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