August 31, 2008

Book 40: Three to Get Deadly

Three to Get Deadly
Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns in this, her third major bounty hunting case, a little older and wiser but still the same Stephanie readers know and love. The case this time takes some expected twists and turns, but Evanovich keeps things fresh and interesting enough to please readers. This book is, however, a bit less humorous than the first two books in the series, due perhaps to the prominence of Lula in the supporting cast, a somewhat stereotypical black woman who doesn't have the same propensity for utter hilarity as most of the other recurring characters. Stephanie is also somewhat out of sync throughout the book and her narration, while containing its witticisms and clever insights, is relatively plain. Evanovich does get good performances out of the rest of Trenton's colorful characters and the mystery at hand is different and interesting, leading to a moral conundrum refreshing in this typically lighthearted genre. Particularly vibrant is the suspect Stephanie's chasing and the burg's reaction to her job hunting down a beloved neighborhood character- the dialogue here again seems genuine. Three for the Money is a worthy addition to the Stephanie Plum series, though perhaps not its strongest point, and is worth a read on a sunny afternoon.

Grade: B

August 29, 2008

Book 39: Lord Jim

Lord Jim
Joseph Conrad

Though I've studied much history that forms the context for Joseph Conrad's work, I have never until now actually read it. I was pleased to discover that Lord Jim is fundamentally about a sailor, as I've always enjoyed stories of the bounding main, but what I found is that this narrative is fundamentally a character study despite hints here and there of high adventure. Instead of being particularly plot-heavy, Lord Jim focuses on the plight of Jim as he flees a defining act of cowardice and seeks a new start, mirroring perhaps the fundamental goal of many under the age of imperialism and the promotion of travel to distant lands. This novel contains at its heart a story of rebirth and asks about the possibility of reclaiming lost honor without offering a forced conclusion. Initially inaccessible, the book offers an interesting narrative scheme that allows the book to meditate on lost honor without becoming didactic or too leading. Despite the soon-irrelevant opening, which begins directly in the middle of Jim's story both chronologically and thematically, the tale soon moves into the capable hands of Captain Marlow, an old salt who finds himself strangely drawn to Jim and who narrates the remaining bulk of the story. Marlow is interesting because of his sympathy for Jim and his direct involvement in Jim's attempted rehabilitation; the novel would take a very different turn if it were narrated by a character without such attachments, one who saw Jim simply as most of the world sees him: a coward. Conrad does, however, recognize the flaws of first person narration and begins the narrative in the omniscient third person, which allows him to present the novel's climactic incident before realistically restricting the story to things which Marlow knows first or secondhand.

Aside from its inventive and appropriate narrative scheme, which brilliantly shifts when necessary, Conrad's work employs an interesting running metaphor towards the end of the novel that has incredible resonance with the book's central themes, as well as those of its context. Stein, a merchant who offers Jim his final chance for successful obscurity, is obsessed with butterflies. This seemingly insignificant detail is carefully woven into the fabric of the novel when it comes back at the very end of the novel as Stein, aged and inching towards death, makes a final ironic gesture towards the butterflies, which represent not only Jim's own quest to reclaim his honor but also the unique opportunities provided by late 19th century British imperialism to entrerprising gentlemen. Conrad is subtle with the imagery, but the meaning is clear and the symbol painstakingly chosen, shifting the focus of the novel in the last sentence and adding layers of complexity and depth that stretch beyond Jim, a shift shocking because of the novel's intricate knowledge of Jim's inner life. His story, however, takes on greater significance when compared as well to that of Brown, a latter-day pirate who dramatically alters the course of events and who himself has been re-invented in the South Seas. Thus, despite some moments of confusion in the narrative and some long plotless periods in the text, Lord Jim is well worth reading for its construction (and, perhaps, deconstruction) of the responsibilities of an English gentleman and the ways in which he can seek to re-claim a damaged reputation, if such a thing is even possible. Conrad leaves the possibilities open while satisfactorily concluding Jim's story and has provided in Lord Jim valuable documentation of the late 19th century imperial mind that remains vague and complex enough to retain viability and realism into the new century.

Grade: A

August 25, 2008

Book 38: A Short History of Film

A Short History of Film
Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

I picked up this book on a lark, seeing it featured in the library, and I'm glad that I did. My single undergraduate film class left me interested in the developments of film outside of the apocalyptic genre and gave me some background with which to approach this book, as did the book I recently read on the Hollywood Left in the '30s. Though far from perfect, Dixon and Foster have created an interesting and surprisingly readable history of film fairly easily accessible to those outside the know, and though it does succumb to a few flaws both of academic and film writing, it is a valuable resource for newbies looking to introduce themselves to the history of the cinema. It begins well, with the most hilariously disconnected and selective timeline I have ever seen in my life. Seemingly mundane events are thrown in along with the great historical dates we all know so well, and the best entry involves a death going unnoticed by the media at large. The important event in this syntactic display is, of course, the ignorance and not the death itself. Despite the fact that it is relatively useless before reading the text, it is worth a look nonetheless and does give a good sense of some gradual shifts in culture that do resonate in film history. The text itself begins abruptly, without any overt designs on an overarching thesis and diving quite in to the history of moving pictures, a brief overview that ignores the earth-shattering importance of photography but which nonetheless describes the development of motion picture technology well before moving into more specific films and movements.

The abrupt beginning delivers a jolt that is unfortunately repeated several times throughout the narrative. Though the authors do an excellent and, I assume, fairly comprehensive job of describing cinematic movements (especially where they occur in foreign countries), they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. Though readers can come away with a good understanding of the aesthetics of Italian neorealism, for example, its directors and pictures are jumbled together and span different chapters. The book leaves something to be desired in its organization and jumps around inconsistently; one moment, a director's entire body of work is discussed across artistic movements and decades, whereas in the next a director will be split up according to the time periods he or she was active in. Neither approach is necessarily better but a consistent sense of time and place would go a long way in helping uninitiated readers understand the history of the cinema as a whole instead of trying to follow the authors' logic. Likewise, A Short History of Film also succumbs to the uninteresting and boring repetitiveness of listing film after film, often obscure and without any sort of context. Merely listing a director's resume doesn't do much without an explanation of how their films develop or their relevance to the cinema as a whole. This is a consistent flaw of academic writing, and along with the overuse of "moribund" and "Brechtian" often distracts the reader and unnecessarily draws attention to the authors instead of the material presented.

That material, however, is often well treated and is kept fresh and interesting over 300 pages. The book is just about the perfect length, drawing a good balance between being an overview and presenting some depth and promoting actual understanding. Asinine listing aside, the authors seem to respect the fact that their target audience may have not seen many landmark films and do not throw in self-serving references cryptic to all but devoted film majors. Dixon and Foster have created a lively and comprehensive history of cinema that touches on the major films most have heard of (The Jazz Singer, anyone?) but also discusses the often-forgotten work of women and minorities, to say nothing of its comprehensive and intriguing focus on world film, which is often more experimental and interesting than your typical Hollywood blockbuster fare. Not being an expert on film, I can't speak to the academic authority of this text, but as a representative member of A Short History of Film's target audience, I can say that the book delivers on the promise of its title and will give readers a good picture of the history and development of the cinema, leading right up to 2006 and looking beyond as the era of digital filmmaking continues to dawn upon us.

Grade: B+

August 21, 2008

Book 37: Two for the Dough

Two for the Dough
Janet Evanovich

The magnificently incompetent Stephanie Plum returns here for what looks, on the surface, to be an easy pickup for her cousin Vinnie's bail bonding service. In typical mystery fashion, however, there is much more to the story than meets the eye and Stephanie is yet again catapulted far beyond her means into the center of an interesting, if a bit contrived, chain of events and a crime much bigger than a simple friend-to-friend shooting. Evanovich delivers with this second book in the Stephanie Plum series, bringing back many of the lively characters from the first book without resorting to extraordinary measures. The only slightly pushed boundary of character credibility is in the hiring of an old contact, but even this can be ignored because the character in question is too good to pass up. Evanovich can weave an interesting story, but her real strength lies in her humorous and far too real characters and the consistently hilarious voice of her heroine. While characters as bizarre as Stephanie's Grandma Mazur (think Sophia from the Golden Girls) and as stereotyped as Stephanie's parents could easily turn silly or stale, somehow the action is propelled by an underlying sense of reality. The snide comments of Stephanie's arch-enemy no doubt resonate to the victims of middle-aged cattiness everywhere, and Grandma Mazur's portrait is played entirely straight: it is only natural to believe that she is simply going batty in her old age.

These realistic characterizations and Evanovich's accompanying refusal to take her mysteries too seriously make the Stephanie Plum series stand out from the bulk of the genre. Even the mystery at hand is far from run-of-the-mill, and again Evanovich resists the temptation to make Stephanie a hero and keeps her true to (inept) character. Stephanie herself is a lively and engaging narrator and her self-flagellating comments are so in line with readers' thoughts that they never become annoying or seem like cries for undeserved pity. Sure, the novel follows a traditional mystery trajectory, with everything neatly wrapped at the end after one misfortune after another. Evanovich throws enough kinks in the chain to keep the book interesting and the new information fresh and relevant, creating a plot worthy of her steady cast and bringing new corners of her mid-nineties Trenton underworld to light. The scene and players are always interesting, the only thing out of place a slightly gory trend that is far too gruesome for such a lighthearted style. This too, however, seems to fall into place as even Stephanie cannot weather the storm without losing some poise in the process. Overall, Two for the Dough is an excellent continuation of a very good thing, an enjoyable genre book that I could not help but like despite its conventions and which leaves me eager to experience more of Stephanie's misadventures as an ineffective yet charming bounty hunter.

Grade: A-

August 18, 2008

Book 36: Cloudsplitter

Russell Banks

It would perhaps take only a novel of epic proportions to even attempt to do justice to John Brown, a central figure in the American pantheon, for better or for worse. Banks does justice to the great anti-slavery martyr and, more importantly, brings him into vivid historical context by rendering his tale through the eyes of his loyal son Owen. Though the novel is a fictionalized account of Brown's life, it is obvious that Cloudsplitter is meticulously researched and Owen's voice sounds roughly appropriate for its own time and place around the turn of the century. Though Banks often references events that are yet to occur, mentioning Kansas as early as the first couple of chapters, any reader brave enough to tackle this book is likely to have a fairly good background in the general history of events. Banks's assumptions regarding his audience's familiarity with the pre-Civil War history of the abolitionist movement are a little too optimistic at times, but those times when he has Owen briefly explain background are seamlessly blended into the narrative as a whole, due often to its existence as a prolonged epistle to a historian and his assistant. Cloudsplitter is nothing if not epic in scale and thematic ambition, and though it can become a bit too grandiose for its own good, it is an interesting and vivid portrait of the anti-slavery crusade that is often forgotten and ignored in the shadow of Lincoln and the Union's victory in the Civil War. It is vitally important, and never forgotten in the novel, that John Brown was opposed to the United States government and had complete skepticism regarding his fellow whites and their willingness to go to war over the fate of what most saw as a lesser form of humanity. Banks excells when describing this viewpoint, conscious of modern readers and our own prolonged struggle with racial inequality while creating a narrator whose own feelings about slavery and race seem entirely genuine and appropriate given his upbringing.

Owen, closest son to John Brown and a perfectly placed narrator, is not without his flaws, however. The opening pages of Cloudsplitter are boring and elusive, taking too long to jump into the engaging story at the heart of the novel. The least interesting sections of Cloudsplitter are those when Owen descends into a whiny, pathetic mess; appropriate, perhaps, given the trauma he has had in his life (he was present in Kansas and Harper's Ferry and must live with his actions), but still unhelpful to the novel as a whole. These sections, while they seem to validate the narrative by remembering its existence as an epistolary memoir, are unconnected to the whole and often break up incredibly interesting points of the plot. Just as the narrative is reaching its dramatic, present-tense climax at Harper's Ferry, Banks draws back and Owen retreats into his present, jaded, and most uninteresting state. When the narrative finally picks back up, there are only a few pages left in the book and they fall back into the past tense. Banks is on to something with his use of the present to solidify Owen's own journey through his memories, a journey marked by his occasional lapses into the time of writing and one that is, sadly, only a shadow of what it could have been. In this case, it is merely a distraction and disrupts the otherwise intense climax, leaving the novel to finish not with a bang but with a whimper as it meanders off into the pointlessness and inconclusiveness of its final paragraph. It is clear that Owen examines his memories only to elicit pity and because of his whiny presence readers cannot get a firm idea of the true nature of his relationship to his enigmatic and powerful father, perhaps left ambiguous on purpose to expose the faults of first person narration; if this is the case, however, the question is misplaced as the novel has plenty of other interesting and important themes to tackle.

The main fault of the novel is its narrator and arguable main character. Owen isn't particularly likable and is just as weak as he wishes to believe he is. It becomes clear early on that his is putty in the hands of his captivating father and that he is utterly incapable of independent thought. His constant calls to his individuality, instead of being enlightening and ironic in this context, are instead annoying as they come after Owen demonstrates his inability for independent thought. Owen many times refers to certain events as turning points in his life and personality; unfortunately, the narrative he presents hardly ever even offers the possibility of change or real growth. It is ultimately impossible to get a hold on Owen, a fault I feel comfortable allotting to Banks because of his awesome portrait of John Brown. Clearly Banks is capable of rendering a rich portrait of a strong and important character; unfortunately, any talent is spent entirely on John as Owen, the novel's pivotal character, is sorely neglected and refers to events and to pieces of the book that simply don't exist (Banks leaves readers hanging on until the end to finally realize the dark deed constantly referred to as Owen's great confession without providing any sense of closure).

The book, despite these major flaws, is indeed a good one. Its passages that actually see action and movement provide a richly detailed portrait of the pre-war North, a society often ignored in light of the South's rich representation in today's popular culture. Banks does a good job representing pre-war thought, putting abolitionist views in the words of a man who has seen the Civil War and Reconstruction come and go, a man who has lived long enough to feel the effects of his actions and who is conscious of his place in history. It is true, of course, that John and Owen Brown represent the absolute extreme of the pre-war antislavery movement, but their ardent abolitionism puts the state of the nation into a far sharper resolution than a novel about more mild abolitionists ever could. Owen Brown was brought up with the sole intention of outlawing slavery and liberating the slaves by any means possible or necessary and Banks wisely makes Owen aware of the uniqueness of his views and actions, an awareness that only enriches the novel and its quite candid discussion of slavery. Banks's choice of a narrator is spot-on even if his presentation of character is a bit off, and he throws John Brown into such vivid relief that readers should leave feeling eager to dive headfirst into the actual history of the life and times of the great American martyr.

Cloudsplitter is clearly a novel on a mission, and Banks is keenly aware of his talent and of the scope of his work. Unfortunately, this often leads to a cluttered book; its 750 pages present the proper scale for the work but Banks gets confused and meanders into boring territory instead of focusing on or highlighting his incredible abilities. The story of John Brown, where it exists without Owen's presence in the plot or well after, in reflection, is utterly fascinating and provides an entirely new point of view on this most pivotal chapter in American history. Despite its flaws as a novel, Cloudsplitter will richly reward diligent readers who plow through its slow spots and concentrate their efforts on the historical world recreated before modern eyes. The book may not be a hallmark of subtlety or literary restraint, but Banks is nonetheless talented and even Owen's misplaced and misguided digressions contain their nuggets of wisdom (particularly vivid is a discussion of point of view and how it comes across in the perfectly appropriate story of Abraham and Isaac). Overall, Cloudsplitter is an intriguing fictionalization of one of history's most outlandish and interesting characters, a sweeping work of historical fiction that suffers occasional missteps but that will enrich readers seeking perspective on the vast complexities of the American Civil War or the effect of strong individuals on historical forces and those closest to them.

Grade: B