September 26, 2015

Book 47: Endzone

Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football
John U. Bacon

I think that every college football fan, regardless of allegiance, would admit that it's been somewhat difficult to be a Michigan fan lately. For better and worse, the Wolverines' time in the wilderness has coincided with the beginning of my own devotion to the maize and blue. It is thus with a mix of emotions that I approached Endzone, John U. Bacon's chronicle of the post-Rodriguez era at my beloved alma mater, a period that would come to be characterized by athletic director Dave Brandon's outsize ego. Bacon wisely opens with a brief but thorough history of Michigan's athletic department, including the origins and evolution of some of its most honored institutional traditions. While it would have been easy to assume, probably correctly, that his audience would already be familiar with everything from Michigan's status as a top academic and athletic university to the concept of a "Michigan Man", Bacon instead lays the groundwork that is so essential to understanding how deeply Brandon betrayed the fanbase and how effectively he turned tens of thousands of fans against him in such a relatively short span of time.

As a devoted Michigan fan who closely followed the events of Endzone as they occurred, I found it somewhat painful to revisit some of the program's lowest moments. Losing the bowl streak and all but a single game to Ohio State were bad enough, but Brandon's influence resonated far beyond the football field. I felt myself shaking with anger while reading about all of the longtime athletic department employees who suddenly found themselves unwanted or emotionally incapable of surviving under his cutthroat leadership; the remarkable institutional memory developed over half a century or more evaporated almost immediately, and that is something that cannot be simply or quickly recovered- if it is even possible to do so. Worse still are the stories of coaches pushed out despite respectable results and a positive atmosphere around their programs. Even after living through all of this the first time, I found myself occasionally shocked and often disgusted by many of the book's revelations, not least by the pettiness that seemingly characterized so much of Brandon's reign and the ease with which he casually discounted and discarded any opinions that weren't his own.

In his book, Bacon consistently does what Brandon continually failed to do: he examines the greater context and examines the evidence within it before suggesting a conclusion. While Bacon's intentions to tell a complete and relatively unbiased story are evident from the start, his attention to narrative detail isn't replicated in the book's copy editing. I hesitate to fault him for the errors that plague the book, from minor punctuation and spelling errors to entire sentences repeated next to one another, but they do detract from the reading experience and, more vitally, from the biased reader's sense of smug satisfaction upon discovering that Dave Brandon's would-be fairytale castle has an unnecessary possessive apostrophe (one of my personal pet peeves). Nonetheless, the coherent narrative structure and Bacon's general attention to detail make Endzone a remarkably pleasant reading experience, particularly for a nonfiction book.

Moreover, Bacon knows exactly how to weigh and balance anecdotes, opinions, and facts. Given his personal history with the Wolverines and the particular details of this story, the book's even-handedness is its finest achievement; Bacon could have easily slid into vindictive invective against Dave Brandon but operates with considerable restraint even when unmistakably condemning him. The stories coming out of South Campus have been remarkably consistent, and Bacon is careful to avoid libel, carefully documenting his sources and tempering their more outlandish claims. The interspersed segments detailing Will Hagerup's personal experiences with Brandon may initially seem misplaced and oddly specific, but it gradually becomes clear that Bacon includes Hagerup's experience as a counterpoint to the prevailing anti-Brandon sentiments of his various sources: there simply isn't much evidence in support of Brandon.

Tempting as it may be for the emotionally involved reader to turn away from Endzone, the Wolverine faithful can take comfort in the fact that the book does have a happy ending. As painful as it is to revisit the department's various embarrassments, it is equally (if not more) heartening to read about students, former players, and fans of all kinds coming together to oust the imposter and restore order. Michigan's successful pursuit of Jim Harbaugh forms a fitting coda to the book, a demonstration of the fierce power of a passionate group united by their unwavering belief in a set of principles and their desire to restore a beloved program to greatness. That may seem melodramatic, but few spectacles are as impressive as witnessing over 100,000 people cheering in unison, or waiting with a single bated breath for the ball to sail through the air, under the lights, and land in the arms of a waiting receiver clad in Michigan's traditional blue home jersey. I have felt the palpable power of fandom, and the groundswell of support for the program in the wake of arguably the worst stretch in its history is a remarkable phenomenon and, again, an appropriate ending for the book as Michigan fans finally begin to look forward with more than the tentative, automatic hope that characterizes most preseason fan bases.

All told, John Bacon's exploration of Michigan's recent troubles and, we can only hope, the beginnings of a new foundation of hope offer many lessons within and beyond the realm of big-time college athletics. Similar struggles play out daily across an increasingly incentivized marketplace that prioritizes profit over passion. At Michigan, fans felt marginalized throughout Dave Brandon's tenure, and resisted fiercely as the formerly charismatic chairman sought to undermine the very values that led them to the Wolverines in the first place. It is a story that resonates far beyond its stated scope and one that provides potentially valuable lessons applicable throughout the real world. As it turns out, Endzone is about far more than one program's recent history, striking instead at the heart of modern economic culture and the wars between thriving organic communities and the cold, calculating corporate machines who would destroy it all for a quick buck; what a relief, then, that Michigan fans' passion carries the day.

Grade: A

September 22, 2015

Book 46: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick deWitt

I picked this book up on a whim, with a faint recollection of having heard of it before but mostly with a view toward exploring the modern Western, a genre that I haven't really experienced. Coincidentally (or perhaps not, given that the novel was a staff selection), author Patrick deWitt now has a new novel coming out; I arrived just in time to scout him out. Despite being largely unfamiliar with Westerns aside from the traditional stereotypes, I thoroughly enjoyed The Sisters Brothers for both its mood and execution. The relatively straightforward plot follows a pair of feared fraternal assassins as they seek a particularly slippery target, but subtle touches firmly establish his strong characters in a convincing narrative arc that is disrupted only by a few unnecessary romantic subplots and clumsy interludes. Eli and Charlie's development and growth feel natural and allow for the book's climax to have its maximum emotional impact without excessive authorial meddling or moralization. While the brothers' maturation does make me yearn for a prequel featuring the acts that earned their ferocious reputation, it renders them sympathetic and likable even when traces of their former selves appear.

One of the book's interesting aspects is its relaxed tone, which is all the more surprising given the plot's time-sensitive nature. Even the action scenes glide at a leisurely pace, yet without sacrificing suspense in the bargain. I continually longed to read further, to find out whether the Sisters brothers would encounter their quarry and what they, as changed and ever-changing men, would do when they did. The shifting dynamics of their relationship also contribute to the novel's forward thrust, which is carried ever onward by occasional twists and surprises such as temporary love interests, scams of several descriptions, and chaotic encounters with local toughs. The fights are as convincingly portrayed as the characters and atmospherics, evoking a captivating vision of the Gold Rush-era West, from Oregon's forests to 49ers' camps and the suddenly bustling metropolis of San Francisco.

The Sisters Brothers is a difficult book to nail down, flourishing within its Western paradigm but failing to fully capitalize on its strengths. The brothers' remarkable growth forms the novel's emotional- and, ultimately, its narrative- core, but it is difficult to fully grasp or, indeed, believe their fearsome reputation without the assistance of flashbacks or other hard evidence about their past. They are sufficiently amoral to function within the scope of the novel's plot, but it is unclear whether they fully deserve to inspire the fear that they apparently do; if this uncertainty exists to prove a thematic point, it is ineffective and instead slightly aggravating. The novel is also hampered by a group of interludes that do little but distract from the core story. Altogether, though, the story feels complete, being robust without becoming burdened by unnecessary information. The thoroughly realized Charlie and Eli Sisters drive The Sisters Brothers, forming the backbone of a thoroughly enjoyable novel that only suffers slightly from the vague sense that, somehow, it could have been just a little bit better.

Grade: A-

September 16, 2015

Book 45: Manhattan Mayhem

Manhattan Mayhem
Edited by Mary Higgins Clark

With yet another mystery anthology under my belt, I suppose it's fair to say that I am prone to reading in genre-driven spurts. This particular collection offers stories set within some of Manhattan's many neighborhoods; disappointingly, however, they cluster around familiar Midtown and Downtown locales that, as a rule, don't provide much in the way of cultural and ethnic diversity. Most of the included authors do, however, take full advantage of their chosen setting, and the collection feels thematically balanced. Stories set in the present day and in bygone times peacefully coexist in an order that flows naturally without forcing too much clustering or narrative whiplash. Though several themes do repeat, including multiple stories set during the World War II era, each author adds enough originality- and writes with enough quality- to maintain the reader's interest throughout the book.

The collection's overall quality is not particularly evident after editor Mary Higgins Clark's opening story, "The Five-Dollar Dress", which is hampered by generally poor writing, a muddled timeline, and at least one disruption of continuity. Clark ultimately redeems herself with superb plotting, even if the details are indeed the devil, and a final twist that is so satisfying that the whole story is worth the occasionally painful experience of actually reading it. Some of the other stories also fall victim to heavy-handedness in either concept or execution or, possibly the worse sin in mystery writing, lead the reader to an obvious conclusion that actually turns out to be the story's ending; sometimes the payoff just doesn't work, even after a suitably enjoyable setup. Happily, Nancy Pickard's "Three Little Words" subverts this trope, lining up its suspects neatly and slowly picking them apart before reaching a genuinely surprising conclusion.

Ben H. Winters also provides a welcome break from the expected with "Trapped!", a play that initially elicited my serious skepticism, none the less so for its focus on, yes, the staging of a play-within-the-play and its inclusion of a character who decides to write the events of "Trapped!" itself as a story. This kind of metafiction, even (or perhaps especially) when attempted in jest and good humor, is rife with potential pitfalls; nevertheless, Winters somehow manages to avoid every single one of them on the way to creating a hilarious send-up that is arguably the collection's best story, and easily the one that I enjoyed the most. I was likewise ecstatic to find a genuine time-travel story (Justin Scott's "Evermore") and even more excited when it turned out to be an excellent use of both science fictional elements and a more traditional heist narrative, both of which I am particularly partial to. Even if Winters and Scott provide welcome counterweights to more traditional detective stories, S. J. Roznan's stands out as an excellent example of the latter, presenting a main character whom I would be happy to follow on subsequent adventures.

The good thus outweighs the bad, and it is easy enough to move on from a somewhat tepid story to a more thrilling neighbor next door. Mary Higgins Clark clearly knows her way around the genre, and has assembled a fitting tribute to the Mystery Writers of America's 70th anniversary. Manhattan Mayhem may exhibit some of the general unevenness that characterizes all short-story collections, but with its range of narrative styles and the remarkably high quality of most of its stories, this anthology offers many enjoyable examples of short-form mysteries that showcase the genre's current breadth and depth.

Grade: A

September 10, 2015

Book 44: The Water Knife

The Water Knife
Paolo Baciagalupi

Having recently read a book whose action takes place in a waterlogged version of New York City, I decided that it was only proper that I should balance it out with The Water Knife, set in the parched deserts and lush luxury towers of future Arizona and Nevada. Paolo Baciagalupi's politicized point of view is immediately evident in the great care he takes to imagine, establish, and describe his (frighteningly) plausible vision of the (frighteningly) near future. His devotion is evident in full force from the book's first pages to its conclusion, permeating every inch of the narrative but lending the setting and situations a vivid sense of realism that few dystopias- especially those making very pointed references to current practices- manage to achieve. I am, however, inclined to give Baciagalupi the benefit of the doubt when encountering the grotesque economic inequalities, vicious interstate regionalism and xenophobia, and rampant human rights abuses that create the book's central conflicts. Nonetheless, while the thoroughness of Baciagalupi's vision is admirable and its sheer vividness rarely surpassed, it occasionally gets in the way of his storytelling. Egregious incidents include a few particularly annoying references to Cadillac Desert, with characters repeatedly referring directly to its prescience; surely Baciagalupi could have gotten his point across in a slightly subtler manner, allowing the message to speak for itself. By this point in the novel, we readers get it; and most emphatically so.

Despite the author's somewhat smug reliance on overt references to our contemporary climate crisis, the rich details of the setting are alone enough to convey his environmentally conscious lessons. Certain typical, if not outright cliché, dystopian elements help ground the story, and Baciagalupi adds enough unique wrinkles to make the book continually interesting and his setting genuinely complex without being inconsistent or confusing. He is an author on a mission, using traditional setting and story elements to good effect and blending the better elements of dystopian literature and fast-paced thrillers to create a compelling narrative that perpetually drives the action forward, even in this novel of ideas. Even if he can (rightly, I think) be accused of producing heavy-handed message fiction, at least it is built on a solid narrative framework.

Moreover, his use of three vastly different narrative perspectives provides a complete view of the situation, from the luxurious fountains found in sprawling residential towers to the crowded communal water pumps that cannot possibly sate the poor masses' thirst. All the while, each contributes its fair share of suspense before and after the three parallel plots (inevitably) intersect. Baciagalupi seamlessly fosters great sympathy for his point-of-view characters, even those who behave somewhat amorally, and it is genuinely moving to see one character's sudden growth at the novel's climax- a moment that fosters genuine surprise without seeming somehow out of place with the preceding pages. Indeed, it is a masterful moment of meaningful character development that may sometimes be lacking in the pulpier genres.

If, then, the dystopian and moral elements of the novel are solidly in place, how is The Water Knife as a thriller? This is the element in which I was most acutely disappointed, likely because I (correctly) predicted the location of a vital clue during its first (unlabeled, but relatively obvious) appearance and could thus track its movements amid the escalating tension. This prevented me from becoming completely emotionally invested in the narrative, but the set pieces were nonetheless well executed and enjoyable. The story is played for the highest stakes- nothing less than the destination of the Colorado River, one of the last remaining water sources for the Southwest and California- and I was sufficiently invested in the main characters to care about their fates and the region's alike. The Water Knife may alienate some readers for its over-reliance on heavy-handed political platitudes, but its vision of a rain-starved Southwest provides a compelling, and eerily plausible, setting for the well-constructed thriller laid over the exquisite framework.

Grade: A-

September 6, 2015

Book 43: The Best American Mystery Stories 2013

The Best American Mystery Stories 2013
Edited by Lisa Scottoline

One way or another, I've been reading a lot of mystery stories and thrillers recently. The Best American series generally provides a reliably interesting selection of short genre fiction, and the 2013 mystery iteration is no exception to the rule. With a mix of traditional procedurals and literary examinations of crime and its effects on individuals and communities (as well as stories that proudly straddle the lines that some would wish to place between these types of tales), this anthology stands up admirably among its predecessors and peers. Editors Lisa Scottoline and Otto Penzler have ensured that the group is balanced, despite the emergence of certain themes and styles. Many of the stories herein are tinged with regret and/or told in a mournful manner, yet no two authors take the same approach to these and other emotions, highlighting and illustrating the rich complexity of human feelings and experiences and the ways in which crime brings them to the forefront. After reading a large number of these volumes, I am always amazed to discover new takes on the common theme; this year, Kevin Leahy's "Remora, IL" was the biggest surprise. Excellently and appropriately told in the typically tricky first-person plural voice, the story examines the ways in which the arrival of a private prison affects the surrounding small town, tackling the effects of prison culture through a different lens than is usually offered.

Even the more traditional procedurals and whodunnits are unusually successful here, providing as they do a range of vivid settings, compelling characters, and pleasantly confounding solutions. Clark Howard's "The Street Ends at the Cemetery" is a delightful (and surprisingly funny) heist story that somehow manages to maintain its suspense despite the evident spoiler in the title; it's an all-around delight that, I suspect, would be just as entertaining when read a second or third time. Similarly rewarding are historically minded tales from Bill Pronzini and Eileen Dreyer. Pronzini's "Gunpowder Alley" is a locked-room mystery with thoroughly believable late-19th century atmospherics and a conclusion that, fittingly perhaps, can be guessed before the fictional sleuth makes the same deduction; suffering only slightly from some botched descriptions of the setting (so crucial to the subgenre), it is nonetheless a pleasant throwback in both style and content. Dreyer takes a slightly different approach in "The Sailor in the Picture", which revisits the iconic V-Day celebrations in Times Square with an alternate perspective of a sailor's homecoming with a surprisingly modern sensibility. The story offers its share of suspense and action before seemingly heading for a tidy conclusion, only for the coda to reveal an alternate, yet deliciously satisfying, perspective on the preceding events.

Other stories in contemporary settings illustrate the ever-increasing types of stories that fall under the mystery umbrella, and most of those in this collection do seem to fit the theme. Andre Kocsis displays his innate sense for proper pacing in "Crossing", a thriller about a Vietnam-era deserter who leads a group of mysterious foreigners across the British Columbia-Washington border. Expertly deploying elements of more traditional genre stories, such as false leads and half-hidden truths, as well as tense and occasionally violent interactions between its characters, as well as a patient buildup to a final illustration of the stakes in play, Kocsis shows that a bit of melodrama need not necessarily diminish the power of a good story and that strong characters can thrive within any fictional situation or genre. The quality of individual stories is incredibly variable in these anthologies and may be somewhat dependent on the guest editor's tastes, but this collection indicates that 2013 was a banner year for short crime fiction. Crime and criminality may provide the essential link between the stories in The Best American Short Stories 2013, but each author's unique approach and style ensures that the state of mystery fiction, at least in its short form, is as strong as it has ever been.

Grade: A