December 31, 2009

2009 Year in Review

Another year, another sixty-odd books under my belt. The year began strongly, with Tipping the Velvet and continued through several unread and re-read classics. I wanted to make a dent in my reading of the classics, and I was reasonably successful in the first part of the year, which also included some further probing of the science fiction field, which remains largely elusive to me. I did a lot of exploration this year, with my first graphic novel, as I finally picked up Watchmen and was delighted with its vibrant tale and stunning art. I also learned that the memoir can be well-written and enjoyable (via The Unlikely Disciple) and essays as well (Maps and Legends). I plan to read more graphic novels in the coming year and open myself up to the form, which I think is neglected by the serious literati and which can be a lot of fun while telling some deep stories. With the middle of the year and my acceptance into graduate school, my reading included many works on library and information science as well as the art of reading in general; my summer reading consisted largely of books about books. David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous was an incredibly pleasant surprise, an entire book about classification schemes that validates this incredibly nerdy and odd side of my personality. I even managed to keep a strong pace throughout the year, marred by the gargantuan Europe Central right at the beginning but coming together nicely and allowing me an escape from graduate school and technical reading.

The year's reading was also buoyed by my joining a science fiction and fantasy book group, and though I did not have any specific projects of my own (apart from finishing the Regeneration trilogy), the book club opened my eyes to many books that otherwise wouldn't have appeared on my radar. The YA The True Meaning of Smekday was delightful and Nightwatch, while not ultimately chosen, was an incredibly timely read that I very much enjoyed this past week. I also discovered that essays can, when well-executed, make for exciting and fun reading. For next year, I plan to give myself some projects to direct my reading, but I will also be keeping my eyes and ears open as I will hopefully be traveling to Ireland for a good part of the summer break. Look for a lot of Irish literature to pop up in the coming year, along with the usual mix of classics and modern literary works and some science fiction.

My favorite reads of this year were many, including Tipping the Velvet, an excellent Victorian historical novel, The Unlikely Disciple, a standout work in a flavor-of-the-decade genre I usually avoid; essays from Michael Chabon in Maps and Legends; and The Book Thief, which I finally read after letting it languish on my shelf for years. It was a highly successful year and I look forward to similar good reading in the upcoming year and decade beyond.

Book 64: The I Hate the 21st Century Reader

The I Hate the 21st Century Reader
Edited by Clint Willis and Nate Hardcastle

The title of this book really tells you most of what you want to know: this book is a collection of short essays lamenting the more lamentable facts of life five years into the new Millennium. Released in 2005 and relying entirely on current-events commentary (often from sources of questionable reliability and very questionable writing or fact-checking ability), The I Hate the 21st Century Reader has become necessarily dated over time. Among the rampant Bush-bashing, which shockingly has not actually aged well (despite being my own angry mantra of choice in the same period), there hide a few gems of excellent quality. Paul Krugman's "For Richer," a study of the widening gap between rich and poor in America, admittedly comes from a notorious liberal but is nonetheless an excellent and level-headed look at an ongoing problem and some of its potential consequences. Though taking a few (well-deserved) jabs at the Bush tax cuts, Krugman manages to persuasively discuss the danger of runaway executive salaries, placing the problem in economic and historical context to create a convincing argument. Its polar opposite may be James Fallows with "Countdown to a Meltdown," a laughably unsuccessful attempt to look back at the present from 2016. As with all speculative fiction, it is easy to point out the amusing errors Fallows makes and assume that the piece is silly, but bad writing compounds a lack of foresight driven by a mad desire to make Bush look bad. Admirable though that action may be, Fallows comes off sounding like a very bad satirist instead of creating the earnest call to arms he so fervently seems to desire. It isn't just that he gets the years after 2005 wildly wrong, its that the essay is consistently immature and adds no understanding to its contemporary situation that rises above childish name-calling.

It isn't surprising, then, that the most successful essays in The I Hate the 21st Century Reader are those that examine broader historical trends or ethical issues. Like Krugman's essay, which places economics in historical context, many of the essays in the book aren't wedded exclusively to the early years of the 21st century and pose interesting dilemmas that should be considered into the present day. The two essays in the "Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Science" section consider interesting ethical situations posed by the emergence of black-hole creating particle colliders and human-animal hybrid creations without succumbing to dogmatic black-and-white simplicity. J.M. Berger's "Extreme Science!" does a particularly good job examining the problems inherent in the ultra-specific specialization of today's scientists and injects humor into some very sobering observations. Likewise, "The Coming Death Shortage," by Charles C. Mann, provides a very interesting look into the potential problems caused by an aging population, again addressing the problem with historical context and providing an excellent lead-off piece for the book's best segment, "The New Death." Essays exploring the potential of devastating illnesses to wear on a decaying public health infrastructure and the triumph of the pharmaceutical companies in convincing us we are all suffering from myriad diagnosable problems (an exploration thoughtfully juxtaposed with lyrics from "Mother's Little Helper" by the Rolling Stones) highlight important issues that must be dealt with.

While other intriguing selections await (most notably "The Rebellion of the Tools" and the poignant post-Katrina "The Corpse on Union Street"), the majority of the anthology's best work is present in its first third. Unfortunately, however, these two standout sections occur early in the book and the essays continue on their anti-Bush crusades, often to the detriment not only of their wit and writing quality but also of their arguments, which seem petty when paired so inextricably with the partisan barbs. Sadly, the latter is the dominant force in this anthology, and the virtiol present in various selections from The I Hate the 21st Century Reader undermines otherwise interesting and important points. The anthology suffers from partisan politics so much that it is difficult for even those who agree with its angry writers to enjoy it four years on. The I Hate the 21st Century Reader, then, is valuable for two key reasons: firstly, there are gems to be discovered among its selections that provide thoughtful perspectives on important issues, both wedded to the historical context in which they were written and transcending it to remain vital. Secondly, The I Hate the 21st Century Reader already functions as a sort of nostalgic look back on an era when liberal columnists engaged in the sport of Bush-bashing in seeking solutions to the nation's ills. The hate is in full force and ultimately creates a showcase of anti-Righ sentiment worth revisiting five years on.

Grade: C

December 28, 2009

Book 63: Nightwatch

Sergei Lukyanenko

This book is so much more than another riff on the epic, eternal struggle between Good and Evil. Sure, the most fundamental of conflicts affects each and every heart-pounding syllable of this book, but Lukyanenko probes them, and the very nature of morality, time and again throughout his three-act play. He has started from an enticing alternate reality where a special race of enlightened humans are capable of, among other things, using magic and descending into a parallel plane of reality called the Twilight. Neither of these is superfluous and all is explained in stride, allowing readers to quickly adapt to the basic framework of a world with Others while following the plot. Gradual revelations about the rules the Others adhere to occur naturally and advance the plot while adding to the incredible richness with which Lukyanenko has painted his moral landscape. Most importantly, Others must upon their initiation choose either the path of Light or Darkness, a fascinating one-shot that sets up much (but crucially not all) of the moral playing field of the novel. The two polarized camps continue to clash though their main bones of current contention are violations caught by the dedicated watches of either side, a fascinating compromise that sets the ideological backdrop for Nightwatch as well as propelling its plot realistically through several sticky points. This complex reality forms the backbone of the novel and, though its plot sometimes wavers and its characters become very fond of explaining to readers exactly what is going on metaphorically, Nightwatch successfully builds and probes an alternate reality while asking important questions and providing a high-octane plot that entertains throughout.

Composed of three loosely-related plotlines revolving around the lot of Nightwatch agent Anton Gorodetsky, who helps patrol the agents of Darkness for illegal, unlicensed acts of Evil, Nightwatch contains three self-sufficient stories that together add up to a balanced and complete whole. The first is by far the most dynamic and would stand brilliantly on its own as an otherworldly exploration of this alternate reality; though it provides a nice set-up for the next two stories (and presumably the other three books in the series), this first segment is complete and accomplishes much of the work of the novel in a microcosm. This is not to malign, however, the book's bombastic second act, which takes the moral stakes of the first and deploys some occasionally overwrought irony to build on the plot laid out before and throw the moral scales completely off balance. They remain askew through the third act, which begins with a few conversations clarifying What We Have Learned and stumbles to an excellent and wonderfully ambiguous climax. Peppered throughout with song lyrics and the colorful language of incredibly able narrator Anton, the book is filled to the brim with intriguing passages and memorable scenes.

Sergei Lukyanenko is a master of moral ambiguity, and even though he rarely lets it squirm by unnoticed, Nightwatch oozes with questions and, happily, fails to provide any satisfactory answers. Some may read its ambiguous ending as an invitation to read the rest of his books, but it is much more gracious and, I believe, true to the story's intentions to embrace its unwritten ending as a graciously disguised call to action. The book's final act, though the weakest of the three, clarifies and reinforces themes invoked and explored throughout the whole novel. And besides, Nightwatch is a thrilling read, bursting at the seams with exciting plot developments and a wonderful lead character in Anton with a full and rich supporting cast. Nightwatch is a thoroughly engrossing and refreshingly thought-provoking sci-fi/fantasy hybrid that will please genre fans and deep thinkers alike, but above all it is a great ride.

Grade: A

December 13, 2009

Book 62: Treasure Island

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson

It's difficult to read this classic novel without conjuring ready-made images from our pre-conceived notions of pirates or, indeed, Muppet Treasure Island. The reason we even have these stereotypes, however, is this very book that launched a thousand pirate tales. Fun and swashbuckling though Disney songs and Tim Curry may predominate the reader's vision of the story, Treasure Island has lost a bit of steam due to its 1850s idiom but remains powerful as the foundational story of pirates in western culture. The narrative is spun by Jim Hawkins, reflecting on the voyage that saw him become a man, and though he provides a heavily charged, and authentic atmosphere, Jim's moral smugness manages to remove all suspense from his story and actively works against the most interesting elements of the story. Treasure Island is, at its heart, a story of the slippery morals of Long John Silver and a testament to his ability to play politician, but Jim's narration shoves this element sadly to the periphery in favor of a moral righteousness that obscures the very interesting workings of Silver's not-solely-piratical mind. The story remains, then, simply a very good adventure story, one that surely deserves its place in the literary canon but one hiding its own treasures underneath the glossy, simple-seeming surface. Robert Louis Stevenson creates an idiom in Treasure Island that is beyond compare in the effect it has had on the popular imagination and, though it seems simple at heart, its swashbuckling fiends and surface adventure are sure to please while the suggestions of moral relativity slip away into the night, with Long John himself and his share of Captain Flint's bounty.

Grade: B+

December 4, 2009

Book 61: Giving the Game Away

Giving the Game Away: Football, Politics, and Culture on Five Continents
Edited by Stephen Wagg

As part of my extended preparation for the World Cup, and nicely coinciding with the draw for the 2010 competition, I picked up this book while searching for a soccer encyclopedia to browse for my reference class. This book is, as the title suggests, a study of the history of the development of soccer and how it has been adopted and adapted culturally throughout the world (Australia is, despite the title, included along with the other populated continents). The book is a collection of geographically oriented essays, often authored or co-authored by Wagg himself but by various regional experts as well. The book begins with an examination of soccer in its own heartland, the British Isles and, though a bit uneven in its writing it provides a good grounding for the general history of the development of soccer. Developments throughout the world often depended on British exporting of the game through migrant workers and, naturally, colonization, and Britain provides a relatively stable template for development in other countries. Another chapter of particular interest for its discussion of the following for soccer is the chapter on the United States, now out of date but providing an excellent perspective from fifteen years ago, just before the now-successful MLS got off the ground. This chapter not only examines the history of soccer in the United States and Canada but posits several reasons why it has not been as readily and thoroughly accepted as it has been throughout the rest of the world. Thus, its being out of date actually enhances its interest and makes it useful to current readers living in the age of the reemergence of United States football and hoping against all hope for a good result against England in Group C.

Chapters on European soccer quickly devolve into lists of the dates of establishment of various national leagues and note particular teams while containing occasional bits of interest, including notes on the effect of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and of the adoption of the Confederate flag by various Southern cities along the Mediterranean. Likewise, the essay on soccer in Asia is written without much authorial interest, it seems, and is rather dry. Most enlightening and interesting are chapters on soccer in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, perhaps because these regions are most foreign to me but also because of their writing. The chapter on Africa suffers a bit by focusing so directly on Zimbabwe, which has since devolved into an absolute nightmare, but provides a great contextual view of the social significance soccer has had in Africa, particularly as a post-colonial and racially charged activity. Wagg's own chapter on soccer in the Middle East is likewise fascinating due to the ideological distance of these countries from readers in the United States (or Britain, for that matter) and especially in light of recent political developments. This chapter's view of soccer as heavily charged political expression showcases the effect that sports and team affiliations can have, and how they may reach far beyond the game. These insights go beyond soccer and into psychology and sociology without straying at all from the subject at hand; they enlighten in their thoroughness and invite further exploration.

The best essay by far is is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Maurice Biriotti Del Burgo's "Don't Stop the Carnival: Football in the Societies of Latin America." From start to finish, the chapter is entirely engaging, perhaps due to the explosive nature of soccer in Latin American cultures. Far from simply reciting interesting dates or naming the best teams of Brazil, Del Burgo explores the relationship of soccer to particularly Latin American ideas of the individual, nation, and religion. This essay, more than any other, ties the development of soccer firmly to developments of ideological and cultural expressions. The essay, like some others, will be more comprehensible and useful to readers with some grounding on the history of soccer, but anyone interested in the culture of Latin America or interested in the dominance of Brazil will benefit from reading it.

The absolute excellence of the book's top essay does, however, paradoxically highlight the primary fault of the book; though its focus is consistent throughout and each are of the world is represented with a significant block of text, the essays are wildly uneven. Certain differences in writing style are to be expected of course from a book with multiple contributers, but the varying citation style (if citations are even used in a given essay) and use of "soccer" instead of "football" make the collection more difficult to read as a comprehensive view. The concluding chapter and its reflections on the World Cup of 1994 makes interesting observations but its focus on Brazil repeats material and sentiment from the aforementioned regionally-based study. Certain chapters focus much more on dominant teams of the past than on cultural development, and the shift in focus prevents the book from presenting a sense of a comprehensive view of the world's soccer culture. While it is overall a noble attempt and has aged rather gracefully, Giving the Game Away is best read for its standout pieces and by readers particularly interested in one area or another; it simply is not consistent enough to provide a strong backbone for a lay reader's knowledge of soccer across the world.

Grade: B

November 26, 2009

Book 60: Miss Wyoming

Miss Wyoming
Douglas Coupland

Coupland is unmistakably himself in Miss Wyoming, and readers familiar with his characters and their unwavering mission to find and make meaning in their lives will recognize plenty in this book, though its style is divergent from Coupland's work at large. Due perhaps to these small differences, Miss Wyoming is not as immediately effective as much of Coupland's other work; its beginning seems rather staged and almost too Coupland-esque before the story develops its razor-sharp insights and cynically funny lines. Exploring a third-person point of view instead of the usual first, the book follows many narrative threads deftly, beginning in the present and slowly working backward across several intertwined and diverging timelines but without leading readers too far astray. The ping-pong plot could have caused fierce whiplash but instead the narrative slowly develops across the quick chapters and characters just introduced and almost tangential to the plot receive their close-ups, deserved instead of distracting. The larger scope of the narrative as it bounces between characters and locations serves as an appropriate backdrop for Coupland's familiar zeitgeist-chasing probing into the lives of the disenchanted. Though some of the territory is familiar and the plot a bit outlandish and, despite the novel's overall solid construction, difficult to grapple firmly at times, Miss Wyoming is a worthy addition to the Coupland canon if not his strongest, most evocative book.

Grade: B+

November 17, 2009

Book 59: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
Julie Powell

After the weighty, cynical humor of The Book Thief and with a large term paper looming before me (as well as, conveniently, Thanksgiving), I decided to go for something on the lighter side. Julie and Julia is not the best book ever written. It is, at heart, more or less a standard tale of someone who goes out on a limb, faces some difficulty, and ends up learning some Valuable Life Lessons along the way. It is, at heart, one of those books, the cheesy pick-me-ups where you know everything will turn out all right. It is also cynical, snarky, sarcastic, and wonderfully vulgar. Entirely unchallenging and brisk throughout, Powell's humor pulled me through my own tough week. Cliche or not, I loved every single minute that I was reading Julie and Julia. Facing a crisis at the prospect of imminently turning 30, Powell decides to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking while living in a cramped apartment just outside of New York City and while working as a beauocratic drone for The Man. The results go over just as smoothly as you'd expect; though it's obvious that Powell entered her challenge with more culinary knowledge and practice than the average snarky 20-something posesses nowadays, she faces her share of hangups and challenges, but never stews over them.

Indeed, the book's great strength is that it very rarely comes across as whiny. Powell turns many merely discouraging incidents, and even some seeming crises that turn out quite well, into drawn-out dramatic scenes, but her humor gives the book a bounce and her ability to be self-deprecating in an endearing way carries the novel. Most engaging is Powell's voice, uncensored and seeming incredibly authentic: here is a woman who thinks the way I do and who will, to put it simply, go there. Powell attempts the incredible and must have gained an insane amount of culinary prowess during her year cooking in the footsteps of one of the most beloved chefs of all time, but throughout the whole process she seems emphatically normal. Though there are bad nights and fights with her husband, she doesn't excessively dramatize them; Julie and Julia feels like a true account, stretched perhaps for dramatic effect but never straying too far from its essential crass warmth. Indeed, when it came time for Julie to deliver her Required Life Lesson Learned, it was delivered with such self-awareness that I was actually laughing out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Sure, Julie and Julia has its moments where it's obvious Powell is stretching a bit, trying a tad too hard, but her voice is endearing and so wonderfully sarcastic that I could not wait to pick the book up for another valiant attempt at Chasing the Dream.

Grade: A

November 10, 2009

Book 58: The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

Some books just grab you and refuse to let you go. Compelling from its first four lines, which establish the book's unconventional narrator at once and segway immediately into one of the narrative's many insightful asides, The Book Thief is thoroughly haunting through its final fatal cadence. Zusak, in choosing Death to narrate this tale of survival and hope in the midst of Hitler's Germany, has made a bold decision that pays off in every conceivable way as the novel winds its way through the majority of Germany's war years. More on him later, as he makes the novel and seals its brilliance. Zusak tackles a lot of heavy and difficult themes throughout The Book Thief, not least of which is death, but he carries off the novel splendidly without beating any of these themes to death and allowing them to work their way through the novel and its characters slowly and subtly until, by the end, the reader is simply changed. The novel sneaks up on readers, who can never be sure what to expect as moments of genuine childish humor (the novel's protagonist is introduced at age 9) mix with pure sadness and then into a dark, not quite cynical humor that is as profound as the novel's most emtionally draining moments. Zusak pulls off the incredible within this book, writing a book about Nazi Germany with normal characters, exploring the depths of human depravity without resorting to unnecessary gore or shock value and presenting the era in a way that seems, amongst the deluge of literature about this period, fresh. This book approaches Nazi Germany from an entirely different perspective than most and, in doing so, more effectively probes that era than just about any work of standard 1940s-evoking fare.

The perspective? By and large, the novel owes its groove and tone to its narrator, a murky representation of Death. Personified yet unquestionably supernatural, Death is by turns caustically sarcastic and lovingly tender. He cracks jokes throughout the novel that can only be laughed at with a twinge of guilt, but his descriptions of soul-collecting (he carries the souls of children gently in his arms) are genuinely moving. His affection for Liesel, the novel's lively protagonist and eponymous budding criminal, rivals the depths of human love felt by and for her throughout her childhood. His insights throughout are by turns hilarious and deeply profound: you laugh, but then you think and, more often than not, realize that it's true. Zusak uses Death to view our obsession with this monster from an outside perspective and the results are time and again astonishing. From the general dry narrative style, with its many sudden switchbacks, to his amusingly titled asides (which include everything from elaborations on a vague preceding description to a mock scoreboard), Death is one of the most appropriate narrators I have ever come across in a book. Though he seems like an obvious choice for one of the darkest periods in human history, Zusak does not make him a monster. Instead, as he himself clarifies, he is merely a result.

Death is a presence throughout the novel as he was particularly in this time and place in history but this does not eclipse the ultimate humanity of The Book Thief; indeed, Death's notes of sad regret color the novel and give it more emotional depth than an omniscient narrator or other first-person narrator probably could have. Death lends an exceptional emotional weight to this book and give sit power on every page, shifting rapidly between elation, fear, hope, sadness, loss, and love but without producing whiplash for the reader. The Book Thief handles itself delicately while dropping bombshells literal and through literary devices and there are profound moments on each and every page as Zusak explores the magic and mystery of words themselves. The book, ultimately, parallels reality in its mood. Who, after all, has not had an elated joy turn quickly to a sobering melancholy? And to think that all of this says little about the characters who populate Zusak's Germany, from the fanatic Frau Diller to the compassionate Hans Hubermann, they come alive on each and every page in this novel that more fully evokes the truth of human experience than I previously thought possible in a novel about such a turbulent and easily simplified historical moment.

The Book Thief
is simply astonishing on every single page.

Grade: A

November 6, 2009

Book 57: The Best American Mystery Stories 2005

The Best American Mystery Stories 2005
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a one-woman powerhouse in the world of contemporary fiction, and having read much of her fiction it is interesting to get her perspective as a guest editor in the Best American series, particularly in genre fiction. Though her position necessarily means that she is absent from this collection, the book is vibrant throughout with quality stories that, even if most are fairly ho-hum in this particular edition, are sure to entertain. The lead-off hitter is Richard Burgin with "The Identity Club," and I think it exemplifies most of the stories in this collection, The story begins with a breathtaking premise, that members of this club take on the personality of a dead arist of some kind, living their life in the guise of the chosen figure. Though the idea is incredible, the story tackles it in a predictable manner and, though the story stands as a powerful examination of mortality and the nature of individuality and the lifespan of great art, it falls sort of flat at the end. Entertaining, but not life-changing. Likewise with George V. Higgins and "Jack Duggan's Law," which is a fairly mild police procedural. It is a great one, fully evoking a sense of mood and characters, but at the end of the day it is just another procedural. Daniel Handler's "Delmonico" presents an interesting spin on the locked-room mystery with his unconventional barmaid detective, but some basic flaws in the writing hold the story back a bit.

That is not to say, however, that there are not absolutely exceptional stories in this anthology, however. I was skeptical at first of "Officers Weep," which spins its narrative out of a series of police blotters, but as the story found itself I found it moving, funny, and worth revisiting; I thoroughly enjoyed it in every way. "The Last Man I Killed" is powerful with a very dark sense of humor, exploring the power of the past in a tone of rich irony and crafting a story not so unlikely after all. The twist is forceful and the story leaves a lasting impression. More straightforward but no less riveting is the devastating exploration of a life unknowingly lived beside a criminal in "The Love of a Strong Man." The story hits and hits and they keep coming; it's a dark story but a very moving one that subtly asks us to explore the consequences of human action and our own reactions to the headlines. Likewise devastating but incredibly powerful in its tragedy is "One Mississippi," which again explores the aftermath of a crime and the imprint it leaves on those whose life it destroys. These stories do not simply explore the underworld for the thrill; rather, they use crime as a key to open the doors of the deepest of human mysteries, exploring the tragic side of crime and of life. Crime in the hands of these skilled writers is a destructive force and they seek to explore what it hath wrought.

Aside from a few predictable missteps, The Best American Mystery Stories 2005 contains quite a bit of work of extremely high quality that will shock and shame readers who sneer at genre fiction. There are no straight detective stories in this collection and what readers find is a group of writers who will go to the depths of human existence to extract meaning. Sure, there is a vicarious thrill in standing beside the narrator of "Until Gwen" as he seeks revenge upon his father, but the dark humor is quickly transformed into something much deeper and very moving; readers who are willing to make the journey with the narrator find much more than cheap thrills. The nature of these stories is not to exult in violence but to explore it thoroughly, and the best among these select few are those that find themselves most haunted by the ghosts of humanity's darkest dreams.

Grade: A-

October 28, 2009

Book 56: Love & Blood

Love & Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks
Jamie Trecker

After a fully depressing (but fully brilliant) novella, I decided to turn to soccer, a game about which I long to know more about and which I find very interesting in the international social context. Conveniently, I discovered this book, which is even more topical due to the current ongoing World Cup qualifyers heating up, with only a few slots left to fill. Trecker's homage to the supposed pinnacle of soccer is produced throughout with funny, incredibly readable prose that seeks to contextualize soccer in the globalized environment as well as being a travelogue of sorts recalling Trecker's journey to the World Cup as an American reporter with high-access Swiss credentials. Trecker does a great job balancing fact, analysis, and anecdote in this volume, which will appease soccer fans while remaining inviting to those who don't know much about the sport. Trecker largely stays away from soccer's slang terms, explaining thoroughly those that are necessary, and continuously aims to describe the tensions and emotions of the world's tournament with a keen eye towards an American audience. Love & Blood maintains a careful balance between explaining the recent (and not-so-recent) history of American soccer with due attention to the Rooneys and Zinedines who light up stadiums around the world.

The book itself can get a bit choppy, purporting to talk of the 2006 Cup in general while sliding into a more general discussion of the sport, returning again to Germany as if nothing had happened in the interim. There is a bit of reader whiplash but the informal nature of the book, while making the story of 2006 a little hard to follow, makes Love & Blood a fun read and underscores the author's credibility as a true fan. Trecker's passion for the sport is obvious across each and every one of these pages, and his exploration of the lack of American passion remarkably stays away from a chastising or despairing tone. Love & Blood is eminently fair to its American readers and seems a labor of love; the prose gets informal but the analysis stays relevant and interesting. It is obvious too that Trecker has put a lot of thought in to the deeper issues he explores, which include the effects of increasing commercialization, rising club dominance, and even troubles within FIFA. Complete with his often hilarious observations and anecdotes concerning the 2006 World Cup and its German hosts, Love & Blood takes great steps to contextualize the world's biggest sporting event from an American perspective, remaining respectful and entertaining throughout.

Grade: B+

October 20, 2009

Book 55: Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians
J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee has won a Nobel Prize for literature, and after reading Waiting for the Barbarians, there is no doubt as to his talent. Every single page of the book, every word, simmers with consummate artistry. Coetzee tackles the ever-present struggle between oppressed and oppressor in a mere hundred and fifty pages that feel like an all-consuming epic. The human struggle is encapsulated in this slim volume, which drives home its point on page after brutal, raw page in exquisite and illuminating prose. While some of the plot details are obscure, the novel covers a wide range of territory completely in exploring the struggles of an allegorical Empire to maintain control as the barbarian natives seek to reclaim what's theirs. Focusing on the intellectual and moral struggle of a longtime magistrate, Coetzee explores the divide between oppressed and oppressor, and by the end of the book it is unclear which agent fulfills which role; though the lines between good and evil are drawn quite clearly early in the book, the work gradually becomes as ambiguous as real life as it reaches its crescendo and slowly, quietly descends into a whisper as the fate of the Magistrate and his formerly bustling town hangs in the precarious, pregnant balance. Waiting for the Barbarians is not for the weak of heart; Coetzee deals with the subject of torture openly and with a stunning brutality; he minces no words and describes exactly what he means his readers to see. The effect, strangely, mixes with the poetics and the repeated use of visual imagery to produce, ultimately, a feeling of grace. Waiting for the Barbarians throws no punches and is a moving testament to the oppressed everywhere, slightly difficult in subject matter and obscure on the details but haunting and powerful nonetheless.

Grade: A

October 13, 2009

Book 54: Stalefish

Stalefish: Sakeboard Culture from the Rejects Who Made It
Sean Mortimer

Since I am now entering the busy part of my semester, it was good fortune that my hold for this book finally came through just as my semester is heating up. This book is purely fun reading, an escapist journey for both those within and out of the current skate culture. As the title suggests (it's the name of a skateboarding trick), a basic familiarity with the skateboarding world and some of its lingo and history are required for getting anything out of this book, but Sean Mortimer largely succeeds in his mission to bring skating's history to the kids today who may have no idea where their own beloved culture comes from. The book is less a history than a collection of carefully edited and compiled interviews, comprising everything from the first skateboarders in the 1960s through freestyle and pool riding and into current giants Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, and Daewon Song. The book chronicles the history of skating through several thematic chapters that hang together loosely and, naturally, bleed into one another. Throughout, the skaters are open about the art of skateboarding and what it means to them- an interesting consequence of the multiple interview format is that Mortimer elicits conflicting views from skaters on everything from preferred formats to whether skating should be considered a sport. Without editing in a way that seems to bias the narrative, Mortimer takes the words of the skaters and keeps them in context, shunning the kind of bombastic arguments propagated by cable news outlets for the book's true form and the kind of history that current skaters need to appreciate the unique, ground-up history of the...activity: Stalefish is a bunch of devoted, influential skaters talking about what they love and the culture that defines them. They are obviously sincere throughout and, together, comprise a many-sided view of the history of skateboarding. Complete with plenty of pictures, Stalefish is a quick and relatively lighthearted read perfect for anyone enthralled by the art of skating. There is no definite history here and the views are all objective, so newcomers may want to stay away, but anyone with a vague familiarity with skating should eagerly take this opportunity to see the skateboarding world from the eyes of those who, more than any others, intitially shaped and still continue to define it.

Grade: A

October 7, 2009

Book 53: Memento Mori

Memento Mori
Muriel Spark

Above all, what really makes us human is the fact that we must eventually die, despite what current science wants us to think, and it is this inescapable fact that Muriel Spark investigates in Memento Mori. Spark takes us into midcentury London and the world of the rapidly declining; the elderly are an often unseen piece of society and it's interesting to have a novel full of them, particularly as they approach their own deaths with candor and a lack of grace usually reserved for the young. Spark reminds us throughout that the older among us are still inherently human, and though it's quite funny that a woman in her seventies takes to blackmailing her acquaintances, there is a hint of the tragic that isn't fully explored in this lighthearted tale. Its characters are rich and compelling, almost universally over the age of seventy and vibrant while tackling the challenges of older, slowly betraying bodies. Spark's novel lacks a bit of coherent plotting or any real sense of movement, but it certainly does not lack for charm. The novel turns on a mysterious crop of phone calls reminding the characters that they must die, but instead of really probing their reactions the novel has the characters resume their daily lives, perhaps overreacting at times but behaving normally. Perhaps this is the point- that at a certain age even the disturbing reminder of death can only phase so much. Nothing much happens at a leisurely pace, but the novel is enjoyable enough due to its hilarious and well-portrayed cast. Though Memento Mori centers on and contains plenty of death, it teems with a lively spirit and is a refreshing look at an often ignored facet of society.

Grade: B+

September 30, 2009

Book 52: Little Brother

Little Brother
Cory Doctorow

With a title that so blatantly riffs on Orwell's masterpiece of paranoid dystopian literature, I knew I would like this book, not to mention the fact that it was up for a Hugo and has received praise across the board. Billed as YA but appropriate for any skeptical and thinking reader, Little Brother is a chilling version of a society not too far removed from our own that rapidly sees the glorious technology of the Information Age turned against it by a careless Department of Homeland Security on the march to remove suspected terrorism; their solution, of course, is to treat everyone like a terrorist. Doctorow can be incredibly heavy-handed at times, but what Little Brother lacks in subtlety it has in philosophy and heart- Doctorow goes to no lengths whatsoever to hide his views and this prominent display is uncompromising, powerful, and absolute. Doctorow perhaps misses an opportunity to show the power of dissent and critical thinking by including it in his book, but his resort to absolutes in his future of absolutes is an interesting and compelling choice when viewed in the context of the book's atmosphere. Also interesting is this book as a clear arifact of the Bush era; while it's obvious that intrusive technology is not going away and while it's as obvious now as it was in 1793 that privacy is a pivotal concern for a free society, the president and his advisors are definitely approximations of Bush & Co. and the attitude of America directly following the 9/11 attacks. That we can recognize the novel as a relic of this era also says something about the current tone in America.

Getting back to the content itself, Doctorow has created a compelling future with direct links to technologies being invented and refined now; once readers recognize that "arphid" is simply a linguistic shortcut for RFID, the future of Little Brother seems a whole lot closer. The book's main character, Marcus, is a steadfast 17-year-old who grew up with technology and the Internet and who illustrates the ways that tech-savvy can be used for good, evil, and good thwarting evil. The technology described in the book is compelling and understandable for a relatively unfamiliar reader; adults a bit older than me may have trouble following, but teenagers and twentysomethings should be able to key into the novel's mentality easily and fully. The plot is fast-moving and action-packed, with some tough scenes of torture and tender scenes of a teenager's first mind-blowing love affair. The book's only contruction fault other than it's heavy-handed tone is its deus-ex-machina-style conclusion, which is thrilling and convenient and, sadly, seems a bit optimistic (which just says more about the depth of this vision of San Francisco and perhaps my own sensibilities). Though Marcus is, in many ways, extraordinary, he grapples with the philosophical ambiguity inherent in taking on the DHS and also provides a view of life in the new future from the viewpoint of a largely normal teenager; though Marcus is a gifted hacker, he recognizes and taps in to the potential of his generation to create real change. Little Brother is, in this way and coupled with its afterword essays, a rallying call to the kids of the Bush years and a tangible reminder that relinquishing freedom for security ultimately gets one neither.

Grade: A-

September 23, 2009

Book 51: The Library at Night

The Library at Night
Alberto Manguel

I don't get much spare time to read these days, since school has started in full force, and it's strange that I decided to read this book about, of all things, libraries. What Manguel has done in The Library at Night, however, is unique and offers fresh perspectives on libraries and the different functions they can have. The Library at Night is a kind of history of libraries mixed with philosophical ruminations about what libraries are and what they mean to individual users and to humanity at large. Manguel has taken a look at libraries from a variety of viewpoints, addressing their historical aspects as well as their embodiment of the human condition; as pretentious and academic as that sounds, however, there is a lot of thought and sincere love behind this volume that shines throughout. Beginning with an examination of "The Library as Myth" and the ideas that have created and maintained libraries throughout human history and moves through his categories in a distinct and meaninful order. There is no mistake that The Library as Power" follows "The Library as Space" and "The Library as Order"; all of these chapters examine libraries in human contexts and taken together can form a kind of argument about the myriad uses of libraries across and throughout human history. Also interesting is the direct juxtaposition of "The Library as Survival" with "The Library as Oblivion", each of which examines the power of libraries to preserve history and serve as a reminder as to what is lost; not coincidentally, these are followed by a fun look at imaginary libraries, which combine aspects of both survival and oblivion in their peculiar half-existences.

It is refreshing that Manguel resists the urge to make a hard and fast argument and instead allows his topics to mingle freely with one another, just as in "The Library as Order" and "The Library as Chance", which are not coupled directly but which provide interesting contexts to their own surroundings: this is exactly the kind of chance that Manguel describes in these chapters and, surely, they would acquire a different meaning read in the opposite order or with more space between them. This is not to say, however, that The Library at Night succumbs completely to a darkened, chaotic principle: it is obvious that its chapters, though standing enough alone to be interesting quick reads in and of themselves, should be taken together to construct a narrative of the life of libraries. It is no accident either that the book ends with "The Library As Identity" and "The Library As Home", arguably two of the most important themes the book touches upon and themes that will resonate deeply with readers who presumably care enough about the function of libraries to pick up this book in the first place. Manguel's soft and fluid prose guides the reader through a theoretical history of libraries through examples that exemplify the theme of a particular chapter; these are wonderfully balanced between the obvious (Alexandria as "Myth", national libraries as "Identity") and obscure (Aby Warburg as "Mind").

The Library at Night has, at its heart, a love of the library both as an idea and as an institution, extoling the virtues of all kinds of libraries, however small or large. Vanished libraries exist alongside the vast national libraries of Europe; Alexandria appears next to the recently looted Iraq National Library and State Archives and the vanished Jewish volumes from the Holocaust. Manugel mentions his own library a few more times than necessary, but he always relates his personal experience to the theme at hand and his rare vanity is eclipsed by his transparent devotion to his subject matter. With flowery writing that accomplishes precisely its point, Alberto Manguel adds an air of mystique to the concept of the library in many of its incarnations. The Library at Night is sure to please library enthusiasts amateur and professional, those steeped in library history and theory and those who simply go to their closest local repository for the latest Dan Brown. The Library at Night is a loving testament to the idea of the book and should be added to libraries large and small thorughout the world.

Grade: A

September 15, 2009

Book 50: Microserfs

Douglas Coupland

It's been a while since I've read a Coupland book, and I think that it's good to get them in reasonably spread out doses; while his sense of time and place is absolutely impeccable, his books can feel a bit repetitive and listless. This, I think, makes Microserfs a perfect read for this, my first full week of classes in graduate school. There is a general sense of listlessness amongst Dan (the narrator of this computer-based journal) and his comrades, but Dan has a fundamental sense of what is important, expounding on complex and important philosophical ideas in between describing hilarious anecdotes regarding his work at Microsoft and, later, a friend's start-up in Silicon Valley. Coupland's indisputable strength is his ability to firmly situate his characters in their era and have them become both representative and starkly individual; these are not hasty stereotyped sketches though each character showcases a different facet of 20somethings in an era not quite out of Windows 3.x. Coupland uses his characters to define different aspects of the newly forming dot-com bubble and increasingly wired Internet age, not only on a group of young coders but through the eyes of Dan's parents as well, both of whom seek meaning and relevance in an increasingly digital world. Coupland's gifts are displayed in dazzling technicolor in Microserfs, which is by turns funny and poignant, but which never tries too hard at either and which ends up doubly successful at both. The book isn't too plot-heavy, but it is engaging and will keep readers laughing and thinking as they, too, ponder life in a new, dawning age.

Grade: A

September 8, 2009

Book 49: The End of Mr. Y

The End of Mr. Y
Scarlett Thomas

There is so much to say about this book, but it's quite hard to get at its essence and properly review it without giving too much away, I think. The End of Mr. Y is an incredibly philosophical novel that can beat you over the head with its own cleverness at times, but which ends up being quite satisfying in both the philosophical quandaries and the story it presents. Thomas is easygoing with her difficult science concepts and if her narrator Ariel is a bit stuck-up at times, it only fits her character and isn't grating or annoying to the reader. Ariel is quite a compelling woman, flawed enough to make the story seem genuine but not so much as to turn the reader off completely; sure, she plays fast and loose with vile language, but this style of writing fits the character and allows for an interesting juxtaposition with some very heavy science material. The science in this book does require readers to think, but is presented lightly enough to be accessible and in quantities that fit the plot of the book and allow a critical reader to keep up with a little mental jogging. The book is not perfect, of course, and some plot elements seem unneccesary and/or undeveloped, while others take up far too much room in repetition. The book does brilliantly conceive of different ways to view reality and evokes its images beautifully while probing the mind of a unique and compelling heroine. The End of Mr. Y is not a book for those who simply wish to sit back and absorb a book; the intricacies revealed by Ariel's trips to the mysterious and wonderful Troposphere raise questions about the nature of science, language, religion, and reality itself. To say more would diminish the power of this book and the sense of wonder one has when embarking on its journey for the first time. The End of Mr. Y is an interesting commentary on science, literature, and the nature of reality that will reward enterprising readers and that only rarely sacrifices its story for its philosophical purposes.

Grade: A-

September 6, 2009

Book 48: The Best American Mystery Stories 2006

The Best American Mystery Stories 2006
Edited by Scott Turow

2006 brings (brought?) yet another full plate of intriguing mystery stories in this annual anthology, which is quickly becoming a favorite quick read of mine. This year comes complete with some standouts and though their stars shine quite brightly, a couple of the stories herein don't quite live up to the promise of the book or the mediocre offerings from other years. Several stories, however, were wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed, no doubt ranking among the top stories of the year regardles of genre. Joyce Carol Oates's "So Help Me God" double-dipped with The Best American Short Stories this year, and it's obvious why with her evocative tale of small-town life, the kind of story that starts out slow but changes you in a way that you don't realize until you've finished the last line. Likewise, Karen Bender's "Theft" is appealing to the litfic crowd with its take on how Alzheimer's affects the career of a lifetime swindler. "Peacekeeper," Alan Heathcock's offering, is a bit slow and doesn't quite connect its strands fully, but its atypical chronological sampling and tale of tragedy and natural disaster should also appeal to a wider readership.

There are, of course, many stories that are simply fun; these are the stories I love, the ones that ask us to sympathize with society's devils as they prey on people just like us. It's also refreshing to realize the humor that the mystery genre can offer, both slapstick and a little darker. Laura Lippman is quickly becoming an annual favorite with me, and "The Crack Cocaine Diet" is absolutely hilarious throughout, though tragic in its way. Her ease of voice and despicable characters can't help but please and her plot moves along at a zippy place along with her zippy language. "Improvisation," a final story from Ed McBain, has at its heart a far darker kind of humor, but I couldn't help but love its evisceration of acting hopefuls through quick twists and turns of plot that are never unnecessary and always keep the reader happily on one's toes. "McHenry's Gift", by Mike Maclean, and Sue Pike's "A Temporary Crown" each exemplify in their way the delight of the mystery genre and its clean conclusions. Each has an ending perfectly suited to the story as each leaves the imprint of a smile; stories like these are simply a joy to read. Also appealing and exemplary are the stories that grab you immediately and drag you in their conclusions to strange and distant places: "Born Bad" by Jeffery Deaver is a weak example, William Harrison's "Texas Heat" a bit better, and Andrew Klavan's "Her Lord and Master" the best of the lot; each has a lovely twist that showcases the strengths of the plotty nature of the crime story.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 is a wide-ranging collection of mysteries that show the vast variety within the genre, of voice and subject matter and everything in between. There are straight-up comedy routines (with a hint of cynicism; these are, after all, crime stories), litfic-type "moment of revelation" stories, stories that exploit experimental and novel narrative techniques, nostalgia-heavy trips to the great crimes of the past, and not a single traditional detective story. As a fan of the traditional Sherlock Holmes model, however, I found that I didn't miss the presence of similar characters in this book; instead, The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 celebrates the diversity of the mystery genre, a diversity that should please even the pickiest reader. What's so compelling about these stories is the way in which readers can relate to the criminals, the way that we root for the bad guy protagonist of "Ringing the Changes" despite the fact that he is a very seedy character and the kind of guy we detest in CSI or Law & Order. I think literary crime stories have a kind of freedom in which we can be on either side of the law or in which the sides don't even necessarily exist. The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 is worth a look for its authors' willingness to probe the depths to which we will sink, to reveal surprising facts and mysteries about human nature not quite possible without seeing the darkest faces of humanity.

Grade: A

August 28, 2009

Book 47: Columbine

Dave Cullen

Though I was only 13 when the famous Columbine shooting occured, but I remember watching on TV as kids evacuated the school, hands on their heads, and I certainly remember the fallout. The tragedy has been eclipsed by the September 11 attacks, which dominated my high school experience, but the Columbine tragedy still weighs heavily on the American psyche and comes back to haunt us occasionally. Dave Cullen takes a look back on the events of that day and their effects on the community of Littleton, Colorado and the survivors of the horror. His account is always engaging, thoughful, and touching, and he delivers the story straightforward and with an entirely appropriate amount of embellishment. Columbine is thorough and factual but is also easy to read; Cullen has a gift for narration and knows exactly how to present his material. The book is careful throughout but does not hesitate to point blame where it can be found, though the suspects are far from likely and Cullen takes on the challenge of correcting the misinformation we have come to rely on.

Columbine relies heavily on actual evidence released in the ten years since the event, as well as interviews, and it is clear that Cullen has treated the evidence and interviews carefully and skilfully; he doesn't have an agenda, and seems to be genuinely concerned with correcting the falsehoods rapidly spread in the wake of the disaster. The narrative is split between the events of and following April 20, 1999 and the gradual evolution of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris from troublemakers to murderers. Cullen relies extensively on the boys' own writings to paint a likely picture of the duo's dynamic and places appropriate blame on Jefferson County law enforcement officials without becoming self-righteous or overly lenient. The key to this book is its balance; Cullen occasionally shows a hint of compassion to the murderers (especially Dylan), but this comes from a careful reading of the evidence. Cullen doesn't excuse Dylan's behavior, but interprets his journals in such a way as to explain and more fully implicate Eric as a psychopathic mastermind hellbent on destruction and chaos. These chapters alternate with chapters describing the effect on the survivors, the victims' families, and the community at large. The swift changes can be a bit jarring, but they also give the book a weight and emotional depth appropriate, subtle, and touching, just perfect for its subject. Columbine is an excellent example of the right book at the right time and a proof to all doubters that nonfiction can be written with grace; Dave Cullen has tried to do right and set the record straight, and Columbine is a testament to the power of journalism done right.

Grade: A

August 26, 2009

Book 46: Gold

Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection
Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is one of the undisputed giants in science fiction and even with my recent fascination with the genre I haven't read a lot of his work. Starting here at the end, I've decided that I need to seek out more of his writings, and certainly as soon as possible. Gold is an astounding collection of Asimov's last uncollected short fiction and a series of essays recycled from magazine editorials or book introductions. Within, Asimov explores the boundaries of science fiction and expounds upon the art of writing in general and while he does seem a bit pompous at times, the man was a member of Mensa and was one of the most prolific authors ever. He has a leg to stand on. Gold opens with a collection of short stories, most of which function as well-delivered jokes and puns. While "Hallucination" is fairly weak, several of the other long tales are quite moving. "Cal" opens the collection and speaks to the trials and tribulations of the writer, as does the charming "Fault-Intolerant", possible now only from someone of the pre-computer era. Stories such as "In the Canyon", "Good-bye to Earth", and the excellent, if obvious, "The Nations in Space" take common human problems and deal with them in science fiction contexts, proving the strength of the genre. Most effective, although a bit drawn-out, is the Hugo-winning "Gold", a meditation on the power of art and the rewards of stretching ones boundaries; not only is it an excellent story in its own right, it also speaks to fans of genre work and the truly original. You also have to love the slight swipe at Shakespeare.

Though Asimov's stories aren't masterworks of characterization and often go to entirely expected places, his essays reveal that his primary concern is to grapple with difficult ideas, making his literary baseness more understandable and forgivable. His essays on different aspects of science fiction and writing in general reveal a wry sense of humor and a devotion to the oft-maligned genre, casting light on its formative years and speaking to its evolution beyond space-based stories and into the New Wave and beyond. Most of the essays are rather specific, originally appearing as book introductions or magazine editorials, but each speaks to a facet of the genre with easygoing prose and revealing insights. Asimov is particularly interesting when discussing his own experiences and work, and though essays like "The All-Human Galaxy" and "The Robot Chronicles" are a bit self-indulgent, they provide interesting insight into his own work and make the ignorant reader thirst for more of his excellent ideas. Gold is an excellent all-around volume that fans of science fiction, no matter how familiar with or new to the genre, should read with pleasure and ease; after all, Asimov is constantly looking forward and we can hope indeed, as he does, for the Golden Age ahead.

Grade: A-

August 23, 2009

Book 45: A Universal History of the Destruction of Books

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books from Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq
Fernando Báez

First of all, this book is incredibly depressing reading for bibliophiles, but that is hardly the author's fault and, in fact, Báez is to be much credited for his striking account of the history of the wanton disregard for knowledge and freedom that would, ironically, likely seek to destroy his own book. The introduction to this volume explains its aims and does a good job introducing some of the reasons Báez believe lie beneath the desire to burn or otherwise destroy books and the inherent knowledge they contain; though these themes only return intermittently, their initial appearance grounds the book and provides the thoughtful reader with some academic context. Báez has chosen a traditional chronological/geographical approach to the material that works where it is obeyed but, as with other bibliographic histories I've read, becomes quite confusing when the numbers are needlessly fudged; Báez devotes enough separate chapters to nonpsecific causes (natural causes, fictional book destruction, and so on) to warrant a separate section of their own and more in-depth treatment that would have wrapped the book together nicely.

Likewise, Báez also succumbs to that all-too-familiar and easy vice of library historians and occasionally presents little more than lists of libraries and volumes destroyed, placing them in context but failing to make any sense out of the chaos. What is perhaps the best contextual chapter that deals directly with a specific chronological and geographical pattern of destruction is that on the early obliteration of native American cultures by the invading Spanish just post-Columbus. This chapter attempts to explain the motives of the book-destroyers as well as the gravity of the disaster and the sense of loss of these priceless artifacts. Báez achieves in this chapter a kind of gravity he grasps for all too obviously in most of the other chapters and while they are moving and convey a sense of deep cultural loss, none hits so close as this tragic history. The chapters on the monastic zeal of the Middle Ages and the fascist regimes of mid-century are excellent as well in dealing with the motives of those who destroy books, though Spain and Nazi Germany receive far more and better attention than the Soviet Union and China. Most disappointing in the entire volume is the attention given to the recent war in Iraq and the looting that has accompanied the American invasion and occupation; though Báez wraps his whole book up neatly by ending at the very place where books (and therefore libraries) began, his political bias is a bit too brash and the focus far too heavy and long for a period so short and so recent. Báez is to be commended for the scope and readability of his Universal History of the Destruction of Books, which is brilliant and thought-provoking where it delves into the motives of those behind the fire and those who write about destruction, ironically, in books of their own. A Universal History of the Destruction of Book is worthwhile reading though it lacks some context and is a largely sap-free overall look at such a depressing, but necessary, topic.

Grade: B+

August 21, 2009

Book 44: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman

In a world where superheroes are real, it's incredibly difficult to step away from the shadow of the impossibly bright Watchmen, and though Soon I Will Be Invincible has some failures of its own, it does an excellent job of positing a modern-day superhero populace that is quite distinct from the caped crusaders of its predecessor. Grossman is to be commended for the ideas behind this book, the way he has initially constructed his world and his development of an X-Men-like theory of the superhero, where heroes are made by industrial accidents or the hands of men. Likewise, he deploys deft narrative skill in alternating the narrative between the world's most evil and most brilliant supervillain and that of a young cyborg just joining a recently rebooted superteam set on finding one of their own. Grossman thinks out the powers he gives to his superheroes and villains and it is obvious he has put serious thought into developing an extensive set of extras, often mentioned only briefly enough to prove to the reader that, yes, a human with those powers was conceived. This unfortunate sense of bravado pervades the book at times and leads to unnecessary and boring info-dumps, perplexing because they seem to have nothing at all to do with the narrative world.

While it is not unusual to construct an alternate history with superheroes, or one with aliens (who show up in this novel, to no small amount of reader confusion), one simply cannot just throw these elements into the World As We Know It and expect it to turn out the same. The book is alternate history, kind of, but it's more like our exact world except, wait, there were superheroes in it. I mean, it isn't necessary to take the heroes to the Vietnam War, but it's naive and jarring to expect that there were no major changes after it became obvious to the world that superpowered humans existed; you'd think at least the popular culture references, while cute, would change after the tenth time Dr. Impossible tried to take over the world. It is here that Grossman's book fails, utterly and completely; this is a shame because the book itself is interesting and fun. The heroes and villains are compelling and Dr. Impossible is amazingly rendered in 3D prose that puts the reader firmly in his corner, only to switch sides when almost-as-compelling Fatale plays narrator for a chapter. Sure, Grossman relies on some over-used cliches (the cyborg has an identity crisis, the villain was unpopular in high school), but these and the main support characters are interesting and do the job.

Even the plot of the book is different and intriguing, owing mostly, I think, to its unconventional narration. Readers are placed in the awkward position of rooting for both Good and Evil but are moved smoothly from one side to the other; I was personally rooting for Dr. Impossible but there is still a part of me that wants to be sure Fatale ends up okay as well. Dr. Impossible is, in fact, quite the nuanced character, and his constant insistence on taking over the world becomes a moving mantra about the power of perseverence instead of mere evil designs. I quite like him, in fact, but he alone cannot carry the book. The magical gimmicks are hastily and clumsily portrayed, though a few relics and technologies function well and seem to belong in this world; most impressive and coherent are the origin story for hero CoreFire and Dr. Impossible's latest Doomsday Device, which are hilariously over the top and straight out of Bond. The actual physical fights are the most believable elements, with the superheroes squaring off and showcasing their powers for the camera, as well as a particularly moving sequence in which Dr. Impossible conceives the best possible prison for each Champions member. The problem is that the world is too inconsistent and there are far too many extraneous elements: why the mysterious magic and the alien hybrids? Where are the aliens now? Why is the world exactly as we know it though it has been shaped by magical devices throughout and superheroes since at least the 1940s? These problems, along with some shoddy and clumsy writing, plague the narrative and, while the book is fun, it is far from well-written. Soon I Will Be Invincible means well and nails some elements while failing spectacularly at others; it is a novel of great ideas and a great climactic act but too little overall thought to be even fairly good.

Grade: B-

August 19, 2009

Book 43: Great Expectations

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens

To begin, it must be said that this is surely a book whose reputation precedes it, and I embarked with, shall we say, great expectations of this enduring literary classic. I am not quite sure if they were met because, while this is an engrossing read and certainly a frank and excellent portrayal of its historical context, there are moments within when the reader's eyes glaze over and fight to proceed. The book's main fault, I believe, is that to modern eyes each of its characters is, quite frankly, morally dreadful. It's quite easy to side with young Pip when he rashly feeds a threatening escaped convicts in the marshes behind his humble home, but when he begins to turn his back on his family and upbringing he becomes quite intolerable and remains so for a majority of the novel. Dickens is correct in portraying Pip as so, but with an irritating and pompous narrator to book occasionally becomes frustrating and seems to carry on at length without purpose. Though the middle may be plodding, however, Dickens does move to wrap the novel up at quite a reasonable speed, solving its mysteries at a pleasant rate throughout the final acts and providing a sense of conclusion just when certain mysteries seem to have been dropped. Great Expectations has a great sense of mystery throughout, which serves it well and which keeps the reader interested as Pip goes along attempting to be a gentleman while adopting the moral repugnance so often associated with that station in that period.

It's a marvel that Dickens is able to bend readers' sympathies so that, when the time comes for Pip to receive his moral awakening, we are alongside him and cheering him on, almost having forgotten or forgiven his grave errors, only to have Pip remorsefully re-introduce them in full force. What Great Expectations creates, then, is a likely story of a young man's moral education populated by a host of unlikely characters. From the introduction of the very weird Miss Havisham it is clear that this vision of London is populated with unlikely characters who, save Pip, serve ably to flesh out the text with their eccentricities that become, strangely, stereotypical. Most interesting of the supporting cast, I believe, is John Wemmick, clerk to one-man machine Mr. Jaggers and who exhibits an interesting and telling divide between his work and personal personalities. This divide can serve as an imperfect reflection of Pip and his split life as a gentleman and a pauper and an example that even pompous Pip cannot help but draw upon.

Great Expectations is quite strange because it seems to move so slowly and without purpose, but upon finishing the final page each tiny piece of the puzzle has fallen into place and the package is wrapped rather neatly. Pip does not get away clean from his indiscretions, but readers can rest assured that he remains good at heart and for this he is marginally rewarded. Indeed, the novel's greatest failing is its neglect of one of its greatest villains and details of his fate as well as allowing the repulsive Mr. Pumblechook to get a favorable outcome, but perhaps that too adds to the moral of the story, which is ambiguous at best. It remains ultimately unanswered whether Pip has indeed lived up to his great expectations, and his best chance seems to come just as he is losing those expectations altogether. Likewise with the novel, which begins somewhat slowly but which picks up so that by its third act it is nearly impossible to put down as its opening mysteries are solved satisfactorily and with delicate care and consideration by the author. Great Expectations comes to modern readers with a wealth of burdens on its back and, though it takes a while to ease them, it leaves readers satisfied with its place as a classic of English literature and worthy of the giant who penned it.

Grade: A-

August 12, 2009

Book 42: History of Libraries in the Western World

History of Libraries in the Western World
Michael M. Harris

No, boys and girls, your intrepid reporter did not forget an article in front of that title, which is an incredibly apt fit for this dry, academic text. Harris definitely demonstrates a full grasp of the history of libraries in America and Europe, but what is lacking in this litany of collections and numbers is a great deal of context or intrigue. By and large, History of Libraries in the Western World is, in fact, a list of great libraries throughout the history of the Western World, and the number of books believed to be in those collections. There are entire paragraphs that are naught but lists, meaningless without context or distinguishing remarks and whose numbers exist without contextual note of their relative size to the era. Obviously there is a huge difference between a medieval collection in the hundreds and a modern collection of such paltry standards; Harris makes no note of this, however, and continues merrily to list library after library. This isn't to say that the book is a complete failure, however, though it is just about the driest book I have ever had the misfortune to come across. There is no academic argument and no Great Strand of History herein, but Harris does manage to inadvertently create a general timeline in between his endless, pointless library lists.

The book begins promisingly enough, with its introduction enumerating several factors that go into library creation and maintenance (including economic and political stability), most interestingly positing that libraries represent a kind of power and a thirst for control, being that they are assembled with deliberation and purpose. One may assume that the following pages will illustrate these principles, but political and economic developments are rarely mentioned in the pages that follow, often posing as segways between lists (with the hilarious exception of the contemporary economic crisis, mentioned alarmingly in almost every paragraph of the final sections). One cannot fault Mr. Harris too much for his lack of foresight, but even in 1996 it was obvious that libraries were headed toward a digital age that deserves more than a page's mention in such an epically sweeping volume, where it is relegated to the conclusion. The organization of the book isn't too bad as Harris guides readers from the various cultures of the ancients through the present day, making a necessary pit stop at the eastern Byzantine Empire and organizing his history through geography as much as historical epoch. This works but creates some awkward tension as he moves into the modern era, thoughfully dividing Europe and the Americas but creating entirely different time periods for these chapters without fully explaining why. Sure, it's obvious why the European chapter ends at 1917, but why does America's terminate in 1850, particularly when many collection figures therein are given through the 1870s or even later?

This illustrates a fundamental problem with this book: Harris has no desire to present context or construct an interesting argument, or even a dull one. This book strives to be dryly academic and as such is a great resource but very nearly unreadable. Harris seems to catch stride quite late in the book, where his discussion of the development of European national libraries and the United States's fascination with public libraries (arising out of our democratic tendencies and their bias towards an informed population; also interestingly linked with anti-immigration and Americanization policies), but it is by far too late to salvage the volume. Additionally, the geographic bias of the book is wide-ranging in the early chapters but narrows considerably, with the final European chapter mentioning Eastern Europe (which is still the West) for about one paragraph while focusing extensively on more popular countries, to say nothing of the bare mention of Latin American libraries. Harris seems unsure how to construct an interesting and varied text and though he very usefully divides discussion of modern libraries by type (public, governmental, collegiate/academic, school, and special) he fails to paint a picture as a whole and instead plods along country by country, again and always with the lists. History of Libraries in the Western World is a fairly thorough examination of collections throughout history and contains useful theoretical fodder in its introduction as well as a few interesting bits throughout, but this is not a book to be read lightly as a single, connected narrative; it would find its place, I feel, best in the reference section. But if you want to know the history of the number of volumes at Harvard, this is the place to go.

Grade: C

August 6, 2009

Book 41: The True Meaning of Smekday

The True Meaning of Smekday
Adam Rex

I usually shy away from books branded as Young Adult, with the notable exception of Harry Potter. We assume that these books cannot deal with big topics or possibly be well-written or entertaining, and this assumption is proven foolish and flat-out wrong by The True Meaning of Smekday, a remarkably entertaining, if light, book that never lets up on the gas pedal. There's no question that this is a book for those in the middle-school set: the narrator is a pre-teen girl whose voice is hilarious and right on target, a brilliant buffer for the adults who are subtly skewered by the perceptions of a narrator who is largely unaware she has them. Gratuity, also known as Tip, is a bundle of pep and determination and her unlikely friendship with a Boov alien mechanic after his race takes over the Earth is heartfelt and rife with cultural missteps on both sides. J.Lo speaks in a wonderful just-wrong dialect and provides Tip with plenty of opportunities to offer zingers to her own race, often cloaked in deadpan responses to this alien's sensibility. J.Lo and the spunky Tip take off after her mom disappears and have plenty of wonderful and wacky adventures as they travel in a souped-up car to re-settlement areas for the humans, meeting along the way an American Indian man. The irony is not lost, but is buried beneath the surface by Rex, who has a good sense of when to lay it on thick and when to let it seep into readers' consciousness gradually.

In fact, The True Meaning of Smekday is a superbly executed adventure story with plenty of social criticism, but built such that the criticism doesn't weigh the story down at all and it is allowed to float freely and fancy-free. The conceit of the book is genius and is a novel take on gradual world-building: Tip must compose an essay of the true meaning of Smekday, the holiday formerly known as Christmas, and her first attempt is cursory enough to acquaint the reader with recent history and set up two longer and more revealing essays, knitted together by the delightful allusions to the fact that the essay will be placed in a atime capsule (Tip often asks if we "future people" still have knowledge of certain products or modes of speech). Rex packs the narrative full of familiar stopping points, including trips to an excruciatingly thinly-veiled Disney World (the book suffers for this deception) and a blantantly realistic post-alien-invasion Roswell, for this is an alien story. Some real-world nods are unnecessary and overly silly, but they should do the job for this book's intended audience. The True Meaning of Smekday is a delightful and well-paced book with an easy sense of humor that allows it to deal with serious notions of racism and true friendship without ever becoming heavy-handed (Tip always realizes she's getting sappy and has a way of making these parts seem innocuous) and while remaining true to its mood and audience. Comics interspersed throughout the narrative enliven the text and are delightful, adding to the conceit and fleshing out the world's history while allowing Tip to avoid the woeful duty of dull exposition, making the book well-suited to shorter attention spans. Rex owes H.G. Wells for his conclusion but, then again, The True Meaning of Smekday deals with the same imperialist issues. That this book is meant for a younger set does not mean it isn't a delightful change of pace for more seriously-minded adults and The True Meaning of Smekday is an excellent, well-written, and entertaining book anyone should feel free to enjoy.

Grade: A

August 4, 2009

Book 40: The Best American Mystery Stories 2007

The Best American Mystery Stories 2007
Edited by Carl Hiaasen

I'm here again with the annual wrap-up of the best of the American short fiction world, and again I'm immensely grateful to this genre-based volume for its ability to showcase the best of a genre that speaks to the depths of the human spirit. The remarkable variety of stories speaks to the fact that the mystery genre is far more than a detective story, though the hardboiled stories in this collection are as inventive and intriguing as the more lit-fic types. Each uses the peculiar ability of human depravity, and frankness about our darkest desires, to shine a defining spotlight on the human condition. There are stories that are disturbing, sure, like the off-putting opener "Stab" and "The True History", but the violence within them magnifies their themes and they do much more than cheaply titillate. "The Spot' by David Means is a moving story that deals with horrific crimes in a strangely serene and meditative way, making it almost impossible to realize we're in the midst of an awful crime story. Somewhat odd in the collection is "The True History", a beautifully rendered period piece that is stark and disturbing, though the most effective stories are the open-ended "The Timing of Unfelt Smiles", which delves deeply into the psyche of a killer and offers an unexpected twist amidst mounting horror, and the devestating "Queeny", which offers an all-too-true look at the other side of the criminal coin we get in shows such as Law & Order.

That said, there are a few stories that are strangely satisfying and even humorous, and though none are laugh-out-loud hilarious there is plenty of black humor to be expected and found in such a well-rounded collection. Though astute readers will realize exactly where "Lucy Had a List" is going, it's a delight to watch the story unfold and to hear John Sandford magically conjure his dialect off the page. Likewise, Laura Lippman's "One True Love" is an earnestly fair and compassionate look at the life of an upscale Beltway working woman, with a plot that disgusts and warms by turns. Equally satisfying, of course, are the hardboiled noir stories most familiar to the genre, and these contributions represent the best of the genre, the unpredictable. "Keller's Double Dribble" puts a recurring hitman in an unusual situation and John Bond's "T-Bird" may be the best of the lot for its unapologetically noir crime-meets-poker-meets-crime dark deals amongst the glamour of Miami. While this collection is a bit uneven and a couple of the stories herein are predictable to the point of being boring, each offers a distinct sense of setting and plot that more often than not captures a rogue element of the human spirit. These unexpected revelations are by turns shocking and serene, blindsiding and blindingly obvious. Each sotry in The Best American Mystery Stories 2007 is a good representation of the crime genre, the gritty underworld of the human spirit, and a polished piece of literature.

Grade: A

July 26, 2009

Book 39: Memory's Library

Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England
Jennifer Summit

I must admit that my feeble attempts to properly "review" this book in any way are, in a sense, futile as this is a strictly academic work that presumes (and rightly so) an extensive knowledge of British history right around the Reformation. Knowledge of Middle English is a must and a working familiarity with Latin will benefit the reader, though long Latin citations are thankfully translated while titles stand unintelligibly in the original. My collegiate experience with the English of the period gave me a cursory knowledge on which to understand the book, but Memory's Library is certainly not a tome for the common, average reader, which is too bad because Summit raises some interesting ideas about libraries and their place in society. Summit traces several strands of library history in distinct chapters necessarily linked by their overlap but which each posits a main thesis; Summit never fails to remind the reader that she "is arguing" even though these "arguments" often read more like litanies of facts or obtuse histories, but no matter. Memory's Library employs a somewhat traditional case-study approach to the history of the major libraries of England during the transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance or, as it is recast here, the transition from monastic libraries to cultivated personal or university collections.

Summit does a good job keeping the overall picture in mind as she transitions from development to development in English library history within and between her chapters, but her account is free from most contextualizing information and the book would be greatly aided with a timeline and/or an appendix with the lifespans of the book's major players, many of whom seem to fade only to pop up in a later chapter, alive and well and corresponding with someone whose history is said to come well after theirs (the chapter about Bacon does this quite egregiously, and much to my confusion). Likewise, there is a lack of a dramatic narrative feeling in this book; Summit is talking about Big Ideas and Grand Developments in History and there is just story after story without attendant, interesting conversations about the meanings of religious censorship or the rise of literacy; it must be said, however, that the book has discussion of English religious development in spades. She is also somewhat repetitive with her quotes, employing large block quotes only to quote each and every line in later discussion, often multiple times. Memory's Library does trace interesting threads of library development in this particularly turbulent period of English history, but it is not meant for the general reader and is highly inaccessible to those not intimately familiar with the history at hand already. There are salient and relevant poitns about the changing function of libraries (such as an engaging discussion of Richard Cotton's library and the emergence of the idea of primary sources), but they are somewhat lost in the endless academic noise.

Grade: B-

July 23, 2009

Book 38: Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
Michael Chabon

Usually, I'm not really one for essays, and I picked this book up on a whim and having recognized the author's name from The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I believe, after reading this wonderful and whimsical collection, that I will have to read more essays. Chabon keeps his topics close at hand in this book, which focuses on the arts of reading and writing throughout and whose essays are usually either either specific criticism or personal anecdotes, and weaves the concept of literary borderlands throughout all of his essays, giving the book an overall theme without adding unnecesasry weight or focusing too much on a thesis or particular axe to grind. If there is any overall thesis to the work it would be the theme, introduced eloquently and humorously in the opening "Trickster in a Suit of Lights", that genre fiction is not to be overlooked and that much literary innovation takes place on the boundaries of genre, where tropes collide and authors experiment to create a sum that is not merely greater than but transcends its parts. Though Chabon writes with authority, he does not seem full of himself and offers what seem to be genuine potshots at himself as he describes his childhood and his early attempts at writing, stories that are referenced in some essays and fully described in others and which give Maps and Legends a semi-autobiographical quality that is light and fun and which gives readers a sense of Chabon's credibility and a sense of familiarity that, in this case, breeds respect.

Despite the fact that a few of the essays herein are focused tightly on one work or body of work, only "The Killer Hook", which focuses on a comic series called American Flagg!, suffers for readers' lack of familiarity. Essays on The Road and the His Dark Materials trilogy are fleshed out with much plot detail and make general points about literature that are supported by the summaries Chabon gives, though these summaries take up the great weight of these essays and become a bit cumbersome as they ramble on without context or interpretation. Regardless, it is easy to sense throughout Maps and Legends Chabon's unceasing affinity for genre fiction and playful literature; his book can be taken as an argument for the respect of now-marginalized fiction and it is difficult to come away from a delightful little essay like "Kids' Stuff" without wanting to run straight for the comic shelves or, better, to write the kind of comic Chabon describes therein. Chabon's essays on other works provide great insight into a modern author's mind and on the state of literature in general, particularly when he posits that the current critical darling lit-fic genre is, itself, a genre with tropes often stricter than those found in science fiction or fantasy; that he does this with gracious humor is a bonus and keeps him from seeming pompous. It is easy to share his disdain.

The essays at the end of the book take a far more serious and autobiographical turn than the more critical first essays, but it is here that Chabon is at his strongest. "Imaginary Homelands" is a fascinating and fresh look at the meaning of Judaism in the post-Israel world, meditative and funny and with an overall poignance that is quite touching and which provokes much thought. Also delightful are his anecdotes about creating his own work and the difficulty of inspiration, particularly "My Back Pages", which combines storytelling with light literary criticism and a thread of self-criticism that pulls the whole thing together and creates an inspiring piece for aspiring writers. From the first musings of "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" to the final words of both "Golems I Have Known" and its phenomenal postmodern postscript, Michael Chabon illuminates the world of fiction in diverse essays that share enough links to make a whole book without shedding individual grace and without becoming overbearing. Any lover of literature, and especially lovers of genre fiction, would be hard-pressed to find more amusing and insightful essays than these and readers of all stripes can appreciate Chabon's mode of self-reflection and intellectual grappling with the state of literature today. I loved every minute of this collection and thirst for more of Chabon's work, both fiction and non-fiction.

Grade: A