December 31, 2006

2006 Year in Review

Well, I think my little experiment has gone quite well. I managed to read 58 books this year. Looking back, it's hard to choose favorites, though I had a few. I was really impressed with Bernard Malamud's collection The Magic Barrel, which I found to be very moving and yet not overly sentimental. I feel that he strikes a good balance and has created something very worth reading. The best nonfiction book I read was without a doubt Susan Douglas's Where the Girls Are, a hilarious look at the rise of feminism through the media. I hope to include more "classics" next year, but I am very pleased with the variety I got, which I fear is mostly because of my schoolbooks. Oh well. In the coming year, look for a lot of science fiction early on as my English class gets going, as well as re-reads of Remarque and Hemingway for my literature class. I'm always open to recommendations based on what I've read or based on anything in general.

December 30, 2006

Book 58: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jared Diamond

If there is one thing I must say about this book, it's that it definitely does not live up to its title. Looking at the title, and even at the recommendations on the back, one would assume that this book would be a fantastic flight throughout human history, examining why things evolved as they did and exploring the meaning of these patterns. The book does do these things, to a certain extent, but by the time the reader figures out what is going on the book becomes far too cumbersome to be truly enjoyable.

Diamond's prose itself isn't horrible, which I appreciate, having read many a bad history. His sentences tend to ramble on for a bit too long, and he refers to his own book too many times (and is also a little overzealous in his usage of the colloquial "I"), but he is definitely readable on a basic level. It is with his thesis and his exploration thereof that I find major problems that end up making the book mediocre. First of all, Diamond clearly states his objective in his prologue, restating his thesis about every chapter or so. He is infinitely clear where he wants the book to go. Getting it there, however, is quite a different matter.

Diamond's chapters are interesting, but they lack sufficient transitions. Often different parts of the book are patched together by the continual (and annoying) refrain of the (mostly irrelevant) theme of the development of guns, germs, and steel. This theme itself goes largely untreated throughout the text, which I would consider instead a study of cross-continental differences and their implications in the rise of human societies. This is very distinct from the story of societies' fates, which is what is promised in the title. Indeed, Diamond's chapter on a major European-American meeting (Pizarro and the Incan empire) is sorely misplaced too early in the book, jumbling the necessary sequential treatment of history. This and many other chapters seem to be randomly placed to become neat thematic bundles, rather than relevant thematic or chronological groupings that would help support the thesis Diamond proposes.

In addition to these errors of placement and flow, Diamond's original epilogue, tauting the prestige of history as a science, belongs at the beginning of the book, not the end. By the end of the book, Diamond is once again repeating himself and his merits ad nauseum to an audience that has been held captive too long to his irrelevant narcissism. Here, instead, is his thesis, which he does manage to somewhat prove in the book: human history can be dealt with as a science, much like evolutionary biology. Were that the stated interest and point of the book, I think I would have held it in higher regard.

Diamond's book isn't horrible, but it is somewhat boring and it seems awfully irrelevant. He requires too much on the part of the reader when it comes to piecing together the elements of his proof into a condensed and digestible argument. This argument isn't a poor one but is poorly written and approached too indirectly to be truly groundbreaking. With a little more focus and more editiorial work, this could have been a great book, but as it stands it is a mediocre look at a fascinating problem. It invites further curiosity but the journey required to get there may be too much for many readers to bear.

Grade: B-

December 27, 2006

Book 57: Thank You for Smoking

Thank You for Smoking
Christopher Buckley

This book was wonderful. It is just what I was looking for in a satire, a book that you can sit back and enjoy while at the same time being informed and, of course, laughing out loud. It would seem to me that a book with a tobacco lobbyist would only seek to infuriate, but Buckley takes his (highly unpopular) mix and creates a character who is shockingly real. Buckley's Nick Naylor is so sympathetic to me that when he found himself in dire straits, I was absolutely infuriated at the world, ready to go to bat for the mistreated merchant of death.

The book's humor is subtle, a feat that is not easily accomplished but that is much appreciated. In fact, the very notion of portraying a tobacco executive as a sympathetic character is in itself sly and cunning, two traits I appreciate in my humor writers. Buckley's characters may be laughable, but at the same time they are realistic, so that the reader views the book's insights into Washington power plays as fact, rather than fiction. What Buckley does is play into the anti-smoking lobby's lust for blood by creating morally reprehensible characters, but his genius lies in the way he twists the world back around in on them. Nick's gradual redemption is not certain, and the real beauty of the book is that the reader leaves unsure as to his motives.

Thank You for Smoking is a brilliant work that manages to play on our emotional need for martyrs and our sympathy for them, offering interesting insight into the ferocity of anti-smoking groups. Buckley's cover-ups for Big Tobacco, which are placed onto the tongue of the shining mouthpiece, are not foreign to the MSNBC-loving crowd and are delightful to liberals and conservatives alike. The former recognize the gall of them and the latter agree; Buckley has managed to craft a fine plot and a compelling human-interest story in the moral morass that is American politics, and he comes out swinging, his strokes right on target.

Grade: A

December 25, 2006

Book 56: The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction

The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
Edited by Michael Martone and Lex Williford

This book is kind of hard to review, seeing as its a compilation of fifty stories from a variety of authors. It seeks to be diverse as part of its mission. Insofar as its mission to present a wide array of short stories written since 1970, I think it excels. Some of the stories are great, some are experimental, some are okay, and some are utterly terrible, but all of them have helped me think about my own work as a writer. One ("The Man Who Knew Belle Starr") even directly inspired a story of my own. Many made me cry. It took me a whole year to get through this anthology, a few stories at a time, but I think that's a good way to be exposed to something like this. I intend to keep it around when I'm looking for inspiration or a quick read.

Grade: A

December 23, 2006

Book 55: Utopia

Thomas More

I went into this book thinking that it would be somewhat difficult to stumble through, which shows how much I knew about it. Despite the fact that I flew through it, and it was rather short, I enjoyed it a lot. It is certainly a radical departure from both traditional philosophers (ahem, Plato) and modern idealogues. It is no wonder More was sent to the tower; in Utopia he has created a, well, utopian alter-universe, a land that has solved the problems of politics and lives quite well.

More's story is set out in three main parts. Firstly, he frames the description of Utopia by recording it as the messenger between an intrepid explorer and the public at large. Secondly, there is a prologue of sorts, where More recounts his experiences with the narrator and unveils some aspects of his personality. From my own experience, I assume this was a popular tactic with More's sixteenth-century contemporaries; they all seem to want realistic credibility. In an age where America had just been discovered, I can see the intrigue that would naturally follow a seemingly honest description of such a land as More's Utopia. I believe that the presentation of the book as a valid description of a real foreign land adds to its general message and ultimately helps More convey what he wants about modern British society. More, however, is not limited to mere framing devices when criticizing his own society. The entire premise of Book 1 is an argument between the explorer and More regarding punishment of theivery and the morality/usefulness of entering the service of princes and kings. Such matters were certainly of much relevance to the intelligentsia who would be reading More's book around the time it was published.

The meat of the book is its second book, which is the description of Utopia. I had assumed that this description would be fanciful and completely unbelievable; but where I expected chocolate-flowing rivers and a land of rainbows, I found a society whose practices were reasonable and practical. It is because of its plausibility that Utopia must be taken in stride, as a philisophical treatise and not as a flight of fancy. More painstakingly describes a society that has sworn off money, greed, and vice, making many a (painfully obvious) jab at Western society along the way. Strangely, and this may be because I agree with him, More manages to remain fresh and interesting and never becomes redundant or satirical for the sake of being a rebel. Though this may be more a testament to his historical context than his bravery, the mere fact that he managed to produce such a scathing critique of monetary society is impressive, as is the fact that he was ultimately martyred for his contempt of British political norms.

What is most intriguing about More's book, however, is its modern relevance. More's society is far from flawless, but its views on money, happiness, and religion could be well adapted to our own times to produce a much better society. Perhaps most interesting is More's obvious disdain for religious zealotry, for though he does convert the people of Utopia to Christianity, they take it upon themselves to execute a zealot. The reason? He doesn't contribute to the general happiness because he makes people feel bad about themselves, and it is a longstanding law on the island that no man should be made to feel inferior because of his religion, or lack thereof.

There is much jam-packed into this tiny morsel of a book. The only major omission from the work that I have noticed is a distinct lack of plot, which further cements Utopia's status as a philisophical tract rather than a novel. And yet, despite this minor inconvenience, we find that the narrator is well-developed and qualified to tell his story. Such is a testament to More's skill as a philosopher and a novelist, as is his continuing relevance to society. There is no question that, should our society adopt some of Utopia's founding principles, the world would be a better place.

Grade: A

December 22, 2006

Book 54: A Dirty Job

A Dirty Job
Christopher Moore

I finished this book last night and decided to sleep on it before reviewing it, but I'm still not sure how I feel about the book. I know that I really wanted to like it and think it was great and clever and stuff, but overall it just doesn't mesh with itself. I think the main problem is that Moore is funny and knows it, making his humor way too obvious and, in effect, dumbing down the book.

The premise of the book is definitely a winner: a mild-mannered Beta Male (subordinate to the Alpha Male, of course) becomes a minion of death and must fight the dark forces of the rising Underworld. I think, though, that a book meant for humor probably should have left the great cosmological consequences out of the picture. Fighting off a legion of demons is serious stuff, and simply inserting an army of squirrel people isn't going to automatically lighten the matter. Moore could have written a brilliant book satirizing our visions of death, and death itself, without straying into such tangential territory.

The book is well-written nonetheless, and I believe that Moore has the potential to be quite funny, if he would only keep himself to subtle humor. I have issues with outright humor, with humor that is self-conscious, and I see too much of it in this book. Sometimes it flies, sometimes it doesn't. An excellent example of Moore's sly comment on American values is his description of part of a car as having "G-cup Madonna death boobs." If that doesn't put a hilarious image in your head and make you laugh, you must be too young. The problem is that Moore takes his admittetly awesome sense of humor to the extreme, putting it ostentatiously on display where it really has no place, or where the same effect could have been achieved with much more skill.

As for Moore's characters, they are well developed and the reader can follow the change in Charlie as he goes from mild-mannered junk dealer to warrior. There aren't really any unnecessary characters, although the character of Audrey is a little jumbled, as she enters late and ends up confusing the plot.

All told, I think that Moore would be fine in another context, but that he got in a bit over his head here, a bit out of his genre. I'm definitely interested to see what he does in his other books, but I'm kind of disappointed by this first glimpse.

Grade: B

December 17, 2006

Book 53: Fight Club

Fight Club
Chuck Palahniuk

What can I say? With exams looming on the horizon I've become a book-reading machine, and all for pleasure. This morning, I decided to take a bite out of this book and I ended up finishing the whole thing. The book moves very nicely, and though I'm not sure how much my having seen the movie affected my reading of the book, I found the book an enjoyable, if scattered and disorienting, ride.

The prose is clear and is remarkably easy to follow considering its semi-experimental nature. The thing is, though, with the narrator himself faced with a losing situation and going slightly crazy himself, the reader is right along for the ride, confused as he is. Again, I can't speak for someone reading the book without having seen the movie, but I expect that the confusion would only help move the reader along with the events in the book, rather than standing in the way.

The plot itself is strangely funny, though gruesome and gritty. Though Tyler Durden is a preacher, Palahniuk manages to make him seem amazingly authentic and never preachy. The reader knows what Palahniuk is trying to say, but he never stoops to the level of merely repeating his own rhetoric through the words of his characters. That is what I may have enjoyed most about this book; it is simple and while exposing readers to a jumbled ideology of anarchy it remains accessible and gritty. Palahniuk never seems obsessed with how great a writer he is. Fight Club speaks for itself unabashedly, and I appreciate that.

This book is a great escape and a great alternative look at what anarchy could do in our lives. It is also one of the first I've read in a long time where the last chapter was perfect, fitting right in with the story and making me laugh out loud at its brilliance and subtle hilarity. Good show.

Grade: A

Book 52: Terrorist

John Updike

Well, here we are. 17 December and I've ploughed my way through 52 books. That's an average of one a week! I'm so proud of myself! I kind of wish that the big five-two was a book that I absolutely loved to death, but I think that Updike's latest is a worthy addition to my catalogue of books. It wasn't as good as I thought it could/should be, but it wasn't bad by any means.

If anything, the main problem with the book is that it continually sets up the highest of expectations, only to fall sadly short. Take, for example, the premise: a young American boy (Ahmad) falls under the grip of a radical group of Muslims and becomes entwined in a terrorist plot. Looking at this, we'd expect the book to be an intriguing look into the mind of a potential terrorist, which it is. The problem, though, is that the book focuses too much on its supporting cast, with too many unrelated sections building characters that are only tangentially necessary to the story. For example, we know that Beth (Ahmad's guidance counselor's wife...see how obtuse this is?) is "oppressively fat" and that her sister is an Undersecretary of Defense, but does her importance as a link between the terrorist and the government justify a ten-page struggle to get out of a recliner and answer the phone? I have nothing against character development, but Updike sadly digresses from the task at hand and the novel loses much of its potential depth.

I, for one, would have been much more interested in a closer probe of the boy's own philisophical musings, or the lessons he absorbed from the seemingly moderate Shaikh Rashid. I can understand Ahmad's logic, but Updike takes too much stock in his distractions to pay full attention to how Ahmad gets to the place he's at by the end of the book.

Updike's writing itself is wonderful and shines despite the awkward (at best) sex scenes and distractingly bad names (Joryleen? Tylenol?). Updike himself realizes how bizarre a name Tylenol is, and resorts to a parenthetical note to explain to the reader why his name is the same as a popular brand of medicine. This kid is only tangential to the story, and his name has nothing to do with anything plot-wise, so this foray into his own story is unneccesary and another means by which the reader is thrust out of the story. The sex scenes, hilariously poorly written and making me want to abstain permanently, are also unneccessary. We can get the point in much less time.

I don't want to give the impression that the book is bad. It just sets too high a bar for itself. The beautiful paragraphs that begin the book fall away to cumbersome and lengthy displays of Updike's prowess that seem more fit to fill his vanity than the reader's need to understand. The plot itself trails off at the end and seems too convenient to really make sense. Ahmad himself, Updike's greatest chance to do something great, is left sorely underdeveloped and, while he thankfully escapes being a stereotype, is surprisingly bland. I commend Updike for tackling this subject, and with such deft literary merit, but I expected more bang for my buck.

Grade: B-

December 13, 2006

Book 51: The Shawl

The Shawl
Cynthia Ozick

This is one of the most powerful things I've ever read. The book itself is divided into two prize-winning short stories, both of which complement each other and follow the same narrative arc. The first takes place in a concentration camp during the Holocaust; the second revisits the woman in question some forty years later as she drifts through life. What gives these stories force is their ability to actually imagine the Holocaust and its aftermath, and bring alive the complete tragedy of the events.

Ozick's prose itself is more concerned with spirit than with convention, and that is fine with me. The stories aren't experimental in their form, but their fragmented style and train-of-thought patterns aren't quite what we expect of great literature, per se. Ozick knows how to get her reader to feel, and she does so by delicately and elegantly painting a picture of grief and utmost emptiness. If things occasionally seem surreal, it is only because the world of Miami is entirely distinct from prewar Poland or the concentration camps that have defined Rosa, the main character. We feel uprooted and confused just as she must be, which is part of the book's power.

I found it interesting, in this day and age, to see a book that treats the Holocaust as a complete and utter tragedy, fully portraying someone absolutely destroyed by its effects. There may be some debate about an American author attempting to recreate the horror of the Holocaust, but Ozick excels at the task and provides what I believe to be a more complete emotional picture than many memoirs I've read. To be able to look at the "survivor" from the outside adds a whole new layer of understanding and depth to the events that occurred and the complete emotional damage inflicted on these people.

Ozick has taken delicate subject matter and treated it with complete respect, even criticizing herself in the process. Ozick takes a look at how deep emotional trauma can forever affect someone and how the pain of the past can never fully be erased from a tormented soul. Rosa and Stella (her niece) have developed their own coping mechanisms, and both come alive with a distinct realism that shines through the floating atmosphere of the prose. This book is emotionally jarring, unsettling, and overall a fitting look at the aftermath of one of history's most horrible eras.

Grade: A

December 12, 2006

Book 50: America Divided

America Divided
Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin

Well, I'm going to have to split this up into two sections: the introduction and conclusion versus the actual body of the text. Neither part is brilliant, but upon reading the conclusion to the book I want to re-read the entire thing to see if it's truly as bad as the last chapter would suggest. If their neat little wrap-up of the book reflects the book, I fear for my own memory.

As for the text itself, it isn't horrid. There are continuity issues, such as when the authors cannot decide whether to be liberal or conservative in their not-so-subtle editorializing. There is almost no neutrality in this book, which is a general overview of the 1960s. If the book took a solidly liberal or conservative bias, I could handle it, especially since the events are so prominent in popular memory and so relatively recent. The tone is all over the place; maybe, upon reflection, this is due to the dual authorship. In any case, the book does not flow particularly well, though it is strangely readable.

I attribute the readibility to the interesting nature of the story being told and the nonstop hammering of the "current relevance" bell. The events themselves are ingrained on our popular consciousness and seeing them addressed in a mildly academic way is interesting. The prose itself isn't staggering, but is simple and gets where it's going just fine. There is only the occasional case of unnecessary embellishment (coincidentally, this occurs most often around the not-so-subtle editorializing) and if anything the book is slightly demeaning. The book meanders along, passing but not with flying colors. The fact that it isn't horrible cannot make up for the fact that it isn't good, and it is just solidly average.

Okay, so now the fun part. I could not even believe my eyes when I read the mind-bogglingly stupid conclusion. I was thinking that it would be an interesting forum for our opinionated authors to link the events of the 1960s to today, hardly a difficult task. They started with the Civil War, which I vaguely recalled from the opening of the book. Unfortunately, they started by asserting that we do not dare ask the question of who won the battles of the Civil War. Regarding the 1960s, sure, I can buy that, because the answers aren't clear yet. But the United States Civil War? The one in the 1860s? I'm sorry, boys, but it's over. We resolved the issue of slavery and (lest you think I'm a mindless drone) settled the issue of state supremacy (or now, the lack thereof) and constitutional interpretation. It would help the book if the comparisons presented were based in historical fact, let alone relevant.

The sheer stupidity of this ending makes me want to hit the authors over the head with this book and remind them that I am a thinking person, as are some Americans. In the conclusion, the authors sadly recite the same lines we are tired of hearing, the endless partisan whining and bickering. I know you're arguing that the issues are unsettled, guys, but can you at least try to present both sides of anything slightly reasonably? Is that just too much to ask? I'll leave the gratuitous anti-Bush ramblings (and this is a comment from me here) for your digestion, fellow readers. Don't touch this conclusion unless you are in just the right mood. I'm angered and insulted and, instead of feeling mobilized by the call to action that was the 1960s, I've been maligned as a whiner in Bush v. Gore, because homosexuals were behind that. That implication and more await you.

Oh, and one final note. What's happening as you write the book is present tense, not past. If you're talking about 2003 in 2004, that is still present tense. Morons.

Grade: C-

December 6, 2006

Book 49: Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus
Philip Roth

This book is a combination of a novella and several short stories, which is pleasantly varied yet able to keep a general theme on postwar Jewish American life in the suburbs. Roth is very skilled at offering detailed portraits of Jewish suburbia and probes the world in a humorous, yet somewhat cynical way. I enjoyed this collection much more than I liked The Plot Against America, which I felt to be slightly contrived and unsuccessful. This collection, however, remains true to its subjects and isn't in the business of re-writing history; rather, Roth is depicting a contemporary world.

The title story is a moving critique of the materialism of American suburbia, and manages to probe questions of morality as they apply to both Jews and Gentiles. Though the focus is on the Jewish aspect, the story is easily applicable to any study on suburban life. Roth criticizes decadence and what he sees as a loss of American masculinity, but manages to be realistic. His characters are somewhat flat, yet strikingly realistic and relatable. The issues that drive them apart are clearly larger than the simple argument at hand, and their interactions are easily recognized as similar to real-life experiences.

Despite the success of the novella, the rest of the collection is what really shines in this book. It is in these short stories that Roth is able to have a little fun and really criticize what he sees as wrong in America. "Defender of the Faith" was especially good as it analyzed the question of preference based on religion, and of self-definition and related social or heirarchical status. Roth brilliantly illustrates the problem of special preferences and strikes a cunning blow for equality, while at the same time exposing life's little contrivances against us, and all in the last page or two. The other stories included dwell on other aspects of Jewish life and form an altogether funny yet realistic picture of life as we know it.

I think one of the major reasons for the appeal of this book is Roth's ability to transcend Jewish issues and leap into larger issues that effect everyone somehow. His humor and sly wit are repeatedly evident in small episodes and little quirks that are a delight to read. The stories may become overly sentimental at times, and "Eli the Fanatic" was a bit too confusing to be brilliant, but overall I enjoyed the entire collection very much. It is something different, something unique, and it has reinvigorated my interest in Roth's other work. I'm interested to see what else he has put out there.

Grade: A-

November 24, 2006

Book 48: The Birth of the Republic

The Birth of the Republic
Edmund S. Morgan

While this book was entirely disappointing, I was at least expecting a nice refreshing break from the heavily academic books often faced by the history major. This, however, does not excuse poorly written (and often ungrammatical) literature. Morgan writes with confidence if nothing else, and with an eye for the common man's understanding. Unfortunately, Morgan confuses simplicity with condescension and his book often dips towards the latter in its oscillation between assumption and unnecessary clarification.

The book itself is a simplified look at the years 1763-1790 (though the cover says it only goes up to 1789, but don't get me started), in which America moved from the idea of reconciliation with Britain through war (one entire chapter of the book) and up to the ratification of the Constitution. That that sentence was mitigated by the parenthetical remarks says something about the book's composition, which is often somewhat schizophrenic. Morgan will speak to readers as though they have a working knowledge of the events, going in depth and exploring events previously unknown to the great bulk of Americans, but he will turn around a paragraph later and explain something incredibly fundamental. If the progression was gradual throughout each chapter, perhaps this approach could work. Morgan, however, comes off as unorganized and inconsiderate of his readers. He gets awfully preachy at times, reminding us that as the academic he knows best.

The passage that I believe illustrates all of the faults of this book perfectly occurs right at the end. Morgan, in order to show his intellectual prowess and knowledgability about his subject matter, brings up Charles Beard's famous interpretation of the Constitution (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, if you're interested). While I was initially pleased that Morgan was paying attention to the Marxist point of view, I was only disappointed. He played it up well and appeared to be agreeing with Beard, only to attempt feebly to smash him to pieces a couple of pages later. If this book is meant for the ordinary reader, which its simplistic style suggests, why bring up this argument, only to treat it as a bastard interpretation? Morgan cannot decide what to do with Beard or, for that matter, any historical disagreement about the intentions of his founders.

If Morgan's intention at the beginning of the book is to paint a picture in the mind of the reader, it is forgotten after the first chapter, which doesn't even manage the feat. The last sentence of the book is pointless and only invites more dispute and, in my case, scorn. Morgan does such a good job of remaining neutral until the bitter end of the book, when he feels the unfortunate compulsion to distance himself from any radical thought whatsoever and needlessly fly the flag of politically correct, Bush-friendly patriotism. It is this compulsion that prevents him from exploring any of the really interesting debates surrounding the Constitution in any sort of depth, which is unfortunate because the debate about slavery is much more important than the cursory glance it gets.

As a very general introduction to the time period, perhaps the casual reader can ingest Morgan's book and make some sense of it. Anyone with a reasonable education, however, is likely to be offended when reading it at all in depth. Morgan's portrayal of events is accurate and informative enough until matters begin getting serious and he realizes it is time to inject some patriotism into the mix. I had high hopes for this book, but (as most history books do), in terms of literary quality it is so horrible as to detract from the extraction of meaning. How unfortunate for the field.

Grade: C

November 23, 2006

Book 47: The Magic Barrel

The Magic Barrel
Bernard Malamud

This book of short stories is so profoundly affecting that it ranks up there with many novels I've read. I can only imagine what Malamud's novels are like. It's an odd way to start a review, perhaps, but Malamud's skill in handling human emotion makes this collection stand out from other literature I've read. I haven't read a lot of short stories and I don't claim to be an authority on them by any means, but I think it would be hard for any writer to match Malamud's immense talent in the short form. Instead of finding himself limited by the small page counts (some stories are only eight pages long), Malamud uses exactly the amount of space he needs, often providing stark endings that leave the reader in somehow satisfying suspension.

The only shortcoming I could sense in this collection is that it is, in a way, too coherent. Malamud's stories have a basic form to them, in that there is often a conflict between two characters, one of whom needs to learn something from the other. While I found myself asking, "Okay, who is going to get in the fight here?" as I neared the end of the collection, Malamud's variety of stories and ability to mix things up within his form managed to keep me interested. His characters are easily distinguishable, and while their experiences fit a frame, they are by no means similar. We have Jews and Gentiles, immigrants and natives, dead and alive but all with a spectacular spark of life to them. I can imagine these characters, whose flaws make them interesting and surprisingly real.

Malamud tackles some big issues in this collection but doesn't preach about them. He raises questions while subtly posing answers, which come in the form of thinking about the questions in the first place. His most interesting stories are the ones that deal with the legacy of the Holocaust for American Jews, particularly "The Last Mohican" and "The Lady of the Lake". Both of these stories take on different angles of American Jewry's attitude towards the Holocaust, and it is a shockingly searing condemnation. Malamud manages to be provoking without being bitter and asks as much of the reader as he appears to be asking himself in writing these stories.

I would highly recommend this collection to anyone who wants to read to feel deep empathy, for anyone who doubts the power of words and the limited length of the short story. Malamud has mastered the form. His endings are stark like Hemingway but, as I found in A Farewell to Arms, still profoundly affecting. We don't know what his characters are to do next, but neither do they. They remain suspended in time and the questions remain looming, yet strangely fulfilling.

Grade: A

November 21, 2006

Book 46: The Prose Edda

The Prose Edda
Snorri Sturluson

Now this is an interesting book. It might as well be called "An Introduction to Norse Mythology". The translation I have is split up into two sections, though I didn't sense as much variance between them as the introduction to the book might have indicated. Nevertheless, I'm not complaining, as both sections were of interest to me, if a little confusing and overwhelming at times. Taken as a whole, however, the stories present a view of the gods so utterly different from typical Chrsitian sensibilities that I could not help but be astounded. I read this for class today, but it was so intriguing that I actually thought about the questions presented outside of that context.

The story is basic enough. This dude goes out hunting and stumbles across a hall, wherein sit three gods. Gylfi, the adventurer, proceeds to attempt to outwit them by posing various questions about the gods. In the process, the reader is treated to a very long and confusing list of who begat whom, which frost giant's body became the world, and so on and so forth. What's especially interesting about this whole interaction is the information presented in the stories, which provide a concrete history of the world from beginning to end, with selected stories about the adventures of the gods thrown in here and there for good measure.

What's most interesting about the gods is their susceptibility. The gods didn't create the world but instead arise from it. Indeed, they are from the mythical land of Troy, which becomes their heaven. Being human, or merely a tad bit super-human, makes the gods relatable and far more interesting than gods who can just do as they wish. The Norse gods have to be clever and have to outwit their foes in order to triumph. When challenged to empty the sea in a single drink, Thor fails miserably but still manages to create the tides. This attitude towards the gods propels the narratives and prevents them from becoming boring. Each tale is a separate story of a challenge and its solution.

Of course, we have explanations for things such as earthquakes, but the Norse conceptions of heaven and the afterlife are arguably the most interesting nuggets in the work. Up in heaven, the gods spend their nights feasting and their days fighting epic battles, only to be resurrected. The gods will even die at the end of the world, ushering in a new era in which water is non-existent and there is plenty of corn to go around. The gods are vulnerable, are more human constructions than hard core deities, and as such the tales are stripped of any moral pretension. The stories are merely there to be enjoyed and to explain rituals already in place. This is why things are they way they are, and boy are they interesting.

I struggled a bit through the very heavy beginning of the book, which was mostly a list of names, but about halfway through the Deluding of Gylfi I was completely hooked. As an introduction to Norse mythology and a bonus look at Icelandic sensibility regarding gods and certain aspects of life, The Prose Edda excels.

Grade: A-

November 19, 2006

Book 45: The Mabinogi

The Mabinogi
Translated by Patrick K. Ford

This book is an odd collection of old Welsh tales that deal with everything from the origins and early history of everyone's favorite game (Badger-in-the-Bag) to the great mystery bull of haircutting tools. Though they may be slightly off-key, the tales do serve to entertain the reader and can paint a picture of the importance of certain customs in early Welsh society.

Speech, for example, plays a huge role in every story in the collection. The worst fate a man of noble birth can suffer is to be satirized, the mere threat of which holds many strong men at bay throughout the tales. Also, the stories can be read as a kind of cautionary tale, urging readers to choose their words wisely. Pwyll, eponymous leading man of the first tale, is a moron and relies on his woman to get him out of trouble when he promises an admirer anything the latter wishes. Later, a man is saved from a fate by ensuring that every possible contingency is dealt with in his verbal agreement with a bishop regarding the release of a wife. The bishop congratulates him on taking every possibility into account.

We also have at hand an appearance of the famed King Arthur and, in a seperate tale, we learn of the early exploits of his mentor Merlin. King Arthur manages to secure an active role quite different from his deferent manuevers in later tales of his round table; here he's simply a kindly uncle bailing out his kin (and delivering quite the haircut). I think that these last tales were most interesting for me, given my demonstrated interest in the Arthurian legends, but all of the stories captivate the reader and, with the exception of Llud and Lleuelys, all manage to dive into their characters with strange depth for their short length and focus on events. I was surprised by the gusto with which Rhiannon was introduced, whipping her boy into shape and all, but she (of course) is later subdued into typical feminine gentility. Her brief foray, however, is shocking and delightful.

Sadly, these tales aren't exemplary examples of high literary art. The translation is good and very readable, but the stories themselves have major structural issues. People come and go without any real explanation, and plots just kind of...end somehow. The story of Math is particularly strange, with most of the story concentrating on his posterity rather than him, confusing this poor reader greatly. A few passages require double reading and going back over the text to figure things out, but the stories within the framework are always entertaining of their own right, even if their relation with the whole is a little sketchy.

The medieval Welsh mythology presented in this book is a nice distraction, an nice foray into the world of old. It presents enough surprises and deviations from standards we apply to this kind of literature to be constantly entertaining. And really, who can resist a work that references Badger-in-the-Bag in two tales?

Grade: B+

November 16, 2006

Book 44: Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories

Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories
Abraham Cahan

This is a wonderful and vibrant collection of stories of Yiddish New York at the turn of the century, as Jewish immigrants were flooding the Lower East Side and striving to make the best of both of their worlds. Cahan's work reflects this struggle at every turn and in many respects, with positive and negative results, which make the collection coherent in setting and general theme but widely variant (and therefore always interesting) at the same time. In short, it is what I'd expect a coherent collection to look like.

The stories themselves are mostly driven by context. The characters are not quite stock characters, but I don't feel as if they are ever the main focus of the story; its as if the characters in any story could be found in any other. What is strange is that this doesn't detract from the reading; though they are easily defined and pigeonholed, Cahan's characters are not flat, and are instead brilliant portraits of the range of Jewish immigrants to New York in the period. We have the secular Russians, the Americanized Jew, the Orthodox Talmud scholar, the freshly minted wife, sweatshop workers galore, and even intellectuals. The stern Jewish father makes his due appearance, but each of these characters is used in their proper context and brings his or her story to life.

These tales are mostly driven by context, after all, by the circumstances these immigrants find themselves in. Cahan is fascinated by the question of the translation of culture across the Atlantic- is it indeed possible for European Jews to get along in the New World, and how can they do it? This question is the central question in all of these stories, and we fittingly find the characters adapting to a situation as foreign to them as it is to us. New York and its people come alive, and Cahan never misses the opportunity to throw in a bit of minced English (which you have to pronounce in your head to understand, but which adds remarkable flavor). Background characters are never overbearing but always blend in seamlessly with their surroundings to create a living world for the reader.

This collection can be a read as an intimate portrait of Jewish life in the New York ghetto at the time when it was most distinct and when its conflicts with Old Europe were being most deeply felt and experienced on a day-to-day basis. Cahan brilliantly draws the reader into a foreign world and makes sense of the immigrant struggle by drawing on familiar themes and stories that apply to a broader demographic than simply American Jews. His stories are flavored with culture and religion but manage to transcend into general consciousness about the immigrant experience as gritty New York comes quite alive.

Grade: A

November 13, 2006

Book 43: The Saga of the Volsungs

The Saga of the Volsungs
Translated by Jesse L. Byock

This Nordic story is really the precursor to the aforementioned Nibelungenlied. The names and events are changed somewhat, but the characters are cut from the same stock. It's interesting to read these back to back and compare them in light of their cultures. Whereas The Nibelungenlied is most definitely a courtly work, fixing itself unnaturally on the clothing of the participants, the Icelandic saga version of the story is much grittier and to the point. Unlike in the former book, I could actually figure out what exactly was going on without unnecessary adornment while enjoying enough details to make the story real (enough).

The story is essentially the legacy of a family (the Volsungs) descended directly from the Norse god Odin, and the saga functions as a chronicle of them and their descendants. Though the entire work doesn't adequately knit itself together into a fully coherent story, the common thread of familial ties and the passing of the torch from father to son propels the action. The limited focus also allows the author to be blunt and remain steady on his point- if a supporting character needs to be written out, he is simply "out of the saga," an absolutely candid remark by the author that cracked me up.

Being an absolutely quick read, I'd recommend the book to those looking for a quick and lively read of an old tale of Scandinavia. Though the tale gets a little complicated at times, throwing out names left and right, the plot is easily followed to the end, full of twists and turns only given away by the chapter names. But perhaps those, too, are meant to fit in with the general theme of the great epic- you are your fate.

Grade: A-

November 7, 2006

Book 42: The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Translated by A.T. Hatto

What an odd story. This old German tale is quite the adventure, though it never quite settles on one narrative. I suppose its name is really a misnomer, for if there is a common thread woven throughout the story, it is the life and times of the beautiful Kriemhild. The story first pretends it is that of the mighty (and magical) Siegfried, but he drops out of the picture about a third of the way into the book, leaving us with the story of King Gunther of Burgundy, interspersed with the stories of Rüdiger and Dietrich. Notice that none of these are the Nibelungs, the mythical force that belonged to Siegfried and somehow morphs to become the Burgundians as they battle King Etzel (didn't I mention him?) and his Huns.

The main problem of this book, which I hope to have illustrated, is its confusion. It seems that the reader would have to read the book several times, making an outline along the way, to fully appreciate the twists and turns of the book that make it somewhat confusing. The book is secure in its morality and is always quick to blame women for all the wrongs of the world, but on other issues it wavers. The definition of honor seems tied to physical prowess and nothing else; the immoral Hagan is redeemed by his enemy after being slain by, you guessed it, a woman. Though his deeds have been anything but honorable, and include stabbing a man in the back after lying to discover his weakness, he is still honorable enough to be owed avoidance of a dishonorable death.

The base story is compelling enough, but I get lost in the details. It's very easy to get lost in the sea of names and the never-ending turns of the plot. The writing is fine and the adjectives are nice, but I have an issue with the translation, which contained far too many idioms for comfort. Every time a modern idiom is encountered, the reader is harshly jarred from the main narrative, which is often archaic. This inconsistent style of translation only adds to the confusion inherent in the book. Perhaps the appendix makes sense of the mess, but a pure read-through breeds only confusion and feelings of vast inadequacy.

Grade: C

November 5, 2006

Book 41: The River of No Return

The River of No Return
Cleveland Sellers

Sometimes events are best recounted by those who lived through them, by those who shaped them and who are intricately connected to history through direct participation and effect. Autobiographies can be especially useful in cases where the official story has been obviously distorted and changed by the existing power structure. I believe that the black civil rights struggle is one of these situations where the story may be best told by the actual organizers of the movement, lest it become distorted in the hands of whites eager to preserve their innocence and the necessity of reactionary police measures. However, it's also vital that the other side of the story doesn't become distorted, and unfortunately Seller's autobiography is full of questionable qualifications and hostile rhetoric that often clouds the story in off-putting offense.

The story of Sellers intersects perfectly with the life of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe, in which the autobiography draws its focus and crosses the difficult line between personal and general history. The reader gets a good grasp on the history of the organization, including an interesting look into the inside politics that eventually helped tear the organization apart. The major frustration I had, however, is the author's inability to try to see both sides of any situation, particularly when it comes to SNCC's expelling all whites from the organization. The reader is firmly on his side as he denounces obviously racist police actions against him and other black leaders, but his enthusiasm clouds the narrative and is excessively partisan, to the point of alienating the reader.

The narrative also suffers from that fundamental vice of autobiography: it is often disorganized, with some letdowns (Sellers introduces an event as almost getting him killed but the actual narration is anticlimactic in this regard) or it is over-dramatic and sweeping in its generalizations. The format is best when it is limited to the perspective of the author, and an occasional tie-in with the greater scope of events is certainly warranted and interesting, but this account refuses to take a side and instead oscillates between the two extremes, becoming either too personal and uninteresting or too broad to lead to sympathy or a deep understanding.

Sellers manages to paint a good, if disorganized, portrait of the life and times of SNCC. His literary technique could use a bit of work, but the volume remains educational and entertaining enough for a day or two of reading. For an in-depth, on the ground report of the black civil rights movement of the sixties, Sellers isn't a horrible place to turn.

Grade: B

October 29, 2006

Book 40: The Generals of Saratoga

The Generals of Saratoga
Max M. Mintz

There are many ways to write a book about history, and all can be effective in the hands of a good author. There's the dry and informative historical account, complete with footnotes on every page. There's the narrative approach, and even historical novels. There are hybrids that intersperse context with their main narrative or thesis, educating their readers without being too smugly academic. While I contend that very few strictly nonfiction books about history are actually well-written, it's rare to find a book that so spectacularly fails as this one does.

From the cover and first couple of chapters, one would assume that the book is a dual biography, a narrative and lively look at one of the decisive battles of the American Revolutionary War through the eyes of its two generals. The chapters alternate between the two featured men, John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, and though the book shows disturbing signs of excessive name-dropping early on, these early pages set up a nice dualistic structure. Even when this begins to be disturbed, the generals are still separated by sections within chapters. Though these divisions had previously divided chapters based solely on one general, the continued interaction of the men's fates provides a reasonable basis for this change in technique.

It's around this point, though, that the book gets confused. Is it a history of Saratoga through the eyes of the men who were in charge? Is it a history of the campaign for New York in general? Is it a biography? Is it even about Gates, who disappears for a good three or four chapters?

Unfortunately, I can't answer these questions; nor can any reader. The book, which had such an interesting premise and an intriguing prologue, descends into a holier-than-thou mess of confusing and irrelevant details, neglecting one of its main characters for the sake of context. I am a firm believer in context, but it does not lay in petty details and in completely discarding one of the main characters in lieu of other American generals. A compelling narrative needs details, but it also needs a general plot and it cannot get lost in irrelevant stories that don't illustrate any points.

The only thing that the book does well, besides allowing me to feel infinitely superior in my own writing abilities (quite the formidable task, I assure you), is in highlighting the confusion in both the British and American commands regarding who was to take charge where. Unfortunately, this is conveyed so well because the reader is right there with the officals, left with no clue what's going on but staring stupidly at a list of names that sound vaguely familiar but are unexplained.

I would like to blame myself for zoning out during large portions of this book, but the portions that had my full attention absolutely failed to reverse any of my perceptions. I think it's safe to say that I learned more about the Revolution through a fact-based fictional account (Jeff Shaara's The Glorious Cause) than through this muddling procession of factual assaults on my intelligence.

Grade: C-

October 27, 2006

Book 39: Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories

Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories
I.B. Singer

I wasn't completely sure what to make of this collection at first, but after reading the whole thing, I'm finding myself strangely moved and in contemplation about the characters. If there's one thing to be said about Singer's work, it's that it is very real, which is particularly strange given the presence of spirits in many of these stories. What's important, though, is that these spirits aren't kitschy, aren't there simply to lurk about and become an easy way to make bad things happen to good people. The spirits function more as elements of challenge, as a means by which the Jews of Singer's shtetls are forced to look at themselves and their faith and come to a conclusion.

Singer's devils even narrate some of the stories, but they are never overbearing, always just themselves. Singer's exploration of these spirits adds life and a sense of unique perspective to these stories, forcing the reader to think while reading without asking too much of the reader. None of these stories can simply be taken at face value, but the characters don't realize that, for they are as elaborately human as their author and the reader. The characters fall and fail, doubt God and return, much as real people do. Singer's Jews give a good sense of the inner workings of Polish Jewry prior to the Second World War, and his fictional towns engulf the reader, who is in turn lost.

The stories are generally short in length, with the longest standing at only thirty pages, but each is just long enough to accomplish its purpose. Singer's prose is so rich, even in translation, that an elaborate physical setting isn't necessary or even desirable in these stories. Each is a glimpse into the world of its main characters, spirit or human, and each follows the spiritual development of its characters with remarkable depth and layers of complexity.

This collection is coherent and is truly an experience of prewar Jewish life. Singer knows his world and his characters inside and out, and through his work we find that even in modern-day America stories of tried and tested faith are relevant and emotionally moving. We are left to question our own actions and our own lives, our own interactions with the spirit world. But perhaps these spirits aren't physical at all. Perhaps the devils are within us. Singer leaves the reader wondering but completely satisfied.

Grade: A

October 24, 2006

Book 38: Where the Girls Are

Where the Girls Are
Susan J. Douglas

So, upon being assigned a feminist book on the media since the fifties, I groaned. I thought this was going to be a horrible rant against men and male-dominated society, yet another angry and mindless woman repeating the familiar lines about sexism without bringing any merit to her claims. This book is all that and more, and I absolutely loved it. Douglas isn't just a raging feminist, she's a hilarious raging feminist, the kind that I've been waiting for, the kind I can agree with. What's most amazing about Douglas, and she admits this herself, is that she's happily married with a child of her own. Her own existence outside the traditional stereotypes of feminism helps her gain credibility as she consistently heaves one deft stroke after another at the male-dominated media.

Douglas uses her personal experience and her humor to the benefit of her argument, making this book not a dry academic treatise but a lively semi-autobiographical look at the media and resulting perceptions about feminism and women in general. Douglas uses familiar examples such as TV shows, movies, music, and even advertising to address the issues currently plaguing the women's movement: most notably, its factionalization and trivialization in the news media today. Because Douglas tracks feminism and female perception through the decades, her own experience remains peripheral and never dominates the discussion at hand, only illuminating the real-world applications of her arguments, and thereby strengthening them.

Douglas manages to tow the line herself while describing that strange middle ground between the acerbic feminist fringes and the passively anorexic images of pure male fantasy where the girls actually find themselves in life. Though the narrative begins with a focus on portrayal of women in general and then moves to the perception of the women's movement as well as general views, this change in analysis accurately reflects the change in focus of the media and the country at large. The narrative is always fresh and always challenging, while avoiding the usual pitfalls of demagoguery and overbearing sloganizing.

What Douglas has managed to do is relate her personal struggle to that of millions of American women through the mass media, passing the torch beautifully through her moving and personal epilogue. And after all, how can you resist an academic book with chapter titles such as "The Rise of the Bionic Bimbo"?

Grade: A

October 18, 2006

Book 37: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated by Neil D. Isaacs

And so my mythology class adds another book to my expanding list of mythology reads. This one is quite interesting. It's written in verse, which makes it read fast, but some sections are set off, indented and shorter than the main body of the story. I'm not quite sure what the significance of this is, or even if they're set off in the same way in the original text, but they appear to occur where there's a description or when God is mentioned somehow.

As with all mythological plots, this one is pretty straightforward. This story is really all about honor and honesty. The tale seems to serve as a guide for chivalrous and knightly behavior. After all, Sir Gawain exlaims, "A curse on cowardice and a curse on greed!" setting these virtues apart from others when it comes to proper action. The story really reads as an extended morality tale, stressing the values of honesty and humility as those most befitting a knight. Gawain and the Green Knight both stand as shining examples.

Grade: A

October 17, 2006

Book 36: Call It Sleep

Call It Sleep
Henry Roth

Wow. What an ambitious novel. This is definitely a work written in the style of James Joyce, that unintelligible master of modernism and bane of advanced literature scholars everywhere. When I heard that the novel was a modernist work a la Ulysses, I was absolutely terrified. After I got into the book, however, I realized that it wasn't so scary after all. Actually, I realized that once I got over my fear of pretention, the novel was actually quite good.

It's hard to actually classify this work. It's kind of a coming-of-age story, but the main character only reaches the tender age of eight (or so). It's kind of a novel about Jewish life in the ghetto of New York, but its Judaism is restrained and incidental, not pivotal. The book is really just the story of a kid experiencing his world, told through his own eyes. It is the story of discovering how to view the world, told from the perspective of one who is living the experience. As such, the reader often doesn't have any idea what is going on, which surprisingly works.

Because the novel doesn't explain things outright, seeing as its main character doesn't know things outright, the reader is forced to be careful and diligent. While this may seem like a haughty burst of self-righteousness from the author, it's actually what makes the novel stand out. The reader is constantly engaged throughout the book, trying to make sense of the world just as its main character David is. There are moments where, after being lost in a swirl of pages and images, the light bulb clicks on and suddenly everything makes sense. The novel is an experience in and of itself, not just a detached retelling of isolated occurences. The novel is a life.

The prose is absolutely brilliant. Lyrical and soaring, its imagery is spot-on, always suited to the situation. The way that Roth plays with light and its absence is more suited to movie direction than writing, but it makes the images in the reader's hand stand out and interact, drawing the reader in even more to the world David is experiencing. The fact that the narrator is third person but witholds information makes the reader feel, along with David, that there is something missing, without knowing quite what. The central mystery of the book is unresolved, but you think you know what's going on, and that's the desired effect. The reader is expected to make the book their own, and Roth excells at provoking this active participation without demanding too much of his reader.

The only point where the book loses its focus is at the very end, where sentences disappear mid-word and show up again a page later. I know the effect that Roth was going for, one of time stopping and utter confusion, a portrait of a moment, but I was so incredibly lost that there was no meaning in the plot, let alone in the experience of the events. When Roth sticks to gentle confusion, to breaking up thoughts after a sentence is completed rather than in the middle, the technique works and illuminates the moment.

The key to this book is subtlety. The usage of Yiddish as the narrative language is almost hidden, but reveals the extent of its use in daily Jewish life of the period. The extended metaphors reappear often enough in the book to make sense, but not so much as to bludgeon the reader. The reader is always expected to be thinking, and is respected as an active participant in the story, a direct witness to these crucial moments in David's childhood. I may have been terrified of this novel, and parts of it did elude me, but all in all I am remarkably impressed at the beauty of this work, the poetry found in the clattering chaos of turn-of-the-century New York City.

Grade: A

October 11, 2006

Book 35: The Romance of Tristan and Isolt

The Romance of Tristan and Isolt
Translated by Norman B. Spector

Here is another selection from my current mythology class. I breezed through this work in about an hour and fifteen minutes, and it was not at all what I expected. Knowing of Sir Tristan from my previous experiences with King Arthur, I expected some grand tale of his exploits as knight of the Round Table, some high-minded show of morality and true love. I'm amazed at the amount of frankly un-chivalrous acts that taint the image of the pure and noble knight.

These people sure knew about deception. Deception is present at every point in the story, which adds complication to an otherwise simple plot. The story is basically the tale of two well-bred people forced to love each other ceaselessly. Unfortunately, their circumstances force them to do many devious acts to remain together, including lying to people who would have otherwise helped them. The story, though, can't decide whether it is about inevitability (Tristan and Isolt must love each other) or about choices (they could have chosen a different, less painful route).

I guess that the overarching theme of the work, should I strain to find one in the somewhat drawling and always confusing narrative, is that true love eventually trumps all. Tristan and Isolt, true to form, end up together in death as they are never able to be in life due to a complex series of familial and marital obligations. The question that must be raised is whether love is worth lying (and ultimately dying) for. The story leaves it up to the reader to decide, passing no judgements on its characters but merely reciting the ill-fated lives of two star-crossed lovers who predate Romeo and Juliet. At least they're still human.

Grade: B

October 9, 2006

Book 34: The Winds of War

The Winds of War
Herman Wouk

I read this book on a recommendation from a random middle-school teacher I met at work, who also gave me his copy. Now, normally this doesn't exactly sound like the soundest of recommendations, but let me tell you, this guy had my taste absolutely nailed. This book was incredible. Clocking in at 1046 pages (in my edition, anyway), it's a beast, but it's definitely worth the time.

For starters, it's entirely engaging. The novel takes on World War II, that behemoth present in everyone's mind in some form or another. Wouk carefully winds together a compelling personal narrative with the greater framework of the tensions in Europe and the United States during the first perdiod of the war (up to December 1941) through the experiences of Victor Henry and his family. Highlighting Wouk's devotion to fact and believability is the enclosed "translation" of a fictional history of the war by a German general, conveniently done by the main character. The book is served in installments preceding coming events in the novel. While in some circumstances this may have led to disruption and ruined surprises, Wouk's choice of the very familiar World War II as a time setting allows this account to actually help the flow of events connected to the ensemble cast.

This cast is delicately and carefully constructed, carefully spread throughout the world to offer the experience of World War II through many eyes. Various members of the Henry family are present at any key event, but only rarely do the movements seem contrived. Though their positioning is obviously deliberate, Wouk's reasoning is sound and believable, with the possible exception of the main character (a minor Navy man who manages to meet every major leader except for Hirohito). Thankfully, though, Victor Henry seems just as bewildered at his fate as his audience is, allowing the reader to relax and go with the flow.

The flow of the novel is phenomenal, but late in the novel its flaws become slightly apparent. Certain characters are entirely neglected until relevant, which is confusing and does serve to interrupt flow a bit. One of the Henry children is developed at length early, only to disappear until the last five pages, and only then in a quick letter to her father. Also, towards the end of the novel Wouk's omniscient narrator feels the need to wax philosophical and address the novel itself, calling attention to the fact that the cast of characters is spread throughout the globe on the eve of, say, Operation Barbarossa (which I repeat almost verbatim from memory). There is another lapse like this very late in the novel, where Wouk seems to forget that the events speak for themselves, which they do when allowed to.

Though the novel is necessarily event-driven, its main characters are not lacking. Victor Henry is no perfect hero; he has his faults and acknowledges them along with the reader, though in real time (and thus slightly behind the reader). His wife is downright annoying, but in an extremely believable way. Wouk's descriptions of people also deserve mention. He always manages the most apt metaphors, ignoring the obvious and painting a clear and entertaining picture of even the most mundane background characters.

This novel is an amazing adventure through the most troubling period of recent European history. Though Wouk may play around the edges of believability at times, those occurences are rare and are lost in the amazingly coherent flow of the novel as a whole. The writing is brilliant, the characters are believable and sympathetic without being quite stereotypical, and fact is duly noted where appropriate. Wouk makes the early European and American experiences of World War II a personal event to his readers, bringing them right into the thick of the action and never letting up. I can't wait to get at the sequel.

Grade: A

October 3, 2006

Book 33: From Resistance to Revolution

From Resistance to Revolution
Pauline Maier

Ah, a historical tome. This should be a bit refreshing given what I've been reading lately, and indeed Maier's account of the buildup to the American Revolution is a well-constructed academic probe into the popular sentiment of the time. The book itself reads like a really good term pape rife with citations and quotations, with analysis neatly tossed in here and there. Really, though, what narrative exists doesn't so much propel the information as explain it. Given all of this, I was pleasantly surprised how easy the book was to read once I got into it.

Granted, I had to get used to the very factual style of the prose, but Maier takes a theme and provides the compelling story of the road to Revolution in the American colonies. There are, of course, a few flaws inherent in this kind of work. Firstly, Maier seems to take her readers' previous knowledge of events for granted. She doesn't go into the basics of events but explicates meaning from them, meaning that a general familiarity with British and American history is necessary when reading this volume. At points where the reader is unfamiliar with the base events, the information becomes quickly overwhelming and essentially useless.

An interesting aspect of this book, for me at least, was the comparison with other countries searching for their own independence at the same time as the American events were coming to a head. Even though I knew little about these, this was one part of the book where prior knowledge doesn't automatically preclude the reader from understanding the text. Maier does an excellent job connecting the events in America to a greater feeling of coming independence and a flight from tryanny throughout the world. I never knew that the American colonists were actually expecting the British proletariat to rise with them against George III.

For the reader acquainted with the various acts of Parliament leading to the Revolution, this reckoning of the movement towards atual revolution against England is enlightening and interesting. For the average, non-academic reader, the book remains accessible after a quick skimming of the "whats" of the American Revolution. All told, this is an example of the well-written academic history that I always hoped existed.

Grade: A-

October 1, 2006

Book 32: The Táin

The Táin
Translated by Thomas Kinsella

I'm not quite sure what I expected upon picking this book up, but this sure wasn't it. The hero is anything but heroic, continuity is simply nonexistent, half of the book consists of long lists of unpronounceable and irrelevant names, the book is filled with gross-out humor, the plot ends entirely unexpectedly and with no actual resolution, and I could go on for quite a while criticizing. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it. This might be the most entertaining book I have ever read in my entire life.

Forget plausibility. Forget heroes. This Irish epic takes everything you thought you knew about literature and throws it to the wind, yet somehow the reader cannot help but float along on every unexpected gust. The story itself is predicated on a seemingly silly premise: basically, the king and queen of [not Ulster] find that their possessions are entirely equal...except for a divine bull owned by the man. What to do? The feisty queen Medb, friendly thighs and all, decides that an expedition is needed to procure the bull's counterpart of Ulster. Yes. This is one big cattle raid.

Ulster, stuck in its birth pangs, seems s.o.l. until the brave hero Cúchulainn comes in, slaying the armies of Ireland left and right without even a hint of realism. This is a man who can throw an apple straight through a man's head while balancing on the tip of a spear. Cúchulainn is a mighty warrior, and it seems that the Irish like to be honest, given the fact that his many infidelities only seem to add to his honor and prestige. No matter that he sleeps around and cheats in battle- here is a strong warrior true to his oaths (and always to his friend Fergus) and consistent, even if he's consistently a stuck-up asshole.

Along with the obvious (and forgivable, seeing as its essentially a mythic epic) problems with realism, the book has serious continuity issues. One main character has an epic death, only to resurface fleetingly in the very last sentence of the book. The hero is flawed, but not even in an Oedipal, lesson-imparting way. Cúchulainn is really like your typical feminist stereotype of a man (what other kind of person would refrain from killing an entire court of friends only upon receiving naked women?), but he is never called out on it.

What's interesting, though, is the glimpses of morality and obligation that we do get in the book. Take, for example, recently defected Fergus. Born an Ulsterman, he now finds himself a disgruntled exile chilling with the Connacht army. Despite his new loyalty to Medb, he always keeps an eye out for his countryman Cúchulainn. Cúchulainn himself may not be the most morally upright of heroes, but he is a man who knows the power of an oath; his fault is that he selectively employs his sense of obligation.

Overall, then, the work is enjoyable amongst (and possibly because of) its flaws. Something, somewhere, was lost in translation over the years, but the general guiding principles of Irish honor are somewhat intact. The Táin is an interesting glimpse into the lives of the early Irish, the composition of their moral compass, and it's quite the entertaining ride.

Grade: A

September 24, 2006

Book 31: Bread Givers

Bread Givers
Anna Yezierska

The immigrant experience in America during the so-called Roaring Twenties was quite different than the middle-class jazz craze we tend to hear so much about in our history classes. I was thus intrigued by this rather unconventional novel, which depicts life in New York's Lower East Side Jewish ghetto during the period. It straddles between believable elements of tenement life and rather unrealistic expectations of the upward mobility of American society but finds its place as a coming-of-age tale.

The story of the book is one of a lonely Jewish girl, Sara Smolinsky, who watches her Old World father study Torah endlessly (and without income) while she, her mother, and her sisters struggle just to make ends meet, which of course they rarely do. After watching her sisters get married off one by one to men they do not love, Sara decides to reject tradition and heritage and find her place as an American. Sara shuns her family and struggles to make it through night school and an all-American college. Unfortunately for Sara, her stilted English, which comes through brilliantly in the narration, means that she can never make it as a genuine American. She comes, in time, to reaffirm her identity as an American Jew, although this is never quite defined properly in the novel and the ending makes the reader wonder whether Sara is actually happy with this newfound identity.

The novel sends some mixed messages, but these generally fit in with the plot's theme of confusion in the New World. How does one balance the customs of the shtetl with the chaos and squalor that is the Lower East Side? Why is it acceptable for the women in Sara's family to go out and work while they are generally considered worthless and completely dependent by Sara's father? The novel doesn't provide sufficient answers to these questions, but I would suggest that this adds to the novel's power. The reader is forced to go over these questions after putting the novel down.

Yezierska forces her readers to consider how an immigrant's new identity is created by describing a realistic environment of conflicting pressures. While Sara's Jewish father is over-the-top, he still manages to be believable as a reactionary bastion of tradition in the face of oppressing change. Sara's rise through the ghetto is a bit fanciful yet forgivable in light of the fact that the novel's ending is a question mark rather than a big group hug. Sara doesn't end up in misery, exactly, but in a way she comes full circle. Usually an unresolved plot line like this would drive me crazy, but in Anzia Yezierska's thoughtful novel the lack of a resolution gives the story power. This book paints a good picture of the darker side of the Roaring Twenties, and it is definitely worth a read.

Grade: A-

September 17, 2006

Book 30: Beowulf

Translated by Michael Alexander

Ah, Beowulf, legendary warrior and king of the Geats. You're going to have to forgive me here; I haven't had the official rundown of this yet and a lot of it sailed right over my little modern head. However, I think I got the gist of the legendary epic. I was surprised to find that Beowulf wasn't just a heroic warrior doing the right thing for his people. His hubris is consistently hailed as his greatest quality throughout his dealings with evil. As he goes forth to conquer Grendel, he reassures his troops that he will be fine singlehandedly and unarmed against the foe who has consistently outmatched the entire Danish fighting force. An unbeliever who dares question Beowulf's might is set in his place with an unashamed rendition of Beowulf's daring exploits handed down by none other than the man himself.

In fact, Beowulf even alludes directly to the power of honor by claiming that the only reason people should ever fight is to gain reputation and to bolster their pride. At least he's fighting for an ideal, and not just for riches. The riches he does gain he gives duly to his kings with hardly a thought to his own bank. This makes Beowulf a good warrior, always deferring to the will of his superior and willing to fight the biggest menance for his own reputation. The end is always in sight for Beowulf.

As far as historical accuracy, though, I must say that the constant references to God seem misplaced and anachronistic. It seems to me that someone may have fiddled with this and inserted some good deference to the (presumably Christian) Lord. These people are way too pious to be in Jutland in the very first years after Christ. The constant references to God break up the flow of the poem and seem unnatural and contrived, as if placed only to conform to some sort of quota.

It must be remembered, too, that the saga goes beyond Beowulf and recounts the history of the Geats (southern Swedes, I think) and Danes. The first few pages pass in a blur as they recount the exploits of several unimportant and irrelevant kings. Background information on each episode in Beowulf's colored life is provided in a roundabout and familiar fashion, often very confusing to the humble college literary scholar.

Aside from all of the extras packed into this remarkably short poem, the actual action gives the reader a good idea of the values and lifestyle of the people of the period. Pride is encouraged and valour is everything. Loyalty to one's king is essential to a successful career as a warrior. Beowulf embodies all that is good to the ancient peoples of Europe, and he wields his sword bravely time and again to cement his place in the epic of Old English.

Grade: B

September 10, 2006

Book 29: The Celts

The Celts
T.G. E Powell

I would like to welcome you to the first of my books required for the semester. Here we kick off the new year with a highly informative but rather dry textbook of sorts, an entry into the foreign and ancient world of the Celts. The writing isn't particularly illuminating, but for a textbook the prose is actually quite enlightening. The book focuses on the Celts from a mainly archaeological perspective. See, you may think of the Celts as the Irish and Scottish, but most of non-Scandanavian Europe north of Italy and west of Poland was once Celtic land; it's just that the culture has been preserved in Ireland because of the limits of Roman expansion.

The book starts off with a bang, keeping the reader totally engaged before slowly descending into a barely comprehensible section on archaeological specifics that, unfortunately, are jibberish to the plebian eye. Unfortunately, there are a few inside references to random cultures that aren't properly explained and the reader gets lost in the technical jargon. Overall, though, this section is informative at the times when the reader catches up and turns on the light bulb.

The other three sections of the book explore the actual lives of the Celts, mostly through their archaeological remnants, though the occasional passage shows up in the works of Julius Caesar or Herodotus. Though the writing is rather technical, describing most conclusions scientifically and as conjecture, the actual revelations are interesting. The trick is picking them out of the dense prose. The writing goes on to discuss Celtic supernatural beliefs and rituals and the Celtic legacy in Europe today.

All told, this book is an excellent comprehensive introduction to an ancient people. The writing, however dense, goes by pretty quickly as many pages are illustrated with examples of artifacts. If the reader can excavate meaning out of the thick jargon, much will be gleaned about the prehistoric people of Western Europe.

Grade: B

August 19, 2006

Book 28: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

This review here might be a bit shaky, since it's been a while since I read the book and even then I was lying on a beautifully sun-soaked Myrtle Beach strand of sand, but I took notes and I will try my best. I'm going to assume that most of you are familiar with the basic plot of the novel, too. I think this is one book whose allure is not quite in how it ends, but in how it gets there.

What I found most striking about this book was the formal tone. This is so different than the last book I read, which was a very emotional and personal account (being composed mostly of letters, after all). It's rather dry and scientific, and though it's a personal account it retains an air of strict narration, the detached language of the omniscient narrator. There is only one occasion of note where the narrator becomes human, and even then he comes across as rather harsh and uncaring. The book is really more of a news account than a novel.

Along those lines, it bears mentioning that the novel shines in the science aspects, while lacking in the strictly literary ones. There aren't any fleshed out characters to speak of; even the narrator remains aloof, remarkable only for his stoic air and wonderful powers of detached observation. The characters that do share the spotlight only come in momentarily and are viewed with a certain condescension, leading me to believe that our narrator is of the upper class. It's interesting that in such a tragedy as a murderous alien invasion bourgeois class consciousness still shines through in olde Britain.

What's even stranger, though, is that the narrator seems to take the side of the Martians through most of the book. The Martians come across as a superior life form, treating humans as most humans treat animals (the exception, I suppose, would be vegans). Now that I think of it, that may have something to do with the much-touted correlation to imperialism. Strangely enough, my quasi-socialist, history-minded brain didn't pick up on a lot of imperialist vibes, though the final demise of the tripods did strike a chord. Interestingly enough, it made me think more of Columbus than of Stanley, but that's just me.

Overall, I'd say this book is worth a quick weekend read. It's an interesting vision of alien invasion that manages to put human affairs in perspective in more than one new way. It's heavy on the descriptive side and isn't too emotionally engaging. A strange blend of scientific description and a dash of storytelling ability make this book a good addition to a shelf of classics.

Grade: A-

August 15, 2006

Book 27: The Historian

The Historian
Elizabeth Kostova

I think that the first thing I should say about this book is that it is absolutely nothing like I expected. Having read it, I can't say exactly what it is I expected, but this isn't it. That is not to say that the book isn't good, however; think of it more as a disclaimer on the head of this review. Anyway, on to the meat.

The plot and premise of this book are remarkable. I'm amazed that a first-time author was able to weave such an intricate story. While there are parts of this six-hundred page monster that begin to drag, most everything seems necessary (or at least tangentially related) to the plot. If anything, the book isn't long enough, as it leaves some loose ends. Conveniently, this is also my first (and most major) gripe. Because the scope of the novel is so large, there are many details that get lost along the way, especially considering that it would be nearly impossible to finish this behemoth in a single sitting. There were many times that I had to check myself and refresh my memory regarding a trite detail that suddenly appears a hundred pages after it is introduced.

The winding nature of the plot and its narration exacerbate this effect and produce more than a bit of confusion on the part of the reader. The plot travels through three different time periods, each with its own narrator, and that doesn't include specific scholastic articles excerpted, or letters. While the print itself reflects this well (certain things are in italics, others in quotes), it is sometimes hard for the reader to see the whole picture clearly. In fact, I think I would need some serious Cliff's Notes to wrap my mind around the plot entirely. I kind of wonder what all I missed.

Setting these pseudo-professorial comments aside, however, I really enjoyed the book. Except for a few periods in the middle where I found myself bogged down, the plot really moves well without over-employing drastic chapter endings. They do appear (something like, "We looked down at the face to see that it was none other than...!"), but Kostova manages to end most chapters in a way that makes the reader want to read on without the cheap gimmicks. This, and the radical yet gripping plot line (vampires, Dracula, zombies!), makes the book quite addictive, and I must say that I enjoyed coming back to it each day.

The writing itself, the descriptions and such, flows smoothly and is consistently entertaining and fresh. Despite some problems inherent in a book whose locations and characters vary so widely, the package is very neatly wrapped. It's outlandish claims are tempered by a cool dose of reality, adding enough believability to keep the characters real and the novel entertaining. And to top it all off, the last sentence is rather magnificent. I have a feeling this book will haunt me for a while, and if you're up to the challenge I'd highly recommend it for some late-summer cramming.

Grade: A-

August 7, 2006

Book 26: The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada
Lauren Weisberger

Yes, I read this book. No, I am not ashamed. Yes, I made the decision fully on my own. Anyway, on to the show, eh? Considering that this book definitely falls within the not-so-subtle category of "chick lit", I was pretty impressed with its literary qualities. Though it does of course have its flaws, as all books must, it is highly enjoyable.

The biggest dealbreaker for me is the way that time and characters tend to fade out unexpectedly and without warning, resurfacing only when the reader is bludgeoned with a catch-up phrase. Four months disappear about two-thirds of the way through the novel, not to mention the newborn nephew (who conveniently resurfaced just as I stopped to wonder where he was) who mysteriously disappears after being introduced at length. He does indeed appear later, but only as a caveat. In similar fashion, two major storylines are left quite unfinished by the end of the novel, and seeing as they both have to deal with boys, I'm quite surprised. The least a chick lit novel can do is wrap up the boy situation, right?

The glue that holds this novel together, however, is the voice of the narrator. I'm in love with the narrator, who seems to have my attitude about most things (except my abhorrence of campy dialogue), though I hope I would never sell myself out to the fashion industry in any respect. The prose, however, is brilliantly sarcastic (if only it were allowed to speak for itself!) and I fell in love with the main character immediately. She has spunk and a great sense of humor. The way she finally manages to get herself fired is pure genius. If only I had stopped reading the book there, before all of the ends managed to stay loose and fractured and before the campy shared hatred took hold.

With regards to the movie, it was definitely casted well. It was also nice to be able to see fashions barely described in the novel. One thing they definitely improved was the ending, which just doesn't fly in the book. Not only does a vast amount of time expire, only to be accounted for far too late, but the book lapses into utter and absolute cliché. I almost think I would be better off with an ending at the dreadful mistake, rather than still wondering what happens to the narrator after she tries to explain. For chick lit, though, this is definitely a good pick.

Grade: B

August 2, 2006

Book 25: A Life of Her Own

A Life of Her Own
Emile Carles

This is the last of Diane's book recommendations. This is a unique piece, an autobiography of a French mountain woman who was born right at the turn of the century. Her life spanned some of the most radical changes the world had ever seen, and her place in France provided a front-row seat to events such as the two world wars. The autobiography at large, however, lacks a focus and a sense of purpose. It finds both within the last two chapters, but this is too late to make the book.

This is not to say that the book isn't interesting. It is a fascinating portrait of French peasant life and some of the changes it underwent throughout the eventful 20th century. Madame Carles is not shy about adressing the changes that she feels still need to take place. Though one is not always sure why she feels the way she does, her voice is always strong and clear in its assertions. I just hoped for a bit more insight on events that made her change her mind. For example, she claims that a single man opened her eyes to the views of anarchists and pacifists that changed her forever, but she never goes into sufficient detail. She leaves it at that, assuming that the reader knows ahead of time exactly what she is talking about.

This kind of jarring discontinuity happens throughout the book, which is in dire need of a semblance of a plot line. I can deal with weird chronology, especially in an autobiography, but there are parts of this book that skipped around with no apparent logic. This only served to confuse me as to what she could possibly be referring to. The book is also quite repetitive in some of its wry observations, which obviously lose their mettle after repetition.

Despite its literary flaws, though, the content of the book can be very eye-opening and interesting at times. Madame Carles sketches a very cynical but very real portrait of the villages of the French Alps and their people. Her love for them shows through and she rarely comes across as patronizing; she truly cares about her people and genuinely wants them to open her eyes. Her career as a teacher also justifies this viewpoint. She looks at the valley as a place caught in time, resistant to change but slowly awakening. Her lack of attention to World War II illustrates how isolated a valley could indeed be even in the midst of such a wide conflict. While the war affected her life, she doesn't overly moralize, simply restating her pacifist beliefs.

The only times the book becomes overbearing are when Madame Carles emphasizes her ideas. When she is just describing events, they tend to speak for themselves wonderfully, conveyed in gripping detail and lively, personal narrative. When she begins to preach, however, I zone out completely and the work becomes slightly annoying. All in all, though, this was an intriguing and different book, a unique view on the world from an exceptional woman that was well worth reading.

Grade: B

July 27, 2006

Book 24: The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

So, the great Goethe and I meet again. This time, however, I'm tackling him all alone, and I daresay I've emerged the victor. This book is very strange; it's depressing, but at the same time it's a very enjoyable read. I think that I now understand better why Goethe is considered such a genius.

For starters, the man's metaphors are amazing. They always put a clear picture in my head of exactly what is going on in the narrator's mind. The narrator is defined from the very start and stays consistent in personality and style, if not demeanor, throughout the novel. Approaching the character and his circumstances works especially well by using his letters to tell the story. In fact, the weakest part of the story is the jolt at the end where a heretofore unseen narrator jumps in. This disrupts the flow of the story, but as the editor returns to the words of Werther the story is ended properly.

The novel is the story of a young man whose enthusiasm for life and for feeling every moment to its fullest extent, to his eventual demise. The dramatic irony and tension really make the book work as the reader watches Werther plunge himself willingly into a situation from which he knows he will have no corporeal escape. We watch, horrified yet curious as Werther hints at his eventual solution, and the tension within the last few pages, when the reader knows for sure what's coming, is so thick you could cut it with a knife. I believe that the book is a work of brilliance, and though it is a tragedy I enjoyed the art displayed in these pages.

Grade: A

July 18, 2006

Book 23: Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
Graham Allison

Well, the power outage allowed me to finish this morsel this morning after work. I broke up the reading between the book's two parts, reading all of the former and all of the latter in their respective sittings. I think that the book is best dealt with in the same fashion, because the two parts don't combine effectively into a coherent whole.

The first section of the book was fairly impressive, a general primer on the threat of nuclear terrorism. Well-organized and for the most part fair, this section detailed the who, what, and where of potential nuclear terrorism. Threats such as al-Qaeda and rogue states were enumerated and expanded upon, as well as potential sources for nuclear material. The general consensus that the recently deregulated Soviet Union is the most viable threat as a source of nuclear material for terrorists. While the writing is a bit simplistic, the thoughts are coherent and the information seems reliable. Most importantly, it is relevant and interesting, something new and not usually considered in depth by the everyday American.

In the second section of the book, however, the part where Allison describes his step-by-step plan to prevent nuclear terrorism (after carefully outlining before that the former Soviet Union has lost material which may be in terrorists' hands, no less), the book degenerates into a slobby mess of self-righteous partisan attacks. Allison adopts a know-it-all attitude and even attempts to take credit for a policy of George H.W. Bush. While his input may have been useful, I highly doubt that this low-level beaurocrat was solely responsible for the policy. Allison's general contention all throughout the second half of the book follows the same logic, that he knows best and that his plan is feasible and necessary lest America fall prey to an inevitable nuclear attack.

What bothered me most about this triumphant parade of self-aggrandizement was, ironically, the amount and ferocity of irrelevant jabs at George W. Bush. Now, I am no fan of the President's, but Allison owed it to his readers to cut the man a fair break. The drawn-out criticism of the Iraq war was really unnecessary; the point could have been made much more effectively had it been succinct. Allison only succeeds in dredging up old and festering wounds, coming off as immature. To make matters worse, he even repeats some of his quoted material and many of his points, almost verbatim.

He had me in the first part of the book, he really did. I went into the second half expecting an even-handed plan that was fairly realistic and actually somewhat feasible. Despite the blurbs (I'm really learning not to believe blurbs on this nonfiction stuff), the plan offered would require too many resources and too much focus on one scenario. Even where this is acknowledged (apparently, one hour of each day of the President's time would absolutely have to be devoted to the threat of nuclear terrorism), the plan plunges ahead in an idealistic world of unattainable hopes. The plan isn't even that good, were it to be executed. It also depends on mitigating circumstances.

My advice would be to check out the first half of the book for an interesting analysis of a very real potential threat to America, but to skip the plan for redemption. It embodies much that is wrong with modern politics, and for that the book has to ultimately be dismissed and liberal whining. That's really too bad.

Grade: B-