March 29, 2012

Book 13: The Rook

The Rook: A Novel
Daniel O'Malley

Let's get this out of the way: Daniel O'Malley went to both Michigan State and The Ohio State, but, strangely, The Rook does not, as a friend suggested it might, burn me when I touch it. Rather, I found myself so enveloped by the fantastic world and tolerably executed- if not particularly groundbreaking- narrative that I was hooked even after I discovered the treachery. Sure, the book feels a bit derivative, dipping into waters tested and explored by the X-Men, among other influences, but O'Malley's book takes a fresh view of a humanity populated in part by those with special powers, not least through his use of amnesia as a driving plot device. While the particular mechanics of this amnesia may be a bit inconsistent- why, for example, does our narrator, Myfanwy, know how to operate in the world but not who she is or where she works?- they provide a handy mechanism by which the author can explain various facets of the secret organization that drives the plot, as well as its history and recent development. The device causes some interesting narrative diversions as these facts are revealed from the narrator's former self through a series of letters, and though it occasionally becomes merely tiresome plot exposition, the narrator's outsider feel makes the reader feel similarly comfortable and disoriented, to great effect. The effect may be occasionally clumsy, but one feels inclined to give O'Malley the credit he is due for seeking a unique and mostly effective solution. Nor can its effect on the reader's sympathies and experience of the book be ignored; Myfanwy's name may be nearly unpronounceable, but readers can sympathize with her disorientation, which acts as a kind of buffer while driving the plot forward. It also makes the character instantly admirable and gives the plot depth beyond its surface Britain-under-attack strains as Myfanwy negotiates a subtly done nature-versus-nurture subplot of self-(re?)discovery. The narrative device becomes an effective way to prompt and explore character development, lending a bit of depth to an otherwise standard surface setup and plot. These are well-executed, if unoriginal, and though there is the slightest hint of deus-ex-machina to the whole thing, The Rook is quite a fun ride, with just the right amount of depth to surpass standard sci-fi and fantasy.

Grade: A

March 21, 2012

Book 12: I'm a Stranger Here Myself

I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away
Bill Bryson

This collection, comprised of brief magazine articles the inimitable Bill Bryson wrote for a British magazine after returning to the United States, is a hilarious, irreverent, and, occasionally, surprisingly thoughtful look at modern life, both in America and elsewhere. Unlike many essay collections, Bryson is far more hit than hit-or-miss, and though his topics wander both from piece to piece and within individual essays, the collection hangs together remarkably well, forming a cogent set of observations about life in small-town New Hampshire in the mid-1990s. What is most remarkable, perhaps, is the way in which Bryson's observations, though often tied very strongly to the era, are still relevant nearly a decade later. Likewise, it is fascinating to read these essays through the lens of history, to see how American attitudes have changed or been reinforced since the time of writing; sadly, it must be said, some things remain the same, and the Cubs have, alas, failed to win a World Series in the interim. But there is always hope for the Cubbies, if not for the constantly bumbling Bryson, and one may be forgiven for recognizing that he is a keen user of the power of hyperbole and sarcasm, yet though these are hardly used sparingly, they rarely detract from the point at hand and indeed elevate the collection from a set of half-baked complaints to a coherent set of well-formed and humorous musings on the many facets of daily life. These pleasantly range from the banal to the poignant, and Bryson gently prompts readers to think about issues that have real, tangible consequences- such as the proliferation of Walmarts and similar soulless, downtown-murdering big-box stores- without becoming too preachy, though he occasionally toes the line. And though the essays nearly always end with a certain formulaic punchline, the fact that so many of them are structured as jokes makes them pleasant to read in bulk- this book took me just a few sittings, and would have taken fewer if they hadn't primarily occurred on my lunch hours. In the end, I'm a Stranger Here Myself is a pleasant and surprisingly loving, if lovingly satirical, testament to modern America, seen from a rare combination of an insider's and outsider's view, told brilliantly in the brash honesty that is Bryson's trademark.

Grade: A

March 15, 2012

Book 11: Yestermorrow

Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures
Ray Bradbury

Science fiction has always been, at its heart, a thinking person's genre, basically by definition, and it is no surprise that one of its most prominent authors, Ray Bradbury, has penned a number of thoughtful essays throughout his working life. What is most astonishing about Yestermorrow is its longevity; though published in 1991 with essays dating all the way back to 1953, many of Bradbury's thoughts seem relevant all the way into 2012, truly a remarkable feat given their focus on human interactions and, occasionally, technology. While there is the occasional dated complaint about portable cassette players and the nod to the possibilities of the VHS format, the most important aspect of these references is not, in fact, the technology, but rather the capabilities that live on in thoroughly modern iPods and movie streaming services. This makes these essays, written by a more than capable writer and thorough thinker, seem fresh even two decades after they were written. Likewise, pieces on the accomplishments of Walt Disney and his army of magical Imagineers are a pleasant tribute, if a bit self-congratulatory, to the importance of science fictional forward thinking. With their mixture of memoir and extrapolation, these and a small series about the author's relationship with Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson are pleasant glimpses into the life of one of 20th century literature's most important contributors. Much of the collection, however, wanders into the nearly absurd, and there are far too many essays that focus too closely on the same theme, making much of the collection inexcusably tedious. While Bradbury's complaint that modern America, and particularly Los Angeles, has turned into a strip-mall landscape of car-powered isolation is certainly timely and poignant, he can only design so many plaza-based solutions before the reader will grow irksome. The first essay on this theme is thought-provoking, but the repetitions grow so entirely stale that the whole point of the exercise is lost in the end. These, sadly, comprise the group's backbone, and as a whole the collection seems to muddle about without any real purpose. Its jewels, such as they are, are not particularly world-shattering and pass quickly enough, and the problem with Yestermorrow is not its writing, or age, but rather its repetitious forays into self-importance; a few gems are waiting, but may not be worth the tedium.

Grade: B

March 5, 2012

Book 10: Soccernomics

Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U. S., Japan, Australia, Turkey- and Even Iraq- Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

Well, with a title like that, the authors are certainly making quite a few promises, aren't they? First of all, there's the direct allusion to Freakonomics, and the book certainly lives up to its predecessor's legacy, promising to shake up the World As We Know It but ultimately offering some suggestions born of both common sense (don't put your club on the revolving manager carousel) and heavily massaged, selectively applied data. Though Soccernomics does fall prey to many of the same pitfalls as its namesake, however, it is a worthwhile and interesting read, if not consistently engaging or as promising as its title suggests. More frustratingly than the nod to Freakonomics, perhaps, is the promise that herein lie the secrets of future United States dominance of international soccer- a point that is touched upon in the book's concluding chapter, sure, and alluded to throughout, but which becomes almost an afterthought, an inexcusable oversight when its promise comprises 21(!) words of the book's title. This ending actually becomes laughably anticlimactic, and illustrates how the authors, including a far-too-disappointing Simon Kuper, fail to adequately navigate through their sometimes interesting data, often interesting anecdotes, and insights intriguing and silly alike. After explaining their idea of examining soccer through data, they turn to a particular case study, England, in a move cleverly designed to appeal to their core audience. Though this makes sense in a way, and illustrates several aspects of the game that can be studied through data analysis, the chapter contains several allusions to later segments and ultimately feels out of place, particularly as the remaining chapters focus on specific trends or other aspects of the game, such as club teams and international teams.

Worse still, the authors fall into another trap executed so elegantly by their inspiration, and seem to be driven by a desire to prove points rather than to look through their data and see the revelations. This type of book celebrates the counterintuitive, and while that's admirable and, in many ways, often accurate, some bold assertions aren't so bold after all. Is it truly revolutionary to presume that, as European know-how spreads throughout the world, once averse nations such as the United States will warm to soccer? Moreover, the authors base large swaths of their analysis on a self-serving circle of proof. When studying the relative success of different nations, they swear by a metric that takes population, income, and number of international games played- and then use it to prove that those three variables account for success. Why those three, particularly when problems, such as the fact that nations in a weaker federation such as, say, the AFC, play each other more often than the European giants or Brazil? Sure, the United States underachieves based on these factors, but data cannot explain everything. And yet, maddeningly, though the authors acknowledge this, they routinely undercut their data with subjective analysis, which is fine if you're basing your conclusions on the data but which does not induce much confidence when data is supposed to reign unquestionably supreme. Perhaps, then, what the book proves is that, though numerical analysis might help fans understand soccer more thoroughly and help clubs or countries perform more efficiently, the world cannot be understood solely through anecdote or data. This anticlimactic realization on the part of the reader, coupled with the authors' inept organization, ignorance of their book's own title, and repetition of certain points, makes Soccernomics disappointing, perhaps not surprisingly.

Grade: B-