February 27, 2009

Book 8: The American College Town

The American College Town
Blake Gumprecht

In my continuing accidental quest to avoid traditional novels, I stumbled across this nonfiction book that studies its eponymous phenomenon. Having lived in what I believe to be the consummate college town for several years, I thought the book looked incredibly interesting and decided to read it; as a bonus, I discovered that Ann Arbor is indeed the focus on one of the book's chapters. If there's one authorial quirk that defines this book, it is definitely Gumprecht's self-awareness as a writer. For a book that attempts so hard to be a field-defining academic tome, The American College Town defends its existence rather much and uses quite a few familiar I's that are ill-advised at best. The book immediately launches into a quite-autobiographical preface that does a good job of outlining the book's goals, setting it up for brilliant failure, but seems a little self-indulgent. Each chapter begins with a formulaic college-paper type opening and none fail to present a self-conscious thesis statement that, again, only establishes goals Gumprecht doesn't even begin to reach.

The book reads like a poorly thought out research paper, complete with maddening typos (like ridiculous plurals), but its lack of diversified sentence and chapter structures eventually became delightful as I attempted to locate the thesis at the beginning of each chapter, and to note specifically how Gumprecht failed in its inevitable second part (relating a case study to the college town phenomenon as a whole). The best part about Gumprecht's consistent inability to properly support his assertions was the inevitable final few paragraphs of each chapter, which rather frantically attempted to translate hyper-specific situations into sweeping pronouncements about college town culture. The entire structure of the book is inherently flawed, and these chapter-ending grandiose parades of utterly unsupported assertions simply highlight the extravagant failure of Gumprecht's attempt to launch the study of college towns as such. The preface and first chapter of The American College Town do, in fact, a wonderful job of exploring the topic at large. Gumprecht knows he is attempting a miracle in uniting all college towns into a unified theory of everything, but manages to intelligently extract define several qualities (note the absence of "unique" here) that create a college town-y atmosphere. He attempts to zero in on several archetypal college towns to illuminate these qualities, but instead of using case-studies to illuminate general trends, The American College Towns is simply an interesting amalgamation of short, thematic city histories that all attempt to become relevant and sweeping in their final page but which remain entirely too specific to be useful.

The main problem of this book may not be its scope, which is immense given the diversity of city habits and atmospheres and multiplied given the enhanced weirdness and eccentricity of most college towns, but its lack of editing. This seems incredibly odd given Gumprecht's constant near-self-deprecation, but this book's structure isn't utilized at all towards his purposes and his nagging repetition of phrases is absolutely maddening, particularly when they are flat out lies and contradictions (Ann Arbor is a college town. College towns have cheap rent. One has to be a lie.). And though Gumprecht self-consciously attempts to avoid cronyism by omitting his beloved Lawrence, Kansas as a focal point, his bias is apparent throughout the book and is flagrantly flaunted in his chapter about Ann Arbor. Perhaps I am exercising some cronyism myself, but holding Ann Arbor as the gold standard of how college towns are deteriorating in their college town-iness seems misguided, particularly when the chapter focuses on research facilities that invented minor things like, say, the Internet (a claim made by the book). The appearance of my twice-professor Jonathan Marwil doesn't salvage this chapter, which unprofessionally opens as a blatant attack on my beloved city. This seems even more egregious when the (seemingly) completely moronic Newark, Delaware gets a free pass and escapes without flagrant bias and without obvious comments that would, in fact, support Gumprecht's views about college towns and their development.

Despite all of its flaws, however, I was quite amused and educated by this book. Despite its complete failure to explore the universal facets of college towns, The American College Town does include several interesting portraits of places I never would have even considered. The University of Delaware wouldn't have ever been on my radar before we scheduled them in football for 2009, and I would have automatically dismissed Norman, Oklahoma or Manhattan, Kansas as conservative college town poseurs. Auburn and the aforementioned Newark look incredibly narrow minded and stupid, but whether this is because of the book's one-sided approach to them I cannot say. Ann Arbor is derided for not feeling like a college town once one gets out of...er...town, but I think we actually come out looking better because of Gumprecht's insistence on defining the college town as a single entity and his idiotic refusal to look at the parts of Ann Arbor that make it a better exemplar of other chapters than the one for which is was profiled.

Gumprecht begins his book by attempting to codify common elements of the college town feel, but he ends up accidentally celebrating the diversity within such towns. While some elements of each chapter are relevant at least to Ann Arbor (with which I am intimately familiar) and, often, to the snapshots of other featured towns, Gumprecht fails to see these similarities and ironically continues to expound upon their differences in chapter after chapter. The American College Town has some interesting ideas about the college town, but they emerge only after readers ignore the blowhard comments that purport to expose them (with the exception of the book's first chapter). The book fails miserably at giving a unified portrait of the American college town, but it is a decently written and captivating thematic look at several quirky cities that fit his well thought-out definition of college towns. With a little less self-consciousness and a lot more general editing, The American College Town may have been the defining work Gumprecht was attempting to create, but as it is it is no more than a panoramic view of several separate and thematically distinct American college towns.

Grade: C+

February 18, 2009

Book 7: The Best American Mystery Stories 2008

The Best American Mystery Stories 2008
Edited by George Pelecanos

Being a relative newcomer to the general mystery and crime genres, I was a little unsure what to expect from this collection, but excited nonetheless by my enjoyment of The Plot Thickens. The book as a whole was a little disappointing, as I was expecting more of detective-type stories I typically associate with the mystery genre. I would perhaps re-title this book to indicate that the stories within are crime fiction and not necessarily mysteries, but aside from that nit-picking many of the stories were quite good. One, "Child's Play" by Alice Munro, was also printed in The Best American Short Stories 2008 and does quite well on a second read, retaining and refining its punch. I also thoroughly enjoyed the child's voice employed to wonderful effect in Melissa Vanbeck's "Given Her History". Several stories were close to brilliant but ultimately came up short, such as "The Emerson, 1950" by Scott Phillips and "The Invisibles" by Hugh Sheehy, both of which begin with interesting premises but ultimately fail to deliver on their high beginnings (indeed, the former seems to have little plot at all but would be quite interesting if it found one).

The best part of this collection as a whole was the variety I was lamenting a bit earlier. While Michael Connelly's "Mulholland Dive" was more of the kind of story I expected from this collection, my enjoyment of this superb and sly story came from true talent and not just previous expectations- it also delivers a fine and satisfying twist ending. "The Hour When the Ship Comes In" by Robert Ferrigno and, to a lesser extent, "Hothouse" by S.J. Rozan both do an excellent job of adopting the perspective of someone on the other, darker, side of criminal activity. Chuck Hogan does a top-notch job setting his scene with a rundown neighborhood and shady characters throughout- "One Good One" is one of the most moving stories in this collection. There are also a couple of stories ("At the Top of His Game" by Stephen Rhodes and "The Monks of the Abbey Victoria" by Rupert Holmes) that use somewhat dark humor to excellent and subtle effect while delivering thought provoking narratives and, more crucially, compelling characters. Leo Sarkozy from Jas. R. Petrin's "Car Trouble" is completely compelling and I would love to read an entire novel devoted to him.

This collection was overall incredibly interesting and varied, and though I don't think it necessarily represents the mystery genre, though I am absolutely no authority to speak on that, it delivers far more hits than misses and can entertain throughout. There were only a couple of stories that were truly boring or worth skipping, and while only a couple were somewhat Earth-shattering, this anthology is definitely worth reading for fans of crime fiction. The Best American Mystery Stories 2008 is a lovely showcase of the variety possible in its stereotyped genre and each of its stories has something different and interesting to offer, coming together in a comprehensive understanding of the genre and revealing facets of human nature often hidden in more mainstream contemporary fiction. This book is a good ride.

Grade: A

February 9, 2009

Book 6: Watchmen

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

This famous graphic novel, soon to be released as a movie, is my first foray into the world of graphic narratives, and what an opener it is! This book has just as much, if not more, depth than many of its more traditional counterparts and provides a perfect balance of mass, pulp appeal and high art. Though I don't have anything to directly compare it to, Watchmen balances its written words and its art marvelously, using both to advance the narrative in ways unique to its medium. Not content to rest on a simple, straightforward narrative, Watchmen utilizes a uniquely complex mix of flashbacks, sub-plots, primary document-fueled backstory, and parallel narratives to completely immerse readers in its hardscrabble alternate future. Combine these intense and extremely well-executed literary techniques with the book's impeccably evocative artwork and Watchmen easily becomes a masterpiece in the world of printed art.

This book would be notable for the successful execution of its story alone. It is difficult to write alternative histories without becoming overwhelmingly didactic or falling into the realm of tired cliches; there are no such errors in the world of Watchmen, which paints its world in vivid colors and whose world is not so foreign to the real climate of the late Cold War. Major details, such as the outcome of the Vietnam War, are changed, but the fundamental climate of fear (and flashpoints of Afghanistan and East Germany) are not, making the world believable and suitably familiar to remain chilling and effective. Additonally, the changes to our accepted timeline are relevant to the book's superhero saga and are all necessary to the mood of the book, which is its strongest point. Its plot, regarding real-life superheroes facing a difficult and often hostile world, characters (who face very real and very complex psychological dilemmas), and setting (both in time and space) combine as perfectly as in any fictional world I've ever seen- each component is carefully considered and balanced against the others to create a completely engrossing story.

The soaring success of Watchmen is largely due to the way that it uses and twists familiar comic cliches. I initially wanted to groan at the appearance of a comic within this comic, but before long it was apparent that this nested narrative is carefully balanced with the book's main plot to expose grand truths about existence and human psychology, besides being an excellent and chilling self-contained story itself. Its characters are likewise the kind of flawed anti-heroes we've come to expect in recent years, but each embraces his or her role in an entirely unique way that defies stereotypes. Even when the plot becomes grandiose in typical superhero-story fashion, it is riddled with moral dilemmas so complex that the book becomes a work of deep and difficult philosophy while remaining enjoyable on its basic story level. Watchmen has layers so deep and complex that it is a trip deep within the human psyche, and even if these considerations become overbearing and a bit confusing at some points, the narrative itself is better for it. This is anything but an easy, breezy read and that is just fine.

Watchmen is the perfect example of art that recognizes and exploits its medium to fullest effect. Complete with backstory-rounding primary documents that illuminate the rich world of the book, this volume creates one of the most complete fictional universes I have ever encountered, to say nothing of its engrossing, thrilling, and completely appropriate plot. In addition to commenting on traditional superhero narratives with enough originality to stay out of the trap of didacticism, Watchmen puts forth a compelling story that fits entirely in to the fears of both its alternate history and its real-world publication date. Moore and Gibbons are able to capture the very specific fears and paranoia of the Cold War while retaining the atmosphere of general fear and doubt that accompanies today's advanced nuclear age. The problems of Watchmen are hyper-specific to its fictional history, real history, and today's continuing history; they are at once specific in time and entirely universal without being dated or at all cliche. Combine Moore's ultra-intelligent writing with the recurring motifs and absolutely stunning and appropriate art of Gibbons and it is no wonder that Watchmen has become such a classic in its own genre and throughout the entire publishing world. This book packs a serious punch and deserves all of its accolades; anyone skeptical of the power of the graphic novel should pick it up immediately, as well as anyone interested in the psychology of trying times. Watchmen defies description and soars above any praise I can humbly seek to bestow upon it.

Grade: A

February 7, 2009

Book 5: Europe Central

Europe Central
William T. Vollmann

Here is a book that, judging by its jacket, sounds right up my alley: a collection of paired, loosely connected stories focusing alternately on the USSR and Germany during World War II. The book itself looks and feels as epic as its central conflict, but unfortunately it is hampered throughout by this very knowledge. Reading the book with the knowledge that it is a recipient of the National Book Award lays bare the book's pomposity and creates an unfriendly image of the author as compromising quality for award-worthiness. It is understandable that the vast Europe Central won an award but unfortunately this accolade does not reflect any sense of enjoyment or coherence when approaching the book, which is weighed down immensely by its cheap attempts at grandiosity and which ceases to be readable in its pursuit of honors. The project itself, to produce paired stories that expose moral dilemmas and reactions during the 20th century's most destructive conflict is interesting and occasionally yields fascinating results which are again muted by the posturing inflicted upon the reader. Vollmann takes an interesting and important structure and buries it beneath self-aggrandizing writing that is overbearing and at times so annoying that it is hard to imagine Vollmann legitimately believing that his sentences are the best way to get his point across.

Readers should know by the first sentences of the book whether they are cut out to be dragged along in this quagmire of metaphor and nonsensical characterization and narration; the opening chapter is absolutely impossible to decipher and, while raising interesting points that are few and far between, succeeds only in introducing a shaky and useless telephone metaphor that occasionally comes back throughout the book. Much of the writing in this tome echoes this useless prelude as Vollmann stretches metaphors well past literary acceptability. Time and again metaphors extend sentences well beyond the limits of reason and, while these are often insightful, drag readers right out of the story and force them to recognize how clever the author is. This kind of writing is nothing but self-serving and, frankly, the importance of the book's core subject matter demands a more serious and mature writing style. Vollmann far too often uses Europe Central as a showcase for his witty insights which go on pompous display instead of being usefully integrated into the narrative (insofar as one may exist). Even more infuriating is the narration that mars most of the Russian chapters and which ends all of its sentences by abruptly dropping them before they say anything. It's almost as if they, so to speak, well, you know.

The subject matter and weight of these Russian chapters is also a problem. It is understandable that the content of this book would fall toward the Russian side; after all, it is no secret that the USSR bore the brunt of the absolute destruction that defines World War II's style of warfare. For a book masquerading as a look at all of Central Europe, however, Europe Central hardly focuses on the German side at all. This is an exceptionally glaring displacement of attention because the German mentality was so central to the war in the first place. Most frustrating, however, is the fact that the German-focused chapters of the book are its most coherent, best written, and to my admittedly biased mind the most interesting chapters by far. These infrequent and unfairly truncated chapters become mere pit-stops, however, as Vollmann travels the boring and incessantly redundant Shostakovich highway. Dmitri Shostakovich is a fascinating character to follow throughout the tightening paired nooses of Soviet oppression and German military aggression. Vollmann again misfires, however, when constructing the famous composer and every Russian ever as entirely obsessed with a certain enigmatic woman who happened to be his mistress for a year. By the end of the book, I would audibly groan whenever her name was mentioned; her legend is an interesting segway into the exposure of certain Soviet crimes and into Shostakovich's personal life, but using her as the sole inspiration for everything he ever did takes it much too far and turns him into a one-dimensional whiny character, hardly one readers want to follow for so much of the book.

Most annoying about this book is the fact that buried beneath the overbearing weight of unnecessary literary posturing and award-baiting are some incredibly moving stories that shed new and intriguing light on certain moral dilemmas faced in conflict. "Woman with Dead Child", an early look at K├Ąthe Kollwitz's life and art, is incredibly moving if hampered a bit by this work's usual literary hang-ups. "Into the Mountain" provides an original look at the parallels between Norse mythology and Hitler's demise. When Vollmann focuses on an intense character portrait and limits it to one story, he belongs in the highest echelon of World War II fiction. "The Red Guillotine" makes a subtle comparison between the Soviet and German regimes and forces readers to face the uncomfortable fact that each may have been equally repressive and, perhaps, equally evil. Vollmann shows complexity and depth when probing his carefully selected and incredibly thoroughly defined characters within the contexts of the tough moral decisions they are forced to make. There are incredibly complex moral distinctions explored in "Clean Hands", the story of an SS officer who joins simply to reveal the organization's atrocities to the world, and "Breakout", the tale of Soviet general Andrey Vlasov and his cooperation with the Nazi regime against the USSR. The subjective and often fluid nature of ethical judgment, both by historical actors and in hindsight, is preserved in these stories especially as they (more or less) objectively expose the reasoning behind each man's actions. Vollmann is at his best here where he allows his stories to concentrate on compact narratives that center around a strong character- neither is drawn out and each shows an impeccable sense of narrative construction both within itself and in relation to the work as a whole. Vollmann positively shines in these select stories.

Judging Vollmann's vast effort, then, is clouded equally in shades of grey as its best narratives are. His best stories deserve to be preserved and read by anyone interested in the psychology of morals along with those interested in the unique mental climate provided by World War II. Here, Vollmann follows through on the jacket's promise to explore moral decisions forced in wartime. Here also the two great powers of Central Europe, Germany and the USSR, are compared in subtle and astoundingly anti-didactic ways: there is nothing forced in these stories; they are completely genuine. This makes the egregious errors which haunt the vast bulk of Europe Central even less forgivable and absolutely maddening. There is great promise but readers are everywhere disappointed and occasionally even despised. Additionally, those wishing to make any sense whatsoever of several crucial elements of the story must be well-versed in musical theory and history, Nordic and German mythology, and the history of World War II before even attempting to read this book. It is entirely an accident that one of my college classes touched on Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and its relationship to Stalin; without this nuanced exposure most of the composer's chapters, which dominate the book by far, would have made no sense whatsoever. Vollmann often refuses to make anything at all clear and sacrifices meaning for "art", mirroring perhaps Shostakovich's deepest ambitions but creating something extremely inaccessible and deeply difficult to read, let alone enjoy. This book reeks of wasted talent and unfulfilled promises while its best chapters show that it could have been more than worthy of its subject matter. Readers would be well-served to seek out this book's best stories, but its general framework is distorted and reading all of Europe Central is a waste of time for the majority of readers who simply want an engrossing, useful, or intelligible narrative.

Grade: C