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