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-