By Ed Park
The title of Ed Park’s debut novel, Personal Days, is one of those perfect, HR-generated paradoxes. On the one hand, personal days offer the opportunity for freedom, for escape from the humdrum routine of desk-job life. On the other hand, that freedom is contained within a neat, organized little box, usually requiring a form to be filled out and approved to be taken, and in most offices I’ve heard of, you get precious few of them. And, of course, when you do end up using them, it’s more often than not for errands anyway. It’s the kind of title that so perfectly encapsulates the mentality of certain types of jobs, anyone who’s spent even a moderate amount of time working in an office will, seeing it, either smirk or grimace.
Personal Days is the story of a group of co-workers at a faceless sort of “everycompany”--we’re never told the company’s name, or even its business--that is in the midst of a brutal round of layoffs. By the time the book begins, the company is already a shell of its former self, reduced to a handful of sarcastic, distracted, or fatalistic employees and their inept manager. We’re introduced to the characters and the banality of their situation through a series of vignettes, discussions about the differences between the two nearby Starbucks, for example, or a description of the lunchroom dynamics. Eventually, the company is purchased by a group of “Californians,” and the firings resume. The employees become by turns frantic or simply resigned to their fates, being laid off one by one with no apparent logic behind any of it--the Californians and the local management are left quite opaque, with only overheard snippets of conference calls and hastily scribbled notes retrieved from trash cans providing any clues to what’s going on. The real story, revealed in the last of three sections, is even more absurd than anyone guesses.
Park divides his story into three sections, each structured differently from the rest. The first section is a collection of fragments separated by bold-faced headers, while the second reads like a software EULA, complete with paragraph and subsection numbers. The third takes the form of an email from one of the peripheral characters of the first two sections to another who has recently been fired. I was immediately reminded of Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, both from the idiosyncratic formatting and the presentation of office culture. Personal Days cuts harder, though, I think. Much of Coupland’s story is about his characters’ attempt to start their own company, while Park’s characters are never given that kind of agency. Everything about corporate life in Personal Days is dehumanizing, disjointed, and ultimately purposeless.
There’s a lot of humor in this book, and Park is spot-on and merciless as he skewers every aspect of cubicle life. I had a hard time laughing, though. The outlook is just too dark, and there’s never really any hope or redemption given. Even the glimpses we’re given of life after being laid off seem hopelessly mundane. And though we are given an outpouring of emotion and humanness in the stream-of-consciousness email that comprises the final section, it ultimately only serves to make the ending that much more poignant, as we come to realize that the email never reaches its destination.
As a satire and as a portrait of everyday life for so many of us, I have to say that Personal Days is pretty successful. It does feel gimmicky at times, but Park tells the story skillfully enough that I was able to see through the writing tricks well enough to draw me into what I found to be a compelling work narrative. I’m interested to see what he does next.
Started: 5/4/2010 | Finished: 5/11/2010
By Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of the Sharpe novels to be written, and it’s the second in the chronology of the “main” series (at least, as defined by Penguin Books). Picking up some months after the events of Sharpe’s Rifles, this episode finds the title character and his company attached to the South Essex Battalion for the relatively routine assignment of destroying a Spanish bridge in order to keep it from being used by the French. Unfortunately, both his new battalion and the Spanish unit that accompanies them are led by incompetents, officers who bought their commissions rather than being promoted on merit. (This is, as Cornwell makes clear, the rule rather than the exception in the Royal Army of the Napoleonic era.) Sharpe finds himself caught in an unnecessary battle, and though he and his men acquit themselves well, the South Essex as a whole is mismanaged and defeated, and suffer the ultimate dishonor of losing their regimental colors. Sharpe is forced to fight his way clear of the debacle, and in order to save both his career and his unit’s honor, vows to make up for the loss of the South Essex’s flag by doing something that’s never been done before: capturing a French standard, the eagle of the title. Along the way, he must outwit not only his enemies but the schemes and betrayals of the South Essex’s commander and his foppish nephew, as well.
What was most interesting to me about Sharpe’s Eagle was how consistent the tone and characters were with what I saw in Sharpe’s Rifles. Mind you, although the books are adjacent in the chronology of the series, seven years and six other novels actually came between the writing of the two. I might have thought that a gap like that would be problematic, but this episode flows directly from the previous as though they were chapters in a single book. That’s more of a testament to Rifles than Eagle, of course, but it certainly shows the truth of the claim that where you start this series isn’t terribly important.
Everything I liked about Rifles is present in Eagle--the vivid battles, the camaraderie between the men, the friendship between Sharpe and Harper, and the wonderfully flawed character of Sharpe, himself--so in that respect it was a successful story for me. If it didn’t add much more, that’s alright because I don’t really need--or want--anything else.
I tell you: it’s going to take some effort on my part to space out this series and read other stuff in between episodes.
Started: 4/26/2010 | Finished: 5/1/2010
By Lois McMaster Bujold
Young Miles is the second omnibus in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. Picking up a decade or so after the events of the first volume--which I read and enjoyed earlier this year--this set of stories recounts the events of the early career of Miles Vorkosigan, the son of Cordelia's Honor's protagonists, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. Over the course of the three constituent works (The Warrior's Apprentice, the short story The Mountains of Mourning, and The Vor Game) Miles has adventures with a mercenary fleet, solves a mystery in his home district's backcountry, graduates from the Barrayaran Imperial Academy, stops an interstellar war, and rescues his emperor. As you might guess from a description like that, it's a pretty fun read.
If anything, I liked Young Miles even more than Cordelia's Honor. The backstory of the first volume was woven into these stories quite neatly, and combined with the fact that new characters brought new perspectives on old events, it made returning to this world feel like slipping on a comfortable old sweater; I experienced a feeling of nostalgia that was surprising given that it had only been a few months since my first encounter with the series. Additionally, the change in protagonist from Cordelia to Miles worked well for me, though that's no surprise given how many of my favorite SF and fantasy adventures have been coming-of-age stories. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get over that; most of the time I don't think I want to.
The only thing that bothered me a bit about this collection was the overall structure of the third section, The Vor Game. That novel actually won the Hugo when it was originally released, something that I don't quite get. The story was kind of sprawling and all over the place, and while everything does eventually tie together, it felt loose and episodic while I was actually in it.
Still, the character of Miles Vorkosigan was instantly likeable, both empathetic and funny. I understand he is the main character of most of the rest of the series, and I'm looking forward to reading more about him.
Started: 4/15/2010 | Finished: 4/23/2010