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