June 29, 2009

Book 31: Everything Is Miscellaneous

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder
David Weinberger

I read this book on the advice of the University of Michigan's School of Information, and I'm very glad that I had a chance to engage with its ideas. In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger charts the growing anarchy spawned by the wealth of information available on the internet and the exploding number of ways we are finding to classify, personalize, and share this information. Though Weinberger is a bit too happy to use his buzzwords ("miscellaneous" and "third order" especially) every other sentence, the book raises several interesting points about the effect digitization and the freedom of the web is affecting the way we access and use knowledge. His thesis is concise and easily understood, well-developed and illustrated throughout the book. Weinberger's prose is easily readable and he alternates well between brief historical sketches and their modern counterparts; for example, he writes of Linnaeus's classification of the animal kingdom and then examines how websites are innovating new ways to classify organisms, as well as examining how these systems affect our way of thinking about the world. Sometimes Weinberger makes a more obvious and lucid connection than others, but by and large he chooses relevant and interesting examples to illustrate the history and future of the classification and use of data. His chapters become a bit formulaic as each reads as a kind of mini-essay, but the book connects its ideas throughout chapters and does present a unifying view of how the digital revolution is re-shaping society. His detailed attention to websites occasionally ventures into the blandly promotional and sometimes redundant, but again his examples are chosen well and used to illustrate his point, if with some excessive cheerleading at times. Everything Is Miscellaneous takes an interesting and readable look at the ways in which technology, whether by collaborative social technologies like tagging or through expanded and flexible databases, is fundamentally re-shaping our relationship with information and knowledge in the digital age.

Grade: B+

June 26, 2009

Book 30: Free for All

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library
Don Borchert

The jacket of this book promises that it will be a wild ride, a tell-all memoir of sorts that will hilariously and tenderly convey the perks and perils of working in an underfunded, often overcrowded public library. Unfortunately, though there are amusing and touching anecdotes spread throughout this book, the vast bulk of this volume consists of snide, self-serving remarks with remarkably little perception or tolerance from someone who works at a public institution in Los Angeles, one of our country's most diverse areas by any measure. For an author, Borchert seems to be unrepentingly and unforgivably ignorant of the effects of his language on the reader. This book is full of moment after moment that should be touching or funny, only to be ruined by an ill-timed non-sequitur or blatantly ignorant remark about a patron or colleague's culture or race. And, for the record, hijab is not the same as a burka. That said, there are a few excellent moments in this chronicle of life as a public servant (a noble title Borchert reiterates every chapter or so), most notably an almost insult-free love story between two mentally challenged adults that manages to be written with subtlety, grace, and affection. Likewise, most of the stories about beloved children's librarian Terri shine with admiration, commiseration, and humor.

While there are a few stories that manage appropriate pacing and language, such as an early chapter about drug dealers working out of the library's bathroom, Borchert misses far more comic opportunities than he succeeds in delivering and the book suffers for it. Borchert is an author of extremes: he is either entirely off the mark, delivering punch lines before adequate (or any) set-up, or he is trying to force what he must see as witty cynicism into his dour remarks, throwing in an ill-timed "fuck" here or there to seem hip but making himself seem all the more tragically un-so. In fact, I would hate to be a patron of Mr. Borchert's library, and not because of the trying customers he faces. He seems to be stone-faced and, in trying to make himself seem understanding and polite comes off instead as a self-serving, crotchety jackass with no respect for others, a remarkable task for a librarian. Borchert has no sense of overall plotting as his stories are loose, unconnected, and hastily composed with no sense of story throughout. We are introduced to a librarian, Lillian, somewhere in the middle with no explanation of who she is or where her previous title-bearer had gone, only to get the patchy backstory in the final anecdote. Likewise, the "afterword" is really just a closing chapter to the book: readers will look at this and wonder if it saw any professional editorial attention at all.

I'm all for creating a stir and I'm no censor, but it seems unlikely that and editor looking for a book with mass-market appeal would allow Borchert's racist and offensive material to go through unscathed, particularly when it is either flat-out wrong (hijab is NOT a burka!), misleading, and usually entirely irrelevant to the story at hand. Aside from its horrendous styling, however, Free for All does have its moments. Many of its stories are funny, owing no thanks to the author's delivery, and uncover a bit of the shroud of mystery that hangs over library associates. Though civil servants are not the highest creatures on the employment totem pole, as this book would have us believe, Borchert does give readers an idea of the kinds of small and large annoyances that haunt the average branch librarian. Ultimately, though, Borchert's contempt for others and general inability to craft an interesting story overwhelm the power of the material. There are only a handful of passable chapters in this book, and two truly great ones: a moving ode to love, mentioned above, and a realistic, caustic, and shockingly witty look at the futility of summer reading programs. Free for All boldly attempts to take readers on a journey through the stacks, but gets lost in a dark, dank corridor of bad writing and fails to capture interest, unlike so many books Borchert has passed to the readers of Los Angeles who, thank god, seem to put up with him.

Grade: C-

June 22, 2009

Book 29: Nobody Move

Nobody Move
Denis Johnson

Just as I am lacking somewhat in the mystery genre, I haven't read much, if any, literature from a distinct noir tradition. However, anyone familiar with the general noir feel will easily recognize that Nobody Move is an outstanding example of the genre. Johnson doesn't hold back and pulls no punches as he moves his seedy characters through a quick and brutal gauntlet of constant violence and plot twists without sacrificing good writing or wry observations. Johnson can be beautiful as he moves through a seedy underground and uses his literary finesse with admirable restraint, throwing in beautifully depicted California landscapes at proper reflective moments without showing off or distracting from the narrative. Johnson's forays into high literary metaphor set the scene for the action and allow him to quickly get back to the nitty-gritty world of gunshots and loan sharks, one he populates with a gang of lovably incompetent losers, each of whom is sufficiently shady and willing to shoot the place up at a moment's notice. Johnson knows what the noir world demands, but his characters aren't quite caricatures; they live and breathe, aided by Johnson's taste for witty, fast, and flippant dialogue that makes the story sizzle. The plot, while predictably tense and ever-changing, is original even if it flirts uncomfortably with the bounds of credibility and, in what is the book's only notable shortcoming, fails to come to a clear resolution. Overall, it is clear that Johnson knows what he is doing and the world he creates is interesting, unpredictable, and will take readers gladly along for the ride. Nobody Move is a short, sweet little taste of noir that should satisfy anyone with a taste for noir and good, dark humor.

Grade: A-

June 18, 2009

Book 28: No Angel

No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels
Jay Dobyns and Nils Johnson-Shelton

I generally enjoy books that feature someone going undercover or infiltrating the ranks of a previously closed group, and No Angel is no different. A thrilling story of an undercover ATF agent's attempt to get in with the infamous motorcyle group, the book is riveting and provides a compelling glimpse into an entirely foreign world. Dobyns, with basic literary guidance from Johnson-Shelton, recounts the greater frame of his undercover operation rising in esteem with, and eventually through the ranks of, the Hells Angels, sprinkling the narrative with moments of self-reflection and philosophical rumination amidst anecdotes about drugs, booze, and bullshitting with the boys. The story's events unfold somewhat uneasily at times and would be impossible to follow without a helpful and orderly index of major players provided in the text- the goons Dobyns encounters are simply too much alike and the organization of the Hells Angels in and around Arizona isn't explained well enough to account for quite a bit of confusion. Nonetheless, the ability of these cops to put on a convincing act, even starting their own legitimate motorcycle club and working with a freelance informant who had more freedom to use illegal drugs or make runs out of the country, is breathtaking and employs a take-no-prisoners mentality that is refreshing. And Dobyns must be given credit for his attempts at fairness towards his employer: though his opinions about undercover work are very, very obvious he does attempt to describe concerns that trouble higher-ups in the federal beaurocracy who don't see eye-to-eye with him all the time. His bullheaded approach to undercover work is itself revealing, if not ultimately persuasive and a bit arrogant at times.

The story of No Angel is, however, a gripping tale and has an appropriate sense of drama and humor; its nature as a thriller is particularly abused in one obviously and clumsily misleading late incident but overall the authors convey a compelling sense of rising drama, forming the narrative and creating necessary tension that prevents the book from becoming merely a recollection of events. The prose is spare and rarely attempts to be anything but purely descriptive, but anything more would likely have distracted from the rough and tough world of Dobyns as the introspective passages do. These moments of reflection are interesting as they give a sense of context to Dobyns's experience in the group and the life of an undercover agent in general; they could, however, have been handled with a bit more literary delicacy. Too often Dobyns comes across as whiny and his insights lose their psychological power and currency with the reader.

Despite some forgivable literary missteps, however, No Angel is a compelling look into the double life of an undercover agent, at once a family man and a bike gangster, and how he must juggle his two personalities. This duality, while clumsily handled at times, casts the book as an interesting jumping-off point for readers to examine their own views on police ethics and even their stereotypes about certain kinds of people. While the book itself, for better or worse, tends to stick strictly to the facts, Dobyns and Johnson-Shelton acknowledge ambiguity in their work and No Angel is stronger for it. While this is not the most artfully written memoir on the market, it offers what is to my mind a unique perspective and implies quite a bit of intellectual fodder for readers so inclined, as well as providing a mildly exciting thriller with danger and the fear of exposure lurking at every turn. Jay Dobyns is an incredibly brave individual and, though he obviously knows it, his exploits do tend to cast him as a good man caught in a war of ambiguities, for ultimately he discovers that he is no angel himself and that the men he rides with aren't 100% percent devils, either.

Grade: B+

June 17, 2009

Book 27: The Ghost Road

The Ghost Road
Pat Barker

In this, the conclusion to the powerful and acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker returns to the battlefields of the Great War, both visibly in France and more subtly at home in England and in the addled minds of those affected by shell-shock. This book departs from the others in two significant ways and in its way rounds out the series: although there are similar themes across the series, Regeneration deals with shell-shock and the mental experience of the horrors of war by those who serve; The Eye in the Door tackles the experience of those at home and the tension between pacifists, mentally-unfit soldiers, and ordinary citizens; The Ghost Road is, despite some moments of action and dramatic tension, mostly a quiet meditation on death and violence across two distinct cultures. Barker takes readers down an unexpected and ultimately rewarding path by following main character Dr. Rivers's experiences on a small, anonymous Melanesian island, where the natives have been stripped of their orderly (but brutal) head-hunting customs by the same nation that is sending its youth to endless slaughter in France. The connection is a bit uneasy for the majority of the book and unnecessarily deep detail allows it to distract from the main focus of the novel. Barker does aptly juggle the two two main narratives, parallel stories of Billy Prior returning to France and Dr. Rivers treating patients in London. Though the missionary narrative often becomes distracting and burdensome, the three narrative threads are woven together beautifully at the novel's conclusion, providing some ultimate context to the war and wrapping the trilogy up nicely.

The Ghost Road, despite its lengthy concern for events that come to seem more or less irrelevant, provides more of the excellent and careful writing readers come to expect from Barker. She approaches her gruesome subjects with a marked tenderness that nonetheless allows for skillful and unrelenting images of the Front and for casualties at home. Her prose is easily readable and poetic in its simplicity- Barker says exactly what she means to exactly as she should, bringing the distant Great War to vivid life without any hint of contriving prose or self-absorption. This takes a rare editorial talent that is apparent throughout the series and which gives her battle scenes and depictions of very real mental wounds all the more moving and riveting. The Ghost Road successfully, if obtusely at times, explores the question of death across two cultures and is a moving testament to all who served in the Great War or any war who must silently bear wounds both seen and unseen. The Regeneration trilogy is a unique and breathtaking look at an often unexplored aspect of war and conflict on the human soul and should be widely read for its humanity and insight.

Grade: A-

June 15, 2009

Book 26: The Eye in the Door

The Eye in the Door
Pat Barker

It's been quite a while since I read the first book in Barker's aptly-named Regeneration trilogy, but upon picking up The Eye in the Door I was transported instantly back to Great War-era Britain and the troubles of men scarred in obvious and not-so-obvious ways by the epic scale of the horrors of trench warfare. That Barker even attempts to evoke the psychological trauma of a war well past common memory is admirable, and the tenderness and skill with which she accomplishes the task is simply astounding. Barker manages to weave distinct elements of social and political criticism into a gripping human story, throwing some elements of the mystery genre and scientific psychology for good measure. The Eye in the Door keeps its critical focus throughout, but the book's obvious antiwar stance never overwhelms the story at hand and in fact enhances it by adding another dimension to her tale. Barker also does an incredible job of tying together actual historical events and fictional characters and stories, giving her work a breath of authenticity while maintaining a strong editorial grasp on her material. The story feels real and its main attention to a fictional protagonist, Billy Prior, reinforces its genuine concern with the war's effects; Barker knows just which historical details to keep and which to bend or invent to achieve the maximum effects of authenticity and emotion in her readers.

The Eye in the Door focuses, like Regeneration, on the shell-shocked and otherwise mentally wounded casualties of the Great War and its brutal trenches. The war itself is viewed only through flashbacks but is presented nonetheless in excruciating and vivid detail. That the trenches are such a presence in this novel speaks to the power that post-traumatic stress can hold over those who have seen horrific things. Each of the main characters must deal with the wounds of war in different ways, and Barker's novel widens the scope of its effects to include a group of pacifists who raise interesting ethical issues about the existence and conduct of the war. Barker manages to create a Britain that ignores its predicament on the Front and turns instead to witch hunts against pacifists and homosexuals, and though Barker is clear on where she stands on these respective issues the novel never becomes didactic. Different characters muse themselves on the effects of the war and of the pacifists who have taken to actively fighting against it. The Eye in the Door successfully conjures a powerful and often untouched image of a home front during a war far more vicious than any previous conflagration and does its many elements justice. Barker's prose immediately places the reader into the action and, though a few sex scenes seem unnecessarily graphic and some plot elements are initially confusing and too hastily and murkily resolved, The Eye in the Door is a brilliant and immersive glimpse into the Britain of the Great War and the demons it creates and fosters, both in and out of the trenches.

Grade: A

June 9, 2009

Book 25: The San Veneficio Canon

The San Veneficio Canon
Michael Cisco

I'm reading this somewhat obscure volume as the selection of a monthly book club I'm looking into, and I am incredibly interested to meet the person who suggested it and to hear others' opinion of this book, as it strikes me as purposefully difficult and inaccessible to all but the author and his deliberately obscure intentions. The volume, split into two linked novellas, begins with a lot of promise as its first sentence sets the scene for a gothic, dark fantasy with beautiful cloud imagery, and it is certain that Michael Cisco has considerable writing talent. Passages from the book jump out for their descriptive clarity and depth; others ring true with metaphorical meaning that sheds some light on the elusive text. Good writing, however, cannot salvage this pompous mess of a book that thinks far too highly of itself and is so incoherent as to seem deliberately so. From the beginning of "The Divinity Student", readers are lost in a plot that makes absolutely no sense. Instead of laying some clues that will later be knitted together, Cisco simply stacks incomprehensible plot elements onto each other ad infinitum and expects his readers to follow along as he catapults his characters into increasingly nonsensical situations. The book has a definite gothic sensibility to it and is unapologetically dark throughout, but its interesting ideas regarding the function of words in the construction of reality and his interesting application of grave-digging to include sojourns into the minds of the recently deceased are lost as the reader tries unsuccessfully to drag any meaning at all from the vast majority of the text.

The San Veneficio Canon is a double failure because of its inability to make sense for longer than a paragraph or description while it supposedly meditates on the power of language. Its focus on words and narrative construction surely means that the author is aware of what fiction is capable of, but he seems blissfully unaware and set only on self-aggrandizement as he sneers upon his poor readers with his literary pomposity. The end of "The Golem" suggests a narrative preoccupation with language, supported by the main character's quest to resurrect a catalog of forgotten words, but there isn't sufficient consideration given to this theme throughout the book to make these futile death throes connect with readers. Likewise, the occasional self-reference by characters to being creations of words comes off as a not-so-subtle bit of unappealing literary smugness. Biblical imagery abounds throughout both novellas- the main character is the titular enigmatic Divinity Student- but there is no apparent rhyme or reason, let alone a consistent metaphor, which would be far too much to ask of a book that lacks any semblance of a coherent plot thread. This book is highly discouraging at best and at worst gives the reader a sense of vertigo as numerous interesting conceits are mashed incoherently together with ironically excellent prose. The San Veneficio Canon is meaningless muddled muck that strives for grandiosity but which proves that even a postmodern sensibility requires such narrative basics as well-evoked setting, characters with motivations (or at least who seem to have motivations), and a general acknowledgment that the reader is uninitiated and needs something, anything, to grab when entering a new narrative universe. Michael Cisco is a good writer and can spin good prose, but he is incurably pompous and his disdain for his readers and for common sense makes The San Veneficio Canon an unmitigated disaster and a painful experience.

Grade: D+

June 5, 2009

Book 24: Kiln People

Kiln People
David Brin

What a ride this book is! It's been a while since I've read any science fiction, and this book proved to be quite the antidote to that unfortunate dearth in my recent reading list. David Brin creates a world propelled by a singularly inventive new technology arising out of current research on and fears about cloning and genetic modification. Kiln People takes place in a future a couple generations past our own, where it has become possible to imprint your personality and, more importantly, your soul, onto a clay figure that will last for 24 hours, able to imprint its memories back to its host as if they themselves had lived that day. Different models are fine-tuned for different experiences, from sexual ivories to deeply analytical ebonies, and the work world is populated by these "dittos" as their owners bask in lives of luxury and excess. Brin's greatest feat in the novel is exploring the natural consequences of this technology and the ways in which it affects everyday life and philosophy. Life becomes at once expendable, through the dittos who only have a day's lifespan anyway, and preciously hoarded, as the loss of an actual body becomes scarier when one has potentially lived through many death scenes. Brin does a fantastic job using this technology to address fundamental questions of humanity and doesn't shy away from exposing our dark side: many dittos are used for sex or for souped-up gladiatorial fights for those addicted to the pleasure of pain. Brin invents an extensive vocabulary to accompany this new technology, and though some of the punnery can become exhausting, much is clever and used to showcase the changes of this world (adding a dit- prefix to one's name instead of Mr. has its own implications). The storyline more-or-less realistically takes us through the most important settings of this world as we see the full gamut of experiences and viewpoints, even opposition to the idea of dittoing and the quest for emancipation of all souls. This future is remarkably thorough.

The story itself centers on a private detective, Albert Morris, who has been chasing an illegal duplicator for quite some time. The story opens with the narration of one of his spy dittos as he attempts to outrace Beta's thugs and get home to share his newly-acquired knowledge with the real Albert. Brin doesn't shy away from a challenge as he uses first-person narration throughout the book, each chapter narrated by Albert or one of the dittos he creates as he embarks on several separate, yet linked, private quests through Tuesday's three dittos. Chapter subheadings help ease the confusion, and for most of the book the separate storylines are juggled well as each Albert learns more pieces of the puzzle. The narration itself is as consistent and divergent as the reader can expect from the separate vessels, all sharing a kind of cynicism but each responding to its circumstances both as the real Albert would and based on their recent experiences. Brin, remarkably, makes the technology believable through his use of this unconventional narration.

While his world-building is impeccable, however, his story is less successful. At first, it is somewhat difficult to juggle the mysteries as they begin to branch off from the central part (though, to Brin's credit, we are firmly planted in his future before the confusing divergence), but just as the reader gets the hang of it and begins to make headway by combining the three discrete narratives, the entire plot takes a turn for the worse. Spiralling out of control, Brin abandons reason and concocts an unbelievably complex god-creating machine, which is never adequately explained for readers, and a conspiracy so many layers deep that the novel's unwinding expostional end cannot unravel it. Brin attempts to have his story transcend its world in these moments, exploring what a soul is, but his background knowledge is too esoteric and the storyline too convoluted for anything to make sense.

This is the fundamental problem of Kiln People: the world created here is intricate and intense, a believable extension of an incredible idea that cuts no corners and explores truths about humanity without becoming pedantic. The plot works for a while because of its many-sided narration and the thrill of finding new aspects of this future that make sense and reveal something else about its population. Brin aims a bit too high at the book's climax, however, and the mystery's traditional ending exposition fails to adequately explain anything, leaving readers scratching their heads. The writing itself also gets a bit tiresome from time to time, with excessive unnecessary punning clouding the brilliance of the good puns and with the annoying winking in-jokes common to near-future novels (commenting, for example, on past generations' experience with something called "smog"). The book is maddeningly frustrating to read at times because its plot takes too many twists and turns, but the central idea of dittoing is so fascinating that I find myself inclined to reccommend it anyway. In the end, the first 350-or so pages of Kiln People make the absence of a satisfying conclusion seem less important as I have been utterly impressed with the world Brin creates herein. If you can handle a convoluted plot line and unnecessarily heavy spiritual gibberish, Kiln People is worth reading for its thorough and enlightening exploration of what we would do with thousands of disposable lives just waiting to be baked.

Grade: B-