Monday, March 31, 2014

February's Book: This Is How You Die

This Is How You Die ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki
Literature (2013 - 475 pp.)

This Is How You Die is the sequel to 2010's smash hit Machine of Death, a book about a machine that tells people how they will die but not where, when or why. The concept is explained briefly here, in its very first appearance half a decade before the first installment's publication. Each book is divided into short stories, some written by the editors and most submitted by fans. Machine of Death is one of my favourite books, so the prospect of a sequel got my attention immediately. The surprising thing was that I read it a little over half a year after its release date, not sooner.

The book's promise that it takes the world of the Machine in new directions is absolutely true. While Machine of Death uses the Machine in a variety of contexts, from an adolescent rite of passage to a virtual taboo, This Is How You Die expands its scope beyond our world into sci-fi, fantasy and other realms. My one complaint about this expansion is that the Machine by itself can make an otherwise mundane modern (some might even say "literary") setting into a captivating story, whereas people shooting each other with rayguns don't need a Machine of Death to make the story otherworldly. The more like everyday life the world is without the Machine, the more jarring its presence is. That said, "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence", reminiscent of a cross between a mad scientist tale and a Cold War-era spy novel, is one of the more compelling reads. So is "Not Applicable", the story that probably confounds the concept of death the most. The Machine is daunting enough in regular society, so the prospect of it becoming somehow confused can become ominous in a hurry. "La Mort d'un Retourier" places the story in history rather than in another world, which is a nice touch but that is used sparingly in the book for maximum novelty.

My favourite story in This Is How You Die might be the opener, "Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones". It is one of the more introspective stories in either book, examining the way death predictions can take on so many different meanings in our lives. It is a fitting opener for part 2 but would have been a strange way to introduce the Machine, so readers are recommended to read part 1 first. Other highlights include some of the more creative story formats - "Meat Eater"'s downright creepy children's manual and "Your Choice"'s gamebook-styled theme make for their own contemplation of how someone presented with a Machine might try to evade its prediction. "Meat Eater" confronts the understandable fear children may have of the Machine in much the same way they may fear a measles vaccination, at once sympathizing with its life-altering capabilities and brushing them aside. "Your Choice" may include one of the frankest discussions of suicide I have ever read in fiction, showing the reader what the impact of a prediction can be on the people surrounding the one who receives it. "Execution by Beheading" addresses the unfortunate dissonance between how different people interpret the prediction cards.

Still others discuss situations rather than causes, which complicates matters. "Screaming, Crying, Alone and Afraid" makes the reader scared for the ones who are about to die rather than merely interested in their deaths. "Peacefully" considers what occurs if the range of possibilities is constrained greatly from the typically assumed cornucopia of millions of different predictions. Seeing a verb or adverb on a prediction card is not something I had considered before but must in many ways be far more chilling than a traditional "OLD AGE", "IN SLEEP" or even "MURDER".

One thought that crossed my mind, and has likely crossed many others, is what I would do if I knew how I would die. A key consideration is that encountering the cause of death does not necessarily mean death is imminent. For example, someone drawing "CANCER" may then develop one form of cancer, survive it, and then succumb to a different form of cancer decades later. All someone can do is live life with the cause of death entering whenever it does, with the best outcome being exactly what it was before the Machine: not knowing how you'll die.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 3

Monday, March 3, 2014

"January"'s Book: A Widow for One Year

I'll catch up on these, I swear! I think I can keep blaming that ice storm. This was also a bit of a longer book but well worth the read.


A Widow for One Year by John Irving
Literature (1998 - 537 pp.)

I read A Prayer for Owen Meany back in high school, and enjoyed it thoroughly, yet had inexplicably never read a John Irving book since. Suffice to say, for those unfamiliar with Irving's work, it's generally set in the Northeastern United States, is absolutely hilarious, contains vivid descriptions of what once seemed like mundane activities, and contains lots of semicolons. A Widow for One Year is divided into sections taking place in 1958, 1990 and 1995, all marking pivotal occasions in the characters' lives. I liked the 1958 section the best but found all to be interesting, especially in light of understanding just how different the world is to the same people of different ages.

Unlike many other books about authors, A Widow for One Year is about bad authors and is very open about it. Ruth Cole writes blatantly autobiographical books she claims are anything but that, while delivering impassioned speeches on the merits of making characters and settings entirely fabricated. Her mother Marion is unable to write about any topic unrelated to her boys. Eddie O'Hare is unable to write about any topic unrelated to the summer he spent with Marion at sixteen. The books become personal therapy sessions to the characters; to Irving, they are a stealthy commentary on the extrinsic factors appearing in all authors' works. Perhaps the most telling commentary on attempts to create novel situations in books, which Ruth attempts to do with at best mixed success, is from a prostitute: "Everything's happened." (335) By the '90s, shock attempts failed to go as far. That every author in the book writes predictable, insipid, formulaic stories in the '80s and '90s speaks to this.

In addition to describing bad authors, Irving makes Ruth an utterly detestable character very effectively. She is wary of men, judgmental toward her best friend, and dismissive of anyone who attempts to get her autograph when she's in the US. One of the more disturbing scenes occurs when she tells a man she isn't in the mood for dinner without giving any reason why, then proceeds to call him the next day on the assumption he'll want to come over - and have sex with her. (271) The only thing stranger than this series of events is that she actually ends up being right. Her portrayal of herself as a sympathetic character, and her father's agreement, is unsettling in light of the events which follow.

A Widow for One Year also contains some very telling criticism of the human condition. The whole book is permeated by a conflict between confidence being scary and natural, as in "To her, he was confidence itself - he as absolutely terrifying" (110) and "A man should be confident, Ruth thought; after all, men were designed to be aggressive." (202) It reminds me of my role as a man, any other confident and aggressive man's, and how those roles play out in the psyche of a character to the clerk in the first passage or like Ruth. Similarly interesting is a frank discussion of the shadier labour practices of Amsterdam's red light district. The mention of debt bondage (415) calls to mind plantations and factories virtually absent from the western world but for these few sordid patches of human trafficking. Finally, Irving enters the book's final phase with, in the midst of a hopelessly comic attraction, one of the most pointed comments on love I have ever read: "But who can distinguish between falling in love and imagining falling in love? Even genuinely falling in love is an act of the imagination." (466-467) The beginning makes me think of perception versus reality imagery, the whole passage in the context of the book speaks to so many people's incompetence in love, and the end is one of the most heartwarming phrases a creative, artsy person can read.

Although I can't discuss the ending directly, as I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, I'll say it doesn't have the same flair the iconic ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany does. A book like this one is such a slice of life it's difficult to have a good ending. As much as I don't completely buy the ending Irving gives it, I like the circular nature of the story. That's all I can tell.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2