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: Breathing Lessons

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 3

Many people say the most terrifying villain in Harry Potter isn’t the semi-immortal, power-hungry dark lord, but the pink-clad, doily-obsessed Professor Umbridge. She’s petty, meddlesome, and uses her power to harass, threaten, and bully the teachers and students at the school. She’s not an abstract embodiment of evil or power like Voldemort, she’s recognizable: We’ve all had a terrible teacher or boss who used their scrap of power to mock and demean the people beneath them. And so…

Even though she doesn’t kill anyone or seek world domination or do much of anything outside her familial sphere: Maggie Moran of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is my most-loathed fictional character. Are there more awful characters out there? Yep. But Maggie feels more like a person than most of them which means she provokes a stronger feeling of irritation. For the spoiler-y rationale: see page 2.

It’s hard to rate this book a 4.6. Someone might read this review and want to read the book. No one deserves to have Maggie inflicted upon them. She’s not a character whose scenes you can skip/skim then forget once you close the book. Reading Breathing Lessons is the same as being introduced to her. When you finish this book, you’ll know it’s not over. Somewhere out there, Maggie is finding new ways to needle poor Fiona and Jesse with her lies and manipulations. She can’t help herself.

Like all Tyler books, Breathing Lessons features a fully-realized (and dysfunctional) family living in Baltimore. Maggie and Ira have two children, one a lead-singer in a band who bounces between day jobs (Jesse), and the other a goody two-shoes leaving for college (Daisy). Maggie, faced with an empty nest, turns her attention to her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, and son, Jesse. If only there was a way for her to push them back together…

Maggie’s meddling seems harmless and well-intentioned at first, but it soon involves gigantic lies and fabrications. When Ira intervenes with the truth, Maggie turns on him for ruining things with “boring facts.” But, unlike Maggie, he isn’t willing to watch people make momentous decisions based on her half-truths. Her selfishness is startling at times and even cruel.

The writing is extraordinary. Even though Tyler’s prose is simple as ever, it conjures vivid imagery:

To find any place in Deer Lick, you just stopped at the one traffic light and looked in all four directions. Barbershop, two service stations, hardware, grocery, three churches—everything revealed itself at a glance. The buildings were set about as demurely as those in a model-railroad village. Trees were left standing and the sidewalks ended after three blocks. Peer down any cross street; you’d see greenery and cornfields and even, in one case, a fat brown horse dipping his nose in a pasture. (Loc 765)

The story begins with Maggie and Ira traveling to a funeral. There, the widow confides to Maggie:

“And then Linda’s kids started teasing the cat. They dressed the cat in their teddy bear’s pajamas and Linda didn’t even notice. She’s never kept them properly in line. Max and I used to bite our tongues not to point that out. Anytime they’d come we wouldn’t say a word but we’d give each other this look across the room: just trade a look, you know how you do? And all at once I had no one to trade looks with. It was the first time I’d understood that I’d truly lost him.” (Loc 909)

This is one of those tangible descriptions of grief that hits like a sucker punch.

It’s hard to talk about this book with my anti-spoilers posting philosophy, which is why my spoiler-filled rant was moved to page 2. It’s “safer” than posting spoilers after a break since you won’t see them unless you click the link. May this discovery of pagination herald a new dawn of tech-savvyness on this blog!

In short (and without spoilers), if you’re a fan of Anne Tyler, you’ll like Breathing Lessons. Her characters are as well-drawn as ever, but there’s more at stake than in her recent A Spool of Blue Thread. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant remains my favorite because its larger cast gives Tyler more to work with—she tackles romantic, parental, and sibling relationships across multiple generations. Here, Ira and Maggie are the stars and, to a lesser degree, Fiona and Jesse. As for the relationships between the parents and their son Jesse, more is implied than directly stated. I’d have liked to see more of his character and his interactions with Maggie, perhaps even a section from his perspective.

Overall: 4.6 out of 5  Technically, this score puts Breathing Lessons just above Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which I preferred. Though Breathing isn’t as far-reaching or as moving, it does have Maggie. She and Ira feel authentic. I can’t say that another character has been such an irritant to my imagination. There were several times when I threw down the book and shouted: “Who do you think you are, Maggie??!” Usually the only people with the ability to bother me this way are people. Actual people. Technically, this book functions at the highest level, but Dinner is the better reading experience.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

17 to go!

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

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 2

V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic holds up pretty well to all the hype around it. The end was a little anti-climactic, but that’s almost to be expected since it’s part of a series. The ending of the final book has a higher bar to clear now.

(from the dust jacket)
There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king—George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered—and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London—a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty ambitions. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

It took me a while to warm up to Lila. Her introductory chapters are alright, but the initial scenes between her and Kell make her seem awful. When they meet, she mistakes Kell’s injured stumbling for intoxication and lifts a rare, magical stone from his pocket. He finds her hideout where she plays an irritating game of keep-away, using the stone’s ominous power to create a fake Kell which she compels to strip and dance around. Inevitably, the fake Kell attacks her and the real Kell saves her. As he’s saving her, it’s obvious to everyone (except Lila) that he could have confiscated the stone at any time by force. He’s just not that kind of guy.

From this point, Lila blunders around for a while and doesn’t behave like the intelligent person we’re told that she is. Fortunately, Kell always shows up in time. Lila never exists for the sole purpose of being saved (a la damsel-in-distress clichés), but she does need a fair amount of saving because she conducts herself poorly when outmatched. But hey, it’s not easy to be a non-magical person in a magical world. When she smartens up and does a little saving of her own, the book improves. I don’t like reading how smart a character is while watching them do dumb things.

Here is the part of the review where I should clarify that A Darker Shade of Magic is a YA book. If I were reading this as a high-schooler, and not as a curmudgeonly adult on the workday commute, I’d probably like Lila more. At 19, she’d be a little older than me and her overconfidence would be less obvious because I’d be entertaining my own feelings of invincibility. Back then, I would never have said “Stop wandering off!” or “Listen better!” to a worldly 19-year-old like Lila.

But there are some positives, quite a few, actually. I really like the world-building in this series. If I keep reading, it will primarily be to find out more about Grey/Red/White/Black London. At times, the setting is more interesting than the characters. By extension, Kell is the most engaging since he knows the most about the four Londons. Also, he has the greatest coat of all time (Schwab rightly starts the book with its description). Some readers are upset that there’s no origin story for how the four Londons became connected, but this type of parallel universe might collapse under too much backstory. At its heart, A Darker Shade of Magic is a “return-the-dark-thing-to-the-dark-land” story; it needs the extra pizazz.

The other, and more surprising positive, is how dark the story is in places. When Kell and Lila are in danger, it feels genuine. There are some creepy moments early on when I worried about Kell. Logically, I knew he wasn’t going to die a third of the way through the first book of a series, but I fretted and gripped the book tighter nonetheless. There’s memorable imagery and plenty of clever details. The writing is much stronger than I expected and the Required Fantasy Words aren’t overused like in other books. Question: Has anyone ever “freed” a knife outside of a fantasy novel? (The Sword of Truth series is an outlier; there, Richard “clears” his sword in its sheath at every opportunity.)

Overall: 4.5 out of 5  I’m surprised too, given how rough I was on Lila, but like I said: I would have liked her more back in the day so it doesn’t seem fair to slide off too many points for her grating presence. Especially since she gets better as the book goes on. Why, though, do I have a sinking feeling she’s going to be overpowered in the next book…

Translation: Read it, but don’t take it too seriously.

 

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

18 to go!

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

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Review: The Moving Finger

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the body takes a while to show up. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery: in a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business, why would anyone put so much effort into fake secrets:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (even though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4  Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

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