Review: The Intuitionist

20 Books of Summer: Book 6

The winner in the Most Unique Book of the Summer (so far) category is Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. (There’s no prize, of course, unless you count this review.) I’d be lying if I said I understood every word/reference/theme of this book. The Intuitionist is deeply strange with glimmers of Pynchon, but Whitehead is cleverer and more entertaining. I’ve borrowed the Goodreads blurb because it’s hard to summarize a book that’s [mystery] + [philosophical treatise on elevator maintenance] + [noir thriller (maybe)] +[social commentary] + [???].

Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.

When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial “Intuitionist” method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.

As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae’s quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent.

The premise is silly at first because it’s hard to see how Intuitionism ever gained traction. If I owned a building and had a choice between two elevator inspectors, I wouldn’t pick the one who stood in the elevator and had feelings about its mechanical fitness. Amid my chuckling, though, the story won me over. It’s not really about the elevators and, when it is, it’s more interesting than it should be. Whitehead peppers the book with oddball trivia and a nuanced look at a world where the schools for elevator maintenance spend as much time on philosophy as mechanics.

Each detail is carefully considered, right down to the screwdrivers, the only tool needed by an Intuitionist:

For the new screwdrivers were quite beautiful. Ever since the city granted license to the Department, bulky and ungainly screwdrivers had poked and bulged in the jacket pockets of the elevator inspectors, completely ruining any attempts at dapperness and savoir faire. It’s difficult to look official and imposing while listing to one side. The new screwdrivers have mother-of-pearl handles and heads the exact width of an inspection-plate screw. They fold out like jackknives and lend themselves to baroque fantasies about spies and secret missions. (13)

Secret missions to save elevators? And yet, this book makes that tangible. The Intuitionist is so unique in both subject and tone that the only writer that comes to mind for comparison is Thomas Pynchon, or maybe Michael Chabon. For the record, I don’t enjoy Pynchon or Chabon and rarely finish their books (have no idea why I keep picking them up). Both writers excel with witty one-liners, but punctuate them with long tangents and asides that almost (but not quite) remove you from the story. At times, The Intuitionist wandered a bit far for the sake of an interesting image or clever point, but Colson always manages to pull the story back on track—something Pynchon and Chabon struggle to do.

It helps that there’s a mystery and quest to keep the story moving on a linear track—the quest for the perfect elevator:

“If we have decided that elevator studies—nuts and bolts Empiricism—imagined elevators from a human, and therefore inherently alien, point of view, wouldn’t the next logical step, after we’ve adopted the Intuitionist perspective, be to build an elevator the right way? With what we’ve learned?”
“Construct an elevator from the elevator’s point of view?”
“Wouldn’t that be the perfect elevator? Wouldn’t that be the black box?” (62-63)

There’s a lot of social commentary built around this, primarily on U.S. race relations. As Lila Mae is the first black female elevator inspector, she’s mocked and underestimated by her peers. I like books with social commentary, but I like them best when the social commentary doesn’t come at the expense of the plot and surface characters. With elevators as a base layer, I was nervous when picking up the book—you can’t assume an elevator-based plot will be convincing or interesting.

This review is vague, but I’d rather keep it that way given how many of the story’s twists and details surprised me. At times, I wanted the writing to tighten up, but many passages were beautifully or cleverly written and I didn’t resent the time spent away from the main story. Some sidebars about elevator maintenance were confusing at first; I couldn’t see how they fit into the story, but reading about Lila Mae’s studies and work ethic defined her character. She’s smart and competent and she legitimizes the story when it starts to get weird. If anyone can intuit an elevator’s fitness by riding in it, it’s Lila Mae.

I picked up this book because I wanted to read The Underground Railroad but don’t like finding an author via their latest book. The Intuitionist was Whitehead’s first book. I look forward to reading his others and seeing him develop as a writer.

Overall: 4.7  Sometimes the pretty writing threatened to wander too far afield, but the story was otherwise tight and often fun, despite a few dark turns. The level of detail devoted to the development of elevator philosophy contained excellent world building. The social commentary was insightful and poignant.

Translation: Read it.


14 to go! with some amendments…

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology has replaced Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein has replaced Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell has snagged the TBD slot. Warning: The Sleep Donation review may be a rant—it’s coming in with a 1.5 and there hasn’t been a 1.5 on this site since The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
  8. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  10. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  11. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  12. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  13. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  14. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Review: The Stargazer’s Embassy

Parts of this review sound a little harsh, but overall I liked the vibe and conclusion of Eleanor Lerman’s The Stargazer’s Embassy.

The Stargazer’s Embassy explores the frightening phenomenon of alien abduction from a different point of view: in this story, it is the aliens who seem fearful of Julia Glazer, the woman they are desperately trying to make contact with. Violent and despairing after the murder of the one person she loved, a psychiatrist who was studying abductees, Julia continues to rebuff the aliens until her relationships with others who have met “the things,” as she calls them, including a tattoo artist, a strange man who can take photographs with the power of his mind, and an abductee locked up in a mental hospital, force her deeper into direct alien contact and a confrontation about what death means to humans and aliens alike. (blurb from Goodreads)

What attracted me to this book is that it promises a new angle on the classic alien-abduction tale. I picked it up to learn why aliens—typically otherworldly and powerful—are so frightened of Julia Glazer. For much of the book, her apparent lack of curiosity and deep loathing strike an odd chord. The aliens are creepy when they show up unexpectedly, but they seem sad, even a little pathetic:

It was wearing a long, ill-fitting tan raincoat with prominent epaulets and a pair of what looked like white go-go boots. On its head was a baseball cap pulled low over its face, and it had completed this ridiculous outfit with a pair of oversize sunglasses that might have been worn by some would-be glam rocker a decade ago.
“Is this what you think people look like now?” I snapped at the thing. (Loc 250)

Other characters, the abductees studied by Julia’s psychiatrist boyfriend, John, report terrifying and disturbing encounters. That The Stargazer’s Embassy features two types of aliens (creepy experimenters and lousy dressers) widens the mystery of why Julia is special. Despite the range, most of the mythology centers around the story of Barney and Betty Hill and Betty’s infamous star map. (If you’re not familiar with this particular tale, I recommend looking it up. It’ll grab your imagination whether or not you think the truth is out there.)

The conclusion of the book is surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful, but the first half has its weaknesses. The back cover names John the “one person [Julia] loved,” but their connection is thin. John is a poorly drawn character. His only dialogue is exposition: theories about alien abductions, his work with the abductees, and vague details about his past. His dialogue advances the plot and story, but does nothing to make him three-dimensional. Julia might as well date a Wikipedia article. Scenes that don’t include one of his lectures are typically summarized:

I found [John] drinking coffee with Nicky. They both teased me about sleeping late, but they could probably tell I wasn’t in the mood to be joked with, so they let that go. I poured myself some coffee and devoted myself to reading a copy of the local paper that was lying on the kitchen table while the two men talked about the traffic that John and I might encounter on the drive home, since we planned to leave soon. After a while, John said he would go pack up our things so we could get going. (Loc 1430)

When I read this scene, it struck me that John had spoken so few non-expository lines that I had no idea how he might joke with Julia or make small talk with Nick. I had to take Julia’s word that she cared about him because there was so little warmth or emotion between them. Part of this is due to the closed-off nature of her character, but the other part comes from not having a clear image of John. Once he’s gone, Julia relies more on herself, and the side characters are kept to the side. It’s okay that she doesn’t have deep relationships with them because she doesn’t claim to.

I was pleasantly surprised that the story I delayed reading in case it was too frightening or unsettling turned out to be clever and imaginative. There’s a lot of potential here, but the poor characterization of John kept me from investing in the first half of the book. The second half redeems it just because it is such a different take on why aliens might want or need to contact humans. It is thought-provoking and eerie in all the best ways.

Overall: 3.6  The first half is comparatively weak and Julia is one of few fully-articulated characters. The book gets points for originality and creativity even though it’s flat in places.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mayapple Press (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: Dead Wake – The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 5

I’ve started Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City twice and have yet to finish it. Devil in the White City tackles two stories simultaneously: the 1893 World’s Fair and the grisly murders of Dr. H.H. Holmes. The World’s Fair story is far more interesting than the other (surprisingly) so the back-and-forth is tedious. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Larson is focussed—all tangents, overviews, and factoids lead back to the Lusitania.

To his credit, Larson understands that nothing in history occurs in a vacuum. He frames the Lusitania’s construction and a biography of her captain within the naval advancements and attitudes of the era. He further chronicles the rise and changing purpose of the German U-Boats and provides an outline of World War I. As much attention is given to U-20, the submarine that sinks the Lusitania, as to the Lusitania itself. At times, though, Larson’s inclination to start each angle of the story ‘at the beginning’ leads him to include too much (the long passages concerning Wilson’s courtship of Edith Galt come to mind). The first half of the book sets the stage and the second moves at a frenetic pace, digging deep into politics, the war, and the events of May 7, 1915.

Larson makes a valiant effort to give a sense of the passengers on board the Lusitania. Some are vividly written, described by their own letters and a variety of biographical details. Others are only sketches, described by their height, profession, suit color, or contents of their luggage. The sense is that Larson has included every fragment of his research, no matter how fragmentary. I’d rather fewer passengers be described in greater depth than more with scant details. Some are seemingly mentioned only for bleak, observational humor:

There were parents sailing to rejoin their children, and children to rejoin their parents, and wives and fathers hoping to get back to their own families, as was the case with Mrs. Arthur Luck of Worcester, Massachusetts, traveling with her two sons, Kenneth Luck and Elbridge Luck, ages eight and nine, to rejoin her husband, a mining engineer who awaited them in England. Why in the midst of great events there always seems to be a family so misnamed is one of the imponderables of history. (97)

No matter how cursory, though, the book needs these humanizing elements. Without them, Dead Wake would be a slew of details and dates unconnected from what made the sinking of the Lusitania so unexpected and tragic: It was a passenger ship full of common, relatable people. Larson establishes that attacks against passenger ships were inconceivable at the time. Even the crews of merchant ships could expect a measure of safety:

Obeyed ever since by all seagoing powers, the rules held that a warship could stop a merchant vessel and search it but had to keep its crew safe and bring the ship to a nearby port, where a “prize court” would determine its fate. The rules forbade attacks against passenger vessels. (31)

You can see where submarines will cause a wrinkle—they carry too few men to seize a ship and they can’t take on additional passengers. Even so, “The use of submarines to attack unarmed merchant ships without warning, [Churchill] wrote, would be ‘abhorrent to the immemorial law and practice of the sea.'” (31) But passenger ships remained a separate issue, held more inviolate than merchant ships. Though German threats to the Lusitania were published the morning she set sail, few passengers lost sleep over them. They believed the Lusitania was too fast and would be well-protected as she approached Liverpool, but in reality they were traveling at reduced speed and without a convoy.

The sense of dread throughout as U-20 approaches the Lusitania is more intense than in any other book that comes to mind. It only intensifies when the reader remembers Dead Wake is non-fiction. With short chapters, Larson switches between the Lusitania’s story and the movements of U-20, drawing the two ships closer and closer. U-20’s narrative is packed with submarine trivia and anecdotes; it’s claustrophobic and fascinating at first, but horrifying by the end.

Where Larson’s reseach into personal correspondence and details shines is in developing Captains Turner (Lusitania) and Schwieger (U-20). The latter is introduced in a chapter called “The Happiest U-Boat” and seems normal, astonishingly so. By all accounts he was a good leader, trusted by his men, and responsible for a positive and productive tone on U-20. I confess that I expected a cartoonish villian as the antagonist, but Larson’s insistence on making Schwieger a person at the outset made me question why and how someone so seemingly normal could sink a passenger ship, wartime or not. There’s no answer, which adds to the unsettling tone of the book.

Larson’s writing feels fictional with its colorful use of conversation and dialogue. Like his other books, “anything between quotation marks comes from a memoir, letter, telegram, or other historical document.” (xix) His writing makes history feel both close and far away—close, because of the intense detail; far, because it’s easy to mistake this book for fiction in its most engaging moments. Having WWI ever-present in the background grounds the story, but adds to the sense of despair:

Each side had been confident of a victory within months, but by the end of 1914 the war had turned into a macabre stalemate marked by battles in which tens of thousands of men died and neither side gained ground. The first of the great named battles were fought that autumn and winter—the Frontiers, Mons, Marne, and the First Battle of Ypres. By the end of November, after four months of fighting, the French army had suffered 306,000 fatalities, roughly equivalent to the 1910 population of Washington, D.C. The German toll was 241,000. By year’s end a line of parallel trenches, constituting the western front, ran nearly five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, separated in places by a no-man’s-land of as little as 25 yards. (28)

Overall: 4.8  I can’t name a more intense book. I feel a pang of guilt for “enjoying” Dead Wake given its tragic subject matter, which makes me wonder if the pacing is gratuitous. Larson revels in the “what ifs” and does everything possible to mine tension. I don’t think this undercuts the book’s veracity (it’s plainly well-researched), but there’s no denying it was written with an eye toward entertainment value.

Translation: Read it.


20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

15 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  4. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  5. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  8. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  9. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  10. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  11. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  12. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  13. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  14. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  15. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard

Monthly Round-up: June 2017

I’m pretty pleased with my start on the summer: I’ve read 7 books towards the 20 Books of Summer 2017 reading challenge. I still have a high daily page count to deal with, but it hasn’t gone up since the start of the summer. Not falling behind counts as progress, right?

My computer/reading glasses distort everything outside book distance which has been an adjustment, but they do make it easier to focus on the page and nothing else. We’ll see whether the extra pair of specs speeds up the reading or slows it down. I might slip in an audiobook, but who knows. Audiobooks are still ridiculously pricey and dependent on the reader’s voice and skill. Why can’t they synthesize Hugh Laurie’s voice so there’s always a read-by-Hugh-Laurie option?

Books Reviewed:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong
  3. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  4. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  5. She by H. Rider Haggard

Books Read:

  1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  2. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  3. The Punch Escrow by Tal Klein
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  6. She by H. Rider Haggard
  7. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

Current State of the TBR: (with correct math this time, oops!)

  • Kindle Titles: 77 (includes rereads)
  • Paperback Titles: 171 (includes rereads)
  • NetGalley Queue: 9
    (50% Feedback Ratio)