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+

September 17, 2014

Book 24: The Amazing Harvey

The Amazing Harvey
Don Passman

It is continually amazing to me how authors can invent new ways of working with a standard group of tropes, a process that makes many stories seem familiar while retaining an element of freshness. On some level, The Amazing Harvey is a fairly boilerplate mystery novel, a lawyer-heavy procedural that traces the story of a narrator falsely accused of a crime, down to the twist that brings together some minor details mentioned in passing earlier in the story and conveniently wraps everything up rather neatly. The mystery genre's stereotypes are so sturdy and reliable that the preceding sentence doesn't come close to warranting a spoiler alert (I hope), but this book- this particular procedural among many- is nonetheless a whole lot of fun, mostly because of the unique elements that Passman brings in. The main character (and narrator) is a magician, an inspired choice in a genre that relies so heavily on the keenness of characters' and readers' observations. Who better to determine how the impossible (in this case, very strong scientific evidence linking an innocent man to a crime) is accomplished than someone whose goal in life is to perform similar feats nightly on the Vegas stage? It is obvious that Passman is fond of and reasonably knowledgeable about stage magic (he seamlessly sneaks in references to greats like Houdini and contemporaries like David Copperfield), and telling that he never reveals the secrets behind the big illusions mentioned in the book, though he does refer to some of the well-worn tricks of the trade. Utilizing a  magician also allows Passman to include some silly elements, like an endearing pet bird, and locales like the Magic Castle, which provides a nice backdrop for some otherwise unremarkable scenes.

The Amazing Harvey's greatest asset is, perhaps, Harvey himself, who proves to be a suitably quirky- and capable- narrator. His sarcastic banter and cynical asides make the book enjoyable and set it apart from a slew of similar works: the story's hardly new, the twist is clever but not earth-shattering (though it is, apparently, scientifically plausible), and the supporting cast includes its fair share of stock characters, but I constantly looked forward to returning to Harvey every time I put the book down. He can be a bit thick, to be sure, but he has a hidden cleverness about him; most importantly, he is a convincingly normal guy in a genre strewn with the smartest, toughest, baddest, and best. Though the book consistently has a ring of truth to it, largely because of Harvey's mix of charm and all-too-familiar flaws, Passman does occasionally err on the side of over-inclusion, particularly during an utterly bewildering foray into a completely irrelevant moral controversy that adds nothing to the book or to the national conversation. Likewise, while he should be commended for his attempt to flesh out some of the supporting cast, his efforts sometimes come across as unnecessary padding or, worse, attempts to elicit unwarranted sympathy that could have been earned through more productive methods.

In a way, though, Passman's greatest trick is to weave what seems to be a collection of very small threads into an entire novel. Aside from the error mentioned above, every subplot, slight narrative distraction, and minor character adds in some way to the general tenor of the book, from Harvey's many wry observations to his attorney's fluctuating level of tolerance for them. The main plot alone wouldn't be enough to sustain an entire novel, even one that passes by as quickly and pleasantly as this one, but somehow the story comes together and captivates readers. The book's plausibility is never forced, and events its occasional stock situations seem realistic enough; after all, even the most familiar and worn stereotypes and tropes have to come from somewhere. Thus we have a novel that is seemingly unexceptional yet somehow pleasant, fresh, and a lot of fun. The Amazing Harvey proves that the key to providing good entertainment doesn't lie in having the latest, greatest, most difficult tricks up one's sleeve but, rather, in cultivating and cashing in on the kind of charisma embodied in its eponymous main character.

Grade: A-

September 14, 2014

Book 23: Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Thomas Sweterlitsch

I'm a sucker for a good apocalypse story, and when I picked up Tomorrow and Tomorrow, knowing that that it hinged on a post-nuclear Pittsburgh, I expected that that's what I was going to get. Instead, I ended up reading a very well conceived blend of cyberpunk and mystery, with a bit of dystopia thrown in for good measure. Though the novel is ultimately driven by a suitably winding plot and effective emotional angst, its core lies in its wonderfully lifelike, fully realized setting, where a constantly connected society accesses an invasive, ad-laden Internet directly through brain and corresponding retinal implants. Other aspects of this near-future society include the aforementioned bombed-out Pittsburgh, an overly cynical (and cynically overplayed) extrapolation of reality TV trends, and a characteristically dystopian political structure. Yet despite the familiarity of these near-future tropes, Thomas Sweterlitsch somehow manages to create a meaningful society that reflects and expands upon our own while enhancing the story at hand and allowing for natural character development. Hero Dominic's fascination with archived images of pre-bomb Pittsburgh, available to refugees, researchers, and curious outsiders alike, is more than an info dump about the types of technology available in this imagined future (and, likewise, more than a not-so-subtle statement about our own increasing use of surveillance in purely civilian contexts); it exposes a crucial element of his character and allows him to be sympathetic, frustrating, and all-too-familiarly human. One cannot rightfully accuse Sweterlitsch of being a master of subtlety, but Tomorrow and Tomorrow contains enough nuance and fresh ideas to balance its bludgeoned stereotypes.

Even the plot carefully- and successfully- straddles this line. It is at times unclear whether characters (and readers alike) have plunged into a murder mystery, political conspiracy, or techno-thriller, and some seemingly played-out tropes are happily undermined (or at least counteracted) throughout the book. Whether this is intentional or not is up to debate, but what remains is a novel that is enjoyable despite its reliance on a number of well-worn ideas and twists. That said, however, the book does fail to thoroughly engage and/or expand upon many of the ideas within. This isn't a problem of over-saturation; though the book is packed with ideas, they all jive, with the exception of the weird way that irrelevant brands permeate the narrative. They only rarely provide insights that are nonetheless immediately undermined by the relentless, pointless parade of mentions that precede the few relevant points. Likewise, seasoned readers may shrug at yet another book that attempts to exploit a perceived societal descent into increasingly depraved tastes; while this kind of commentary is welcome and certainly not wholly irrelevant, it can be difficult to accept a society that begins to rate the "fuckability" of murder victims as soon as their mutilated bodies are discovered (though Sweterlitsch must be commended for absolutely nailing the word choice on that one). There are other times, however, where yet another overripe trope leads in an unexpected direction, usually without the author beating it to death either in its appearance or in its ultimate change in direction.

Perhaps most disappointing is the book's failure to provide the kind of emotional resonance than it should. This is partially due to uneven plot pacing, where thinly masked foreshadowing and subplots disappear long enough to distract readers but reappear too quickly to be true surprise sleeper elements, and to too-frequent deployment of world-building. While the world of Tomorrow and Tomorrow is rich, it is unclear where certain plot threads are supposed to lead; why, for example, make damaging insinuations about the government without properly following through? While the last thing the genre needs is yet another dystopian book pitting One Normal Guy (or, of late, One Normal, Insecure Teenage Girl) against the Evil Government, the novel's brief, implied appeal to Greater Stakes is, in the end, a disappointing feint dismissed out of hand at the conclusion, which itself is too quick, relies too heavily on implications, and still strangely drawn out. Even more egregiously, the relationship between survivors and those they lost in the bombing- which unquestionably forms the emotional core of the novel and allows it to resonate- becomes almost an afterthought at the end. The effect is to transform a profound novel about the power of loss into yet another thriller that happens to be set in the future.

Thus, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is defined to a large extent by a number of missed opportunities: I firmly believe that there is a truly great novel, perhaps a classic, hiding in here somewhere, though it seems we must settle (for now) for a satisfying book that shows the great promise of its author (who is, it bears mentioning, a first-time novelist). It is often easier to notice and dissect aspects of books that fail, but I feel like this does a bit of a disservice to Sweterlitsch, who by and large manages the complexities of his near-future quite deftly. He manages to effectively unite several genres without adhering too strictly to the expected and without becoming bogged down in any of them, and his characters are as compelling and complex as his setting. There is so much inherent and unassuming promise in this book, which comes tantalizingly close to providing meaningful, transcendent explorations of the depths of loss, love, and forgiveness for the unforgivable, and I eagerly anticipate the author's next foray into fiction. That said, Tomorrow and Tomorrow still falls slightly short of the mark, providing a compelling future setting, compelling characters, and a compelling plot, but failing to fully capitalize on the emotional power that lies somewhere within its core.

Grade: B+

September 7, 2014

Book 22: The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
Ian Mortimer

While I must admit that I was a bit disappointed to discover that this book was not, in fact, a story about a modern-day time traveler being zapped back to the 1300s, I was immediately encouraged by author Ian Mortimer's introductory notes, which promise readers a different kind of historical experience than the dry slogs that permeate the field. After all, as an unapologetic history major and a lifelong history buff myself, I can hardly stand the endless litany of history books that treat the past as something distant, dusty, and done. In his Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, Mortimer valiantly attempts a more immersive approach, to provide a more immersive experience, reminding readers that the world of medieval England was, indeed, a real-time, lived experience much as our own. Though he occasionally succumbs to some of the tried and true flaws of history writing- and, ironically, would derive significant benefits from adopting some of them- the book is a much livelier account of a long-bygone era than many (if not most) others.

Mortimer's somewhat unique approach to historical documentation is evident throughout the book, from his intuitive use of present-tense narration to the organization and order of his chapters, which are clearly inspired by more conventional travel guides. But despite Mortimer's commitment to making history come alive as he describes the small details of medieval life, the account often bows to the pressure of precedent and becomes a litany of fact after fact. Mortimer has wisely chosen to focus broadly on only one century, the 14th, but his subject-based approach suffers from a lack of a clear narrative or any sort of drive; the time travel conceit is a clever one but is more evident in theory than actual practice. This lack of direction is made more egregious by the lack of a timeline or other basic references for readers previously unacquainted with this period in English history; there are plenty of references to monarchs and events to provide sufficient context for the social trends that Mortimer describes, but the uninitiated will only sit and wonder where the Richards, Henrys, and Edwards fit in. Several informative charts are included, and do provide helpful information, but to exclude a basic timeline of reigns and significant historical events seems a grave error, even for a book so intent on avoiding this kind of Great Man/Great Event approach to history.

Thus appears the great contradiction in Mortimer's book. Though he obviously understands the importance of small-scale stories and the ability of everyday events to function as an effective window into the past, he is unable to fully captivate the reader without the kind of framework he consciously avoids. Snippets of narrative motion appear throughout the book, as in Mortimer's account of changing fashions and his tantalizing, yet ultimately unfulfilling, references to the vast social and political consequences of the Black Death, but it is nonetheless difficult to sustain interest as facts march by endlessly on parade. Mortimer should be commended for his attempt to enliven history, and indeed most readers should find many moments of excitement as they see themselves and their interests reflected herein; I myself found myself particularly engaged during a lively discussion and comparison of four of the era's literary geniuses. And in some respects, Mortimer does achieve his ultimate goal: it is eminently clear at the beginning, throughout, and at the end of the book that the most important thing to consider when studying history is our shared humanity. By showing us how medieval Englishmen (and –women) ate, dressed, governed, and lived on a daily basis, Mortimer allows us to imagine ourselves in their places and, in a small way, to become time travelers ourselves. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England may not be the kind of immersive text that its author intended, but it is a useful resource for those wishing to explore what life in 14th-century England may have been like, in a more lively manner than most historians currently offer.

Grade: B+