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