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