Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Don't go to The Haunted Museum

For Christmas this year, my mom's side of the family decided to get together in Las Vegas and take in some of the sights. One place we visited was "Zak Bagans The Haunted Museum," and the resulting tour was such a strange experience that I feel compelled to break it down and share why I disliked it so much.

Zak Bagans is a paranormal investigator and television personality, known for his Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures. I have never viewed any of his works, and knew almost nothing about him before the tour through his museum. I was expecting something cheesy, maybe a few jump scares or creepy stories about 'haunted' items; some real-life equivalent of those fake paranormal and alien investigation shows I watched on the History Channel when I was a kid. What I got instead was a gross amalgamation of campy movie aesthetics and real-life horror. Real-life tragedy is exploited to lean credibility to otherwise mundane 'supernatural' memorabilia.

The Haunted Museum, as a physical location, is the place where Zak Bagans puts all the weird shit he's found on his ghosting adventures. It is, in one sense, the modern equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities. The tour through the house consists of following a series of guides from room to room as they explain the history of some of the objects on display. The house itself is introduced, briefly, as a supposedly haunted location. This is the reason Zak Bagans bought the place.

The objects in his collection fall generally into two types: haunted artifacts, and true-crime memorabilia. They are arranged in the rooms according to theme. The first few rooms are fairly benign: there's a creepy doll room, a movie-prop room, a room with gambling paraphernalia and a rigged roulette table once owned by a mobster. At this point the whole thing was quaint. Each cramped room was dim except for red or yellow back lights, the air was filled with incense and smoke to evoke the mood of a seance, and the guides talked up a few of the objects on display before shuffling us along to the next one. It was amusing, but harmless, until we got to the Ed Gein room.

Ed Gein, our guide explained to us, is the inspiration for Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw massacre as well as several other horror movie killers. He murdered a number of women in the 1950s and made clothing from their skin. The room in the Haunted Museum is an imitation of the barn in which he dismembered his victims. A television screen against the far wall depicts news coverage of the investigation around Ed Gein, and the fake body of a farmer hangs in the rafters above the display. In the center of the room was a cauldron, enclosed in a glass case. This cauldron, we are told, is the very one in which the murderer cooked the entrails of his victims. The guide then goes on to describe how Ed Gein wore the skin of the women he killed, and how he decorated his house in human nipples.

I was familiar with Ed Gein before visiting the Museum. It is always disquieting to be reminded of him, and seeing the cauldron was certainly surreal, but the room that really disturbed me was the Robert Berdella exhibit.

Robert Berdella was another serial killer. He tortured, raped, and killed at least six men in the 1980s. Zak's exhibit features a video recording of the only interview Berdella ever did with the media after his capture, the bed in which he kept his victims (behind another glass case), and pictures of the six men he killed. Robert himself took those photos. They are in black and white, and show the men after the have died and/or during some process of their torture. Here they have been blown up and hung on the wall like art pieces. I glanced at the first two, then did not look more closely. A mannequin was wrapped up in the bed, imitating the twisting of a body trapped in agony. The bed sheet itself is still stained with the feces it came with, as our guide made sure to point out. They emphasized, three times, that Berdella did indeed rape his victims, as well as point to the rod he sodomized them with. It was propped up against the bed.

This room, on its own, is shocking, and horrifying. What makes it grotesque is how it figures into the larger structure of the tour as a whole. There is no time given to reflect on the atrocities before you. There is no information given on who the victims were, what they were doing before Berdella kidnapped them, or how their families reacted to the justice provided for them. Only photos of their corpses. The bodies of the victims are on display in the same context as a famously 'haunted' dybbuk box, the basement stairs and dirt from the so-called 'Demon House' (yes, Zak Bagans transplanted part of the house from Indiana to his museum in Nevada), and a possessed doll that supposedly gives you heart-attacks. They are treated as the same ting: oddities, not people or victims or killers. Props used for spooky theatrics.

Zak Bagans has several other exhibits based around real people/crimes. The latter part of the tour contains a room with items from a yacht on which a woman was probably murdered and dumped into the sea. Her killer is still at large and being investigated. Another features the last known pictures of a woman who, a paranormal-obsessive herself, was trying to invoke a demonic possession. Zak also has a room dedicated to memorabilia from various murderers from throughout history. It features a portrait of Charles Manson, painted in the artist's own blood. None are as disturbing as the Berdella room, but all have the same disquieting aura. In all the cases, it is never the victims we learn about. It is only the killers we see, or the objects with which they have killed.

There is a 'celebrity' room, which features the chair Michel Jackson supposedly died in, a black suit owned by Johnny Cash, etc. Strangely, it also features a dress worn by one of Ed Gein's victims. There is no information beyond how she was killed. Did she write? Did she sing? What ambitions did she have before she died?  She is a celebrity, it seems, only for being murdered.

Later on, in the upstairs section of the tour, there is a small display with mannequins, dismembered and covered in fake blood. A table in the center has a few of their limbs on it. The man in front of me laughed when one of the models lurched out at him, rigged up like something from a carnival's haunted house.

The midpoint of the tour features the display most revealing of Zak Bagans' intent and fixation. It is a miniature recreation of a P. T. Barnum circus (the same P. T. Barnum who was the subject of the movie The Greatest Showman). About two pool-tables worth of space are dedicated to displaying clowns, elephants, circus tents, and concession stands. The room is filled with a rainbow of lights; the air tinted with the scent of popcorn. This room is only loosely connected with the next one (a narrow maze through a collection of clown figures) and does not really fit into the haunt or horror theme of the rest of the museum. The guide who introduced this room described Barnum as one of Zak's idols, and it was when I reflected upon this moment that the whole strange experience made sense:

Zak's museum is a macabre freak show. It does not care about the people it is using, or the reality of the stories it is telling. There is no overall theme or substantial connecting tissue. It is interested only in the immediate attention of the audience, taking their $44 and hustling them from one vignette to another. Zak might have a genuine passion for his collection, but it is presented to the tour as a brag: 'Look at my stuff, isn't it weird?' What real stories are presented are cheapened by their juxtaposition with ghost-stories and creepy dolls. This 'museum' is tasteless and exploitative, using real victims as shock value, idolizing their killers, and fetishizing the objects of their humiliation.

Let's step back for a moment. I have, until now, implicitly assumed that the 'haunted' objects in Zak Bagans' collection are all fake. I do no believe in ghosts, or spirits, or the lingering 'energies' of the dead. If you do, then you might find the above argument uncompelling. The juxtaposition of fake and real falls away, and the victims of Ed Gein are as real as the victims of the Demon House or the dybbuk box. I would ask then, if it is the case that some or all of these 'haunted' objects are indeed haunted, is that not substantially worse? Not only are the images and items of victims being exploited, but also their souls--a still-lingering piece of their literal consciousness. The tour is not a seance or a divination. The guides are theatrical, not reverent or respectful, and come off as something closer to magicians than mediums.

Healing Garden; photo taken from album on its Yelp page
Four blocks away, down Charleston Boulevard, is the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden. It is a memorial built for the victims of the 2017 shooting that left 58 people dead. My mother and I passed it the second night we were there, walking back from dinner. She took notice, and we stopped to see what it was. There is a wall with photos of  the victims, letters from them or their families, and words of commemoration to explain what happened. People have placed flowers under a few of the photos. Trees have been planted to surround the place and separate it from the city. We did not stay there for long. Just a few moments of curiosity, then a few more of silence. The photos showed people smiling, or with family. As we neared the end of our tour of Zak's 'museum,' I kept thinking back to that moment. How long before the gunman's shirt is pinned up next to Charles Manson's prison gown? Before the bullet casings end up in someone's collection? Where is the line drawn such that it becomes acceptable to mythologize some murderers but not others?

When I first started writing this post, I put this sentence in my notes: "the individual vignettes are relatively harmless, bu the sum total is a gross conglomerate that fails as a museum and as an act of theatrics." After writing everything out, I no longer believe it is harmless. The fake stuff is harmless. The real stuff--the Ed Gein room, the Berdella room--is disrespectful. Were it only a haunted house with creepy dolls and dybbuk boxes then---sure, it's fine; whatever. People are into that. No one's getting hurt. Were it actually a museum, were one had time to absorb things at their own pace, and where the victims were portrayed along with their killers, then, yes, some of the content would still be disturbing, but it would not have felt like exploitation. Respect, I feel, is displaying a person's life, not just their corpse. As it is, the experience fails at being anything. The best descriptor I have is, as I said above, a freak show, with all its connotations and history.

Zak Bagans The Haunted Mansion does a disservice to the dead, and is an insult to the living. If you're ever in Vegas, don't go there.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Book Review: Railsea, by China Miéville

Railsea is a wonderful book.

The story, in brief, is a retelling of Moby Dick with trains and gargantuan moles instead of ships and whales. Having recently listened to an audiobook of the literary classic*, I was excited to see how such a ridiculous premise would pan out. I was not disappointed.

Railsea is incredibly creative. It embraces a diesel/train-punk aesthetic while slowly exploring the world Chine Miéville has built. Our protagonist, Sham ap Shoorap, starts the story as an apprentice on the mole-hunting train the Medes, just as they finish their first successful hunt of their voyage. We follow him as he travels the railsea--a seemingly unending expanse of winding and overlapping railroad tracks that cover most of the known world. Beneath them monsters lurk: supersized owls, hordes of flesh-eating naked mole rats, and moles the size of whales that burrow through soil as if it were made of liquid. We see towns, cities, empires, and the ruins of civilizations so long gone their technology seems alien to our characters. Each new detail is creative, often funny, and a joy to read as we explore the railsea alongside Sham.

The details of  Miéville's worldbuilding would be enough to make this a good book, but instead of simply copying the plot of Moby Dick and painting over it with trains, Railsea uses its allegory as a basis upon which to expand and branch away from. Captain Ahab's parallel, the one-armed captain Abacat Naphi (yes, it's an anagram), peruses her 'philosophy' with the same mad obsessiveness the man has for his white whale; but her journey is not the central conflict of the story. Many train captains have their own 'philosophies:' beasts that have mutilated them and whom they peruse with an almost religious devotion. Naphi is one of many, and Sham is quickly put off by her way of life as it butts against his desire to explore the wider world. They part ways halfway through the book, and Nephi's quest is shown to be increasingly vain and futile as she plunges ever closer to Ahab's doom.

Sham, meanwhile, continues on his own journey to discover what lies beyond the edge of the railsea and how the world came to be covered in railroad tracks. The rest is worth reading, as well as all that has come before. Miéville's prose is whimsical but not flowery. He has created a diction and style that informs the strangeness of this rail-covered world. His secondary characters blur together somewhat, but the central characters are all vibrant and unique voices. The narration sometimes winks at the reader, and I found these parts to be the weakest moments in the text, but they are few in number and placed separately from the immediate action of the story, so they do not detract significantly.

Railsea is, beyond anything else, fun. It has many moments of drama, tension, and wonder--and balances them all very nicely--but it's overall tone is one of joyful exploration. It was a delight to read and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a good time.

Railsea is available online and wherever books are sold.

*It's overrated and dated.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Book Review: Neuromancer, by William Gibson

For such a dark story, this is a very vibrant book.

Neuromancer follows the computer hacker Case though a dirty near-future where technology and humanity have begun to integrate almost completely--it is the archetypal cyberpunk novel, according to its Wikipedia page, and its vision does not disappoint.

Case starts his story as a drug-addicted drug dealer, wasting away his last days in a grungy town full of gangs and black markets. He has no desire to keep on living--his best days as a hacker ended because he tried to steal money from his employers and they paid him back by damaging his nervous system so that he is no longer able to "jack in" to cyberspace. The plot begins when he realizes a woman is looking for him and, once she finds him, that she  is offering to fix him; so long as he comes to work for her boss afterwards.

Most of the story is then preparation for a heist. The woman, named Molly Millions, will handle the physical infiltration while Case takes care of the building's security in cyberspace. Their target, however, is a fortress on a space station orbiting Earth. The two, along with their boss Armitage, travel to various locations as they prepare for the infiltration, and with them we see the spectacle of Gibson's world.
The imagery here is alternatively gorgeous and haunting. The best way I can summarize the world we see is as a colorful version of Blade Runner. Each person has some unique trait or augment that stems from a creative use of technology. The world we are shown is colorful, imaginative, and each new technology or biological augment we come across feels like a natural part of the whole. The more we learn about each new setting, the more each detail adds to the overall picture.

Yet while the sci-fi stuff is very interesting the characters are not very memorable, beyond Molly, and she sticks out mostly because of her aesthetic. She has retractile blades in each of her fingers, and a few modifications that make her reflexes better. Case, however, is somewhat shallow. He enjoys his life as a hacker, and is quite capable, but beyond his early interactions with his fellow drug hustlers we do not see much more of him. His main motivation throughout the book is simply to save his own life and return to life as a hacker. He does have a lover, Linda Lee, but their relationship is explored all too briefly. Linda herself is quite forgettable, and serves mostly as just to give something for Case to angst over during the novel's climax.

Molly, as I said, is more interesting, and it is quite unfortunate that she is not the character whose mind we follow--she is far more active in actually moving the story forward, and Case often jacks-in to her senses in order to give us a view of the action scenes as he waits for his turn to do something in cyberspace. We peer briefly into Molly's past, but aside from more creative uses of technology her backstory feels grossly generic (spoilers: it's rape!).

There was only one other time I felt that shocking imagery was out of place--the reasoning behind it feels a bit shallow--but on the whole the world we see is engaging and entertaining.

I don't have too much more to say about it, but overall, I do definitely recommend this book. The plot is interesting, and the strength of the prose and style make the story compelling, even with mostly flat characters. Also, I would be lying if I did not say the ending had a strong impact on me. The last line of the book hit me harder than I expected; it was painfully bittersweet, and left me wanting to see just a bit more.

Neuromancer is available wherever books are sold.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is one of my favorite authors (though this is partially due to the fact that I don't tend to read the breadth of many authors' works) and The Dispossessed does not disappoint.

As in most of her writings, Le Guin's story is an exploration of society: what makes up a society, how people act within society, and how those actors work together to maintain and change the societies they live in. In The Dispossessed, she explores the dynamics of an imagined anarchic society on the planet Anarres and contrasts it with those of a capitalist society on the neighboring planet Urras. And I do mean neighboring; for most of Urras's history, Anarres was an uninhabited moon. The anarchic society on Anarres was founded by revolutionaries from Urras about a century and a half before the beginning of The Dispossessed.

I should take a moment here to clarify: when The Dispossessed speaks of 'anarchy,' it does not mean the colloquial usage as a synonym for chaos. It is a true anarchy. There is no government. There are no laws or property rights. Only people, all working together to do what is necessary to support each other. However, it is an anarchy uniquely dependent on technology. A computer names each person born randomly, and oversees, in a limited capacity, the basic needs of the society--what work is needed where, etc. It is a practical anarchy, designed by its founders to persist, not just an abstract ideal.

The story follows the physicist Shevek, jumping between his past growing up on Anarres and the present where he ventures to Urras in an attempt to collaborate with the physicists there. He is also making this journey as an attempt at revolution--he believes his own society has stagnated. The first elements of a real government are beginning to emerge, and he seeks a way to reinvigorate the revolutionary spirit that first motivated the settlers of Anarres.

The details of the resulting plot are not quite important. Everything in the book functions to explore the societies of Anarres. The societies on Anarres and Urras are shown through our character's experience. We are not given a list of traits, instead we experience them as they arise in Shevek's story. When Shevek arrives on Urras, he is disgusted by the lavish patriarchy he finds there. There is no subtly here. Le Guin's anarchy is no Utopia--resources are scares on Anarres, and hard times bring suffering to everyone equally--but the scathing resentment of the capitalism on Urras is hard to miss. The (literal) climax of Shevek's story is a drunken rant against everything he has witnessed on Urras. The real value of a society is its people, he states, not its luxuries.

This book is worth reading for its ideas alone, but if you have read any other of Le Guin's works, you might notice a few interesting parallels. The first book I ever read of her's was The Left Hand of Darkness, the second was Malafrena. Both, as in this book, are about fictional societies undergoing strife/upheaval. Both do a great deal of world building through the experiences of their characters. And, interestingly, The Dispossessed is somewhat of an overlap of the themes explored in both. LHD is more concerned with society overall, while Malafrena was more focused on its impacts on individuals. The Dispossessed tackles both, but as a result I feel it has less of an impact overall. It does not help that it ends rather ambiguously--Shevek is on his way home, but we cut away before he lands again. We have only the hope of change, the idea that maybe things will get better, but no clear picture of how.

Ursula Le Guin died on January 22 of this year (2018). Though she won many awards, I believe she was still seriously under-recognized for the quality of her work. She has been a huge influence on my own writings, and I believe that if you are reading science fiction and haven't yet read Le Guin, you are doing it wrong.

The Dispossessed, and many other of Le Guin's works, are available wherever books are sold.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book Review: An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

This is one of the best book I've read.

Set in a near-future China, An Excess Male follows the story of Wei-Guo as he tries to marry into the family of Mei-ling as her third husband. Extrapolating from the present-day consequences of China's one-child policy, Maggie Shen King envisions a dystopia where an excess of males (over 40 million) in the population has lead to women taking second and now third husbands. These unmarriageable men are known as 'The Bounty,' and most of their lives are centered around raising money for a dowry and hoping they are lucky enough to impressive the right woman.

We begin the story by watching Wei-Guo try to woo Mei-ling by inviting her to a private meeting at his exercise studio (he works as a physical trainer, helping those of The Bounty fulfill their state-mandated fitness regiment). However, the moment Mei-ling stumbles in carrying her hyperactive toddler his plans fall to pieces. Her first husband, Hann, joins them soon after, and what Wei-Guo envisioned as a seductive date turns into an awkward dance lesson between the four of them. It is here that we begin to realize that he is not marrying Mei-ling, but her family, a point reiterated throughout the book. We quickly learn more about Mei-ling and Hann and his brother, Xiong-xin (or XX, as he prefers to call himself), and the story quickly develops into an intensely personal examination of oppression, cultural values, and the ways in which people's lives are shaped by the society around them.

Hann is gay or, as the government puts it, 'Willfully Sterile,' a fact he has done his best to keep hidden from all those outside of his family. His brother, XX, is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and though he is a genius working for one of the most important digital security corporations in China, his quirks constantly threaten to out him as abnormal. Hann, also a very successful man, has spent most of his life trying to protect himself and his brother, and he has spent the majority of his marriage trying to convince Mei-ling that his homosexuality is not a choice. Mei-ling, for her part, loves Hann and their child, but has grown to resent XX, and sees Wei-Guo as a potential outlet for her sexual frustration. She spends her time taking care of their one child (she is expected to sleep with each of her husbands once a week until she conceives one child for each, but has only conceived with Hann). If either of her husband's 'conditions' are discovered, the family risks dissolution, forced sterilization, and the loss of their child to the state.

The resulting drama and peril covers a wide breadth of thought-provoking themes: oppression, family, gender relationships, sex and love--but what drives everything is the characters. We cycle through each of their perspectives as the novel progresses, seeing how each of them thinks and perceives the world. The writing makes each of their personalities shine through. Each unique voice garners sympathy and understanding. Several times through the book one character makes a decision that proves detrimental to one or more of the others, yet at no point does anyone become a villain. We root for all our characters, even when they are directly opposed to the others. The novel is presented as the story of Wei-Guo, but he is no more the protagonist than any of the other three. This is the story of an ensemble; a family.

Family is the most prominent element in the work. It is the central tension between all our characters: Mei-ling struggles to accept her family, Hann struggles to keep his family together, XX struggles to find his place in its structure, all while Wei-Guo tries to become a part of the whole big mess. The imagery, symbolism, and more often than not the literal text are all focused around how and why people make up families. Our characters become deeply entangled with each other's lives long before marriage becomes a reality, and we realize family goes beyond living under the same roof or a contract under the law; it is what we make of it, and what we need to survive.

Of all the books I've read this year, this was the best. It was moving; exciting; and tragic. I empathized with these characters more than any others I can think of. I have not said much about the world or the plot because so much of it is revealed through our character's eyes, and their interpretations and decisions drive the story forward. It is enough to say that King's dystopia is fascinating, horrifying, gripping, and all too plausible.

An Excess Male is available on Amazon in print, ebook, and audio formats and wherever books are sold. Read it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Book Review: The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

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The best thing I can say about this book is that it would make a passable action movie if you cut about 3/4th of it.

The premise of the novel is interesting: a ship full of gaseous aliens crashed-landed on Earth millions of years ago and they have since guided evolution and history to create a species capable of developing the technology needed to bring them back to their home. These aliens, the Quasing, cannot survive in the terrestrial atmosphere, but they can inhabit humans (or other animals if they need to), forming a parasitic relationship. They can speak to and read the minds of their hosts, and even control their bodies while they sleep. Although these elements promise an interesting story little is done with them throughout the book.

The story proper begins when Tao, a Quasing, inhabits the body of Roen Tan, an unsuspecting computer programmer living in modern times. However, aside from short spurts at the beginning of each chapter, we do no see the lives of Tao so much as the beginning of his life with Roen who is, at best, a total schmuck. By this time the Quasing have split into two warring factions: the Genjix and the Prophus. What little plot there is concerns Roen training and fighting with the Prophus to ensure the survival of humanity, as the Genjix are only interested in using them as pawns.

The most obvious flaw in The Lives of Tao is plain poor writing. The prose, though not bad in isolation, is full of cliches, stock characters, and an egregious amount of telling instead of showing. For example, this is the second line of one of the later chapters:
It was late September and [Roen] had just returned from a two-week assignment - his most important and morally challenging assignment to date - and received new orders to come to the diner.
Sure would have been nice to actually see why it was so important and 'morally challenging...' This is perhaps the worst example, but the other instances are not far behind it; and there are more than I care to remember. The conversational dialogue is just as bad. I recall multiple times thinking to myself "no human people talk like this."

The greater structure of the novel also has problems. Roen's quest involves the discovery of Tao, learning about the Quasing's influence on history, training to become an agent of the Prophus, and finally joining the war effort against the Genjix. However, there is no palpable conflict to push these developments along. We get occasional glimpses of the Genjix's evil plans, but they are nebulous at best and the villain (Sean) is laughably archetypal. He gloats and thinks evil thoughts like some sort of Captain Planet villain. We do not see enough of Roen's duties to become invested in his character, nor do we receive enough detail about the Quasing's world to understand the stakes we have been introduced to. As a result, everything feels like filler. Scenes just happen so that exposition can be sprinkled in and we can move on. I realized about halfway through the book that I was still waiting for the plot to start. Most of the book is an stretched-out training montage.

Roen's character is also a big issue. When we first meet him he is an overweight loser with no ambitions or drive. He changes throughout the story, but only externally. He is physically fit and a competent shot by the end of the book, but his attitude and thoughts have not changed. He barely reacts to Tao's intrusion into his life, and is quick to get over most of the implications of the new world he finds himself in. He complains and whines on occasion, but never do we get a sense that this is happening to a real person. Roen is the most basic type of escapist fantasy: it's cool to be a secret agent, so of course he goes along with it. This is partially a result of the telling-not-showing: because we miss directly experiencing much of his growth we don't feel it happening. Perhaps he did agonize over the fact that he no longer has full bodily autonomy, or that most of human history is the result of aliens playing god, but we never see it because instead he needs to learn t'ai chi or how to shoot guns good. By the end, Roen is supposed to have transformed into James Bond, but he is more akin to Homer Simpson.

The only thing this book has in common with Bond is its abysmal portrayal of women. They are, like all other characters in this book, flat, stock, and static. Roen develops two love interests, Sonya, a fellow Prophus agent who helps train him, and Jill, a coworker from his programming job. All the women are introduced with a detailed physical description, of course, and things only get worse from there. Jill exists only to be Roen's main love interest. She has no character or function in the book beyond that. Sonya, at least, is competent in her own right, and does show more signs of having a characterization, but she exists primarily to bring tension to the romantic elements of the story. Roen has feelings for both of them, and that conflict is supposed to be a source of drama in the novel, but he has zero chemistry with either one of them (again, this is a result of much telling instead of showing). I felt like I was reading a high-school drama every time he interacted with either of them.

I wish I could say that this book's treatment of women was at least better than that of Stranger in a Strange Land but they are sadly close to the same. The climax of the story involves Roen attempting to save both Jill and Sonya from Sean, who has taken them hostage. He grievously wounds Sean, who has a Quasing of his own, but Sonya is also dying and Jill is incapacitated. If Sean dies, his Quasing will inhabit Jill (Sonya is already a host) and no doubt drive her mad. Roen is too injured to move them away, and so, to save Jill from that terrible fate, Tao and Sonya tell him he must kill Sonya before Sean expires. That way her Quasing can inhabit Jill and protect her from the evil Genjix. He goes through with it with much weeping, and Sonya's metaphorical (?) soul settles down into Jill's body.

Although I will admit it was a creative way to get both the girls, it's the kind of ludicrous scenario I would have expected out of a work of parody. But we are expected to be moved by it, to sympathize with Roen's emotional turmoil and be saddened by Sonya's sacrifice. The two women, underwritten as they are, have become literally interchangeable.

So far I have said very little about Tao; this is because he becomes irrelevant soon after he introduces Roen to the rest of the Prophus. In fact, The Quasing as a whole take a back seat to the secret-agent training, glossed-over missions, and attempts at office romance. We get a few nibbles of information about Tao's past lives at the start of each chapter, but they make up a few page's worth of words in total. Most of the book's central concept is unexplored and inconsequential. Human history is now just an endless string of 'aliens did it,' with no changes whatsoever to the real events. Tao's descriptions of his past hosts amount to little more than "Yeah I fucked up with Genghis Khan, but let me tell you, inventing t'ai chi was awesome." The implications that humanity's suffering and turmoil has been little more than puppetry goes mostly unaddressed, and, as I alluded to, nobody seems to fret too much out being bodily occupied by mind-reading aliens. The author has taken his premise and ignored its implications in favor of playing spy. And not even a very good spy

As it is now, the book reads like a first draft: whole swaths of significant character development are glossed over, the set up is ditched a fourth of the way in for attempts at drama and lame spy-movie action, and no character is dynamic or undergoes any real growth. Although I did not enjoy it much it was, at least, an easy book to read. It's like slightly stale popcorn: easy to consume, if you've got a bag right in front of you and nothing else to eat, but you'd never tell anybody to go out and get some of their own.

The Lives of Tao is available on Amazon in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Book Review: Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko

Ceremony is a remarkable book.

The first book written by Leslie Silko, it tells the story of Tayo, a Native American WWII veteran who returns home and must come to terms with both the terrors of the war and the trauma of his people's history. Although it is a work of fiction much of the story feels like it could be plucked from real life. The main events of the book take place in the Navajo Nation, with a few scenes in the surrounding sates (mostly Gallup, NM), and the use of real locations helps to ground the book. The struggles Tayo and our other characters face come from history, and through their thoughts and actions we no doubt catch a glimpse of our author's attempts to come to terms with the history of her people.

Tayo's struggle is to find peace: he is filled with rage and self-loathing, and at the beginning of the book is overwhelmed by his PTSD. His father figure died while he was away, and the brother he left with died in a Japanese prisoner march. He sits in a haze, unable to even feed himself, while his family does what little they can to pick up the pieces. Once he can move again he begins drinking, joining his fellow veterans (also Navajo) at the bar, falling deeper and deeper into depression and alcoholism until he seeks help from a holy man who lives in Gallup. Eventually, he does find peace, or at least a way to move forward, and the book ends on the sunrise, signaling the end of his period of darkness.  

The book is written in a very unique style. There are no chapters, though the paragraphs are broken up at times, or interspersed with short poems. We stay with Tayo most of the time, but the writing is anachronistic, and sometimes we jump abruptly into the minds of others for a few pages. All these elements give the endless flow a dream-like quality, mirroring the haze and supsequent clarity of Tayo's mind. There is a great deal of interesting imagery here--much of the cultural significance of which has gone over my head, I'm sure--but what stuck out to me in particular was the use of the stomach as the center of emotion. Tayo feels everything in his belly: rage and pain and sadness. I know the stomach is associated with anxiety or fear, but I have only seen stomach imagery to refer to physical reactions or sickness. While those are still coupled here, the use goes far beyond that--the emotions live in his stomach, they do not merely prompt reactions

One of the major conflicts of the book, of course, is that of culture. Much of the conflict in Tayo comes from the fact that he is half-white. Consequently, he is loathed by some of his own in addition to the racism he encounters from white people. The wounds of genocide and colonization bleed throughout the novel. Part of Tayo's anger comes from the fact that he was used by the U.S. to fight their war and then spat out without any appreciation, much as his people's land has been stolen away and used to advance white people while the Navajo have been left behind. Ultimately, Tayo reconciles with his history by connecting with his culture, embracing it, and attempting to move on.

I picked Ceremony up in the National Museum of the American Indian while vacationing in D.C., and, while the museum itself was certainly eye-opening (before this I did not really consider that Native Americans had participated in modern wars), reading through it gave a much more visceral impression of the impacts of the history on display. This book is a remarkable accomplishment, and more than worth your attention if you are interested in American history, character studies, or just great writing.

Ceremony is available on Amazon in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.

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