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-