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