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-