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+