July 31, 2008

Book 35: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon

Despite the fact that its primary plot begins as a standard whodunit, with an anonymous body and a police detective badly in need of redemption, Chabon throws enough wrenches into the machinery of the traditional detective novel to keep The Yiddish Policemen's Union fresh even after its mystery aspect goes a bit stale. Blending a typical mystery story with Jewish history and culture and a stunning alternate version of 2007, this book aims high and succeeds in bringing something new to each genre while remaining interesting to the general reader. Central to the plot is Meyer Landsman, a jaded alcoholic detective with nothing to lose...because his entire company is due to be shut down in a matter of weeks. Chabon neither rushes readers into the deep historical reaches of his alternate vision nor creates confusion by introducing complicating and obscure details. Chabon lowers the reader in gracefully and gently, providing historical information as it becomes necessary and dropping certain tidbits as effortlessly as the characters themselves would. The stunning landscape of Jewish Alaska, apparently based on an actual Congressional proposal from the outbreak of World War II, is vividly imagined and is as much of a fully functioning world as many a space colony or other imaginary universe. The Sitka Jews have a rich culture and a vibrant language whose idioms come out even in the supposed English translation (a particularly subtle and effective touch is noting when characters speak "in American," usually when they're swearing). Nor is everything perfect in this temporary Jewish homeland; clashes with native populations, officials from Washington, and even different sects of Orthodox Jews are common and add depth to this rich world.

Chabon doesn't waste this intense and detailed setting for even one moment. He manages to intertwine the pressing issues of the Sitka Jews almost effortlessly into Landsman's own history and experiences, using only as much authorial privilege and ridiculous coincidence as can be expected in any mystery. The fact that his partner has specific ethnic connections or that his father plays chess add to the depth of the character and the only egregious incident of convenient placement is when Landsman's ex-wife steps into the picture and initiates a predictable subplot. For the most part, Landsman is a well-developed and rounded character, if rendered flat to genre readers by typical character traits and development. He functions well enough to maintain intrigue and personal connection as the plot slowly unfurls and reveals much deeper and more sinister intentions than first appear. The major twists in this story showcase Chabon's talent for seeing the greater picture and for imagining the likely consequences of certain actions, as well as a knowledge of Jewish history and the real-world developments in Jewish culture. Despite the fact that the turn events take is absolutely fantastic, it seems frighteningly real and possible even in our own world, a vividness that stems from what is no doubt a keen self-awareness of this book as a definitively post-9/11 novel.

The writing does get a bit haughty at times, with metaphors that ring true but are horribly misplaced in this story. Chabon may be attempting to chip away at the normally flatter prose of the mystery genre, but his highly literary metaphors drag down the action and distract from the excellent subtlety shown in his re-imagining of history. It is ultimately the setting and not the characters or even the solution to the murder that drives The Yiddish Policemen's Union, but that setting is so cleverly plotted and intricately detailed that it alone makes the book worth reading despite its lapses into predictability and certain plot twists that make absolutely no sense across great leaps of logic and events. The book, then, is not without its flaws but creates a stunning alternate universe that can teach us a lot about our own in its direct and bludgeoning nods to our post-9/11 state of mind. Chabon occasionally strays into the wilderness with ill-fitting prose but is always drawn back by the centrality of the Sitka settlement and its unique and compelling history. Though this story takes place near the end of Sitka's history, I would happily welcome additions to the stories of this rich and detailed world, an alternate Alaska that would likely justify any story thrown into it and which is adeptly introduced by the interesting and far-reaching conspiracy at the heart of The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Grade: A-

July 25, 2008

Book 34: One for the Money

One for the Money
Janet Evanovich

This book is a nice, quick little read and makes an excellent foil to, say, the more heavy style of James Joyce. Though it is not in any sense heavy or even especially brilliant, One for the Money is fun and delivers a fresh take on the somewhat formulaic mystery genre. Though its plot is interesting and unique enough to deserve attention, it is main character Stephanie Plum who drives the book and makes it enjoyable. Stephanie's narration is continually excellent and throws in perfectly timed humorous barbs to lighten the mood. These side jokes, while disrupting serious moments in the text, are far from disruptive and make the book a fun experience despite its occasionally heavy subject matter. Stephanie is relentlessly endearing and her continual hopeless incompetence never even borders on infuriating. Instead, most likely because she actively narrates and does so with a sweet and immediately likable voice, Stephanie is a comedic heroine who laughs right beside the reader at her multiple failures and mistakes.

Unfortunately, the book is not all simply fun and games. A major subplot of the narrative involves stalking and near-rape, a subject that I feel is a bit too heavy for this kind of light treatment. Evanovich is being remarkably true to the fact that Stephanie is a woman and faces additional dangers because of her gender, but the specific treatment of the story arc is dominated by Stephanie's desire to be strong in the eyes of her peers and future bounties and her subsequent reluctance to bring the offenses against her to light. Additionally, Stephanie is unable to hung Joe Morelli without becoming attracted to him, a side story that seems patronizing. So much of this becomes a weight dragging down the usually lighthearted tone of the narration. There isn't really a sense of tonal balance. These are not the only flaws of the action, either; while mysteries are notable for their convoluted plot twists, often accumulating within the final ten pages or so of the work, this one crams far too much into its final pages. There are sufficient twists to keep the story interesting, but the final angle gets far too sharp far too quickly for comprehension, feeling pushy and somewhat unrealistic, alluding to a minor conversation too late in the book to be a recuring theme or true hidden clue. Despite a lack of refinement in the genre and its somewhat lighthearted treatment of the very serious subjects of rape and harassment, One for the Money is a promising start to the Stephanie Plum series and one could do far worse for a quick, mostly light, summer read.

Grade: B+

July 23, 2008

Book 33: Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake
James Joyce

I have done it; I have completed the first leg of anyone's literary Ironman competition, and what a journey it is. From the blatant absence of an apostrophe in the title to the circular grand finale, which ends before the book even begins (apparently), Finnegans Wake is a journey through impossibility and utter silliness, a highly prized literary send-up of highly prized literature. The book itself makes a mockery of the entire idea of narrative, beginning in the middle of a sentence and ending with the first half of that same sentence. This, however, as so much else in the book, is at once nauseating and incredibly clever. This specific example shows the entirety of the book in a nutshell: Joyce has created an intricately detailed yet entirely unreadable work that has somehow wormed its way into the hearts of the English language's literary intelligentsia. Unfortunately, unlike many other worthy classics, Finnegans Wake is popular precisely because it is unreadable and, I suspect, due to its unmatched ability to induce a headache within mere seconds. The book often shifts between insightful and infuriating from letter to letter as a barely-recognizable pun slides into a mishmash of letters placed together with no eye for coherence or meaning at all. The book is at once deliberate and careless and ultimately it is a 600-page mess of contradiction and pretentiousness that is, at best, silly.

The main problem with Finnegans Wake is its sheer randomness. The reader will recognize an allusion only to have it melt away within words. The only passage that I understood at length was in the first fifty pages or so and dealt with some highlights of Napoleon's career. After that, the only enjoyment the book offers is the brief feeling of competence as a reasonably transparent pun sneaks its way into the nonsense and gibberish. Joyce is clearly a master of the language and cleverly plays with the sounds and shapes of English words; many of the puns in the book are indeed quite clever and those that make sense seem to hint that the rest are as deliberately constructed. The problem is that the puns are so constant as to make the text absolutely indecipherable and that the allusions come out of nowhere and disappear just as suddenly. They are far too specific and woe to the reader who reads this tome without having visited Ireland. There is rarely any sort of theme or trend to grapple onto, which is too bad because one of the highlights of reading the book is seeing some old gags recur throughout the flow. Joyce's constant play on the phrase "Finnegan's wake" and various homonyms for "Ireland" and "Dublin" is delightful and does offer a kind of grounding force through the free-flowing lines of words and words and random collections of letters. Not so fascinating are the fifty-odd letter constructions or words that consist of a string of the same letter ("ttt" is particularly annoying), which come off as merely pretentious and show none of the cleverness that makes other parts of the book pop out. There is potential, so much potential, but it is all wasted as Joyce endlessly congratulates himself upon creating another useless pun.

Finnegans Wake is not for the lighthearted and probably shouldn't be for anyone. It has rare glimmers of genius and talent, but for the most part it is hogwash that does not offer any significant rewards outside of running across the word "hogwarts" in the vast midsection or the recognition of river names in a particular paragraph. The puns are interesting and clever for their phonetic linguistics, but for the most part the pun itself doesn't contribute to the word. Why use a reference to Beethoven or to a sign of the zodiac if that reference isn't going to add anything to an interpretation or understanding of the text? This is the ultimate question raised by the book: why bother with the genius when so much is dreck? It simply is not worth searching for the needle in the haystack, for the needle itself is rusty and only barely resembles a needle at all. Finnegans Wake may not be a complete waste of time, but it is more infuriating than illuminating and I personally question its placement at the pinnacle of English language literature, though not its place amongst the language's hardest works. It requires far too much effort for no reward other than vaguely interesting wordplay that usually works only on one basic level. One-hundred pages and it's genius. Six-hundred and twenty-eight make the most well-meaning reader want to gouge his or her eyes out.

Grade: C-

July 6, 2008

Book 32: JPod

Douglas Coupland

I wouldn't go so far as to call this book truly experimental, but neither does it fit within the confines of traditional narrative. Any book that reproduces the first 100,000 digits of pi, only to follow with another 100,000 digits or so, must be placed somewhere along the experimental side of the spectrum, even though JPod doesn't seek to upend literary conventions or come off as pretentious while doing it. Tucked between points of narrative continuity and more typical writing are whole pages of near-nonsense, Chinese characters, or generational catch phrases (a personal favorite was "grind the molten bucket", a reference to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 appropriate because the task of the main characters is to create a skateboarding game) that occasionally offer insights into the plot or characters (see above) but which usually serve only to clutter the book and rush readers to the next narrative stretch. This structure is interesting but gets old and tired after a while, even after it is implied that the whole book is merely a reproduction of main character Ethan's computer diary. The silliness of many of these diversions highlights the silliness of many major plot devices within the book, twists that are so ludicrous as to detract from the text and strain any credibility gained through Coupland's razor-sharp dialogue and general sense of humor.

The plot centers around Ethan, a twenty-something game developer at a corporation that eerily resembles EA, a sports-centered company looking to branch out with a skateboard game. The corporate trials that plauge Ethan, which most notably include a cheerful new manager's obsession with adding a friendly turtle to the game. Steve's cluelessness and the bureaucracy involved with mega-corporations are faithfully reproduced in the book to general hilarity. Less reasonable is the occupation of Ethan's mother (who grows marijuana) and absolutely ludicrous is the kind of trouble Ethan finds himself in because of his brother's shady dealings with a Chinese businessman. Just when the plot settles down and becomes reasonable, Ethan's personal life eclipses all notions of reasonable reality and the book descends into almost unreadable ridiculousness. This is incredibly unfortunate because Ethan's relationships and experiences at work radiate a kind of credibility and are usually delightful. Even when Coupland employs gimmicks in this context (such as the entires in several silly cubicle writing contests), they are funny and add to the light satire of corporate culture. Most egregious is Coupland's own presence in the novel which is played for humility but which comes across as utterly arrogant. Even though his character's presence "explains" the book's existence, the connection is tenuous and doesn't serve any real purpose other than to strain far too hard for laughs that Coupland proves he can easily produce elsewhere.

The novel, while not necessarily experimental per se, nonetheless possesses many of the flaws of truly experimental literature. Coupland tires far too hard to be funny or hip and often flails in the water where seconds before a mundane conversation has the reader in stitches. Coupland's true gift is for dialogue and for finding the humor in the normal day-to-day proceedings of the world, and where he stretches these slightly he is successful in provoking laughs. The projected sabotage of the game's new incarnation is absolutely hilarious though obviously over-the-top and it fits in well with the general sentiment of the jPod crew. Even the name-dropping that occurs throughout the novel is excusable because it feels real- I could see myself having these conversations with my friends, and to disguise specific brand or company names would only be silly and detract from the validity of the text. What Coupland lacks overall is a sense of balance and the confidence in his abilities that would allow the book to coast on subtlety with a few blaring gags. Instead, there are two different stories that do not mesh at all in style and which are worse off because of that contrast. The events at jPod show what a wonderful book this could have been if it had been more content and measured, and they do make the book worth reading despite the rampant ridiculousness of the almost insulting events of Ethan's family life. JPod is, in places, a nuanced look at current cubicle and twenty-something culture despite its pandering and Coupland's inability to know when to let a book speak for itself.

Grade: B

July 3, 2008

Book 31: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick

The best part of Dick's work is his ability to raise thought-provoking questions that deeply pierce the human psyche and affect every aspect of our lives without offering didactic solutions or condescending moral platitudes. Indeed, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? leaves the reader richer for having read it despite its lack of ultimate conclusions. Dick offers a hint of resolution in the book's final, enigmatic conversation but does not bludgeon readers with a sense of unassailable "right" and "wrong". Even without absolute resolution, the book feels complete and only refines its razor-sharp questions about sentience and the value of intelligent life. The premise of the book, that corporations have developed androids operating on human-level intelligence and lacking only incredibly small (and difficult to detect) biological signals when asked to empathize, itself raises important questions and subtly forces readers to reach their own conclusions as the narrative escalates and Rick Deckard, the main character, is forced to revisit his own priorities. Dick's work centers on questions of reality and veritability- how do we know what is real and how can we verify that reality, if at all? His walking, talking androids know all of the right things to say and can, in fact, outwit humans. Neither he, the reader, Rick Deckard, nor the androids themselves fully know what this implies about the morality of bounty hunting or the desirability of androids' presence on Earth.

Dick raises these deeply philosophical questions and others (including the morality of slavery, among other sticky issues) in an easygoing and highly readable prose. There are a few sections that are a bit confusing, but the back story is integrated well into the text and does not leave the reader hanging for too long. The world is easily and immediately recognizable and relevant, more eerily so because of recent advances in artificial intelligence technology and robotics. Rick Deckard is likable and is an excellent manifestation of the book's central questions about empathy and its necessity in humanity. At the heart of the novel lies an unresolvable dilemma about empathy that becomes real through Deckard's experience, which nonetheless never feels forced or overly moralistic. The action is fast-paced and continual plot twists only heighten the tension and raise more questions. Despite the somewhat muddy ending, the narrative progress of the novel fully and acutely presents, explores, and tentatively resolves its central issues, offering a sense of completion despite its lack of outright resolution. Philip K. Dick possesses an incomparable ability to twist and distort reality to emphasize the problems and questions most relevant to our own implied reality. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is far more than a quick science fiction adventure in a speculative universe. Quite subtly, the book is in fact a meditation on the importance of empathy in human interactions and the disturbing possibilities of the continued escalation of artificial intelligence technology.

Grade: A

July 2, 2008

Book 30: Radical Hollywood

Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies
Paul Buhle and David Wagner

This book definitely fulfills its promise to examine the history of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and even to the relatively uninitiated reader, many films treated in this book have attained epic status in American film making and will resonate with readers. Unfortunately, the offhand mention of a known film or the occasional scanty paragraph about a famous actor cannot make up for this book's dealings in trivia, excusable because of its academic focus but which ultimately uphold the incredibly low standard set for ivory tower publishing. That this "untold story" concentrates mostly on relatively unknown films and the subtleties of screenwriting rather than the more accessible art of acting is, although surprising given the proletarian nature of the book's title, not the sole reason that reading this book feels rather like a laundry list of impressive name-dropping. Quite simply, the book comes across as a flamboyant excuse for the two authors to describe the leftward tendencies of every Golden Age Hollywood film they've ever seen, with a few foreign films thrown in for good measure. The writing is dull and hard to catalyze and movie descriptions, while well-done in this particular instance, simply do not translate well to print and cannot carry a book by themselves. Particularly galling is the inconsistency with which characters are named: in a given film description, a character can be interchangably referred to by name or by the actor's name, a mix-up which is invariably confusing and which makes readers focus on familiar names (James Cagney! Katherine Hepburn!) rather than related plot lines.

The plot lines of various noted films are also the only plot one can hope for in this tome. Rightly noted as encyclopedic, if the authors' knowledge extends beyond obscure titles and names they surely don't show it in this book. They have taken a fundamentally gripping and important story and carefully crafted it into a dull line of succession which, by its end, is untraceable because it lacks memorable beacons due to an absolute overflow of information. The book is a veritable tsunami of movie after movie but only rarely attempts a discussion of context or even importance. It is enough for the authors to note that a screenwriter mentioned was a member of the Communist Party or (far more often) note with implied derision their future as a "friendly witness" to HUAC, failing utterly to even mention what this means until the book's final chapter. What purports to be a history of a political sensibility becomes a dry timeline rather than the engaging story that it in fact is. There is a sense of the jockeying for control between studios and creators that lies beneath the whole text, but instead of exploiting this intriguing and complex story the authors instead rely on their lists and descriptions to carry the day (along with an unhealthy fondness for Abraham Polonsky, seemingly mentioned in every other sentence). They don't.

What is left is a dull text useful only to those who already possess a working knowledge of the Left and its struggles from the advent of sound picture (the mid-1920s) to the destructive influence of McCarthyism and its infamous witch hunts. If I hadn't been lucky enough to take a class in Cold War culture in college, I certainly would have been lost as the vibrant history of the midcentury American Left goes completely unnoticed and unregarded. There is nothing wrong with having a specific focus, but any history book that is going to be useful or even mildly entertaining needs context. Instead of offering even the most cursory of histories, the authors jump right into the muddle and mess and plod along accordingly. Their sense of a timeline is ridiculously inept as they jump around without any sense of rhyme or reason and mention certain films twice without even acknowledging they have done so. The book becomes a well-ordered mess, a cornucopia of movie history without a sense of plot or its own importance. This reluctance to provide an outline or even to discuss most of the films' connections to the Left beyond their authorship (how do the plots or characterizations relate? How do these considerations slide past censorship?) is increasingly frustrating as the authors continue to ignore facts that would be not only beneficial but crucial to the average reader. Radical Hollywood presetns an excellent and (hopefully) thorough list of films created by the Hollywood Left of the Golden Age, but ultimately cannot sustain interest through four hundred pages of lists and endless movie descriptions that cannot help but blend into one boring mass.

Grade: C+