I Am Legend

After finishing the excellent Station Eleven a few months ago, I was inspired to read other works of apocalyptic fiction. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” may not have been the first “killer virus” novel, but it’s influence on the genre cannot be disputed, and seemed a good place to start.

Like many classic science-fiction novels of its time, “I Am Legned” attempts to provide a scientific explanation for a supernatural phenomenon. The vampires who ravish the United States are infected by a bacteria, and it’s the task of the protagonist, Richard Neville, to find a cure. The epidemiology of the plague is interesting, although how it turns its victims into full-blown Gothic bloodsuckers seems a bit of a stretch.

But it’s not the science that makes this novel appealing. Neville, who believes he might be the only human immune to the bacteria, mostly succeeds in his nightly battles against the vampires, but fares far worse against his crushing isolation.  Read as a character study of a man losing a war against loneliness, “I Am Legend” continues its appeal well over fifty years after its publication.

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I Will Find You

If I have to go to prison, I will miss you. And when I get out, I will find you.

Those are the final words spoken to Joanna Connors by the man who had just brutally raped her. Twenty years after the attack, Connors realized she had never fully recovered from the assault, and began writing “I Will Find You” (2016) in order to understand what forces led to the violent collision between her and her attacker.

The description of the rape in the second chapter is probably the most courageous writing I’ve ever read. Connors recounts the attack in almost clinical terms, neither sanitizing nor over-dramatizing what happens to her. She even spices her narrative with dark humor in a manner that seems bizarrely appropriate. It is a tough read; I can’t imagine anyone surviving such an attack without losing their mind. But in order to understand her struggles in the coming decades, we need to see this attack in all its brutality.

As she describes the research she conducted years later on her attacker’s background, Connors touches on a number of hot-button social issues — the wording and application of rape laws, the racial divide between black and white Americans, the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system. The author’s handling of any of these issues would be worthy of analysis, but what I want to focus on for this review are her comments on the practice of journalism. When she begins to interview her assailant’s family, Connors provides a half-true statement of her intention. Her explanation is reasonable — who would want to speak to someone who says “Can I ask you some questions about your brother, who raped me?” — and one can see why lying about herself was the quickest way to get to the truth. To her credit, Connors sees why tactics such as hers, while perhaps necessary in her profession, are what lead to the negative impression most Americans have of the news media.

“I Will Find You” is a thoughtful, meticulous, and well-crafted narrative. It is a difficult subject to read about, but at a time when the leader of our country brags about sexual assault, we need to pay attention to the voices of the victims.

Climate of Hope

“Climate of Hope” was published immediately after the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Its appearance could not have been more timely.

Authored by two men on opposite ends of the American political spectrum, this book argues for climate change policies in a way that’s neither conservative nor liberal. Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York City and founder of a major Wall Street corporation, makes a compelling (if at times overwhelmingly dense) case that benefiting the environment is a sound financial decision. Carl Pope, an executive with the Sierra Club for several decades, provides more of the science behind climate change theory, and describes the successes and failures he’s witnessed as an advocate for Earth’s environment.

Both authors recognize the environmental threat posed by the Trump administration, yet argue that effective climate change policies are best implemented by cities and states, rather than Washington bureaucrats. They also claim that the best way to address climate skeptics (you know, the people who refuse to believe the data that show the rise in planetary temperatures) is not to warn of potential hazards, but rather to relate success stories. The improvement of the atmosphere’s ozone layer, for example, demonstrates how environmental policies, such as the reduction and eventual banning of chlorofluorocarbons, can have an immediate impact on the planetary climate.

If you don’t believe climate change is real and has at least partial human causes, don’t bother reading this book — you’ve already demonstrated the impermeability of your so-called intellect. But if you believe the data that’s been presented, and are looking for inspiration in this politically dispiriting time, you will find a lot to like here.

Division Two

“Division Two,” a 2015 self-published novel from Philo Feaubique, presents a tiered system of the afterlife. Division One is analagous to the Christian vision of Heaven, Division Three is a void, and Divison Two is… complicated.

People who  have intentionally harmed others in their life, don’t believe in an afterlife, or don’t believe they belong in Division One, are sent to Division Two. Once there, they are either assigned a private room where their deaths are replayed continually until they ask for help, or they are assigned a task by one of several Gatekeepers, whose mission is to help other Division Two members escape from the hells in their private rooms. This sounds much like Purgatory, but with a goal of achieving an Eastern-style personal serenity rather than atonment.

Movement between divisions is possible, and in a highly comic and completely believable scene, one soul that has gone to Division One becomes immediately indignant when he sees the others than have been allowed entry (I can see many evangelicals having this reaction), and requests to be sent down to Division Two.

The thought-provoking view of the afterlife makes the novel very engaging, although the pacing is too often slow and repititive. The novel also uses too many characters, many of whom are indistinguishable from the others and display little or no growth over the course of the narrative.

Like many self-published novels, “Division Two” would benefit from a good editor, which might actually be in the works — the author has temporarily pulled the book from the market to work on a revision. I hope Philo follows through with his revision and employs an editor, because the novel does have promise.

A Summer in Harlem

“A Summer in Harlem” is a self-published novel from 2013 by Brendan Whitt, available on Amazon. Set in the summer of 1948, the novel tells the journey of Thad Thomas, a bright Alabama teen who visits his aunt and cousins in Harlem. Thad is captivated by the stories of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, but the neighborhood he encounters is far different than what he had expected.

Thad’s cousin Willie represents the urban decay that has engulfed Harlem, and the enduring friendship between these two very different characters — one naive and enthusiastic, the other street-mart and jaded — suggests that while Harlem may not be able to regain its former glory, it can still serve as a beacon of inspiration.

Whitt maintains a consistently fast pace in his narrative, and all of his characters are memorable. Like many self-published authors, he could use a good editor, but his story-telling ability is strong enough to overcome his deficiencies.

The Atomic Weight of Love

Meridian Wallace, the first-person narrator of Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel “The Atomic Weight of Love,” marries a man twenty years older than her, and later has an affair with a man twenty years her junior. These relationships are fitting for a woman who never feels comfortable in her age.

As a University of Chicago student in 1941, Meridian becomes infatuated with a professor who is soon hired to work on the Manhattan Project. Attracted to his powerful intellect, Meridian marries and moves with him to Los Alamos. Her decisions end Meridian’s academic career as an ornithologist, although she continues to conduct research on crows while in New Mexico. Her husband, a brilliant physicist with the emotional intelligence of Mr. Coffee, keeps Meridian safe within their home while failing to recognize her personal frustration.

Despite the cultural restriction imposed in her era, Meridian maintains her curiosity and independence, and the portrayal of her character is the novel’s strongest feature. The secondary characters are less compelling characters — her husband is entirely one-dimensional, and her affair is with a man straight out of a Harlequin Romance, complete with flowing hair. Her female friends also serve to elicit reactions from Meridian, and are entirely forgettable. But Meridian is a character strong enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings, and makes “The Atomic Weight of Love” a worthy read.

On a personal note, I also admire that Church wrote this novel at the age of sixty, after three decades of legal work. I hope my own first novel can be as finely crafted as this.

Learning from History before it Repeats

The United States is enjoying a long period of economic prosperity. Of course, that means we’re due for a “market correction,” a wonderful phrase, implying that too much prosperity is a problem that must be avoided.

Nobody knows when economic trouble will arrive or from where it will originate, but we can use the benefit of hindsight to examine recent financial crises in our nation, with the hope of being better prepared for whatever panic comes next. I’ve recently read two insightful books on this subject.

Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is about the collapse of Enron in 2002, due in part to the collapse of the Internet bubble in stock prices. It provides extensive and at times overbearing analysis of the company’s deceitful financial practices, which landed several of its executive in jail. Some of the many lessons you can take from this book are to beware of companies that extend into areas where they have little to no expertise (one of Enron’s many problems was the curious decision of the energy company to launch an online entertainment division), that boast about their stock price like a cocktail party boar, and whose financial reports are deliberately obscure. After Enron’s collapse, some fairly weak regulations on financial disclosures were passed, but we’re now in the process of undoing even these safeguards. When it comes to bankruptcies that rival those of Enron or Worldcomm, the question is not if, but when.

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail” is about the near collapse of the financial system in fall 2008. Unlike the Enron book, there is little attention paid here to the causes of crisis — this time, it was the mortgage bubble that burst — and instead focuses on the effort to mitigate the disaster’s impact. If you believe Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geitner don’t deserve enough credit for their efforts, and believe Dick Fuld was treated unfairly, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. The book depicts a global financial system that is both complex and frighteningly fragile, susceptible to collapse from multiple points, yet also shows a United States government with overwhelming power to influence private markets. Americans take pride in our capitalism, but when faced with financial catastrophe, we’re not afraid of a healthy dose of socialism.

Of the two works, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the more engaging read despite its often weighty prose, while “Too Big to Fail” moves at a brisker pace, as it covers a much shorter period of time. Reading both may hlep make the next economic crisis seem less shocking.

Station Eleven

Kirsten Raymonde carries a violin and a dog-eared copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in her backpack. She also carries lethal throwing knives on her belt, and uses them to defend herself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of “Station Eleven.”

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel is usually classified as science fiction, and it did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award because it contains many of the familiar tropes of the genre — a deadly pandemic, the collapse of civilization, a small band of survivors struggling to maintain their humanity as they battle an inhuman foe. But compared to other killer-virus novels, “Station Eleven” contains very little science. There is no epidemiology of the disease, as in Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” or analysis of its transmission, as in Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Only one scene depicts a person suffering from the plague; most characters watch the fall of mankind on television, before the power goes out. Disease is usually a principal character in this genre, but in “Station Eleven,” the virulent virus does most of its work offstage.

Kirsten, the violinist with the deadly knives, is one of three central characters who appears in the opening chapter. She witnesses Arthur Leander, the lead actor of a “King Lear” production in Toronto, collapse with a heart attack on stage, as Jeevan Chaudhary rushes from the audience in a futile attempt to save Arthur. The virus breaks out that evening, and within a few dozen pages and a month of narrative time, the world is largely depopulated.

The novel then leaps forward twenty years, as Kirsten tours the Great Lakes region with the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who perform for small communities of survivors. A few chapters later, the focus turns to Arthur and the years before his death, and soon after the scene shifts to Jeevan’s escape from Toronto as the pandemic strikes. As the novel progresses, the time shifts become more frequent; readers who prefer linear narratives may find the novel disorienting. Almost as disorienting is the recurring juxtaposition of high and low culture — in addition to performing Beethoven and Shakespeare, the members of the Travelling Symphony share stories of favorite “Star Trek” episodes, and the title of the novel comes from a comic book. In the hands of some writers, the combination of so many time shifts and contrasting cultural references could have produced a mess of a narrative. Fortunately, Mandel is a masterful storyteller, and “Station Eleven” never loses focus. The multiple timelines share a theme of redemption: Arthur tries to atone for his failed marriages (he has three ex-wives, a subtle reference to the character he plays to his death), Jeevan seeks fulfillment after a series of self-centered career choices, and Kirsten agonizes over the lives she is forced to take in order to survive.

Mandel also succeeds in her description of life in the post-apocalyptic world. Those who lived before the plague pine not only for electricity and the Internet, but also for trivial pleasures like toiletries and citrus fruit. They struggle in explaining to children born after the pandemic that large metal objects could fly through the air, and it had been possible to have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet. Any reader who has mourned for a prematurely cancelled television show, or hasn’t been able to convince her niece that computers haven’t been around forever, will be able to identify with Mandel’s characters as they search abandoned homes not only for food and fuel, but also clean towels and magazines.

Towards the end of the novel, the Travelling Symphony visits the Museum of Civilization, established in an airport terminal by another band of survivors. The Museum collects obsolete artifacts — iPhones, motorcycles, televisions — in order to commemorate the technological marvels of the pre-virus world, much as the Travelling Symphony strives to preserve a culture that nearly died along with the pandemic. The characters in “Station Eleven” care more about simply surviving, and this ambition distinguishes Mandel’s novel from contemporary works in the post-apocalyptic genre, which has been overrun by zombies (have zombies ever been the subject of interesting fiction?) and feature characters nearly as barbarous as their undead foes. The characters in “Station Eleven” lack the resources to re-create the world before the collapse, but their fondness for that world inspires them to turn their wasteland into a world fit for humanity.

The novel is not perfect — Mandel’s allusions to “King Lear” are a bit heavy-handed at times, and her principal antagonist, a religious zealot known as the Prophet, seems more fanatical than truly menacing. But these minor flaws do not significantly detract from her achievement. Much as Kirsten never feels at home in her brutish world, “Station Eleven” does not wear the label of science fiction well, because Mandel’s novel rises about the conventions of its genre, and deserves to be compared not to “I Am Legend” or “The Stand,” but rather to Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” another novel more concerned about humanity’s reaction to disease than the disease itself.

Review: BoyzNite, by Xane J Fisher

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BoyzNite-review

Review by keighahr.wordpress.com:

American culture is famously obsessed with youth, and for that reason the story of Peter Pan, the leader of Neverland’s Lost Boys who never grow up, has become one of our most popular myths, despite its British origin. Xane J Fisher’s short story “BoyzNite” contains several allusions to Peter Pan, but the story is a critique rather than a celebration of this myth. Rather than uplifting and liberating, the quest for eternal youth is shown to be futile, and in the end, abusive.

The narrator, who remains anonymous until near the end of the story, is a mid-twenties law student who views the return to his father’s house in Washington state like a visit to a comfortably familiar bed and breakfast. He and his brother make arrangements with male friends from their youth, who do not have a single successful adult career among them, for a party. A friend texts a question about bringing girls; the narrator knows where this suggestion is headed, yet is too enamored with the thought of reuniting with his boyhood chums to heed his warning.

As the evening descends into debauchery, he attempts to flee, only to encounter another friend from middle-school, who forces him to confront his disgust, and realize that he and his friends have purchased their entertainment at the expense of ruined lives, from people who can’t afford to live a fantasy of eternal youth. The narrator’s shame feels genuine, but also somehow temporary, perhaps easily forgotten the moment he recovers from the hangover he will certainly experience the following morning.

“BoyzNite” moves at a brisk pace, and Fisher provides enough detail about the narrator’s background and home town of Piedmont to make the setting seem real. It is that rare gem of a story that is strongly moral without being moralistic — a highly entertaining and insightful work.

BoyzNite-cover


Title: BoyzNite

Author: Xane J. Fisher

Publisher: Royal James Publishing

Release Date: August 1, 2016

Website: poetryforpeopleihate.com


Law school wonder student Ian Peters chronicles his first night home for the summer in Piedmont, Washington. What starts with a pleasant drive up the Pacific Northwest Coast leads him into a night of self discovery, contemplative self-assessment, and ultimately the question of what kind of man does he want to be? Along the way, he reconnects with friends, family, and an old flame who changes his world forever.

What started as a typical night of partying quickly becomes BoyzNite.

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