is making, etc. But he is still punish by more visions and confusion.

Enter Judith. She is written as a two dimensional foil… a sad lost person floating in the world with no purpose except that she exists and eventually becomes the object of Jonah’s quest.

In both the case of Jonah and Judith, the author seems to have an offensive check list of sins for his characters to partake in… I’m guessing to show us just how bad they really are before they get saved. Jonah is materialistic, cynical, an adulterer, likes his drugs and alcohol, and is the epitome of the greedy lawyer. Judith is an extreme intellectual who lacks ass social graces, is sexually manipulative, promiscuous –with both men and women-, cold, and sells out to work for an evil casino mogul by helping him buy up church land.

They finally meet and have a moment of connection but then Jonah gets another vision (this time with a sense of what he should do) but he runs away. She returns to her sheltered slightly hedonistic life and Jonah finally decides to do something vision related besides bail and he goes on an “epic” quest to find her. The last, maybe, twenty percent of the book is this quest.

He finds her. They talk.

And then… nothing. He goes into the desert and lays down to feel the sun on his face.

The end.

We have no idea what is going to happen next except that they will change their lives (we assume for the better) and they both feel… something… although that really isn’t shown.

I’m not sure when I have had a more disappointing end to a book, but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The whole thing is written as so introspective and verbose… chapter after chapter of exposition and very little movement in terms of consciousness or plot.

Frustrating to say the least.

And what makes this double hard is that Feldman is very talented at some very important part of story telling. He has a beautiful way with dialogue. His side characters are well described and totally believable. His has an almost uncanny way of setting a scene and giving the reader tactile signposts that illustrate more than the current action. And the story he was trying to tell had mounds of potential. It could have been powerful and life changing.

It just, wasn't.