Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My boyfriend has been trying to get me to read Erdrich for a year now. I don't know why I didn't listen to him earlier, because Erdrich has everything I could possibly want on my author wishlist: she's a woman writing magical realism from the perspective of a minority who often incorporates gender issues into her stories and comes highly regarded as a master of prose. And is she ever! This is easily the best book I've read so far this year in terms of beauty of prose and emotional power of the story.

"The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse" is a strange place to start with Erdrich, though. From what I understand, many of Erdrich's novels take place in an Ojibwe (Native American) community in North Dakota, so characters appear and re-appear in different novels. And this novel revolves around a huge spoiler for the rest of those novels, and you can't talk about the book without talking about this reveal, so here goes: the white priest for the community is a woman, and has been masquerading as a man (by the end of her/his life) for about 70 years.

Father Damien Modeste, also known as Agnes, has been writing to the Pope since he became a priest, and finally, it seems, the Pope has answered as Modeste nears the end of his life. A young priest has come to investigate the miracles of Sister Leopolda, an Ojibwe woman who became a Catholic nun (and often the subject of Modeste's letters), and consider her for canonization.

Modeste is old, long-winded, and absent-minded, so the young priest finds his job surprisingly difficult. Modeste alternately rambles about moments in his life and becomes lost in nostalgic reminiscence, and the reader is privy to it all. He remembers the love he has always had for both God and music, looks fondly on his life prior to the priesthood, considers his changing relationship to religion as he becomes integrated in the Ojibwe community.

I say "he" because Erdrich has cast Modeste as a character who is comfortable with ambiguity. He is perfectly at home entertaining two conflicting ideas and making a whole from those disparate parts without destroying or betraying either. This is true for his gender and his religion. There are moments where Modeste is a man, and he is a he; there are moments when Agnes is a woman, and she is a she. Both exist within the character, and each comes through in varying degrees at varying moments, and Agnes/Modeste is not bothered by it at all. Agnes grew up Catholic and maintains that love for God throughout her life, and as she becomes Modeste, she incorporates Ojibwe beliefs into her Catholicism (and converts Ojibwe by incorporating Catholicism into their existing beliefs).

Erdrich has mastered elegant nuance of character, of ideology. Her imagery is enchanting; the story is full of descriptions of nature and characters that are beautifully striking. Novels are often described as tapestries and I think that description is nowhere more fitting than with Erdrich - this book is a warmly hand-woven tapestry carefully made and illustrated with an expert's detailing, but still full of charm and heart. It evokes a natural garden, lovingly planted but allowed to grow almost wild with only a touch of carefully-placed cultivation and love. Read this, or some other Erdrich book, if you want to be woven into that tapestry and grow in that garden and in the end be wrenched out of it and it hurts to leave but you can see the beautiful whole.

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Review: On a Red Station, Drifting

On a Red Station, Drifting On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella pairs well with two books I've read and reviewed recently - "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" and "The Winged Histories." All are focused on women (and generally women of color) in a setting with colonial or imperialist elements, and are concerned with navigating power in both interpersonal/familial and political contexts. "On a Red Station, Drifting" is more about family than diplomacy, but both threads are still there. This is one of my favorite kinds of stories to read and I'm lucky to have read three that are so delightful and so different in such a short period of time.

My only qualm with "On a Red Station, Drifting" is that it isn't longer. I've read many interviews with Aliette de Bodard, I've read some of her short stories before in various anthologies, and I've certainly heard this story in particular praised many times. But somehow I didn't retain that it's a novella, not a novel. It didn't occur to me until I was about halfway through and thought, "Hm, things are coming to a head way sooner than expected..." at which point I checked my progress on my ereader. Anyway, the story is set in what she calls her Xuya universe, and while there's no longer work set in that continuity there are a host of short stories (one of which ended "The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women," which I read last year). I'm sure I'll be reviewing one of those shortly.

De Bodard's stories focus on family, especially in the Xuya universe where many people live with neural implants containing the consciousnesses of their ancestors. In Red Station, Quyen flees her Imperial post when rebels attack and travels to Prosper Station, where she has distant relatives. She does not hit it off with Linh, the woman who runs the station. Quyen is an academic (and recently wrote a treatise denouncing the Emperor who would let her planet fall to rebels) and a privileged success story of the meritocratic system of the Empire; Linh is a home-making wife who has nothing but her family, and many of the more prestigious family members have left for war and have yet to return.

The conflict between these two women, the conflict between family and duty, the conflict between duty to family and personal dislike, are the heart of the story. Linh is alone, and while she proudly asserts herself as the one keeping the station together, we know she doubts she can keep the station going much longer by herself. She tells the sentient AI-cyborg creature that has run the station for hundreds of years that she can't do it alone; she mourns her family's absence; she resents Quyen because she assumes Quyen thinks of her as a lesser spouse. Quyen is resentful, too; she resents that Linh won't give her a position that will use her skills, that she won't accept Quyen's help with family or station matters.

It's a beautiful, elegantly written story. The characters are compelling, and the story builds to such a satisfyingly character-driven conclusion. I'm sorry it's not longer, and I'd love to read more in this universe.

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Sex Criminals" was a disappointment from beginning to end. Matt Fraction and Christian Ward created ODY-C, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and they've received rave reviews for Sex Criminals, so I'll admit my expectations were high, but the bar would've had to be pretty low for me to love this. On the upside, it was pretty funny, and I like its frankness and its attempt to speak to the awkwardness and shame attached to sex (especially for adolescents).

Right away I could tell the art wasn't for me. The character designs are boring and lack style, and it was hard for me to tell characters apart. The effects they use for "The Quiet" or "Cumworld," as they call it, are tacky and superficial. In general, the art is meh at best and feels cheap at worst.

Also confusing is the general story format and layout. There are at least three, maybe four storylines spread throughout time, and it's hard to tell which one is happening at any given time. When the main female character described her late teen years, it took me a while to understand it wasn't happening in the present, because she looked the same and there was no difference in the artwork to indicate it. This happens repeatedly throughout the novel, and didn't ever really get better.

Another device that didn't work for me, related to the above, is the breaking-the-fourth-wall element. The main character speaks to the reader directly. She narrates her life, with several panels devoted to her speaking 'face-to-face' with the reader (and shows up, as an adult, in scenes from her childhood). But this only happens occasionally, and wanes as the story continues, until I'm not sure why they included it at all because it only made the beginning more confusing. And again, if they had clearly demarcated with the art what was happening and when, this wouldn't have been an obstacle. I wish they had done something with the art to separate either the narrative voice from the story or the different eras from each other. Even using a larger panel at each transition to clearly establish setting. Or anything to give the reader a sense of time, location, and weight.

The story premise is ridiculous, and I wish they had taken that absurdity and run with it, because there are hints of the silly hilarity that could have ensued. The real Cumworld (a sex shop they frequent) always has laugh-out-loud worthy videos and products. (My favorite porn section: "Obamacore - socialist/medical themed.") There are innumerable puns. Some of the characters are off-the-wall, but in the fairly grounded and serious setting, all these wild elements feel tonally out of place. I get that the story is, at its core, about the relationship between these two people, but it's also a story about people who can stop time when they have sex! And there's a sex-world police force! You can keep the serious, grounded characters and still have a zany, strange world, but I think the overall effect here is that there are some really weird, strange things that are played down or played straight when they should've been played up. It's a crazy world, but no one in the story treats it that way.

As I mentioned earlier, I like the cheeky humor throughout, and I do appreciate the attempt at an allegory for teenage sexual awakening. But the latter feels pretty obvious and unsubtle, so while I like the idea behind it, it didn't stick the landing with me.

Either way, it's not that bad. I was entertained. I just don't think it was very good, and I certainly don't have any desire to read any further.

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