May 31, 2007

Book 33: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson

This book certainly aspires to a lot, attempting to answer all of life's biggest questions in readable prose and with simple explanations. I feel like I am a bit jaded in trying to review this book because so much of this book was, well, review for me. The target audience is definitely adults who have been out of high school and even college for a long time; I can still tell you who Mendeleev is and I'm actually familiar with Schrodinger's cat and what it stands for. Having taken college-level astronomy courses, I already knew most of the information presented in the section about the beginning of the universe and about how we know what we think we know. Bryson's book was entirely readable and enjoyable, but much of it was boring in light of my recent education. Ask me twenty years from now and I may have a different response.

That said, however, there are a few notable features of the book that make it worth reading if you're interested in learning about the puzzles of our planet. The book drops a lot of names accompanied by interesting characterizations which, though usually irrelevant to the actual science at hand, keep the text lively and fun. Bryson allows his dry wit to show through even when unraveling the secrets of life, and I never dreaded picking up the book. The explanations are usually as clear as possible, though I am still unsatisfied with a few specific explanations. Bryson does a great job of linking things and people together, pointing out connections between branches of science and scientists themselves that keep the book moving though it is jam-packed with information.

Though Bryson is incredibly clear and communicates very well with his audience, I got entirely lost in the anthropology section. My first conclusion is that this is entirely due to my lack of interest and prior knowledge in the subject, but it's murky enough without dropping species' names here and there without keeping them straight. Scientists may confuse them, but the text at hand just becomes jumbled and decidedly un-fun. The ending of the book is also terribly anticlimactic. After gripping my interest for 400 pages or so, the book just kind of dropped off and left me hanging without a successful conclusion. The lack of a wrap-up is even more glaringly stark because the subject naturally lends itself so well to that sort of thing. It wasn't enough to make the book not worth reading, but its initial promise felt unfulfilled at the end.

Grade: B+

May 24, 2007

Book 32: Open Secrets

Open Secrets
Alice Munro

I was somewhat disappointed by this collection of short stories, which I picked up after loving a story of Munro's I read in an anthology. There is undoubtably skill in these stories, and Munro proves that she can be incredibly effective with the English language when her stories connect to the reader. Unfortunately, many of the stories in this volume meander along without ever getting anywhere, filled with artistic movements that are more abstract and confusing than revealing or poignant. Munro does a few things very well, using a common setting and fully fleshing it out. With all of the stories finding a connection to (or setting in) a group of small Canadian towns, Munro effectively makes her characters and setting real. Names fade in and out throughout the collection, making it a history of the inhabitants and making the book a coherent series rather than a mish-mash.

Munro is also very good at getting to the heart of her characters, most of whom are women. The characters feel real and have realistic faults and shortcomings. It is in plot and language that the stories often become muddled and boring. There is nothing wrong with jumping between characters of importance or skipping around in the timeline, when these are done effectively. Munro's stories, however, jump around so that it is impossible to tell what is going on or who the main character is. I found this to be annoying at best and grating or insulting at worst. I wasn't intrigued by the jumps; rather, I quickly lost interest and failed to get connections.

Throughout this book, I asked myself, "Yes, but what's the point?" Munro is getting at deeper truths, but in a roundabout way that is far from enjoyable. A few of the stories were excellent- "A Wilderness Station" is the strongest in the collection and its epistolary form of gradual revelation does what other stories cannot in selective telling and shifting notions of truth. The majority of the collection, though a good case in character study, is a little too jittery and unnecessarily complicated to be thoroughly enjoyable. The promise of this good writer just doesn't stand up to inspection.

Grade: B

May 18, 2007

Book 31: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle
Washington Irving

I needed something quick to make sure I got some reading in this week, so I picked up these two classic short stories to read during the opening of our garage sale bonanza. It was very weird finally reading these stories; for one thing, I just saw the Wishbone episode about "Rip Van Winkle" (yes, there's no misprint...Wishbone is still on TV!). That is, of course, to say nothing of the Sleepy Hollow legends that permeate our culture come Halloween. Strangely, I didn't know quite what to expect from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," but I think it still let me down.

Washington Irving has compelling stories to tell, but "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" concentrates too much on long-winded descriptions and not enough on the kinds of building tension or plot development necessary for the genre. Ghost stories were, of course, not commonly written at the time, but for being a groundbreaker I expected so much more. I couldn't focus on the story and seemingly important elements turned out to be incredibly benign, adding nothing to the story but unnecessary page length. I think that the story could work orally, with certain adaptations to the backstory, but in the written format it doesn't excel.

"Rip Van Winkle," on the other hand, is everything a short story should strive to be. Part morality play, part folk tale, part ghost story, part comedy, part political commentary...this story has it all in a neat little package that is just right. The reader gets a good idea of Rip's personality and is involved enough to remain attached to the story. There are several acute nuances throughout the story that greatly enrich it as the reader moves along. The tale itself has a perfect combination of folk tale elements and completely unique flavors that unite to make it the timeless classic it deserves to be. As a pioneer of time travel, Washington Irving definitely got it right. Though more political commentary regarding the Revolutionary War could have been inserted, it may have bogged the story down in satire and detracted from the sheer joy of reading such a great work.

I'm not sure what to conclude about Washington Irving from these two stories, other than his seeming hit-or-miss tendencies. Sleepy Hollow doesn't manage to fully come alive, but the writer displays incredible talent in "Rip Van Winkle". Interested readers should read the tale of Ichabod Crane, if only for a taste of what the true story really is (and it is so short that the time could hardly be called wasted). Everyone looking for a wonderful short story that fully exposes all of the strengths and possibilities of the genre should, however, pick up a copy of "Rip Van Winkle" sometime and devote an hour or so to its brilliant writing.

Grade: B+

May 10, 2007

Book 30: The Art of Detection

The Art of Detection
Laurie R. King

I picked up this book hoping for a quick, engrossing read, a fast-paced thriller that would create a sufficient intrigue to keep me glued for hours. Perhaps I inherently ask too much of crime fiction; my dealings with modern works of the genre have been greatly disappointing. I think that the short story (a la Sherlock Holmes, my personal hero and hero in this book as well) is the best form for the crime story, next to TV and feature films. There is something about seeing the drama unfold that heightens suspense that only the best crime writers can emulate. Lest I give the impression that I am condemning a genre because of one book, let me say that I definitely liked the book, but that it had enough shortcomings to make it boring and derivative.

First things first, the connection to Sherlock Holmes within the story is somewhat contrived, as is King's attempt to emulate Sir Arthur, but it carries great potential. The best part of the book by far is the lost Holmes story she concocts for several chapters in the middle of the novel. This is the part of the book I'd like to return to, the part that gave me that page-turning sense of urgency and desire that is fundamental to the genre of mystery and crime writing. The story's existence may be based on pretention, but King proves that she is a great writer with the ability to craft an interesting and gripping narrative.

Now, if only the rest of the book had that power. In the Holmes story, King was working with a well-established character. Aside from the murdered Philip Gilbert, who is fully fleshed out and (aside from his fatal flaw) entirely realistic, King's characters seem to flounder and retain two dimensions. Brief forays into Inspector Kate Martinelli's home life don't do anything to advance the story and instead become condescending and unnecessary interludes. I also wasn't very fond of the "OMGZ she's GAY!" attitude that pervaded the novel. Having a main character be incidentally gay is a good step in terms of literature, but showing overbearing tolerance towards homosexuals and bringing sexuality up constantly is irresponsible and just serves to make sexuality trump personality. I also detest the use of the word "partner" instead of "wife", but since that's a convention within the community itself I can't blame King for using it. The crux of the matter is that King tries too hard to make her characters stand out, and creating them with obvious descriptions and flagged phrases only serves to make them two-dimensional.

The book also suffered a lack of real plot. The society of Sherlock Holmes fanatics King dives into is lively, different, driving, and interesting, but its inclusion alone does not serve to sufficiently drive the book. There was no real "a-ha!" moment and the climax of the book comes with a grunt rather than a bang. I see in King great potential for good crime writing, but I think that she gets bogged down in unnecessary details at times. I would not exclude looking into her Mary Russell series but my interest in her present-day novels has been sufficiently doused. The Art of Detection is not a complete waste of time, but life will go on without it and there are surely much better fish in the sea.

Grade: B-

May 4, 2007

Book 29: Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind
Margaret Mitchell

What a book. I was afraid that this beloved novel would fall far short of my expectations, as so many highly recommended books must. This book, however, deserves every bit of hype it gets and then some. It is obvious that Gone with the Wind has been a staple of women's reading lists for many good reasons. The thing that startled me (and impressed me) most about the book was its realism. The book doesn't strain to make things happen that are unrealistic or that make us feel better about Scarlett. Scarlett is selfish and, though she comes to her realization, has already blown her chances at happiness. The story is tragic but true to life and, therefore, far more interesting than most.

The plot of the book is engaging and, though epic, doesn't strike one as incredibly fanciful. Scarlett shows a few hints of early feminism probably more congruent with the 1930s than the 1860s, but the reader is eager to accept a healthy, strong-willed female challenging societal conceptions. Scarlett may be a hellion of sorts to her society, but she still belongs firmly in it; her devotion to old customs despite her recognition of her own abilities is entirely believable, as are her numerous taboos regarding certain social conventions. Scarlett may be uncommonly strong, but her strength is rooted in her story and derived from it, not from ulterior motives. Scarlett herself is refreshing- here is a character we love and hate, a leading lady whom we root for but still chastise when she furthers her own bad habits.

Another refreshing aspect of this book is its lack of political correctness. I believe that there are some elements of truth in Mitchell's presentation of black life during the period concerned, and I think that it is important to remember that slaves were ingrained in Southern life in ways that we cannot fathom today. The book is a little quick to condemn Emancipation and blacks in general, but the views within seem representative of the period and add to the sense of reality in the book. It doesn't feel like reading about the past; the book invites us to step into the past and experience it. To this end, an incredibly interesting detail I picked up on was the use of the n-word to describe blacks. I believe Mitchell is onto something. Scarlett is shocked when she first hears the word used by Northern whites to refer to blacks, but by the end of the novel the Southern whites are using it as well. I believe that Mitchell attempted to capture the changes in racial balance that were brought about so suddenly, and I think that the representation of the culture shock should be carefully studied, if with a keen eye towards skepticism.

This book is carefully constructed and beautifully written. If a bit nostalgic, Mitchell succeeds entirely at giving present-day readers a glimpse of a world locked into time, made even more stunningly real by the characters' recognition of their own nostalgia. Gone with the Wind is simply stunning, and epic story that defies conventions left and right and should remain a classic for years to come.

Grade: A