Review: Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin

LaurusI picked up this book knowing almost nothing about it, except that it was the monthly choice of one of my book clubs. I didn’t even read the blurb. I read a lot of Russian literature when I was 18-19, when it suited the gloom of adolescence (and when its availability on Project Gutenberg suited the empty bank account of adolescence), and I figured that Laurus would likely treat me to more of the same edge and moral ambiguity I recall from that period.

Instead, this book beautifully captures an entirely different side of the soul of Russia. Arseny, whom we will also know as Laurus and Amvrosy among his many other names, lives in a time and place where the worldview and moral code are as alien from my own as any fantasy culture, but his gentle soul reaches across the ages to move me anyway. His is a story of redemption, in which he never shies from or makes excuses for what he did wrong, but carries his burden until it drowns out the world. There is a terrific sense of disembodiment in the prose, a space between the reader and Arseny’s world just as there is a growing space between the world and Arseny. It felt sanctified, even to a reader who does not share his religion or anything resembling it.

In some ways, I am a poor choice of audience for this book, as it’s a clear homage to the hagiographies of Christian saints, and I am a Buddhist whose limited interest in Christian sainthood and mythology is purely academic. I did struggle in places with the matter-of-fact way in which the supposedly divine or demonic is presented, and I found that treating much of it as the potential result of a traumatic brain injury — something which, along with untreated mental illness, I consider a likely candidate for the historical phenomenon of ‘holy fools’ anyway — aided in my suspension of disbelief, though it lent a mournful feeling to passages of the book that I think were more humorous for other readers. Oddly, the more I treated the mysticism as ambiguous, the more I was able to accept it as mysticism.

The most compelling part of the story for me was its temporal shenanigans. From the very beginning it’s unrooted in time, from little anachronisms like plastic bottles in the snow to styles of speech that vary from Middle English to ‘well, like, you know’ 21st century slang. Later on it starts to incorporate flashes of other lives from other times altogether, some peripherally related down the ages to the lives of Arseny and his companions, some just glimpses across the thin fabric of time to the same space. By the end of the novel, concepts like before and after have almost ceased to matter. Time is just an illusion we use to make an overwhelming amount of information possible to process, and in letting it go, we get back all of the things time has stolen. I think this is the most powerful aspect of Laurus for me, the fact that something which is incredibly congruent to my worldview as a Buddhist comes from a portrayal of a medieval morality so foreign to my own. A common thread of humanity.

Laurus won at least one award for its English translation and although I cannot compare it to the Russian original, I feel that award was well-deserved. Not only is the liquid and ethereal prose a large contributing factor to the overall mood, but the varied use of English from different eras is a very clever way to reproduce the intent of the original Russian anachronisms. I’m not as good as I should be about paying attention to the names and pedigrees of translators, but Lisa Hayden will be joining Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky on the list of people bringing Russian literature to an English-speaking audience whose translations will be an auto-buy for me.

I’m actually immersed in Biblical studies at the moment as background for part of a course on the history of world literature, and it’s fascinating to me that I am more enraptured and more moved by this story of a saint who never existed than I have so far been by any of the ones who supposedly did.

4.5 stars

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Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Anonymous

The Epic of GilgameshThis was my first stop in a course on the history of world literature. It’s a lot more entertaining than my second stop, which is the Bible.

So far all of the ancient world epics I’ve read have been concerned with the relationship between humanity and the gods, so it’s really interesting to me that perhaps the oldest surviving piece of great literature we have is so humanist. The gods are there, but it’s not about them. It’s concerned with what must be humanity’s oldest fear, the fear of death, the thing that separates us from the animals which have no conception of their own mortality. And it presents the answer to that fear not as bowing before any gods or begging them for a good afterlife, but as living your mortal life to the full, enjoying all the experiences for which humanity was intended, and creating a legacy to leave behind.

The titular hero, who is only a hero in the original larger-than-life sense and not in the later what-a-good-person sense, is pretty thoroughly unsympathetic until the loss of his boon companion cements that fear. That’s the common thread of humanity that then links him to us in our air conditioned towers, across an almost inconceivable stretch of human development.

Poetry always loses a little more in translation than prose, but even in translation you can feel the structure and get lost in the rhythm of ancient epics like The Iliad and Beowulf, at least if it’s a good translation. Unfortunately, that’s something that’s kind of been lost with The Epic of Gilgamesh due to its fragmentary nature, independent of any merits of the translator. The battle against Humbaba is almost entirely lost, and such a vast lacuna no doubt contributes to the lacklustre feel of the first half of the epic compared to the more humanistic and powerful second half. Getting the most out of this poem is going to require patience for being repeatedly thrown out of the narrative by gaps, some of them partially filled by alternative versions of the text recovered from different places, some not.

I read this in the Penguin edition translated by Andrew George, which is very comprehensive, enough so that I might recommend a little skim-reading to those less completist than I. While the Sumerian poems in the fifth chapter are a really interesting and informative addition to the standard text, the few chapters worth of Babylonian fragments that don’t really add very much that wasn’t already incorporated into the gaps in the main text as part of this translation make for a tedious read.

The fact that the Bible borrows substantially from many cultures that predated those of its chroniclers was not news to me, but I was fascinated by just how precise the borrowing of Noah’s story from Ut-napishti’s is. It’s not just the flood and the circumstances that motivate the gods to bring it about, but the ark constructed to divine specifications, the animals aboard to reseed the earth with their species after the flood waters recede, the birds released to find land when the flood waters begin to recede… There’s an ancient scribe with an excellent case for a plagiarism suit here, when Disney inevitably expand our copyright laws to 4,000 years plus life of author.

4 stars

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Review: H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, by H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete FictionHaving grown up quite fond of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, I have read bits and pieces of Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction throughout my life, but before I dive into some of the Mythos-related works on my to-read pile, I wanted to make a concerted effort to follow its progression from start to finish. This lovely leatherbound tome represented an excellent opportunity to see Lovecraft’s evolution as an author, although it’s a hefty beast that left my wrist complaining for weeks.

It’s no secret to fans of weird fiction that Lovecraft held some reprehensible views, being remarkably racist, anti-semitic, and generally xenophobic even by the standards of his time. My previously disjointed experience of reading his fiction had left me with the impression that this wasn’t an attitude that heavily pervaded his Mythos work. I thought the worst of it was channelled into his more prosaic works, like the execrable nonsense that is ‘The Street’, a rant against multiculturalism thinly disguised as a short story. Unfortunately, that was a mistaken impression, and these attitudes are on display in many of his Mythos stories. A number of them are themed around the dilution of a bloodline by outsiders, resulting in their degeneration into anything from simplistic cannibals to warped aquatic monster hybrids, all of them thin stand-ins for the immigrants and people of colour Lovecraft feared.

And yet there is something compelling to me about the Mythos, despite its author. The majority of the fiction I read is either humanist or concerned with humanity’s relationship to spiritual or deific forces. It’s hard to escape an anthropocentric viewpoint. I appreciate the way that Lovecraft confronts humanity’s cosmic insignificance, even if he did it out of fear instead of intellectual curiosity. We tend to feel, and so we tend to write, as though the end of humanity will be the end of all things, but we’re just one species on one planet, and when we’re gone, that planet may recover from our depredations, life that isn’t human will go on, and other planets will spin under alien suns. I believe it’s a good thing to come to terms with, because we have to decide to find meaning in the impermanent, and fiction is a great lens through which to do so. That said, this perspective does significantly lessen their impact as horror stories, which Lovecraft’s sometimes overwrought tone aims for.

I appreciate that Lovecraft’s alien threats aren’t threats because they hate humanity or because they are uniformly evil, but because they generally have about as much interest in us as sapient beings as we have in the emotional landscapes of cows. Quite a few of the bad things that happened to people in these stories only happened because they went poking around in the forgotten places of the world that had clearly already welcomed life antithetical to theirs. Just as we insist on wading into waters that we weren’t born for and then complaining that there are sharks; the belief that we have an unassailable right to exist unchallenged in every corner of the planet makes us an entitled species.

Lovecraft is obviously a big fan of Lord Dunsany and several of his more dreamlike works are homages; clumsy ones to begin with, but polished and compelling by the time he reaches ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’, which is likely my favourite work in the whole substantial volume. In a way, I think some of these works reflect a certain lost potential — Lovecraft was seemingly at his best when he wrote from wonder rather than from fear, but he did so much more of the latter. Still, it’s unsurprising that the minds of bigots will be limited by fear.

I think that for the casual reader, this volume might be too complete. Progressing as it does from the earliest stages of Lovecraft’s career, you’re stuck with a good couple hundred pages of his youth’s work, with its stilted prose, lack of subtlety, and painfully overwrought endings. By the time the book reaches the good stuff, I expect a lot of readers would have put it down and wondered why on earth everyone keeps talking about this Cthulhu thing. I’d be more likely to recommend a compact tome of the best Mythos works to most readers, but I’m glad this edition exists for completists like myself, as it was illuminating — albeit sometimes in unfortunate ways — to take in the full scope of his work. I will probably never reread it in its entirety, as there’s too much here that is simply distasteful and of little continued value, but there are many good bits to pick at, and pick at them I shall.

Lovecraft’s most valuable legacy is simply the foundation that he laid upon which so many others have built. There are many excellent Mythos works in the world, and few of them were written by him. I don’t know if that would have pleased him or galled him, but given who he was as a person, I am okay with not caring.

3 stars

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Review: The Magician’s Land (The Magicians #3), by Lev Grossman

The Magician's LandThe first time I read this book, I felt a little bit disappointed with it. I think it’s because it’s something of a disjointed experience; at times, not a lot happens, and at times the things that happen don’t really add up to much. That was true of the first book in the trilogy too, but that had a really strong underlying message, whereas the message here is a lot simpler: Quentin has figured out how to be okay, even in the face of losing everything. He’s got the hang of happiness, even when it’s a muted kind of thing pieced together out of the shards of a broken life. He’s done. The biscuit’s baked.

I appreciated it better on rereading. Quentin’s made a lot of bad choices, and some good ones, but even when he’s made good choices he’s often done it for poor reasons. The good that we do is still good even when we do it with questionable motives, but it’s refreshing to see him actually make hard choices for no reason other than his moral code, and the fact that he’s finally realised that being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean being the star of the show. In the process of letting go of everyone, he might just have figured out how to actually let them in.

It’s also interesting to see Quentin through the eyes of someone younger, to whom he’s a mentor figure. From her perspective, yes he’s kind of a fucked up person, but he’s trying to do something that matters and she’s excited to be a part of it. Because that’s another thing Quentin’s finally grasped: Magic doesn’t hand you purpose, but there’s a thousand good uses it can be put to, so when you’ve been handed this power and responsibility, what kind of difference are you going to decide to make to the world(s)?

The secondary cast got a lot more attention here than in the previous books, and I appreciated the growth. Plum, Quentin’s protégé, is of course new, but manages to squeeze some interesting backstory in, but what I really appreciated was the growth of Eliot and Janet from amusing but damaged lushes into fully realised people. Eliot has found his place, has found a responsibility to gladly shoulder, and it’s one that he’s willing to fight for, albeit in uniquely Eliot ways. Janet lets her icy façade drop for long enough to show us how a sojourn in the desert while Eliot and Quentin were busy saving the world broke and reforged her. It’s surprisingly touching, and it’s a rare instance where I don’t really mind a character serving as exposition fairy.

There are still some issues with the pacing. The flashbacks to Brakebills worked well for me despite narratively just serving as setup, because they show how Quentin has mastered the art of contentment in trying circumstances, but there was honestly far too much detail on the subsequent heist sequence given that we’re never going to see most of the characters from it again. The sudden switch to Fillory and what’s going on with Eliot and Janet is rather jarring as well, and it would have been better if the Fillory stuff had been interwoven with the Earth chapters earlier in the book, and been a bit more spread out.

The one big disappointment that remained for me on rereading was the handling of how Quentin and Alice’s story and Quentin’s loss came full circle. Firstly, I felt it undermined part of the point of the book, and indeed the entire trilogy, which is that there’s no one magical thing — including magic itself — which is going to provide you with happiness. Alice was one of the things that Quentin used to try to fill the holes in himself and in his life, and his loss of her represented the first point at which he started to grasp that lesson, although obviously it took other losses for him to complete that journey. The decision Grossman made about how to conclude that story arc really sapped some of the power from that message for me. Secondly, this storyline was definitely one of the worst victims of the disjointed pacing. In the haste to wrap it up and get back to the Fillory plot, it made magic, and niffins, and the gap between those and the material world feel mundane. This should have been a lengthier story of tentative rediscovery.

So it still has its flaws and I can’t claim to love it quite as much as the previous two books, but I do love it. Taken as a whole, this trilogy is a profound story of depression, escapism, grief, wonder, and adulthood, flavoured with some delicious dark humour. It will remain among my all-time favourites for many years to come.

4 stars

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Review: The Magician King (The Magicians #2), by Lev Grossman

The Magician KingQuentin and his friends have settled into their roles as the kings and queens of Fillory, into lives of indolent purposelessness — it turns out Fillory pretty much runs itself — and the gaping hole of grief left behind by Alice. Quentin, as usual, hunts for ways to fill it, and when you live in a magical land, what better way than a quest? This is a slightly better Quentin than we’re used to though, not yet stripped bare of his entitlement and bad emotional habits, but softened into a more empathetic figure by the reality of loss.

The quest pays its share of homages to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but this time around the story is less concerned with deconstructing our childhood fantasies than it is with gradually robbing Quentin of all of the crutches he’s used to avoid dealing with his depression and grief, and taking responsibility for his actions. Woven between the modern-day Fillory chapters are flashbacks to how Julia fared after her rejection from Brakebills, and her magical education is a blistering contrast to Quentin’s tale of privilege. She fought tooth and nail for every scrap of power and knowledge, and his role in setting her on the path that took so much from her is one of the responsibilities Quentin finally has to acknowledge.

The Magician King is a more fantastical book than the first, and unlike The Magicians we aren’t viewing these fantastical elements solely through the perspective of a clinically depressed protagonist who can’t take any wonder from them, so at times it feels more upbeat than its predecessor. It still doesn’t paint a patina of romance over the fantasy, though. Quests don’t guide you on your way to your happily ever after; quests mean that people die, and it’s neither meaningful nor glorious, it’s just death, and at the end your reward is perhaps to put right what you broke in the first place, to do the right thing even if it takes everything.

I felt the relative lack of character growth in The Magicians was a pretty realistic and solid portrayal of how depressed people function, or don’t as the case may be, but I can understand why it was so frustrating for a lot of readers. The Magician King delivers the payoff. There’s little of the old Quentin left by the time we say goodbye on an almost literal cliffhanger. The premise of the first book is neatly summed up in one of his hard-won realisations:

Everything was chance and nothing was perfect and magic didn’t make you happy, and Quentin had learned to live with it, which it turned out that most people he knew were already doing anyway, and it was time he caught up with them.

Julia still walks the more interesting path of the two, though. It’s funny how the character whose immediate situation after the Brakebills rejection is so deeply fucked up is also, in some ways, the character who has it the most together. She understands that Quentin’s unrequited love for her and any bitterness it engenders is his problem, not hers. She refuses to be gaslit by Brakebills. She understands her own value and potential in the face of crushing circumstances. Her initial magical growth is really hard to watch because in some respects, I wanted to cheer her on for having the strength to repeatedly reject her perceived reality rather than allow a privileged institution’s attempt to assert itself as the sole authority over her future, but it’s more like watching a junkie tear their life apart in search of their next fix than some proud uprising against the Man. She’s a faster learner than Quentin when it comes to understanding that there’s a point where you have to look at your life, say it’s enough, and supply your own happiness, but they both bring about their own tragedies in getting there.

I think for people whose issue with The Magicians was Quentin’s lack of growth and the lack of a counterpoint to his privileged viewpoint, The Magician King would be a substantial improvement. It has a stronger narrative structure, more dark humour, and a more compelling variety of characters whose struggles do a lot to put Quentin’s in perspective. It’s probably still not going to convince you to love the series if you didn’t dig the first book’s commentary on escapism, though. For readers who loved The Magicians as much as I did, The Magician King is a worthy successor that journeys out of the darkness and into the light.

5 stars

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Review: The Magicians (The Magicians #1), by Lev Grossman

The MagiciansThis was my second read of The Magicians, and I approached it with a little trepidation, wondering if I would hold it in the same esteem I did on my first read several years ago. If anything, it has risen in my estimation. It’s not only a thoughtful deconstruction of escapist fantasy, it’s also one of the best depictions of depression I’ve ever read. Let’s tackle those points in order.

I think most people, even those who didn’t go on to love fantasy as adults, grew up on some form of escapist fantasy. For my generation it was Narnia, and I remember disregarding Lewis’s advice and hopping into the wardrobe as a small child just to make sure it wasn’t back there. For the younger generation it’s Harry Potter, probably hanging onto lingering hopes of a late acceptance to Hogwarts. There were plenty of less memorable entries in this field too, and they all had one thing in common: A child who doesn’t quite fit the world around them in the way that most intelligent, bookish children don’t quite fit the world around them, who in suddenly finding that they are the chosen one who gets to rule the magical land or go to the magical school, also gets their problems solved. Magic brings them friends who really get them. Magic somewhat makes up for the loss of a family or the existence of a family who doesn’t really love or understand them by bringing them a community that embraces who they truly are. Magic makes them fit without having to change, at least not in ways that require them to have to take the real world as it is and find a way to belong happily in it anyway.

Quentin Coldwater, our unlikeable protagonist, gets that chosen one fantasy in his acceptance to Brakebills and the discovery that the magic he’s always longed for is real. And it doesn’t fix things. Magic, it turns out, is like anything else in life: You won’t get joy out of it if you don’t put some in, if you don’t tough out the hard and tiring and boring parts for love of the discipline, and it isn’t going to make the problems that stemmed from you in the first place simply disappear. People are still people, and ones with magic aren’t any more accepting or loving or tolerant or capable of filling the holes in your soul. Life is still a big confusing mess, and you still have to decide what your purpose is and make it happen, not just sit back and wait for magic to hand one to you.

And it can be hard to be in Quentin’s head as he struggles with this, and on the cusp of realisation, often seizes onto the next thing that he thinks will hand him a miraculous bundle of happiness: Alice! Fillory! But in the midst of all the fantasy trappings, that’s what makes this book so damn real, because that’s how depression works. In fiction it often doesn’t, because people want to see characters grow along a steady trajectory, so they hit rock bottom, and then get a little better, and a little better, until eventually they’re standing in a good place. But in life? You get a little better, and then a little better, and then you self-sabotage all of your good work and end up in a worse place than you were to start with, and then you get a lot better, but only because you’ve grabbed onto a relationship/job/other temporary fix that won’t actually yield long-term improvement, and then you re-acquaint yourself with rock bottom, and then you get a little better…

And as someone approaching their 20th year of that journey with depression, I can say that yes, it can make us pretty damn unlikeable at times — particularly when you’re still a kid like Quentin and trying to figure out who you even are with this crushing weight on top of you. In addition, one of the ways that Quentin copes is by overachieving, which is not my particular thing but is something I recognise from friends’ experiences, and so he’s one of the smartest people in his mundane school and is preparing for an Ivy League education when Brakebills derails him. Suddenly he has to get used to the fact that he is, if anything, below-average in the community he’s now a part of — he came very close to not even getting into Brakebills, and it’s repeatedly shown how much some of his peers like Alice and Penny outclass him. It’s probably not dissimilar from the experiences of a lot of kids who are the best in their provincial areas and have to adapt to being merely part of the crowd at an Ivy, but when academic accomplishment has been pretty much your sole coping strategy for depression, it’s going to make the kind of impact we see here.

Despite the fact that viewing it through Quentin’s eyes can be a dampener, there’s still something bewitching about the Brakebills experience. While Quentin is in his final year and getting impatient to stretch his wings, I already felt strangely mournful for the place. It’s no Hogwarts, but you know that one day Q will regret not making the most of the years he had there, although maybe he can still grow enough as a person to appreciate all the subtle joys that were strung throughout this confusing and tumultuous time of his life.

That’s not to say that Quentin doesn’t experience any growth, although it’s not until the very end that he finally breaks through a barrier of realisation without backsliding. But there’s much better payoff in that regard to be found in the next two volumes of the trilogy, as well as in highlighting how privileged Quentin’s experience was compared to that of characters like Julia, whom we see just a little of in The Magicians. It might seem odd to call such a depressed character privileged, but many of us enjoy privileges in society (like that of being white, or male, or Christian, or whatever our society has deemed ‘default’) that don’t necessarily go hand in hand with a happy existence, and the fact that Quentin has so little self-awareness of all the things he’s benefitted from is a justifiable source of anger at him — one in which Alice speaks for the reader as she finally snaps at him for not really looking at his perfect life, even as she understands better than most, after seeing her family collapse, how someone like Quentin can get lost inside themselves.

By now we’re on the third season of the television show, which didn’t exist when I last read this book, and it’s a very good adaptation which has adjusted some of my perspectives on the novels. Firstly, the show does a better job of emphasising that Quentin’s emotional state is an actual medical condition, and medical conditions require treatment. It also struck me how very, very white The Magicians is this time around — there isn’t a single person of colour among the novel’s main characters, and the show has done such a brilliant job of diversifying the cast with its excellent choices of actors for Dean Fogg, Penny, Julia, and Janet (renamed Margo in the show) that I found myself substituting them in my mind’s eye, despite Grossman’s descriptions, to make my mental images less painfully uniform. Finally, the Beast is so very much more intimidating on the show, both visually (obscuring your face with a cloud of moths has a bit more impact than hiding it behind a tree branch) and in action, that the book version felt a little anticlimactic on rereading.

This isn’t a comfortable book. It isn’t a good light read with which to while away a cold afternoon. It’s biting and it’s sad and it’s worthy of, almost necessitates, deep thought. It’s also likely to be a difficult read for anyone who needs likeable characters to connect to, because it’s going to take until the subsequent books in the trilogy before Quentin and most of his crew can be described that way (and before we are truly introduced to Julia, who is everything Quentin’s not). But it’s a marvellous piece of fiction, and an all-time favourite that I will come back to again and again. Most of the people I know who’ve read it respond like tasters of Marmite — there is either love or hate, with few reports of indifference. I think if you are interested not just in fantasy, but in taking fantasy apart and seeing why it makes us tick, you may have room to love it.

5 stars

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Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

Fire and FuryIn the interconnected world of 2018, it’s difficult not to be invested in American politics even if you are, like myself, non-American. Most of us have friends and loved ones who are Americans or live in America, and we care about things like them having affordable healthcare and being able to go to the cinema without being gunned down by radical white terrorists. Then there’s America’s nuclear arsenal, which, while not much of a concern under someone as level-headed as Obama, starts to look a bit worrying when the nuclear codes are passed on to someone with the grace and self-restraint of a spoilt toddler whose last piece of birthday cake just got smashed on the floor.

So, even though we’d really rather spend our free time on more fun things than thinking about Donald Trump, like shoving hot needles under our nails, I joined in with the many non-Americans in my circle of friends who had to read this book.

I held fire for a few days while I waited to see what level of credibility to lend the book. To start with, Michael Wolff has more credibility than most of Trump’s administration (a bar admittedly set so low that an ant couldn’t limbo under it), with a background of writing for respectable publications like the Guardian, and personal testimonies that while he’s not necessarily a nice person — being willing to cross lines about what’s on and off record that some reporters consider more sacred — he is one who brings the receipts. So far, the response to the book leaves me inclined to consider it a relatively trustworthy account. While some people, most infamously Steve Bannon, have apologised for what they said in the interviews with Wolff, there have been no real denials of its content, and eyewitness accounts of Wolff’s level of White House access and the veracity of conversations such as the Bannon-Ailes dinner with which the book opens.

The picture that Fire and Fury paints is not a surprising one, if you’ve been attentive to the last 12 months of media coverage, but the ungilded truth in its entirety is a pretty nauseating thing to behold. Donald Trump isn’t merely the stupid and amoral person he comes across as in his tweetstorms and what might charitably be described as speeches. He appears to be possessed of severe mental deficits. He does not read, not even one-page briefings, and has several of his own staff convinced that he is at best semi-literate. If something needs to be brought to his attention, White House advisors have to find a way to present it to him in a visual format that won’t take too long or offer him too many facts that might bore him and cause him to switch off, as he does even in meetings with other world leaders. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria utterly disinterested him — and he grew quite annoyed at people constantly bringing it up with him as though he were supposed to care — until Ivanka made him a video consisting mostly of footage of Syrian children foaming at the mouth.

He displays many signs that will ring a bell for people familiar with the early stages of dementia, such as oddly-directed paranoia — his terrible diet of fast food is allegedly because he uses food that was prepared before anyone knew he was coming to avoid poison — and constant, worsening repetition of the same stories. His address to the CIA upon the confirmation of its new director is something that has to be beheld in detached print in order to fully appreciate the diseased nature of the mind from which it sprang.

What’s truly impressive, in the way that a train derailment or plane crash is ‘impressive’, is how utterly he has disabled the normal structure of Washington despite barely understanding it. If he had instituted a proper chain of command underneath him, then perhaps the gears of government could still turn despite being presided over by the court jester, but instead he has created an environment where people without official job titles are in charge of the same things as people with traditional positions in the command structure, and therefore no one is in charge of anything. Trump’s White House is a warped popularity contest in which advisors have to try to compete for his incredibly limited attention span (after watering down whatever they wish to convey enough for his simplistic understanding), when they aren’t attempting to wrest parts of their job function back out from the grasping claws of whichever West Wing faction opposes them. At the time of writing it seems the West Wing was largely split into the Bannonite and Jarvanka factions, but with Bannon having fallen out of Trump’s graces as all non-family members eventually do, who knows where the fault lines lie at this point?

Because one wonders why anyone who isn’t a Trump or married to one would ever take a job in this White House. Everyone will fall out of Trump’s favour, it is abundantly clear. Everyone. Because Trump redefines incompetence, things will continue to go wrong for him, but he is incapable of even comprehending the idea of taking responsibility for those failures, ergo there will always need to be a rolling road of scapegoats on whose shoulders the blame can be placed before they are disposed of, leaving Trump to spring unhindered back into the belief that he is a very stable genius who is doing a fabulous job and just keeps being let down by his gosh-darn awful team.

At times the depths of his ignorance are so profound that it’s almost tempting to ascribe a level of innocence — although he clearly needs to be removed from office, maybe we shouldn’t hold someone entirely responsible for what comes out of their mouth when they’re clearly in the early stages of dementia? — but those temptations are soon enough quashed by gems like this, reminders of his sleazy and deeply amoral personality that go back decades:

Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise… And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.

Unfortunately, it appears that someone in the White House wised up (relatively speaking) and revoked Wolff’s access prior to the Russia investigation getting particularly interesting. It’s around that point that the book turns from a nuanced look at the interior runnings of the White House, drawn from many sources, to a fairly one-note presentation of Steve Bannon’s every thought, flavoured with a bit of bitterness from Katie Walsh. Although I would suppose it became difficult to get other sources at this point, Wolff indulges Bannon a bit too much in providing a platform for his remarkable hyperbole. Mike Pence is also largely absent from the book, with one of the few mentions of him being of what a tight ship his staff run compared to the utter mess of Trump’s staff; I guess they were seasoned enough to be comparatively unwilling to leak, but it does give an impression — a thoroughly false one, I’d wager — of the VP as off in his own innocent little land.

It’s understandable, given the time-sensitive nature of the book, that editing wasn’t as thorough as I would normally expect of political non-fiction. I can forgive things such as Steve Bannon making a ‘pubic appearance’, despite the mental image that absolutely no one wanted, and despite the intense public scrutiny, few factual errors have so far been highlighted (misidentifying a person who was at the Four Seasons at the same time as Ivanka is the only one I’ve seen that isn’t a typo or misspelling, but given it’s not someone she actually spoke to, it’s hardly damning). However, even as a person who loves to abuse a subclause, I have a difficult time parsing sentences like this:

In nearby Alexandria, Virginia, Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, which is sometimes described as a “white supremacist think tank,” who had, peskily for the White House, adopted the Trump presidency as a personal victory, was organizing his trip to CPAC, which would be as much a victory march for him as it was for the Trump team.

Please stop torturing the commas. They’re your friends.

Whatever its technical faults, the first three-quarters of Fire and Fury should be one of the most important publications of 2018. I cannot imagine a book this damning being released about a British, or Canadian, or Australian leader which would not significantly impact their ability to stay in office. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the American political system and the incredibly polarised nature of its current voter base, it’s unlikely to have the impact that it ought. The people who need to read it will not; the people who are reading it already know it. And, as the book itself highlights, everyone working with Trump is already painfully aware that Trump is not competent to fill the office and should be removed via 25th amendment — but he won’t be, because Trumpism has grown beyond its imbecilic founder, and there’s no shortage of people who think they can continue to work his strings without getting burned by the fire and the fury.

3 stars

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Review: The Fall of the Readers (The Forbidden Library #4), by Django Wexler

The Fall of the ReadersWith Geryon trapped in the Infinite Prison, Alice has marshalled the other apprentices and the library creatures at his estate to fight back against the old Readers. Even with the aid of Ending to push back the Readers’ creatures who invade through the Library, they are hard pressed to hold their ground, and Alice knows it’s only a matter of time before attrition takes its toll. Together, she and Ending concoct a plan for Alice to seek the Great Binding that holds at bay a creature who could destroy the Labyrinthines, which the Readers use to keep them under their thumb. If Alice can take control of the Great Binding herself, she can free the Labyrinthines from the Readers’ influence and take away the source of their power. But if she isn’t powerful enough to hold the binding, she’ll die, dooming magical society to live under the Readers’ cruel ways — and in the quiet of her mind, the Dragon’s voice warns her that his sister cannot be blindly trusted…

When The Palace of Glass was the first book in the series to feel like it really had forward momentum, I worried that trying to wrap this story up in only four books was going to feel very rushed. I’m happy to say that Wexler pulled it off better than I expected, although The Palace of Glass remains the series’s peak.

Alice has been a weak point throughout, with her stunted emotional range, but in The Fall of the Readers (these passive titles are making me twitch) this is much improved. She wrestles with the leadership role she’s been thrust into and the fact that making battlefield decisions means taking charge of lives, some percentage of which, no matter how well you command, are going to be snuffed out. There are some revelations about Alice’s history that perhaps also make her earlier emotional detachment feel earned, and are cleverly foreshadowed, such that I was a little ashamed not to catch the twist until just before its reveal!

The secondary cast also remains delightful, but didn’t get quite as much opportunity to shine as in The Mad Apprentice and The Palace of Glass. I felt a little too much time was devoted to the fairly bland Isaac and the flourishing of the romantic connection that’s been hinted at throughout the series, which isn’t something I’m really interested in seeing with children this young, and I would rather have had a little more Dex or something instead. Ashes still gets to dominate the show with his wonderful prissiness and snark, though.

A complaint I levelled at the first couple of books was the lack of truly fantastical elements given the premise. This was something The Palace of Glass did a great job of addressing, with its fire sprites and haughty turtles and the general feeling that the Library was attached to whole worlds, not just set pieces. I guess the fourth book is a little bit of a step back in that regard, because it has to keep up quite a pace and there’s not as much time to make the weird and wonderful things it visits feel as alive as places like the fire sprite world, but it’s still a significant improvement on the first two, with moments such as dancing skeletons on alien landscapes and inventive fights against rock elementals.

In the end, Wexler did an impressive job of wrapping up all the loose ends. I really expected to be hankering after a fifth and maybe even a sixth book to feel like things had been properly wrapped up, but it turned out not to be needed, and I set The Fall of the Readers down content that all I need to see of Alice’s story has been told. I might wish he had taken a slightly different route getting there, one that allowed a deeper appreciation of all of the colourful places that the Library could take us, but I’m pretty content to be left without questions, just satisfaction. I think there might be room for other stories in this world, perhaps to see what kind of society the next generations ended up with, but I’d be equally okay with the author just leaving it here and going on to explore other things. The series as a whole was a fun, light read that recovered well from its early flaws, and I’m looking forward to checking out Wexler’s adult fantasy series.

4 stars

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Review: Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1), by Max Gladstone

Three Parts DeadThe city of Alt Coulumb runs off of the power of its resident deity, Kos the Everburning. Kos has sheltered his people through the God Wars, even when his lover left to fight, to die, and to leave the city bereft of justice. His death would be catastrophic — which is why he can’t be allowed to stay dead. The church hires a firm of necromantic Craftspeople to bring back as much of Kos as they can, the firm sends Elayne Kevarian, who participated in a similar venture for the city decades ago, and with her she brings her controversial new associate, Tara Abernathy, who was cast out of the airborne schools of the Craft to her presumed death. The case, in which Kos’s cause of death must be determined and his debts examined for the Craftswomen to know how much of him they can actually bring back, is a probation for Tara, who must prove to the senior partners that her worth exceeds her troublesome reputation.

Urban fantasies set in secondary worlds, especially worlds that aren’t a pastiche of European cultures, are something I really appreciate and would love to see more of, so Three Parts Dead was bound to be right up my alley. I’m therefore unsure whether it’s a triumph or a Pyrrhic victory that the book ended up so much more memorable to me for its characters than its setting, but given how much I enjoyed the end result, I’ll take it either way.

The setting is full of great ideas, but in this particular instance, it’s perhaps a little too full of great ideas that don’t get fleshed out enough. Alt Coulumb didn’t have nearly as much sense of place as I need from an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink weird fantasy setting, unlike, say, Miéville’s New Crobuzon. It became a series of set pieces rather than a living, breathing city. Some of those set pieces were really interesting in and of themselves, but the sense of immersion is still lacking.

But they could have been sitting in a blank room and some of these characters would still have leapt off the page. I really enjoyed following a strong, ambitious woman protagonist whose primary relationship is with her female mentor, and whose struggle is for her professional reputation. Elayne Kevarian is the embodiment of sprezzatura, and I was charmed enough by her that I didn’t even mind that she might ultimately be said to have manipulated the reader as much as her clients, colleagues, and adversaries. Abelard, the priest of Kos who was tending his flame when the deity died, and Cat, a servant of Justice with a vampire problem, were less memorable, but they did provide both a valuable perspective on the impact of the death of a deity beyond the pragmatic, and a backdrop of what probably passes for normalcy in Alt Coulumb against the gargoyles and vampire pirates.

I was also grateful that the author resisted the temptation to bring together any of the trite romances that looked to me for a while as though they might happen. The book is perhaps a little on the slight side, and I feel a slightly increased page count would have allowed the setting and history a bit more room to breathe, but the advantage is that the narrative stays focused with little meandering.

The plot had a little bit of the feel of a courtroom drama to it, which is a nice twist on the more street-level PI feel of much urban fantasy, and the whole concept of how gods work in this setting — the complex web of binding promises, contracts, and debts in which they entangle themselves to maintain power, and the flow of their grace according to those dictates — was really well executed. I also really like the background behind the Craft, that this is basically something that humans weren’t meant to have which they figured out how to steal, and the whole world changed its relationships with the gods accordingly, although I’d have preferred a much more in-depth look at how that works, but it feels like a forgivable omission for the first volume in a series.

The professor whose feud with Tara resulted in her abrupt and potentially fatal graduation is a wonderfully creepy adversary. There’s a little bit of a dig here at the exploitative relationships inherent to a capitalist system, although it’s subtler than Gladstone will get in the next volume of the series.

Overall, it’s really promising for a debut, even if I wish it had been a little meatier in the world-building. Having read the first three volumes in the series before I could bring myself to stop and write this review, I can confidently say that that promise is fulfilled, and the Craft Sequence goes from strength to strength.

4 stars

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Review: Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

Furiously HappyI think my family are probably glad that I’m done reading Jenny Lawson’s books. They might be able to get more reading of their own done when I’m not interrupting them every five minutes to read out the latest side-splitting passage I can’t keep to myself.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s first memoir, was fascinating and hilarious, but I think Furiously Happy is in every way its superior. It’s just as funny, with fewer slow bits, but it’s also deeply raw and sometimes dark. Her first book was about her life in general, and since her life has been touched by mental illness then that was a topic she did cover to some degree, but at arm’s length; in this book it takes centre stage.

The title is a reference to a decision she made to be furiously, vehemently, defiantly happy in response to some painful losses and the triggering effect they had on her depression, a decision which started a movement on Twitter among many of her fans who also suffer from mental illness. It’s something that she’s realistic about, acknowledging that it doesn’t mean there aren’t days where it’s bad, too bad to get out of bed; that it’s not a cure, but it is a coping strategy.

It’s perhaps funny to say that in a book where she focuses far more on her mental health issues, she actually seems a lot more together, but I think for a reader who has personal experience with mental health problems then it makes a good deal of sense. Being open about the bad things frees you, somehow, to be more open about the good. I try to be aggressively honest with myself and others about my depression and anxiety disorders and the effects that they have on my experiences, and doing so has improved my communication in many other ways, and I think that’s probably what comes across so strongly in Lawson’s writing here. She doesn’t seem to be trying so hard and just reads as more authentic in her own quirky, hyperbolic way.

And there is good here, and it can be understatedly beautiful. One chapter that stays with me is when she’s having a panic attack and an arthritis flare-up in New York (a combination I can wholeheartedly sympathise with), and then it begins to snow, and she’s outside barefoot and bleeding in the snow, taking in this magical moment that wouldn’t have happened without her illness. I mean, the snow would have happened, because presumably she doesn’t have magical weather control abilities, but not her appreciating it the way that she does. I have my own memories of such moments, albeit with less snow and blood, and there’s a profound peace that comes with the realisation that while the illness is and will always be awful, it is a piece of you that gives you a perspective into things that most people just can’t see, and that’s a feeling that she does a really good job in putting onto the page.

I can also now understand why she and her husband are a good match. (Even if he is a Republican. Eww.) They have a yin-yang sort of relationship it seems, where they balance each other out but there’s a little piece of the other within each. I think sometimes it’s still a little hard to see what they share, but it also stands out less than it did in the first book both because this is less focused on her life story and more on her current-day emotional landscape, and because letting this be a more emotional book seems to have allowed her to capture on the page the underlying affection for Victor that I thought was awkwardly absent from Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

I do wonder how much this would have held together without any familiarity with her original memoir, especially for readers who aren’t familiar with her blog, so even though this is the better book I would suggest reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened first to get a feel for how her life up until now has shaped who she is as a person. And for anyone who’s already read that book, I think this is better written and less manic, but if her stream-of-consciousness style of writing bothered you there then it will probably still bother you here.

But I think Furiously Happy may very well deserve a place on my favourites shelf, and particularly for anyone who’s dealt with mental illness or the mental illnesses of loved ones, I think that under all the laughter this will be a poignant read. It’s incredibly cathartic when you come to understand that funny and awful aren’t mutually exclusive, and Lawson offers a charming, awkward, and extremely relatable object lesson in it.

5 stars

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