Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Death Note

I'm reminded of the Danzig song, "How the Gods Kill." When you get think about it, the power to choose life or death, deciding who lives and who dies, is a power some would say is best left to a higher being, someone or something above the fray of petty human affairs and not susceptible to whims, impulse, or corruption. When a human being comes to possess a great and terrible power, there is always a potential for a great and terrible corruption.

Based on the manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, Death Note is an anime series that explores what happens when this power of the gods ends up in the hands of the human. It leaves no stone unturned. At times, Death Note is fantasy horror, morality tale, police procedural, coming of age saga, family drama, teen romance, and an examination of the nature of power and corruption, with a few dashes of whimsical and dark humor thrown in for good measure.

Death Note centers on Light Yagami, a bright high school student in Japan who comes across a "Death Note," a notebook from the world of the Shinigami, the Gods of Death. Anyone whose name is written in the notebook will die, and after trying the notebook out and meeting its original owner, a Loki-like Shinigami named Ryuk who dropped the notebook into the human mostly out of boredom, Light decides he will cleanse the world of evil by eliminating those he deems morally unfit to live.

As the world's criminals begin dropping like flies, the governments of the world contact the enigmatic detective known only as L. Working with a special Japanese task force, which includes Light's father, a police detective, L. realizes the mysterious killer known to the world as "Kira" is operating in Japan. What ensues is a battle of wits between two brilliant minds, a chess match between two geniuses where the stakes are the world.

Fantasy movies, especially ones involving devices, often lay a groundwork of rules for how the device or scenario must work, and observant viewers can tear a movie apart if it violates the rules it establishes or derail it by raising hypothetical questions the story never addresses. For example, in Gremlins, when does the after-midnight rule stop taking effect? Aren't we always after the previous midnight?.

Death Note is the most thorough, stringent, and observant follower of its own rules I've ever seen in a work of fiction. The series goes to great lengths spelling out what can and cannot be done with the notebook and dramatizing it through Light's experiments. The notebook itself contains rules and Ryuk, when he feels like it, will offer some explanation, but he admits even he doesn't know the full nature of the book. The early part of the series is built on Light figuring out just what this notebook is capable of.

When the world becomes aware of Kira and L. begins his investigation, the series becomes centered on the battle between Light and L. It isn't long before L. suspects Light, and he tells him to his face and brings him on board the investigating team. L. works to provoke Light and gauge his reactions to his hypotheses, ideas, and plans while Light works to cover his tracks and learn L.'s real name so he can eliminate him, although if he takes him out at the wrong time, he'll be exposed. Each player is working to stay three steps ahead of the other.

The dichotomy of Light and L. drives the show. Light, at least to us and Ryuk, is a hot-headed, petulant, and childish egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, but on the surface, he's charming, a young man with a bright future who everyone likes. Frequently, we see him with a red coloring scheme to reinforce the fiery personality within him. How dare anyone try to stand in his way? By contrast, L. is cold, rational, and somewhat dismissive of human interaction. He uses people along the way and seems to have little grasp of social norms, coming off as kind of rude. He's young, too, despite his reputation. He always sits with his feet crouched under him and is seen eating only junk food, though he's gaunt and pale. His color scheme is blue.

There are other characters, and the series, to its credit, gives time to them and their stories without losing track of the main plot. Light's father becomes torn between duty and family, especially when it really looks like Light is Kira; Matsuda, a young detective on the team, is regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the others and becomes to determined to be useful; and Aizawa, another detective, wavers on his choice between doing what he thinks is right - staying on the case - and protecting his family -when the Japanese police force stops supporting the team financially.

Things get even more complicated when another Death Note turns up in the hands of Misa, a model who idolizes Kira and falls in love with him from afar. She's guided by Rem, another Shinigami with more of a moral code than Ryuk; she wants to protect Misa.

Death Note is filled with moments of horror (Ryuk's first appearance in Light's room) and paranoia (the investigators never know when death will strike). There are also moments of levity and humor (Ryuk becomes addicted to apples and goes through withdrawals without them). It also has poignancy, especially when Rem explains how Shinigami can die. She tells the story of Gelus, who fell in love with a human; it's a one-scene flashback, but it's incredibly moving, then frustrating when you realize the person he sacrificed himself for, even after learning what he did, is too stupid and self-centered to appreciate it.

Death Note is an imaginative and thoughtful series, exploring the nature of life and death with right and wrong. The visuals are strong, and the plot is layered and full of twists and surprises. It covers a lot of ground but rarely loses focus.

The Life We Bury

Joe Talbert, a struggling college student in Minnesota with an autistic brother and a violently alcoholic mother, receives a writing assignment and winds up interviewing Carl Iverson, a Vietnam vet convicted of raping and murdering a girl more than 30 years ago and who is now dying of cancer in a nursing home. As Joe delves deeper into Carl's story, he becomes convinced the wrong man was convicted. Meanwhile, Joe feels terrible guilt and pressure about his own family.

Part mystery, part thriller, part family drama with a touch of coming of age, The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens was a book I had trouble putting down. I finished it in less than three days. The story moves at a brisk pace as fascinating revelations about the characters unfold.

The story is told in first-person narration from Joe's perspective, which makes sense because he's a writing student. Some of the more compelling passages of the book occur as he just sits with Carl and tries to think of the right questions to ask to get the truth from him. As he learns more about Carl's past, Joe realizes not everything is what it seems. These character interactions are so strong, the last third of the book, which becomes more like an action thriller and is resolved with a violent confrontation, is almost a let-down, but Eskens' writing keeps the book exciting even when the plot feels like it's on autopilot with a too-neat resolution.

Eskens crafts a strong sense of place. As you read, you'll feel the crunch of snow beneath your feet and the chill of the Minnesota air. At one point, Joe winds up stranded alone in the woods without much to survive on, and you'll feel cold and hungry along with him. Be warned: there are a few violent parts, but except for a description of what happened to the murdered girl, Eskens avoids lingering on explicit, gory details.

The only part of the book I didn't like was Joe's relationship with his monstrous mother. For a character with so many pages devoted to her, she's awfully one-dimensional, and her subplot takes the reader away from the more interesting mystery.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball

Countless books and articles have been written about the stars and legends of Major League Baseball, but what about the unsung journeymen, the men barely scraping by just for a chance to be called a professional? Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball is the book about them.

Writer John Feinstein covers just about everything there is in minor league: the players, the coaches, the stadiums, the announcers, the umpires, the life on the road, the zany antics teams conduct to drum up business, the craziness, the heartbreak, and the triumph. Whether they are young prospects looking to crack the big leagues for the first time or aging veterans striving for a comeback, these guys toil on the road for a chance to live out their dreams. Sometimes they achieve them. Sometimes they don't.

Feinstein interviews many players involved the minor leagues, including players, coaches, announcers, umpires, and even Jamie Farr, aka Klinger from MASH because of his connection to the Toledo Mud Hens. There are many stories, some happy, some sad, and some just plain fascinating, and the reader appreciates the roller coaster of emotions these players (and others) endure, from personal success and glory, however fleeting, to resentment, bitterness, confusion, and heartbreak.

The book is an easy enough read but occasionally drags. Feinstein repeats many points and sometimes over-explains things. The book loosely follows a minor league season - often jumping back in time to explain someone's background - but it could have used more solid structure. It feels random at times when certain stories and topics brought up.

Still, it's hard not to feel sad for those people whose careers end and joy for the players who get a tap on the shoulder to see the manager because they're being called up. Even if it's only for one game and they're not a future superstar, they achieved their dreams.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

Have you ever wondered what happens to the food an invisible man eats? That's one of many logistical questions explored by H.F. Saint in his science fiction novel, Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The book asks what it really means to be invisible, and the result is a story that is mostly fun but sometimes tedious.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is the first-person narrative of Nick Holloway, who describes what happens to his life after an industrial accident renders him invisible. Before long, he's on the run from government agents led by the ruthless David Jenkins, all the while trying to adapt to his new condition.

The book balances between the idea that being invisible would really be a lonely, difficult way to live with the elements of a chase thriller. Saint jumps back and forth between scenes of Holloway trying to adjust to his invisibility - getting food without leaving his house, covering his absence at work, trying to avoid bumping into people on the street - and scenes of Jenkins and his crew showing up and trying to catch him.

What Holloway discovers is that in modern society, it is possible to go through life without getting close to anyone, without engaging or getting to know other people, or having any real personal connections. Nick is able to conduct stock market trades over the phone, accumulate some money, and purchase property all without ever having to meet a banker or broker face-to-face. He sneaks into parties, listens to conversations, and then calls up someone, acting like an old friend or an acquaintance. He is a phantom, floating through the world without getting close to anyone and without anyone literally seeing him, and it is lonely and disheartening.

This ability, to move in and out of buildings, collect information without being seen, is what intrigues Jenkins, who sees Nick as the perfect spy. At the same time Nick isn't seen, his life story and all the details of who he knows, where he's been, where he socializes, etc. are there for the gathering by the government, which Jenkins uses to try to trap Nick. Being invisible doesn't mean you aren't being watched.

The plot is fairly repetitive. Nick adapts to a new aspect of his life and then Jenkins and company turn up to give chase, and Saint sometimes gets bogged down in details that are kind of tedious. The final third of the book is given over to a romance between Nick and Alice, an artist who thinks he's some kind of ghost, and it's kind of creepy, unintentionally so I think. Nick is meant to come off as lonely and desperate, but his behavior in this part borders on that of a pervy rapist.

Plus, Nick overall is a bit of a wet blanket; he just wants to go away and be left alone, and he doesn't seem to ever try to have fun with his situation, at least on occasion. He can get a bit tiresome. At least Jenkins has imagination enough to want to put the invisibility to good use (maybe I'm biased because I saw the movie first and Nick was played by Chevy Chase and Jenkins by Sam Neil).

Overall, the book is an unconventional look at one of science fiction's oldest devices, at times funny, thrilling, and poignant.