Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau

"As the silver Honda slipped into the never-ending weave of cars, Allie turned and saw Jonas, naked except for his socks, running toward her." I paused after I read that sentence. I wasn't using a piece of scratch paper as a bookmark as I usually do, and I got up to get a pen and paper to make sure I didn't forget about it. It contains all the major themes of The Wonder Bread Summer--cars, questionable choices, frenetic-paced action, and weird sexual interactions. It implies that the protagonist is the girl--probably a young girl, her name is Allie, and that she is being pursued. If you were to distill Wonder Bread down to one sentence, it would essentially be this sentence.

Wonder Bread takes off like a rocket with the very first page [questionable choice] [weird sexual interaction]. For the next 259 pages, Allie is on the run [cars] and doing all that she can to stay alive [frenetic-paced action]. In her quest to continue living, Allie reunites with her aging-groupie mother, grows a little closer to her father, and even has sex with a punk rock star [questionable choice]. Wonder Bread really doesn't let up until the last page.

My fiance read Wonder Bread before I did, and said she wasn't sure that I would like it. She said that it reminded her of the steamrolling adventures that Carl Hiaasen writes. I have never read anything written by Carl Hiaasen, but my fiance assures me that the comparison is apt, so I thought I would pass it on. Despite my fiance's doubts, I really enjoyed this book. Wonder Bread was a fun, well-paced romp along the West Coast of 1983.

The cover Wonder Bread does it no favors. It conveys none of the absurdity present on nearly every page of this, Jessica Anya Blau's third novel. A book with a back-flap synopsis that describes it as being "loosely based on Alice in Wonderland" needs cover art that conveys the same.

Greyhound to Vegas: The Odyssey of Hilda Reynolds Krause

Among those who knew him best, without dissent Krause's pugnacious personality was acknowledged, always combat ready and much like a bantam rooster.  True to form, he briefly considered resistance, trying desperately to envision exactly how this old friend, Billy Conn, would handle this crisis when size and number were unfairly weighted against the slender Krause.  The smaller Conn, who had battered Joe Louis to a standstill in 1941 (good enough to win until Louis knocked him out in the 13th round), would surely know how to master the rogues.

Regrettably, Conn wasn't there as Krause stood alone, facing a handgun looking as big as one of those howitzers he had seen during army service at old Camp Campbell--mainly because it was steadily aimed at the center of his chest, his impeccably tailored silk suit offering no protection whatsoever from the threat imposed by the firearm.

This book was a lovely reminder that lawyers are not writers.  As a lawyer who fantasizes about one day being a writer, this book was a cruel reminder that practicing the law has probably ruined me.

I read this book as part of a general attempt to become more familiar with Vegas history.  Please ignore the shoddiness of this review; I am approximately 6 books behind and my goal is to catch up quickly.

The passage above reflects how all 200 pages of this book goes.  Unnecessary adverbs, non-sequitur clauses, and show-off but irrelevant facts litter the book's narrative.  I do not recommend reading this.

This biography follows Hilda Krause, who was brutally murdered in Las Vegas; from her humble beginnings running a restaurant in Kentucky to her more grandiose stature as an investor in Caesar's Palace.  She was ultimately the victim of a homicide.

I'll mention one other criticism of this book and leave it at that: the author took a rose-colored approach to everything in Hilda Krause's life.  Her husband was an obvious gambling addict, but Dickey tries very hard to convince the reader that, despite this gambling addiction, Hilda's husband wasn't really a gambling addict.  The result is that it is difficult to trust the book.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

We were all equal now; magnificent dwellings, luxurious carpets, and beds of down, were afforded to all.  Carriages and horses, gardens, pictures, statues, and princely libraries, there were enough of these even to superfluity; and there was nothing to prevent each from assuming possession of his share.  We were all equal now; but near at hand was an equality still more levelling, a state where beauty and strength, and wisdom, would be as vain as riches and birth.  The grave yawned beneath us all, and its prospect prevented any of us from enjoying the ease and plenty which in so awful a manner was presented to us.

The late 21st Century.  England has gotten rid of its monarchy.  Citizens zip from place to place in--wait for it--magnificent balloons!  It is truly a brave new world.  And yet, in the face of this inestimable progress, there is a threat: a plague from the East, wiping out entire nations, sparing only England, and only for a little while.  Eventually, the plague jumps the channel; soon, few are left outside the small circle of Adrian, the Lord Protector, including Lionel Verney, who--as we know, by the dint of his writing the book--will be THE LAST MAN.

Sounds pretty cool, yes?  But unfortunately, while Shelley's imagination is again ahead of its time, the prose and plotting of The Last Man are as turgid as FrankensteinFor one, it is the kind of book where every time the narrator alludes to being THE LAST MAN, he writes it in all caps, which reminds me of this Family Guy gag.  Second, it's the kind of book where a scheming Countess, thinking she has administered a "sleeping draught" to her daughter to prevent her from marrying Lionel (In the 21st century, we call this a "roofie") leans over the faking girl and cackles:

'Pretty simpleton, little do you think that your game is already at an end for ever.'

But more to the point, it is the kind of book that wastes an interesting premise by devoting its first half to a stuffy political drama about the fate of the newly republican England. As it turns out, the family of the abdicated king still has its partisans, though the presumptive heir, Adrian, is too kind-hearted and generous to pursue a claim to kingship.  The protectorate falls to another of Adrian and Lionel's circle, the brash, impetuous Lord Raymond, who is supposedly modeled on Lord Byron, as Adrian is on Shelley's husband, the poet Percy Shelley.  If you are into that sort of thing, The Last Man presents an interesting biographical sketch of the two of them.

One thing I did like about The Last Man--sorry, THE LAST MAN--was the way that it seems to support a very conservative ideology that it simultaneously questions and subverts without dismissing completely.  For example, though Adrian never becomes king, he does become Protector after Raymond abdicates, and helps to guide England through the plague to the best of his ability.  Shelley often places value in birth and status in a way that seems very un-21st century, while suggesting, as in the passage above, that those concepts may ultimately be purposeless.  So too with ideas of romantic love and the sublime, which are made to seem vital up until the point at which nothing can be vital any longer.  Is Shelley promoting a kind of nihilism, or challenging us to hold even closer to our social and national values in times of great crisis--even in the face of death?

Alas, the book is too tedious to make me want to ponder these questions past THE LAST PAGE.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

I felt greatly strengthened and encouraged that night, and the next morning I ran to meet my companion, out of whose eye I had now no life.  He rejoiced at seeing me so forward in the great work of reformation by blood, and said many things to raise my hopes of future fame and glory; and then, producing two pistols of pure beaten gold, he held them out and proffered me the choice one, saying, 'See what thy master hath provided thee!'  I took one of them eagerly, for I perceived at once that they were two of the very weapons that were let down from Heaven in the cloudy veil, the dim tapestry of the firmament; and I said to myself, 'Surely this is the will of the Lord.'

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a first hand account of religious fanaticism as told by the fanatic, who sees his deeds as divinely inspired.  It is also an account of the fanatic's mental, physical, and spiritual destruction, perhaps at his own hands, perhaps at the hands of darker forces.  Its narrator, Robert Wringhim Colwan--the "justified sinner"--is consumed, in both senses, by his fanaticism.

Legally, Robert is the son of the wealthy Laird Dalcastle, but his probable father--Robert calls him "my spiritual father"--is the Reverend Robert Wringhim, a severe Puritan Calvinist preacher who serves as the Lady Dalcastle's spiritual adviser.  Brought up in this strict Puritanism, Robert Jr. is well instructed in the tenets of Calvinism, which say that only the elect, those whom God has predestined, will be redeemed, and Robert wavers between a profound anxiety regarding his redemption and a snobbishness toward those he knows to be unchosen reprobates, like the Lord Dalcastle and his half-brother George.

One day, Robert meets a stranger in the woods who calls himself Gil-Martin and looks strangely like himself:

'My countenance changes with my studies and sensations,' said he.  'It is a natural peculiarity in me, over which I have not full control.  If I contemplate a man's features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character.  And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness, but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well as the same mode of arranging them, so that, you see, by looking at a person attentively, I by degrees assume his likeness, and by assuming his likeness I attain to the possession of his most secret thoughts.'

What is Gil-Martin?  Is he a projection of Robert's own mind?  Is he, as is frequently suggested, a demon?  The novel is not particularly interested in providing answers to these questions.  Whatever he is, Gil-Martin has a knack for echoing Robert's own theology back to him in a way that strikes Robert as slightly askew, even as it seems to agree with him precisely.  Gil-Martin helps to assure Robert of his position in the elect, and persuades him that the Lord has chosen him to "cut off" the wicked by murdering those who are not along God's elect, including his father and half brother.

Justified Sinner is a parody of antinomianism--the idea that the elect are exempt from God's moral law because they are already redeemed, and their sins cannot affect their redemption.  But Robert's position in the elect looks increasingly like a membership in a group of one (or two, if you discount the fact that Gil-Martin frequently seems little more than a shadow of Robert's own self) and ultimately none, as Robert himself begins to unravel.  He begins to black out, losing long periods of time where he is told that he has been doing some serious sinning, including seducing a young girl and bringing about her ruin--and possibly murdering his own mother.  His self divorced, as antinomianism dictates, from his own deeds, he begins to dissolve:

Immediately after this I was seized with a strange distemper, which neither my friends nor physicians could comprehend... I generally conceived myself to be two people.  When I lay in bed, I deemed there were two of us in it; when I sat up, I always beheld another person, and always in the same position from the place where I sat or stood, which was about three paces off me toward my left side... The most perverse part of it was that I rarely conceived myself to be any of the two persons.  I thought for the most part that my companion was one of them, and my brother the other; and I found, that to be obliged to speak and answer in the character of another man, was a most awkward business at the long run.

Ultimately, Robert tries to run from his "companion," Gil-Martin, but he is unshakeable, because, as Gil-Martin tells him, "I am wedded to you so closely, that I feel as if we were the same person.  Our essences are one, our bodies and spirits being united, so, that I am drawn towards you as by magnetism, and wherever you are, there must my presence be with you."  There is no avoiding the tormentor, because Robert's tormentor may as well be himself.  The final scenes of Robert's account are feverish, terrifying visions of demonic torture that directly parody the book of Revalation.

Robert's account is book-ended by "The Editor's Narrative," in which the scientific-minded Editor tries to make some sense the story.  He dismisses the possibility of any supernatural truth, but his own biases hardly equal an objective take, and so the novel lies on shifting, indeterminate ground.  This quality--as well as a very strange and funny cameo by the author himself as a rustic shepherd--have led some to claim Justified Sinner as a precursor to the postmodern novel.

That's a fair description--and in fact, of all the books I read for my class on the 19th-century Romantic novel, this is the one that seems most attuned to 21st Century sensibilities, and one of only two I'd say are really worth reading (the other being The Monk).  But it also obscures the way that Justified Sinner is deeply invested in its own time and place, and what it meant to be a Calvinist in Scotland in the 1800's.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?"

Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
Claire Messud--and several other writers--respond to the question, "Would you want to be friends with the characters you write about?"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff

I don't read works of military history that often, and when I do, it usually is one that focuses more on individuals rather than strategy and troop movements. Frozen in Time is my type of popular military history. The book is split into two narratives, or as Zuckoff tells it, "two true stories, one from the past and one from the present." The story from the past is actually comprised of three closely-connected stories of military planes that crash-landed on Greenland during World War II. The other story is that of the present-day effort to find and salvage these lost planes, and to return the remains of the servicemen to their families in the United States. That may have seemed like a spoiler, but it really wasn't. Zuckoff makes it clear pretty early on in the book that some of the servicemen don't make it off Greenland alive.

In November of 1942, a C-53 military cargo plane crashed on Greenland's expansive ice cap, all five men on board the plane survived the crash. A few days later, a B-17 bomber searching for the downed C-53 and its crew crash on the ice cap, as well. The last plane to crash on the ice cap was an amphibious plane called the Grumman Duck. It was also part of the search effort. The Duck belonged to the Coast Guard Cutter Northland. From one chapter to the next, Zuckoff jumps between the stories of these three military planes, giving the reader insight into what caused the planes to crash, introducing the crew members aboard each plane, and detailing the survival efforts after each of the crashes. Zuckoff takes some liberties here and there, but they fall well inside the realm of possibility. For example, after the co-pilot of the B-17 bomber fell into a crevasse, landing about 100 feet below on a large chunk of ice wedge into the crevasse, Zuckoff writes, "Harry Spencer thought he was a goner." Of course, Zuckoff has no way of knowing what Spencer was thinking back in 1942--there is no mention made of a journal or diary. However, it is eminently likely that Spencer thought he was going to die when the crevasse swallowed him up. Zuckoff takes these small liberties throughout the book. While I was usually quick to recognize them, I took little issue with most.

The present-day--2012--portion of the story involves Zuckoff directly. As he was researching about these downed planes, he came across a man who would not only change the direction of this book but also his life. (I'm taking some liberties there... it's kind of fun.) This man was Lou Sapienza, the owner of the exploration company North South Polar Inc. and runs the non-profit organization Fallen American Veterans Foundation. When Zuckoff and Sapienza meet, Sapienza is trying to raise funds to travel to Greenland, locate the Grumman Duck (and possibly the other downed planes), and return these planes and the remains of their crew members to the United States. Zuckoff accompanies Sapienza to meetings with members of various branches of the United States military, and he eventually becomes
part of the exploration team. The way Zuckoff describes it, it sounds as though he bought his way onto the team. It was mutually beneficial: Zuckoff needed material for his book and Sapienza desperately needed money for his venture.

The book's chapters are relatively short, which means that the focus changes every few pages from one downed crew to the next or to the modern-day hunt for the Grumman Duck, which Zuckoff winkingly refers to as the Duck Hunt. Zuckoff does an excellent job of writing about the crew members of these planes. He developed biographies of each man--their physical traits, their personalities, and the lives they left behind back home in the States. Zuckoff found a riveting true story of survival and adventure, and told it very well.

11/22/63 Stephen King

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don't we all secretly know this? It's a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark

Jake Epping is your run-of-the-mill, divorced and disillusioned high school English teacher (Chris?) in a small Maine town before he found the "rabbit hole."  The "rabbit hole" is "bubble" in space-time that allows a person to be transported to September 9th, 1958. Al  Templelton, who owns the burger joint where the rabbit hole is located, introduces Jake to the hole just before he dies. He has only one wish for Jake - stop the assassination of JFK.

Jake, feeling obligated to his dead acquaintance, takes on this task but has to feel out the past first. He goes in a few times for test-runs and eventually commits to the 5 years needed to stop Lee Harvey Oswald. Jake has to wait 5 years because he has to make sure Lee Harvey was responsible for Kennedy's murder (spoiler alert - he is). The strength of the book is not really the story, its plain, slow and boring. The book is around 900 pages, and the reader will space out during most of those pages (and not miss much). The main themes of the book - that the past repeats and is "obdurate" - also inevitably leads to mindless repetition. That does not mean, however, the book is all bad.  King's talent really shows during the tense moments of action in this book.  Also, his portrayal of the 60s is quite interesting, especially Jake's difficulty to adapt to the times.  Overall, if you have a really long plane ride, and a  week's vacation at a beach, maybe you should consider tackling this book (not if you are trying to, for example, get to 50 books...). 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Immortal Bird by Doron Weber

I have struggled with what to say about this book for the past couple of days. It is not that I am having trouble organizing my thoughts, but that my thoughts fall squarely into two categories. I am having trouble rectifying these two, rather disparate, groups of thoughts. To fully explain the quandary that I am in, I have to talk about the book in such a way as to give away some of what happens.

Immortal Bird is a account of Damon, a young boy with serious health problems. I can't fathom the stress and heartache that Damon and his family went through. The author, Damon's father, does an excellent job of conveying the uncertainty of a life lived with such a serious heart condition. He chronicles what Damon went through as he struggled with various disorders and illnesses related to and exacerbated by his condition. The book draws to a close with Damon slowly passing from this earth in an ICU, surrounded by the love of his parents. The last few pages of the book were absolutely gut-wrenching.

It's hard to bring myself to type the next sentence, in light of what I have just described in the previous paragraph. However, I had a number of issues with the writing. All too often there was a self-serving and even pretentious tone to the writing. There were many sentences like this one: "I've written a couple of medical books, I work with top scientists and researchers, and I'm relentless in my digging." There were many places where I found myself thinking that the book was just as much about Doron as it was about Damon. I know if seems ridiculous to accuse a man who has written a book about his son's death of self-promotion, and let me be clear, I am not doing that. I am simply saying that there many points throughout Immortal Bird where I cringed at something I read. I think the problem may have been that editors struggled with the same thing I am struggling with. How do you critique a book such as this? How do you tell this father that he should change this line or that line because it sounds to self-serving? I don't envy the position they were in.

I don't know who among my friends and acquaintances I would recommend read this book. This is not because of the issues I had with the writing, but because of the nature of the story. A book such as this would crush someone like my mom. Its grief would be too much for her to handle. I do feel that this should be required reading for medical students. The experiences the Weber family went through at hospitals and doctors offices could provide valuable instruction for those going into any medical profession that interacts directly with patients.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

In gauging fathomless deeps with his little mean excise-rod, and in staggering over the universe with his rusty stiff-legged compasses, he had meant to do great things.  Within the limits of his short tether he had tumbled about, annihilating the flowers of existence with greater singleness of purpose than many of the blatant personages whose company he kept.

I feel like it's been forever since I've been able to review a book.  Forgive me, I've been bogged down with a couple of papers--one of which is on James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is a fantastic book that I will review here very soon.  In the meantime, here's a review of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, which is also good.  If you find Dickens to be a little overwhelming at times, like I do, it has the virtue of being very short.  (For a Dickens novel that is--I think it is his shortest.)

Hard Times follows the story of Thomas Gradgrind and his children, Tom and Louisa.  Gradgrind brings them up to revere "facts" and shun "fancy"--a burlesque of John Mill's Utilitarian philosophy, which caused a nervous breakdown in his son John Stuart Mill similar to the one that Louisa experiences late in the novel.  Louisa's crippled sense of humanity leads her to accept the proposal of her father's friend Bounderby, who is a satire of capitalist pride and swagger and an even more extreme opponent of "fancy" than Gradgrind:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.  Since you have done my wife and myself the honor of drinking our healths and happiness, I suppose I must acknowledge the same; though, as you all know me, and know what I am, and what my extraction was, you won't expect a speech from a man who, when he sees a Post, says 'that's a Post,' and when he sees a Pump, says 'that's a Pump,' and is not to be got to call a Post a Pump, or a Pump a Post, or ether of them a Toothpick."

For his part, Tom's lack of imagination (something explicitly associated with sympathy for others to Dickens' era) turns him into a moral creep: He induces Louisa to marry Bounderby to make Bounderby less bothersome to him, and later steals a hefty sum of money from the bank and pins it on a poor but saintly factory worker.  Louisa, forced by the romantic advances of a cretinous stranger to examine the lack of love in her own marriage, accuses her father of crushing her spirit:

"How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death?  Where are the graces of my soul?  Where are the sentiments of my heart?  What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!"

She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.

It's a great, touching moment, and it forces Gradgrind to reevaluate his "system," to have his own kind of breakdown.  It's also echoed toward the end of the book, when Bounderby's crony Bitzer (another student brought up in the Gradgrind-Bounderby system) refuses to let Tom off the hook for the robbery:

"Bitzer," said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, "have you a heart?"

"The circulation, sir," returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, "couldn't be carried on without one.  No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey related to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart."

When Dickens is at his best, he's really great--few people can match the mixture of humor, pathos, and absurdity that's encapsulated there.  Elsewhere the book is overwritten, and Dickens intrudes on his narrative with abandon in a way that's always bothered me.  And while Hard Times is tightly plotted, and each particular character is indispensable to the narrative, not all of them are equally fun to read.  For one, I didn't have much interest in the working class character, Stephen Blackpool--not because I'm an elitist, but because of his meek proletarian saintliness.  I'm also not fond of the way that his name foreshadows the fact that he literally falls into a giant, dark hole at the end of the book.

But Hard Times has a lot of beauty and a lot of humor, and overall, I really enjoyed it.  Its conviction that imagination and sympathy can be as useful and as powerful as facts and figures remains more relevant today than I think many would like to admit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley

A little girl goes missing in the city of Gaborone. And then other. Samantha Khama, the only female detective in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department asks to be assigned to this cases, and starts digging. Khama believes the girls to have been kidnapped for muti, a form of dark magic practiced by some witch doctors. Khama enlists the help of Kubu Bengu, the Assistant Superintendent of the CID. Kubu is an experienced detective, who has a knack for catching things others miss. As the two of them start piecing together what happened to these girls, they realize that it is bigger than they initially suspected, involving Botswana political candidates and members of law enforcement.

This is the fourth Detective Kubu mystery in the series by Michael Stanley. Michael Stanley is actually Stanley Trollip and Micahel Sears, who were both born in Johannesburg, South Africa--about a five-hour drive from where this book is set. Sears lives lives in Johannesburg and Stanley splits time between there and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the Acknowledgements and the Authors' Note, they indicate they talked with anthropologists who study muti, educators who work in Gaborone, and a former High Court judge of Botswana. The result is a story where the location is just as interesting and important to the narrative as the characters are.

The story is told from a third person omniscient perspective and jumps between a large number of characters. The mystery unfolds slowly throughout the course of the book, with the authors not revealing the identity of the witch doctor until the last few pages of the book. I'm not someone who is always claiming to have figured out the twist in the movie or the culprit in a mystery. That said, I had identified the witch doctor well before his identity was revealed. However, this didn't diminish my enjoyment of the denouement of the story.

I'm definitely going to read the other Detective Kubu mysteries.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz

Half as Happy, the newest short story collection from Gregory Spatz, is about choices. Oh, it’s about a lot of other things too, which I’ll get to shortly, but mostly, it’s about people faced with decisions, some voluntary, some not, that impact their lives in ways they don’t foresee. The characters that populate these eight tales often don’t know much more than the reader, and their moments of epiphany, when they occur, are often obscured--we’re left to discern them ourselves.

As with most short story collections, Half as Happy defies easy summation. There’s a pair of identical twins, in love with the same woman; a big game hunter who’s having some marriage trouble; a bowmaker. and plenty of sex and death. In Spatz’s world, sex and death are ever-present spectres, the former to bring together, the latter to pull irreconcilably apart.

And everyone is always disappearing. Some people die. Some retreat so far into themselves that they disappear. One character diets until she almost literally plucks herself from existence. And yet, this world of incorporeal humans, prone to vanish at the slightest touch, is still populated by fully-formed, believable people, people who have a choice to make, a choice that, unbeknownst to them, decides their existence or lack of it.

I realize this review is a little more abstract than usual, but the themes Spatz wrestles with resonate with me. The world of Half as Happy, in spite of its often sad circumstances, is not a deterministic one--the characters often make the wrong decision, but the decision is theirs to make. And the melancholy collection ends--and this may be a very minor spoiler--on a happy note just in case the reader had gotten the idea that bad choices are always the end.