crossingtokillCrossing to Kill is a true crime book about the life and (t/cr)imes of Abdul Latif Sharif, a chemist who fled the US to Mexico to avoid deportation, and then apparently became a prolific rapist and killer of Ciudad Juarez’s working class women.

Sharif was arrested (leaving an embarrassingly long body trail)…but the rapes and murders of young women went right on happening. The clouds were gone, but the rain continued. Was Sharif bribing local gangs to commit crimes on his behalf, to make it seem like they’d arrested the wrong man? Or is Sharif part of a Clockwork Orange-esque change in Mexico, with Hispanic macho culture morphing into something much sicker?

This book offers analysis and speculation on the causes of the Ciudad Juarez murders. Whitechapel’s prose is very efficient – and this might be Crossing to Kill‘s Achilles Heel. After about forty pages he has recapped the murder spree up to date, and suddenly there seems little left to talk about. Much of the book is filled with topics of general interest to Whitechapel – soon we’re reading asides about the body types of Roman emperors, and a Catholic writer’s mistranslation of a word in Ecclesiastes. Crossing to Kill takes you far away from Mexico, and reads almost as a continuation of his earlier book Intense Device in some parts.

Crossing to Kill is probably better read as a book on crime and psychology than a specific book about Sharif’s crimes. Answers are few, and vague. Perhaps that’s the point, that all we have are guesses. But why read a book when there’s nothing waiting at the end except “I don’t know”? The official police reports will get you to the same place much faster.

Occasionally Whitechapel makes an incredible through-the-scope sniper shot of analysis, and sometimes he draws together unrelated subjects into an unexpected but persuasive whole. Other times – as when he speculates that Sharif could have been on steroids, based on some of his buddies being into Arnold Schwarzenegger movies – you get the sense of too little butter being spread across too much bread.

But there’s creepy and evocative ideas, such as when the murders are compared with an electron microscope, where small cells must be destroyed so that they can be analysed. The comparison with the young women of Ciudad Juarez is unmissable. Young women who would otherwise have lived their lives and have been forgotten are now receiving publicity, memorials, and prayers. They are being used as rallying points for feminists and morality campaigners and social justice groups. Indeed, they have unintentionally achieved kind of immortality. All they needed to do was die horribly.

It’s readable and far from dull, but I think Simon Whitechapel was the wrong person to write this book. This subject does not lend itself to scholarly analysis and armchair detective work. Crossing to Kill should have been written by a Mexican policia with twenty years of dirt under his fingernails.

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mt-analogue-rene-daumal-cover1If my head is a hotel, this book is a guest that stayed overnight, and left its wallet behind. It’s a tiny volume that can be read in about half an hour, but when you’re done, you’re left with a maddening sense of being entangled in unfinished business.

It’s about a group of metaphysically-minded mountaineers who, noting that mountains so often appear in metaphors, myths, and thought experiments, believe that there is an actual “Mount Analogue” somewhere on the globe…a literal metaphor, paradoxical though that sounds. They set out on a journey to find this hypothetical mountain, and in a far off non-Euclidean land, they succeed.

The book ends with them beginning to climb the mountain’s slope. The author died before he could finish the book, leaving the reader forever stranded at the foothills of what seems like an epiphany. If you want a comparison, this book reminds me of the third part of Gulliver’s Travels, the part few remember yet is in some ways the most thoughtful section of the book. It’s not really action-driven, and although it contains lots of interesting spectacles, it’s implicitly concerned with what’s happening inside the onlooker’s head.

For a book with its head in the clouds, Mount Analogue’s characters are often preoccupied with practical matters, such as bartering for supplies in foreign countries, and setting up outposts in case the quest takes longer than expected. Some of the mountaineers forsake their quest and return home – an enjoyable touch. Where’s the excitement in climbing a mountain if just anyone can do it?

But it’s also fantastic, involving humans made of negative space, and “peradams”: strange gemstones that can only be found by people truly in need of them. Again the Gulliver’s Travels comparisons come out, because he does not let the main thrust of the story distract him from interesting philosophical and moral asides. If he’d left these out, he might have successfully completed the book before his death. But it might also have been a poorer book, a less stimulating book.

Daumal’s wit and writing might be knee-slappingly Gallic (“A knife is neither true nor false, but anyone impaled on its blade is in error.”), but I think Mount Analogue also of course the “Time between Times” marking the demarcations of night and dawn. What’s a mountain except the space between heaven and earth? Or in this story’s case, the space between reality and metaphor?

I am interested to learn where Daumal was going with all this. Due to his death, I will never know. Mount Analogue is a rare thing – a great book that I’m not sure that you should read.

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futureisjapanGood collection partially ruined by honkies trying to be as “Japanese” as possible. Some of these stories read like a blizzard of Japanese buzzwords…calligraphy, mecha robots, kamikaze, tea ceremonies, etc. I suppose they were trying to retain the essence of Japan, but the effect is one of contrivance, and artifice. It’s a bit like the joke that in the movies, you can see the Eiffel Tower out of every window in France.

Catherynne M Valente’s “One Breath, One Stroke” left me feeling bored and toyed with. Bruce Sterling’s “Goddess of Mercy” is stronger, and has an interesting sociopolitical tilt, but the story ends up not going anywhere. “The Indifference Engine”, by contrast, is a Japanese author trying to be as American as possible. A tragic tale of an African soldier trying to adjust to life at the end of a war, this is the kind of story that wants to be up on a Hollywood movie billboard with the words “HEARTBREAKING” and “POWERFUL” I found it heavy-handed, unpleasant, and emotionally manipulative.

The remaining stories are good or excellent. Ken Liu’s “Mono no Aware” is an obvious standout – exciting, fresh, and accessible, like a Studio Ghibli movie. After the wreck of the Earth, humanity’s remnants are escaping into space and trying to hang on to the flying pieces of civilisation. Felicity Savage’s “The Sound of Breaking Up” was a clever story about online relationships, like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash evolved to the next logical iteration.

Toh EnJoe’s “Endoastronomy” is about a future where the constellations seem to be changing in the night sky, and it reminds of the surreality and wit of older writers like Morio Kita and Ryo Hanmura. Ekaterina Sedia’s “Whale Meat” draws comparisons to Murakami. It’s slow moving and not entirely sure of where it’s going, but it holds the reader’s interest.

But the greatest moment of the collection is Tobi Hirotaka’s “Autogenic Dreaming”, which astonished and shocked me. A revolutionary – and nearly godlike – internet search engine called GEB (a reference to Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, I presume) has turned rogue, and a long-dead serial killer is digitally reconstructed to help save the world from death via Google.

The premise is otherworldly and bizarre, but the story never loses its sinewy power, blurring vignettes and flashbacks and technical exposition. From my quick searching, it seems this is Hirotaka’s first publication credit in English. I hope it will not be the last. On the strength of “Autogenic Dreaming”, it’s possible we’re dealing with a true master of science fiction.

Future falls short of consistent greatness, but the good stories more or less patch over the bad ones, and there’s a couple of incredible standouts that almost sell the collection on their own. I hope we get a The Future is Weeaboo 2 at some point.

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