December 31, 2011

2011 Year in Review

2011 Year in Review

This year, I tried to direct some of my reading via a series of book challenges, and they yielded some surprising results. First things first, I always attempt to read 52 books, roughly one per week, and this year required, as you may have seen, some scrambling within the past week, and though it was difficult and a tad stressful, I enjoyed always having reading to fall back on as a downtime hobby. So my first challenge, the one that started this whole blog enterprise, did not fall short in its sixth(!) year, something for which I'm grateful. Moving along, I joined a LiveJournal community dedicated to reading the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, though my overall efforts at the list have taken a severe dip this year, as I read fewer than ten from that list. Yet I'm coming to realize that the list really is more of a guide than anything and, as I discovered by logging my progress through 10 books that have won 10 different awards, sometimes these things fall into your lap. One list I should, however, pay more attention to is certainly my general reading list, which seems to expand without ever losing any entries. I need to start just going for books that I hear about, rather than shuffling them into the list; I'm also working on describing those books better so I can find something I'm in the mood for more regularly. In terms of the books I read in 2011, graphic works proved a very pleasant surprise, and I hope to continue sprinkling some in here and there; the range of the medium is truly huge, and while I haven't read enough of them to really be qualified to assess their quality, I'm starting to get a better idea of what I do and don't like, so cheers for that. Elsewhere, I again managed a balance of fiction to nonfiction, and read both within and outside of genres, and I hope to maintain such a range in the foreseeable future. 2011 ended in a bit of a frenzy, but at the end, I had a lot of fun and, really, that's what it's all about. See you in 2012!

Book 52: Great Escapes of World War II

Great Escapes of World War II
George Sullivan

I've owned this book since my elementary school really-into-World-War-II phase, and both then and now I find it an inspiring, well-written, and age-appropriate account of seven daring prisoner-of-war escapes on both sides of the battlefield. Though the accounts of German and Japanese escapes are told with a slight slant toward the Allied point of view, that they are included is admirable, and together the collection of stories illuminates several different means of escape, as well as paying tribute to soldiers of several nationalities. Each account is crisply written and easy to understand, with Sullivan providing appropriate background information on the war and, when appropriate, the prisons, without glossing over crucial facts. The soldiers are profiled based on their own words, and though the dialogue is almost certainly fictitious, it helps break up the mostly-prose accounts, each of which includes follow-up information on the success of each attempt. From the horrors of the Bataan peninsula to the famous Great Escape from Stalag Luft III deep in Germany, Sullivan covers tunnels, impersonations, and one very daring, but deadly, mass breakout, all with a muted, but evident compassion. Throughout the stories, the book weaves a greater narrative about the impulse to escape, hinting at deeper psychological motives but never straying from its core audience of late-elementary school readers. Often dripping with suspense and with the palpable threat of discovery or, later, re-capture, the stories in Great Escapes of World War II are excellently molded to enlighten and entertain kids interested in this facet of the war.

Grade: A

Book 51: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss, though perhaps a bit pedantic, is blessed with a British sense of humor, and though Eats, Shoots & Leaves is clearly for the nitpickers among us, the author's habit of scattering sarcastic, witty remarks among her many, many complaints salvages the book, which rises above the level of mere complaint and becomes a testament of sorts to the history and importance of punctuation. It is a dry subject, to be sure, and sometimes Truss's (note the discretionary 's) humor goes just a tad too far- particularly for a treatise on punctuation- but she is able to keep the prose entertaining throughout; this remarkable achievement is assisted in no small part by her abundance of entertaining, and occasionally self-referential, illustrative examples. Part of the fun of grammatical errors is, of course, their propensity to entirely alter the actual effect of an otherwise well-meaning sentence, and this book is replete with such occasions, though the silly sadly outweigh the serious and present a missed opportunity of sorts, as the litany of complaints that buoy the work sometimes make the whole enterprise seem a bit trivial.

Ironically, Truss's willingness to bend on some grammatical principles- and her corresponding acknowledgment that all is likely to come crashing down at some point in the reasonably foreseen future- does tend to hamper her argument that all of this is fundamentally important, disastrous examples and all. Likewise, she does allow some prescriptive nonsense to seep into her prose, and though her acknowledgment of the differences between British and American usages is refreshing and her outright mockery of esteemed Messrs. Strunk and White entirely admirable to this particular hater (O! Sing of the gloriously ironic naming of the Strunkenwhite virus!), she does occasionally slip into the prescriptive mode. And while she is fully aware of the mutability and, indeed, adaptability of punctuation, her exploration of differing stylistic decisions is disappointing; though this certainly isn't meant to question the utility, purpose, or effect of, say, varying use of the commas, her treatment is almost entirely superficial, and she dismisses these phenomena as merely idiosyncratic or, worse, artifacts of historical paradigm shifts, rather than as perfectly legitimate ways in which to alter the style of a work. Nonetheless, and despite its minor annoyances, the book is a quick and fun read, utilizing history, grammar, and humor to make a rather elaborate, but also fairly welcome, point. Eats, Shoots & Leaves occasionally stumbles over its sense of self-importance, but remains more fun than didactic, and is a welcome read for those who fret over the seemingly deteriorating status of modern punctuation; for the absurdly specific, it certainly entertains throughout.

Grade: A-

December 30, 2011

Book 50: And Then Things Fall Apart

And Then Things Fall Apart
Arlaina Tibensky

Now, I'm not- and never have been, really- the target audience for this kind of book, built on a teenage girl's angst upon finding her world falling apart absolutely at the seams, but while I respect the good writing and some of its specific insights, it mostly failed to make an impression upon me. Heroine Karina ("Keek") is a refreshingly honest, deep, and highly literate teenage narrator, but her annoyed tone very precariously straddles the line between justifiably upset and obnoxiously self-centered, and Tibensky seems unable to lift the narrative much beyond an uninteresting retelling of the frustrating events which, in turn, mar Keek's summer. There are touching moments, to be sure, such as a surprisingly revealing conversation between the teen and her grandmother, who herself knows disappointment and depression, but these seem to be fewer and further between than they should be in a novel devoted to psychological (re-?)discovery. And while the author's efforts at exploring the psychology of a fifteen-year-old are certainly to be commended, the story, such as it exists, unfolds at a positively glacial pace, and while the lack of chronology doesn't hurt the story, the order in which events are explored doesn't particularly seem to assist in Keek's character development, and the book feels less like an exploration than a litany of complaints, a meandering not-quite-rant that doesn't develop so much as stagnate. Clearly there is something more to the book, yet it remains inaccessible as readers trudge through surface-level comparisons between Keek's situation and her favorite book, The Bell Jar. The use of Plath's novel is odd, and while I don't begrudge the idea of an advanced teenager reading the book, I hardly think it's a popular pick for Tibensky's target audience, and something about the choice seems cloying and rings false. Though blessed with a strong-voiced narrator who is often insightful, as well as decent writing, And Then Things Fall Apart lacks narrative and character-building momentum, and just falls a bit short.

Grade: B-

December 29, 2011

Book 49: Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days

Though Verne is perhaps best known for his science fiction, the sense of adventure so pivotal throughout his books is equally alive in the far more realistic, nearly madcap Around the World in Eighty Days. The story, dated though it is in the days when eighty days can take you from the Earth to the Moon nearly four times, is a fun adventure story that works in a fair amount of suspense and a funny, scientifically-based, and only occasionally telegraphed twist ending. The reader follows enigmatic, unflappable Englishman Phileas Fogg as he attempts to cash in on a bet that he can travel the world's circumference in the titular time, utilizing various means of transportation and dodging the efforts of slightly bumbling detective Fix, convinced there is a darker motive behind Fogg's otherwise highly eccentric excursion. As can be expected from a European writer in the late 1800s, the book is full of patronizing racism, often less offensive, however, than informative on the contemporary viewpoint. It is hardly surprising, for example, that the Indian beauty the group encounters along the way is incredibly fair-skinned, and it seems odd that Verne wouldn't bother to give a pivotal "Parsee" character a proper name, but these slips, occurring as they do in such an obviously dated work, hardly seem out of place and while properly horrifying to modern readers do not overtly detract from the book's own universe. Indeed, Verne was hardly a friend to the English, and inserts plenty of snide jibes at the British character, with the main hero being, of course, Fogg's intrepid, and conveniently multi-talented, French manservant. The story is, at its heart, simply fun, told in a matter-of-fact prose that mirrors Phileas Fogg's own reserved manner, playing it straight throughout some absurd, though never madcap, circumstances. Despite its modern political incorrectness, Around the World in Eighty Days is a fun work of suspense, poised between detective novel and adventure story and retaining a subtle 19th century charm.

Grade: A

Book 48: It Was the War of the Trenches

It Was the War of the Trenches
Jacques Tardi

The First World War may be largely forgotten in the United States, but it still looms large over the French mind, or at least the mind of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, whose brutal, stark It Was the War of the Trenches explores the plight of those suffering in the madness of the French trenches throughout the war. The nonlinear narrative is effectively composed of several brief stories, several only a few panels long and many occasionally interconnected through layers of association. Tardi mixes narrative voice and style both in the text and in his visual language, with wordy panels often accompanied by a run of silent, evocative panels, and though he jumps around in time, location, and theme, any incoherence seems born of the utter confusion and nihilism the war itself brought to western Europe and to the world. Each of the stories is personal, haunting, and ultimately effective, often told through reminiscences, though many are tragically broken by an omniscient voice offering details of the previous narrator's death. The tales are stark and often intoned in a dry manner, as devoid of emotion as the faces who offer them. These faces, poised between cartoons and more complex portraits, stare blankly ahead, offering a muted despair and haunting air of nonchalance to the reader, as a grayscale palette effectively sets the tone for a bleak, depressing conflict. The author intrudes occasionally with overtly political comments, but even these could plausibly come directly from his soldiers themselves, forced to fight in a war they never even believed in and facing execution for a display of the far-too-sane survival instinct. Both authors and characters are appalled at the circumstances of the war, yet trapped in a mess of illogical and inhumane decisions, the tragedy of war invading every line of every panel.

Tardi's drawings are crisp, but often portray a kind of confusion, a jumble of shell holes and barbed wire strewn across a desolate landscape, often punctured by impressionistic scenes of newly exploded, flying dirt, motion often appearing in brief bursts, perhaps in only one of the three large horizontal panels that dominate the book's pages. Yet the photographic quality of the work, sparse though it is, somehow heightens the emotion of the moment, allowing the story to feel as stagnant as the western front became. Transitions are scarce but never missed, as Tardi glides from one experience to another, the soldiers given names and acting in very specific scenes yet still retaining an everyman quality, representing the millions of tragedies of the war without overwrought moralizing or dehumanizing generalities. These are very human, very sincere stories, all the more tragic when played against a relentlessly gray landscape and with the futile desire to escape what readers know to be almost certain death, often delivered heavily in a single, brutal panel. Tardi knows how to render the bleak scenes of war, utilizing just enough gruesome details to be effective while focusing most of his imagery on the people and on the front; the book is never graphic for its own sake, and instead uses those panels sparingly, accenting the illustration of war as hell rather than composing it alone. It Was the War of the Trenches is a complete package, not quite a collection of short stories but also not a history of the war; instead, it is a brilliantly composed meditation on the horror of the First World War, at once intensely emotional and brutally cold and removed.

Grade: A

December 28, 2011

Book 47: Steel and Other Stories

Steel and Other Stories
Richard Matheson

I often find short story collections fairly hit-and-miss, with a few gems, a few clunkers, and a bunch of stories that fall contentedly among the middle. This collection, however, seems to fall almost entirely within the realm of mediocrity, with nothing glaringly terrible but only a few hints of magic. The story selection seems a bit uneven and, at times, downright odd; while the collection displays Matheson's remarkable range with convincing attempts at science fiction, fantasy, and westerns, each morsel appears suddenly, and the effect can be a bit jarring when any two offerings are read in sequence without a break. Again, however, the failure is only partial, and the collection's last story, "Window of Time," while a bit awkward in itself, provides a fitting ending, tackling the emotional state of a man traveling through a window of time to his younger self. This kind of introspection pops up occasionally throughout the collection, most notably perhaps in "Steel" and rather frustratingly in "Dear Diary," which has an interesting core concept but which plays it as a joke rather than exploring its potential as a penetrating glance at contentment and desire. The twin themes are similarly dealt with at only a surface level in most other stories, with the exception being "Descent," an absolutely brilliant story that blows the remainder completely out of the water, excelling in ways that the other serious tales do not and achieving a complex emotional effect while taking a slightly different tack than the reader might expect. Here the simple language displays despite its simple fashion a complex longing, and a simple portrait expands to consider some elements of what makes humanity tick- all without desperate moralizing or the distinct thuds of the Obvious Hammer. The story, though brief, is achingly complete despite the plot's seeming irresolution, offering but requiring only few specific details, appropriately chosen and well-deployed.

Much of the collection, however, appears to consist of elaborate jokes- amusing, sure, but somehow pedestrian and often failing to achieve any kind of depth or greater meaning. While Matheson mercifully avoids the overt moralizing that would seem appropriate in a story such as "To Fit the Crime," it feels nonetheless a bit empty and fleeting, though cute. "The Wedding" and "The Splendid Source" suffer from the same ailments, with the former offering a tantalizing hint of meaning or even deeper humor, but sadly failing to capitalize on its own potential; the latter plays as a farce, but the satire misses the mark and the story just kind of exists, memorable and with some chuckle-inducing puns but sadly without actual substance. The most infuriating of these half-realized visions is "The Conqueror," an otherwise convincing western that seemingly aims to tackle the role of carpetbaggers in the Wild West, but which falls flat as an otherwise intriguing and well-written story abruptly ends in an entirely expected manner, rather than attempting a character study or even a particularly thrilling climax. The disappointment is almost palpable, particularly when other stories such as "The Doll That Does Everything" and "Lemmings" can come so close to actually exploring a theme, only to wade off into the expected and retain a surface-only level of interest. Aside from "The Descent," the only one that comes close is "A Visit to Santa Claus," which is well-constructed, offers unexpected plot twists, and maintains an effective air of clouded suspense until the expected, yet strangely effective, ending. Likewise, "Dr. Morton's Folly" demonstrates that even the sillier stories, meant to be digested quickly and only on a most basic level, can be filling without being base, a mark most often missed here. Much in a similar way, the majority of Matheson's stories entertain but fail to enthrall, the science fiction satisfying but rarely revealing, and Steel and Other Stories usually close to, but not quite hitting, the mark.

Grade: B

December 26, 2011

Book 46: Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick

Oral histories are, of course, always to be somewhat suspect, but in a country as paranoid and aggressively secretive as North Korea, they may be the only way to even come close to a realistic depiction of the country. The results, as presented in journalist Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, are indeed grim as expected and, in some ways, far worse. It is easy for Americans to presume that the country is full of automatons who praise the Dear Leader(s) with every ounce of sincerity, but these stark accounts will force readers to re-assess their own preconceived notions of life in the oppressive dictatorship. Though these stories, which originate from defectors, naturally represent the viewpoints of those who grew disillusioned with the regime, Demick approaches her task with an eye toward journalistic credibility, and for the most part avoids sensationalism. The account, based on the experiences of six defectors now living in South Korea, does rely heavily on an elementary human interest angle, but it is hard to find true fault in this technique when the story concentrates on a famine that ravished its characters' families and the homeland they show a lingering affection for. More importantly, Demick's eye for tenderness, though occasionally deployed with an unnecessarily heavy hand, forces readers to put themselves into her subjects' positions, to peer into their lives and to realize that, even for a society relentlessly pounded with brainwashing propaganda and other stuff of Orwellian nightmares, there are simple human emotions like hunger, skepticism, and love. It is no accident that the main story here revolves around two lovers pursuing a romance made impossible by the strictures of society but enabled by the persistent blackouts simultaneously grinding the economy to a halt and allowing the lovers to maintain the requisite level of secrecy and concealment.

Just like the line that explores this arrangement- and fiercely challenges Americans' convenient ability to dehumanize the residents of the country- there are points in the story where the raw emotion overpowers the often pedestrian prose and unnecessarily tangled narrative arcs. Though their stories through time more or less collectively, jumps between them are frequently jarring, offered with no transitions, leaving readers suddenly immersed in only vaguely familiar waters, reacquainted only after some vital points of the story have been missed. Likewise, some of Demick's prose reads in a stunted, simple-sentence, simple-sentence cadence that quickly becomes tiresome, though there are moments of deft insight that break through the tedium. For all its simplicity, the prose does allow the story to shine through nearly unimpeded, and what a story it is, told with compassion and bolstered by incidental information and history that, while sometimes awkwardly located, helps flesh out North Korea from both bird's eye and street-level views. Nothing to Envy is a moving and detailed account of life in a seemingly impenetrable land, hampered occasionally by slight authorial missteps but retaining an insightful humanity throughout.

Grade: A-

December 17, 2011

Book 45: The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass
Philip Pullman

Alas, the momentum begun within The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, interrupted as it is by sometimes botched love stories and wanderings, comes to a halt in the beginning of the final His Dark Materials book, The Amber Spyglass, which seems to suffer from a kind of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows syndrome, wherein the characters wander around in the woods awaiting the plot to advance. Though the second installment, like the first, ended with a cliffhanger, Pullman is again unable to adequately recover the thread of the plot, and flails around with his main characters either encountering convenient plot device characters who can conveniently fill in the missing pieces of the books' philosophical core or sleeping endlessly in a cave. And while, yes, Lyra oscillates between annoying and charmingly brave, to have her doing nothing is a bit maddening, particularly when the other stories of import move at similarly glacial paces. This is a shame, because the story is well-plotted, if a bit transparently anti-religious even for the most fervent of atheists, and does have philosophical depth, making some interesting points if blatantly so and unabashedly attacking the role religion plays in human affairs. Pullman is clearly full of interesting ideas, but seems to be somewhat lacking in his prose creation, or consistency, or even in bringing these elements together. Regardless, The Amber Spyglass satisfies overall on a page-turning basis, even if it takes a while to really get going, and though pivotal battle scenes are related in jumbled confusion, the adventure will keep readers hooked through the end, even if the character development is, again, sorely lacking. An unsatisfying, unconvincing conclusion mars an immediately preceding moment of heartfelt honesty that shines through and forgives much of Pullman's authorial missteps, but The Amber Spyglass is a perfectly adequate final volume in a highly entertaining, surprisingly addictive, and competently, if not wonderfully, written series.

Grade: B+

December 10, 2011

Book 44: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman

Though The Golden Compass, the inaugural offering in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, ended with a cliffhanger (nearly literally), The Subtle Knife picks up the strains of the story in a different world altogether, embodying the central literary conflict within this book. Though all is explained as Pullman's heretofore fantasy story becomes a work of science fiction, the switch is handled a bit clumsily and the book seems to grope a bit in the dark before finally finding its footing, though it is simultaneously evident throughout that Pullman does have a plan. The story itself, though a bit of a departure from the first novel and occasionally seeming jumbled, plays out predictably enough, offering more surprises in its specific locations, fantastic elements, and philosophy, if not its characters, who are unconvincingly pulled through a familiar hate-to-love arc. Despite the frequent clunkiness of Lyra and newcomer Will's relationship, however, Pullman does achieve a few moments of subtle clarity, particularly when the pair come to realize the similarities between their experiences; the effect is surprisingly powerful in a series otherwise plagued with the Obvious Hammer in all of its facets. Though the Hammer makes its frequent cameos, however, some elements of the story are unexpected, such as a modern science angle that oscillates between being cute and insightful, and Pullman's imagination more than makes up for his lack of serious literary talent. The book, like its predecessor, certainly has many flaws, but it is nonetheless endlessly fascinating and will captivate all but the pickiest of readers. The characters, narrative, and scenery rise above the sufficient prose and predictable plotting, and when the book does connect to the overall narrative of the His Dark Materials series, it provides a nice centerpiece, neatly setting up several elements of the third book while explaining and expanding upon confusing pieces of the first. The Subtle Knife is far from a great book, but it is a wonderful, fast-paced read.

Grade: B+

December 7, 2011

Book 43: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
Philip Pullman

This book presents a conundrum for me, and not just whether it should properly be termed science fiction or fantasy; rather, it was one of those books whose writing left a bit to be desired, yet became immediately engrossing that it proved nearly impossible to put down. Though Pullman throws readers unapologetically and at once into his fantasy world, its revelations are seldom overwhelmingly disarming. Instead, he throws a world-explaining mystery into the heart of the plot, and while his revelations could be more slick and better-timed, they are fascinating nonetheless and draw readers into a plot that otherwise seems like a normal coming-of-age-discovery-type-deal. And while he is, again, far from subtle in his clearly anti-Church approach to knowledge and humanity, he at least presents a compelling case, though fans of autocratic strangleholds on free speech and thought may not appreciate his thinly veiled disdain. Alongside this backdrop of a familiar, yet clearly distinct world, Pullman keeps the plot reasonably unchallenging yet oddly compelling, complete with a few too many acts of deus-ex-machina that are almost justified by some aspects of the Big Reveal. He also manages to work in some nice references to the real world's more accepted fantastic creatures, such as witches, and adds in other sly nods to our shared reality. Despite his penchant for over-writing and conveniently explaining huge plot points with a wink and a carefully-overheard, improbably detailed speech (and this from an occasionally omniscient narrator, to boot), he can also be quite effective and, at times, downright disturbing. Though the complete implications of the book's dæmons aren't quite set at this point in the trilogy, the idea of rendering them from their humans is horrifying, conveyed with an unlikely subtlety. The Golden Compass, then, isn't terribly well-written but, despite awkward plot revelations, sometimes over-wrought prose, and a mostly unlikable main character, it does have an intriguing, if frequently transparent, ideology behind it and makes for compelling and adventuresome reading.

Grade: B+

November 27, 2011

Book 42: Atlantic

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
Simon Winchester

I picked this up both based on the author's reputation and on my own belief that it would be a nice, well-written history of the remarkable Atlantic Ocean from a number of different perspectives and, to some extent, that's what Simon Winchester delivers in Atlantic. To another, however, he talks about this bit without actually defining what it is about the Atlantic Ocean that makes it, well, the Atlantic and not the Pacific or Indian or either of the polar seas; his text is littered throughout with references to a kind of Atlantic-ness, but never once does he address this contention, and the book suffers, condemned to flail rather than cohere. Without the appearance of this much-needed overarching theme, the chapters, arranged in a somewhat bizarre homage to Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" speech (no, really) make little sense in relation to each other and even less within themselves. The idea of casting the waters as a being with several stages of life is less clever than cutesy, and while grouping developments such as exploration, war, and environmentalism into their own chapters makes sense, the cuts Winchester makes between them are divisive, and the individual parts are never allowed to coalesce into a single, intricate picture. He misses the ocean for the individual molecules of di-hydrogen monoxide. Even these, however, frequently become misplaced, and the book is littered with irrelevant anecdotes and irredeemably uninteresting, disruptive, and downright pointless footnotes that often have nothing at all to do with the subject at hand.

A lack of greater strategic planning is evident on a paragraph-by-paragraph level, as well, as the author seems to introduce an idea only to discard it entirely after the next indent, without so much as a line break or, heaven forbid, three dividing asterisks. All of this makes the book slightly maddening before its information is even digested, and repetition, likely borne of the deceptively haphazard organizational scheme, makes the book even more cumbersome. With all of this said, however, the book isn't all bad; it certainly contains quite a lot of interesting, if not entirely riveting, information, and Winchester does touch on several different aspects of life in, around, and on this mighty ocean. For all its faults, the book has a sense of grandiose perspective, and when the author turns his attentions to geology or the effects of modern industrialism, this sense of magnitude helps him create a persuasive argument for respect; it is also quite evident that this is, fundamentally, a love story between man and water.

Unfortunately, however, these pure instincts are also corrupted throughout the text, which is woefully anglocentric. While it seems a reasonable bet that the reason the Atlantic so captivates our intrepid author and, indeed, his intended audience, is the fact that European and North American countries (currently) exert such international prowess, there seems little excuse to ignore Africa when it isn't, you know, spawning civilization or, more criminally, the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas when Great Britain isn't fighting to retain that shadow of its former empire cast in the Falkland Islands. Even worse, he makes assertions that are patently untrue and which offended even my far-from-delicate sensibilities; at one point, Winchester seriously suggests- no, asserts- that the Atlantic was the first of the world's oceans to be crossed. This is mind-numbingly stupid at its very best, as the Pacific Islands were discovered, explored, and settled long before Columbus. And it is not only this galling lapse that betrays a myopic devotion to the Atlantic that hampers Winchester's ode and actually works to diminish the Atlantic as readers frantically search to undermine the author's interminable single-mindedness. Here, then, is a case of tragically wasted potential, a book that I wanted to be engrossed by but which only served to frustrate and actively foil my attempts to like or engage with it. There is good information here, to be sure; there are excellent stories, and despite Winchester's mishandling, the idea of telling the story of the Atlantic as a, or perhaps even the, formative ocean of the modern world remains compelling. It's just a shame that Atlantic can't quite do the subject justice.

Grade: C+

November 11, 2011

Book 41: Wishful Drinking

Wishful Drinking
Carrie Fisher

After spending a month on the battlefields of the Civil War and enjoying a rip-roaring ride through the fanciful catacombs of Bookholm, I figured it was time for something of a different, er, caliber: the celebrity memoir! And after finishing the Star Wars star's look at her own inner turmoil, I find myself in two minds; but first, a word of warning. If you've seen the stage show, there isn't much that's new in the book, and unfortunately the oral nature of the original work comes through clearly; so clearly, in fact, that many of the jokes fall flat because the comedic timing peculiar to live performance loses its pace in print. Within the book, this has the effect of making the jokes come by at such a rapid pace that they are often difficult to properly digest before another bombardment begins. It's a shame, too, because the material is often very, very funny, as Fisher pokes fun at her star-crossed, substance-fueled life with remarkable honesty, though she does tend to lose the plot occasionally and the last few chapters are a confusing jumble of anecdotes rather than a deliberate narrative. Regardless, however, the book is a lot of fun; there may not be anything earth-shattering within, but for a tell-all celebrity memoir the book is a light and fun read, a refreshing change of pace from more calculated moves. After all, as Fisher says, if life wasn't funny, it would just be true. Wishful Drinking is, despite some missteps, funny, and basically accomplishes what it sets out to do without any particular exceptionality.

Grade: B+

November 8, 2011

Book 40: The City of Dreaming Books

The City of Dreaming Books
Walter Moers

There are books, the rare few, that so sharply and irrevocably shape our worldview that we can rightly say we were not the same person at page 1 that emerged, forever changed, on the other side of the back cover. The City of Dreaming Books is not that book; nor, dear readers, do I think it aspires to be. This is a book that is unapologetically and relentlessly fun, a true joy to read that only rarely becomes entangled in its own cleverness, a book that can take willing readers along for a hilarious and thrilling ride while offering just a bit of depth behind its otherwise trivial pursuits. The plot itself, along with the fantastic setting and the characters that populate it, is filled beyond the brim with fantasy clichés and tropes that transcend genre, and sometimes it can be difficult to see the distinction between Moers playing with these ideas and relying too heavily on them. The delightfully named Optimus Yarnspinner, a budding author and narrator of this tale, receives some lovely advice from his authorial godfather (on his deathbed, naturally) about the lovely cliffhanger created by a mentor imparting advice while on his deathbed, only to have that same situation arise, overtly commented upon by Yarnspinner himself, at a pivotal point in the novel. The whole thing is certainly well executed, and the joke enjoys a long, effective setup, but readers still leave with a clichéd deathbed hangover, however metafictional it has become in the author’s hands. Self-awareness, then, becomes the book’s greatest strength but also ultimately represents its most glaring weakness; it’s smart, but it may be too smart, too cheeky, to really be effective. The book’s many anagrams are, for example, occasionally executed with a stroke of sheer brilliance (see Perla la Gadeon’s hilarious pastiche of “The Bells” or Gramerta Climelth’s Gone with the Tornado), but lengthy lists of cleverly-named authors very perilously tread the line between amusing and indulgent.

This tendency toward the overwrought does not, strangely, prevent the book from being fun. Though some plot threads get inexplicably dropped at various points within the story, the novel just barely manages to hang together, and though the ride is predictable its fundamental silliness allows willing readers to sit back and, much like Yarnspinner, be carried along for the ride. There may be a suspension of serious literary criticism that must accompany the traditional suspension of disbelief, but readers willing to provide Moers the benefit of the doubt will be richly rewarded. Some of the recycled ideas in the book also shine with a ripe freshness, as his Fearsome Booklings become much more than a borrowed extension of Bradbury’s famous ending to Fahrenheit 451- along with memorizing the works of famous authors, they absorb the relevant personality traits, subtly asking deep questions about literature disguised as unimpeachably lovely little characters. This, too, is an overriding theme throughout the book, a tension between seriousness and play, between a loving satire of the literary world and serious critique of humanity’s relationship with art. The idea of long-buried tomes dreaming of their resurrection is coupled with the terrifying feats of the often-illiterate Bookhunters, bounty hunters for a city absolutely obsessed with literature.

These ideas, and more, prove that there are some deep philosophical underpinnings to the work, but the extent to which they are explored can easily be debated, as they are often buried under a mess of overly-polished humor or lost amongst a tangled web of side-plots. Then too there is the plot’s utter predictability, which can become as wearing as it is playful (a character endowed with divination showing up at precisely the right moment is either a hilarious subversion of the deus ex machina or an unoriginal re-hashing of it), and the swashbuckling plot becomes inexplicably boring even in the midst of rapid-fire action. It’s hard to gauge what this book may be going for either at any given moment or as a whole, but overall the experience is a good one, buoyed by a plethora of appropriate cartoons and a stunning use of immersive illustration. It is not a book for all readers or for all moods, but it does offer a rip-roaring getaway plan from the humdrum- clichés and all, it is anything but boring. The City of Dreaming Books may not permanently change your life, but it will likely improve the time you spend reading it.

Grade: A

November 2, 2011

Book 39: The Last Full Measure

The Last Full Measure
Jeff Shaara

From Gettysburg to Appomattox (and a slight ways beyond), thus concludes the Shaaras' Civil War trilogy, and the younger of the pair has penned a fitting conclusion, though overshadowed by its predecessor. Because, by now, the general idea of the series is familiar, and because the book follows successfully enough the example of its predecessors, there is little to add. This particular installment of the series displays many of the problems evinced in its opener; that is, the timeline is unevenly spaced and occasionally poorly marked, with the additional frustration of misplaced maps appearing far before, or slightly after, their optimal position with regard to the text. This can make everything a bit confusing for non-Civil War aficionados, but the in-depth portraiture continues throughout the novel, and Shaara truly excels when channeling the emotions of Robert E. Lee as his army inevitably embarks on a disastrous final cat-and-mouse chase across central Virginia. This is some of the most effective, riveting, and moving characterization in a series who takes personalization as its, well, point, and because of this the novel is one of the most effective looks at the final excruciating days of an excruciating conflict. That said, however, there are some grammatical quirks that mar Shaara's emotional achievements. His over-use of ellipses is only rarely effective and more often simply becomes…stunting, as does the unfortunate application of "gotcha" gimmicks (on the day of his death, Lincoln makes a point of telling Grant he's going to the theater- cute, but poorly executed). The deliberation this evokes is even more striking in contrast to the author's near-religious avoidance of the use of "and" when describing several actions undertaken by a person. The effect can cause the action to become unnecessarily jumbled and, at its worst, makes the writer seem inexperienced and can dull the reader's ability to clearly picture what is taking place. This, then, is the embodiment of the crucial contradiction within the series: while it so clearly portrays character and emotion, it still must rely on action, and Jeff Shaara's contributions miss some crucial pacing both within the technical aspects of the prose and across the larger movements of the army. Regardless, however, the Shaaras' Civil War series is a remarkable achievement, and in both its strengths and its flaws, The Last Full Measure creates a fitting conclusion and solidifies the books as an important tribute to those who witnessed the horrors of the nation's worst days.

Grade: A-

October 23, 2011

Book 38: The Killer Angels

The Killer Angels
Michael Shaara

This book is the second installment of the Shaaras' Civil War trilogy but, though it covers the pivotal events at Gettysburg in July 1863, it was actually the first to be written. And, though Shaara's son Jeff pulls the trick off admirably in his own work, The Killer Angels does an impeccable job of getting to the hearts- and souls- of leaders both in blue and in gray. Even readers with little previous knowledge of the battle itself or even of military strategy can jump directly into the heart of the action, and despite the meticulous research that makes the book so plausibly realistic, it is immediately accessible. Accented with the occasional map, the narrative clearly traces both larger strategies, primarily through the eyes of Robert E. Lee, and the terrors of direct combat. Indeed, though it is truly moving to sense Lee's achingly portrayed heartbreak, the most emotionally riveting scenes belong to corporal Joshua Chamberlain on the Union's extreme left flank, who experienced the horrors of war firsthand. Shaara has taken events that are seared in to the popular American memory and has thoroughly reinvigorated them, and while the book is certainly a novel and contains some speculation, it presents a readable history that reminds us that history is not the work of predestined events but, rather, reflects the outcomes of an impossibly tangled web of human actions. The prose reads nearly flawlessly, completely subservient to its narrative, a technique particularly apt for this story, the scene is set with crystal clarity, and the characterization is believable, consistent, and sympathetic. Beautiful and moving, The Killer Angels is a powerful testament to the humanity of history.

Grade: A

October 18, 2011

Book 37: Gods and Generals

Gods and Generals
Jeff Shaara

This is the book that made Jeff Shaara famous, a chronologically-minded prequel to his father's famous intricate look at the Battle of Gettysburg, and though it has some missteps, it is easy to see why the Shaaras are many historians' dirty little fiction secret. To start, however, this is not a book for those uninitiated to the events of the Civil War; indeed, for readers new to the conflict, a primer is almost certainly necessary to make any sense out of the jumbled events at hand; this confusion, however, is also one of Shaara's greatest strengths, as Gods and Generals provides a personal, close view of pivotal figures in the Virginia campaigns leading up to Gettysburg. That the action can sometimes become a bit frantic reflects not a fault of the author, but rather his ability to bring the fight down to the individual level, focusing on the commanders at the thick of the action, placing words in their mouths and thoughts in their heads until they become as real as any fully-fictional character. The approach may seem a bit disingenuous, as it sticks as closely to the facts as possible, but overall it makes the somewhat abstract concepts of old-timey warfare a bit more palatable for modern readers more used to, say, bombing raids than the antics of Jeb Stuart's cavalry. Shaara concocts an interesting mix of strategic scheming, hard-fought battle scenes, and introspection, and keeps the plot moving even as the armies aren't; strangely enough, some of the most interesting scenes in the novel take place away from the battlefield, while the author slowly probes the minds of American history's eminent figures.

While Shaara's talent and approach are no doubt commendable, the novel does suffer some hang-ups. It is often difficult to tell what, precisely, is happening at a given moment, and though this may accurately reflect some of the fog of war, readers can become confused and may benefit from a handy reference volume. Additionally, Shaara can occasionally become hampered by the actual flow of the real events he represents in his novel, and his cast of main characters feels uneven as he focuses on Lee and Jackson, the South's brightest lights, and resigns himself to less important Northern counterparts. It is not so much that the book biases itself toward the South, though Shaara's opinions about the highest echelons of Northern generalship are strongly and repeatedly stated, but rather that the preface sets up a more balanced vision of the conflict, one that is not matched by the contents therein. Perhaps the author's greatest accomplishment is to so deeply humanize each and every one of his characters that battles seem almost incidental to the grander narrative of the book; and, like the faults of the book's triumphant realism, this grand achievement also ultimately hampers the work by focusing exclusively on those in command. Even the great and terrifying battle scenes are relayed, with a few excellently executed exceptions, by those removed from command, and though readers are up close and personal with the war, they are safely shielded from battle, making the book seem unfocused and choppy. Shaara's depictions of Joshua Chamberlain's exploits at Fredericksburg showcase his undeniable talent for relaying the terror of battle, and his prowess at psychological profiling, but ultimately the book rings a bit hollow. Gods and Generals is satisfying and a very competent personalization of the Civil War, but it does not consistently reach beyond the grasp of cold fact that can, at times, dampen its effects.

Grade: B+

October 10, 2011

Book 36: Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
James McPherson

The task of writing a one-volume history of what is almost certainly the most talked about period in United States history can't be a particularly enviable task, and to do so without being rigidly polemic, insufferably academic, or unremittingly dense seems nearly impossible. James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom defies all of the odds and presents a readable, informative, and comprehensive tome that manages to remain interesting and accessible despite retaining an extremely high educational value. Perhaps the best and, sadly, most distinguishing feature of the book is McPherson's reluctance to use it as a self-aggrandizing platform or a sharpening block for any particular axe; though he obviously advocates slavery as the leading cause of the conflict and takes other critical liberties throughout the text, he does not allow a particular thesis to dominate his work. Moreover, the author is keenly aware of his purpose, and makes a special point of noting where numbers are estimates and, much more vitally, where scholarly opinion differs upon a particular point. This book is very much in conversation with the long and contentious, varied histories of the Civil War in its many aspects, and as a standalone, introductory volume this self-awareness raises it to heights of great achievement.

Nor is the text boring, or the prose labored; indeed, I had nearly given up hope on decently written intellectual books, but McPherson balances his intricate knowledge of the topic with a view of the larger picture. Though the narrative thread can become admittedly knotty at times, particularly in discussions of mid-century politics (yikes!), that is more an inevitable facet of the historical period than a fault of the author, and McPherson does an admirable job making a party system that continues to baffle bonafide historians almost understandable to the layman. Strictly military folks may be disappointed in the book's lengthy focus on the build-up to the war, as may those new to the complicated politics of the antebellum era; though it takes up a healthy portion of the book it still feels abbreviated, and McPherson would have done well to include more concrete explanations of, say, the provisions within the Compromise of 1850 rather than resting so heavily on tangled, incomprehensible implications. And while McPherson does a brilliant job adding chapters examining developments and effects on the respective home fronts during the actual war, these occasionally break up the narrative and the effect is not quite as seamless as one could hope. For what it is, however, this history is incredibly well-executed, a historical overview of a complex, overwhelmingly studied, and vital period of United States history, perhaps its most important test other than the initial push for independence. In Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson has created an ideal one-volume history for academic and more casual readers alike; though it necessarily has its flaws, the book deservedly takes its place as the go-to single volume history of the Civil War.

Grade: A

September 23, 2011

Book 35: Down and Derby

Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby
Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen

With leagues forming rapidly not only in large cities but also in smaller markets such as my two hometowns of Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is no question that roller derby is a cultural phenomenon. Down and Derby, written by two members of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls (whose alter egos are, respectively, "Kasey Bomber" and the delightful "Axles of Evil"), displays a do-it-yourself ethos and aesthetic that mirrors the twin driving forces of modern roller derby, and is an endlessly enthusiastic introduction to and, to a lesser extent, shill for, modern roller derby leagues. The authors take readers on a comprehensive and appreciated history of roller skating races and the various 20th century incarnations of roller derby before launching into a more thorough description of the current movement, which began in Austin in the early 2000s. This historical context is much appreciated and sets up a rich societal context in which to examine the current popularity of roller derby and its cultural importance, and while the authors do not seem to ignore these important aspects of the rising sport, often alluding to its more overtly feminist aspects, their focus shifts instead to a depiction of the modern rules and proceeds to become an evangelical narrative of sorts.

Though there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and indeed the book is set up as an introduction for interested parties rather than an at all scholarly narrative, the authors almost seem to gloss over the importance of the success of such a ferocious, paradigm-challenging, all-female enterprise. Instead, the authors merely express their gratitude to be part of it and encourage others to consider the sport. Despite the blatant ulterior motives however, which admittedly may alienate those who just want to know about the sport rather than to join up right away, the enthusiasm seems borne of true passion and dedication rather than more selfish motivations; indeed, the all-consuming power of this hobby is a frequent topic of discussion. Constant humor makes the book more tolerable for less injury-inclined readers is the constant humor, with the authors willing to take a few good-natured swings at themselves and at the movement, and the entire package seems like a bit of good-natured fun. Sprinkled throughout with interviews from various derby personas (including "Jackie Daniels," a founding member of the Grand Raggidy Roller Girls whom I have witnessed in a live bout!), the book is reasonably comprehensive as a how-to text, if not as a philosophical exploration, and ultimately that's okay as it comes from the most reliable of first-hand sources and thus will prove a valuable document as derby diverges from its formative years. An appendix provides a welcome list of movies and television episodes to feature roller derby, and altogether the book holds up rather nicely with no-nonsense, yet easily readable prose. Down and Derby is, as advertised, "an insider's guide to roller derby" meant primarily for those who might strap on some skates, and serves its target audience superbly despite failing to find much resonance for a more detached, wider readership.

Grade: A-

September 21, 2011

Book 34: Animal Farm

Animal Farm
George Orwell

his book's status as an accepted classic of anti-totalitarian literature makes it difficult for me to presume I have anything novel or interesting to say about it, but I will add my voice to the chorus that believes Animal Farm to be an important, readable, and enjoyable fable. That the book directly takes on the post-revolutionary chaos of the "communist" USSR does not make it less powerful, and indeed may add to its efficacy; after all, it appears that Orwell's goal was not only to draw a portrait of early 20th century European socialism, but also to illuminate the ways in which any totalitarian government becomes laden with hypocrisy. By drawing upon a cast composed of animals rather than humans, Orwell is able to comment more generally upon trends rather than specific circumstances, and his mixture of historical example and Aesopian extrapolation serves his critique well. Also brilliant is Orwell's dry sarcasm, and though his tale is rather dogmatic and his political sensibilities rather obvious, the matter-of-fact narration adds a bit of cynical humor to what could have otherwise easily become distastefully polemic. It is clear throughout the book that Orwell put a good deal of thought into constructing his take on the shift from Leninism to Stalinism, complete with its own Trotsky, and the almost sarcastic telling prevents the story from going too far off the rails. Animal Farm, a surprisingly humorous and fittingly succinct, if not particularly subtle, critique of ideological revolutions fully deserves its fame, and remains relevant in the post-USSR era.

Grade: A

September 18, 2011

Book 33: The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation
Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell

The United States Constitution certainly cannot be considered underrepresented in nonfiction literature. Upon reflection, then, it is perhaps not so surprising to discover that it has been adapted- or, more accurately, interpreted, in a graphic format. Regardless, I was stoked to discover the book, and did not hesitate before picking it up; shame, then, that for all its good intentions The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation doesn't quite succeed in elucidating, or even illustrating, its source material. Writer Jonathan Hennessey certainly displays good instincts in attempting to provide historical context for the revolutionary document, but seems unable to understand the benefits of a consistent, coherent narrative throughout the book. The number of non-sequitur jumps both in the historical background (which not quite explicitly purports to deal with the Preamble) and between different clauses, articles, or amendments within the body of the Constitution is bafflingly high and makes comprehension at times impossible. Though I am by no means a serious constitutional scholar, I do have a background in the subject; at times even I had to read or re-read entire pages just to catch up or to attempt to understand a leap in logic despite my own familiarity with the source material. And while it's true that the Constitution is not at its heart a narrative document, that fact does not excuse its would-be adapters, who raise very large, complex topics in a single panel and, one panel later, move onto explaining the next article. This makes no sense, is disorienting, and actively discourages any actual understanding of, or interest in, the Constitution, making it more inaccessible than it may at first appear.

Though the script is admittedly thin and the subject matter naturally difficult to illustrate, the art in the book is not disastrous; neither, however, does Aaron McConnell create a particularly riveting graphic aspect to this graphic work. While I personally enjoy his rougher, almost harsh drawing and inking styles and his tendency toward monochrome images, there is a certain schizophrenia to the artwork within the book. McConnell's use of recurring motifs is hit and miss: the incomplete portrayal of African Americans is a clever and effective illustration of the implications of the Three-fifths Clause, but the portrayal of each branch of government as a (male) suited figure with a representative building for a head is a bit bizarre. Other illustrations bear an uncertain relationship to their accompanying text, or attempt to introduce artistic tropes in odd and ultimately disorienting ways. Moreover, page and panel design seems only half thought-out, and while the authors show some intent towards innovation, text boxes seem misplaced and reading direction is often unclear. One page, for example, shows two three-panel stories side by side, though there is no indication that they should be read as two columns rather than more traditionally left-right and up-down. The clutter of too many text boxes only adds to the discord, and illustrations with speech bubbles are more often redundant than illustrative.

The visual cacophony of the book, combined with over-zealous text that alternately provides too much and too little detail, makes it a far less effective teaching tool than it otherwise could be, and ultimately this adaptation of the Constitution tends to make matters unnecessarily complicated. The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation is an encouraging attempt at making American governmental structure accessible to a new audience, but unfortunately cannot create that harmony between pictures and text that is necessary in creating an effective, enjoyable graphic narrative.

Grade: C

September 13, 2011

Book 32: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed: A Novel
Ursula K. Le Guin

While I am admittedly a sucker for utopian and dystopian literature for the unique, detached views it provides of modern society, it is often difficult to separate the author from what often becomes a polemic. Given the relative absence of plot in The Dispossessed, the nuances and balance inherent in Ursula K. Le Guin's novel are remarkable, and the book is a powerful force of literature that successfully taps into deep, fluid characterization both of individuals and of two disparate, disconnected societies to create a satisfying, if slightly aimless, story. Le Guin turns her anthropologically-oriented attentions to lush Urras, a blatant stand-in for the dual-superpower Earth of the 1970s, and its barren moon Anarres, home to a self-exiled colony of anarchists. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Shevek, an Anarresti physicist traveling to Urras, though the chronological interweaving of his unprecedented journey and the life that led him there clearly illustrates the importance and interconnectedness of past and future. In this book, as in Shevek's pseudo-physics (which seems to this Terran mind to be much more mythologically and philosophically oriented), time is like, well, a book, and the thematic unity between its seldom-disorienting structure, its content, and its primary themes is remarkable for any work of fiction, let alone one so firmly and unapologetically written in the oft-maligned genre of science fiction.

This novel is remarkable not for its simplistic plot and somewhat maudlin ending, but for the ideas it so seamlessly explores within. Le Guin extrapolates the future of an idealistically anarchic society, describing not only what it might look like but also examining those elements of power that might necessarily manifest themselves in such a community despite, and perhaps because of, the lofty ambitions of its people. The setting is clearly well thought out, as are the practical implications of anarchist philosophy as applied in an unforgiving and nearly uninhabitable environment. Yet more realistic than the setting of the novel is its people, who range from the dogmatic to the schemers to the outcasts, those who dare to think differently but who run into walls even in the most ostensibly free systems. Walls, both visible and invisible, are a recurring theme within the book, which deals with barriers to communication and, more importantly, to truth. Though the book's plot denouement is clunky, the ideas it explores are potent and relevant both to the worlds of Urras an Anarres and to our own. The allusion to U.S./Soviet conflict in Southeast Asia is a bit thin and can make the book appear dated, but Le Guin's concern with feminism, though clearly predicated on the concerns of her era, remains (sadly) relevant to contemporary readers, as does much of the social criticism. This novel is brilliantly composed, told in beautiful prose that, even at its most flowery, only serves to illuminate its beauty and the simplicity of its meaning; though Le Guin spins artful sentences, they are never indulgent, instead representing simply the best ways to convey their implicit ideas. The Dispossessed fulfills the greatest promise of science fiction, getting away from our Earth and our present to explore the philosophies that drive us, presenting a grand thought experiment that is always enlightening yet rarely heavy-handed, driven by an adequate plot, keen observations, and realistic characterization.

Grade: A

September 2, 2011

Book 31: The Forever War

The Forever War
Joe Haldeman

Science fiction is notorious, perhaps, for tackling difficult subjects under the guise of fantastic narrative worlds, creatures, and situations. This makes the genre uniquely suited for rich, absorbing, and effective satire, and Joe Haldeman utilizes the power of science fiction to its full force in his exploration of the effects of bureaucracy on war and, to a larger extent, on the nature of humanity. On first glance, The Forever War may seem too expansive, tackling not only the intricacies of an interstellar conflict but also dealing with the implications of relativity and, therefore, with centuries of projected human history. Haldeman, however, manages to craft a pivotal, lasting novel that rightfully deserves its various accolades for its vision, satirical impact, and, though to a lesser extent, for its engrossing story. Though his anti-military stance is anything but subtle and warrants comparisons with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Haldeman is able to throw readers immediately into his narrative world, offering details of the near future’s normality in short, effective asides from William Mandella, his narrator. Though the science is soft and details relatively scant, readers are quickly engaged and comfortable enough with their temporal surroundings that the quick-moving story begins and continues with few unnecessary interruptions.

While Haldeman certainly isn’t a master of the literary arts, his prose is serviceable and sits, for the most part, out of the way, allowing the story and the world he constructs to take prominence and to envelop the reader. This, in turn, lends power to the satirical aspects of the story and builds the credibility so necessary to successful science fiction. The Forever War doesn't, however, drown its readers in overly political messages- while they're there and ripe for the taking, they are woven into Mandella's firsthand narration and ring true as the opinions of a drafted, enlisted man. While I'm not sure quite what to make of the homosexual aspects of the book, which include a future humanity composed almost entirely of gays and lesbians, I found them significantly more intriguing than offensive, particularly for the era in which the book was written. Most importantly, while these extracurricular elements are all in place, they exist within the framework of an engrossing, fast-paced story that feels like far more than its relatively small number of pages. Mandella travels throughout time and space with lightning speed, yet the story hardly ever feels rushed; nor does it suffer lulls. And while the love story feels forced and a bit odd in the overly sexed army ranks, it does anchor the story in human emotion (if not entirely convincingly) beyond Mandella's cynicism. A thoughtful and thought-provoking story rooted in the horrors of Vietnam, The Forever War is a brilliant work of military science fiction with an emotional core, and while it is never particularly spectacular it well deserves its status as a science fiction classic.

Grade: A

August 27, 2011

Book 30: Go Blue

Go Blue
Jack Beam

It should be obvious to anyone who knows me why I picked up this particular book, and the book's author, Michigan Law graduate Jack Beam, certainly plays up the glory of both the institution and its state. Unfortunately, that devotion to Michigan and his choice of an interesting environmental issue to drive his pseudo-thriller are the only two redeeming qualities of the book, and the former is so overdone even I had to groan aloud at times. It is evident that Beam has a deep love of Michigan and of the Great Lakes that so define the state, and his chosen plot (evil desert corporation wants to drain the lakes) is timely and definitively evokes a sense of place within the novel, but absolutely everything about his handling of the English language is a bit off. Beam's mistakes range from the trivial ("allude" for "elude" forced me to re-read the passage about four times before I figured it out) to the grievous (horrifying racism masquerading as respect). Sometimes, bad writing can be masked by a swiftly moving plot or by intriguing character portraits but, alas, our intrepid lawyer here settles for a disturbingly blatant pair of Mary Sue maverick- ahem- lawyers and a cardboard-cut Star in the Making, fresh with awkwardly revealed details that utterly fail to round her out. The characters' motivations are baffling and their relationships impossible to understand; so much in this novel is esoteric that readers are forced to take every clumsy, omniscient revelation for truth due to the lack of supporting text.

Yet it is not only the grammar and the (lack of) characterizations that make this novel…difficult. These are, in fact, rather minor when compared to the over the top, fresh out of writing class structure and the innumerable unhelpful similes that dot the text. The latter are frustrating not because they are inapt, but because they are inept: when Beam compares a flare to a firework, his description of I-69 near the Indiana border is terrifically accurate but entirely unnecessary. At one point, our omniscient narrator notes that there is "nothing relevant" about an action, and then abruptly ends a chapter. Yet, again, these may not be the author's greatest sins: the poor writing certainly does not aid reader comprehension, but the structure seems designed to hamper understanding rather than foster any semblance of coherent plot. The brisk chapters are surely drawn from the breakneck pace of the thrillers this book aspires to match, but breaks are poorly calculated and the brisk shifts in action would be nauseating if they weren't so completely bizarre. One second, we're in an Indian casino in Manistee; the next, in a Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, and while Beam (along with his characters) appears to be convinced there is a deep-seated connection between the woefully exaggerated (and far beyond satirical) portrait of west-side evangelicals, a water-grubbing casino development company based in Nevada, and the "bad" sect of Ottawa Indians (his language, not mine), readers may not be so easily convinced as the whiplash from the ever-changing scenery causes their heads to spin.

Despite the many, many mistakes that litter this novel, however, I found myself strangely intrigued. Perhaps it is a bit like watching a train wreck, but I do truly believe that Beam created a compelling, deeply intertwined, and theoretically well-constructed story; he just wasn't able to tell it. Though his portraiture of Native Americans is so faux-respectful and ignorant it could arguably be construed as more offensive than blatant racism, somewhere in the muddle he does raise an important point about environmentalism and about the impact that casinos have both on their communities and on those who run them. Some of the ever-present similes are thoughtfully constructed, if idiotically reported and burdensome, and if the plot would have been a bit more clear throughout I believe it would have been fairly intricate. At the end of the day, the book needs an editor; passages carry on too long, extra characters and pointless details litter the text, and parts of the book are simply incomprehensible. This book is needlessly- and distractingly- harsh in its "satire," its characters are simply impossible to believe, the frenetic plot is barely held together by an author grasping at straws, and the writing is the work of an absolute hack. Yet Go Blue is, nonetheless, a loving (if misguided) tribute to my own home state, and might make a good tale in the hands of a more competent teller.

Grade: D+

August 20, 2011

Book 29: The Answer Is Never

The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder's History of the World
Jocko Weyland

Perhaps it is the decidedly non-academic air of skateboarding that keeps its mysteries isolated largely to a select in-group of its own practitioners, or perhaps it's the defiant anti-authoritarian attitude long associated with the lifestyle, or even its relative newness, that has kept skating largely from the prying eyes of academics and the other upper class suburban types it so alienates. Regardless of the cause, it's remarkably difficult to find a good book on the subject that doesn't fall into the "how-to" genre, a tricky charge regardless due to the esoteric nature of skating's most potent tricks. Longtime skater, bona fide insider to skating's adolescent 1980s, and the pleasantly literate Jocko Weyland does his part to trace the history of the sport from its origins to the beginnings of its current superstar, X-Games incarnation. The fact that Weyland's own coming of age period mirrored that of his chosen passion adds the solidity of firsthand reliability and an air of forbidden insider's knowledge to the volume, which makes The Answer Is Never accessible to outsiders but at the same time renders it a passionate history of the sport for its current crop of riders and devotees. Everyone knows who Tony Hawk is, but Weyland may be onto something when he laments the fade of pivotal skaters such as street-style founder and genius Natas Kaupas into the mists of history. Skating and the inherent alterity of its culture has never, as Weyland points out, been a particularly literate endeavor, and his attempt here to recapitulate its beginnings rings with an air of necessity paired with its labor-of-love vibe.

Weyland begins not with Dogtown and the rise of pool skating, but instead offers a look at the rise of surfing and the myth of Southern California as the true historical birthplace of skate culture and its many spin-offs. Though some illustrative specific stories are plagued by an infuriating lack of last names (though it is unclear whether they are meant to typify different kinds of experiences or refer to specific individuals, some guidance would be much appreciated), they blend in well with the greater narrative and help elucidate the unique pull skating (and surfing before it) have had over their most devoted practitioners. Weyland's insertion of his own skate history also ties in nicely, but the non sequitur oscillations between information and memoir can rock readers a bit and lend the book a bit of a schizophrenic air. These are, however, the book's most lucid exploration of the influence of punk culture on skating (and, to a more limited extent, vice-versa) and illuminate the idea of skating-as-lifestyle like no amount of removed anecdotes ever could. Though his reminiscences could be better integrated into the text at large, Weyland's instincts were in the right place when he decided to include them, and they personalize the book as well as lending it credibility.

Despite Weyland's obvious passion for the subject, his understanding of the skateboard as both object and phenomenon, and refreshingly literate prose, the book does take some missteps. The author explains in the books' afterward that he intended The Answer Is Never to terminate its story just as street skating began to dominate the scene, but the cutoff isn't made nearly as obvious at any point before this postscript, and Weyland's focus on vertical skating can seem at times myopic. Though this accords with his own experience, a better initial definition of the book's scope would serve readers far better than the existing declarations of love for the sport. Nonetheless, and despite some heavily opinionated anti-BMX and anti-inline banter for which he only offers the minutest of explorations, Weyland has put together a brilliant history of the first- and perhaps most dominant- "extreme sport". The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder's History of the World is, in many ways, exactly that: it is a lucid and personal examination of the formative years of skateboarding that can be enjoyed and appreciated by both those within and without skating's strange magnetic hold.

Grade: A

August 10, 2011

Book 28: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Scott McCloud

It's nice to see the much-maligned genre of "comics" becoming slowly reinvigorated as the far more mainstream "graphic novel" genre, but it's equally refreshing to have a bona fide fan- and notable practitioner- of this misunderstood art form create such an unapologetic and informative introduction to the craft. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a classic in the comics world, and for good reason, as it offers an accessible theory of comic art, complete with an operative definition and examples drawn from fields as diverse as Egyptology and post-modern "high art". What's best about Understanding Comics, however, is that the book only asks its readers to do so after presenting the inner workings of the medium in the guise of the medium itself. McCloud, a veteran comic artist fresh off of his brilliant independent project, Zot!, is able to define and explain comics using a plethora of direct examples. That this kind of explanation is necessary fits neatly and intrinsically into his argument that comics represent a form of art with its own language, standards, and possibilities is only a bonus, and allows for clarifications far beyond those which could be provided in text alone. Though his argument can become somewhat abstract at times, and he often repeats simple panels of himself that are not particularly edifying, McCloud's ability to describe, explain, and show sets the book apart and makes it not only particularly compelling but incredibly elucidating as well. Understanding Comics takes a look at this pairing of words and visual art from both an intellectual and a fan's point of view, and readers of this accolade-deserving classic are unquestionably well served.

Grade: A

August 7, 2011

Book 27: Rainbows End

Rainbows End
Vernor Vinge

The near future is an incredibly difficult thing to attempt to predict, and it is likewise tricky for science fiction authors to create a compelling vision of this future without it seeming, somehow, silly. It must be said, however, that Vernor Vinge pulls the trick off nicely in Rainbow’s End, a book perhaps more notable for its realistic- yet fantastic- extrapolation of current technological trends than for its somewhat schizophrenic plotting. Vinge’s roots in computer science show, but not too blindingly, in his pet future, which emphasizes spatial projections and wearable computer interfaces as two of its main developments. While some of these same developments are a bit unsettling (the possibility of being hijacked, for example, presents incredibly steep consequences regarding the definitions of identity and trust), many seem to flow fairly directly out of our own present, and if they are not always immediately believable they do take on a grudging plausibility as the novel unfolds. Indeed, Vinge’s cardinal sin in the book is perhaps the very completeness and complexity that lies underneath his vision; it is easy to become quickly lost among the gadgets and the book requires a tad too much adjustment time from readers, who may leave the book just as confused about a certain gizmo or capability as when they embarked.

If the technical aspects of the book are thus defined, at least in large part, by the failures of excessive complexity, the plot’s difficulties are utterly dominated by them. Set against the reasonable enough premises of a miracle Alzheimer’s cure and longstanding family drama, the book’s plot quickly takes the shape of a political, high-tech thriller; it is not, however, a hat Vinge wears particularly well. Part of this shortcoming can be attributed to character development that only comes in quick spurts, or which is based too prominently on trusting the author rather than viewing the characters themselves. There are hints of subtlety, but hints alone, and one suspects that Vinge may have initially had the goal of developing a character-centered tale, only to get lost in his world of technical wonderments. And what a world it is! A book-altering bit of technical possibility regarding its most elusive character is deployed at just the wrong moment, screaming "Deus Ex Machina!" while credibility is cast aside. Yet even this crucial piece of the puzzle cannot connect the tangled twists that often pile confusion upon confusion. It’s near impossible to attempt to sort out motives, and thus make real sense of the plot as it reaches its head, and it is here that the lack of delicacy with regard to the characters really hampers the novel’s possibilities.

This is a shame, really, because Vinge does display some very intriguing talent, and deploys some interesting concepts. Ultimately, however, the book is just too slightly complicated for its own good, though Vinge deserves utmost credit for wrapping it all up with just a hint of not-so-neat ambiguity that is absolutely delicious. Geeks will find much to celebrate within the story as well, and the possibilities Vinge explores certainly pave the way for important conversations about the role digital media forms currently play in our lives, and the ways in which they can morph for better and for worse. Thus, despite failing somewhat seriously on the more traditionally literary fronts, Rainbows End is, to my mind, a novel worth reading. The maddening confusion I often felt was unable to assuage my curiosity, and the book is so rife with possibilities that it is difficult not to feel a kind of affection, or at least to hold out some hope that things can be wrapped up neatly with a little bow, after all. Rainbows End is not a great novel, nor is it a great failure, but it rises just above the mediocre due to its possibilities, both in a literary and a technical sense; it is so Almost There that it can’t quite succeed or fail, and readers are left to happily soak up its potential.

Grade: B

July 27, 2011

Book 26: The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History
John Ortved

It is difficult, if not impossible, to sum up a zeitgeist, and so it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History falls a bit flat on arrival. Its shortcomings, however, should not entirely color reception of the book, and it does stand successfully as a history of one of the most important- and popular- shows in the history of television. The Simpsons was absolutely revolutionary, and Ortved should be admired for his courage in tackling a show with such a rabid fan base and with such depth behind it. Unfortunately for some readers, Ortved looks at the history of the show more as a history of its initial development than of its impact; though this story is fascinating in its own right, the book is bound to disappoint those looking for an exploration of its popularity or a look at its structure. And while Ortved does pay lip service to the wider impact of the show, his analysis rings hollow and his chosen quotations of support irrelevant. In this way, he is both enabled and limited by his chosen genre: the interview-heavy, oral history format allows the show's pivotal creative figures to speak for themselves and to reveal in depth, behind the scenes glimpses into the show's history both recent and ancient, but it also limits the scope of the book in such a way that the author's attempts to instill deeper meaning in his work come across as clunky and lifeless.

The difficulty in successfully structuring a work that pivots around interviews lies in linking them together, and it is here that Ortved's work falls the flattest. Though his skepticism toward the later seasons may be appreciated by long-time fans of the show, it comes across here as unprofessional and entirely unsupported by evidence; it is as though these jabs at recent episodes are made so the author can build his credibility, but in the book's final chapters they simply come too late. Transitions are equally clunky, and in the end the book has the feel more of a collection of anecdotes than of a single, coherent history. Ortved does get to the heart of the matter on some subjects, and he does a remarkable job situating the show in the cultural context of 1989 and within the greater landscape of the family-driven sitcom. His skepticism towards official histories and particularly the cult of Matt Groening is appreciated, and one of the aspects of the book that does come across as more academic. Ultimately, however, this history just can't shed its fanboy aura. The stark promise of the miraculously brilliant cover design (a great, ironic allusion to the show's opening credits) is belied by the more or less family friendly contents therein. At the end of the day, however, chronicling the rise and initial creation of TV's most lasting scripted series is quite a daunting task, and though The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History doesn't quite deliver on all of its promises, it's worth reading for die-hard fans of the show who really want a glimpse at the business side of its inception.

Grade: B

July 19, 2011

Book 25: End Zone

End Zone
Don DeLillo

Current concussion debate and lockout woes aside, football is in many ways the great American pastime, symbolizing for many not only our resistance to world sports but also a kind of brash, flashy violence. Given its seeming spontaneity at the whistle and the general brevity of even the most complex of football plays, for Don DeLillo to forge a connection between football and nuclear violence seems, if not natural, reasonably plausible. Unfortunately, other than having a small Texan college's running back become inexplicably fascinated by nuclear conflict, DeLillo is unable to draw any meaningful parallels between the two, nor to use the juxtaposition in any elucidating way. Sure, there are moments of humor within the book, but DeLillo is too unsure of his characters to create anything in the story that is truly lasting. Readers may leave with a decent, half-fuzzy picture of narrator Gary Harkness, but the rest of the cast is a revolving door of meaningless caricatures who show up to spout uncharacteristically sophisticated philosophy when DeLillo believes it convenient. When the most evocative, truest characters in a character-driven book are those who play the smallest parts, readers are going to find it exceedingly difficult to care, let alone to enjoy the book.

DeLillo hints at greater meaning several times throughout the story, and it is certain that Gary learns something during his semester in a small-town Texas college football program. What this is, however, eludes the reader, and I'm not convinced that it's worth digging through the book to find. The reader isn't helped by the sheer brutality of the football characters who occasionally pop in to offer bits of wisdom. Readers may be willing to accept that college football players are, as a rule, capable of achieving the kind of philosophical and intellectual depth that eludes most college students (full stop), but DeLillo bounces his characters around like so many ping-pong balls that it's impossible to glean any true meaning to their words. This book is, from start to finish, the author speaking, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the book's most nearly infuriating (for nothing within is interesting enough to be truly maddening) passage has the author quoting a later part of the book and oh-so-cleverly-and-he-believes-subtly berating readers for finding a 31-page play-by-play of a football game intensely boring and exceedingly pointless (and I notoriously love football). In the end, however, the effect is just one of indifference. There may have been substance had the subject matter been treated with care or a modicum of thought, but End Zone just peters out at the end, content in its pointlessness but not making a show of it. What Don DeLillo has done in End Zone is, indeed, a remarkable achievement: a nearly meaningless book that, somehow, is neither amusing enough to be rightfully called terrible nor terrible enough to be considered a slog; this is the truly mediocre.

Grade: C-

July 11, 2011

Book 24: Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron
Jasper Fforde

The difficulty in inventing and convincingly portraying an original dystopian landscape in this cynical age lies in the fact that it has been done so many times before. Indeed, a firm sense of the we've-been-here-before persists throughout Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey: the Road to High Saffron, but the novelty that the author introduces carries the book and makes it an enjoyable foray into the genre. With its future colortocracy resting on (what else?) color blindness, Fforde introduces a genetically engineered future whose ideas about conformity and rule-breaking are dangerously similar to modern precedents. What colors this novel, however, is a generous splattering of good humor throughout, making the somewhat depressing prospects of this future a bit more bearable; that Fforde succeeds in doing this with a touch that tends toward the subtle is a bonus to the book. The fantasy/almost sci-fi hybrid premise that drives the book is crafted with a tint of lightness to it, though it takes its main character, Edward Russet, on a twisted and familiar path of corruption and of lost innocence and cynicism. For its predictability, Fforde has added enough of his own touches to his Man vs. Evil Dystopian Power Structure to make Shades of Grey engaging; for example, a rigid hierarchical caste system is reflected in highly practical, literally colorful family names (i.e., deMauve, McMustard), with lowly Greys relegated to numbers. Other novel touches include a rigid adherence to the prophet Munsell's every word despite (im)practicalities that arise, such as a perplexing inability to manufacture any new spoons. As one would expect, a beigemarket flourishes in such circumstances, and Fforde's offering would not be complete without a critical examination of those along the boundaries of legality, evinced here in Apocryphal humans whose existence cannot be acknowledged despite their routinely trolling society for food...naked.

Hapless hero and narrator Eddie Russet is serviceable, if not particularly endearing, and represents one of the book's efforts that falls a bit flat. While readers will welcome Eddie's ready explanations of his society's norms, he does not seem to pick up so quickly on aspects of his life that readers are quick to grab onto. Eddie also displays a maddening inability to grow throughout the novel, and his eventual (and inevitable) turnaround seems less genuine as a result; Fforde tries to cram character growth into his protagonist in fitful, perplexingly ineffective bursts and only really succeeds at one or two pivotal points in the novel. Yet despite this, the other characters in the book are engaging and realistic: we have the prankster, the unattainable girl, the corrupted and cynical underground operatives, and a whole host of unsavory characters in power. It is the book's continued assault on formal leadership that makes it such a rousing success, in fact, carried by an exaggerated (yet terrifyingly believable) leadership team whose willingness to flaunt the rules stupefies the maddeningly ignorant Eddie while forcing readers to apply their faults to our own world. And as more of their deceit and greed is revealed, so too comes the plot, a fairly conventional revelatory bildungsroman with a requisite number of mini-mysteries that services the novel ably without being particularly excellent. Fforde takes too long to answer some questions about his narrative world, and though he does a good job of setting the scene readers will likely be disoriented for some time; indeed it is still unclear to me how the supposedly colorblind can distinguish different shades (the very strongly Red Eddie, for example, can apparently discern a green door). Regardless, and despite its conventionality, Shades of Grey is an amusing, if predictable, addition to the dystopian fantasy/science fiction genre and uses its unique premise to a high degree of its potential.

Grade: B+

July 4, 2011

Book 23: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson

History, just like our own times, can hardly be accused of being boring, and it is beyond refreshing to come across a writer who understands not only that the past is composed of billions of stories but also that these deserve to be related with energy and vivid prose. Quite simply, Erik Larson gets it, and The Devil in the White City is a carefully researched, well crafted, and extremely engaging history of the United States on the verge of the 20th century. The story is told through two tenuously connected personalities and the visions they represent: serial killer Herman Mudgett, whose hotel of horrors operated just a short train ride from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and Daniel Burnham, the fair's chief architect. Though Larson treats the connection between the two very sparingly, the stories are told parallel to each other and occasionally intersect. This has both good and bad effects on the book, and while each story is well told and supported by a strong body of research, sometimes the organization of The Devil in the White City can make it tricky to follow the not-always-interlocking strands Larson weaves. That chapters usually alternate makes it easy enough for readers to keep the two stories separate, but the author has a nasty habit of offering tantalizing little hints that dangle uselessly, often forgotten by the time their particular threads are picked up again. The most egregious of these can take nearly 100 pages to be resolved or, if one counts some parts of the introduction, the entire book.

That Larson insists on doing this so often is frustrating, particularly because the book is exceptionally well constructed in its other aspects. Though some of the bits about Mudgett can become a bit repetitive, as much of that is due to his development of a modus operandi as to elements within the author's control. Indeed, Larson does a great job rendering Mudgett in rich detail and three-dimensional characterization, attempting to get inside his mind but retaining in his prose a feeling of humanity and sympathy for the victims. Likewise, though he often gets ahead of himself and dots the text with occasional non-sequitur half-paragraphs, Larson's account of the development of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition is thorough and entertaining. The book is humorous, and though it glances over the dedication ceremony (an odd lapse given the author's focus on the severely limited timetable for the fair's construction), it provides other welcome asides that help readers gain a sense of the historical context in which the fair was planned, constructed, and visited by millions. Information about landscape and building architecture, the seediness of Chicago and its rivalry with New York City, and about criminal pathology do not linger so long as to wear out their welcome, and it is one of Larson's great achievements that he sets the scene so vividly without the necessity of a prolonged contextual introduction. Despite some repetition and the annoying half-revelations, Larson's prose is readable and his account gripping, a truly enjoyable work of popular history that is engaging from start to finish. The Devil in the White City is an excellent vision of a world on the brink of change, and encapsulates the end of the 19th century in the brief, glamorous perfection that was the White City of the 1893 World's Fair, in stark contrast to the madness of Herman Mudgett and the coming century.

Grade: A

June 28, 2011

Book 22: The Gum Thief

The Gum Thief
Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland has made his name studying the inner workings of ordinary people, those of us who live humdrum lives at the margins of society, who may or (as is usually the case with his characters) may not buy into the latest hype or trend. While The Gum Thief is a continuation of Coupland's ongoing exploration of generational mindset(s), its fondness for metafiction tends to cloud the main storyline rather than enhance it, allowing the book-within-a-book to take over the novel without necessarily enhancing readers' understanding of the character writing it. In fact, for a writer whose view of his characters is usually so astute, Coupland's inability to distinguish them or to allow them to speak for themselves is remarkable. Though the ambition evident in the book's mixed viewpoint structure is admirable, every character's epistolary voice carries the same tone and makes the same kind of observations that seem hackneyed rather than pointed. Indeed, Coupland's problem here may be that he has done too well in depicting the kind of detached, wry, wannabe ironic observations that made Generation X and its successors so poignant. Here, it feels as though the author is striving just a bit too much for authenticity, and what remains is a thinly disguised attempt to channel the voice of a cynicism the author himself may not fully comprehend. Readers get the overwhelming feeling that, ultimately, people just don't talk (or think) this way.

The overt ambitions of the novel are also evident in its chaotic narrative structure, which relies far too heavily on the main protagonist's authorial pet project, a truly wretched novel. While Coupland does an admirable job channeling Roger's angst throughout the invented Glove Pond, that angst remains self-pitying and, ultimately, uninteresting. Instead of gaining a better understanding through a subtle handling of narrative nuance, readers get backstory in large, frantic gulps that ring hollow more often than inspiring sympathy. Coupland has not created unlikely or unrealistic characters, but he has made his traditional cast of outcasts boring and difficult to care about as their tedious observations about the modern world fall flat. The book also squanders a glorious opportunity as the office superstore setting falls by the wayside rather than providing what should have been an ideal breeding ground for the kind of cynicism that springs here from other sources. Instead, Coupland relies more and more heavily on Glove Pond and its transparent cast, concluding the book in a truly unsatisfying ending that seems borne of the same malaise that colors the rest of the book. The book is not without its humorous moments, and shows promise at its beginning and, indeed, throughout; there may in fact be poignancy hidden herein, though it is difficult to pry out from the tenor of self-loathing that makes the book so tedious at times. Yet, despite this, the book is difficult to put down and it is only at the end that the reader is left completely disappointed; this is a book that seems capable of so much more than it delivers. The Gum Thief shows promise in its setup and at moments during its execution, but too-lofty ambitions and high reader expectations make the book fall sadly flat despite, or perhaps because of, its desperate desire to be witty.

Grade: C