August 24, 2012

Book 31: Finding the Game

Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer
Gwendolyn Oxenham

Out of college in her mid-twenties, Gwendolyn Oxenham, her boyfriend, and two friends set out to discover how soccer, the game she loves, connects communities around the world beyond the lights of the Premier League and the World Cup. During her journey around the world, Oxenham documented the group's attempts to find, and participate in, pickup soccer games and other non-professional matches. While her love of soccer and her appreciation of the game's ability to unite people across language and cultural barriers are evident throughout, Oxenham occasionally lapses into preachiness or misplaced self-congratulation. The book can't quite decide whether it's an exploration of the global nature of the game or a travel/self-discovery memoir. While both of these elements sometimes coexist in harmony, there is often a tension between them as the writing whips back and forth. The writing is sufficient and the passion more than enough to sustain the story as the group proceeds through its many adventures, both expected and, well, less so. From initial disappointments in Trinidad and Argentina to surprising success on the rooftops of Tokyo, Oxenham and company chase the game, but throughout much of the book there's a feeling of emptiness as the travelogue eclipses more meaningful analysis. The chapters on Iran and Israel stand out for their brilliant combination of straightforward storytelling and examination of the political ramifications of their journey. While hopeful activists praise soccer's ability to unite disparate Jewish and Palestinian communities, Oxenham witnesses a more complicated situation on the ground as sides of each ethnicity meet on the field but ultimately leave in their own isolated pockets. In Iran, the situation is more tense as the group must weather the tensions that plague any Americans visiting the country, let alone a group intent on mingling with anyone and everyone, despite the warnings and discouragement from the official tour guides. Readers will be drawn to Oxenham's obvious appreciation for soccer and for the entertaining stories of her round-the-world trip, but those hoping for Finding the Game to present a deeper examination of meaning may ultimately be disappointed.

Grade: B

August 21, 2012

Book 30: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu

Charles Yu has a lot of very interesting, and reasonably novel, ideas about time travel. Unfortunately, access to those ideas in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is restricted to those who can wade through an uncomfortably prickly thicket of over-wrought, self-important prose at the same aimless pace as the plot (such as it is) dictates. There's cleverness, to be sure, in Yu's use of his own novel within the plot, but it is played for trite, self-serving ends instead of contributing at all to the story (such as it is) or characters (such as they are). There's nothing wrong with mixing science fiction and very literary fiction, as Yu does in his novel, but this book exemplifies the way that each genre can individually go wrong; the synthesis fares little better. On the "literary" side, Yu's main character is the most transparently Mary Sue of them all, the plot plods at a pace that would make glaciers feel like gazelles, and the prose is woefully overwritten with a haughty and alienating holier-than-thou attitude. As for science fiction, this book provides a labyrinthine, half-constructed world that celebrates its incompletion and embraces a nonsense theory of time travel that is hastily, though not at all effectively, retconned in the book's final act. The science in science fiction needn't be hard, or plausible in the real world, but surely it isn't too much to ask that it is more than a convenient excuse for an author to feign seriousness and plead for nerd credibility. Surely it isn't too much to ask that it kind of makes sense?

And then there's the author himself. Yu seems to use the novel as a vehicle through which to examine and, possibly, repent for his own sins. Unfortunately, it reads as an in-joke. Everywhere Yu has a possibility to resurrect the interesting bits and cast aside his apparently insatiable need to focus endlessly on himself, he takes the book in yet another incomprehensible direction. The novel commits the worst of all possible sins: it is deliberately obtuse, constructed to make self-congratulating critics writhe with pleasure after forging some fabricated sense of meaning out of the intentionally obscure. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is alienating, insulting, and a horrific insult to literary fiction and science fiction, unifying them in a Frankenstein's monster of everything that's wrong with literature.

Grade: D

August 6, 2012

Book 29: Three and Out

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football
John U. Bacon

It's unclear why Michigan fans would really want to re-live the three years now referred to as the "Rich-Rod Era," when the perennial power's fortress came crashing down in a melodrama played out across national news outlets and computer screens. It is undeniable, however, that it is a compelling, if painful, story, and the depth of Bacon's unprecedented access certainly presents a unique opportunity to peer inside a major college football program. Bacon's respect and fondness for the program are evident, but they don't infringe on his ability to present his account with an attitude of fairness. His biases do emerge from time to time, but the book maintains an air of journalistic thoroughness. It is clear that Bacon attempted to seek accounts from all of the main players, and the book usually hesitates to draw firm conclusions without a significant amount of fact-checking and first-hand accounts. Unfortunately, however, for all that, the book often reads as a straightforward recapitulation of events that I, for one, remember quite clearly and would rather forget. What promises to be a far-reaching expose (of sorts) of big-time collegiate locker rooms becomes, instead, a list of plays, scores, and games, with the most damning inferences restricted to a preparatory chapter on the end of Lloyd Carr's tenure rather. Instead of a hard-hitting attempt to expose why Rich Rodriguez failed at Michigan (for it cannot be argued that he did), Bacon presents the same myriad of possibilities that have already been considered and argued about ad nauseum throughout the fanbase. Though Bacon clearly has the insight, information, and ability to weave a compelling account of the stakes of college football and the game's impact on modern academia, his account is merely a day-to-day type story we all know far too well, with items of interest scattered and fairly infrequent. While Bacon's inside view of major sports is appreciated, sincere, and well-written, it reads more as background than as an investigation, which is, after all, perhaps its primary purpose. It is hard, however, to read Three and Out without sensing a missed opportunity, and it's hard to know whether to credit the author for sticking fairly strictly to what he witnessed or to fault him for a lack of attempt to cast a wider net.

Grade: B+