May 25, 2006

Book 17: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
Lewis Carroll

What strange books are these. I don't think I quite get it. However, I will say that for a quick read, the books were entertaining enough, though they completely lacked a reasonable plot. In fact, now that I really think about it, they were quite difficult to even understand at points. It may be that I glossed over parts that would have made everything made sense, but all told I don't think I missed anything earth-shattering. To top everything off, Carroll excuses everything that happens in Wonderland as just a child's dream, kind of undercutting any point he may have made about an actual parallel universe of silliness, if only we would believe it. That's the message I would have liked to take, but instead he chalks everything up to whimsical fantasy. And this just as I was beginning to sense a coherent thread.

What Carroll does do well is wordplay. The books are full of puns and wonderful twists and turns of the English language that absolutely delighted me at every turn, being fond of such things. However, I don't think that the occasional bursts of clever fun can really justify the absolute absence of any semblance of plot or meaning. Wonderland is more like a ramble that occasionally peaks but usually falls short of a reasonable mark.

Grade: B-

May 20, 2006

Book 16: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
Al Franken

I will start out by defending my choice of literature. Quite frankly, I was in the mood for it. I was in the mood for something satirical and lighthearted, and I thought to myself, "Self, why not Al Franken?" I responded in the affirmative and spent my afternoon with this humorous account of the numerous follies of the post-2000 conservative movement.

I feel bad actually trying to review the book. I happen to agree with most of what Franken says (and I'm not good at numbers, so I can't crunch any of the tax stuff), although I'm sure that some of it is slightly distorted to fit his own agenda. However, I do think he makes a great point of specifically calling attention to numerous occasions that find our favorite conservatives actually lying, where it appears intentional. Many of the blunders Franken sights are from books by Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. While I can see how someone could unknowingly lie while on the spot, it's hard to defend these kinds of boldfaced untruths when they are published.

The book is a moderate expose that is played for laughs more than anything. I can understand why conservatives were so riled up about the book when it first appeared, but I think that the entire country has to settle down and get a sense of humor. In fact, I think that the point that the book makes most of all is somewhat unintentional: the current state of the media and political discourse in this country is dreadful. All it amounts to is lie-slinging and name-bashing all around, on both sides (watch Fox News or even MSNBC for a glimpse), to say nothing of sensationalism. In a climate such as this one, based on immediate and complete gratification, it is almost impossible for the country to have a reasonable discussion.

Liberals have often come out on the very wrong end of this quagmire, labelled traitors and anti-Christian zealots. When it comes to exposing conservative hypocrisy and playfully engaging the political climate, Al Franken impresses and entertains.

Grade: A-

May 16, 2006

Book 15: The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America
Philip Roth

Well, this book is certainly not quite what I expected. It's framed as a memoir, which must be popular as it's the second book I've read in this format in a while. I was expecting the main character to be a government official or something, but instead it is the view of a boy who is affected by a hypothetical historical turn of events. The events themselves, that of Charles Lindbergh's ascension to the presidency of the United States and the consequences felt by Jews, aren't entirely unbelievable.

However, the book loses a lot of its credibility when it reveals an actual plot twist, a conspiracy theory that could work in literature but which ultimately fails in this context. I think this is mostly due to the fact that the book reveals the major national events that occur in late 1942 in the form of newsreel recordings and before the narrator actually experiences them in his childhood. This is a major flaw. I thought that it was very sloppily done.

Here again is a book whose actual writing is quite good, but whose plot is just not working. I will even give credit to the original premise, and the conspiracy theory that motivates it. However, the way that everything jumps around chronologically just doesn't congeal to form any meaningful plot. A character will be introduced and then have a lengthy backstory. This in itself is not automatically destructive, but for some reason I don't think the method ever really worked in the novel, especially since many of the characters introduced in this way only serve very minor functions.

I expected a lot more out of this book and I've only heard good things about the author. However, I felt that this particular effort lacked any reasonable credibility and was not straightforward enough to be meaningful. I think I will try to look into something else by the author, but this particular book was sadly disappointing.

Grade: B-

May 14, 2006

Book 14: Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I love Sherlock Holmes. Anyone who has known me for a while should know that. Spread across nine books in two volumes, this is the definitive collection of stories about the great detective and his pal Watson. The best thing about this collection is the way that Watson and Holmes are not just literary characters. Instead, they are two friends whose personalities complement each other perfectly as they race through England serving the cause of justice and, usually, the official police.

There are only a few shortcomings that I sense, and most of these are easily forgivable. For one thing, all but four of the adventures are narrated by the trusty Watson. This is by far the best format available. We get eyewitness accounts of the actual events, as Watson was often in the thick of the action, and his perpetual sense of wonder at his friend's great powers of deduction flows over to the reader, who is continually astonished at the feats of Mr. Holmes. The stories narrated by Holmes himself are relayed in his detached and often condescending manner, and work because it is in character but which still lack the sense of wonder we find with Watson. The stories narrated in third-person are simply not up to par.

The other great weaknesses are slight inconsistencies (in fact, two stories open up with the exact same incident, almost verbatim until the crime comes in) and a predictable plot flow. However, the basic structure of the stories cannot be faulted. Watson offers an introduction, Holmes or a visitor details a crime, the two go investigate, and there is a big reveal at the end, where all is explained. The stories themselves continue to amaze, and I am personally astonished that Sir Doyle could come up with so many distinct plot lines, so many distinct cases that glorify the mind of the great detective.

I have long been a Holmes fan, and my admiration for the singular abilities of this turn-of-the-century Londoner has only grown after consuming this massive tome of a biography. I feel like Holmes and Watson have yet to be discovered in the great annals of European history, like they embody the era just before World War I and the rise of modern criminology, as well as science. I only wish there was a third volume to consume, and I plan to return to 221B. Baker Street often.

Grade: A

May 1, 2006

Book 13: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden

This book was very highly recommended to me by a number of people, and I think this greatly positive reaction set me up for a bit of a disappointment, though the book was by no means bad. It definitely has its strength. I think that one of these is its format as the supposed memoirs of an actual geisha. This gives the novel a very authentic feel, and I'm amazed at the ease with which Golden portrays the feelings of a young Japanese girl decades removed from his own time. The narration is usually believable and is only overdone at a few points in the novel, when the narrator seems to be a bit too self-aware.

The greatest strength of this book lies in its metaphors. From the very first similie, I was amazed at how well Golden employs unusual (but always perfect) images. Even when there are too many metaphors, I could only get a little bit annoyed because the comparisons were so good and so accurate. I think this is what really distinguishes the novel in a literary sense, other than its unique setting and subject matter.

I did have a few qualms about the book, however, and most of them lie within the plot, for Golden's writing actually is quite good. I think that parts of it were kind of stretched beyond believability, given the fact that the world of the geishas was supposed to be so cutthroat. How was it that Chiyo/Sayuri actually did manage to succeed? Interestingly enough, the most exaggerated character, Hatsumomo, was the most believable. She is the embodiment of evil and plays her part quite well, even managing to disappear in a fit of madness. Well played.

I suppose that some of the miraculous saving graces that Chiyo/Sayuri encounters would be believable when viewed through a somewhat cynical lens, that random fortune just happens to favor some. But it is this that makes me frustrated with the novel. The main character just isn't very likeable for me. I think that the entire premise of being a geisha is stupid, and that she spends too much of the novel simply guided by the forces around her rather than acting. When she finally takes matters into her own hands, the decision is a bad one (backstabbing a good friend who saved her life because of a childhood whimsy), greatly frustrating me when I was just starting to think that she was not so bad. I would have much preferred the novel to stick to the story of thwarting Hatsumomo.

All told, this book was worth reading and I would like to see some of Golden's other work. He just has a few basic construction problems, I think, but his talent is obvious. It could, of course, be the subject matter as well. Given this I will be easy on him, granting that personal taste is a big factor in my enjoyment of the novel.

Grade: B