Book Review: The Heming Way

August 3, 2011

The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!

By Marty Beckerman

Published May 27, 2011

Infected Press

90 pp.

ISBN 0-970-06294-X

Reviewed July 31, 2011

In my time as a book critic, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about the dominance of white male authors in the popular culture – and if you had to pick the male-est of those authors, it would without question be Ernest Hemingway. Famous in literary circles for his sparse prose, tragically flawed protagonists and views on the generations lost from the war, Hemingway is also an author repeatedly criticized as overly masculine, misogynistic and homophobic. Still others have accused the Hemingway image as being a construction entirely apart from the man himself, with F. Scott. Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli declaring the man his own greatest fictional creation.

But is that really such a bad thing? Not according to Marty Beckerman, who leaps to Papa’s defense in his parody/self-help book “The Heming Way.” Compared to the way we live today in our world of wireless Internet connections and malt beverages, the attitudes of Hemingway – a man who drank eight different types of alcohol for breakfast, sought the great adrenaline rush of hunting both beasts and men, and was so proud of his way of life that he was the only one who could end it – seems a marvelous alternative. In mapping these extremes, Beckerman not only delivers a brief and hilarious biography of the author but artfully twists it into a critique on modern society.

Beckerman lays out the case for Hemingway as “a great writer, a great hunter, a great fisherman, a great womanizer, a great drunkard, and a great man – but mostly a great drunkard” by regaling the reader with tales of the author’s exploits. He tells you how to hunt like Hemingway (pick your guns well, cook what you kill, don’t bring women along), how to drink like Hemingway (on safari, in wartime, and with your hungover ten-year-old son) and how to pursue women like Hemingway (marry often, swapping out as their psycho levels rise and they lose their taste for your beard and vomiting friends).

The humor here comes from the extremity of viewpoints presented, as well as how over-the-top Beckerman gets in embracing those viewpoints. He presents Hemingway in his own words and then almost immediately illustrates the flaws in those words with even more quotes, but never dares to question them even as they grow absurd. Of course Hemingway’s drinking burdened him with massive health problems, but how else could he reach such heights as shooting himself in the legs during a fishing trip? And of course Papa’s “outward misogyny” was just an offshoot of the harsh realities of war, not repressed homosexuality! (So what if there are eight or ten quotes to the contrary, the man’s balls overwhelm those!)

It would be easy to dismiss the book as nothing but a list of Hemingway jibes, but Beckerman’s commitment to the format is impressive. Much as he did in the excellent 2008 political dissection “Dumbocracy,” Beckerman backs up his jokes with considerable research, regularly sourcing Hemingway’s own writing as well as a variety of biographies and scholarly studies. The format, reminiscent of a Cracked article, also earns its laughs by inserting some biting comments underneath Hemingway photos periodically inserted into the text. (Particular favorite: Hemingway’s quote “Love is just another dirty lie” followed immediately with his wedding photo and the tip “Do not include the previous quote in your vows.)

And even as parody, there’s a sense that it might be sitting on something deeper. that Particularly as the book heads toward the end, there’s an odd seriousness that emerges from the parody, almost a rant taking over as our modern sense of safety is compared to Hemingway’s style. In fact, in some passages, it almost seems like he’s seriously viewing that style as the lesser of two evils:

“And we’ve become rich in the currency of cowardice. We have so many things and so few experiences. We are desperate to live as long as possible, not as large as possible. We are so afraid to say goodbye to the world that we never say hello. We are numbed in our high-def, wi-fi cocoons, eager for materialistic possessions – the newest, fastest, shiniest gadgets – instead of a fitting end to a life well-lived. If Papa hadn’t killed himself out of despair in 1961, he would kill himself out of disgust today.”

It’s impossible to say what Papa would have thought of this book (though based on history, he’d likely knock the author on his back with one punch) but the end result would probably have involved a laugh and six shared drinks. Beckerman has kicked a breath of fresh air into the Hemingway mythos fifty years after Papa ended his life, and “The Heming Way” should appeal to fans of its source material and anyone looking for a good joke. It’s well-researched, incredibly funny, and just the impetus you’ve been looking for to bring Wild Turkey and six grenades on your next fishing trip.


Book Review: Dreadfully Ever After

June 15, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After

By Steve Hockensmith

Published March 22, 2011

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74502-1

Reviewed June 14, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a franchise in possession of good fortune must be in want of more success. Certainly you can say this is true of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – taking what could have been a throwaway idea of meshing classic literature with today’s popular culture, Quirk Books managed to transform it into to a startlingly good novel that played its source material for just the right level of comic effect. They capitalized on this success with involvement in other classic authors (though the narrative success hasn’t been as strong there) and a potential movie installment that still holds a lot of potential but is sadly bogged down in development hell at the moment.

As a storyline, the original idea still stands up on its own merits – by my estimation at least – and so I was heartened to see that it hasn’t succumbed to the plague of success and sequel dilution. Quirk followed the innovation of “PPZ” with a surprisingly competent prequel novel in “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and has now bookended it with a direct sequel in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.” And much like its predecessors, “Dreadfully Ever After” continues to strike the right balance and turn out an end product that works both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone zombie narrative.

Timing-wise, it evenly spaces the three books apart, being set four years after the events of the original “PPZ.” In the time since that installment, the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy has become strained under the forced retirement of Elizabeth’s blades – “quieted by that force more powerful than any warrior” as it said in the first book’s close – and her ambivalence towards having children. Before she and Darcy can come to any sort of resolution, a stray zombie child gets its fangs into Darcy’s neck and appears to seal their marriage to end with his decapitation. However, Darcy’s aunt – the vengeful Catherine de Bough – claims to have access to a remedy, and all it will require is Elizabeth to not only surrender care of Darcy but risk her honor and her very life to cure him.

“Dreadfully Ever After” comes from Steve Hockensmith, author of the “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and as such the book maintains the narrative coherence of the last installment. The action moves to London – now a segmented city to defend its nobility from dreadful attack, with parks and manors on the other side of a wall from slums and plague – and continues the intersection of Victorian nobility with the deadpan unmentionable dispatch. The series’ trend of introducing outlandish humor also continues, with some occasionally gratingly silly bits like casting the “dandies” and the “fops” of London’s aristocracy as rival gangs and dreadfuls chasing an Irishman to replace greyhounds chasing a rabbit. And again, much like “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” it remains a step behind the original “PPZ” without the benefit of Austen’s original text to modify – the language is still designed to emphasize the incongruous manners with shambling hordes, but feels like it’s straining a bit to reach the original’s heights.

Yet in many ways, “Dreadfully Ever After” feels better than “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” as if Hockensmith has learned from experience and avoided that book’s failings. The overly obnoxious version of Mrs. Bennet is almost completely absent save for the last chapter, and out of the new characters none of them match the cartoonish quality of the first installment’s Lord Lumpley. In addition to Darcy and Lady Catherine several characters from Austen’s original text return, and are used in a way that strengthens the story – particularly the addition of Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, Darcy’s intended bride who’s even more unsettling than the dreadfuls.

And while it’s not adapted Austen level anymore, there’s still passages that describe the zombie horde in proper, almost poetic detail. A scattered zombie horde is “fresh next to rancid, rag-shrouded beside fashionably clothed, all united in the democracy of death,” and a particularly accurate swing of a ninja’s sword splits “the skull and neck open… like the blooming of some viscous red blossom.”

Hockensmith’s real achievement beyond this is that even after two books in the series, he’s found some new ground to cover. Rather than try to force Elizabeth through a personal grinder yet again, the book mostly uses her story to drive the plot and focuses its narrative energy on her sisters Kitty and Mary. Free of Lydia’s flighty influence, Kitty is trying to find out what sort of person she is, and it comes to a surprise that she doesn’t like being seen as silly as much as she once did. And Mary, having erected further walls as her sisters are married off, manages to have a few chinks in her armor thanks to an unusual ally. These two were mostly supplemental to the tribulations of Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia in previous installments (and in the original Austen novel, if I’m not mistaken), but here they feel like real characters with legitimately interesting romantic arcs – especially considering the two talk their feelings over in between splitting the skills of dreadfuls.

But that’s not the only way “Dreadfully Ever After” gets into the minds of the dreadfuls. In spending time with Darcy as he fights off the undead taint sweeping through his body, the book actually broaches relatively untouched ground in zombie literature by showing how the undead see the world and depicting how painful warring with its compulsions can be – dreams filled with steaks garnished with fingers, every life form all the way down to spiders emitting a radiance you just want to reach out and touch. And a late chapter focused on average zombie Mr. Crickett in his pursuit of a meal fit for a king is a bit of a stylistic departure, but one that’s the funniest part of the book (and evokes fond memories on my part of the game Stubbs The Zombie).

It’s not a novel that will win over any new fans – and if you were turned off by the concept at the start this won’t be what lures you back – but as a third installment to the saga of the zombie-slaying Bennets “Dreadfully Ever After” makes a very respectable close. As someone who was a curious observer and turned into an involved reader, I’m satisfied to see that Hockensmith was able to turn it into a trilogy, and flaws aside it’s a set I’m pleased to have sitting on my shelf.


Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

May 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 22, 2011

Riverhead Books

256 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48787-1

Reviewed May 4, 2011

If Sarah Vowell has a knack for anything, it’s for digging the most interesting things out of topics that most casual readers wouldn’t even take a second glance at. A self-described “civics nerd,” she can expound on topics ranging from the lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to the “sad sack quality of Canadian chronology” to the diary of President Garfield, and still manage to pull out connections to real life and other history that makes her theories a joy to experience. Her last book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” found dynamic personas in the stereotypically staid environment of Puritan New England, discovering the lively debate that shaped the earliest cities and states in America.

Now in her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” she’s moved from the first states to the last one, seeing how the American spirit of colonization and conversion shaped the fate of Hawaii’s people and culture over the last century and a half. And while the topic’s a bit denser and darker than her earlier work, “Unfamilar Fishes” is another satisfactory addition to the canon further cementing the fact that no one’s writing about history quite like Vowell, and that no one else is making it such an accessible read.

Vowell’s titular “unfamiliar fishes” are the ‘haole’ foreigners who manipulated Hawaii on its path to becoming the fiftieth member of the United States, beginning with the New England missionaries who sought a “bloodless conquest for Christ” in converting the native population and ending with those missionaries’ grandchildren handing the land over to America after overthrowing the last queen. She traces the path of Hawaii’s lost independence through decades of foreigners setting up shop, the diseases and conversions they brought with them, and how the seeds of revolt were sown by the commercial desires of settlers and the gradually decaying base of the monarchy.

In my review of “The Wordy Shipmates” I noted the shift from her travelogue/essay format to a more formal academic feeling, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” does continue the structured approach to her work. While she bounces from past to present in mixing in her own real-life experiences, the narrative remains mostly chronological and straightforward as it goes through Hawaiian history, with regular callbacks to earlier points of importance tying it all together. She’s said she sees her work as a form of journalism, and it’s clear she’s done her research – she dips liberally into the letters and memoirs of the original missionaries, and supports it with the stories told by Hawaiian museum tour guides and scholars.

However, at the same time the book also feels much more unfocused and at times scattershot than “The Wordy Shipmates,” possibly as a consequence of the wider timeframe. With decades of letters and regime changes to cover there’s less time to focus on the story’s more characterful players, as she did with presidential assassins or Puritan colonists. Vowell’s thought process, while always charming in the random connections she makes, shows a bit of strain to maintain the same era while at the same time jumping from the Polynesian Triangle to Voltaire to President McKinley. Given the wide swath of time and generational cast involved, it also wouldn’t have hurt to include family trees of the royalty and missionaries to show just how intertwined this saga was.

That said, these changes don’t do anything to dilute Vowell’s inimitable style or just how readable she makes American history. Vowell has an innate grasp of analogy – she can see a Bible verse on helping Macedonia to the high-fructose corn syrup of American colonization – and an open mind to both sides to see their similarities, as the earliest days of missionary contact becomes “the story of traditionalists squaring off.” And while they are fewer than in other books there are a few figures of particular interest in the history of Hawaii – standouts are Henry Obookiah, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to to Christianity, and adventurer turned prime minister Henry Murray Gibson – and she makes sure that we spend enough time with them to stand out as characters. Long-time readers of Vowell will also be gratified to see the scenes of her recurring travel partner nephew Owen, now eight years old and with his own own interesting quirks: his goodbye over the phone happens to be “I love you! Don’t die!”

There’s a sense from Owen that he’s been infected with his aunt’s somewhat macabre sense of fascination in American history, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is yet another example of why Vowell’s unique perspective on history remains infectious to readers as well. It’s a reliable choice for fans of her earlier work and anyone looking for a primer on Hawaiian history – maybe not the best book for the island’s beaches but certainly something to have on hand for the long flight in, so you can understand there’s far more to these islands than sun and garish shirts.


Book Review: Machine of Death

April 23, 2011

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die

Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki!

Published October 13, 2010

Bearstache Books

464 pp.

ISBN 0-982-16712-1

Reviewed April 23, 2011

It’s impossible to look at “Machine of Death” and not see it as anything but unequivocal victory for the Internet. Not only was it based on an idea from a widely popular webcomic and assembled by a wide pool of bloggers, webcomic writers and other web-centric contributors, but it was also the subject of a widely blogged and tweeted campaign to buy the book on the release date and shoot it to the top of Amazon charts. And not only did it succeed in that goal, but it earned a vitriolic response from Glenn Beck that only managed to garner it more positive exposure and healthy sales past the release date.

That’s a fantastic success story for marketing in the age of Twitter, but even if they’d cut all that organizing out it wouldn’t change the fact that “Machine of Death” is a wonderfully solid collection of short fiction. In soliciting the best stories from the Internet talent pool, the editors of “Machine of Death” – Ryan North, M. Bennardo and David Malki! – have inspired a wide range of mediations on what’s really important when your ultimate faith is hanging over your head, mining psychological trauma for stories that oscillate almost seamlessly between the funny and the tragic.

Each of the stories is focused on the same broad concept: the existence of a machine that can take a blood sample and infallibly predict how that person is going to die. However, the prediction is laid out in the vaguest of terms, only one word or short phrase such as “cancer” or “friendly fire” or “while trying to save another.” Each prediction is purposely vague – it doesn’t say, for example, whether the subject will commit suicide or die as a result of someone else’s suicide – but it comes true in a fashion that leaves no doubt as to the efficacy of the machine.

Obviously, many of the stories are internally focused, dealing with the specific reactions to the knowledge. In some stories, the subjects will be rendered utterly paralyzed by the choice, trying to avoid any and all incarnations of what could kill them and yet still fall prey. Still others will dive into their fates – “fire” leads to firefighters, “robbery” leads to police officers – and others will embrace it joyfully to the point of psychosis (“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions,” Jeffrey C. Wells). There’s also stories about those who built the machine, such as John Chernega’s “Almond” or Tom Francis’ “Exploded,” which get into the heads of those who build or maintain the machine, and do a masterful job in showing how being so closely tied with an inanimate doomsayer would break you down psychologically.

But even more than the individual impact, the best interpretations of “Machine of Death” come up when it expands to consider just what would happen to a society where such machines are commonplace – even moreso since no two stories share the same interpretation. Would it be like Camille Alexander’s “Flaming Marshmallow,” where it’s mandatory for everyone to have their blood tested in high school and the results completely replace the high school cliques of jocks and nerds with crashers and bullets? Or could it be like Douglas J. Lane’s “Friendly Fire,” where a new breed of domestic terrorists devote their lives to its destruction, haunted by what the knowledge of death did to their loved ones? Much like death itself, the possibilities are endless, and the stories get better the more they expand their scope.

The sheer breadth of ideas means that there’s stories for every taste, but here’s some particular favorites of mine: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of “Mogworld”)‘s “Exhaustion While Having Sex With a Minor,” which offers some excellent irony and political satire; M. Bennardo’s “Starvation,” which uses the concept as a springboard for a haunting wartime tale of isolation; and Erin McKean’s “Not Waving But Drowning” which mixes the adolescent, societal and ironic sides of the concept in a very interesting way. Bonus points for creative formatting go to “Love Ad Nauseam” from Sherri Jacobsen and “HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” from Brian Quinlan, the latter of which is so wonderfully succinct Hemingway would nod approvingly.

The timeline to enrage Glenn Beck by purchasing it might be long past, but that only takes away one of the many reasons why “Machine of Death” is worth reading. It’s alternatively dark and funny, always creative and varied enough that at least one of the stories will be worth your attention. Who’d’ve thought an offhand comment by a green tyrannosaurus could yield this much depth?

Extra Credit:

  • If you want to take a look at the sample stories, the publishers are offering it through Creative Commons on their website. Several stories are also available as free podcasts.

Book Review: Extra Lives

January 13, 2011

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

By Tom Bissell

Published June 8, 2010

Pantheon Books

240 pp.

ISBN 0-307-37870-5

Reviewed January 13, 2011

The medium of video gaming has always been a lightning rod for controversy, from the violence levels of “Mortal Kombat” to the sex scenes of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” but in the last year two debates have raised the stakes in new ways. In April Roger Ebert, the grand high priest of film criticism, expanded on his earlier opinion that video games could never be art, delivering an in-depth argument that instigated so much debate online that he was later forced to admit he wasn’t qualified to make that statement. Second – and with far wider consequences – the state of California has taken its case for regulating the sale of video games to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ruling still pending that could either cement games as a truly legitimate media or drive a stake through the industry’s growth.

Whatever your stance on either of these issues, there’s no disputing video games have become something more than quarter sinks for arcade-goers or time-wasters for the underachieving. In terms of technology, interactivity and storytelling, the potential for video games to do something more has never been higher, and these debates prove it’s time for a serious look at where this medium is going. And it’s for that reason that Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives” should be required reading for anyone even remotely concerned with the discussion: it’s a well-rounded analysis of several of the most influential games of the last decade, a book that shows the most devoted of fans can also be the most incisive of critics.

Bissell takes several of the most popular titles from the last decade – Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV, BioWare’s Mass Effect and Capcom’s Resident Evil amongst others – and breaks them down in loosely connected essays that are equal parts specific criticism and broader industry analysis. His experiences in each game are discussed in detail, covering how well they tackle issues such as storytelling, character development, violence, immersion and problem solving. The book also incorporates stops at game developers’ offices and profiles of some of the industry’s most outspoken figures, including Gears of War mastermind Cliff Bleszinski and Braid auteur Jonathan Blow.

Fittingly for his topic, Bissell avoids a dry academic tone and goes through these games in a journalistic tone that blends research with personal experience. His analysis of each subject is engaging in how he express his reaction to games (he praises the immersion of Resident Evil‘s “shock of the new” and cites it as the first video game that had “gone straight for the spinal canal”), and also has the unsparing edge of the professional game writer (the game has a story that“collapses wherever thought arrives”). It’s criticism accessible to both the fans and the scholars, and one that’s willing to treat the medium seriously – I can’t think of any other source that can quote Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in analyzing the plot of GTA IV.

And Bissell is nothing if not serious about his video games: as he illustrates in often unflattering detail, his gaming habits regularly hover on the obsessive wavelength. He admits in the opening chapter he missed all of Election Day 2008 because it overlapped the release of Fallout 3, and unapologetically cites 80 hours logged in Mass Effect and 200 in Oblivion. The final chapter equates his gaming with an addiction, as months of cocaine abuse was intertwined with endlessly playing GTA IV. Running through the money and opportunities lost, it’s entirely possible to see him as a poster child for the anti-gaming associations (and this coming from a 20-year gamer who has 80 hours of his own in Fallout 3 and Oblivion, and whose Xbox gamerscore is verging on 30,000 at time of writing).

But Bissell is no slack-jawed shooter fan taken in by gaming’s basic flash and violence – rather, he’s a researcher who’s fascinated by how something so basic as shooting zombies can stir him so mentally and emotionally. When a game has problems (poor vehicle sections, badly written dialogue) he weighs just how much they throw him for the experience, and when he finds a gaming theory unsettling more often than not he goes straight to the designers for an explanation. He treats the topic seriously, and by extension you take his arguments and emotions seriously, so when he reaches a conclusion on a factor like the choices made in Mass Effect‘s penultimate story mission his concluding passage resonates deeply:

“Thus the game took my own self-interest and effectively vivisected it. I literally put down my controller and stared at my television screen. When games do this poorly, or even adequately, the sensation is that of a slightly caffeinated immediacy. You have agency, yes, but what of it? It is just a game. But when a game does this well, you lose track of your manipulation of it, and its manipulation of you, and instead feel so deeply inside the game that your mind, and your feelings, become as seemingly crucial to its operation as its many millions of lines of codes. It is the sensation that that the game itself is suddenly, unknowably alive as you are.”

Even when its chapters feel a bit unfocused (many were published as magazine features and profiles and as such don’t quite form a whole), passages and opinions like these still manage to hit one as definitely as an unexpected sniper headshot in a Halo deathmatch. “Extra Lives” is full of these well-fleshed thoughts, and for this clarity and depth it’s earned a place on the top shelf of books written about this continually evolving medium. It’s impossible to say where gaming is going in the coming years, but it’s certainly going beyond what we expect, and it’s people like Bissell we should be listening to as it develops.

Extra Credit:

  • For demos of Bissell’s work, previously published chapters of “Extra Lives” can be found online in their original formats at The Guardian and The New Yorker.

Book Review: Stiff

December 3, 2010

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach

Published April 21, 2003

W.W. Norton & Company

304 pp.

ISBN 0-393-32482-6

Reviewed December 3, 2010

It’s the great mystery in the universe that we can never know what happens to us after we die. It’s the journey that no one has ever sent a postcard from after taking, the question that has spurred countless philosophers and religions to great discussion, and one that everyone ponders at least once a day. Try as we might to get past it, we can’t avoid the fact that some day we will all find ourselves passing on to something we can never get a hold of, leaving nothing behind but the piece of meat and bone that carried us through our daily grind.

But while the fate of our consciousness after death is one that cannot be measured, the fate of that piece of meat is one that’s easier to quantify – and as Mary Roach shows in “Stiff,” just because a body is dead doesn’t mean its experiences are over. Over the course of history, human corpses have been boiled, mashed, stuck in stews, chopped up, shot to pieces and put to ten thousand other uses across the spectrum of morality. In “Stiff,” Roach unflinchingly explores the myriad and grisly uses these cadavers come to, and in the process weaves a quirky and unique narrative of life after death.

Beginning with a simple curiosity about what happens to human bodies that aren’t simply buried – a “foreign land between the cracks” as the author puts it – “Stiff” follows cadavers through a plethora of final fates. Roach travels to cosmetology schools, decay research facilities and shooting ranges, chronicling how scientists and doctors are using the cadavers to learn and teach things no live subject would ever consent to. She also expands her search to the shocking and bizarre events of the past, going back to experiments to replicate the circumstances of the Crucifixion and just how long a head can survive after it has been severed by a guillotine.

As Roach mentions early on, once a body is donated to science it has no control over where it eventually ends up, and “Stiff” similarly goes in all directions as it explores the various possibilities with a mix of contemporary studies and involved historical research. One chapter that begins in an anatomy lab memorial service for cadavers jumps into a discussion of body snatching in 1700s England, while the next switches between a body left in the sun for three weeks and the origins of arterial embalming. The breadth of the subject means that no stone is left unturned – that is, unless the stone is on a cadaver and being unturned is part of the experiment.

Roach however manages to keep all these disparate links together, chiefly through her entertaining writing style. Thanks to various quips at the historical subjects (the “father of embalming” asked not to be embalmed himself, “though whether this was a function of sanity or insanity was never made clear”) and a legitimate curiosity about those who spend their time around human bodies (“What I do is, I think of them as wax” is one option), it’s hard to ever feel bogged down or lost on her journey. Special praise goes to the transitions between sections and chapters in the way they establish common threads: One chapter ends talking about an organ donor (“H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her”) and the next begins by discussing the idea of souls, which leads to brains as their resting place, which leads to the idea of human head transplants.

If anyone does have trouble going from section to section, it will likely be because of the subject matter rather than the writing – much of “Stiff” is not for those with weak stomachs. The breadth of topics makes it very engrossing, but it regularly teeters to the “gross” part of the equation by turning up experiments like the creation of a two-headed dog (a “lively, puppylike, if not altogether joyous existence” for the new head) and just where human excrement falls into the medicine cabinets of ancient civilizations. “Stiff’s” subject matter tends to be far from polite dinner table conversation, and the odds are good that readers will take a break in between sections such as this decay research observation:

“Arpad walks around to the corpse’s left foot. It is bluish and the skin is transparent. ‘See under the skin? They’re eating the subcutaneous fat. They love fat.’ I see them. They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.”

But despite being confronted with these observations, Roach never backs down from getting close with the cadavers – either whole or in part. While she frequently turns to a dry, Wodehousian black humor there’s also a strong respect for the choice these people made when alive to commit their earthly remains, and observes the bodies with a quiet fascination. She strengthens this commitment by including interviews with several truly devoted experts in the field, ranging from an injury analyst who studies corpses after crashes to a Swedish woman spearheading a movement for human composting. None of her subjects are ghouls who get off on manipulating the dead, but matter-of-fact individuals who happen to work with dead bodies to learn something new.

And that leads to the real strength of “Stiff” – it’s certainly full of fascinating data and presents itself well, but it still carries the appropriate gravitas its subject material deserves. Roach is at all times aware of the fact that her subjects were once alive, and that at the core what’s on the table in front of her is only a few degrees separate from each of us: “We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” In “Stiff,” Roach shows us that maybe we shouldn’t try to forget it, because even after we’re dead – and possibly destined for a biology class – we’re still innately fascinating.


Book Review: The Imperfectionists

December 1, 2010

The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman

Published April 6, 2010

The Dial Press

288 pp.

ISBN 0-385-34366-3

Reviewed December 1, 2010

In my time working for the Daily Cardinal back in college, I probably crossed paths with over a hundred individuals who played some role in making the paper. Some of them remain very close friends of mine, whom I exchange updates with on a regular basis. Others I haven’t seen for years, but I know I could meet up with and fall right back into a familiar groove with or at the very least be offered a couch for an evening. Still others I couldn’t identify by face or name now, but I know if I found myself in conversation with them and we learned that we shared that connection, we’d fill at least five minutes going over old war stories.

A newspaper tends to both attract a wide variety of people, and inspire a mix of emotions in the people who work for it – and that psychic pull is just one of the things that Tom Rachman manages to do so masterfully in “The Imperfectionists.” Centered around an unnamed English language newspaper in Rome, operating in what may well be the twilight of print media, “The Imperfectionists” is a brilliant debut novel that understands the most interesting thing about journalism. It isn’t the circumstances of the business or its efforts to stay relevant in changing times, but the multifaceted and frequently damaged people who make it their trade.

“The Imperfectionists” is split into eleven chapters, each of which focuses on one of the staffers at the unnamed paper. Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solsen struggles to do more with less in the face of the home office’s apathy, while the nitpicky copy editor Herman Cohen lambastes his three-headed copy desk – particularly the wallflower Ruby Zaga – for amateurish edits. The financial officer Abbey Pinnola reluctantly embraces her role as hatchet man, while the business reporter Hardy Benjamin tries to assimilate someone new into life outside her office. Abroad in Cairo and Paris, respective correspondents Winston Cheung and Lloyd Burko are either so far out of their comfort zones it approaches farcical or so mired in their comfort zones they have nothing left to offer.

Readers with journalism backgrounds will certainly find the chapters engagingly familiar – with each character embodying the professions’ archetypes at least in part – but “The Imperfectionists” is by no means restricted to that group. The chapters are focused on each character’s personal dramas, with the newspaper merely lining the cages of their doubts and revelations. Herman eagerly embraces a visit from his oldest friend and tries to get him to write for the paper, only to find that neither of their lives have turned out precisely as they thought – and they come to some surprising realizations about it. Katheen reengages with an old boyfriend in public service, tempted to use him to get inside information on the prime minister’s office – or just get back at her cheating husband. Each vignette is well-fleshed and original, and manages to come to meaningful conclusions all around.

The plotting makes each chapter interesting, but what makes them gripping is how well each character is defined. None of the chapters are in first-person, and Rachman’s voice is apparent in each of them, but you really do feel like you’re hearing a brand new person’s story each time. In some instances, particularly Kathleen’s and Abbey’s, the dialogue continues to flow for pages at a perfectly natural rhythm – these read like conversations real people would have, with small talk skirting around an elephant in the room and reaching conclusions neither party likes. Conversely, chapters on Lloyd and Ruby are more about internal monologues, their insecurities eating away at them as they desperately try to find some validation in work or in life. Ruby’s chapter in particular, mixed with internal asides to herself, has particularly poignant moments:

“To eat or to sleep – the perennial night-shift conundrum. She confronts her dilemma as always, with a tub of Haagen-Dazs on the couch and Tony Bennett on the stereo, volume low. The CD came free with a magazine and has become part of her after-work routine. She has the TV on, too, with the sound off. She watches Ballando con le Stelle without seeing, listens to Tony Bennett without hearing, eats Vanilla Swiss Almond without tasting. Yet the mix is the most splendid she knows.”

Prose like this is reminiscent of some of the finest short stories, and indeed the almost insular feeling of each chapter makes it very feasible to take each one as a single serving without digesting the narrative. As the book progresses, names repeat and the connections become more apparent – the same man ricochets off the paper’s editor-in-chief, copy editor and fervent subscriber in very different ways, a broken friendship indirectly tips over a line of dominoes to start an affair – but for the most part those connections matter because they evoke memories of just how good that character’s chapter was, and poignancy at how damaged they remain.

For as good as these character studies are, there is a central narrative – the origins and future of the paper, the great edifice that churns on oblivious to its staff’s problems, where “what was of the utmost importance yesterday is immaterial today.” The chapters are split up with vignettes on the origins of the paper, the mysterious industrialist Cyrus Ott who abandoned his family in Atlanta to become a publisher and founding editors as damaged as any off the current staff. The reason for the paper’s genesis comes in the last chapter, opened for personal reasons as tragic as any its existing staff has for staying with it – but the revelation is lost on the chapter’s subject, Ott’s grandson, the weak-willed publisher dwelling in an empty mansion with only a basset hound for company. It’s a tragic hammer strike, made even harder by the denouement of the final fifteen pages.

In those last pages, the observation is made that the paper is a “daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species” – and that’s a label that can easily be applied to “The Imperfectionists.” By farming the tightly wound, diverse world of a newsroom, Rachman has created some of the strongest character studies in recent years. It’s heartfelt and complex, all its considerable parts adding up to something greater – much as its staff’s contributions inexplicably bring a paper to life. This is, quite simply, one of the best books of the year.