Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year in Books



My Year in Books

Holy cow, it's 2012! How did that happen? I was still writing 2010 on deposit slips and stuff well into November and now I've got to remember to write 2012. Actually, it only occured to me the other day that the 1990s are over a decade ago now... insanity. Years fly by.

It still seems like only a few weeks ago that I started this blog but it has already been over a year. I have somehow managed to write something (sometimes only just) about every single book I read. I didn't think I would have very much to say after the first few books but I found that I was already crafting many of my blog posts in my head somewhere in the middle of most books I read. It has become part of my reading routine, which I think is worthwhile.

Not all of the books were fun to write about, mind you. There were some real clunkers on my reading list this year and since I always finish what I start, writing about some of these books was far more difficult than I would have expected. It's hard to muster the ambition to write about a book you barely finished, didn't like and would sooner forget. It is even harder to make it interesting. I suspect I failed on more than a few posts over the course of this year.

I started this blog as a bit of a reference experiment, really. I read so much that I often forget about a lot of books I read. I pick books up that I have read and forgotten about and it takes me dozens of pages for me to realize what's happening. This actually happened this year when I picked up How to be Good by Nick Hornby and realized about 30 pages in that I read it a few years ago. It obviously hadn't made an impact.

I wanted a place where I could record my thoughts, snide comments and theories about everything I read and maybe spark up a discussion or two along the way (and I won't lie, I'm more than narcissistic enough to enjoy knowing that people are reading what I write and I love comments). In that respect, this blog has been a huge success for me and I look forward to writing it (almost) every time I finish a book.

Moving forward, I am going to try carrying a notebook with me while I read. I found that I often had great ideas about a book only to forget about the idea when it came time to post a blog. This lack of planning made many of my blog posts feel rushed and superficial. I want to be a bit more astute in the coming year.

That being said, I didn't take any notes on this post and I'm writing it with a New Year's hangover. Even so, I'm going to try and divide my year in reading into a few year-end lists, with some superficial comments to go along with them. I provided the links to the actual posts, some of which aren't terrible. All of these are in no particular order.

Best Fiction of the Year

1. Hater by David Moody
I cannot wait to read the second in this series. What a great take on the zombie mythology.

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
This book surprised the hell out of me. I expected to hate it and it blew me away.

3. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Who knew that fantasy could be so riveting. Another first in a series that I expect to continue in 2012.

4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Absolutely sublime. One of the best books I have read in a decade.

5. Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
If not for Never Let Me Go, this would have been the best book I read this year. It is such a masterful piece of fiction.

Best Non-Fiction of the Year

1. Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer


3. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace



(I read so much good non-fiction this year that I could have had five more here and I wouldn't have felt I left anything off.)

Worst Books of the Year

Blogs don't make good books (My Life in Books: The Movie!). Besides, college humor is so 2000.

2. Henry's Sisters by Cathy Lamb
This book is quite probably the worst book I have ever read. If anyone brings this book up in conversation I still go off on insane rants.

New age hokum.

4. Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton
Harry Potter without an ounce of fun.

5. Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

Anyway. Hope everyone had a great New Years (I did) and I look forward to continuing the blog into 2011... I mean 2012. As a parting gift, here is the complete list of my reading this year...

  1. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell – Tucker Max
  2. Smoke Screen – Sandra Brown
  3. The Mirror Crack’d – Agatha Christie
  4. The Stone Diaries – Carol Shields
  5. Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie
  6. Life – Keith Richards
  7. Blue World – Robert McCammon
  8. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden State of Everything – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  9. Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada – Stuart McLean
  10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
  11. Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follet
  12. The Walking Dead Vol. 13: Too Far Gone – Robert Kirkman
  13. The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell
  14. Stanley Park – Timothy Taylor
  15. The Face of Battle – John Keegan
  16. A History of Violence – John Wagner
  17. Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
  18. Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
  19. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
  20. The Cider House Rules – John Irving
  21. Black Ajax – George MacDonald Fraser
  22. In a Free State – V.S. Naipaul
  23. Clara Callan – Richard B. Wright
  24. Cutting For Stone – Abraham Verghese
  25. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time – John Kelly
  26. The Rolling Stones Interviews – Jann S. Wenner
  27. The Butcher’s Boy – Thomas Perry
  28. Henry’s Sisters – Cathy Lamb
  29. Flashman – George MacDonald Fraser
  30. 6 x H – Robert A. Heinlein
  31. Scar Tissue – Anthony Keidis
  32. Every Man Dies Alone – Hans Fallada
  33. Just So Stories – Rudyard Kipling
  34. Dead Famous – Ben Elton
  35. People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks
  36. Hater – David Moody
  37. Think of a Number – John Verdon
  38. Thinner – Stephen King
  39. Drowning Ruth – Christina Schwarz
  40. The Stranger – Albert Camus
  41. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
  42. A Spy in the House of Love – Anais Nin
  43. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
  44. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom – Peter Guralnick
  45. The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You – Dorothy Bryant
  46. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera
  47. I Am Ozzy – Ozzy Osbourne
  48. A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby
  49. Where Men Win Glory – Jon Krakauer
  50. Endymion Spring – Matthew Skelton
  51. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  52. Atonement – Ian McEwan
  53. Eleanor Rigby – Douglas Coupland
  54. Fifth Business – Robertson Davies
  55. Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present – John Ross
  56. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Berniere
  57. Helmet For My Pillow – Robert Leckie
  58. Why China Will Never Rule The World: Travels in the Two Chinas – Troy Parfitt
  59. A Game of Thrones: Book One A Song of Fire and Ice – George R.R. Martin
  60. Middlesex – Jeffery Eugenides
  61. Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
  62. Pygmy – Chuck Palahniuk
  63. Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace
  64. My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself – A.J. Jacobs
  65. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
  66. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
  67. Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole – Benjamin R. Barber
  68. Dust – Joan Frances Turner
  69. Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895-1945 – George Kerr
  70. That’s Me In The Middle – Donald Jack
  71. The Education of Little Tree – Forrest Carter
  72. Sabriel – Garth Nix
  73. Let The Great World Spin – Colum McCann
  74. Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game – Michael Lewis
  75. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
  76. The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Eyre Affair



The Eyre Affair
By Jasper Fforde

I actually finished this novel a few days ago but I got a strange acting gig on a Taiwanese television program that had me on the set for 15 hours a day for a couple of days. No worries... if I ever had any delusions about being a television or film actor, they are officially gone. I have the utmost respect for those working in the industry, but the hours of tedium were too much for me to handle, even with a good book.

Anyway...

Speaking of tedium, I really have to start reading the second books in the series' I start lest they begin to overwhelm me and reading becomes more of a chore and less of a pastime. Don't get me wrong, I've loved many of these books but I haven't finished a series since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo this time last year and I've started five series this calendar year. The Eyre Affair, book one of the Tuesday Next novels, marks the sixth series this year and eighth series overall that I have begun without finishing. The others, in no particular order are:

1. The Bandy Papers (read book one)
2. The Hater Series (read book one)
3. Sabriel (read book one)
4. Endymion Spring (read book one)
5. Game of Thrones (read book one)
6. Sea of Poppies (read book one)
7. Twilight (read book one)

Aside for Endymion Spring and Twilight (which I wouldn't finish ever if you put me on a salary to do so), I intend to finish all of these series. Therefore, in true New Year's spirit, I resolve to read at least six book twos in 2012 (that is, if the world doesn't end). I already have the next Bandy Papers book and the second Sabriel book on my shelf and I've got an Amazon gift certificate set aside for the second Game of Thrones and Dog Blood, so this seems like a reasonable goal. Yay for reading goals!

As for The Eyre Affair is a solid piece of alternate-history science fiction that is part Doctor Who and part Monty Python... That is to say it's legit sci-fi with all sorts of tongue-in-cheek humor for sci-fi fans, history geeks and literary types alike. The story is full of sly winks to those in the know from character names to historical figures. But you'd better pack a calculator, a pencil and a protractor before venturing too far into this book because, like all good time travel novels, the chronology will make your head hurt. If there's a test later, you're screwed (probably because you already took it two weeks ago in the future).

The protagonist is Tuesday Next, a plays-by-her-own-rules SpecOp agent working for something called SO-27 (LiteraTec). While the novel doesn't expand on exactly what her job entails, she is responsible for any thing that has to do with literature, and in this world, literature is a far more dicey issue than in our own.

Jasper Fforde has supposed a very detailed world in which vampires and werewolves exist and are a nuisance for law enforcement, literature supplants television and music as the most pop of all cultures and technology exists whereby not only is time travel possible but also travel into actual novels where villains can alter story lines, characters can be assassinated or interested parties can simply wander around for weeks as a tourist (for a price though... and only in Japan). Awesome.

Which got me to thinking...

If there was a single book in which I would like to visit, what would it be? Not to alter the story line, mind you, just to wander around in the world imagined by the author. I'm sure that upon further reflection I will change my answer, but my immediate inclination is to say Island by Aldous Huxley. It's hard to pass up the chance to visit utopia as perceived by the author of one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written. Actually, I'd probably get a kick out of a visit into Brave New World as well. Or maybe Jitterbug Perfume. Wait... how about Replay or... or, or... or...

Ahem. Where was I?

Oh yeah...

As for the second question... If there was a character in a book that you would love to eliminate, who would it be?

I'll have to think about that one before things get out of hand.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Help



The Help
By Kathryn Stockett

Let me cut to the chase. I liked this book. This surprises me since it is the sort of Oprah-ish novel that I usually detest. It was only a few shades above Henry's Sisters and yet I found myself blasting through 100 pages a day because it was just that readable. It certainly wasn't the best book I read this year and it won't be making any top ten lists but it managed to sit me down for hours on end, sending me into fits at points because I desperately needed to know what happened next.

Of course, the book is full of faults, some of which are inexcusable. For example, far too many characters are two-dimensional caricatures of Southern women. I find it difficult to believe that real Southern white women could be this shallow and vindictive nor do I believe that Southern black women are all so universally noble. The character of Hilly Holbrook, a white women and the president of the Jackson Women's League, is especially grating. Stockett creates a virtually unlikable, unsympathetic banshee of a women who seems to grow in monstrosity throughout the novel. On the one hand, a wonderfully crafted villain, on the other a totally unbelievable human. I dislike characters who are entirely defined by a particular character quirk and Hilly is exactly that. Her entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to provide a sounding board for the segregationist establishment in 1960s Mississippi. There is no nuance, no complexity to her character. She was simply evil. Evil to the point where I was often left wondering why she was able to acheive her status in the community in the first place, much less maintain it. Not even the most mindless drone of a person could be blind to this woman's issues. Hilly isn't the only example of this two-dimensional characterization, but she is the most blatant. There were times when I thought I was reading a Disney cartoon.

Furthermore, Stockett seems to have issues with conclusions. While I will try to avoid spoilers, the end was a travesty. There were far too many loose ends that could have been tied up. A lot of sub-plots were left unresolved, least of which involved the characters of Celia and Minny. I appreciate an open-ended conclusion but I also need a modicum of closure, especially in a novel such as this. Stockett wasn't writing high literature. There is no need to leave so much ambiguity in the end of a novel. The end should have had the antagonist with egg on her face for the world to see and the protagonists riding off into the beautiful Mississippi sunset. The novel was cartoonish from start to finish, why infuse it with reality on the last ten pages. Readers stuck it out mainly for the hust desserts. Provide them, Stockett! I'll leave that there lest I give too much away.

Of course none of this matters, I guess. Like Harry Potter or a good John Grisham story, if a book makes to turn the pages and engrosses you to the degree that The Help did for me, then you must excuse its faults and own up to the fact that it was enjoyable. The Help is most certainly a fun read and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something that won't tax their brain too much. My fundamental problem with The Help has nothing to do with the book itself nor does it have anything to do with Kathryn Stockett. It has to do with its testimonials... specifically this one:

"This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill A Mockingbird... If you read only one book... let this be it." -- NPR.org

Now, I love me some NPR. I'm an avid listener of Fresh Air (I think Terry Gross just might be the best interviewer of her era) and Science Friday but whoever it was that wrote this testimonial has some explaining to do.

I'm not a fan of comparing good new fiction to other, older, more important literature. I don't think it's fair to the book or the author to make premature comparisons to established novels. It's a recipe for disappointment. Comparing mediocre fiction to classic literature is simply wrong. It not only sets the mediocre fiction up for ridicule and mockery but it cheapens the legacy of the said classic, even if for a few moments.

Let's put it this way: Comparing The Help to To Kill A Mockingbird is akin to comparing the science fiction film Avatar to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. While I'm not implying that Avatar was a bad film, I am implying that Avatar doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Lang's genre defining work. Perhaps, in time, it will. But it is time, not comparisons, that will determine its place. Let the piece establish its place based on its own cultural merits.

This is not a knock on critics. Unlike so many others, I understand the need for critical response to pop culture. There is so much music, literature, film and television to sift through these days that critics often serve as a cultural guide for those searching for their next cultural fix. While I would never use critical response as an absolute gauge, it does serve to steer cultural consumers in the right directions. However, critics often overstate their case by comparing (unfairly) recent servings of culture with established canon. How many rock and roll bands have suffered under the moniker of "the next Nirvana," or "the next White Stripes?" How many films have flopped because a critic said something like: "If you liked Lawrence of Arabia, you're going to love Ishtar"?

Exactly.

This leaves The Help in an awkward position. A potential buyer reads that it is comparable to To Kill A Mockingbird, buys the novel, reads it and discovers that it is, in fact, not at all like Harper Lee's classic (Surprise!). In fact, The Help is nothing close to Lee's compassionate take on the South under the Jim Crow Laws. Skeeter has nothing on Boo Radley. Lee created a far more subtle world shaded in all sorts of grays while Stockett has written a very readable black and white (pardon the pun) soap opera for the Oprah set. This sort of gushing testimonial colors an opinion faster than any other platitudes a critic might write. As soon as you place a book along side another, tangible book, the reader has no choice but to spent their time making comparisons they may not have otherwise made. Disappointment abounds.

I tried very hard not to let this testimonial color my opinion of The Help, but if I had, I would have shredded this book in this space. The Help is no in the same league as To Kill A Mockingbird. It's not even playing the same game. But that's fine. there are all sorts of fiction. Not everything is going to be James Joyce or Harper Lee The Help is an enjoyable read and nothing more.

I have to wonder about that reviewer for NPR.org. What was his motivation for writing sure an over-wrought blurb? Was his or her goal to get people to read Stockett's novel or was his/her goal to get their blurb on the cover of the book and, therefore, further their own career. If it's the latter, that's perhaps the most pathetic thing of all. The sort oftransparent, two-dimensional career advancement that Hilly Holbrook would have employed. I shudder to think of the implications of such irony.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Moneyball



Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis

Full disclosure here: I suck at math.

I essentially dropped out of math in the eleventh grade (and the behest of my math teacher!) to concentrate on subjects that provided me with the least numbers possible: English, history, geography and certain science courses. I have nothing particular against math and I am perfectly capable of doing simple, day-to-day math in my adult life. I just wasn't interested in the higher concepts involved in mathematics. I never saw the practical application for me. Twenty years later, I still don't.

I don't have a learning disability, though, and I can prove it. When I was younger still, I was an avid collector of baseball cards. I wasn't one of those sports collectible guys who bought individual cards (or entire series) as investments. I was a collector of the old school variety. I would haul ass down to the corner store and buy as many packs of cards my allowance would provide. I'm talking about the packs with the tongue slicing shards of gum that dusted one card in the pack with sugar. I accumulated my cards the old way: luck of the draw and a mouth full of cavities.

Baseball cards did a few things for me: First, and probably most important, they moulded me into a baseball fan. It's hard not to collect baseball cards and not want to watch these guys in action. I quickly became a fan of my hometown Toronto Blue Jays (this was 1985 so as luck would have it were it the Jays were on the early track to league dominance that would culminate in two World Series in 1992 and 1993... good time to be a Jays fan) but also acquired affinities toward a lot of other teams and individual players.

The second thing baseball cards did for me was provide my Asperger Syndrome with an ideal outlet. I'm not entirely sure whether I had Asperger Syndrome but looking back it sure looks like I did. I would obsess for hours over my baseball cards. Sorting and resorting them into all sorts of absurd orders. By team (obvious), by season (okay), by photo (???), and by stat. Since the first two are self-explanatory and the third is weird, let me explain the fourth.

For those who have never seen a Topps (always Topps) baseball card, the player's photo appears on the front and his career statistics appear on the back. I would take career totals in things like home runs, RBIs, batting average, stolen bases, slugging percentage, wins, ERA, strikeouts etc... and organize my cards thusly. I loved to see who the top ten players were and found myself actually rooting for certain players to make the top ten. If that's not Asperger Syndrome I don't know what is.

What I'm getting as is that I loved those stats. I obsessed over them. And, I'm fairly certain that had my math classes incorporated baseball statistics into the curriculum, I would have continued math right up to graduation. But... (and here's the scary part) had I ever gotten my hands on Bill James' Baseball Abstracts back in the early 1980s, I shudder how my life might of changed. More on that in a second...

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis is essentially the story of two people: Bill James, the baseball enthusiast turned freaknomic writer turned baseball guru who is celebrated (or reviled) for the invention of sabermetrics and Billy Beane the can't-fail prospect that failed turned general manager of the Oakland Athletics who took James' odd take on the game and applied much of it to an actual team, with dramatic results.

Lewis begins the book with a simple question: How did one of the poorest teams in professional baseball (The Oakland A's) win so many games? Since baseball is one of the last professional sports without a salary cap, one supposes that the system favors the richest teams, the ones who can buy the best talent while leaving the poorer teams with everything that was left. By and large, that is the case. The rich teams are perennially good (with an odd bad season in there) while the the poor teams are perennially bad (with an odd good season in there). Except Oakland. They were always poor and always good. Why?

This led Lewis to Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's. Beane, who is strapped with one of Major League Baseball's lowest budgets for player salaries, cannot compete with the likes of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. He is the GM of a small market team and he must find creative ways to build a winning team lest he become the Pittsburgh Pirates or, worse, the Montreal Expos. Beane has made scouting, drafting and finding diamonds in the rough an art form. Through statistical analysis (and some psychological profiling) Beane is able to weed out all the players who don't fit his mould and zero in on those who do, namely those who show a particular knack for simply getting on base. Thus while other GMs in baseball concentrate on numbers such as hits, home runs, RBIs and the such, Beane focuses all his efforts on On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. where did he get such a crazy idea?

Enter Bill James. James is the father of what is now known as sabermetrics, a system of statistical analysis that more accurately described what is happening on a baseball field. James asked wildly fascinating questions like: what would happen if Mike Schmidt only batted against the Cubs? Did quick young black players loose their speed earlier in their careers than quick young white players? Does fielding account for that much over a 162 game schedule? In its current incarnation, a fielding error is when a fielder either fails to control the ball in play or throws the ball wildly resulting in the achievement of one or more bases for the opposition. What the statistic does not take into account is how hard the ball is hit, how much range that particular fielder can cover (a fielder with more range can cover more ground which would give him more opportunities to make an error but is obviously more valuable to a team than a fielder with limited range) and the fact that in order to make an error, a fielder had to have done something right: be in the right place at the right time to make a play.

As you can see, Bill James is a riot at parties.

Anyway, Moneyball is a fascinating look inside the world of baseball statisticians, oddball players like Scott Hatteberg, Jeremy Brown and Chad Bradford and one of baseball's most bizarre front offices. Beane, via James, went on to create a finely honed system that stacked the deck statistically in their favor by determining how many runs it would take to win 95 games (95 wins being a benchmark for making the playoffs), finding the players who, together could be reasonably predicted to produce said number of runs, eliminate the improbability from the game (no sacrifices, no bunting, no base stealing... all of them risk eliminating potential base runners and, ergo, potential runs). Add players who see an inordinate amount of pitches per plate appearance and you have the sort of team that grinds their opposition into the ground in a cold, heartless but ultimately unsexy way.

To see the game stripped down to commodities and statistics is simple extraordinary and anyone who assumed that Beane was an aberration in the league (for example: Pat Gillick) has been proven entirely wrong. Both my Toronto Blue Jays (who are poised for great things in 2012, mark my words) and the Boston Red Sox have incorporated many of Beane's systems into their own. Theo Epstein, a Beane convert, assembled the Red Sox teams that won World Series in 2004 and 2007 was recently hired by the hapless Chicago Cubs (one of the richest teams in baseball) to overhaul their team and (hopefully) bring a championship to the Southside for the first time since 1908.

I know there is a movie and I'm certainly not covering new ground here, but if there is anyone out there that has not seen the movie, read this book or heard of Billy Beane I urge you to sit down with this book It's worth it on so many levels. Michael Lewis has written a classic piece of non-fiction that has the ability to appeal to baseball fans and non-fans alike. Whether you collected baseball cards as a kid or don't know the difference between a bat and a glove, Moneyball is worth the read.

It should have come with a stick of gum.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Let The Great World Spin


Let The Great World Spin
By Colum McCann

Multi-protagonist novels that change voices each chapter can be extraordinarily problematic. The writer must capture the reader, build an engaging story around a particular character and then follow through with the story in a matter of twenty to thirty pages before doing it again. And then again. And then again. An emotionally exhausting endeavor, I would imagine. The writer then has to weave all these stories together in a way that denotes a complete novel as opposed to simply a collection of short stories with an over-riding theme. It's a style I enjoy when the author is talented enough to employ it (for example Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell) but in the hands of less talented writers, the results are often nothing short of a train wreck. So I'm often wary at the beginning of such reads.

From the reader's perspective, these sorts of novels can be emotionally taxing. The reader becomes heavily invested in a character that may or may not appear in any of the subsequent chapters (and then, often only in passing). While this sort of reader baiting offers tantalizing morsels of context outside the character's primary story, starting over ever chapter with a new protagonist often takes the wind out of a novels sails, and quickly. Again, if this sort of novel is written poorly, reading it can become a burden very quickly.

Not so with Colum McCann's 2007 novel Let The Great World Spin. McCann seems to understand this style of writing well. I have not read anything else by McCann but I would hazard a guess that this isn't the first novel that he has written in this style. Despite feeling emotionally drained following the end of any specific chapter, I found myself falling hopelessly into new chapters almost immediately after starting them. By the middle of the novel, I could almost guess as to who might be the main character of the next chapter given the characters that had appeared in passing in the previous ones, each character fleshing out the over-arching story, and I couldn't wait to see what more I would learn about the central veins of the story.

McCann weaves a tapestry of stories that not only encapsulates the lives of his characters, but establishes New York City as the primary character of the entire novel, making the characters simply bits of a larger theme. The protagonists (there are 11 in total) survey the heights and depths of the city from Park Avenue and the Financial District to the dankest recesses of the subway lines and the grimiest slums in the Bronx. While each character's story is itself a window into the human experience, the collection is a delicious cross-section of life in one of the world's most dichotomous cities, a city synonymous with reinvention and new beginnings. In this respect Let The Great World Spin is similar to Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides in the way that it establishes the setting as a primary character in the novel, making it a living, breathing character. One with both compassion and cruelty.

The novel wraps itself around the real life events of August 7th, 1974. On that day a man named Phillipe Petit somehow managed to string a tightrope from the North to the South Towers of New York's recently completed World Trade Center. In an act of unlicensed artistry, Petit proceeded to walk the length of the rope several times much to the delight of New Yorkers and much to the chagrin of the New York City Police Department. This real life episode becomes the lynch-pin for the fictionalized stories that appear in the novel. While love, redemption and forgiveness are all central themes to this wonderfully crafted novel, what McCann seems to be telling us is that while Petit's captivating antics were elevated hundreds of feet above the city, what we don't see are the millions of people walking their very own tightropes throughout the city (and one presumes throughout the world) each and every day. We all take our risks, defy and deny ourselves and each other and walk that precious line for all we are worth.

Excellent book. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sabriel



Sabriel
By Garth Nix

(edit: As a commenter noted below, Sabriel was published in 1995, predating both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. My claim of plagerism is both inaccurate and most likely offensive. I don't know how I missed that, but I did. Sorry to Garth Nix and anyone who might take offense. I'll be careful about my research in the future. Anyway, I'm leaving my gaffe up for all to see. I'm not going to edit out my stupidity and gross inaccuracies.}

What is it with fantasy fans?

Mention to a fantasy fan that you don't happen to like fantasy and you're going to get this annoyingly predictable response:

"Oh! Well, you've haven't read the right stuff! Let me lend you..."

And now you're obliged to read a bunch of nonsense about mages and wizards and some sort of underaged Christ/David metaphor wrestling with a Satan/Goliath archetype with elves and dwarves and elementals and other such nonsense because said fantasy fan really believes they can turn you on to their particular brand of nerdism. Fantasy fans possess an almost fundamentalist missionary zeal. They're like the Jehovah's Witnesses of book readers. It's almost Jihadic.

I've blogged on this phenomenon before when I wrote about Game of Thrones, which I happened to enjoy. I knew at the time that I should curb my enthusiasm for the book lest my friends, who know I hate fantasy, interpret my enjoyment of George R. R. Martin's opus as an invitation for recommendations and book lends that will only lead to hurt feelings when I tell them how much I hate their taste in books (you must remember that I will and do read everything that I get due to my lack of English books). I'm all about honesty when it comes to books.

Unfortunately, I raved about Game of Thrones and lo and behold one of my friends leant me a series of books by Garth Nix called The Old Kingdom Trilogy. The first in the series is called Sabriel and so resembles the plots of both Game of Thrones and Harry Potter that I considered filing a plagiarism lawsuit myself (but then I reminded myself that all fantasy is plagiarized Tolkien and let it slide). The story revolves around a young woman named, oddly enough, Sabriel, who is the daughter of something called an Abhorsen, a term that is never fully explained (forgive me if this is common vernacular in the fantasy lexicon. I'm a bit of an innocent). She lives in a place called Anceltierre which sounds and feels suspiciously like England circa 1916 with its fancy new motor cars and biplanes and machine guns and (gasp!) tanks.

Ancelstierre borders something called the Old Kingdom. There is a (surprise, surprise) wall between the two countries, mainly because one country (Ancelstierre) is modern and free of magic and the other (the Old Kingdom) is freaking riddled with the stuff and they seem to want to keep it that way. The Old Kingdom is governed by something called the Charter and Charter marks, neither of which is ever explained (at all) and something else known as Free Magic (another term left suspiciously unexplained). The line between life and death is decidedly fuzzy. There seems to exist several gates after death and a soul must travel through them all before it is well and truly dead (leaving it virtually impossible to actually die in the Old Kingdom... Billy Crystal would be heartened to know that many people can be simply "mostly dead.") Charter mages, necromancers and Abhorsens can move freely between life and death. How and why? I still don't know. I guess the Abhorsen's job is to guide restless souls past the final gates so that they don't disturb the living. If that's the case, a lot of Abhorsens have been slacking on the job. Apparently there is a war brewing between the living and the dead, and the dead have the upper hand.

All of this might sound intriguing, and I suppose it is. early-modern western nation bordering on a fantasy world that is on the brink of a Civil War of biblical proportions. It's just that there is so much nonsense about bells and Charter marks and Mordicants and Charter stones and free magic and the rules of the Old Kingdom that were never once fully explained to me. I know Sabriel is the first in a series of three books (I have all three) and I kept checking and rechecking to see whether I was inadvertently reading the second in the series.

Furthermore, this book read like a really bad second rate Hollywood blockbuster. It had all the trappings of a typical action movie arch. A slow start followed by a seemingly never ending chase that, only at the very end, takes a turn and allows our hero to gain the final advantage and secure the climactic ending.

This last point is a personal pet peeve of mine. In recent years, far too many authors have adopted the story arches used in Hollywood movies and superimposed them onto novels. Novels, like movies, have become little more than flash-quick action sequences followed by a brief lulls to catch the reader/viewer up with the plot advances. Add a romantic sub-plot and a sassy sidekick and the formula is complete.

Nix does very little with this book other than drive the plot along. As much as I hate fantasy, one of the hallmarks of the genre is the way the best writers establish their character's personalities and idiosyncrasies as well as the beauty and majesty of the setting. Nix does absolutely none of this. Sabriel, her father and Touchstone remain as two-dimensional now as they were when they were introduced and Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom remain nothing more than cardboard backdrops behind these entirely uninteresting characters. Never mind the realms of death. Here Nix had a wonderful opportunity to describe the corporeal world beyond the grave and failed entirely. By the end I found myself cheering for the bad guy, Voldemo... I mean Kerrigor. He seemed to be the only character of any interest although his descent into evil was (also) never fully explained. Do you notice a pattern with this book yet?

Anyway, Sabriel fails on so many levels that I'm really hesitant to pick up the second in the series. I know I will because they're on my shelf, but I suspect they will wait for a long time. Honestly, fantasy fans... if this is anything close to a good example of modern fantasy writing, you're never going to win converts, even if you hand this book out door to door.

Also reviewed from this series:

Lirael

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Education of Little Tree


The Education of Little Tree
By Forrest Carter

The Education of Little Tree is a classic novel of startling compassion. For those who have never heard of the book, it is a stark depiction Little Tree, an orphaned Cherokee boy who is taken in my his grandparents who live high in the mountains of Arkansas and remain distrustful of the encroaching outside world. Little Tree's grandparents, along with a cast of interesting "mountain people" with names such as Willow John, Mr. Wine and Pine Billy take responsibility for raising Little Tree in a traditional mountain way. At once gorgeous in his simplicity and unnerving in its naivety, Little Tree embarks on an education where the world is his classroom and everyone is his teachers.

This is a classic novel in virtually every sense of the word. Both touching and heartbreaking, Forrest Carter has a great deal of empathy for his characters and their way of life. Furthermore, it depicts such a radically marginalized segment of the population that it, in essence, becomes a trail marker of sorts in cataloging a diminishing history. Carter has a way of getting to the heart of an often voiceless population which makes Carter's own story seem all the more baffling.

Forrest Carter was born Asa Earl Carter and spent a large portion of his political career as a speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace, the staunchest proponent of continued segregation. Carter fought vehemently against Civil Rights via his own publication known as The Southerner and even founded the North Alabama Citizens Council, a group closely affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and a paramilitary group known as the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy.

Later in life when he wrote The Education of Little Tree and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Carter used the name Forrest (after Nathan Bedford Forrest, of course) and implied that he was not Asa Earl. What's more, he perpetrated that Little Tree was based on his own Cherokee upbringing and that the book was autobiographical.

What gives?

How does one reconcile a man from his work? Is there repentance through art? I've been ruminating about these questions since I finished the novel and did a bit of research on Carter (at the insistence of the guy who leant me the book). Is Carter, knowing his background, allowed to have this sort of compassion without misgivings from the reader? Oprah Winfrey says no. The Education of Little Tree used to be on her reading list but was yanked because she couldn't reconcile his past with his later words. Fair enough, I suppose. Each is entitled to their opinion. But the problem for me is that the book is simply excellent, no matter where it came from. Does that count for anything? Let's put it another way: if it was announced that Adolf Hitler was, in fact, the author of all the original Dr. Suess books, would that change them?

I'm torn.

On the one hand, The Education of Little Tree is perhaps the best novel I have ever read on growing up in a Native American household. It's a balanced depiction of life at its more simple and pleasurable and certainly doesn't give any credence to the sort of person Asa Earl Carter was (in fact there are several characters in the book that could be Asa Earl Carter and all of them are treated with the abject disdain they deserve). A classic is a classic is a classic. Many writers, including poet Ezra Pound, were pro-fascist in the 1930 and the legacy of their work has not suffered as such.

On the other hand, even in his repentance he took the name of America's most notorious white supremacist and one should be held accountable to their past, especially when their past has hurt so many. The Education of Little Tree does, all of a sudden, feel like profiting off the very people the author fought against his entire political career by pandering to their soft spot. If it turned out that Mark Twain was a rampant pedophile I think it would really alter the way people read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and would have an adverse effect on his legacy.

I'm still thinking on this. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

That's Me In The Middle


That's Me In The Middle
Donald Jack

I'd never heard of Bartholomew Bandy or the Bandy Papers Series until a friend of mine emailed me about it a few months back. He had read my blog post about Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser and asked whether I had ever read the aforementioned series. When I mentioned that I hadn't even heard of this seminal Canadian series, he was aghast enough to have two of the three in the series shipped from Victoria to Taiwan post-haste.

I started on book two (My friend couldn't find the first book in the series) and although Donald Jack presupposes that you are familiar with the characters prior to opening this book, it is not all that hard to catch up.

Bartholomew Bandy is part Yossarian, part Mr. Bean, part Forrest Gump and part... well, yes, Flashman (without the libidinous side, of course). The novel is a classic comedy of errors in which Bandy finds himself in all sorts of Jack Tripper-esque situations. There are dozens of mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and well-timed quips, asides, and comebacks. Bandy himself is a naive colonial whose entire service in the British military during World War I is a continuous series of train wrecks that somehow find our hero as a pilot for the burgeoning RAF, promoted to colonel, demoted back to the front, decorated as a war hero and then married.

While the entire book is well-paced and fun to read I was especially enamored with the insanely innocent and maddeningly stupid bedroom romps. the first involves Bandy, his fiancee, an over-zealous widow, a disgraced Russian diplomat and the wife of a government official and plays out like Frazier on steroids. The second (and far more entertaining) is Bandy's wedding night, where his innocence and gentlemanly manners culminate in one if the most hysterical incidents in all of literature.

Aside from being a comedy of errors, That's Me In The Middle is also historical fiction and what sort of historical fiction is complete without the hero encountering a historical figure of two. Bandy encounters both future Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson and Winston Churchill during his escapades. He advises the former to avoid a career in politics and inspires the latter. All with side-splitting results, of course.

For those interested in obscure Canadian book series' from the 1960s or anyone, anywhere that like these sorts of comedies, That's Me In The Middle is a fine choice. Like I said, I haven't read the first in the series, but I have the third and intend to read it very soon. Donald Jack seems to be a forgotten Canadian treasure and worth rediscovering if you, like me, have never heard of him.

Finally, seeing as this is a Canadian novel, I must put it to the Canadian Literature test. My scientific scale measure Canadian-ness to a very clinical degree. The unit I use is the hip (named after a certain obscure Kingston band) and Canadiana is measured on a scale from 0 through 12 (0 being a Hindu Veda and 12 meaning the book was printed on a hockey puck). Let's see:

1. Novel set between 1900~1945.

Yes. The novel takes place entirely in the span of 1917. Score 1.5 hips.

2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement.

Although none of the novel takes place in Canada proper, there are small towns, islands and northern settlements featured in the book. Score 1 hip.

3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification.

Actually, no. the only significant female character is Katherine who seems to have her shit together. Score 0 hip.

4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men.

Of course. Score 1 hip.

5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks.

Yes. Score 1 hip.

6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality.

This is a comedy so of course not. Score 0 hip.

7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge! Check! 1 hip.

8. Story involves a major snowstorm.

No. Score 0 hip.

9. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism.

Yes. My favorite example (and I'm paraphrasing) is that America is still a British colony because any colony willing to go to war over tea is still in the fold. Score 2 hips.

10. Story explores multiculturalism.

Russians, French and Irish Republicans? Why not? Score 1 hip.

11. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes.

Yes. Score 1 hip.

Final score: 9.5 on a scale of 12. That's Me In The Middle is definitely a Canadian novel. While not hockey puck material, this book would have no problem locating Medicine Hat on a map. Steven Leacock would be proud.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895 - 1945


Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895 - 1945
By George Kerr

Apologies. There doesn't seem to exist a cover for this particular tome. You'll have to do with a map instead.

For anyone out there who is an not expert on (or even familiar with) the history of Taiwan and the far east, George Kerr is a rock star in the genre. Kerr is the author of the now legendary Formosa Betrayed and a giant in the field of Taiwanese history during Japanese occupation, the handover to KMT forces in 1945 and the subsequent invasion of KMT loyalists in 1949. In short, if you're into Taiwan, George Kerr is your man.

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895-1945 is a definitive overview of Taiwan during its time as a Japanese colony. Kerr spends a lot of time setting up the geopolitical reasonings for the annexation and colonization of Taiwan by the Japanese and their attempts (albeit uneven) to assimilate the Taiwanese populace into the "greater Japanese empire."

Kerr divides the book neatly into decades beginning with a pleasant overview of Taiwan history before the Japanese occupation. He is careful to point out that never once in the years preceding Japanese control did China have control over the entire island nor where they especially concerned with governing it. In fact, when control of Taiwan was shifted from Imperial China to Japan following the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, it seemed as though China was glad to be rid of the burdensome island. To put it more bluntly, China's current claims on the island of Taiwan are an historical fabrication. China's control and interest in Taiwan before 1895 was cursory at best and more likely leaned toward indifferent.

As for Japan, they were keen to add a colony. Taiwan was an image boost for the emerging power and a global showcase, a way in which Japan could demonstrate their unique ability to govern and rule foreign a colony. They leapt into the mission in earnest, modernizing Taiwan and laying the essential infrastructure that would help the ruling Chiang family catapult Taiwan's economy into the stratosphere in the late 1970s.

However,ended up making many of the same mistakes their western counterparts made in other parts of the world, especially in their dealings with the Taiwanese aboriginal people. While governing the Chinese population was relatively smooth, especially in and around the new metropolis of Taipei, the resources that Japan so sorely coveted lay in the mountainous interior, the ancestral home of Taiwan's Atayal and Bunun populations, both of which would be a consistent thorn in the side of the Japanese occupiers from day one. Japan showed little deftness in dealing with these populations and relations with the tribes remained volatile and often violent (head-hunting remained a cultural mainstay among the aboriginals well into the 1930s, much to the dismay of Japanese policemen stationed in the mountains along the east coast). By the onset of the Sino-Japanese War in the mid 30s, Taiwan was still only nominally Japan-ized and the population's tolerance of the Japanese colonists had more to do with them not being Chinese. Japan was bad, but not as bad as China. In the end, Taiwanese just wanted to be left alone.

Kerr does a wonderful job of introducing the major players on the island during the occupation from hard line Governor General Kodama Gentaro, uber-builder Nitobe Inazo to the forward thinking Sakuma Samata whose lenient policies came closest to building a real and working relationship between crown and colony. Kerr paints the occupying Japanese as more nuanced and complicated than simply a trigger-happy whip-wielding force brow-beating a population on a whim. In fact, the political and social climate, especially during the early years of the Japanese occupation (read: Sakuma's time as Governor General) was such that a very health home rule movement was allowed to ferment and gain momentum.

Under the nominal leadership of Lin Hsien-Tang, a prevailing zeitgeist manifested among the small but influential sphere of Taiwanese intellectuals in Taipei and other major cities and while Taiwan only gained full representation in the Japanese Diet during the waning days of the Second World War, the Home Rule Movement did garner some very notable successes along the way, namely free and open elections (rigged by the Japanese, of course), a more lenient policy toward the aboriginals (after the Musha Rebellion) and the Kominika, a period of real social and political detente between Japan and Taiwan.

While the political and social history in this book is great, where this book really excels is its ability to paint a vivid picture of life on the island during the half-century of Japanese rule. Kerr takes the reader into the homes and schools of average Taiwanese. He depicts the lives of east coast aboriginals and middle class Taiwanese merchants. He discusses the differences between the Hakka and Hoklo populations and the one can practically small the salt in the air as he describes the vibrant trade between Taiwan's west coast than Fuchian province on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, something that a current native of Taiwan would never understand. Kerr really nails the mixed feelings among the Taiwanese in relation to their colonizers. On the one hand, the Japanese brought modernity to the island in a way that the Chinese could never have done, but on the other hand... they weren't Taiwanese.

For anyone remotely interested in the greater history of Asia in the 20th century, this book is essential reading. It lays all sorts of framework and back story to many of the current issues currently plaguing this part of the world and hints at the travesty that would occur after Japan relinquished the island following their surrender to American forces in 1945. It is a balanced overview of an often overlooked (both in Taiwan and the rest of the world) era in Asian history.

Good book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dust


Dust
By Joan Frances Turner

(Warning: Nerdiness ahead...)

The modern-day zombie mythology has evolved from George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Since then, countless writers, directors and producers have expanded on Romero's original idea, exploding the mythology in all sorts of direction from the purely canonical work of Max Brooks (World War Z), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and Romero himself to the deconstructionist, first... um... zombie accounts by Marc Price (Colin) and Andrew Parkman (I, Zombie) to the non-traditional accounts that break significantly from Romero's original mythos that include the work of Francis Laurence (I Am Legend) and David Moody (Hater). For a genre that has often been derided for its limitations, creators and proponents of the zombie-verse have reinvented themselves in all sorts of new and interesting ways.

Then along comes Joan Frances Turner, a graduate of Harvard Law School and obviously a zombie aficionado. In her first novel, Dust, Turner has taken a large bite out of the zombie genre, chewed it up and spit it out. Dust is a highly disturbing and powerful novel set in the heartland of the zombie-verse (the American Midwest) and follows the wanderings of Jessie, a former 14 year-old vegetarian who, upon perishing in a family car accident, has dug herself up from the grave and roams the Indiana countryside with her gang of the walking undead.

Dust is not for the faint of heart. At once compassionate and brutally honest, it is also gory beyond compare. Turner pulls no punches in her description of the brutal, painful life (unlife?) of a zombie. The undead deal with memories of their past life, wrestle with the all-consuming hunger that dogs them incessantly all while trying to survive in a world where continued existence is at once never-ending and seemingly without purpose.

She supposes the existence of an entire zombie culture complete with a method of telepathic communication, social hierarchies and various groups of competing zombies including those who consume human flesh and those that don't. Although even George Romero has hinted at a more profound version of the zombie in Day of the Dead, it is Turner that has added a complexity to the otherwise one-dimensional shuffling ghouls we have come to expect since the days of Johnny and Barbara (and Turner does a wonderful job of sneaking cheeky references to zombie films into the narrative. Don't think I didn't enjoy that!).

If that was Turner's only aim in writing Dust, it would have been more than enough to have added significant meat to the genre's aching bones. But Turner takes things a whole lot further. What starts out as a from-the-zombie's-perspective style deconstruction of the personal and social wonderfully devolves into uncharted waters as a third player is introduced. No longer is the world divided among the living and the dead. In a terrifying twist, the genre is split wide open. Here's why...

While most of those responsible for creating and perpetuating the zombie genre have concentrated on the early days of the apocalypse (Dawn of the Dead) or perhaps take up the story in the midst of the hordes (The Walking Dead, Diary of the Dead) very few, if any, writers tackle the endgame... the end of the zombies. Perhaps it is because zombies themselves have always signified an end of sorts or perhaps it is because humans would most likely not be around to witness the end of zombies. Either way, the end of the zombie invasion has never truly been discussed before Turner. By creating a third mutation, Turner has opened up the concept of total consumption and Dust becomes not only a superior novel but also a philosophical tract on the topics of death, starvation and annihilation. A veritable necrological compendium of misery.

I have been waiting a long time for someone to treat the zombie genre with the literary care that Turner exhibits here. While I take nothing away from the work of Max Brooks and David Moody, both of whom I enjoy, it is Joan Frances Turner that has raised the bar on why a zombie book can be and elevated the genre from mere sideshow anomaly to a seriousness it has always deserved.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole



Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole

By Benjamin R. Barber

You know, I couldn't help but enjoy the irony of the fact that this was a book I bought new in a bookstore. To thicken the irony, consider that I am probably the least-consumerist person I know buying (consuming) a book about consumerism. As if that wasn't enough, this was the first book I have bought with money in over a year. A book reader that doesn't purchase books purchasing a book about consumerism in a bookstore, an establishment the book reader rarely, if ever, enters. I'm sure Benjamin R. Barber would laugh.

Or would he?

Consumed is not for the faint of heart. It is every bit as heavy-hitting as the title implies. Barber takes no prisoners in his thrashing of first-world consumption habits and their corrosive social implications. Barber covers the gamut of consumerism from media, through consumption, desires (both real and imagined) and the manner in which all of this is packaged up and fed to us. This book is Barber's line in the sand, his last stand against the monolith of consumerism that is poised to devour all of us. And once you get through the first chapter, which reads like a social scientist gone mad (dyadism?), it is a very poignant piece of writing and very, very convincing.

The crux of Barber's argument is that the endgame of global capitalism is not the manufacturing of products to sell, but rather the manufacture of needs and that once you convince citizens that they need specific products (brands, media etc...), then the system continues on until all one's needs are satisfied (which, of course, with rampant technological innovation and re-branding, is never). In an effort to create needs, marketing "specialists" and advertisers have accelerated the process of "dumbing down" the population and infantilizing citizens via movies, sports, advertisements, brand consumption etc... The thesis, which is that we are en route toward a totalitarian version of capitalism when we are entirely consumed by media at all times (on the computer, in the car, at work, in the bathroom...), everywhere and that our very psychological profiles are being altered in very real ways by such a vast quantity of information, is all terribly logical and frighteningly clear to see when one stops and looks around.

Barber also discusses ways in which various people have tried to reverse the trends of consumerism, with varying degrees of success. His dismissal of culture-jamming is especially disheartening in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement which was dreamt up by the writers and editors of culture-jamming itself, Kalle Lasn and Adbusters.

Consumed is the logical progression in a series of post-modern, socially relevant books that started along the Adbusters theme. From Naomi Klien's classic No Logo through a plethora of other books such as Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, Nobrow by John Seabrook, and Barber's earlier work Jihad vs. McWorld. Consumed continues the flavor of these works and adds a whole new dimension to the arguments that have come before, although Barber seems totally devoid of a sense of humor.

This is the sort of book that will be read by a very select cross-section of the reading public, which is a shame. While the entire book is worthy of a long, hard look by anyone remotely interested in markets and sociology (or both), the chapter entitled The Eclipse of the Citizen is a sociological diatribe for the ages. Barber chronicles how corporations and advertisers manipulated the wants and needs of consumers and how they go about infantilizing the population into nations of "Kidults." as one reviewer put it, this chapter is "chapter and verse." I can't say it any better than that. Barber's observations and conclusions are startlingly clear.

While most readers might find Barber's style dry in the way that only sociologists can be, Consumed is worth the effort in reading if only to understand the ways in which each and every one of us are manipulated by the media. This is not to say that I agree with everything Barber writes. I do think that consumerism plays a role, especially in emerging markets, the overall notions are difficult to disagree with.

Consumed is a well-researched, well presented piece of work. It will and has received a ton of criticism by its detractors but stand up well to the best attempts at debunking. Along with his previous work in the same vein, Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber has placed himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent authors on the perils of consumerism and their social, economic and political implications.

He just doesn’t seem like he’s much fun at parties.