December 31, 2014

2014 Year in Review

2014 Year in Review

It's been a while since I have read so consistently, but I leaped right back into literature this spring and haven't looked back since. It's been a big year for me personally: my wife and I are finally co-habitating for the first time since our wedding last year and we've moved a couple of states over, having each landed a job in our chosen field. All of this is very exciting, but I must say that I've desperately missed reading and am absolutely elated to have come back to read 42 books in just a few months, coming only 10 short of my usual goal for a full year of reading. This year was particularly genre-heavy for me, as I notice a lot of science fiction on my list of recent conquests, but I dabbled a bit and was quite pleased with the results. I've found that short story collections, particularly those with contributions from a number of different authors, can often recede into memory, but some of the stories in Agents of Treachery have stuck with me throughout the year, to the point where I don't think I'll be able to resist buying the book much longer. Other highlights included Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which has also left a lasting impression on me, and (in quite a different vein) Terms & Conditions, which I see shades of in less successful comedies I've encountered since reading it. And I would be remiss not to mention the excellent What If?, which was absolutely delightful from cover to cover. Revisiting my all-time favorite book, The Giver, was also an absolute delight, and I was pleased to find that my initial impressions and images remain intact despite the intervening years. There's something comforting in the act of reading, in the kind of travel that literature makes possible, and I think that I have rediscovered that magic in part due to last year's lapses. 2014 was a banner year for me, personally, and I look forward to the real-life and book-bound adventures I will have in 2015. Cheers!

December 29, 2014

Book 42: Chop Chop

Chop Chop
Simon Wroe

If I'm being totally honest, I must confess to watching a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) amount of reality television that involves cooking, and to a few employment experiences in the (very) low-rent end of the culinary world. This book, with its promised blend of sarcasm, profanity, and insight into London's culinary underworld, seemed like a good option for lighthearted, modern book to counter the more serious classics I've been reading in the past few weeks. Irreverent, Chop Chop most certainly is; as for the rest of it, I'm not quite convinced. It's clear from the first page, which kicks off a visceral description of a culinary process involving pork (not for the squeamish!), that Wroe intends to pull no punches, and indeed he doesn't. The language is unapologetically brutal as our protagonist-narrator- dubbed Monocle on account of his English degree- reluctantly joins the staff of a somewhat aspirational restaurant, The Swan, in Camden. Wroe immediately and convincingly drops readers directly into the world of high stakes restaurants, profane chefs, questionable sanitation practices, underpaid and mistreated assistants, and the underemployed.

It is here that Wroe truly shines. He offers an uncompromising, and quite unflattering, peek behind the curtain, and his kitchen is full of unsavory characters who are, despite the exaggerations that drive their descriptions, uncomfortably believable. The cursing may become a bit uncomfortably misogynistic and homophobic at times, but it does effectively create and maintain appropriate atmospherics and can largely be forgiven. The book does contain a few truly disturbing scenes that are, perhaps, a bit too amoral and upsetting, though I acknowledge that they are effective displays of a villain's utter depravity. Many of the book's punches are delivered with a dry, English wit that suits the book's somewhat bleak- yet strangely hopeful- outlook; there's some subtlety and craft at work, and the restaurant-based portions of the book establish and maintain a strong tone that carries the plot quite effectively. Add this to a lively ensemble cast that runs the gamut from the head chef's relentless cruelty to the sex-obsessed Ramilov and the aptly named, musical-loving Racist Dave, and it's a recipe for success. The book isn't, perhaps, as continuously funny as it aspires to be, but the restaurant parts offer a solid, evolving plot, interpersonal intrigue, and hijinks galore.

Wroe, however, aspires to more than satire, and these more lofty goals tend to derail, rather than strengthen, the book. Too much of the book focuses on Monocle's relentless (and annoying) self-doubt, and we witness too little change too late to salvage the story of his emotional maturation; readers are constantly a few steps ahead of him and can be forgiven for losing their patience as he remains stagnant for page after page. The book also suffers from uneven pacing and plot; somehow, it seems bloated despite its relatively small size (276 pages in my hardback edition), and it loses much of its momentum permanently after the first act. Though Wroe has Monocle's personal and professional stories to juggle, the family- and restaurant-centric chapters barely seem to influence each other and never achieve a proper sense of balance. The stories don't quite come together, despite the author's best intentions, and each thread's respective resolution leaves a lingering note of dissatisfaction. The novel is, by turns, appropriately and effectively humorous and serious, but it cannot quite reconcile its two moods.

Wroe also errs in making Monocle's narration a bit too self-aware, hinting that two of the book's major players have access to the text throughout its creation. Rather than offering readers this external commentary and context (with one notable, and successful, exception), Wroe filters their comments through Monocle, resulting in a sense of self-indulgence that adds nothing constructive to the book. The editors' impact is ambiguous at best, and Monocle's only clear indication of their influence is a statement blatantly ignoring it at the story's climax. Offering alternate perspectives could be a clever narrative trick, if the author made a legitimate attempt to do it, but as they are these references cheapen the novel and make it seem patently artificial- almost certainly the opposite effect than what was intended. Even more egregious are the author's constant reminders that Monocle is, in effect, writing an ex post facto memoir; the reader doesn't need to be told- repeatedly!- that the plot will thicken, the events will escalate, and things will get very interesting indeed. At some point, the story needs to speak for itself, and the author's lack of confidence inspires little in the reader. One gets the feeling that Wroe would do well to rely on his talents, which are many and evident, and not on his tricks.

Chop Chop is an interesting novel, but it is plagued by too many faults to be considered great; it ultimately suffers from its glut of good intentions. In attempting to write a coming-of-age story wrapped in a rollicking satire, Wroe loses the far more interesting plot at hand and creates a bit of a muddle. The characterization and satirical elements are often top-notch, as are many of the book's metaphors, and there are a few truly touching points of emotional resonance that betray the author's talents. Monocle's lingering guilt over his brother's childhood death, long past, feels viscerally real, as do the death's pivotal effects on the family, but at some point even these raw emotional observations become lost in the noise. In another novel, perhaps, they would ring clearly. Chop Chop contains the makings of a few good novels within it, but its ingredients never quite come together to make a satisfying dish.

Grade: B-

December 19, 2014

Book 41: The Door in the Wall and Other Stories

The Door in the Wall and Other Stories
H.G. Wells

I have long admired the works of H.G. Wells, but it has been a while since I read anything by him. As with Gwendolyn Brooks, I am now nominally in charge of a large collection of Wells manuscripts, including drafts of some of his most famous stories, and I happily took advantage of an opportunity to read "The Country of the Blind", this collection's final story. This collection is an interesting one, showcasing Wells's diverse interests and his skill in rendering both the mundane and the fantastic. With a distinctly matter-of-fact sensibility, Wells presents his tales as the truth, lending them a sense of plausibility by taking them seriously himself. His first-person narrators voice and reinforce the reader's anticipated doubts, making a claim for the stories' fiction that, in turn, makes them seem all the more plausible. By entrenching his characters firmly in his own present, Wells is able to tweak one or two elements of that present ever so slightly, weaving realistic tales of fantasy that nonetheless ring unnervingly true. Stories like "The Door in the Wall" revel in a kind of ambiguity (what, indeed, is the reader meant to believe about the titular door's supposed existence and magical properties?), but by exposing their doubts Wells invites his readers to believe.

What is remarkable about this particular collection of stories is its range. "The Cone" is chilling for its stark realism, requiring no fantastic embellishments to establish and continually ratchet its tension as it drifts ever forward to its remarkably brutal conclusion. "The Diamond Maker" is likewise realistic but also a bit more understated and lighthearted, tinged with a less consequential sense of regret than that which propels and haunts "The Door in the Wall". I found the latter story and "A Dream of Armageddon" a bit too apologetic in their attempts to be read as straightforward, plausible narratives; at some point, Wells has to just admit to himself that he's stretching the bounds of reality and go with it, to believe it himself so his readers can, too. Nonetheless, these and other stories do retain enough of a sense of the uncanny to haunt the reader while provoking interesting lines of thought and discussion about the power- both good and evil- of imagination and fantasy. "A Moonlight Fable", too, attempts to explore this theme, but far less successfully; it is easily the collection's weakest story, neither rewarding while being read or after it has been finished, passing harmlessly into the realm of the (rightfully, in my opinion) forgotten.

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the collection's two strongest offerings, "The Star" and "The Country of the Blind", are those that dive wholeheartedly and unapologetically into the world of the fantastic and remain there. "The Star" is a scientific exploration of the consequences of the planet's encounter with a comet set at a tense slow burn that creates and exploits dramatic tension through every page. The last-minute curveball, though perhaps a bit ham-fisted for modern sensibilities, adds a surprising dose of perspective and a slight hint of black humor in what is otherwise a bleak tale indeed. "The Country of the Blind" is a nuanced exploration of a valley whose inhabitants have lived without sight for several generations, with a spectacular amount of detail that stands up to any modern standards for full-fledged worldbuilding. Wells precariously, but successfully, balances the protagonist's very European self-righteousness with the natives' own arrogance, forcing readers to reconsider some preconceived ideas about physical and cultural differences without exonerating a group that likewise dismisses a representative of the writer's (and reader's) world. The result is a refreshing take on these issues that feels fresh and relevant despite its advanced age, providing fodder for personal reflection and philosophical discussions galore.

Wells has accomplished no small feat in crafting a number of stories that are readable, enjoyable, and thought-provoking into the 21st century. He straddles and blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in so many compelling ways that can continue to entice modern minds. Some of the language and attitudes in these tales do betray the time and place of their origin, but they are nonetheless forward-thinking and exciting, providing excellent conceits that still resonate and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable (ha) future. Wells is able to drill down past whizzbang flash and fury and deliver tales that capture part of the excitement and essence of being human. Though The Door in the Wall and Other Stories betrays a literary style that has, alas, aged over the intervening years, H.G. Wells remains a-thinking and literary force to be reckoned with, capable of changing and challenging modern readers' perceptions and igniting the imagination as vividly as he must have done in his own time.

Grade: A

December 17, 2014

Book 40: Maud Martha

Maud Martha
Gwendolyn Brooks

As the person nominally in charge of a large collection of Gwendolyn Brooks papers at the University of Illinois, I figured that it was about time that I got around to reading some of her work. Instead of beginning with any of her many poetry collections, I started with Maud Martha, her only lengthy work of fictional prose. Calling it "fiction" and "prose" is accurate, but just barely: Maud Martha is a semi-autobiographical work that is more concerned with its language than with its characters, setting, or plot. To Brooks's credit, this language often gets one or more of those points across, though it makes for rough going at first and throughout, as the book never really gains any narrative energy. A few characters and incidents appear in repeated motifs, but the book is a set of illustrative vignettes that explore Maud Martha's experiences and surroundings rather than a proper novel about her life. These stories range from isolated to deeply emotional, particularly when issues of race are confronted head-on. Maud Martha- and, by extension, the reader- experiences the casual racism that allows a white saleswoman to casually drop the n-word in a black beauty salon and a white homeowner to presume that blacks live only in squalor. There is a visceral reality to these stories that comes across so clearly in Brooks's prose, which effortlessly places the reader into Maud Martha's shoes despite any differences of time, space, and race that might exist between author, character, and reader. That the book is compelling despite its scattershot plot is a testament to the author's enduring talents.

As a poet, Brooks naturally trades in a kind of subtlety and nuance that asks the reader to contemplate the many meanings of a chosen word or anecdote, and the book is full of small clues and brief quips that betray the author's greater comfort with sparser prose. Despite the fact that many of the vignettes in Maud Martha are compelling, they do not, as a whole, offer a nuanced exploration of the characters, which appears to be at least part of the point. Maud Martha is at once an everywoman and a representation of Brooks herself, which makes the book alternately interesting and bland. Brooks undoubtedly possesses a master's command of the English language, bending it to her will, but the book is much more valuable as a historical artifact, a time capsule, than a story in and of itself; I feel fortunate to have encountered it as part of a multi-generational reading group rather than in a solo venture. Maud Martha feels like Brooks's attempt to explore the nuances of the particular time and place in which she grew up and became a young woman; as such, it is a crucially important and well-executed, though somewhat limited, firsthand depiction of the lives of young black women in mid-20th-century Chicago.

Grade: A-

December 13, 2014

Book 39: Forest of Fortune

Forest of Fortune
Jim Ruland

This book is billed as a novel that tracks three individuals who are- in one way or another- down on their luck, laced with just a hint of the supernatural. It is, in fact, much more of the former than the latter, a hardboiled book without the mystery and a series of three loosely linked portraits that never quite come together as the author seems to intend. The premise- all three protagonists are linked to an Indian casino in the California desert- is solid, and it is clear that Ruland knows his way around the casino industry. But for all of his canny understanding of casinos and the various people who are drawn to them- whether by the lure of lady luck, desperation, or a bit of both or neither- Ruland isn't quite able to fully embrace the possibilities that his concept promises. Each of his three main characters is compelling in their own way, but they remain largely the same people throughout the book. Sure, things happen to them, and they wobble and waver like all people do, but each character's pivotal point comes far too late in the novel to provide a meaningful opportunity to engage with the ramifications of these realizations and events. Likewise, the supporting cast drifts in and out according to the author's whims, which do not always align with the book's own inertia; their personalities, along with the protagonists', lend the novel a gritty credibility, but their convenient appearances and disappearances often ring untrue. Ruland can't quite manage the distinction between showing and telling the reader about aspects of his characters' personalities, though there are certainly times when he admirably manages both.

Though the novel fails to arrive at the deeper, meaningful understanding of its characters that it seems to strive for, it is nonetheless compelling. Ruland's prose is well-suited to the novel he has written, neither too flashy nor too dumb and full of intriguing metaphors and refreshingly realistic dialogue in a variety of unique, distinguishable voices. Moreover, Ruland successfully juggles his three loosely related, but usually distinct, stories, displaying a remarkably keen intuition for when to drop one for another and when to move on. His use of a framing narrative comes off as a bit hokey and ultimately predictable, but it, too, fits into the structure of the book, appearing at its beginning, at its end, and between the four distinct sections; the main fault I found with it was an ending that not only predictable but also completely unconnected to the relevant character's narrative arc. This highlights the book's main fault: it has interesting characters and interesting plotlines for each of them, but fails to derive any deeper meaning; something is always just a bit out of reach.

Similarly, the novel teeters at the edge of fantasy but can't quite commit, much to my dismay. Whether or not there is actually some kind of spirit, malevolent or not, haunting the casino is beside the point; Ruland refuses to commit one way or the other, and the novel suffers for it. These are more than hints, and they occur to more than one character; surely it isn't too much to ask Ruland to actually go somewhere with the idea. The fantastic aspect, alas, becomes another unfulfilled promise as we watch Ruland's characters continue down their destructive paths. It must be said, however, that the book remains an enjoyable read despite its inability to be either entirely shallow or entirely deep. I tend to dislike books that refuse to decide what they are, but there are enough redeeming characteristics to Forest of Fortune that I didn't mind. Ruland's prose is remarkably visual and incredibly effective; I immediately felt immersed in the story and in its settings, which range from a beach-side suburb to a downtrodden trailer park in a downtrodden town to the flashy, but decaying, casino floor itself. The book displays Ruland's keen understanding of hard luck and his keen sense of humor, often wry and cynical but very well suited to the book and its characters. In the end, Forest of Fortune is a book that just is what it is: a well-developed, but ultimately shallow, portrait of the types of lost souls lured to the Thunderclap casino, with sufficient plot, prose, and themes that hint at- but don't quite showcase- the author's potential.

Grade: B-

December 9, 2014

Book 38: Small Plates

Small Plates: Short Fiction
Katherine Hall Page

Though Katherine Hall Page is the author of a long-running mystery series, I decided to pick up Small Plates anyway, figuring that short story mysteries are somewhat difficult to find. I found it to be a remarkably even collection, although my overall feeling was one of disappointment. Most of the stories star her longtime heroine, Faith Sibley Fairchild, and while first-time readers can easily become acquainted with Faith and the other regular cast members who make frequent cameos, Page has a tendency to introduce too many background details into these stories. It's lovely that Faith is such a well-rounded character with a robust history, but too many stories offer unnecessary backstory that is not only distracting but also misleading; the overall effect is not one of solid character development but, rather, of tedious exposition that verges on bragging. Page's tendency to over-explain is on display throughout these stories, which is all the more frustrating because she often abbreviates her treatment of other, more crucial story elements, such as resolutions. Stories such as "Across the Pond", "Hiding Places", and "Sliced" spend too much time building up to the last-minute surprise and far too little exploring the consequences of said twist, often abandoning the narrative just when things get interesting. This becomes a more egregious error when you consider that many of these sudden turns are telegraphed, or at least fairly easy to guess; though they are, as a rule, interesting and appropriate for the story at hand, they hint at greater themes and more intriguing tales that remain unexplored, left to the blank page and the reader's imagination. The exception is "The Proof Is Always in the Pudding", an amusing, if overly clichéd, period piece that offers its solution during a mid-story flashback, only to have our heroine discover the (very same) solution a few pages later, in a way that adds nothing to the story; still, though, its ending- unlike most of the others- is entirely satisfying.

This inconsistency, I believe, highlights Page's central fault: though she has a fantastic knack for creating believable characters and bringing her suburban Boston, midtown Manhattan, and rural Maine settings to immediate, vivid life, she just cannot use subtlety to her advantage. The mundane is explained- often ad nauseum and usually in far more depth than a short story warrants- and the unique is suited only for cameo appearances that quickly lead to more tedium. Too many times I found myself backtracking over poorly constructed, confusing sentences, and the book contains a startling number of simple errors, misplaced words, and missing commas that an astute editor could easily fix. The writing is far from lazy- nor is it belabored, for that matter- but it is often marred by an inherent clumsiness, a lack of intuition for what information to include, when to include it, and how to effectively do so, all errors that are magnified greatly in short fiction. Likewise, the dialogue often rang untrue to me, with characters explaining things to each other that each surely must have already known and using strangely formal language that yanks the reader right out of the story.

All is not horrible in Small Plates, and I have no doubt that a certain kind of reader would be happy to gloss over some of these faults and appreciate the stories that lie underneath. Page's overly saturated prose does not mar the tactfully paced, appropriately tense, and emotionally effective "The Two Marys" and actually suits "The Would-Be Widower". The latter story is by far the collection's strongest, a darkly funny tale whose final twists resonated perfectly despite the fact that I had mostly predicted them about two paragraphs in. This story, and elements of the others, prove that Page has the imagination and some of the right instincts to write compelling, clever mystery stories; nonetheless, I still feel like she over-thinks her writing, trying too hard to cram everything in and not trusting her stories and characters to speak for themselves. Again, this kind of style can work in lengthier fiction, but short work magnifies the error of every extraneous aside, every misplaced modifier, and every unnecessary bit of information. I really wanted this collection to be fantastic, and I would really like to see Page step a bit more outside of her comfort zone to really explore what happens to her characters after she drops the curtain. As it stands, however, I fear that Small Plates- while showcasing the Page's cleverness, sympathy, and surprisingly dry humor- is a victim of its own prose, comprised of good ideas that get away from the author, strong characters who can't quite become believable enough, and compelling stories that are not allowed to simply breathe, or be, or truly embrace what they are.

Grade: C+

December 7, 2014

Book 37: Caribou

Charles Wright

I don't have much of a history with poetry, and certainly not modern poetry, but as I now find myself in charge of some significant archival collections pertaining to American poets I figured that there's no time like the present to reacquaint myself with the poetic. I was intrigued by the promises and quotes on Caribou's jacket and picked it up. I was, alas, somewhat disappointed, finding a few gems but largely feeling that the poems suffered from a lack of consistency, both internally and throughout the collection. Some motifs, such as Wright's reliance on nature as the source of recurring metaphors, are consistent throughout the book, but it often proves difficult to move from one poem to the next- or even one stanza to another. Some poems are seemingly at odds with their titles in ways that did not enhance my understanding or experience of the poetry, and others seem to shift without warning or a poetic purpose that I (in my admittedly limited experience and knowledge) could discern. That said, there are a few truly beautiful standouts in this collection. Wright is at his best when pondering the transcendent nature of life, whether in short bursts such as "Whatever Happened to Al Lee?" or longer, almost narrative pieces like "Little Elegy for an Old Friend". There is occasionally a thrilling beauty to be found in lines that leap off the page, even within some of the poems that, taken as a whole, grasp unconvincingly at coherence. At its best, Wright's poetry explores life from an existentialist outlook, grabbing readers with sharp observations; even at its worst, it is far from incomprehensible or indulgent for its own sake. The majority of the poems, even those I didn't quite get, offered me some intellectual fodder, which is, in a way, all you can really ask of a poetry collection. Nothing drastically altered my outlook on life, but there are a few lines and shorter stanzas that lend themselves well to repeated rumination. Overall, I found Caribou to be an interesting collection containing a lot of beauty, meaning, and wisely stated truths for those who are willing to overlook some of its weaker points and pan for its gold.

Grade: B

December 4, 2014

Book 36: What If?

What If? Serious Scientific Answers in Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Munroe

I've been reading xkcd for years and its companion blog, What If?, for the entirety of its existence, and I was thrilled to see that Randall Munroe decided to release a book based on the latter concept. What makes What If?- in both blog and book form- so wonderful is that it shows how complex, stunning, and downright silly the world can be when taken seriously and not so seriously, all at once. The book is composed of Munroe's thorough, and often very literal, answers to readers' hypothetical questions, ranging from the mundane (How high can humans throw things?) to the absurd (What if we had a bullet as dense as a neutron star? What would happen if a baseball pitcher threw at the speed of light?) to the strangely profound (What is the furthest a living person has ever been from every other living person? How long would it take the last two people on Earth to find each other?). It is evident, both from the questions he selects and the answers he provides, that Munroe is intelligent, witty, and, above all, human. What If? indulges our collective curiosity and creativity, asking us to question our world and, more importantly, to figure out a way to find the answers. Laced with a fine layer of sarcasm, the book tackles even the most mundane questions with surprising energy, often finding ways to make even the more straightforward questions (What effects would a Richter 15 earthquake have? What did Times Square look like a million years ago?) surprisingly poignant. This is a book about being alive, questioning everything, and enjoying every goddamn moment of it.

This is often where I voice my criticisms, and I'm struggling to think of one. Perhaps loyal What If? readers will be slightly disheartened to see that many of the book's chapters are recycled wholesale from the blog; I, for one, was eager to read and rediscover them again. Munroe's blend of explanatory text and cartoons is as well suited to print as it is to the Internet, and I actually found much of it (especially the footnotes) easier to read in printed form. The stick-figure drawings and more elaborate cartoon explorations of world destruction are- of course- terrific, illustrating (ha) Munroe's inclusive and enthusiastic approach to scientific inquiry. The illustrations enhance and interact with the text in an innovative way that makes some of the more advanced concepts much more accessible and much of the book far more lively than most others. It is refreshing, too, to note how many of them are or contain jokes, lending the book a degree of levity that would benefit works across all disciplines. The science is real and I'm sure the math checks out (Munroe worked for NASA, after all), yet Munroe approaches science in a very relatable way. He never talks down to his readers, but strives to make even the most challenging, complex concepts easily understandable to anyone who is willing to stretch their mind and expand their horizons. Munroe is at once completely serious and completely irreverent, and the result is absolutely perfect.

I am convinced that the central question of What If? is not any of the questions it contains but, rather, an exploration of what it means to be human. If a central facet of our humanity relies on our desire and ability to question the world around us and devise ways to discover whatever answers the world might yield, then the book is a perfect manifestation of this desire. Why not ask what might happen if absurd and impossible thing x happens? Just imagine what we might learn if we suspend disbelief and believe, if only for a few pages, that the most wonderful (and utterly terrifying) things could happen. What If? goes there, managing to balance scientific rigor with the evident, honest, and unbridled thrill of being alive. Hell, I'm a humanities person to the core (with degrees in English, history, and library science), and I am half considering becoming a physicist after reading this book. What If? encourages- no, forces- readers to engage directly with the world around us, to question our assumptions and to think boldly about all of the possibilities the world offers us; no matter how absurd our questions may seem, they can often lead to some pretty surprising, and surprisingly poignant, answers and questions about the world around us.

Grade: A

December 1, 2014

Book 35: My Drunk Kitchen

My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking & Going with Your Gut
Hannah Hart

While I haven't seen all of Hannah Hart's My Drunk Kitchen videos, I admire both her concept and the obvious joie de vivre with which she appears to approach life. Nonetheless, I do know that she does some actual cooking on her show and was thus disappointed to discover that this is a book of jokes joke recipes rather than the recipe book with autobiographical asides that I had hoped for. Despite the fact that most of the recipes, which do form the core of the book, either sound awful or are actually just over-thought jokes, each provides a segway (however relevant) into a brief aphorism; these aphorisms form the book's emotional core and are worth seeking out and remembering- even if you don't bother with whatever small bit of context the anecote-joke-recipes might provide. Hell, I might even try a couple of these culinary abominations: to claim that I wasn't tempted by Pizza Cake and Things in a Blanket would be a lie, although I do think that including recipes that are essentially ordering Thai food and reheating Indian food leftovers is too much of a stretch, even for a book this lighthearted.

Harto does do a wonderful job translating her vivid on-screen personality into words, and the book's casual, conversational tone often makes it seem like she's right there in the room, encouraging you to live life to the fullest and calm your inner critic. It's easy to get immediately and completely hooked on the book- I read it over the course of day, during my commute and lunch hour- although it does leave a bit to be desired. The core conceit- barely plausible recipes combined with folksy, hard-won wisdom- is a good one, but the format changes little throughout the book. There is little surprise to be had after the rules are established, and the sections get weaker as the book goes on. With its focus on family, the final section oozes with potential, but Harto settles for the lazy jokes and played-out stereotypes instead of the fresh cleverness that makes her so endearing. Then, too, she tends to overplay her hand, taking a joke just too far or not trusting a sarcastic aside to carry its load, calling attention to the book's silliness and subduing its raw emotional power, which gets lost somewhere among the shouting. Thus, the book often seems at odds with itself: for every genuinely insightful moment, those when Harto lets her guard down and really connects with readers on an emotional level, there is a failed, exaggerated joke to quickly spoil the moment.

It is difficult to tell what, exactly, the book is meant to be, and I have a feeling that it would be much more effective if Harto had chosen a single shtick. Is it a memoir made out of fake recipes? A self-help book disguised as some sort of hilarious romp? An actual recipe book peppered (ha) with autobiographical anecdotes? My Drunk Kitchen is, in its way, all three at once, and thus simultaneously none of the above. It provides an enjoyable, though temporary, diversion for an afternoon despite its flaws, and it is beautiful as a physical object. Harto and her photographer hit the mark time and again, and the overall design is bold, aesthetically pleasing, and perfectly suited- and connected- to the text. And though she sometimes disappoints, shying away from too-personal revelations and the vulnerability they introduce, there's a convincing honesty to Harto's work, a sense that- despite the occasionally overblown attempts at humor- she's right there struggling, failing, and succeeding along with the rest of us. My Drunk Kitchen may not have met my expectations, but it was worth the short amount of time it asked of me and I might, if drunk enough, even dare to try a recipe or two.

Grade: B+

November 26, 2014

Book 34: The Bully of Order

The Bully of Order
Brian Hart

Here's another good example of a book that I very much wanted to like. Brian Hart's historical set piece, which examines the seedier side of life in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the 20th century, certainly maintains a clear thematic focus throughout, tracing the history of one of the fictional Harbor's early families and charting the effects of the various personal disasters that befall them. From the start, it seems like Hart is onto something by choosing to focus not on the town's leading families but on a man whose entire presence in the Harbor is predicated on a lie. And indeed, Hart does not flinch when exploring the terrible deeds that humans are capable of doing, in all of their complexity and, too often, horror. He clearly appreciates the many shades of gray between wrongs- those he presents run the gamut from a woman's catch-22 decision to abandon her family instead of facing a sadistic rapist to a cut-and-dried villain's cold-blooded murders, and from accidents to the coldest calculations- but he displays an unfortunate tendency toward the extreme. Whether his characters are bizarrely obsessed with a particular adjective (one that I hadn't encountered previously and that struck me as inauthentic every time it popped up) or admitting to heinous crimes that have absolutely no function other than pure, pointless shock value in a book that doesn't otherwise rely on gore porn, their author often drives them to the point of pure exaggeration, extracting nothing that adds to the story in any meaningful way.

With all of its repeated failures in this regard, it is surprising that The Bully of Order is as good as it is. Among the author's strange reliance on the irrelevant are some truly interesting explorations of human nature and moral ambiguity, set convincingly against his chosen historical backdrop. The fin de siècle Northwest is utterly believable, from its burgeoning towns to Portland's growing metropolis to the region's still-expansive wilderness. It's a shame, then, that the characters and plot can't quite match up to this internal gold standard. The plot itself has, as I mentioned, some engrossing moments and sudden twists both seen and unforeseen. When the characters do act in reasonably believable ways, they are appropriately sympathetic and/or frustrating, and their stories likewise hold the reader's sustained interest. Unfortunately, the book often feels inflated with unnecessary events and side stories, and it is unclear whether Hart is attempting to build a community-wide portrait or whether he intends to focus more intently on the members of the Ellstrom family.

The novel suffers for this indecision, and for Hart's uneven handling of the novel's necessary- but often awkward- chronological jumps. His use of varying narrative voices indicates a fair amount of authorial skill, with each voice sufficiently differentiated from the others, but his juggling of narratives and interests is not always as deft as his story demands and often contributes to the general feeling that the book, for all its strength of setting, ultimately lacks focus. Thus, too, with the ending, which is capped by an utterly unnecessary- to the point of baffling- epilogue and a return of the displaced loggers' narration that pops up occasionally, to varying effect. There is a lot to be said for Brian Hart's ability to weave an interesting tale and for his willingness to explore criminality and the downtrodden in an often-romanticized era, but the resulting book is just a bit too cluttered and self-aware to be truly effective. The Bully of Order has excellently rendered scenery and occasional moments of insight, but it ultimately cannot withstand the alternate tedium and chaos that, unfortunately, come to dominate both the book and its characters.

Grade: C+

November 11, 2014

Book 33: California

Edan Lepucki

As a longtime fan of this type of science fiction, I was excited to see a post-apocalyptic (or, as it turns out, sort of mid-apocalyptic and dystopian) novel get so much attention from the mainstream press. Lepucki has an interesting idea in fusing literary fiction's hyper-awareness of individuals and relationships with genre fiction's focus on plot, but the novel's great, and to my mind only, strengths lie in its science fiction elements and not in the relationships that the author clearly hopes will come to the fore. With its tight focus on main characters Cal and Frida, a married couple who have taken to the wilderness in the wake of a lengthy series of natural and man-made disasters (more on that below), it is obvious that California aims to be a close, domestic, literary take on how a series of unfortunate, quasi-apocalyptic events might affect such a pairing. Both Cal and Frida- and, to a lesser, extent, several of the more important secondary characters- are provided with sufficient backstory, although these revelations are often provided at a haphazard pace that diminishes their effectiveness. Lepucki is also wise to present the story in close third-person narration that alternates between Cal's and Frida's perspectives, although even this cannot compel the reader to particularly enjoy spending time with either- or both- of them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a suitably gritty antihero or two in a post-apocalyptic narrative; it is, however, excessively tiresome to encounter a married couple who continually bicker without bothering to drive the narrative or their characterizations forward in any meaningful way.

The problem with Cal and Frida is neither that they are made of cardboard nor that they are unrealistic; theirs is certainly not the only marriage that would fray under the circumstances they face before and during the course of California's events. It is, rather, that they are two people who are simply unable to do anything for their own good, and who fail to do so in ways that are miserably boring. Time and again, each declares their love for the other (whether aloud or privately) or resolves to begin treating their spouse with respect (and each time, invariably, it is about damn time for that); time and again, they conveniently (and immediately) forget these proclamations and make the same damn mistakes, suddenly lacking the keen self-awareness they discovered equally suddenly at the end of their previous chapter(s). Saying that Cal or Frida is adjective is not, sadly, enough to make them adjective, particularly when their next actions are very un-adjective indeed. Compounding this error is that the author appears to think that this constitutes growth and change; for protagonists in what purports to be a fundamentally domestic story, they are awfully stagnant and often downright maddening. At the end of the day, Cal and Frida, who inevitably form the book's backbone, are not drawn well enough to carry a novel.

California's protagonist pair isn't helped, either, by writing that is often clunky and a narrative that itself cannot successfully navigate the divide between narrow-scope character drama and grandiose conspiracy theories with their attendant political discourse. If The Road (and other books of its ilk) proves that an apocalyptic story needn't be terribly concerned with the bigger picture, and countless explosion-laden romps prove that the Michael Bay brand of science fiction also has a kind of appeal, then California proves that it requires a certain kind of precision to successfully unite the two, particularly in a novel of relatively limited length. One gets the feeling that Lepucki cannot quite decide what kind of book she wants to write, which is a damn shame because she absolutely nails so many of the genre-heavy points. Her slow-burn apocalypse is a nice, timely antidote to the asteroids, zombies, and other sudden disasters in between that saturate the field; it is a problem of our own making, in the making, and while one might argue that it is a bit preachy the argument is made all the stronger by the little details that make this particular future so terribly plausible- and so plausibly terrifying. Lepucki bungles few, if any, of the story's speculative elements and, even more remarkably, displays a keen understanding of human nature that is so spectacularly lacking in her treatment of her romantic leads.

Though Lepucki misunderstands, over-explains, and just plain gets its wrong with Cal and Frida- both as a couple and as individuals- she deploys an obvious fascination with human nature as she explores the causes and ramifications of the country's eventual, gradual demise. She clearly understands how such events can give birth to as many types of responses as there are people involved, and her brief forays into the secondary cast are usually more compelling, and more realistically portrayed, than her deep dives into the main characters' minds. The economic moralizing can come off a bit thick at times, but Lepucki at least has the good sense to place much of the rhetoric in extremist characters' mouths. The book also manages a fair amount of tension and a surprisingly effective balance of plot-heavy moments and more introspective lulls. Readers want to know more about Cal and Frida's history, more about Frida's mysterious brother and the Group that captured his attention, more about those with whom they come into contact in the wilderness, more about the true nature of the settlements they encounter and hear about. To a large extent, these questions are answered, usually to a satisfactory degree, with one blaring, unforgivable exception: the book's ending is a cheap mess that completely undermines all of its good worldbuilding and is acceptable, and only barely just, as a lead-in to a hypothetical sequel.

The ending, in fact, concentrates so much on plot- the area where Lepucki deploys her greatest talents- that it is almost unbelievable that she bungles it so badly. The idea itself is actually somewhat interesting, steeped in stereotype and lazy expectation as it is. The problem is that it emerges as though out of nowhere and resolves nothing, and the book does not prepare the reader to decide whether they are meant to accept or question this seemingly happy ending. One wishes that Lepucki had simply made up her mind about this and so many other elements of the book, as she is clearly capable of writing compelling, probing fiction when she lets go of her aspirations and simply lets the story flow naturally, uninhibited by outsize expectations. But, alas, the ending exhibits the same fundamental errors that plague the rest of the book, caused largely by a reliance on overanalysis when the subtle moments are the ones that truly stand out. In the end, I'm not sure what to think of California; despite hating the main characters, I was immediately enthralled by Lepucki's dire vision of our future and found myself continually eager to follow them as they sought to understand their surroundings and their situation, understandings that proved far more interesting, and rewarding, than any overwrought, hollow understanding the author thinks that they- or readers- achieved of themselves.

Grade: B

November 5, 2014

Book 32: Terms & Conditions

Terms & Conditions
Robert Glancy

This is another one of those books that I grabbed on a whim from the Champaign Public Library's new books area, and I am ever so glad I did. Robert Glancy absolutely nails the delicate balance of irreverence and heart that defines this particular brand of satire. In Terms & Conditions, Glancy traces the recent history of mild-mannered corporate lawyer Franklyn Shaw, who attempts to reconcile his subconscious feelings with reality as he regains his memory after a mysterious car crash. As he tries to piece together the events and emotions that led to the “little episode” that caused the crash (and, by extension his amnesia), Shaw must come to terms (ha) with the condition (haha) of his life, which is, as he correctly assumes, a bit more complicated (and, inevitably, much more depressing) than the version he gets from his wife and brother. Though the novel relies on very little plot- focusing more on backstory and a general sense of Franklyn (or, more accurately, Frank), the man- readers can easily follow along as Frank traces the paths that led him to his crash and, more importantly, lead him to a series of revelations about his life.

The narrative structure can get a bit fragmented- it is at times difficult to discern which events are occurring during Frank's post-amnesia awakening and which are solely in the past- but the book is generally easy to follow. Moreover, it is chock-full of sarcastic asides, often delivered in the types of footnotes that might punctuate Frank's own contracts. Some of these are better integrated than others- many should really be part of the text, as the next part of the main narrative relies upon them- but many take advantage of the format, sometimes referring to further footnotes in a downward spiral. Glancy avoids most of the pitfalls of what could be an annoying gimmick by successfully varying the types and content of footnotes: some are true, tangentially related asides; some are straight-up jokes; and some represent Frank's inner dialogue. Less consistent are the chapter titles (all offered in the unnecessary format “Terms & Conditions of X”) and the aphorisms that accompany them; occasionally brilliant, they are often missed in favor of a direct engagement with the chapter proper.

Glancy's ability to maintain the book's tone and, much more importantly (and impressively), land most of his intended jokes is remarkable; books like this often fail because they cannot sustain the high standards of their most uproarious gags. Glancy, however, engages all of his ideas with equal parts gusto, wit, and heart, and the book is better for it. From a brother's profane (yet appropriate, we learn) e-mail handle to Frank's increasing frustration with the direction of his life, the book is equal parts hilarious and profound, without trying too hard to be either. Readers may be frustrated by Frank's eternal middle child-ness and his reluctance to sustain important confrontations, but his faults make him far more realistic and relatable, providing the novel with the emotional core that ties it all together. Glancy expertly leverages both levity and gravity, making profound statements about modern life without preaching, either to his characters or through them. I thoroughly enjoyed Terms & Conditions (no footnote necessary), which proves that humor and gravitas can be just as moving as their straight-laced counterparts.

Grade: A

October 31, 2014

Book 31: Tigerman

Nick Harkaway

After reading Angelmaker and, now, Tigerman, I'm convinced that Nick Harkaway is probably just the slightest bit insane. Happily, however, this makes his novels incredibly exciting and unpredictable, even when they get a bit uneven and carried away with themselves. Such is the case with Tigerman, which- as is apparently Harkaway's style- is clearly the product of a mind influenced by a variety of genres. A fictional island setting and its doomsday scenario suggest science fiction, but the geopolitical forces at play on Mancreu are all too realistic, giving the book the feel of satire. Then again, there's the not-quite father-son bond that forms the book's emotional core and the mysterious murder that kicks off the plot in earnest, borrowing elements from literary and crime fiction. Though some of the mystery elements function only as (annoyingly) unresolved red herrings, they give the plot its momentum and keep readers hooked on a book that is, at heart, deeply meditative on the topics of love and parenthood. Somewhat surprisingly, the disparate styles come together nicely; that the book never seems at odds with itself is a credit to its author, who keeps it all together with a peculiarly British sensibility that permeates the entire novel. Likewise, the humor, tenderness, and action are rarely out of balance, though the ending is clumsy and feels half-finished.

Nick Harkaway has an incredible ability to draw readers immediately (though not always effortlessly) into the worlds he imagines, creating a satisfactory blend of real-world plausibility and escapism. Tigerman is, despite its sentimental core, a bit of a romp and a bit of a thriller, keeping readers hooked as the island setting's doomsday draws inevitably near and forcing us to ask ourselves, as the residents do, why we bother to stick it out when it is clear that the end is fast approaching. The novel's effectiveness hinges on the vibrancy of its setting, achieved by a lengthy- yet compelling, due in no small part to the author's considerable sense of humor and the very Britishness of it all- piece of exposition at the front. This, coupled with subtle sarcastic jabs, draws readers in and keeps them at ease as the book alternates between styles and themes. Likewise, Harkaway manages to shift effortlessly between moods: action, emotion, and exposition are equally convincing throughout the book. Some of the dialogue, however, gets a bit awkward, particularly when a young teenager uses too much internet slang; even if he did learn much of his English from the Internet (which seems as plausible a source as any), it's occasionally bizarre enough to knock readers right out of the story. Like the book's unsatisfying ending and too-crazy twist- both based on solid concepts, but executed poorly- the boy's speech signifies an author who got just a little to carried away by the thought of his own cleverness.

That cleverness, however, is enough to sustain a largely pleasant reading experience, and most of the book's more implausible elements are nestled among enough realism that the reader simply accepts them. Readers immediately come to care about each of the main characters and, just as importantly, the island they inhabit, under threat from an international community fueled by paranoia that, properly directed and managed, could actually solve the problems it faces (global warming allusion, anyone?). The book has moments of unnecessary cruelty, but it is, at heart, a lot of fun. Harkaway's take on the superhero trope is fueled by pure adrenaline (rendered in fantastic, involved prose) and is, strangely, one of the more plausible takes on the idea that I've encountered in a while. His characters have all of the emotional angst of their litfic counterparts, but are allowed to function in a world that- while slightly contrived- mirrors our own more closely than many of the overwrought New Yorks, LAs, and Midwests conceived by literary darlings. Sure, the book has its dropped plot points and an overwrought plot twist of its own that strains credibility enough that it would completely doom the entire enterprise if it did not show up in the final chapter. Tigerman is, despite all this, at once gripping and nuanced, a fine example genre works' ability to look at life just as seriously as books that are, well, much more serious.

Grade: A-

October 23, 2014

Book 30: Deep

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
James Nestor

I recently watched a documentary about freediving, so it seemed only natural that I should pick up this book when I saw it at the library. From his chosen subtitle to the book's final imagery, James Nestor certainly doesn't hold back: it is clear throughout that the author firmly believes that he has found a fundamental truth about humanity in his experiences in the water. Unfortunately, however, he's not quite able to convince his readers of the same fact. The book- which is part memoir, part pop science- is most compelling when Nestor dives deeply (ha) into a single theme, either his experiences observing and learning the art of freediving (which function as a framing device and connecting narrative) or any of the associated subjects he explores. The framing device- while clever- doesn't quite align with the general flow of the book, which intends to go ever deeper into the ocean, beginning with the surface and ending in the planet's deepest trenches (and reaching a penultimate conclusion with a section of greatly appreciated and cleverly titled "ascents"). Worse still, it is somewhat erratically deployed, showing up in odd places and unnecessarily breaking the reader's concentration, often without adding any clarification to the main text. Though Nestor's side subjects are appropriate to his subject- and do coalesce around the general theme of humans' connection to the ocean- he cannot always link them to his own journey deeper into the sea.

These subjects, including competitive freediving, undersea research at varying depths, and the languages of sharks, dolphins, and whales, usually align with the books' chapters- cleverly numbered at various relevant depths- but it sometimes takes Nestor a while to come around to his point, leaving readers somewhat adrift. Worse still, no one normalized the measurements in the book, particularly in the passages regarding freediving: in an astonishing editorial lapse, measurements morph from meters to feet at a whim; on at least one occasion the change occurred between two lines of otherwise unbroken text(!). This was as immediately disorienting as diving into the zero-gravity stasis of deep water must have been for the author, but I'm not sure that's exactly the feeling Nestor is attempting to evoke in his readers. These and other lapses led me to revisit several passages, and it sometimes feels like the book is comprised of individually minded articles loosely tied together- the book repeats several unimportant facts unnecessarily and seems to imply that the author's most pivotal foray into deep water was both an invitation extended to him and the result of his own organization. Whether it was one or the other is not important, but the confusion engendered by this kind of editorial sloppiness adds to the book's sense of casual choppiness.

All is not doom and gloom. Nestor's text functions as a decent introduction to several interesting and loosely interrelated topics, many of which are otherwise obscure to the general public. I was pleased to learn about a theory of the origin of life that has apparently gained traction since my last biology class, the incapacitating effects of sperm whale clicks, and numerous other points of interest. In the end, however, Nestor cannot resolve the tension between his quasi-spiritual exploration of his and other divers' connection to the water and the underlying science that implies such a connection for the rest of us. He establishes a loose hypothesis firmly and clearly only pages into the book, but never connects the dots, either overtly or subtly. He presents the idea, describes his personal experiences, introduces a few dimly related fields of scientific inquiry, and then concludes that humans must, as a matter of course, be somehow at home in the deep water. The opening chapters offer some promising hints of medical evidence to these ends, but the book never quite follows through, happy to hint at a theme but ultimately comfortable with its ever-divergent narrative forks.

It's somewhat disheartening that the book feels as disjointed as it does, because the author clearly has talent and passion in abundance. He dives with gusto into his subjects, once he decides to, and it is evident that the experiences he chronicles have deeply changed him. He has a few axes to grind, to be sure, but he is usually content to allow his obvious passion make his case for him, only occasionally sliding into awkward partisanship. Nestor's deeply personal writing and easygoing style convincingly invite readers into the world he evokes, and some of the writing is truly astonishing. I repeatedly found myself gasping for air after a particularly vivid description of being underwater, whether the experience was Nestor's, another diver's, or entirely hypothetical. At times I felt like I was drifting on the ocean with the author and the day's team of researchers or renegades, and I missed at least two bus stops while reading the book- not a small accomplishment given my propensity to become easily distracted and the book's own narrative faults. In the end, however, Deep is hampered by the author's enthusiasm, which cannot quite reconcile the promised narratives of his own discoveries, scientific progress, and a fundamental medical truth he never bothers to provide true, convincing evidence for.

Grade: B-

October 19, 2014

Book 29: Spheres of Disturbance

Spheres of Disturbance
Amy Schutzer

This is a book that snuck up on me in pretty much every way. I picked it up on a whim on a new release shelf at the library, was alternately repelled and sucked in by the lush- though often self-indulgent- language, and ultimately found myself crying during the final pages, though I had accurately guessed the book's ending from the summary on the back cover. One could make a number of fair complaints about the book, not the least of which is that Amy Schutzer is clearly very enamored with her prose; even for a book that aims (often successfully) for a somewhat ethereal, lyrical vibe, Spheres of Disturbance contains a fair share of ridiculous, overwrought language that shakes readers right out of their pleasant stupor. Schutzer is also a proponent of the absolutely maddening tendency to make what I'm sure is some horribly pretentious point by omitting quotation marks, though she does have the decency to set off different speakers with line breaks and, usually, their spoken words with commas. This always sets off my bullshit alarm, and the kindest thing I can say about it here is that it wasn't always completely disruptive and most of the dialogue was understandable as such- that the latter point should be a given is, I suppose, too much to ask of the current litfic crowd. Schutzer does, however, navigate many of the other traditional litfic pitfalls with an element of grace. Most impressive, perhaps, is the fine integration of plot and characterization, where each gently flows into the other, often seamlessly. Ultimately, not much happens in Spheres of Disturbance, but not much has to; the characters and their interactions are enough.

Schutzer, then, has accomplished something quite impressive: she has written an unapologetically pretentious litfic novel that is somehow emotionally moving, to the point where she often held this very no-bullshit reader in the palm of her hand. There is a subtle compelling quality to this book, even if Schutzer sometimes says the obvious through narration or (presumed) dialogue and utilizes a pregnant pig- yes, a pig- as one of her central viewpoint characters. This, and many other things that I usually hate, worked for me in this novel, even the baldly Mary Sue poet whose supposedly on-the-spot poems are clearly anything but. Perhaps it is because each of the characters is recognizable in ourselves, or because their stories intersect and parallel each other so compellingly as they fade in and fade out of view; perhaps it is the suspense and tension that are somehow tightened despite much of the plot being blatantly telegraphed throughout the novel. The book also has compelling subplots that illustrate its central theme, which revolves around the necessary connection between disturbance and (self-)discovery. From the teenager who finally reaches the tipping point to the group of truly terrible people who end up providing some (perhaps unintentional?) dark comic relief to the people most directly affected by a woman's quick decline, the inhabitants of Schutzer's spheres are all chasing a kind of resolution; much as in life, they receive and wait as their closure arrives as expected, surprises them in a much different form, or eludes them for just one more hour, day, or lifetime. Spheres of Disturbance constantly took me by surprise, moving me when I wasn't inclined to be moved and creating something beautiful in line with- though occasionally despite- its lofty ambitions; in that way, it's just like life, I guess.

Grade: A-

October 15, 2014

Book 28: The Adjacent

The Adjacent
Christopher Priest

I've never read a Christopher Priest book before, though I'm familiar with The Prestige, but I had high hopes coming into and while reading this novel. Unfortunately, The Adjacent never quite lives up to its own expectations. This is a shame, as Priest displays a multitude of talents throughout the book, moving seamlessly between third- and first-person narration and adapting several narrative voices to their circumstances. He evokes World War I's Western Front, a World War II-era English airbase, a plausible future Britain haunted by the consequences of global warming and advanced terrorist weaponry, and a wholly invented island society with equal vigor, but cannot quite weave them together into a single story, coherent or otherwise. To a certain extent, this is the point; The Adjacent obviously revels in the possibilities of parallel and complementary timelines, and to expect a linear story would be to mischaracterize the book's own goals. I do, however, wish that the necessary juggling was handled better, with a discernible point beyond the kind-of-twist ending on offer. The various timelines book includes numerous coincidences and crosswalks, which form part of its charm, but when some of these elements come together in the end, the effect is to distort realism so thoroughly that the entire book becomes a bit of a sham. The big finale is surprisingly conventional, particularly for an author who proves elsewhere that experimentation and departures from linearity (and, indeed, from a single notion of reality, even a fictional one) can be enthralling. The effect is one of unmitigated disappointment- surely the author capable of the novel's heights could come up with a more satisfying, appropriate ending?

Though I left The Adjacent feeling quite disappointed, it is only because the book often employs its tricks to enchanting effect. The highlight, for me, was a pair of stories about an ill-fated magician's trick; together, they recall Akutagawa's In a Grove, updated for the quantum age. The chapters that take place during World Wars I and II are wonderful bits of writing; either could stand alone as a short story and, indeed, the first probably should have, as it bears little relation to the remaining text beyond some hints of shared imagery and relies too heavily on a show-offish cameo that does little to enhance the small or larger stories at hand. The World War II-era narrative provides a surprising and welcome focal point, uniting threads from the near-future and the island stories, although it, too, becomes muddled by the end. Much of what Priest does simply seems unnecessary, focusing on less interesting ideas and characters at the expense of the good stories he tells effectively. As science fiction, The Adjacent explores some interesting ideas about quantum theory. Though these aren't quite explained to full effect they do offer tantalizing- but woefully underexplored- possibilities. In one of the novel's strongest bits- which hints at a resolution and sense of consistency that never, alas, come to fruition- we follow a character in real time only to discover that he might, perhaps, have been somewhere else all along. Yet Priest stops there, quickly moving on to another half-baked application of his solid basic ideas. That, in essence, was my experience with The Adjacent: it is a novel full of interesting riffs on an excellent, unique idea, with top-notch worldbuilding thrown in for good measure, that can't quite put everything together in a meaningful way.

Grade: B

October 7, 2014

Book 27: Roll the Bones

Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling
David G. Schwartz

Despite having just read a book about board games, I eagerly picked up Roll the Bones from a nearby shelf on the same trip to the library and happily read about the human gambling instinct, the games (and other things) we gamble on, and the industries and cities that have thrived on gambling's consistent allure throughout history. Author David G. Schwartz, an academic with a working knowledge of modern casinos who rounds out his credentials by living in Las Vegas, is definitely up to the task, tracing the history of gambling from nebulous origins in the ancient world to the latest trends in Nevada, in Macau, and throughout the world. Though his descriptions of particular games are often lacking, to say the least- I cannot describe the full mechanics of hazard, baccarat, or fan-tan, despite their prominence in the book- Schwartz has an excellent grasp on the history of gambling and, more importantly, an eye for the array of engrossing personal stories from which he weaves much of his central narrative. As an activity that is periodically subject to alternating bouts of public celebration and disapproval, gambling has attracted its fair share of characters over the years, from the aristocrats of old Europe and Wild Bill to Las Vegas's founding gangsters and current corporate casino overlords; Schwartz often focuses on these and other characters, much to the book's benefit, discovering and exploiting stories rather than recounting a dry succession of events. Though his framing device, which allows him to begin each group of two or three chapters with a relevant story, sometimes looks too far ahead and can actually disrupt the flow of the book, it highlights his commitment to both entertaining and informing the reader. Even the more tangential parts of the book, such as its histories of dice and playing cards, are sprinkled with a healthy ratio of facts and the anecdotes that illustrate them.

Roll the Bones does focus rather heavily on the western world (and Australia and New Zealand), perhaps to its detriment; Asian countries (and, more frequently, their ex-pats) make occasional cameos, but Africa is nearly invisible, and these omissions- without explanation, but also almost certainly without prejudicial intent- seem glaring after a while. Though the book is far from a wholehearted celebration of gambling, tackling as it does a subject that is somewhat notorious for the litany of shady characters it has attracted over the years, it does treat some of gambling's less savory aspects somewhat fleetingly: mentions of addiction and/or ruin are often appended only as afterthoughts to lengthier tales of glory and I recall little to no discussion of match-fixing, though crooked dealers and flat-out crooks appear here and there. Schwartz doesn't whitewash his subject, but neither does he expose all of its warts. That said, however, this book has pretty much everything you could want out of a reasonably comprehensive, subject-based history. It's easily readable, despite some unconvincing copyediting (and perhaps content editing, too), and entertains without condescending, comfortably straddling the line between academic and pleasurable reading. Roll the Bones provides a welcome, pleasant, and informative introduction to the many varied worlds of gambling humans have created and continue to create; I must say, the gamble I took in picking up this book paid off- unlike slots and tables around the world- at a reasonable rate.

Grade: A-

September 27, 2014

Book 26: The Lie

The Lie
Helen Dunmore

It is no surprise, perhaps, that the First World War's centenary has occasioned the release of a glut of novels and other books examining what is, in the United States at least, a largely forgotten war. Yet as Helen Dunmore shows in The Lie, the war has always been balanced precariously between the realms of memory and willful forgetfulness. This is a thoughtful, deliberate book that wanders from plot point to plot point, caring not so much about what happens as it does about how the few things that do happen affect the war-addled narrator, a British veteran who neither peacefully lives with nor seems particularly keen to discard the memories that continually haunt him. It's as though Daniel Branwell is still caught out in no man's land as he attempts to settle back into life in his native Cornwall; the sights, sounds, and the smells of the war continue to swirl around him as he drifts in and out of consciousness and connectedness with his actual surroundings. The book constantly shifts between past and present, usually without prelude or warning, but the changes are slow and subtle, provoking only a gentle disorientation that softly places readers into Daniel's shoes. The resulting sense of general aimlessness suits the book in the end, I think, although it can make for rough going at the beginning, which provides little indication that the story will build toward anything at all. Yet the story does build, as Daniel slowly comes to confront more and more elements of his past both before and within the context of the war, and it picks up pace nicely as it rolls toward a conclusion that seems sadly inevitable, though cathartic for reader and narrator alike.

This isn't a book about what happens so much as it is a book about what has happened, a subtle difference born out of a modern understanding of the effects of shell-shock. Despite this somewhat modern sensibility, however, the book usually feels appropriate to the immediate postwar period and, more importantly, to its rural setting, which provides ample room for contemplation. Dunmore's poetic prose blurs the lines between Daniel's alternate realities, her words bobbing in and out of both worlds as Daniel does, enhanced (but not pretentiously) by well-chosen quotations from the likes of Arnold, Byron, and Coleridge. Daniel's reluctance to make his presence known is echoed by the book's slow burn, as is his (very) slow reintroduction to some of the people he previously half-knew and the reader's gradual appreciation of the past that weighs so heavily on Daniel. Dunmore is (mercifully) confident enough in her abilities to allow the book's nuances to flow and to speak for themselves, allowing for an organic glimpse into the minds of those who went away and those who survived, both in the trenches and at home. The residents of Daniel's hometown seem themselves torn between deep- yet intensely private- depression and a kind of unemotional avoidance that can only be intentional.

The book may seem unassuming, focusing as it does on one man's experiences in a sparsely populated corner of England, but as it explores the ability of trauma to forever alter the mind, it takes on a larger scope. It is not only Daniel Branwell's story that we are reading; it is the story of any number of the millions whose lives were shattered so thoroughly by a phenomenon so deeply beyond the realm of comprehension that willful ignorance almost seems a justifiably sane way to attempt to deal with it. What results is a deeply poignant book about love and loss without any of the bombastic overtures that often undermine similar attempts to come to grips with the effects of war. The book stays rooted to its small-scale story and, in doing so, somehow comes to represent the whole. Daniel's relationship with his best friend Frederick, which drives the book, is at once unique and universal, as is Daniel's desire to do justice to Frederick long after the decisive moment has passed. So, too, is his subsequent attempt to find solace in the company of Frederick's sister, Felicia, who suffers herself from the knock-on effects of love and loss. But there is no peace to be found, it seems, in a world so profoundly changed from the one they knew before

The book might thus be unsatisfying to some, meandering along as it does without offering any solace of its own, but it feels so real and so true, hinging on the small regrets and white lies that can slowly, but easily, come to overpower an individual human spirit. It is unclear which of its many untruths comprises the book's titular lie, but perhaps this refers, instead, to the falsehood whose effects permeate every page of the novel, the unspoken promise that Daniel and the world alongside him could somehow return to a life where the trenches seemed impossible, the realities of the war too horrific to contemplate. Instead, they returned with the scent of French mud lingering in their nostrils, with ghosts whose presence is at once welcome and disconcerting, with futile hope born out of desperation. In the end the lies- all of them- catch up with Daniel, and there is but one way forward. The Lie is an elegantly crafted, if occasionally slow-moving, glimpse into the effects of war, a subtle exploration of love, loss, and the world the Great War left in its wake.

Grade: A

September 24, 2014

Book 25: The Oxford History of Board Games

The Oxford History of Board Games
David Parlett

Had I realized earlier that this week is Banned Books Week, perhaps I would have chosen a book with more (in)appropriate content. Nonetheless, David Parlett's history of board games is, like many of the games he describes, an appropriately entertaining diversion, despite falling into some of the tediousness and traps it ascribes to various ludic pastimes. Parlett seems to have come by his task honestly, to judge by the book's numerous asides and personal attestations; these are welcome and add a bit of personality to what in other hands might become merely a droll catalog. Even Partlett's occasional nepotism- he happily mentions and describes games of his own invention- is mitigated by their relevance and (by and large) their placement among a list of similar examples. It is evident throughout that Parlett has the requisite academic and personal appreciation of the topic, and his (very British) humor is often appreciated, though it is, alas, hit and miss. His esteem for certain games comes across not as self-aggrandizing or advertisement, but instead as genuine enthusiasm, which buoys what might otherwise become, again, a very dull text indeed. Unfortunately, he does sometimes wade into the waters of boring academia; most egregious is a repeated series of foreign-language quotations that aren't translated in the text or in the endnotes. I think it's a bit unfair to assume that even the erudite readers of Oxford histories will know enough French and Latin to make their own translations (and, indeed, the author and/or editor seem to have come to the same conclusion at some point, as translations appear directly alongside the book's later quotations).

Parlett does, however, successfully target the casual and serious enthusiast alike in this dossier of gaming history. One wishes that the theoretical framework on display in the first two chapters (on board games in general and the use of dice and other lots to introduce an element of chance, respectively) appeared more often throughout the text, which does often devolve into uninteresting repetitions of rules. Parlett offers a strong introduction- creating a hybrid classification scheme, admitting its faults, and placing it in context by comparing it to those of other scholars- and he does an excellent job of drawing parallels and, indeed, describing the varied mechanics of the games he describes. His symbolic representation of chessmen's moves is intuitive and easy to understand, though it comes far too late, and the fact that most of his descriptions can be easily parsed is a testament to his ability to understand both the subject matter and his audience; try describing backgammon or even Parcheesi without real-time moving visuals, and you'll see just how impressive Parlett's accomplishment is. Given his considerable achievement in this regard, I'm inclined to forgive him for those sections that become bogged down in unnecessary detail, those that do little more than mention the game in question (therefore adding nothing productive to the discussion, as this is not an exhaustive encyclopedia), some late-blooming theoretical considerations that would have been useful in previous chapters, and a baffling failure to describe the basic mechanics of modern international chess (when nearly every other game is described in detail, even those of near-universal Anglo-American familiarity).

Overall, the book is satisfying but occasionally leaves one wanting just a bit more (or, in some cases, less). Parlett largely does what he's apparently set out to do, but I wish he would have stuck with the gut instincts that seem to slip through on occasion, where the discussion focuses on the history and development of games and their variants rather than on the rules alone. The book certainly wouldn't suffer from the inclusion of much more of the kind of cultural context that informs Parlett's discussion of, say, chess or go; sometimes he can't see the historical forest for the trees of individual games' mechanics. The book is, however, more than a catalog, and it is positively exciting for the modest enthusiast who is being introduced to many of these games (and, indeed, families thereof) for the first time. Parlett effectively makes the case for games as more than a childish diversion by showcasing the incredibly vast range of mechanics, objectives, themes, and required skills. The Oxford History of Board Games may not make for the most exciting reading, but it does provide an amusing and educational point of entry into the international history of board games, if not quite of those who create, amend, and play them.

Grade: B+