June 27, 2008

Book 29: The Accidental

The Accidental
Ali Smith

My own opinions are as deeply divided on this book as those of the Internet at large, a fact that doesn't bode particularly well for Smith's intriguing novel. The problem is that the plot of the novel is neglected for the sake of the writing, which is absolutely fantastic. The novel is slow to build and it is hard to isolate plot elements as such in between the gentle ebb and flow of Smith's comfortable and moving prose. None of this sinks the novel entirely; in fact, for a novel with a palpable lack of solid plot, the book is remarkably engaging. Chalk this up to the vivid character portraits of the book's first act (aptly titled "the beginning"). The book begins with Astrid, a twelve year old fond of misappropriating the phrase "i.e." and who becomes immediately enthralled by a strange newcomer, Amber, whose perspective is always shadowy and funneled through the often contradictory viewpoints of the other members of Astrid's family. Smith shows a gift for poetic prose that is real enough to stay just on the safe side of pretension and channels the pre-adolescent mind with shocking accuracy, if overestimating the twelve-year-old and underestimating the seventeen-year-old a bit. Likewise, the portrait of Magnus presented in the second chapter is a perfect blend of action and thought. The reader is made subtly aware of the thoughts running through the depressed teen's mind and see how he interacts with his family and with Amber.

The novel begins to falter, however, with the adults and as the book progresses. The entire novel becomes a series of meditations rooted in each character's mentality, rendered through excellent use of shifting third-person limited narration and by its end the characters have changed without any real explanation why. Readers are taken through the summer with the characters only to find them, in "the end", after the summer holiday and in inexplicable places. There are rapid shifts of character with no real explanations why, and the end itself is rooted in a plot twist to hyperbolic to have any resonance. The novel is an example of excellent experimental prose (with a dash of a character's bad poetry thrown in for good measure) that simply lacks any driving force or sense of cause and effect. It is admirable that Smith seeks to place such an interesting new spin on the stranger-comes-to-town motif, but she does so without unleashing any of the stock plot's potential, refusing to tap into the psychology that makes it so engaging in the first place. The book is worth reading with a grain of salt, if only for its excellent first third and mediocre middle, but by the end the excellence of the writing is unable to sustain the book's full 303 pages.

Grade: B

June 26, 2008

Book 28: Backgammon: The Cruelest Game

Backgammon: The Cruelest Game
Barclay Cooke and Jon Bradshaw

Written by a man named Barclay in the late 1970s, this book has to be good. Its core aim is to acquaint readers with the ancient game and modern techniques for being successful in tournament play. Its structure is mostly useful, beginning with the game's basic rules and proceeding through mid-game strategies and a discussion of probability to end with notes on players' psychology and three example games. The book's purpose is clear and its terminology clearly explained at the beginning, but as the strategies become more complex and cunning they become cloaked in increasingly elegant and silly language, which is unfortunately inversely proportional to the amount of understanding conveyed to the average reader (that is to say, an aspiring backgammon great). The book's main, but hilarious, problem is that it takes itself and the game far too seriously, which makes it somewhat useless for any casual player but absolutely hilarious for a reader who sticks around until the end and who may, despite the book's lack of clarity and overall vision, may pick up a few useful backgammon tips to spring on unsuspecting friends.

Cooke and Bradshaw pull no punches and cut directly to the chase: backgammon is not a game. No, far from it. Backgammon is war. The authors proceed to stretch out this tired and hyperbolic metaphor so far beyond acceptable usage that it becomes actually delightful how serious the enterprise actually is. Each chapter begins with a quotation from Karl von Clausewitz (I kid you not) dealing with war and related to that unit's focus within the game. Hyperbole and grandstanding aside, the book's introduction to the basic rules of backgammon is the best I've come across and should be repeated faithfully when explaining the game to a new player. Likewise, the following chapter outlines favorable opening rolls and what one should do with them with a good amount of reasoned explanation although the authors get a bit haughty. The text goes downhill (uphill?) from there as the authors pass harsh judgement on those who would dare(!) to play certain moves differently from the way they suggest. All of this commentary is not entirely unwelcome, and at least they are confident, but their plan and tactics are presented without an overarching sense of what one can hope to achieve. Of course a lot of the strategy is determined by the dice on the fly, backgammon being a game of luck as well as skill, but Cooke and Bradshaw offer no sense of any general game plan other than to note that their enigmatic tactics change as the game progresses. This information would be more useful given a sort of unifying theory of the game, but none is to be found and individual moves, while making sense in their own contexts, are hard to relate to in-game situations that should arise.

Over-complicating a book meant as a guide to the ordinary beginner, the authors dive in far too deeply far too quickly without much in the way of concrete explanation. The diagrams are helpful but far too often occur much earlier or later than the text accompaniment; this is a problem of editing and layout but it is exasperating nonetheless. While it is amusing to hear the authors talk of "horror rolls", which is actually quite accurate, it is easily apparent that they take themselves and their task a little too seriously to be actually useful. Discussion of the doubling cube is confusing and overly didactic and is indicative of the problems with the text as a whole. Its elementary discussion is excellent but the authors soon get too full of themselves and create a laughably serious text that undermines their point. I've no doubt that backgammon is a serious game of considerable depth and complexity, but this guide spends too much time and effort dwelling on that assertion and not enough explaining the intricacies of the game and the theories on which they depend, making backgammon seem serious and boring when in fact it is quite interesting and fun.

Grade: C+

June 25, 2008

Book 27: The Spy

The Spy
James Fenimore Cooper

It's hard to be fair to a book like this, written as it was in the early 1800s. Some of the sentence structure seems overwrought and Cooper uses far too many commas for my liking (which is saying something), but this is merely a product of the times. The subject matter and plot, on the other hand, are fair game for criticism but continue to resonate through the ages. The Spy is particularly interesting because it deals with the American Revolution only 40 years or so after its end, written when America was still a new and emerging concept and vividly engaging a morality central to the war. The book can be easily boiled down to a moralistic patriotic trope, but its discussion of spying and its double standards offer interesting, if unintended, insights into patriotism and the state of mind of young America. The book's hero, Harvey Birch, illustrates a fundamental contradiction: spying is either the worst treachery that one can perform (when done for the enemy) or ranks among the noblest of sacrifices one can make for the cause. A modern, jaded eye can discern the necessary bias within the text, a bias which makes the book particularly valuable as a historical document as well as a literary one. Most interesting is the pivotal position of the loyalist Whartons, displayed sympathetically despite their fervent belief in the sanctity of the Crown and a vivid reminder that Americans themselves were deeply split about the war being fought on their fields and in their wilderness.

The plot itself isn't particularly engaging and is a bit jumpy. It is sometimes difficult to discern with which side a particular character is aligned; this is essential for Harvey, intriguing for Mr. Harper, engaging for the Whartons, and inconceivably frustrating with the generals who love the Wharton sisters. Careful reading is often necessary, which is as much due to the age of the book as its sometimes roundabout construction. It takes a while for the central plot to firmly develop and begin to move, and scene transitions can be rocky and confusing. By the end of the novel, its conclusion seems inevitable and has been predictable almost from the start, though there are some interesting action scenes and chases in the middle. Despite its reliance on a now obscure story of an executed British spy (Major Andre), the book is an interesting historical novel that, itself, is now historical. Its view of the American Revolution isn't groundbreaking but, with fierce patriotism, reveals much about the character of early America and the scope and turmoil of the Revolution itself. Its plot is interesting but ultimately the book is most valuable for its unintended contents and will benefit readers who are willing to read between the lines for an early view of the American Revolution with some interesting characters attached.

Grade: B

June 20, 2008

Book 26: All Families Are Psychotic

All Families Are Psychotic
Douglas Coupland

The title of Douglas Coupland's novel may be entirely correct (indeed, all families have a psychotic tendency in some form or another), but thankfully most experiences with slightly deranged relatives won't reach the epic proportions seen in this novel. While the caricatures can seem a bit overworked at points, at the heart of All Families Are Psychotic is a delightful romp through heavily touristed Orlando and its environs. Coupland's work is over the top for sure, bestowing an entirely unbelievable plot twist upon a family too distorted to be real or relateable. However, despite predictability and sheer outlandishness, this book is entirely enjoyable and Coupland's characters strangely likeable by the end of the book. Each has a laundry list of undesirable characteristics but each retains the ability to surprise and to grow. For a group of incompetent idiots, the Drummond clan is surprisingly- and shockingly- real, brought to life by their utter uncompromised failure as a fmaily and through Coupland's keen ear for dialogue. The interactions between characters is All Families Are Psychotic saves the book from becoming redundant and keeps it moving despite its fantastic plot. Most delightful is the novel's self-consciousness as characters discuss how to spell a girlfriend's odd name, remarking on its pronunciation which is, of course, delightfully obscure to the reader. Readers' lives are (hopefully) not this messed up, but it is quite possible to see oneself in the book's many strained interactions. Ultimately, what is most shocking about the book is not the sheer silliness of the Drummond family's instability but its startling resemblance to our own "ordinary" families. Coupland is careful to keep the Drummonds within reach of reality while exploiting their comic potential whenever possible.

Most comedy contains its overly ambitious moments, and All Families Are Psychotic is no different in this regard, but its flaws are excusable due to their sheer outright hilarity. There are moments in the book where the overly contrived plot wears thin (an errand undertaken by the Drummond men is outlandish and is unable to successfully employ its sentimental connection to the family), but the progress of the family's reconciliation is continually interesting and eventually outshines the vehicle invented to facilitate it. Occasional forays into the family's past are relevant and often provide a welcome break from constant bickering; these flashbacks enhance the text and give relevant background information that helps flesh out the family and its problems. Despite a cliched and sentimental ending that clashes dramatically with the preceding pages of chaos and selfishness, the character evolution seems realistic and fits with the (admittedly contrived) plot, ending with a satisfying lack of conclusion and with just enough neatly wrapped ends to keep the Drummonds within the scope of reality. Coupland's novel stretches a little too far when searching for some of its laughs, but the subtleties in its dialogue and the strange truths hinted at despite radically disarming characters keep All Families Are Psychotic entertaining for those seeking a quick and humorous book.

Grade: A-

June 13, 2008

Book 25: A Faker's Dozen

A Faker's Dozen
Melvin Jules Bukiet

I spotted this in the library and, attracted both by virtue of having met the author and by the startling originality of the stories as promised by the book's jacket flap. Unfortunately, originality is almost the sole strength of this collection, which presents incredibly intriguing ideas with disappointing and woefully overwrought prose. This collection is a perfect representation of what happens when excellent ideas are conveyed through mediocre writing, and it demonstrates the necessity of neat prose and subtle wit in good, readable, and relaxing literature. Bukiet certainly doesn't fail for lack of trying. His stories are nearly all original, and even recycled ideas (most prominently the Faust motif of "The Swap") are fresh in his hands. As an avid fan of the Faust motif, I was pleased to read this take on it, though the ending falls rather flat (as several of the endings sadly do) and is unnecessarily confusing. "Paper Hero" likewise takes an entirely predictable plot and infuses it with the over-the-top humor it deserves, failing only because its humor is a little too forced, even in a story that demands bluntness. The story's finale, "War Heroes" is likewise an intriguing character study that carries on for twenty pages past its prime and which approaches its utterly disappointing ending at a lolling pace quite unsuited to its material.

It is this fundamental disconnect between intention and execution that mars and ultimately sinks Bukiet's collection. Misplaced colloquialisms dot the lazy text, and far too often Bukiet's interesting ideas are abandoned in a sea of ill-chosen adjectives and irrelevant side stories. Each story is radically different from the others and each demands a look at the human psyche, but none contains the insightful and evocative writing that best explores the darker side of human nature. The collection hangs together as each story studies a different way that humans lie, but unfortunately the stories are only memorable for their approaches and not the actual lives they probe. This is extremely unfortunate because Bukiet bravely takes on several genres: from alternative biography ("The Two Franzes") to science fiction ("But, Microsoft! What Byte Through Yonder Windows Breaks?"), Bukiet is equally able to create a consistent narrative world, failing completely only in the perplexing "Suburbiad", which represents his failure to communicate at its utter nadir.

In the end, this collection is highly disappointing, mostly because the imagination behind the collection is clearly so vibrant and insightful. Bukiet falls flat on his jokes and cannot deliver his insights because he is trying far too hard to deliver the kind of self-congratulatory writing he so clearly detests in so many of the stories of this collection. He is unable to remove himself entirely from the Pulitzer-chasing authors in his stories and comes off as a hack, a reputation more deserved because of the appalling state of some of the stories' sentences. With each story I was waiting for a rebirth, a gust of talent to sweep me off of my chair and into the parallel narrative universe. As each story faded, however, I was left with only the shell of a brilliant idea, a group of products over-promised and under-delivered, too self-conscious to be as revealing as they should be and all the more disappointing for their extraordinary potential.

Grade: C

June 11, 2008

Book 24: A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Bill Bryson

Travel literature is surely a vast and varied genre, its writers should all take cues from Bill Bryson's book about his experiences as an amateur hiker on America's most celebrated modern trail. Bryson mixes fact and blatant fiction in a humorous and entirely accessible way, making readers want to hike out on the trail themselves while portraying the downsides of endless days in the American wilderness, often spent far, far away from people. Despite its humorous edge, Bryson manages to cram in a lot of general knowledge about the history and current state of the Appalachian Trail and the American wilderness in general, and the book becomes both the story of a nation and the story of two normal middle-aged American men hiking the Appalachian Trail. About the latter, Bryson minces no words, surely embellishing some parts of his journey but creating a fascinating work of nonfiction nonetheless. Despite his obvious stabs at humor and somewhat forced solemnity at parts, A Walk in the Woods is a delightful romp through the backcountry.

Bryson's most hilarious section comes early in his journey along the trail, in the character of Mary Ellen. She is like several people I have known, which made me laugh all the harder as she turns down her nose at Bryson's equipment while clearly possessing no moral high ground of his own. Similarly uproarious are Bryson's perhaps unkind depictions of Stephen Katz, his hiking buddy whose motives are questionable throughout, and a man nicknamed Chicken John who perpetually gets lost on the well-marked trail. It is hard not to believe the outlandish characters despite their humorous misadventures, and if Bryson is embellishing it only adds to the overall character and good-time feel of the book. It is nice to return to the plodding, foolish Katz after a lengthy meditation on the beauty of solitude or the ineptitude of the National Park Service. In these respects, Bryson is always interesting but occasionally loses his stride with an abrupt switch between utter seriousness and sarcastic joking. The book sets its tone early as Bryson juggles real information about bear attacks in the woods (his greatest initial safety concern) alongside nonchalant justifications and sober observations. It becomes a bit much in parts and the immense contrast between narrative sections and factual sections creates occasional hang-ups and prevents the book from maintaining an even flow or steady hand.

Indeed, Bryson's observations, while intriguing, often distract from the matter at hand and become too didactic at times. While the information is always related to the narrative and illuminates the journey along the trail, there are spots where the science and history overwhelm and distract from, rather than enhance, the central story. Bryson also fails marvelously at objectivity, which adds to the humorous feel and light tone of the book but which undermines his credibility when he does play with a straight face. It is hard to take him entirely seriously when his (surely well-founded) rants against the National Park Service are followed by a humorous misadventure or tale of a far-too-stereotypical backwoods Georgia town. This is the main problem with the otherwise delightful book: A Walk in the Woods never fully integrates its two narratives. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious and Bryson is desperately earnest in his calls to save the forests, but the two sides of the book never form a coherent vision. Anyone interested in the Appalachian Trail or in experiencing a light, funny travelogue should definitely read this book. It deserves to be a classic in its genre despite its occasional tone confusion and will make readers want to pick up a pack and experience the Appalachian Trail themselves.

Grade: B+

June 8, 2008

Book 23: An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge
John O'Farrell

I picked this up in Heathrow Airport, and I'm not sure it's available in America, which is an utter shame because O'Farrell brings British history alive in a unique and exciting way most accessible for completely uninformed readers or those who have only a fleeting knowledge of the chaps across the Pond. O'Farrell writes half in farce and half with a keen eye toward British history, and while this book is not for the faint-hearted or, indeed, the humorless, it can illuminate the past for even the most academic history students. The goal of this book is accessibility, and on this account An Utterly Impartial History of Britain succeeds completely. Beginning with the first arrivals on Britain and ending with World War II, the book gives a comprehensive and easily comprehended view of the island that would, for a time, be among history's greatest empires. Chapters are well-conceived and cover major periods of British history, conveniently broken up into sections with often hilarious (and usually sarcastic) headlines that draw from current idioms or ways of understanding history. While some of the humor is only fully appropriate for those with a working knowledge of British culture (the intended audience of the book), it is not hard for the reader to be immersed in this delightful work, laughing several times per page when necessary.

O'Farrell manages to blend historical information with humor and subtle satirical analysis. It isn't hard to miss his opinions in the mix, and aside from (easily forgivable) slam dunks many of his jokes do illuminate the historical trade as a whole and its preoccupation with its own infallibility. This book seeks to make history accessible and blows the lid off of the historical profession while offering an interesting individual interpretation of events. The book doesn't have a thesis as such, but it isn't difficult to distinguish O'Farrell's leftist tendencies, which often crop up in the last sections of chapters. These insights draw conclusions from history and apply them to Britain's current political and social situations; while they can be a bit didactic, they are never dry and are fairly transparent as opinion, not fact. Actually, the author takes care in presenting dubious facts with a skeptical eye, and while this provides a wealth of material for his jokes, it is also refreshing to read an admission that we can never be sure what exactly happened during the reign of some long-forgotten monarch. Regardless of this, the book manages to be incredibly thorough, covering every British monarch and often looking towards the situation in Ireland and Scotland on top of that in England.

O'Farrell claims that he set out to write a history of Britain for those who fell asleep in high school history and who often find it dry and boring. What he has done is transformed dull, dry material into a 500-page long stand-up routine with a lot to be learned both from and in between jokes. His tendency to include fake (but relevant) dialogue gets a tad wearisome, but because his humor is often spot-on they are forgivable and do serve to break up long bits of actual historical information. This book may seem like a farce, but it would do many well-meaning history majors a lot of good to open their eyes to the subtle criticism of the historical profession that drives this book. This is what historical writing should be: accessible, fun, and relevant to modern times. This book doesn't pursue a distinct argument but simply seeks to educate ordinary Britons (or anyone else) on their history, a noble goal not often attempted in more serious circles. As a reader with a moderate but by no means thorough background in British history, I found this book indispensable. Previously embarrassed to admit that I had no clue about the Battle of Hastings, I now feel that I have a passable knowledge of British history, presented skeptically and tempered by an acute satirical eye but valuable nonetheless. This book is worth seeking out for a comprehensive view of the British Isles as long as the reader keeps in mind that O'Farrell does have very specific views on modern politics, opinions that drive his gleeful satire and keep the book fresh and make its history come alive.

Grade: A