March 25, 2015

Book 19: The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
Simon Winchester

I've been enthralled by the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary since I first encountered it in an undergraduate course about the history of the English language, and I figured that Winchester's account of two of its pivotal figures would be a nice way to learn a bit more about its remarkable history. While Winchester avoids the pitfalls that plague dry historical nonfiction (of both the popular and more academic varieties), The Professor and the Madman swings a bit too far in the other direction, coming across as impossibly disorganized despite its obviously good intentions and its ostensible focus on the quintessentially Victorian impulse to categorize (and thus make sense of) the world. The author's effort to interweave stories about editor extraordinaire James Murray, institutionalized power contributor William C. Minor, and the dictionary itself is a noble one, but the book and its readers become repeatedly lost in a seemingly endless stream of internal and external distractions.

Winchester seems to be an inherently capable writer, sticking to accessible (but refreshingly not condescending) prose even when halfheartedly posing existential questions and resorting to misplaced melodrama. It is, rather, the book's fundamental narrative incoherence that makes for a difficult and dissatisfying reading experience. Rambling asides range from obviously relevant and enlightening (the history of English-language dictionaries) to tangential, but potentially interesting (the history of schizophrenia as a psychological diagnosis) and, unfortunately, incidental and unnecessary (Irish participation in the American Civil War and possible post-Emancipation disillusionment with the Cause). Together, these diversions seem intended to pad an already slim volume instead of enhancing the story or providing meaningful historical context. Combined with a narrative structure that is fragmented at best and baffling grammatical errors as simple as mid-paragraph tense changes that render the surrounding text nearly incomprehensible, they contribute to the book's pervading sense of sloppiness.

The problems proliferate in the plot, such as it is. The book opens, predictably but reasonably enough, with a compelling anecdote that the surrounding stories can build up to and upon, but Winchester relates the same incident almost verbatim in a later chapter, only to immediately discredit it in favor of a more historically accurate version of events. I found the effect to be uncharacteristically condescending and almost infuriating in its pretension; moreover, why waste readers' time? The book shifts incessantly backward and forward in time and between plots concerning Murray, Minor, supporting characters (some of whom clearly don't deserve as much attention as they receive), and the dictionary itself, to the point where it has more conflicting and overlapping timelines than many time-travel stories I've encountered. I certainly don't believe that it is necessarily imperative to present a historically minded narrative in strictly chronological order, but the constant whiplash makes crucial cause-and-effect relationships and historical context nearly impossible to construct, understand, or follow: the book becomes a kind of postmodern jumble, isolated from meaning.

Winchester clearly has some good instincts, and it is possible to imagine the foundations of an intriguing historical tale herein, as haphazard as the book can seem. The deployment of well-chosen, straight-outta-OED definitions as the front matter for each individual chapter is effective and charming, and those portions of the book that do concentrate on coherent narratives are usually interesting and often well-told, at least until they inevitably veer into tangential territory. Both Minor and the dictionary itself prove to be compelling in their own right, and Murray provides a nice and necessary link between them. As Winchester's occasional existential, yet shallow, digressions prove, Minor's story is rife with opportunities to consider some very interesting existential questions, such as the morality of celebrating unmistakably positive events that occurred only because of a senseless murder. But the book, as it stands, is unforgivably clumsy and ultimately unrewarding, down to the marooned illustrations that the author and designer don't bother to caption or otherwise explain. Despite an interesting premise with plenty of potential, The Professor and the Madman instead conjures an ironic kind of chaos out of a story that is inescapably immersed in the history of efforts to codify and organize the world.

Grade: C

March 20, 2015

Book 18: Super Stories of Heroes & Villains

Super Stories of Heroes & Villains
Edited by Claude Lumière

Despite my very spotty knowledge of traditional superhero comics, I'm a sucker for a good superhero (or supervillain) story. For me, much of the appeal lies in the genre's embrace of the outlandish in its quest to explore what it means to make the choices we do; these stories are far removed from the black-and-white characterizations that once drove the comics, and many stories unapologetically tackle difficult moral questions head-on. The stories embody the collapsing distinctions between science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction; even seemingly mundane heroes like Sherlock Holmes display an aptitude for superhuman achievements, and in these postmodern times heroes, villains, and those who fall in between appear in a variety of guises. Super Stories of Heroes & Villains, while focusing on humans (or, rarely, suspiciously humanoid aliens) who have enhanced physical and/or mental abilities, offers far more variety than newcomers might expect. Herein are stories that construct heroes built on familiar paradigms, resurrect some recognizable comic book stalwarts, and deconstruct and reexamine the ways in which we seem to expect the superpowered to behave. It is this diversity that makes the collection so compelling, a product of the included authors' impressive imaginations and editor Claude Lumière's decision to showcase pieces from an array of genres and thematic approaches. The stories are, by turn, triumphant and tragic, the protagonists heroic and haunted, and the reader is greeted with new perspectives on every page.

Thematic anthologies like this one can easily become repetitive, relying on retreads of a common theme, and Lumière's selections reflect both his extensive familiarity with and his enthusiasm for the superhero subgenre. Though his introductions to the collection and to the individual stories are often clumsy at best, his selections are generally accessible to readers who are approaching this type of story for the first time. Even "Übermensch!", "The Nuckelavee: A Hellboy Story", and "The Death Trap of Dr. Nefario", which rely most heavily on preexisting literature, will reward those with the most basic passing familiarity with the traditional canon. Lumière does, I believe, err in including Win Scott Eckert's essay and Jess Nevins's "The Zeppelin Pulps"- the former would be far better suited to a passing reference in the collection's introduction and the latter only makes sense because of the editor's wink and nudge in his preface- and, moreover, exacerbates the problem by placing them back to back. Even so, he generally avoids clumping similar stories, and the book largely preserves a nice, consistent momentum from one selection to the next.

This is all to say very little of the stories themselves; so many of them are outstanding by so many different measures that it would almost require a story-by-story analysis to properly rate the collection. Even the less successful stories, not coincidentally those that are least directly engaged with the superhero theme, at least force the reader to critically reconsider the subgenre. Stories like "Grandma", "The Biggest", and "The Rememberer" share a rich melancholy tone and a devotion to realism, insofar as superheroes can be realistic, that balances some of the more traditional swashbuckling adventures, and the collection has triumph and tragedy in nearly equal measure. Together, the book's stories encompass a complete narrative arc, from glorified origin stories and dazzling mid-career highs to meditations on the fleeting nature of youth, health, and fame, as well as plenty of stories that fall in between. And all of this in an array of vividly imagined settings and impossibly inventive abilities assigned to protagonists, villains, sidekicks, and bit players alike, as each author took a basic, nebulous concept and applied their own interpretation, interest, and skill. Super Stories of Heroes and Villains includes a few miscues, but the overwhelming majority of its stories are of the highest quality, a testament to the full range of vibrant possibilities inherent in some of the oldest tropes in speculative fiction.

Grade: A-

March 12, 2015

Book 17: Station Eleven

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

With all of the buzz surrounding this book, and its post-apocalyptic plague premise, there was no way that I was going to escape it, and I decided to jump in sooner rather than later (that, and my library hold came through more quickly than I expected). I found the book to be a surprisingly moving, somewhat perplexing experience, and I'm not quite certain why the book affected me as strongly as it did. Station Eleven is a contradiction of sorts, a single story spun from several interlocking narratives that are as complementary as they are contemplative. Mandel takes a refreshing alternate approach to her story's several layers by bringing each to its own conclusion at an appropriate moment within the book, rather than throwing them all together at the end. Nonetheless, everything intersects nicely and in unexpected ways, including the surprisingly effective introduction of a new point of view character relatively late in the book. While the novel occasionally cuts to a different plotline at pivotal moments, thus disrupting the sense of suspense and narrative flow, many of the transitions between the pre- and post-plague worlds are handled with a delicate, seamless touch. Despite its heavy subject matter and its deep engagement with important questions about the meaning of art and survival for a species reduced to the barest shadow of its former self, the book often has an almost dreamlike quality about it, the result of an elegiac examination of the world as it is and as it might one day be.

Though Station Eleven is unmistakably written in the litfic tradition, with its inward-looking focus on the human condition and its charismatic (but rarely overbearing) prose, it also succeeds as an apocalyptic vision steeped in the genre's traditions. The book's three intersecting time frames provide compelling visions of the world before, during, and twenty years after the plague that nearly exterminates humanity, presenting contrasting visions of its core ideas and a pleasantly diverse group of avenues for exploring its many questions and conundrums. The plots- wrought small and large- offer enough suspense to keep readers emotionally invested, even when a central character's identity is guessed before the Big Reveal and when a central conflict is resolved earlier than it might have been for peak effect. The ending might seem a bit too saccharine for the novel that proceeds it, but I must admit that I am as curious as the characters to explore the possibilities it implies. I am likewise inclined to forgive Mandel for the series of coincidences that results in everything dovetailing so nicely; for my money, she exerts sufficient effort to make them plausible without stretching the bounds of probability too thin. Even if one character's arc doesn't quite align with the others as neatly as they do with each other, it does offer a pivotal alternate perspective on the world before, during, and after the Georgia Flu and, more importantly perhaps, a view of the post-apocalyptic United States beyond the borders in which the remaining characters confine themselves.

I suspect that the book is so devastatingly effective because of its artistic sensibilities and the author's ability to render her harrowing vision of the apocalypse with a delicate skill that magnifies its tragic elements without resorting to exaggeration, melodrama, or too much purple prose. Mandel does tick several of the requisite apocalyptic checkboxes, but I found her descriptions of the world fading away, particularly through the vividly observed deterioration of local news broadcasts and the implied plight of those aboard a doomed plane on an airport runway, uniquely haunting. These images, new to me through this novel, will haunt me for some time to come. If nothing else, and there are indeed many other aspects of the novel that deserve its many accruing accolades, Mandel has found a way to tell an oft-told tale anew; it is remarkably raw and relatable despite cameo appearances by several familiar tropes. I would also be remiss to omit my appreciation of Mandel's appropriation of northern Michigan, doubly appreciated now that I live a couple of states away from the familiar woods and lakes of my youth.

Most importantly, the book is as effectively written as it is conceived. Its Shakespearean connections and its examinations of literature (and, indeed, all of the arts) as pivotal aspects of the human experience are never overbearing, in spite of what might have been overwhelming temptation to lesser authors, and one gets the feeling that Mandel trusts her readers to make the intended connections and draw their own conclusions. The novel invites inquiry and insight while providing a satisfying base from which both can spring, displaying the author's talents with a kind of refreshing subtlety that is a rarity in apocalyptic literature, let alone literary fiction. Mandel is delicate and blunt in equal measure, asking readers to imagine the horrors on board a stranded, infected airplane on the tarmac and offering the omniscient narrator's frequent reminders that the end is near for so many of its characters and, indeed, the world itself, in its present-day storylines. This is a book that invites reexamination, re-readings, and book club discussions, a novel that is both a pleasant read and a meaningful examination of the arts and their effect(s) on human connection, among other themes. Station Eleven exemplifies the vast possibilities inherent in apocalyptic literature, looking beyond the more obvious effects of a devastating apocalyptic event to examine why mere survival, as they say, is insufficient.

Grade: A

March 8, 2015

Book 16: Hall of Small Mammals

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories
Thomas Pierce

Having heard that this collection featured a story that includes a resurrected mammoth as a protagonist, I was immediately sold on the expectation of a collection of science fiction-tinged tales with a literary sensibility. Though, alas, Pierce's fantastical inclinations are largely limited to the book's first two stories, Hall of Small Mammals does offer a satisfying lineup of stories exploring human connection and isolation in their many forms. Intentionally or by accident, Pierce has pieced together a collection with common questions and common themes at its core. Each of the book's stories traffics heavily in metaphor, often with similes to spare. While this layered sense of meaning usually contributes to a sense of depth, there are a few stories that feel a bit empty, and several seem to be making the same point in much the same manner. Pierce sometimes offers too little plot to sustain his thematic ideas ("Why We Ate Mud", "Saint Possy"), which is a shame seeing as more meandering stories like "Grasshopper Kings," "Felix Not Arriving," and "Hot Air Balloon Ride for One" are some of the collection's most moving. These stories may require additional reflection to fully appreciate, but they both invite and reward the effort. Most of the collection consists of these sparse stories, well-executed for the most part but largely forgettable after the moment has passed.

And then there's "Videos of People Falling Down," a series of loosely connected vignettes joined by the title's promise and, for my money at least, the collection's runaway success and easily its best story. Despite the possible kitsch implied by the premise, Pierce takes his characters and their various predicaments absolutely seriously (but not without a hint of humor), constructing a story that somehow finds love, loss, despair, and hope in the act of falling. Pierce manages to convey the humanity of his subjects, exploring not only what it is that made them fall- and the aftermath that these videos often forget to mention- but also what it is that draws us to their plights. The story is a large gamble that pays off big, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the author's forays into the fantastic, tentative as they are, are the collection's strongest offerings. The strangely heartbreaking "Shirley Temple Three" effectively uses extinction as a metaphor for an empty nester's loneliness, and a profound story about emotional connection emerges from "The Real Alan Gass" despite its clumsy, half-imagined version of the Theory of Everything.

"More Soon" is a surprisingly effective story that uses the slightest touch of science fiction- in the shape of an unexplainable, highly contagious, yet ultimately contained virus- to explore the ways in which we find, or don't find, closure after the deaths of those who are, for one reason or another, important to us. Unlike some of the collection's other stories, this one grabbed me immediately, its hints of humor massaging its harsh truths, much as in life. Thomas Pierce may leave a bit to be desired in some of his fiction, and the collection certainly has moments that feel overwrought, over-thought, and understated, moments of anticipation and potential that aren't quite realized. Yet Hall of Small Mammals is, by and large, a satisfying group of stories that hint at ways of understanding, or at least considering, some of the larger truths of our existence.

Grade: B+

March 4, 2015

Book 15: Coming Out to Play

Coming Out to Play
Robbie Rogers

As someone who is independently interested in LGBTQ issues and soccer, it seemed only natural that I should read this memoir by Robbie Rogers, the first openly gay male athlete to play in one of the United States's five major professional sports leagues. I knew little about Rogers coming into the book, save that he had temporarily retired before coming out and subsequently joining the L.A. Galaxy, and it was interesting to get inside the head of a successful professional athlete, although the book does its subject few favors in the end. It is difficult to discern how much of the tone- which, for its many faults, is at least consistent throughout the book- should be attributed to Rogers and how much belongs to his coauthor, Eric Marcus. Nonetheless, I found it to be somewhat defensive and surprisingly maudlin, to the point where I felt little sympathy for Rogers despite understanding much of what he went through as a closeted gay person in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Unsurprisingly, much of the book is devoted to standard memoir fodder, which is handled more or less adequately. It's exactly the sort of story you'd expect, an obviously well-off kid growing up in an area where he could nurture his obvious talent, forging the kind of professional connections that served him well afterward. The blockquote passages from his mother and sister are a bit too frequent and too long, taking the focus off of the obviously shy subject but magnifying his reticence, yet the book's sections about faith and family provide many of its most poignant and emotionally resonant moments (though the latter are few and far between). Rogers has a tendency to rely on platitudes, particularly when discussing the process of coming out and the subsequent attention he has received since doing so, but they are harmless and largely humdrum. Overall, the book gives the impression that it simply had to be written because of Rogers's monumental achievement, and even if it doesn't set the world on fire it does at least offer a comforting tale of a paranoid, closeted gay man coming out to find an open, loving embrace from all quarters. Its base narrative is somewhat rote, but none the worse for it; what sets the book apart is its constantly apologetic, overly paranoid tone.

It is, of course, appropriate that the book should dwell on Rogers's overwhelming self-doubt and the intense negative impact it had on seemingly every aspect of his life, both personal and professional. I don't fault the authors for making these emotions a central part of the book; to the contrary, I applaud them for at least attempting to rise above the tone of constant joyous celebration that can leave those of us who struggle(d) in similar situations feeling woefully inadequate. That is not, however, to say that the book offers a particularly pleasant- or even a particularly edifying- reading experience. Rogers's story feels real, but the editorial decision to make the negativity so inherent to the book's central voice results in a rather unpleasant reliance on on repeated and redundant complaints. The memoir may offer a realistic portrayal of Rogers's shifting emotions, but its constant defensive tone and ceaseless apologies tend to undermine the concluding message of hope and acceptance.

I hate to be so negative about the book, and it is somewhat refreshing to see a celebrity memoir that so honestly confronts its subject's deepest fears and faults. I can't imagine it was anything but agonizing for Rogers to confront the hyper-masculine world of professional sports on a daily basis throughout the formative years of his life. The book comes agonizingly close to meaningfully confronting some important issues, such as the distinction between those who use homophobic language and those who are actually homophobic (Rogers reports that many of the players who would casually employ the familiar epithets are now among his biggest supporters), but in his eagerness to please Rogers largely squanders his opportunities to place his experiences in a larger societal context. His perspective is certainly interesting, and valuable, and I have no doubt that the book will do a good deal of good for teenagers who (like myself at a younger age) might relate to much of Rogers's story. Regardless, even brutally honest memoirs such as this one must strike a balance between deification and demonization, a balance that this book fails to achieve. Coming Out to Play is an honest look at the inner turmoil that plagued a pioneer gay athlete, but the relentless focus on that turmoil makes it a rough and repetitive reading experience that casts its subject in an unnecessarily negative and shallow light.

Grade: B-

March 2, 2015

Book 14: The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure
Edited by Lawrence Ellsworth

Well, with a title like that, how was I supposed to let this book pass me by? All told, I'm glad I didn't, although the 19th-century prose and occasional alien sensibilities made it slower going than I perhaps expected from a book purportedly all about adventure. It is evident from his general and story-specific introductions that editor Lawrence Ellsworth is devoted to the swashbuckling adventures popular throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries and that he is well-read (or at least well-informed), although I was alarmed at the proportion of the biographies that focused on authors other than the ones at hand and remain a bit skeptical about his skill as an anthology editor. I also found myself disappointed at the large number of extracts from novels and longer narratives; having read the climaxes of several stories, I'm now unsure whether I'll bother to read the preliminaries. Though Ellsworth generally chooses self-contained stories within longer works, a lack of established context sometimes contributes to a general sense of indifference and incompletion.

Likewise, while all of the stories do fit, more or less, into a swashbuckling paradigm, Ellsworth does little to define the characteristics that these stories and, more importantly, their characters, are meant to embody. He often sings the praises of swashbucklers, in all of their many forms, and his enthusiasm is obvious, but doesn’t offer satisfactory explanations of his chosen parameters. As a reader with only a vague sense of this era's adventure literature, I would appreciate more context: why, for example, does the collection include so many English-language stories set in France? This lack of visible deliberation and oversight, combined with a story order that appears haphazard and more or less random (except for the fact that few similar stories appear back-to-back), can make the book a bit of a whiplash experience as readers are jolted from one paradigm to another unexpectedly and seemingly without rhyme or reason. Readers are left to reset and quickly adapt to new settings, moods, and themes with each new story; this could, perhaps, have been avoided with a clearly defined organizational scheme, whether chronological, geographic, or thematic.

As a rule, most of the stories display the fundamental characteristics one might expect from the era's literature, such as a weighted exposition-to-action ratio and a particularly well-defined sense of honor. I was a bit disappointed to find little moral ambiguity in these tales- as many swashbucklers do, by definition, adopt a slightly more lax view of the rule of law- but did appreciate those stories that did allow their heroes the slightest bit of outlaw stature. Taken as a whole, the book offers an excellent demonstration of the authors' moral codes, and modern readers with a certain sense of irony will appreciate the great pains the authors take to ensure that their heroes are entirely morally upstanding, regardless of their actions or the circumstances. The plots, however, might leave its more seasoned readers a bit wanting; in many cases, I was able to plot most or all of a story's developments and twists well before they occurred, and I found many to be no more action-packed than other works from the same era.

Nonetheless, and despite an over-reliance on pre-Revolutionary France that isn't satisfactorily explained, the collection does include a pleasant array of stories that take place in locales both expected (England, Renaissance Italy, the pirate-laden Caribbean) and surprising (India). The book includes requisite, but pleasing, cameos by Robin Hood and Zorro, as well as a number of other expected tropes that are quite satisfying here, in their proper context. While I was disappointed with a lack of an Arthurian adventure, which seems to me to fit the category, I was pleased with the various authors' abilities to make their chosen settings come alive. In the majority cases, I felt myself transported across space and time, and while I only occasionally felt the kind of heart-racing tension that the stories must have elicited in their own eras, I thoroughly enjoyed most of these adventures. The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure is a bit lacking in context and, perhaps, editorial oversight and deliberation, but it is a satisfying collection that offers plenty of excitement, well-placed poetic interludes, and an adequate introduction into the literature that defined the golden age of swashbucklers.

Grade: B+