February 21, 2015

Book 13: Get in Trouble

Get in Trouble: Stories
Kelly Link

I have heard no small amount of praise for Kelly Link and her latest collection of short stories, from both professional reviewers and personal friends, and I felt that I had little choice but to pick it up when I saw it at the public library. And boy, I'm glad I did: I was rewarded with a reading experience that absolutely lives up to the hype. Link's ability to subtly combine the familiar and the fantastic is utterly sublime, and there is even a similar quality of detachment inherent in "The Lesson," the collection's only story that firmly takes place in our (known) reality. The remaining stories vary in their fealty to strict realism, from fairly believable worlds with a slight twist to strange futures with advanced technology, yet each contains at heart a fierce display of humanity. Moreover, Link knows exactly how and when to deploy exposition, often holding certain facts at bay to create a sense of detachment, a slight fog that readers will be pleased to become lost in. The resulting sense of mystery, combined with no small amount of wonder at the worlds she manages to immerse herself and her readers in, makes it obvious that Link is an absolute master of her craft.

There is no single common theme that unites the stories in Get in Trouble, but most rely at least in part on the surprising power of half-truths, dwelling on both the truths and the lies that are inherent in them. Whether her characters omit essential pieces of information to lighten themselves of a burden ("Summer People", "Origin Story"), overtly construct alternate identities and truths ("Secret Identity"), or lie to themselves to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths ("I Can See Right Through You"), they are held captive to the strange areas that arise between fact and fiction, much as Link herself straddles the line. Even those stories that are more overtly and thoroughly fantastic- such as "Valley of the Girls", "The New Boyfriend," and "Two Houses"- keep one foot solidly planted in the familiar, whether it be the painfully familiar hormonal pangs of adolescence or the uncertainty of life and truth itself in the age of postmodernism.

There is a latent power in Link's stories that isn't always evident at the outset; she gradually sinks your claws into you until you find, suddenly, that you are completely immersed in the worlds of her imagination. It is a subtle process that, I suspect, lends her stories much of their power. While many of these tales may immediately seem to jettison the reader into completely unfamiliar territory, their inner logic comes gradually to the fore, until even the most disorienting among them can become the most powerful ("Valley of the Girls" took me a while to figure out, but is the story that has made the deepest lasting impression on me). These aren't so much twist endings as logical outgrowths of the tenuous bonds that connect Link's worlds to our own, and it is an absolute pleasure to get lost in worlds that are as remarkably rich as those in many novels. Ultimately, much of what makes Kelly Link such a powerful and engrossing writer is the atmosphere that she creates within and between her stories, and I am eager to discover her back catalog and to read whatever she comes up with next. Link is, in short, impossibly good, and Get in Trouble has a certain indescribable quality about it, a combination of wonder and sadness that allows Link to touch on profound truths with shocking depth in continually surprising ways.

Grade: A

February 16, 2015

Book 12: The Numbers Game

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong
Chris Anderson and David Sally

While I've found these aggressively contrarian statistical investigations into aspects of modern life to be somewhat hit and miss, I saw no obvious reason not to at least try The Numbers Game when I found it sitting on a shelf at the library. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I found it to be a hit and miss volume itself, offering both the clever insights and egregious oversights (to say nothing of simplifications) I've come to expect in this type of book. Its basic framework is, as usual, fairly solid: Anderson and Sally are clearly keenly aware of what they are doing, leaving little room for doubt with their frequent references to the history of analytics-fueled Moneyball in various sports, but take less overt, annoying glee in their counter-intuitive findings than some of their more insufferable peers. Their book flows at a reasonable pace, and their findings likewise pop up in a sequence that not only makes sense but also allows authors and readers alike to build on insights implied by previous statistics. There is a narrative here, despite some of the more standalone aspects of this kind of work, and the authors' propensity to keep the big-picture story in mind during each of the book's many brief investigations ensures that it is accessible despite the math that drives it. Moreover, Anderson and Sally seem to strike a decent balance between getting lost in the statistics and interpreting them for readers (like myself) who haven't seen a regression analysis since high school.

It is, however, somewhat unclear whether the authors occasionally ignore their obvious knowledge of soccer in the pursuit of a particularly contentious claim. Despite their success in generating and maintaining the readers' interest, however, they are sometimes liable to fall into the familiar traps of corollary/causation confusion, and self-importance that plague their peers. Many of their calculations and resulting insights revolve around the typical binary win/loss system that soccer so uniquely avoids with the prevalence- and relative importance- of the draw. Though the authors do investigate some aspects of draws, they seem to ignore this third possible match outcome entirely at points where it appeared to me to be particularly relevant. Likewise, I was disappointed to find that the authors (and a former goalkeeper among them!) so casually dismissed the importance of high goal totals without even considering the implications of the goal differential as soccer's first-tier tiebreaker over competitions with multiple legs. Championships, relegations, and participation in continent-wide superleagues are routinely decided by those games where teams got or conceded what turned out to be a pivotal 4th or 5th goal, as irrelevant as it may have been (statistically or otherwise) within the context of the game at hand. That said, however, the authors' investigations of the relative importance and weight of goals were easily some of the most interesting, and relevant, parts of the book.

More pivotal, however, is the book's various treatments of what proves to be its central question (even if it is unacknowledged as such): is it better to play to win or to play not to lose? Anderson and Sally tackle this question from a variety of expected and unusual angles, eventually leaning toward a defensive-minded mindset (again with the goalkeeper's influence, no doubt) that they acknowledge is far from a hard-set rule. In doing so, they provide an interesting framework that spectators might consider when watching their favorite (or most hated) sides on and off the pitch, but do so without being excessively dogmatic or smug. Though the book is certainly susceptible to the usual pitfalls of its genre, the authors show a great deal of respect for their subject by weaving relevant historical facts into their narrative and providing examples from a variety of eras, countries, and leagues.

Some pitfalls, however, cannot be avoided, and one gets the sense that the authors do indulge in a fair bit of hand-waving throughout the book. As a rule, it lacks true transparency, and I'm not completely convinced that all of the more random-looking scatterplots do, in fact, indicate the trends the authors try to draw out of them. I left the book convinced that Anderson and Sally should have made more of an effort to explain the statistical methods behind their findings and conclusions, and that they possessed the skill to do so without bogging down the narrative or overwhelming their less scientifically inclined readership. The book may not be condescending, but inquisitive readers couldn't be faulted for wondering whether it might have been a bit more open to scrutiny from statisticians and laypersons alike. That said, however, the book is still a highly readable look into the potential implications of advanced analytics on a sport that may be even more hopelessly mired in tradition than the peers who have already embraced the revolution. The Numbers Game may be a product of its time and genre, but it will yield interesting insights to those readers who are willing to embrace analytics with a certain grain of salt.

Grade: B

February 12, 2015

Book 11: We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
Matthew Thomas

This novel has received a number of positive reviews from the usual outlets, and I was intrigued by the possibility of a sweeping, but intimate, look at a family's experiences throughout the mid- to late-20th century. While that is exactly what We Are Not Ourselves does provide, I couldn't help but feel that the book was just there, successful with regard to its apparent ambitions but ultimately forgettable in its ordinariness. A lack of outright flaws, paired with this general sense of mere existence, makes it somewhat difficult to dissect the book and determine what makes it tick. The story, which follows the life of second-generation Irish-American Eileen Leary (née Tumulty) in New York City and its environs, is relatively straightforward, as is its cast of characters. Thomas touches lightly on worn stereotypes- the older generation is full of drunken, but hardworking and reliable Irishmen and -women- but does so in a way that feels surprisingly honest. Indeed, the novel's utter emotional honesty, and the forthright way in which it comes to the fore, is its greatest strength, and likely the cause of its undoing. We Are Not Ourselves so aptly reflects a certain kind of American experience that it no longer stands out as art, becoming relegated instead to the dull memory of lived experience. This reflects no small amount of skill on Thomas's part, but it does make for a reading experience that ultimately feels unnecessary; with nothing particularly compelling or unusual about these characters or their situation, it becomes difficult to justify spending 600-plus pages with them.

Then again, those aspects of the novel that stand out are quite remarkable. What does set the Learys apart, to an extent, is the uncomfortable and inescapable presence of Alzheimer's for much of the book. Like in real life, it begins as the reader's sneaky suspicion before being reluctantly named and then quickly blossoming into an all-consuming beast that overshadows everything else. Its effect on Ed (Eileen's husband, the afflicted), on Eileen's upwardly mobile ambitions and marriage, and on their son Connell is immediate, lasting, and as devastating as you'd expect. I found myself increasingly sympathetic to Eileen's and Connell's plight(s), even though I often had little patience for either or both at any given moment. To experience the gradual, and suddenly rapid, decline of Edmund Leary is, I suspect, to replicate in a small but accurate way the actual lived experience of those who have suffered the same knock-on effects of this and other diseases.

There can be no doubt, then, that Matthew Thomas is a skilled writer, and that he possesses a keen eye for the types of detail that render this novel so unmistakably believable. Unfortunately, what he has produced is a book that somehow lacks focus despite its narrow, well-defined scope. The first few perspective changes from Eileen to Connell are unexpected, and Thomas does not wholly capitalize on the different aspects of the story that each can provide; too often, such a jump is immediately forgotten, the narrative moving forward where a bit of reflection may have enhanced the story in a way that pure plot never could. Likewise, the plot lurches forward in unexpected bursts, and the reader is never quite sure when, in calendar time, the events are occurring. The book makes it unnecessarily difficult for readers to gain their chronologically minded bearings, which is distracting and detracts from the overall reading experience; we cannot begin to sense changes in the characters' lives if we cannot understand the ever-shifting context in which they occur.

Likewise, though Thomas brings his readers convincingly into his viewpoint characters' minds, he still fails to make them unique. Eileen and Connell may be well-defined, but- much like the supporting cast- they are defined in ways that border precariously on stereotypes; Thomas is rescued time and again by his attention to the tiny details that make the Learys incrementally more interesting than typical stock characters. Stereotyped or not, however, they are drawn so accurately from real life that they often become tiresome. In this way, they reflect the book's greatest strength and its ultimate weakness. The book is too convincing, and too real, to provide a particularly compelling reading experience; at the end of the day, it's just another series of days in the life. The book, for me, lacks any one exceptional characteristic that would make it stand out. We Are Not Ourselves is, as it intends to be, a sweeping, generalized, and believable look at the experiences of an upwardly mobile middle-class family in the 20th-century United States, but even the looming presence and lingering effects of Alzheimer's- brilliantly rendered here, make no mistake- aren't enough to make the book particularly compelling or memorable.

Grade: B

February 4, 2015

Book 10: Landline

Rainbow Rowell

I waffled a bit on whether I wanted to read this book, but as my recent experiences with sci-fi-tinged literary fiction have been largely positive, I decided to give it a go. In the end, I'm glad I did, though I can't quite articulate what it is about Landline that has stuck with me. I was initially drawn to the novel for its somewhat science fictional premise- the plot hinges on a woman's ability to communicate with her husband in the past just as their relationship passes what may be its final fraying point in the present- and was rewarded with a reading experience that capitalizes on the best of both literary fiction's inward-looking sensibilities and science fiction's preoccupation with what ifs. Rowell plays this plot twist 100% straight, and the book is better for it. Rather than wringing her hands trying to create an explanation for the wormhole, convoluted or not, she invites her protagonist, Georgie, to consider the various possibilities (temporary or permanent insanity is prominent among them) for herself. In doing so, she gives voice to the reader's potential doubts and gently coerces them to accept it as inexplicable in the same way that Georgie must. Moreover, Rowell reconciles the alternate/actual timeline pitfalls that always accompany time-travel fiction in the simplest way possible, reconciling past and present in the way that makes the most sense and avoiding any convoluted digressions that would detract from the story's captivating emotional core. The resolution may not surprise seasoned time travel fans, but it works seamlessly, which is all you can ask of such a plot device.

Rowell's deft handling of its science fictional elements ensures that the novel neither apologizes for its sci-fi flavor nor becomes bogged down by it, that the plot remains firmly rooted in reality, and that the book's emotional consequences resonate with remarkable depth. The plot moves seamlessly between the present and the history of Georgie's relationship with her possibly estranged husband Neal, revealing details at a good pace and tightening the tension at all the right moments. The book convincingly presents the entirety of the relationship even as it focuses on its two most pivotal points, and the outcome, while never really in doubt, is neither unreasonable nor trite. Though I did question the completeness of some of Georgie's soul-searching- it seems to me that the book focuses too narrowly on her contributions to the sorry state of things rather than Neal's obvious and ongoing faults- I did leave the novel thoroughly convinced that this character would have taken these actions in this situation. Nonetheless, the ending is pleasantly ambiguous despite having a certain air of ambivalence about it; ultimately, as in life, there are no clear-cut answers to the book's central problems.

Aside from the excellent handling of Georgie's "magic telephone," I can't quite put my finger on why I liked this book so much. I quite liked the hilarious, unapologetically ambitious Georgie, but I didn't agree with her assessment of her situation or, indeed, her husband. But maybe that's what I appreciate about the book: despite its relatively straightforward course, I sensed rich layers of surprising complexity beneath the surface. Though Rowell doesn't take pains to draw readers' attention to them, the novel's psychological nuances await discovery. In the end, it simply isn't clear to either character or reader what the best outcome is, or whether happily ever after can even be achieved in the situation. Instead, the book settles on the kind of compromise that echoes those we must make in the real world every day, and does so in a way that prioritizes humor and wit rather than the meaningless platitudes or endless existential gnashing of teeth that often makes serious doomed-relationship fiction so overwrought and unpleasant. Landline is, in this sense, refreshingly self-aware without falling into the trap of being too self-referential or too clever for its own good.

Amidst all of the seriousness and uncertainty that characterize the book's central plot lies a consistently humorous, and pleasantly human, core. Rowell deploys joking parenthetical asides with the necessary restraint to make them effective, and it doesn't hurt that she can fall back on light, but warranted, satire of the sitcom industry when the book requires a pick-me-up. Her nods to diversity avoid self-congratulatory pretense, and one minor plot twist involves one of the best uses of a gay character that I have seen in non-LGBT fiction. Rather than announcing everything upfront, Rowell wisely allows her characters and readers to make the obvious assumption, only to turn it hilariously and convincingly on its head. In doing so, she accurately conveys the kind of gradual realization that occurs so often in the lives of real gay people (and those around them) without applying any of the condescension that often comes along with the Token Gay Character and without the subtle homophobic nuance that usually accompanies this kind of reveal.

The treatment of this minor subplot is, like many of the book's seemingly inconsequential details, yet another example of Rowell's talent for conveying the world as it is- and all of this in a novel that would be impossible without a nifty bit of time travel! All of this in a novel that cannot possibly reach a conclusion that is satisfactory to all of its involved parties or all of its readers. All of this in a book that I wasn't sure I liked but couldn't bring myself to put down. In the end I find the book utterly confounding, and I am left to conclude that this is because it is, somehow, brilliant and subtly nuanced in a way I cannot articulate. Landline is thoroughly and unapologetically realistic despite the certain blip in the space-time continuum and represents literary and science fiction at their best, introspectively stretching the human experience just beyond reality's usual (or expected) limits in a way that allows us to learn something about ourselves.

Grade: A

February 1, 2015

Book 9: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography
Neil Patrick Harris

And now for something...somewhat similar, but much more successful. I am a fairly recent convert to the Neil Patrick Harris bandwagon, having thoroughly enjoyed him in How I Met Your Mother and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, but I've come to appreciate his off-screen sense of humor and the inspiring way in which he unapologetically lives his life as a gay man. This book, though likely ghostwritten by Dave Javerbaum, does a good job of capturing its subject's voice and, more importantly, the sense of humor that comes along with it, which is so crucial to pulling the whole thing off. One senses Harris's hand at work throughout the book- which isn't always a given for celebrity memoirs- and it only rarely lapses into outright bragging (though the chapters about how wonderful Elton John's various homes are can get a bit grating). Instead, what Choose Your Own Autobiography offers is a history of Neil Patrick Harris's career with a reasonably well-balanced dose of personal insight, particularly regarding his husband and their two children. So, add another decent celebrity autobiography to the pile.

Not quite.

Choose Your Own Autobiography is not, in fact, a metaphorical title hearkening to existentialist philosophy. Rather, it is a very literal description of the book, which is, indeed, written in the classic format so familiar from the original novels and their many imitators. The book follows through on its title's lofty promises, offering most of the familiar tropes: dead ends with alternate universe endings, divergent and intersecting paths, a cheat that takes you almost directly to the end, a few hidden surprises, and even a loop! The canonical use of second-person present narration may throw some readers at first, but I failed to notice it after a while and found the book, instead, to be far more immersive than most other memoirs I've encountered. Something about the constant use of "you" makes you (the reader) feel much more present in the story, distancing it from the general bragging tone that tends to characterize the genre, and the book's self-awareness and laid-back tone ensure that the whole thing works rather than seeming like a gimmick.

This, I believe, is largely due to the intricate plotting and mapping that inevitably go into a book like this- of whatever quality. While I at first thought that I might be able to read the whole thing more or less sequentially, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the forks did appear, leading to the various paths and outcomes you'd expect. The text offering the various choices was often as hilarious as some of the anecdotes, and the choices make sense: readers can pursue a cinematic career, pursue theater, pursue amateur (or, in one ill-fated timeline, professional) magic, pursue a family. It's much like real life, in that respect, and the way that each major crossroad does lead to a path in Harris's actual life might make the reader consider whether their own choices are always either/or. Sure, it takes a bit of finagling and re-tracing one's steps to read every bit of the book, but the fact is that, one way or another, all of this did occur in Harris's own life. There may be a larger lesson here, but Harris leaves it to readers to extrapolate for themselves, as the book carefully avoids any pretense beyond the grandiose (and largely fulfilled) ambitions of its chosen format.

It is remarkable how normal the book becomes once it earns the reader's full buy-in, and it is one of the rare cases where a very inherently silly gimmick actually works as planned, conveying a powerful meaning without relying too heavily on its own cleverness. At a basic level, Harris and his writers go all-in, play it straight, and see a large return on their bet. Sure, some of the alternate endings are over-the-top, and the memoir is remarkably cheerful despite current trends focusing on the seedy underbelly of, well, everything; nonetheless, the book provides an enjoyable experience that mirrors the public image that Harris projects. He does, after all, offer an overwhelmingly positive and generally excitable public persona, and the somewhat sugarcoated nature of the book jives with the personality he projects. Neil Patrick Harris appears to be a genuinely happy human being, and his memoir cannot be faulted for merely reflecting this, whether it represents the whole truth or not. The book ultimately feels honest despite its consistently cheerful tone and its admittedly ridiculous gimmick, which both serve to reflect and enhance their subject despite all of the potential pitfalls. Choose Your Own Autobiography is a refreshingly light take on the memoir that impressively employs the intricate plotting that is essential to making its gimmick work; in the end, the reader forgets that it is a gimmick at all and is eager to live their version of Neil Patrick Harris's life again, and again, and again.

Grade: A