December 31, 2010

2010 Year in Review

What an eventful year for me, 2010, as I completed half of my graduate degree and took a trip to Ireland for, well, the entire summer. This distinctly colored my reading habits as I looked to read both nonfiction books in preparation and native literature of all kinds once I arrived. I was able to get my hands on the last book in the Millennium trilogy before it came out in the States, but I didn't read it until I was back on the shores of Lake Michigan (literally; I read some of it on the beach). Another prominent influence on my reading habits this year was my continued involvement in a science fiction and fantasy reading group, for which I am continually grateful as the selections take me in unanticipated directions and always toward something interesting, for better or worse. I also finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, therefore, there are a few selections from related books, as well as a couple of books obviously prompted by the World Cup. I didn't manage as many books from the 1,001 list as I would have liked, but I did knock off a few and, having read 59 books despite a December no-show, have kept apace with my book-a-week goal.

Next year, I want to knock out more 1,001 books and, hopefully, I'll be in a solid, full-time job with a healthy public library nearby to continue my voracious habits. This year, much of my reading took place in the summer when I hadn't much else to do and was limited by a lack of income. The experience was well worth it, and my knowledge and love of libraries continued to grow, especially as these same limited funds effectively prevented me from acquiring many new books (to say nothing of increasingly sparse shelf space). Some of my favorite books of the year were The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, which well-deserved its Pulitzer; Alone in Berlin, a Dublin book club selection from Hans Fallada; The Ball Is Round, a superb history of soccer; and The City & The City, a book made far richer with invigorating discussion. There were some misses along the way, though I didn't read anything truly dreadful, and I believe I kept a good mix of genres, branching into mystery with Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None, which I was pleased to find as superlatively good as its reputation indicates. My main goal for the upcoming year is to focus more on reading roughly a book per week rather than reaching the proper number; December 2010 was an epic fail for my reading habits, and I look to do better starting, well, tomorrow.

December 2, 2010

Book 59: Talk to the Hand

Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door
Lynne Truss

Readers coming to this book from Truss's previous bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves will be at once delighted with and, perhaps, slightly disappointed in this follow-up. Truss brings her trademark uncompromising crankiness to problems with rudeness and public interactions in modern society, with mixed results. Truss is occasionally at her hilarious, cynical best in this book, but there is an overwhelming feeling of desperation throughout the book, as if she is trying so hard to be crotchety that she forgets what she is saying and relies instead on the crankiest possible wording and reaction, to the point where she repeatedly undermines her own arguments. One moment she is celebrating an action and the next deriding it; should we be mindful of people's privacy or indignant that they don't want to interact with us? Truss doesn't come down on one side or the other, and in such an opinionated work as this the waffling quickly becomes annoying. This, coupled with the over-the-top tone and prose, often means the book feels like a gimmick, which is unfortunate because Truss is occasionally very funny. Her continuously offended tone works with the subject matter, but is stretched to the point of breaking the flow and effectiveness of what she is saying; the book becomes at some point a caricature of itself. Talk to the Hand is an occasionally witty look at some societal patterns of rudeness in the modern age, but ultimately the book is too self-conscious to be much more pleasant than grating.

Grade: C

November 26, 2010

Book 58: At Home

At Home
Bill Bryson

I have read and enjoyed several of Bill Bryson's books, which successfully use humor and, where necessary, solid research to make science and history fun for the average reader or to craft unique topical memoirs. In At Home, he turns his talents from the geological timespan of the entire history of the universe (though much abridged) to a more focused look at the last hundred and sixty years or so. More particularly, he focuses on household objects, the myriad customs and objects that affect us every day and which we may not ever really consider due not to their obscurity (as may be the case with the Yellowstone caldera) but due to their omnipresence. Indeed, it is the absence of these things that startles us and yet, as Bryson points out in his introduction, they hardly seem to merit any special attention. The result in this specificity is a strangely unfocused collection, which blatantly and often violates some of the rules Bryson appears to lay out in his heading. He says, for example, that the book's focus is meant to be on the years from 1851-2009, but the histories he relates often date back far further than that. This is fine as the historical notes add significant depth to his stories, but it is unclear why the first chapter of the book focuses so heavily on 1851 when that focus does not successfully set up the following anecdotes.

This scattershot vision permeates the book, which is brilliant in overall structure but severely lacking in the minutiae. Bryson structures the book's chapters around the various rooms in his English house, which is at once a clever and natural way to organize a book about household objects. Bryson is also able to use these rooms in unforeseen ways: while the kitchen is, obviously, about food and dining, the cellar chapter focuses on building materials, and the bedroom on childbirth and death. These all make sense in retrospect, and though the connections are occasionally tenuous they make enough sense and allow Bryson to explore more facets of domestic history. He does not, however, stick to his stated topics, and many topics pop up throughout many chapters in unexpected and often distracting ways. The book maintains an oddly steadfast fascination with English manor architecture, which is interesting and perhaps deserving of its own chapter, but which feels distinctly like a disjointed subplot as architects pop up sporadically and as readers are expected to recall arcane details from earlier chapters. This is bizarre, as it very precisely undermines the point of the room-by-room structure. English countryside architecture is certainly fascinating, but without meaningful visual aids it is dreadfully misplaced in this book as Bryson seems to simply throw in stories he finds interesting for their own sake, with no eye toward the grander narrative he's attempting to create.

This lack of organization and focus is shameful, as Bryson is often at his funniest. Though he has a tendency to overly romanticize The Wide Arc of History (he is constantly referring to people as "the first/last man/woman/person in history to do x") and to wander far and wide from his own stated path, he has an eye for the interesting and bizarre and a knack for relating these stories with the wit they deserve. Bryson's prose is, when it isn't trying too hard to be, gut-bustingly hilarious and efficient for casual readers. For those of a more academic stripe or for those whose interest is piqued by a particular room, Bryson often mentions his sources and includes a much-appreciated bibliography of recommended reading, along with the research notes available at his website. Despite its missteps in construction and wandering attention span, the book does provide a lighthearted and informative history of those things we hardly take time to consider. It is obvious that Bryson has done proper research and he is usually able to deliver his punchlines without an overbearing sense of his own hilarity. At Home is, despite its flaws, an accessible and enjoyable history of domestic life that can be easily enjoyed by both more serious and more relaxed readers.

Grade: B+

November 12, 2010

Book 57: The City & The City

The City & The City
China Miéville

All around us, every day, are worlds we choose, whether consciously or not, to "unsee" despite being on some level aware of their existence. Whole undercurrents of society constantly escape our notice and, though there is much psychologically at stake in preserving our comfortable notions of the world and how it is built, imagine adding a nationalist ideology into the mix; imagine, for a moment, that the community you choose to ignore is, instead, a bustling metropolis countering the slow industrial decay of your home country. China Miéville takes this premise literally, places a hardboiled mystery into a dual city occupying the same physical space, and explores the ways in which we build the world around us. That he does all this without the heavy-handed moralizing one would expect from such a heavy starting point is remarkable, and the overall product and its lingering aftertaste greatly overshadow its faults. For all of the book's fantastic pretensions, Miéville's choice to use a hardboiled mystery plot fuses cold, hard reality with the more whimsical elements of the book and, upon reflection, makes the book much more realistic and delivers an aftershock upon reflection that changes one's perception of the book entirely. It is interesting, then, that the main fault of the book lies in its most mystical elements, which seem over-played and far too confusing to be of any real service to the book. The presence of a mystical force is necessary for the book to function, and indeed resonates deeply upon reflection, but the way it is handled makes a first and/or careless read more of a burden than it ought to be with such well-constructed and otherwise well-handled material.

Overall, however, this book is truly amazing. The setting is utterly original, and revealed in just the right doses to keep readers abreast of what is happening but still allowing understanding to develop in an organic way that quite alters perceptions of both readers and characters by the book's conclusion. Miéville delivers a fantasy with a solid footing in reality, one that does not preach but rather seeps into the reader's consciousness at its conclusion or upon reflection. This is a book to be savored after it is finished, a book that requires reflection without actually asking for or requiring the necessary sustained mental effort. The City & The City will reward both readers who come for the fantasy/noir combination and those who want to probe a bit deeper into the world that is truly represented by the two cities, and what their secrets and the secrets of their strange intersections may mean in our own shared reality.

Grade: A

November 1, 2010

Book 56: The View from Castle Rock

The View from Castle Rock
Alice Munro

Alice Munro is very nearly universally hailed as one of the finest short story writers of this time, and over the course of her career and various collections she has only come to build upon her outstanding reputation. It is clear that Munro has a keen eye for the short and sweet and an even better eye for a clever, deeply revelatory turn of phrase. It is boggling, then, how she manages to take an intimately personal set of linked stories, whose full arc plays out over the course of the book, and make them routinely dull, tedious, and uninteresting, though her use of atmosphere borders on brilliant. Even with that said, there certainly isn't a dearth of interesting, vibrant, and original material within the book; it seems, however, that for every relevant plot point or clever observation there are numerous hurdles that must be jumped to reach the next one. Most of these stories try, unsuccessfully, to balance two or more plots, often strained across generations; while there is nothing inherently wrong in this approach, and while it is an appropriate ambition for an extended family history, Munro seems to deflect attention just when the present story becomes interesting. Suddenly, dramatically, the lens whirls in a desperate attempt to focus as the reader's head is left spinning. It is almost as if Munro, the master of the short story, would have been better off structuring this book as a memoir, as it is done a great disservice in its present, scattered form. There are enough recurring elements and, understandably, enough links and consistent characters between the stories to justify a slight re-working and the construction of a more collected narrative than that brazenly attempted, but ultimately missed, in the book as it is.

The structural problems inherent in the collection mask and occasionally overwhelm its strengths, which come more often and far more consistently at its more intimate levels. Though plots and stories divide and collide at an often furious and frantic pace, Munro is able to construct compelling characters, even allowing her estimation of herself to slip into the tolerably objective. Her depictions of the pleasant familiarity- and accompanying constriction- of closely-bound families and social groups are poignant and effortlessly effective, along with her prose, which flows with ease despite often lacking particularly interesting or relevant subject matter. Among the jumbled storylines of the book are moments of clarity and delightful observation that immediately satisfy, only to remind the reader that so much of the book is bogged down by its weighty ambitions and, yes, its past. Despite a glut of thought and heavy construction, then, the collection is able to provide some satisfaction and enjoyment, though in its component pieces rather than its as a haphazard whole. An admirable singularity of purpose mitigates the ultimate failure to cohere, and the author's ability to see intimately into the private lives of a variety of characters is not always undermined by the stubborn, stale potholes in which they often become stuck. Showing a remarkable range, Munro is successfully able to evoke a number of convincing lives throughout a number of historical periods home and abroad and ties them together to produce a broad and far-ranging family history. Its ambitions are a dreadful mis-fit with its form, but somehow and despite itself, A View from Castle Rock forges an engaging,(if slightly overwrought) whole out of internally disparate material.

Grade: B

October 21, 2010

Book 55: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
Charlie Huston

This book, as the title suggests, is not for the faint of heart. If there is a single defining characteristic to this book, it is the coarse, direct delivery of dialogue and explanatory narration, snappy, gritty, and gory. Narrator Web makes no apologies for his decidedly antisocial behavior, and his inclination to swiftly destroy any semblance of normal human interaction is at first disorienting. It is indeed hard to sympathize with a narrator who is so deliberately, deeply unlikeable and alienating that even his closest friends have abandoned hope. There is, of course, good reason why Webster Goodhue acts the way he does, and sharp readers will be able to put the pieces together before Huston, just a touch too late, puts them together himself. The result of this delayed gratification is that the book feels a bit adrift; the plot is sufficient, but the characters and the language are so abrasive that it is difficult to get a firm grasp on the novel until the plot has kicked into high gear. Adding to this uncertainty and reader detachment is the tangled web of Web's life, which while making his actions understandable and ultimately ensuring that the thematic elements of the novel come together in its conclusion still takes a while to come together. Even so, however, it is not clear that a second reading would vastly illuminate anything, Web's personality tics memorable enough that their explanation in retrospect is sufficient.

This book is a strange mixture of the immediate, rough and tumble plot and a more reflective, somber undercurrent that emerges in brief glimpses before Huston launches into another violent, curse-laden crime spree. The novel is contemplative and has something to say about living and, more importantly, about erasing signs of death both literal and symbolic, but overall it is a novel of action. It feels almost as though Huston is attempting to slip the deep philosophy in amongst, and despite, a cracking story. The dissonance, however, resolves into a pleasant chord and the book is a surprisingly pleasant read, if one can get over the language and the often gruesome depictions of...well, gruesome things. Web's history as an intellectual and as an educator adds an extra layer of meta-cognition to the book: Web is dragged into the world of low-class, underachieving criminals much as the target reader is, for this book is aimed at a deep-thinking audience. It's an interesting transplant, especially as the alienation keenly explored throughout the book is at once offensive and redemptive. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is an ever-surprising juxtaposition of the abrasive and the vulnerable, of fast-paced action and sober reflection, and despite being a bit uneasy with itself at times, it somehow works.

Grade: A-

October 13, 2010

Book 54: American Slavery--American Freedom

American Slavery--American Freedom
Edmund S. Morgan

A friend who was dissatisfied with my previous review of Morgan's The Birth of the Republic thrust this book at me along with a challenge, asserting Morgan's prominence as an early American historian and this particular book as a revolutionary work in the historiography of the Revolution. I must say that either the previous book was actually quite poor or I wasn't quite paying attention, because this book is an excellent and well-written, if slightly overreaching, history of colonial Virginia. Most astonishing is the fact that Morgan is able to write what amounts to a dry and slow-paced economic narrative in prose engaging enough to keep reluctant readers interested, though a strong interest in the subject matter may in fact be a prerequisite to any attempts on this book. The prose is far from remarkable, but in being adequate, let alone on the good side of adequate on which he falls, Morgan already vastly outpaces most historical academics. Unfortunately, he routinely falls into some similar traps, including some chronological zig-zagging that doesn't quite make sense thematically. It is understandable and expected, for example, that some figures will need to be borrowed from years in which records actually survive, but this can lead to achronological data that leads to distractions and which ultimately distances both Morgan and the reader from the narrative threads at hand. Many aspects of the book's timeline are, on reflection, somewhat puzzling. The book, which purports to be a history of colonial Virginia and the ideology of the Revolution fermenting among the tobacco fields and within a slave-holding society, but the bulk of the text centers firmly on the 1600s. This is important background, of course, but when Morgan finally realizes that he has a thesis to prove, there is a rapid 100-year jump that surely warrants far more than the two chapters devoted to it.

This lack of focus occurs repeatedly within the book, as Morgan confuses important- and relevant- background information with fluff. All of the information contained herein is interesting, and it all relates to other information within the book, but Morgan's thesis regarding the parallel development of representative government and slavery would be better-served with a more deliberate focus or with a longer narrative that more fully covers post-seventeenth century development. As it is, Morgan does an excellent job covering important attitudes that colored Virginian rhetoric through the turbulent 1700s but only pulls them together in what feels like a desperate last gasp for his thesis. The arguments he presents are compelling, but his rush to end everything so swiftly in the final chapter relies heavily on the reader's trust as he flings assertions around without nearly as much deliberation as previously. Despite a lackadaisical pace, however, American Slavery-American Freedom does make some excellent, original, and well-articulated points about the economic and ideological environment in which both slavery and liberty (though this is an afterthought in Morgan's book) concurrently took such a firm grasp. As a history of colonial Virginia, the book is an excellent resource for historians with a thorough look at societal attitudes both home and abroad that inevitably shaped the colonial experience. American Slavery-American Freedom may not live up to its billing, but it is nonetheless a reasonably readable book exposing, if not quite expanding upon, the ways in which freedom and slavery could become so inextricably linked.

Grade: A-

October 1, 2010

Book 53: The Begum's Millions

The Begum's Millions
Jules Verne

It has been quite a while since I joined Verne on one of his fabulous scientific journeys, and on a recent trip to the library this title, heretofore unknown to me, jumped out. The jacket promised a juxtaposition of utopian and dystopian futures, and I was immediately on board for what promised to be an intimate look not only at Verne's own dual-pronged vision of the future but also of his own time. What emerged as the novel progressed was a book whose merits are derived primarily for its exposition of the author's own historical context rather than from its own literary or even imaginative merits, two qualities that are conspicuously absent despite the lasting enchantment of some of Verne's other works. The premise and plot are simple enough, with variations on either stemming directly from the racist overtones still resonating from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the characters likewise leave much to be desired. The usual imaginative vigor one would expect from a Verne story is suppressed for the sake of politics, and while the book does have some interesting things to say about industrialization and mechanized war (along with a chillingly prescient view of German self-promoted racial superiority) they are often couched in the language of pure political hatred. Even for caricatures, the characters in the novel are drawn with the thinnest of strokes, too brittle to be subjected to even the most routine of twists or turns.

The main problem with this book is that nothing is ever in doubt, and without any semblance of a sustained plot, it's nearly impossible for the reader to maintain interest, and the interesting points that are hidden among the rote and routine stay hidden beneath the surface. Most egregious, perhaps, is Verne's sustained racism which, against Germans, may seem misguided but still fair given the time in which he lived. His blatant attacks on Asians, however, are bewildering and truly unnecessary, though one must commend the translator for leaving them intact in a politically correct day and age. Even these egregious actions, however, manage to fall by the wayside as the overwhelming banality of the plot takes over, and not for want of imagination. Even readers unfamiliar with Verne's better stories will recognize the missed opportunities in his dual utopian/dystopian future, where setting serves only to illuminate stereotypes instead of attack the ideas out of which they are constructed. Rampant militarism was fairly German in the time period, but Verne tips his hand way too soon and too often to make anything out of it, falling back on harsh and unrealistic portrayals to dehumanize the Germans in much the same way their puppet state dehumanizes its own workers. Somehow, I believe the irony is lost on the author.

Even his utopian society (which itself is rather unambiguously named France-ville) is radically underused, existing only as a foil to the Germans and with only a half-chapter explaining its central tenets: France-ville is great because, well, it's great! Verne likewise abuses his heroes, with lead man Marcel brimming with excruciating perfection and with the strange half-resolved story of Octave, perhaps the only character in the book who threatens to have a hint of actual depth. This, too, is wasted, as he is introduced as a slob and promptly ignored, only to reemerge miraculously (and utterly inexplicably) as a war hero and Good Man. And all of this bad writing and poor construction surrounds some interesting scientific speculation that is actually worthy of Verne. His visions of destruction and of the City of Steel are reasonably terrifying and not entirely inaccurate, and though his characters' motives cannot be trusted, the destructive forces they intend to utilize are sufficiently frightening even in the nuclear age. The book also provides some moments of great humor, though these usually come unintentionally and do not sustain the book, though its final punchline (before the requisite sappy and unsupported, though entirely predictable ending) resonates and is, indeed, as clever as it is bizarre. Unfortunately, however, fans of Jules Verne and of dystopian literature are set to be disappointed by an almost complete lack of literary merit that cannot be salvaged as interesting ideas are constantly upstaged by rampant racism and an overt political agenda. The Begum's Millions is, despite some good ideas, overwhelmed by questionable intentions and dodgy writing, though it may prove valuable as a historical text illustrating the developing European nationalism of the late 19th century.

Grade: C+

September 27, 2010

Book 52: Boychiks in the Hood

Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground
Robert Eisenberg

Upon admitting only the most passing familiarity with the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim, and indeed with many strains of modern Judaism, a friend recommended Boychiks in the Hood to me as a lighthearted, casual introduction to a growing facet of modern Jewish life. It fulfilled on both fronts, which can hardly be surprising from the immensely clever title, but lacked a strong editing eye from either the author or his own editors and is disappointing in aggregate despite some excellent moments. Boychiks in the Hood is, despite its singularity of purpose, oddly disjointed and often distracted, providing a haphazard and often confusing introduction to Hasidism and its many facets where Eisenberg promises simplicity. Indeed, there is a strange paradoxical feel to the book, at once simple and complex, straightforward and taking the most twisted of turns only to return to the point of origin with almost nothing gained of the temporary distraction. It certainly is not beyond the capability of a travelogue to entertain, but this book often seems confused as to what kind of narrative it is actually providing: one moment, Eisenberg is enjoying the company of a Hasidic family on the Sabbath, only to elaborate on the history of that sect's leaders. Fair enough, but all of this is accomplished in a fine frenzy, with nary a line break in sight. Paragraphs and topics materialize out of thin air, only to be absorbed the prematurely aborted narrative as if nothing ever happened; surely Eisenberg could have conjured the slightest of transitions, either thematic or visual?

It is this kind of schizophrenia which far too often characterizes the book both within page-sized chunks and on aggregate; it would hardly be surprising if the bulk of the contextual and historical information within this book is actually lost because of its poor and shortsighted organization. Despite some witty and wry observations (which occasionally become overbearing, shouting, "I'm so clever!" far too often), the book fails to capitalize on a built-in organizational scheme and instead languishes in a kind of purgatory. The good intentions inherent in the book's intuitive, geographically-based chapter divisions go to waste as Eisenberg cannot sit still long enough to tell one simple story without a barrage of confusing and ill-placed details. A crucial element of understanding Hasidic culture is recognizing some of the major differences that distinguish particular branches of Hasidim, but the pinball nature of description, elaboration, and comparison in Boychiks in the Hood makes it almost impossible to separate one sect from another. Instead of building logically based on the communities the reader has already been introduced to, Eisenberg focuses on groups yet to come, returning to previous information as erratically as he adds new points. This Frogger-type deluge is accompanied by some fervently reiterated points that make Boychiks in the Hood occasionally read like an ill-defended dissertation. Eisenberg seems almost obsessed with the population explosion of Hasidim, particularly in relation to secular Judaism (though he never makes it clear whether 'nonreligious Jews' are secular in the traditional sense or include those who practice within the more mainstream Reform and Conservative branches), but his repeated assertions that nonreligious Judaism is dying become distracting after the fourth or fifth feverish repetition.

These stylistic flaws and distractions are almost tragic, for Boys in the Hood begins with a noble purpose and does have a talented writer, if not a fully fledged author, behind it. There is, as I have noted, a lot of valuable information in this book, which takes a compassionate look inside a heretofore mysterious alternate lifestyle and does much to demystify its ways. Eisenberg makes his own views on religion clear throughout the book, but always disagrees respectfully and draws equal attention to shared cultural and historical elements of Jewishness as to the differences between the ultra-Orthodox and the completely secular. Cultural tidbits that linger long enough to make an impact are intriguing and do much to explain certain well-known elements of Jewish cultural and religious practices in further depth. While the history of and differences between Hasidic sects may be almost as elusive as a useful definition of Hasidism, shared practices across different Hasidic communities are clearly defined and explained as Eisenberg draws the reader into his own learning experiences. His biographical and descriptive portrayals of yeshiva students and Talmudic scholars may occasionally trend toward the dismissive, but the author's representations of their arguments may be taken at face value and provide interesting points for reader rumination.

Readers will, despite Eisenberg's repeated efforts at distraction, leave with an increased knowledge and understanding of modern ultra-Orthodoxy throughout the world. The geographic scope of Boychiks in the Hood may be its most important aspect, as far-flung communities illustrate the complex interplay between situational and more specifically Jewish customs. Eisenberg also has a mind for history, using modern communities in two very distinct parts of Europe (Antwerp and rural Ukraine) to illustrate the devastating effects of the Holocaust and to link modern practice to the flourishing pre-catastrophe centers of Jewish life. Indeed, this book's examination of the Holocaust and its effects on Judaism are some of the most insightful I have read, though their offhand nature often belies their subtly profound significance. Boychiks in the Hood is not, then, without many redeeming qualities. The book balances incredible frustration with incredible articulation, creating a singular reading experience that is hard to pin down. As Eisenberg bounces merrily from topic to topic, so the reader is alternately enthralled and maddened by the lively prose and simple editorial oversights, intellecutally provoked by the wry observations but emotionally provoked by moments of condescension that seem out of place given the general congenial tenor. Boychiks in the Hood is, like the modern Hasidic communities it presents, impossible to pin down completely, but represents a mildly rewarding experience for those who want a nonacademic and personal introduction to the Hasidim in most of their modern incarnations.

Grade: B

September 14, 2010

Book 51: Sandman Slim

Sandman Slim
Richard Kadrey

Some books are designed to be, above all, fun, where others strive to connect with readers on a more intellectual level, provoking thought and engaging the reader at every twist and turn. Sandman Slim is, at a visceral level, and incredibly enjoyable book and a truly unique sarcastic fantasy-noir quasi-apocalyptic novel. The devil, however, lies in all of the details of this book, including the plot, the characters, and Kadrey's maddening inability to maximize the deep philosophical potential of his work. Sandman Slim deals with the devil and with heaven, including a hierarchy of angels and imps and a main character who firmly resolves to stand between the two ever-warring forces. This philosophical conflict, while evoked beautifully by the gruff and cynical first-person prose, is never fully realized as Kadrey seems more concerned with adding interesting plot elements than using them. The book seems in this way to be built toward an inevitable sequel, but readers may feel somewhat conned by the tantalizing hints of higher meaning and philosophical depth, which could easily have been offered regardless of Slim's potential as a series. There is a lot to be said about the themes upon which this novel only fleetingly touches, and though it seems Kadrey has something to say about death, love, and morality, which are easily the book's major themes, what it is remains uncertain after hints and miscues.

This problem with overall vision, whether too little or too much of it, is reflected in some plot holes and inconsistencies within the book. Death, injury, and immunity are key factors throughout, but are neither adequately explained nor consistently treated. Characters who should have immunity according to the book's internal logic (insofar as it exists) find themselves subject to crippling attacks, and other characters appear invincible one moment and vulnerable the next. It is as if Kadrey wished to introduce plot elements without paying careful consideration to how they would affect the believability of the world he has otherwise so realistically evoked. This, and Chekhov reigns supreme through transparent foreshadowing. Sandman Slim consistently hints at something bigger but is weighed down by minor inconsistencies that add up to a somewhat frustrating reading experience. This is incredibly unfortunate, as it is obvious that Kadrey is a top-notch author and provides a quirky narrative voice. Protagonist and narrator Stark may have the inconsistency imposed upon him, but damn can he tell a story. The language in this book is vivid and pitch-perfect, absolutely consistent and simultaneously creating a dark and dirty noir L.A. as well as a grungy ex-con (of sorts) whose primary motivating factors may surprise without becoming unbelievable or inconsistent.

Likewise, Kadrey's imagination is at once astonishing and terrifying, with some of the best and most evocative fight scenes I have read as well as an arsenal of weaponry that readers can't help but wish to see on a big screen and indeed, this book is almost screaming to be made into a film despite the prominence of language as its driving element. The tiniest of details combine to create a truly extraordinary view of the darker side of human nature and a much-maligned L.A., which makes it all the more maddening that other elements of the book are not as tightly constructed. The book is full of potential constantly showcased, only to crash in disappointment when its promises are not fulfilled or the author distracted from building theme or plot by a fancy turn of phrase or wry observation. Sandman Slim begins as a rough-and-tumble revenge story with celestial implications, and ends with a flimsy, under-explained apocalyptic aversion. It is a novel that attempts to explore the middle ground between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, but which too often gets caught up in its own cleverness. Sandman Slim will fulfill readers looking for a fun and unique thrill ride, but will frustrate those who hope for a little more weight behind its hefty themes.

Grade: B

September 3, 2010

Book 50: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
Stieg Larsson

This, the final book in Larsson's sadly posthumous Millennium Trilogy, presents a captivating and ultimately worthy end to the intertwined stories of renegade journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander. Though it lacks a bit of a punch and, like its predecessors, may suffer from a lack of a more critical editorial eye, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest will please readers who bring high expectations and a thirst for further adventures with the extremely well-drawn and vivid cast. This book directly follows the concluding lines of the previous installment, and does not dwell too long on recapitulation before launching directly into an attack on Swedish society and people around the world who allow violence against women to drive their actions or policies. Larsson can be forgiven for his lack of subtlety as he sticks ruthlessly to this theme, allowing it to direct and shape his narrative while only occasionally allowing his passion, which is evident, to overwhelm the narrators. This is mostly a matter of obvious over-eagerness and does not overshadow the greater merits of the book, which builds wonderfully on the ideas, plots, and characters built so painstakingly through its successors. It is clear from the start that Larsson knows where his story and his characters are going, and his management and integration of several subplots is superb, with only the rarest small detail vanishing into obscurity. The Millennium Trilogy is both sharply and intricately plotted and the meticulousness of the author adds to its mystique and, ultimately, the strength and clarity of its moral message.

The durability of Larsson's characters through three large books, and the continuing revelations about their variously complicated pasts is a testament to his meticulous planning as well as his talent for building complex, rich characters who can handle the pressure imposed by strong thematic currents as well as the plot-centered nature of a crime novel. It's a shame that Lisbeth Salander, the girl on whom the series hinges, does not feature more deeply in the climactic episode of her life, and his decision to place the action most significantly on his (male) journalist hero is interesting given the attention paid to women, and particularly women in positions of power. Lisbeth is far from neglected, but though the issue of agency is strongly addressed throughout the novel, some of its conclusions appear to be at ends with its ultimate message. This conflict, if taken as unintentional, re-casts the entire thesis of the book in a different light, as even Larsson's headstrong and ferocious heroine must be saved by a man. In Mikael, too, Larsson is not all-forgiving, but it is at times too easy to see him as a Mary Sue, given the repeated assertions of journalistic integrity and Mikael's own self-importance. Again, however, these flaws in the book(s) are both hidden just beneath the surface and are actually referred to more blatantly by the supporting cast. The real progress of women remains ambiguous, which though it may be unintentional does suit the novel quite nicely.

These flaws, as with most found in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest and in the greater Millennium Trilogy, are minor and detract only very slightly from the more present matters at hand. The books are incredibly well-written and captivating from start to finish. The characters are far from the cookie-cutter protagonists who haunt most crime series, and their individuality does not appear drawn from a checklist or forced upon them; these people seem, moreso than many characters, vividly real. Larsson can hardly be faulted for foreign readers' unfamiliarity with Swedish geography, which does generate some confusion, and the consistently high quality of the books is remarkable given their length. It is true that, with some editing, some extraneous matter could be removed, but the books always pick up just when they appear to drift into dullness and readers can always expect to be further intrigued. This final installment leaves a bit to be desired with regards to suspense, but Larsson's brilliant, if long, courtroom denouement is as satisfying for the reader as it must have been for the author to write it. There is nothing too unexpected after the first two books, but the Millennium Trilogy should nonetheless hold up as a classic and original series in a genre plagued by cliche. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest has, as all novels do, its minor flaws, but it is a worthy conclusion to the story of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant and fiercely original character whose fame is, in the end, justly deserved.

Grade: A-

July 10, 2010

Book 40: Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin
Hans Fallada

It's understandable enough that much of the literature surrounding the Second World War centers on resistance to the existing regimes, and that most of these works devote their time to the small success of well-organized movements, partisan fighters, or good people helping to hide Jews or other undesirables from their persecutors. In Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada draws attention to less successful efforts at resistance and paints a picture of wartime Germany in many more shades of gray than the stark black and white preferred by many of the era's chroniclers. Though the thrust of the main plot is occasionally lost as the narrative gets sidetracked, the novel offers a reasonably comprehensive view of the lives of a few normal and ordinary Germans who participated in small acts of resistance to the mighty Reich. Fallada's willingness to expose the near futility of his heroes' actions does not ultimately betray his underlying faith in human decency, but instead contributes to the book's thorough realism. Readers get the sense that Alone in Berlin reflects, as the book's afterword puts it, "the banality of good."

The range of characters explored in the book grounds Fallada's examination of Berlin in wartime, contributing to the book's sense of comprehensiveness despite the centrality of one couple's story. Fallada is also willing to look at the past from different points of view, and while the moral timbre of the book is never in doubt, significant attention is given to less savory Party and Gestapo members as well. Shifting tenses can be a bit distracting, but a preference for the present tense lends the story a sense of urgency and contributes significantly to its superb sense of setting. Though the plot lags at times throughout the middle of the book, an extremely well-executed (and lengthy) denouement transforms the book from a good novel into a brilliant one. It is here that Fallada unleashes a biting satirical tone, as well as displaying a deep sense of empathy and compassion. A well-placed interlude provides a break from the heaviest moments and the book's final sections most fully explore its central themes, presenting a thoughtful and relevant commentary on the efficacy of even the smallest acts of human decency. Alone in Berlin has small slips, but recovers in fine fashion to present a realistic and thorough view of Berlin during the Second World War as well as a moving commentary on human action, inaction, and, above all, decency in the face of overwhelming evil and overwhelming odds.

Grade: A

July 6, 2010

Book 39: The Ball Is Round

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football
David Goldblatt

This ambitious book attempts to provide a complete and nearly universal history of soccer, an appropriate book to turn to during the World Cup. Goldblatt begins with the origin of kicking games throughout the world and traces the development of association football from its first codifications in 19th-century Britain to the spectacle and glamour of today's most popular Premiership sides. More importantly, Goldblatt not only acknowledges but also draws significant attention to the development of the game in various countries and regions, although coverage outside of Europe, Latin America, and Africa is slim to virtually nonexistent. Goldblatt does, however, seek to put soccer in a wider historical context, and indeed this sport-specific history could successfully substitute for a more comprehensive history of the world (or at least Europe, South America, and post-World War II Africa). It is in establishing and exploring the connections between soccer cultures and the greater arcs of history that the book shows its greatest strength, as the body of the work supports the author's initial thesis that separating the world's game from the world's history would ultimately prove a fruitless pursuit.

Despite clocking in at a hefty 900 pages, it is clear that The Ball Is Round could easily suit both devoted history buffs and more reluctant soccer fans. The writing is clear and avoids excessive political or literary rhetoric, allowing enough small moments of humor to keep things interesting but (apart from an extremely excessive use of the word "ludicrous") rarely succumbing to or exulting in its own cleverness. The obvious exception to this notable- and welcome- restraint is in the well-intentioned asides that chronicle important matches in the game's history. It is here that Goldblatt chooses to (attempt to) flex his literary muscles, and often they prove almost hilariously ill-constructed. Full of quite unnecessary flourishes, these match reports often fail to illuminate both the particulars of the match in question and its wider importance; thankfully, the supporting text is usually sufficient to fill in the gaps. Apart from these missteps, however, the book is remarkably readable and accessible both to longtime fanatics and newly minted fans. Its heft ensures that it is not for the faint of heart- nor is it a casual introduction- but the book is almost pathologically thorough in chronicling important figures and developments in world soccer. An impressive achievement that straddles the line between academic information and pop culture history, The Ball Is Round should prove satisfactory for those fans who want to dive headfirst and deeply into the history of the world, as experienced through soccer.

Grade: A

June 29, 2010

Book 38: The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison

From beginning to end, this is a story of misery, told beautifully in a series of stories from a variety of viewpoints. The Bluest Eye examines the concept of beauty as it was in 1940s Ohio, among blacks across various classes but concentrating mostly on the poor and their struggle to get by. An opening homage to the "See Spot Run" brand of children's books frames the story nicely, as does a summarizing passage from a part-time narrator and protagonist. This first glimpse of the fate about to befall poor Pecola gets the large mystery of what will happen out of the way and allows the book to, as the narrator herself suggests, explain why and how events unfold as they do. The opening suggests also the scope of the book, which looks beyond the main story to its constituent parts and to the lives that conspired to bring Pecola and her tragedy about. Shifting settings and characters root the story without providing undue distractions, and the book explores a much greater story than its initial scope suggests. Morrison's ear for dialogue and her skill in recreating it are evident, as is a fervent desire to provide all sides of the story. While the background pieces do contribute and add to the breadth and depth of the story, The Bluest Eye can at times get a bit off track. Morrison writes beautifully, but it seems that the narrative innovation never quite works to effectively explore the themes behind the novel. The Bluest Eye is undoubtedly an important inside look at African-American culture just before the great upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, but its beautiful writing and thoughtful architecture don't quite work for either the story at hand or the themes that lie just beyond the book's reach.

Grade: B+

June 27, 2010

Book 37: The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship
Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is certainly aware of the assertion that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and in The Blackwater Lightship he presents one that is marred by over fifteen years of resentment. This is a novel about understanding and forgiveness, a well-written book that explores the ways in which the past can haunt us and how it continually affects who we are at the present. One of the risks run in presenting a story populated (by definition) with people who harbor a deep sense of having been wronged is that such characters- and, indeed, such people- are often cold and unlikable, which is often the case in this novel. Main character Helen is vividly realistic, for example, and as her backstory is carefully revealed it becomes obvious that Tóibín has put a great deal of thought into creating his characters. She is not, however, terribly likable, and none of the characters who are stuck together for this long weekend can provide any real comic relief- or even a break from the resentment that comes to dominate the book. Some authors are able to create powerful narratives despite a lack of lighter moments (like Cormac McCarthy in The Road), but the characters in The Blackwater Lightship are often simply being rude and petty, perhaps simply for the sake of doing so; by the time the inevitable redemption begins to come around, readers may not care what happens to these petty people.

This is not to say that The Blackwater Lightship is without its merits, however. Any one of these characters could have sprung directly from real life, and the tangled web of the past has been slowly and deliberately constructed to make them who they are. And as cliché as the scenario (a group with a complicated history, plus newcomers from a different world, are forced to spend the weekend together) is, the undercurrents that run throughout the book make it unique and give it its own vibrant feeling. Tóibín's prose is simple and exact, relating what's there and not relying on fancy language to create or maintain assumptions: the characters and the situation speak for themselves. Though it's not always pleasant and can rely a bit heavily on well-tread literary ground, The Blackwater Lightship is a well-written glimpse into the lives of a group of realistic and thoroughly understood characters that provides insight on the power and consequences of unrepentant, raging resentment.

Grade: B+

June 22, 2010

Book 36: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman
Flann O'Brien

Allowing one's story to slowly slide into the realm of the absurd opens up a world of possibilities, but if the world presented strays too far from any beaten path readers may be jettisoned left and right. It's a fine pancake, as the policemen in The Third Policeman might say, and one that this author manages, for the most part, to navigate successfully. The book begins normally enough, evoking a very straightforward story in the vein of nineteenth-century narration, complete with an overly academic narrator and delightful footnotes supporting his pursuit of the mad philosopher de Selby. Even here, however, O'Brien slips subtle hints that all might not be as it seems; and indeed, once things begin to get truly bizarre the firm establishment of this dry narration helps ground the narrative. This grounding is also accomplished when O'Brien begins each chapter by stepping outside of the main story and into often hilarious pseudoscientific asides, which balance the just barely plausible with the outright absurd in surprisingly thought-provoking ways. These asides and footnotes are, however, only distractions, and their humor only offers a temporary fix for the often wayward plot, which can sometimes send heads spinning in unpleasant directions.

This conflict between the charmingly odd and the outright insane marks The Third Policeman, and it is not only evident in its structure. Some pieces of the plot are truly original and thought-provoking, while others will produce deserved laughs. Some developments, however, are just baffling, seemingly absurd for their own sake and appearing to serve no greater purpose. It seems as though O'Brien has a tendency to get carried away by his own ideas, to the point where reading becomes laborious and all traces of the plot- and readers' interest- disappear. It is regrettable that the author allows himself to just carried away by his own ingenuity, as he possesses that particular characteristic in spades. From the elaborate set of commentaries he creates for the fictional de Selby to his deftly employed twisted logic, Flann O'Brien weaves a wandering story that becomes, with its last gasp, a poignant morality play. The path he charts in The Third Policeman is sharply written and often amusing, but it takes a few too many wayward steps to be entirely enjoyable.

Grade: B+

June 19, 2010

Book 35: Hitler's Canary

Hitler's Canary
Sandi Toksvig

The history of the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War II is nothing short of extraordinary, with a significant portion of the country's ordinary citizens not only refusing to capitulate but also organizing the flight of most of the country's Jewish population to neutral Sweden. Hitler's Canary is a charming little book inspired by the memories of Danes who grew up in that trying period, focusing on a likeable schoolboy, Bamse, and his increasing awareness of the world around him. As a book primarily aimed at a younger audience, Hitler's Canary can oversimplify at times, and despite its promise to explore how not all Danes were good, nor Germans evil, nuance can be a bit difficult to come by in the book. This, however, does not detract excessively from the quality of the novel, which delivers an important story through Bamse's scared and simple eyes, which see things perhaps more clearly than do those of the adults around him. His narration is constructed carefully, divided into three acts to complement the Skovlund family's deep association with the theater. Indeed, acting is used to great effect in the novel both literally- in a surprisingly humorous moment of tension- and metaphorically- as Bamse and those around him learn how best to deal with troubled times. The book ends rather abruptly, but offers an intriguing and chronologically comprehensive view of wartime Denmark from the initial invasion to the country's massive Jewish exodus. Hitler's Canary is an excellently written, detailed, fun, and serious story of courage and growing up that will inform and entertain audiences of all ages.

Grade: A

June 17, 2010

Book 34: Bog Child

Bog Child
Siobhan Dowd

With the recent apology from Britain about the Bloody Sunday murders and with my internship finding me diving ever deeper into Ireland's tangled political divisions, it's difficult at times to understand the impact of the Troubles, which are of course not that long past. Bog Child is a coming of age story set against this difficult background, and it is all the more poignant because its story spans the border between the North and the Republic as well as the border between peace and war, ever porous in a politically charged, guerilla-style fight. Readers get the feeling that Fergus, who rests carefully on the edge of the opposing forces, is not placed there at the whim of the author but instead represents, in a way, a kind of majority strained between the personal and political and wishing, above anything, for peace. Very occasionally tending toward a firm, if not exactly heavy, moral sensibility, Bog Child firmly roots its philosophy in a story and a likeable and extremely realistic main character. Readers sympathize with Fergus and can fully understand the choices he makes, which seem to be the right ones but in which a hint of ambiguity lingers.

This ambiguity between right and wrong, and its clever deployment among morally sound choices, is embodied more strongly in the backstory carefully intertwined with Fergus's last childhood summer. It, too, follows themes of sacrifice, and despite a seeming clarity it offers, upon reflection, not moral platitudes but merely a satisfaction that the moral high ground was taken, with a hint of doubt hovering over the matter nonetheless. This trend toward certainty makes the novel powerful in that it echoes life in its managed complexity- morality in Bog Child is neither black and white, nor impossible to strive for; it is neither mandatory nor irrelevant. It's messy and complicated and, set against a chaotic background of both political and personal consequence, surprisingly tranquil. This book is at once compelling and meditative, full of insight yet incessantly driving its characters forward. The prose is clear and careful without drawing attention to itself, and the book is easy to read without being silly or empty. Dowd can become a little overly moralistic at times, but her exploration of sacrifice and the meaning of peace in Bog Child offers a contemplative and realistic view of the Troubles and of the importance of morality in morally ambiguous times.

Grade: A

June 14, 2010

Book 33: Marching Powder

Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail
Rusty Young

An admitted drug trafficker may not seem like the kind of character one would expect to feel great sympathy for, but that is just the beginning of the vast weirdness explored in Marching Powder and is, indeed, one of the book's most normal aspects. The book chronicles the experiences of Thomas McFadden, an English cocaine trafficker who had the misfortune to be caught in the act in Bolivia, tracing the path from his ill-fated endeavor to his release from the bizarre world of La Paz's San Pedro Prison. Though there is nothing earth-shattering in this well-written, straightforward account, it provides a series of linked anecdotes that together draw readers into the alternate reality within San Pedro, which includes a surprisingly robust economy and a thriving cocaine business. Young is not out to shock with traditional hard-times prison stories, and Thomas is constructed as a likable guy, himself shocked at the conditions inside the prison and far from a hardened criminal. Told from Thomas's first-person point of view, the book charts his journey from jet-setting businessman to influential prison tour guide and presents San Pedro from a perplexed outsider's perspective. This allows readers to adjust to conditions alongside Thomas and to learn, as he does, the rules of this incarcerated life. Compelling and refusing to resort to familiar gross-out stereotypes, Marching Powder is an enthralling book successfully evokes and embeds the reader within an entirely foreign, but surprisingly familiar, world.

Grade: A

June 11, 2010

Book 32: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami

Most fiction can be divided based on its priorities: some books try to yank readers out of dull lives, others just want to tell a good story, and a few attempt to answer the ultimate question, asking, "What is the meaning of life?" It is in this ambitious third category that Haruki Murakami and his often mystical Kafka on the Shore can be placed, though the novel is remarkable for its readability. Following the stories of two vastly different men, the book often moves effortlessly, pulled along in an unseen current like its characters and, indeed, the Greek tragedies to which it so often alludes. In these not quite parallel stories, Murakami explores the nature of fate and, accordingly, leaves much to be explained. Rather than resorting to obscure language and pretense, however, the author (and his vivid, excellent translator) provide a metaphysical exploration within what is first and foremost a pair of stories. The characters are never forgotten (save for one utterly baffling chapter near the end) and are crafted with care- one gets the feeling that they take priority over the questions raised through their existence, that they exist for their own sake rather than to drive the author's expression of a point of view.

This vivid realization of characters and a continually compelling plot threaten to overwhelm the philosophical musings that lie beyond the book, a pleasant reversal of my experiences with many Deep Books. The constant themes are woven throughout the narrative and an unexplained, but inexplicably appropriate, strand of the fantastic threatens to undermine the story at times, yet Kafka on the Shore remains readable. Murakami is incredibly deliberate, deploying subtle changes of tense and providing small details even for supporting cast members, but it nonetheless becomes easy for readers to get lost in the story even when alternating between two stories and styles. This, then, is a book that succeeds despite its ambitions. Just when the fantastic elements begin to seem overwrought, the story settles and dreams illuminate, rather than interrupt, the book's reality. Just when the potent narration threatens to overwhelm the action and the philosophy to interrupt the story, Murakami eases up and returns to the concrete, gradually inoculating readers in the meantime so the book's concluding journeys and (subtly presented) revelations can proceed as they must, with a hint of otherworldly magic. In the end, even skeptical readers won't require the intricacies of the book's mysteries to be concretely explained, lest the explanations detract from the experience. Kafka on the Shore is an odd success, at once meticulous and free-flowing, serious and silly. It is a book that will reward careful reading while providing entertainment, a rare case where subtlely, intelligence, and a knowledge of storytelling technique create a deep and intensely enjoyable novel. Ultimately, Kafka on the Shore is an exquisitely crafted and clear conundrum.

Grade: A

June 7, 2010

Book 31: The Dead Republic

The Dead Republic
Roddy Doyle

This book marks the conclusion of Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy, which chronicles the life and times of sometimes (Irish) republican, always interesting Henry Smart and, along with him, many of Ireland's 20th century growing pains. By the time this novel opens, Henry has had enough adventures to fill a lifetime, and the youthful exuberance that began to fade in Oh, Play That Thing! has given way to a more reflective, sober tone and a much calmer pace as Henry, though still full of energy, begins to seriously reflect upon his life. The prose still moves with occasional fits and stutters, a combination of Doyle's frenetic pacing and Henry's memory lapses, but the action proceeds, for the most part, at a reasonable clip. Doyle returns his star character and his readers to an Ireland changed by 30-odd years of relative stability, on the eve of the Troubles, and Doyle searches for the reasons behind the fighting. Henry's position as one of the original republican heroes of the GPO puts him in a unique position to view and criticize his heirs as, yet again but with much greater believability, he is thrust into the middle of history's important events. The author, however, employs thoughtful restraint and strains credibility most when describing outside events (such as a secret, complicit peace process behind the current violence), still an improvement over implausibly placing Henry in their midst. There is, too, a subdued element of magical realism, but it adds to the mythos surrounding Henry and helps cement his status as Ireland's own eyewitness.

With its more relaxed pace, action in The Dead Republic occasionally slows to a grinding halt, but conversations are crisp and Doyle manages to make sense out of a historical whirlwind stretching from the 1950s to the present day. The hints and forward glimpses of coming action are again deployed here, alternately to intriguing and annoying effect. Also evident in both supportive and detrimental ways is that Doyle is incredibly deliberate, taking care in crafting his characters and narrative but not always to the benefit of his work. Occasionally, it seems as though he is too aware of the scope of his book which, when given the chance to stand on its strengths of character development and attention to historical detail, often speaks for itself. The Last Roundup trilogy is Roddy Doyle's attempt at a sort of Great Irish Novel, and he has created a worthy main character in defiant Henry Smart, a man who by the end of his story has seen the promise, successes, and failures of the Irish Republic both as a native and prodigal. The Dead Republic may at times be too deliberate and too overreaching, but it provides a careful and worthy end to the story of a wonderfully rounded and indeed unforgettable Irish hero.

Grade: A-

June 5, 2010

Book 30: Oh, Play That Thing!

Oh, Play That Thing!
Roddy Doyle

This book, the follow-up to A Star Called Henry and midpoint of Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy, makes a worthy companion to its predecessor even if it lacks the same sense of verve that so successfully drives the preceding novel. Here, we see Henry on the run from, well, almost everyone, caught up in the glamour and glitz of Jazz Age New York and Chicago. It is interesting to see Henry outside of his homeland, and though he remains resourceful some of his youthful irreverence has faded into more sober reflection. The narrative here is packed with winks and hints, to varying success- at times, Henry's implication of outcomes has an emotional effect, drawing the reader into Henry's own "what if" mindset; at others, readers may just want to get on with the story. This effect, then, is slightly overused and is coupled with occasional whirlwind narration that may capture the era well but which nonetheless makes no sense. There are several parts of the novel that must be re-read to glean any sort of meaning, let alone the correct one; this is not a regular enough occurrence to assume that it's supposed to reflect Henry's own uncertainty and it instead falls in perfectly with Doyle's more reflective, self-referential style to varying degrees of success.

That is not to say, however, that the book is particularly onerous or even anything less than an excellent read. Doyle frequently recalls passages from A Star Called Henry, inserting them whole into the current narrative to elaborate and reflect, and also assist the reader's memory. This proves an effective method, used sparingly and illuminating the text as well as Henry's own inner thoughts. Historically, however, this novel also falls a bit short of (admittedly high) expectations set by the first book. Doyle often does powerfully evoke the sights and sounds of the Jazz Age (his descriptions of musical performances are outstanding and worth seeking out), but the plot leaves much to be desired. Following a tendency to simply insert Henry into important historical events, Doyle puts Henry through some believable motions (the immigrant arrival, the Mob, the Dust Bowl) but also launches him into simply outrageous heights of stardom and self-importance. It seems as though the author is stretching the historical record a bit too thin at times, though the centrality of Louis Armstrong does provide an interesting examination of race relations. Too often, Henry is bragging ("I was there!") and, unlike in his previous adventures, the swagger does nothing but raise skepticism and doubt.

This is, however, a book well worth reading for its moments of brilliance. Often, the plot seems to stand still or re-trace familiar steps, but suddenly Armstrong plays his trumpet (Doyle's ability to capture the inner effects of music is simply astounding) or Henry provides unforeseen insights or observations. The book can seem a bit uneven as a result, but the tricky and confusing passages are far from unbearable and it is obvious that Doyle rarely has Henry act without serious deliberation and purpose, clouded though it may be for the reader. Oh, Play That Thing! is an effort to provide a summation of 1920s and 1930s America that, despite a tendency toward the sensational, paints interesting portraits of this compelling (though fading) character and an inescapable era of change, corruption, and pioneering work in the world of music.

Grade: A-

June 2, 2010

Book 29: New Dubliners

New Dubliners
Edited by Oona Frawley

Commissioned to commemorate 100 years of James Joyce's own famous collection about Ireland's bustling capital, this collection presents stories from a number of current prominent writers, all about different experiences of Dublin. Like most short story collections, the quality in New Dubliners can get a bit dodgy, with several of its stories simply meandering along without much consideration for plot or, indeed, for making sense. These stories, and the characters within them, wander without purpose and fail to make many poignant observations, let alone entertain. There are, however, a few excellent stories in this slim volume, and perhaps it isn't a coincidence that they tend toward humor. "As If There Were Trees," by Colum McCann, is an exception to this suggested rule, looking head-on at the ethnic diversity in an economically disadvantaged area in a powerful, quick story. Other excellent pieces use humor, or the appearance thereof, to mask and even illuminate darker themes. Ivy Bannister's "Mrs. Hyde Frolics in the Eel Pit" displays, as its title may suggest, a solidly ironic tone, and the audience's mirth at deducing what poor Mrs. Hyde must fail to realize masks the inherent tragedy, as her house of cards is surely soon to topple.

There is a different, sad kind of irony in Bernard MacLaverty's "The Assessment," which brilliantly uses narration to convey the self-assuredness, and latent anxieties, of those with Alzheimer's. Repeated phrases may seem humorous, but in the end, as the reader understands the cause of the repetition, it turns out that MacLaverty is writing not a joke but a brilliantly, painfully resonant story about loss. Other stories are competent, neither particularly revelatory nor agonizingly aimless: Maeve Binchy's "All That Matters" is a amusing, if trite (just as, incidentally, one of her main characters is), and "Martha's Streets," by Dermot Bolger, provides the almost obligatory direct Joyce tribute, though it stands too as a testament to the power of literature. Then, too, there is the purely joyful "Benny Gets the Blame," by Clare Boylan, an amusingly narrated story of childhood shenanigans. New Dubliners does not touch on a wide array of facets of Dublin life, but it is a competent collection; its slow stories go quickly enough and the gems are indeed worth finding.

Grade: B+

May 31, 2010

Book 28: This Charming Man

This Charming Man
Marian Keyes

It is easy to dismiss books aimed at a female audience as chick-lit fluff, and I admit that I was ready to wave this book off despite its being named of the the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards 50 Books of the Decade. Though many familiar chick-lit elements are present in This Charming Man, there is a far greater depth to this novel, which is, ultimately, about power. Using a pattern of horrific domestic violence as her core theme, Marian Keyes offers portraits of four very different women, each told in a distinct style. By doing this, Keyes reveals not only the most private thought of these women, and therefore their reasons for becoming enamored with the charming man of the title, but also her own range and talents. From a slightly ditzy stylist's stilted journal entries to a seasoned journalist's fluent cynical sarcasm to heavily personal third-person narration, Keyes effectively uses language to build her protagonists and by allowing each to tell her story allows the book to resonate very powerfully. The book's intimate portrayal of severe, self-feeding anxiety and alcoholism is absolutely riveting, a perfect depiction of a relentlessly self-critical and over-analyzing mind.

The book is not, however, all doom and gloom and indeed carries quite a sense of humor. Various running jokes prevent the book's dark moments- which are occasionally pitch-black- from becoming overwhelming and act to demonstrate the discovery that humor is never entirely gone (except, of course, when it actually is). The book, despite creating four powerful and realistic lead characters, can, however, drag at times, often opting for a slow reveal rather than offering relevant information more directly. It quickly becomes obvious that the book is about domestic violence, and there is no need to prolong several big reveals for as long as the book does; most readers will have figured out the most important "secrets" long before they are revealed (though Keyes very effectively deploys one giant red herring). Another large, plot-thickening event comes so entirely out of the blue that it strains credibility, being so inexplicably out of (thoroughly developed) character. Love stories are also easily predicted; though there is enough heart and good writing to sustain the novel, it drags on somewhat longer than it should in its denouement and cannot be in any way considered a narrative trailblazer.

This Charming Man is an odd concoction. It reads alternately as a traditional chick-lit story, a journalism-fueled mystery/thriller, and a stream-of-consciousness character exploration. It has bone-chilling depictions of violence and an army of rural Irish crossdressers. It is, then, perhaps an outstanding reflection of reality in some of its myriad facets. Despite some missteps in plotting, Marian Keyes puts her talents on display in depicting and successfully juggling the stories of four compelling modern women caught in the brambles of ages-old patriarchy. Add to this a slight hint of satire and This Charming Man becomes much more than the standard chick-lit fare; this book is a powerful novel that is, despite its stunningly realistic take on a very real problem, fun and edifying to read.

Grade: A-

May 28, 2010

Book 27: A Star Called Henry

A Star Called Henry
Roddy Doyle

Having heard of the author of this book, I decided to read this wide-spanning work of historical fiction that begins a trilogy tracing the personal history of Henry Smart from, thus far, the streets of the Dublin slums to the ranks of the IRA. Doyle uses the powerful narrative voice of Smart to evoke a first-hand view of some of the worst neighborhoods in Europe and to present an alternative, less nationalistic, view of the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence. Henry's voice may at times seem a bit more sophisticated than his self-reported upbringing would imply, but it is full of joyful cynicism and skepticism and more often than not rings true as he brings readers through important historical points in Irish history. There is a hint of magical realism to the book but it balances nicely with the harsh reality portrayed, actually grounding the book by remaining consistent with the way Henry must see things. the most egregious of the fantastic elements occur with Henry's grandmother, but she arises seldom enough that the oddity doesn't become overwhelming or unnecessarily distracting.

Doyle seems to have a firm grasp on history, but unfortunately goes a bit too far in inserting Henry into contemporary events- putting him in the GPO during the Rising makes sense, but making him the protegé of James Connolly less so. Nonetheless, Doyle is able, through Henry, to make keen observations about the Irish wars and, indeed, larger patterns of violence and social class. A Star Called Henry is not, however, a plot-driven novel, and it finds most of its narrative momentum in Henry's accelerated growth. Henry is complex and fascinating, full of anger and resentment but at the same time naturally intelligent and very intuitive. Roddy Doyle is able to bend Henry's language nicely, giving the novel a distinct feel and creating very vivid portrayals of the complex emotions wrought by rough historical waters. A Star Called Henry is a remarkable, personal, and accessible history of Ireland's growing pains juxtaposed with those of an unforgettable angry young man.

Grade: A

May 24, 2010

Book 26: The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009

The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009
Edited by Mike Cronin, William Murphy, and Paul Rouse

It has been a longstanding ambition of mine to see a hurling match, and I decided to take advantage of the greater number of books available on the subject here in Ireland to familiarize myself with native Irish sports. I turned to The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 as an academically slanted collective history of the organization that oversees the Irish games, choosing the book primarily because of its recent publication. The name, however, is a bit misleading, as the chronological coverage of the volume ends, for the most part, far before the present state of the games. Nor is this book particularly good as an all-around, basic introduction. With its essays concerning very specific facets of the Gaelic Athletic Association's presence in, and effect on, Ireland, The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 fulfills the promise of its own introduction by prompting further academic debate, assuming basic familiarity with the history of the GAA and some of its social aspects. By this standard, however, the book largely succeeds in presenting well-argued, thoroughly researched, and generally readable chapters on a good variety of aspects of the organization. Background essays on the history of sport in Ireland are excellent, particularly Richard Holt's illuminating essay on the context of American and Continental sports against which the GAA originally developed in the late nineteenth century, nicely complicated by Dónal McAnallen's essay on the amateurism within the Irish sports. Also intriguing are essays offering competing views on the association's effect on, and concern with, outside political and historical events and attitudes, solidifying the book's academic credentials. The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 may be slightly mis-titled, but it nonetheless provides a solid intellectual basis on which to consider the history of Gaelic sports in Ireland.

Grade: A-

May 21, 2010

Book 25: Winterwood

Patrick McCabe

As the winner of the 2007 Irish novel of the year award, Winterwood comes with a set of expectations, though it's difficult to explain what, exactly, lies behind this book. McCabe used an erratic, unreliable narrator for his book which, while initially disorienting, gives the story a certain air of mystery that echoes its thematic journey into the depths of grief. This is not, however, a mournful novel- McCabe and his narrator take matters into their own hands and chart a rather twisted path through the rough "outlands" of madness. The book maintains a strong connection to its Irish setting, exploring the impact of folk myths on the modern country, and portraying a sense of a haunted culture. Redmond Hatch's journeys away from and back to his old mountain home are framed uneasily by narratives that waltz through time as McCabe reveals the backstory piece by painstaking piece. A lack of certainty may frustrated some readers, but as the book progresses it becomes increasingly clear that this haphazard construction is, in fact, another facet of the story, which upon reflection is rendered quite thoroughly by the uneasy narration. Winterwood is a far from concrete novel that looks at madness and loss and leaves the question open whether we can ever fully escape our past.

Grade: A-

May 19, 2010

Book 24: And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is a legend in the world of mystery for a very good reason- her imagination is incredibly inventive in this classic twist on the locked room mystery. The story opens with a series of brief sketches of the main cast, handy to refer back to later, as they converge upon Indian Island, to which they have been summoned (mysteriously, of course) from a variety of half-known acquaintances. The story unfolds from there as the guests, each of whom harbors a dark secret from their past, are murdered one-by-one in line with the words of a children's nursery rhyme. Christie's prose is straightforward and tells the story without distracting embellishments, moving swiftly from frame to frame without losing the reader. Her characters, despite a discouraging tendency to notice how things are "just like in books", adapt to the situation at hand and adopt an amusing rapport. Indeed, the dark humor in this book (usually at the expense of its characters) comes as a pleasant surprise and itself produces an interesting reaction in the reader when juxtaposed with very inventive modes of murder.

And Then There Were None employs a strange sort of suspense, for the ending is more or less exposed by the title. The fun comes from observing the increasing levels of paranoia exhibited by the colorful characters and in following their reasoning while attempting to pull the pieces of the puzzle together. The inevitable Big Reveal puts a philosophical twist on things while inviting a second, closer reading and speaking to the efforts employed in attempting to figure the mystery out. But within this starkly humorous story there lurks a philosophical examination of justice and of culpability. Christie weaves in a bit of deeper thinking without burdening the story, and at the end the book's various elements come together seamlessly, the author's ingenuity on grand display. And Then There Were None is a dark, funny look at justice and human nature that is a great mystery but, more importantly, a highly entertaining little book.

Grade: A

May 16, 2010

Book 23: Good Omens

Good Omens
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Being vaguely familiar with each of these authors, but not wanting to get sucks into a series, I was happy to stumble upon this hilarious collaborative effort which, to boot, features an excellent sending-up of the traditional Christian apocalypse. Starting rather strong, Good Omens is a satisfying, often laugh-out-loud book that contains some sharply pointed barbs aimed directly at Christianity while delivering an interesting, mile-a-minute story. For beginners, the collaborative effect of the book is seamless- despite the occasional over-the-top showmanship, the book reads as the work of one coherent generative force, consistent in style throughout. The English humor adds a layer of depth to the book but may trip up some Americans; it does not, however, detract from the novel but rather serves to place it in a firm geographical context.

The story is fairly strong, though the book is best read in as few sittings as possible. Through many section breaks and distinct narrative threads, characters and plots multiply quickly and may be forgotten in the crowd. This speaks to a decline of quality in the book's second half, where the plot becomes a bit too odd and convoluted, with the accompanying jokes feeling far more forced than in the book's more successful opening. Regardless, Good Omens is fun throughout, and the post-climax wrap-up brings it back around to its previous good form after a few plot missteps in the final climactic buildup. The book features among its delightfully named cast the Antichrist as an eleven-year-old and several humans humorously involved in the world of magic, but none can compare to the wonderful angel/demon duo who drive the entire narrative- and who strike comedic gold time and again, inducing fits of laughter nearly every time they appear. Good Omens contains enough glorious moments and spot-on satirical observations that it is, overall, a fun and satisfying book.

Grade: A-

May 13, 2010

Book 22: The Course of Irish History

The Course of Irish History
Edited by T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin

I decided, prior to and during my departure for the Emerald Isle, to read up on Irish history, complicated and controversial as it is, and The Course of Irish History was recommended to me as a thorough and relatively unbiased account. Editors Moody and Martin have put together a comprehensive collection of historical essays that, all told, create an intelligent and pleasantly readable history of the tumultuous island. There is the expected variation of quality amongst the essays, but each appears to be written by an expert in the time period, lending the volume intellectual depth throughout. Additionally, the project coheres incredibly well, and aside from a few spelling inconsistencies across chapters, reads as a singularly conceived and executed history rather than as a selection of essays. Each essay naturally builds and expands upon the ideas in preceding chapters and, generally speaking, the authors are aware of the overall aims and scope of the project. This ensures that a sense of balance and focus is maintained throughout the book, broken only in the final three chapters (which were, in fairness, each added in revised in expanded editions), which occasionally stray into the unnecessarily specific.

Regardless, The Course of Irish History is readable and informative for both scholars and those simply interested in, well, the course of Irish history. With its essays presenting a variety of perspectives, particularly the later chapters that address the divergent, yet intimately connected, histories of Northern Ireland and the Republic, this book provides a full and remarkably even story with intellectual integrity and easy prose. The Course of Irish History is an excellent introduction to the story of Ireland for those with limited preexisting knowledge as well as providing a useful jumping-off point for future study.

Grade: A

May 3, 2010

Book 21: The Living Great Lakes

The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas
Jerry Dennis

As I will shortly be leaving for Ireland, I decided to read about a subject very close to home: HOMES, or the Great Lakes. Though told with a somewhat uneasy combination of science, memoir, and history, The Living Great Lakes presents a loving homage to some of the planet's most astonishing (and perhaps under-appreciated) natural features. I remember once asking my mom why, if Lake Michigan was indeed a lake, I couldn't see Wisconsin from Grand Haven; she replied that the lake is almost as wide as Indiana. It's impossible to think of these lakes in any traditional framework, a fact that Dennis makes clear time and again throughout the book, particularly when he elicits the opinions of long-time oceangoing sailors who hadn't been on the Great Lakes before- the hardened salts are uniformly amazed at the power of these inland bodies. Dennis recounts these and other facts with a gushing sense of pride that borders between sincerity and self-aggrandizement; he is guilty of the latter particularly when mentioning time and again his lifelong credentials from living near the lake. It is, however, clear that the book is a labor of love, and his feelings for the lakes and the environment drive the book and serve to connect its sometimes straining threads of narrative.

The heart of the book is the oft-interrupted story of a journey from Traverse City to Maine, through the bottom four lakes, the Erie canal, and the Atlantic Ocean aboard a sailing ship. This story itself is fascinating, though non-sailors would benefit from a small glossary of jargon that is alternately defined condescendingly within the text or left ambiguous for non-sailors. Unfortunately, this narrative becomes increasingly tired as the text wears on, penetrated more often and for longer periods by side narratives that often appear out of nowhere and bear no discernible relation to the narrative framing it. Each chapter is at its head divided into constituent parts (a la Democracy in America), but within the text itself these divisions are ambiguous and often confusing, as they leap back and forth in time without a discernible anchor. Aside from a few uninteresting asides (particularly the repetitive environmental studies, which certainly have their place but are presented in a disjointed manner that makes Dennis come across as annoying), background information and even unrelated stories from Dennis's own experiences intersect well with the main sailing story and do provide a comprehensive, multi-layered view of the Great Lakes region.

The strength of The Living Great Lakes is its scope, as Dennis as narrator/memoirist eventually becomes tiresome. His forays into the geological, economic, political, and environmental history of the Great Lakes may not always be well integrated, but combine well to make the book an excellent introduction/love song to the area. Passion shines through every word of this book, for both better and worse, and the book is enjoyable for its thoughtfulness and for the very earnestness that sometimes sinks the prose under its own weight. Particularly informative are early chapters on Lakes Michigan and Superior, those with which Dennis is most familiar and whose identities are most strongly connected with Michigan. Historical asides on explorers such as La Salle and tributes to the many victims of intricately described weather patterns (such as the famous Edmund Fitzgerald) find a home amidst personal narrative, scientific exploration, and political pronouncement. The voyage of The Living Great Lakes can get a bit bumpy with a lack of clear transitions and some repetitive content, but it is nonetheless a moving testament to these powerful bodies of water that so thoroughly define the land and people they touch.

Grade: B+

April 29, 2010

Book 20: The Nice and the Good

The Nice and the Good
Iris Murdoch

I fear that my response to this book is colored by the blurbs on its back, which promise an exploration of the difference between being nice and being good- an interesting distinction that does appear, however briefly, in the book. The man difficulty with this particular novel is that none of its characters, save for a pair of precocious and hilarious twins, are particularly likeable. The suicide mystery that provides most of the plot momentum (where the plot moves at all) is solved quickly and proceeds with little suspense. Indeed, the main cause for readers' uncertainty is the ever-changing coupling that simply fails to be interesting. Without any real appeal to readers, it is difficult to care about which of the characters are (shockingly!) in unrequited love or sleeping with one another. Even though they are clearly sketched and act understandably, it is simply impossible to care about the people who populate this novel. This meandering coupling and re-coupling and petty angst flows along until an absolutely ridiculous ending which, given the 300-odd pages that precede it, seems quite unlikely from this particular group of people. Filled with straightforward prose and simple, boring dialogue, Murdoch's writing is sufficient but not particularly illuminating or able to redeem the lull of the plot. The Nice and the Good isn't a terrible book, nor is it terribly interesting for either plot or philosophical reasons; it is, ultimately, more or less forgettable.

Grade: B-