Sunday, November 30, 2008

The New York Times Notable Books of 2008

The New York Times released its famous Notable Books list this week, meaning that 100 paperback copies of novels can slap it on the top of their covers to boost sales. This is the first year that I have really been locked into the book review community to any real degree, so it wasn’t all that surprising to see most of these books listed. Of the books listed, I have read nine, am in the middle of a tenth, and have an eleventh that I probably will use in my thesis so it’ll be finished before the New Year.

I really like that the books aren’t listed in a hierarchy, but alphabetically, which probably eliminates some of the bickering. I also enjoy looking at the various publishers represented. I’ve always wondered why we as readers aren’t more brand-conscious when we read. Even though noted book jacket designer Chip Kidd claimed that you should be able to predict whether you will enjoy a book or not based on your enjoyment of previous titles by the same publisher, I haven’t found myself even really noticing. It would be interesting for someone to run a comparison between books and other entertainment industries where people are more conscious of the brands they buy, e.g. comic books or music.

The lack of a hierarchy brings something else to mind. Though I failed to note this when pondering’s Best of 2008 a couple of weeks ago, there has to be a bit of cynicism over someone who stands to profit off the sales of books directly to be ranking them. I’d never heard of #1 selection Philip Hensher before, much less his book The Northern Clemency, and from reports I read few others had either. What would be the point of Amazon selecting a bestseller for that coveted spot? If it’s already selling, it doesn’t need a boost. However, a good novel by a foreigner who no one has heard of could use a leg up, and the fact that Amazon offers it for sale only a click away makes it difficult to regard their list as credible.

The Times also released its Notable Children’s Books of 2008; the list is eight books long. I’m not suggesting that another hundred should be selected, but not even two more to make it a nice, round number? Dwight Garner is able to list well over ten gift books ‘worth buying a coffee table for,’ so it would lead one to believe that children’s literature is undervalued by the paper (which is also obvious in seeing how it is covered by the Review). Of the eight books, three are listed for children who are likely preliterate, while five more are novels targeted at the young adult audience. No delineation between the two are made, though at every bookstore I go to they are categorized and displayed in separate places.

As I continue to read more YA literature, one of my agendas is to see how and why certain books are categorized that way. As William Gibson said, novels are called novels because they are meant to provide a novel experience (ideally). But in genre, you are sort of buying a guarantee that you are going to have the same experience again and again. But the books listed here, as well as the YA books I’ve read recently, don’t fit this mold at all; they aren’t a genre. It’s all marketing, trying to catch that Harry Potter crowd. And I’m not even really looking at the sort of books that are aimed at preteen girls, which would further confound your expectations if using Gibson’s model.

It’s not that I have some ax to grind; I just want to understand why these books are being classified this way and how the books are treated once they have the classification. I don’t mind rules being broken for a good reason, but right now it doesn’t seem that there are any rules at all.

ETA: After some brief but sadly overlooked research, I found that Amazon named Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns its best book of 2007 and Joan Didion's fantastic The Year of Magical Thinking the best book of 2005. Both of these books sold incredibly well before being named, so perhaps it was a bit unfair for me to criticize Amazon's selection of Hensher's novel as a ploy to boost sales.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cynthia Ozick's Dictation

I’ve now read three collections of Cynthia Ozick’s fiction, and it isn’t hard to find things to admire: sly humor, impressive stylistic mechanics, and an engagement with serious themes come to mind. Other than an essay or two though, I am not familiar with her nonfiction, and it seems this is the way she is often judged. However, it is her careful and deliberate use of the sentence to convey meanings both immediately apparent and deeply concealed that cause me to rate her new collection Dictation as one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Though the four long stories seem to be fairly dissimilar, there is the overarching comment on the natur
e of truth and authenticity in all of humanity but especially channeled through these characters who exist in the world of ideas.

The title story tells of the secret friendship between the two typists who work for Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Ozick is a James devotee, writing her master’s thesis on his later novels. Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary for James, describes her the intimacy of her relationship with the writer by c
alling herself ‘blessed to listen to the breathings, and the silences, and the sighs, and the pacings,’ finding herself closer to him than any other person for she witnesses firsthand his deliberations and process. Lilian Hallowes does the same work for Conrad, falling in love with him in the process.

Each woman believes her boss is the best writer of the age, and this debate allows for some charming conve
rsation. Yet Theodora wants more. She wants to live forever as James’s amanuensis, but live both in plain sight and hidden at the same time. She can’t do it alone, needing a ‘secret sharer,’ none other than Lilian. Ozick blends history with invention, taking time to note that she is not beholden to history itself. Licenses have been taken, which are noted at the end of the story in a footnote and commented on: ‘Never mind, says Fiction; what fun, laughs Transgression; so what? Mocks Dream.’

‘Actors’ focuses on an aging actor who plays bit parts and was trained in the Method school. He is at odds with himself over the necessity to appease his wife (who is herself a crossword writer delivering cross words to her husband) and their financial situation by taking a Lear-like role in a production meant to revive the histrionics of the Old Yiddish theater. In ‘At Fumicaro,’ a Catholic journalist travels to Italy in the 1930s and finds himself attracted to the pregnant young maid of his cabin. This mix of sex and sin reminds one of an older writer like Graham Greene with the setting, but works the least well of the four stories.

‘What Happened to the Baby?’ sees the narrator’s uncle Simon create a new language called GNU, which attracts all sorts of left-wing students in the NYC that one imagines Ozick grew up in. As the story progresses, the narrator finds out the circumstances that led to her uncle’s quest for the universal human language, his hatred for Esperanto, and answers the title question. Her revelation has shook me since I read it yesterday evening: ‘Lies, illusion, deception, she said—was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?’

That sentence could serve as a thematic link for the entire book, with each story following essentially the same trajectory. Comedic beginnings grow increasingly darker and end with pathos.

Ozick is a deliberate writer, claiming that she cannot proceed to a new sentence until the one before is perfect, making her a one-draft writer who must figure everything out for she can’t go back a drop in something to foreshadow a later event if the story leads her that way. It is a bit of an odd style, I suppose, though I have read that other writers like Tim O’Brien and Zadie Smith do it as well. Yet that care is evident in the powerful works that make up Dictation, and I am quite excited that I have so much more Ozick to read in the future.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

Paul Auster’s newest novel, Man in the Dark, has a lot in common with his one just prior, Travels in the Scriptorium. Both are old men that spend the entire narrative in a single room. Each novel is fairly brief, coming in at under 200 pages. And there are some links between the two, most noticeably the mention of Mr. Blank in this book, who is the protagonist of the first.

August Brill’s life has been shattered. His wife of many years is dead, his leg crushed in a car accident that has left him relatively immobile. He now lives with his grown daughter and her daughter, a young woman named Katya whose boyfriend has recently died. Brill can’t sleep at night, and rather than remember painful things, he imagines stories to pass the nights.

His creation is Owen Brick, a young magician who wakes up in an alternate world where 9/11 never happened and much of New England has seceded from the US because of the 2000 election debacle causing a civil war. He is recruited by the local militia and ordered to return to his own reality and kill the man who is creating the war: August Brill.

In typical Auster fashion, these narratives weave together and provide insight into the minds of both men. Brick returns to his regular life thinking that there is no possible way that Brill is a real person, but he finds a website full of his writings proving that not to be the case. Meanwhile, Brill muses that he hadn’t intended to place himself in the story in such a manner, but since the creator was in fact himself, he saw no reason to separate himself further from the narration.

This last fact proves quite interesting, for in some ways one wonders why Auster didn’t just place himself in the role of Brill. It’s something he’s done before in the New York Trilogy, and there are a lot of parallels between Auster and Mr. Blank in Scriptorium as well. Anyone familiar with his work is used to this sort of narrative trickery, and I for one find it quite fascinating. Though the plot of Man in the Dark doesn’t go in the direction I had assumed it would, it may be more powerful because of it. I don’t want to get too far into the climax so as not to spoil the book for anyone else.

Auster, a professed liberal, also uses this novel as a commentary on the state of the US over the past eight years. His belief is that Republicans stole the election of 2000, and that had the American people refused to go along with those decisions many things might not have happened. High on the list: 9/11. It’s not tat the world Brick wakes up in, a sort of parallel universe, is better than the one we live in today; in many ways, it’s not. But what I think Auster is hinting at is that the world we live in is the alternate universe. In the real universe, Al Gore is now completing his second term.

Always a polarizing presence on the book review scene, Auster seems to get over on his harsh critics here as well. Brill was a book reviewer his entire adult life, yet he never has the desire or capability to really write a book of his own. I’m thinking that his dismissive take on his own work may be a sort of tongue in cheek jab at critics in general.

Man in the Dark is a good Auster novel, though not a great one. Though highly political, especially compared to previous works, at heart this is just a story about a man trying to help the women in his life: his daughter and granddaughter.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost Souls by David Mack

The third and final book in the much-hyped Destiny trilogy, David Mack’s Lost Souls is the tightest and best done of the three. There isn’t much extraneous material here, and he does an adequate job of resolving the each of the storylines. However, the overall narrative was disappointing and unfulfilling, marking a new and unexciting direction for the future of ST novels.

As I predicted in my review of Mere Mortals, I pretty much knew where this book was going before I re
ad it. The plot threads are so visible that any fool could tug on them slightly and see where they were going to end up. The Caeliar dispatched of the Borg. Hernandez had more to do with the resolution of the galactic crisis than any of the main characters. And as the thousands of Borg ships begin to attack known worlds, the only casualties seem to be a bunch of book-only characters that no one was using anyway and a bunch of third-rate planets that are more names than places.

The most interesting section was the flashback to the Caeliar and human survivors of Mantilis. Though they didn’t seem to be thrown back even close to far enough to account for the rapid expansion of the Borg, Mack led the reader on an interesting journey even though we all knew where it was heading in the end. I was a bit disappointed that though we saw the birth of the Borg, we didn’t really see what made them evolve from merely using the catoms of the Caeliar to more obvious machinery that we recognize them with today.

Just like the lack of meaningful destruction on a planetary scale, any ships that might resonate with a reader are likewise spared. Voyager is the only ship out of dozens that survives the initial Borg attack, and it’s just damaged enough to not have a meaningful role to play here. Klag’s Gorkon is severely disabled, though it too seems to have escaped any lasting damage. And the da Vinci seems to now be under the command of Captain Gomez, and it managed to elude the Borg by vanishing a planet.

Riker seems to have no purpose I this book at all. After delivering Hernandez to Dax and Picard, he basically just sits around and chastises himself for leaving his away team and serves as a sounding board for Picard. Mack writes the sort of emotional scenes that remind one of Christopher Bennett, with Picard’s big emotional discussion with Riker making the reader cringe with its earnestness. Why it is so hard to realize that people tend to lie to themselves and ferociously defend their actions I’ll never know. But it seems the case that in the current ST fiction, characters quickly realize what is wrong with them and magically get better. That’s merely the beginning of the journey, not the whole thing, and it is insulting to read that complex characters like Picard have such unbelievable epiphanies.

Mack also has a tendency to write that characters have ‘Eurasian features’ or know perfect English aside from saying ‘ya’ and ‘nein’ for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I’m not sure what Eurasian features are; it tends to seem a racist description to me. And painting foreigners as too ethnic to remember simple words in English but know how to say ‘trilateral hyperfusion’ is idiotic. Hell, I know the words for ‘yes and no’ in half a dozen languages, none of which I can speak fluently.

But the biggest issue I have with this trilogy is that for something intended to shake up the status quo, it does anything but. If the Federation is supposed to be truly decimated, then eradicate Earth, or at least Vulcan. Don’t wipe out Deneva. Kill characters that actually mean something to the readers; the biggest death in the trilogy was Owen Paris. And if you are presenting the Borg attack to end all Borg attacks, maybe you should explain why they didn’t just come with 7000 ships fifteen years ago.

It seems the series was merely an editorial mandate for a future direction for the post-Nemesis
fiction: tear down the Federation so that we can tell stories about rebuilding. But a huge problem here is that there was already a situation that begged for rebuilding after the Dominion War, and it wasn’t exploited at all. Couple this with the unbelievable pace in which situations that would normally take years or decades have been resolved in mere months, such as the integration of Bajor into the Federation, and its hard to believe that the fallout from Destiny will handled in a reasonable manner.

My recommendation to shake up the line: editorial change. The primary editor of the series, Margaret Clark, has consistently made poor storytelling decisions and shown poor oversight for coordinating projects. If you want to take a bold new direction, take a note from college football and fire the head coach.

Monday, November 24, 2008

M.T. Anderson's Feed

I was already planning to read M.T. Anderson’s Feed when my friend Steve Mollmann gave it such effusive praise last month, so I was doubly motivated to pick it up over the weekend. And it furthers my look at young adult fiction, somewhat of an ongoing theme here. Anyway, the book is a cautionary tale combining cyberpunk and teenage culture. At some point in the future, brains are wired into the internet near birth, which creates a streaming ‘feed’ of audio, video, and text that act as a sort of secondary consciousness to all those equipped.

Anderson tells the story through Titus, a teenager from an affluent family whose friends are shallow stereotypes of typical idiotic teenagers. They follow fashion trends that change by the hour, alter their bodies in disgusting ways because supposedly it is in vogue. When the group of friends goes to the moon for spring break, Titus meets Violet, a girl who is home-schooled and didn’t receive her feed until she was seven, much later than is typical. It’s never clear just why Violet would be interested in Titus at all; he’s not particularly bright, and the only stated reason
is that he wants to be dumb but isn’t. That’s a typical teenager stereotype too, and not a very interesting one.

While they are on the moon, the group is hacked and their feeds crash. The absence of the feed gives Anderson the chance to begin to grind in his real purpose for the book: a cry against consumerism. When their feeds are restored, Violet realizes that the feed is really just big business’s way of getting them to buy stuff, an elaborate marketing tool. While the idea that the internet is being used to homogenize the public in order to make them easier to market to is an alarming one, it also isn’t terribly original. Anderson does a good job getting his message across, but only Violet emerges as a more than one-dimensional character.

Anderson puts the world of Feed in greater context by references to the hatred of the rest of the world toward America because of its consuming ways. The planet is a ecological nightmare, with trees being cut down to make way for air factories, and people including our characters getting lesions that are suggested to be from radiation poisoning. Again, not terribly original.

Chapters often end with a sort of blast from the feed represented with text to try to create reader/character identification by allowing one to experience what it must be like. However, the text presented is so unlike the feed as described that such identification is nearly impossible.

Anderson’s novel isn’t necessarily bad, it just is sadly predictable. This may be a prime example to refute my original thesis that there was little to distinguish young adult books from those intended for an adult audience; there’s just no way that a book with such a narrow and transparent agenda would have received the same accolades had it been marketed to a broader audience.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Write It When I'm Gone by Thomas M. DeFrank

At the beginning of Thomas M. DeFrank’s book, he describes his interview with soon to be Vice President Gerald Ford. Throughout, Ford smoked a pipe. He also apparently was a big drinker. Ten pages into Write It When I’m Gone and the only unelected president in history is about ten times more interesting that I first thought.

DeFrank was part of the press that followed Ford on Air Force Two and then through his time in the W
hite House. The two were fairly close, and beginning in 1991 he conducted interviews to only be published after Ford’s death. Supposedly, Ford would be open to discussing anything without reservations since he wouldn’t see any of it in print, but as anyone with half a brain would know, he protected his legacy as much as the next guy.

Ford always hated Reagan after the latter challenged him for the nomination in 1976, and occasionally he’d let something slip, though not anything of note. The big story in this book was his unreported conversation with President Clinton during his impeachment. The Administration
wanted Ford’s support, but he wouldn’t budge unless Clinton admitted publicly that he was wrong. Didn’t happen, Ford stayed on his couch, end of story.

Personally, I’ve always though Ford made a horrible decision when he pardoned Nixon. In his inaugural address, he claimed that the national nightmare was over and that the process was proof that the American people were still in charge of the nation. But by pardoning Nixon, he took the will of the people, as demonstrated by the support for the judicial system, out of their hands, and set a precedent that presidents wouldn’t actually be accountable for their crimes.

DeFrank quotes Ford: ‘Younger people today who were not living or not old enough to know have no comprehension of the tension and bitterness that existed through the US.’ As one of those people, I’ll concede the point. But I have to really question whether or not his decision was really a solution or merely a way to treat a symptom.

I try not to be very political in this space, but the analogy to President Bush is fairly clear. Though people on the left have been calling for Bush and others to be prosecuted for breaking the law and lying to the public, facts that the president has acknowledged himself, popular opinion doesn’t seem to support such a move. Yet right and wrong aren’t determined by popular opinion (theoretically), so in fact the Justice Department, acting as the prosecutorial arm of the American people, is bound to exercise its power.

However, in all honesty, I don’t think that Bush going to prison would be good for the nation at the present time. President-Elect Obama has the chance to take the country in a new direction, and getting bogged down in hearing after hearing over the Bush Administration scandals would take awy from the things he might be able to achieve. That said, I have to question my own sentiments, for my historical perspective is hard on Ford for having the same opinion (though of course he actually had power to do something about his).

Write It When I’m Gone is an entertaining, if unfulfilling, look at the person Gerald Ford was. At times DeFrank’s obvious affection for the man makes any sort of objective point of view impossible, yet despite this one feels it isn’t all that unfair. Ford seemed to be a good person, the sort of person that might not be the most interesting, but would almost certainly be he most kind and loyal. It doesn’t live up to its billing, but I didn’t find it a waste of time either.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell

Apparently, The Guardian, a British newspaper, periodically performs a service for its readers by digesting a book into a couple of hundred words while putting a humorous slant on the whole thing. I’m just learning about this now, but I find the idea amusing.

This week John Crace writes about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. Here is a quote:

Out-li-er, noun
1: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others in the sample.
2: yet another attempt to cash in by presenting a whole load of seemingly counterintuitive facts to tell you something you basically already knew.

I’ve enjoyed Gladwell’s first two books, and I also look forward to his periodic articles in the New Yorker
where he is a staff writer. In fact, I am reasonably certain that I have already read most of Outliers in the magazine. That said, I do think that definition #2 is a fair assessment of his work.

But what bothers me is in these types of attacks on Gladwell, that he is unoriginal are misguided. As he himself points out in a recent article by New York magazine, the role of a journalist is parasitic: one doesn’t have a career without leeching off others. The man isn’t an academic; he’s a journalist. There is a difference.

Maybe his books aren’t revolutionary, but the man can freaking write. You can’t put these books down. He is able to spin a yarn in a way that few others can, making something like innovations in jarred pasta sauce fascinating. How many other authors could we say the same for?

Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics have spurred a whole genre of people trying to replicate their success. So far as I’ve seen, all the other books have failed not because the subject matter wasn’t original, but because they weren’t able to frame the material in an interesting and compelling way. Dan Ariely’s book on behavioral economics wasn’t well written nor did I learn anything from it, but because it was based on his own experiments I am supposed to value it over something that has at least one of those categories in its favor?

As Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economics professor behind Freakonomics, has said, good writing that excites people will get you farther than boring stuff, no matter the depth of the subject matter. In other words, presentation is just as important as content, perhaps even more so. And that’s what Gladwell has, and for what he is doing with his books, I think it is more than enough.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

In his review at on Roberto Bolaño’s huge new novel 2666, Adam Kirsch begins with a quote from Proust: one way we know we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, for there are merely imitating their betters. This gave me enormous insight through which to examine Bolaño’s most popular work here in America, the acclaimed The Savage Detectives.

Criticism of this novel seems to be that it moves very slowly. That is somewhat true, and I expres
sed as much at the beginning of the month by saying that I alternate between thinking it is a masterpiece and being completely bored out of my mind. But as Bolaño taught me how to read the book, I became more and more caught up in the brilliance.

The novel tells the story of two figures, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, young poets who arrive in Mexico City in the mid 60s and begin to influence others with their bohemian lifestyle and new poetry group dubbed the Visceral Realists. The narrative follows them through their
lives in interesting ways. And as Kirsch said in his review, it is a shame for a reader to not be able to experience this work as freshly as possible, so if you haven’t read the novel and are planning to, you may want to stop reading now.

The first 150 pages of the book consist of a diary kept by Juan Garcia Madero, a young poet who is beginning college in Mexico City and manages to join the Visceral Realists in a minor way. Throughout his contacts with the group, he begins to awaken both poetically and spirituality. But of course nothing can last, and at the end of the first section, Garcia Madero, Belano, Lima, and a girl all must flee the city and set out on a search for Cesarea Tinajero, a surrealist poet form the 20s that laid the groundwork for Visceral Realism. Few poems of hers exist, and her whereabouts are completely unknown.

Then four hundred pages are given over to a sort of oral biography of Ulises Lima and Belano. It’s as if the author went around with a tape recorder to everyone he could find that had some sort of contact with Visceral Realism or Belano and Lima and interviewed them. So what we get are dozens and dozens of first person accounts of times in their lives given by just about everybody but them. Though they continue to love and value literature and poetry above all else, they seem never able to fulfill the early promises of the Visceral Realist movement. This section takes the reader from shortly after the hasty escape from Mexico City at the end of the first section through the mid 1990s, when Bolaño published the book in Spanish.

The third section is a return to the diary of Garcia Madero, picking up where his diary left off in the first section. After only one mention of him throughout the large second section, I was glad to see him back: he is my favorite character.

Much has been made about how much a work of autobiography this is, with Arturo Belano standing in for Bolaño himself. I’m sure there is a lot to that, but the style of this book is what really blew me away. I also appreciated the way the civilization in these countries was depicted. People were often poor, but their citizens were smart and engaged. Here in America, we tend to think of entire countries as homogenous, usually to our detriment. Without overtly saying anything about the subject, Bolaño is able to dispel this myth by depicting a cross section of people from poets and scholars to mechanics.

I can read a menu in Spanish, but not literature, and therefore my exposure to Latin American literature has been somewhat limited. Sure, I’ve read Borges and Tomas Rivera and Garcia Marquez, but that’s nothing compared to the sort of literature that is out there for me. When studying Lorca’s plays earlier this year, I noticed how two separate plays translated by different people were so different in style: one so melodious and rich, the other walking a line between tragedy and farce that I thought might be more due to the translation than to Lorca’s play.

Natasha Wimmer seems to have been able to successfully translate The Savage Detectives into English without losing the feelings of the rich, lyrical Spanish prose that is so beloved and essential, many argue, for complete understanding. And seeing that this can be done, I may seek out an alternate translation of Borges and compare the two.

And apparently, Lima and Belano appear again in another Bolaño work, while the end of this novel saw a hint dropped for a storyline in 2666. This was a fantastic book and well worth your time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall’s new novel, Daughters of the North, is compared on the cover to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’s The Children of Men, meaning that there is no way it could be as good as either of those two books. And it isn’t.

Set in a dystopic England where the ruling power is the Authority, and civil liberties as we know them
have vanished, the protagonist, a woman known only as Sister flees her unloving marriage and monotonous job to seek shelter with a sort of cult/commune consisting only of women. After a rough encounter with the commune’s patrol, Sister is eventually welcomed into the community and we are introduced to the other women through her eyes.

The commune is called Carhullan, and is run by a woman named Jackie Nixon. Jackie seems a bit rough, and as the narrative progresses we become more and more aware that she has some sort of special forces training and has a massive distrust of men. This feminist angle is a little tired, but Hall doesn’t harbor on it all that much. The feminist themes are more reflections of power between the oppressed and oppressors, making things more palatable. Jackie eventually lets the others know that the government is coming to take them from their land, and the predictable attempt to take up arms against an authorit
arian leadership emerges.

Sister goes through many changes during her stay, eventually joining Jackie’s militia despite some misgivings about her leader’s methods. However, this line is ineffective due to Hall’s failure to establish an emotional connection between the reader and Sister. I wasn’t swayed by her qualms because she never felt like a real character to me. She only went through the same predictable motions as any stock character is such a situation. Without this sympathetic connection, what possible resonance could the story have?

Most dystopian stories will keep the actual events leading to the dire situations somewhat, if not entirely, shrouded. Hall follows this path through most of the book, but near the end has a paragraph describing the losses England suffered due to the IRA bombings and ongoing wars in Asia and South America. But just as quickly, she moves on, making these tidbits irrelevant and annoying.

The book was published here in America by Harper Perennial, and includes the afterword section labeled ‘P.S.’ These sections are obviously sales devices foremost, but they do include some interesting material. I especially enjoyed the essay Michael Chabon included about the writing of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in the new edition of that novel. But as I read the interview with Hall at the end of this book, I realized that it was more interesting itself than the narrative. And when that’s the case, it’s unsurprising that I didn’t find Daughters of the North to be all that good after all.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Chasing the Sea by Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell’s Chasing the Sea is easily the best book I have ever read on Uzbekistan. We all know it’s the only one too, but despite the unfunny joke I really did enjoy this work quite a bit.

After washing out of the Peace Corps after being in Uzbekistan a few months, Bissell returned in 2002 f
or an assignment by Harper’s. The former Soviet republic has been plagued with issues, from ecological crises to rampant inflation, and given his contacts in the region, Bissell seemed an ideal choice. Primarily intending to focus on the rapid depletion of the Aral Sea, what one gets as they read is a sense of what modern Uzbekistan is truly like, as well as the history of the Central Asian nation, both before and after the Soviet government.

Quickly joining his translator Rustam, Bissell begins to proceed in a somewhat haphazard fashion, hitting contacts within the Peace Corps and taking his time looking at historical places. Rustam is sort of a sidekick on the adventure, and he provides a lens for Bissell to comment on Uzbekistan through the eyes of a native citizen. Of course, Bissell often uses other people
for the same purpose, easily giving an account of events through opposing factions in what reads as easy and conversational.

Where one often sees seams in such narratives involves the introduction of historical facts into the narrative, but Bissell does a tremendous job of only providing the reader with information as it becomes necessary to contextualize things we see through his eyes or discussions that arise between he and others. The passages are never so long that one loses the primary narrative, and are always greatly informative. As someone whose many interests include the history of Islam, it was fascinating to get a history of the region extending back to the time of the Roman Empire. Typical westerners think of Islamic countries as being primarily in Persia and the Middle East, and I myself am guilty of not really understanding the role Islam plays in an often overlooked part of the world.

Though the purpose of his visit is primarily to investigate conditions of the Aral Sea, Bissell doesn’t even make it there until the last chapter, 300 pages into the book. At first this irked me a little, but I feel that the way this assignment was approached allowed me to really understand a lot about Uzbekistan and those who live there. That is a topic more interesting to me than the ecological catastrophe in the region, anyway.

Bissell leaves Rustam before traveling to the Aral Sea, promising to meet up with him when he gets back. But the book ends before his return, leaving this reader with a real lack of fulfillment with regards to his story. Though real life often interferes with natural story arcs, it would have been nice to at least see him acknowledged within the last fifty pages.

After reading this account of Uzbekistan, it is easy to see the influence his time in the region has had on his fiction. Though none of the stories in God Lives in St. Petersburg seem taken from these experiences, the tone of the fiction matches the tone struck here. I will be interested to read further fiction by Bissell with this knowledge in mind.

But perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me was the fact that Chasing the Sea is billed as a travel book. Up until now, I had always considered travel books to be the sort of things one buys to point out all the shopping and museums in a town or region, like a book published by Lonely Planet and the like. Now that I have seen what the genre can be, I am excited that I get to approach this new section of the book world freshly. Chasing the Sea is a fascinating and at times heart breaking account of an overlooked nation, one that like Bissell’s book deserves not to be.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's Post-American World

Though The Post-American World is a rather alarming title, Fareed Zakaria is quick to state that it’s ‘not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.’ Essentially, the book details the ways that globalization has resulted in the fundamental shift of political and economic (though not military) power away from American dominance and toward the two fastest growing economies today, China and India.

Unfortunately, none of the date presented here is new, nor is it analyzed in a unique way. Zakaria writes
for Newsweek, and this felt like an extended article from that magazine: more a digest of information than one with much real depth of its own.

But what makes this book worth reading is the call for America to begin to act as an honest power broker between other countries that may one day overtake it. Cue analogy to post-imperial Britain. But what is resounding is the utter absurdity of America’s foreign policy when it comes to emerging nations: nuclear technology isn’t allowe
d unless you had it before the mid 1960s (unless you are an ally). Use clean technology, even though we don’t, etc. Zakaria wants the next president to bring America’s rules for the world and for itself into alignment. Again not necessarily a new idea, but a sound one.

In my inexpert opinion, I felt that more attention should have been paid to some of the negatives to the end of the Cold War, a viewpoint that no Democrat or Republican has really been ready to take. Two major powers diame
trically opposed and controlling virtually the entire world is almost unheard of in history. America’s influence was such that it could literally persuade other nations to do things not in their own best interests because few wanted to shift their alignment to the Soviets. With no clear opposition, countries are now looking to strike deals that are in their interests, regardless of whether said countries have been ‘approved’ by America.

And that is where economic powers like China, who have no problem dealing with countries with human rights issues, like Zimbabwe, come in. The lack of clear opposition has as much to do with the current globalization climate as anything else, and Zakaria would have done well to dedicate a chapter to it in what really isn’t a very long book.

Along with a lot of other people, this book came to my attention when then presidential candidate Obama was photographed carrying it on a runway, finger inserted in the middle to keep his place. Can’t ask for a better blurb than that. But I tend to wonder what the new president really could learn from The Post-American World. It’s well stated, but not new material, or even a new twist on the old. And if it isn’t new to me, it certainly couldn’t have been to him.

One tends to wonder how many photographs showing presidents carrying books are truly presidents carrying props.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Active Liberty by Stephen Breyer

When it comes to nonfiction books, I seem to delineate between the ideas contained in the text and the presentation of that text in ways that I fail to with fiction. For instance, I feel the prose in fiction is much more intrinsically bound to meaning than it is in a nonfiction work, with notable exceptions of course. Is this justified? And can one separate the two when reviewing a book that is heavily ideological but not delivered in an engaging manner? Or is rendering a verdict on a work make the conflation necessary? As I continue to study the book review as a form, these are questions to keep in mind.

As to the subject at hand, I found the ideas in Stephen Breyer’s Active Liberty to be enlightening a
nd thought provoking, but didn’t feel that the presentation lived up to the material. Based on a series of lectures the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court delivered at Harvard in 2004, the ‘book’ is only 135 small pages with generous margins, making it seem more a pamphlet. Essentially, the book serves as a refutation of the ideas of fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, firmly opposed to originalism.

Active Liberty gets its title from the political philosopher Benjamin Constant, who makes a distinction between the ‘liberty of the moderns’ and the ‘liberty of the ancients.’ Modern liberty would be the kind that we think of most often, that associated with the Bill of Rights which gives us the freedom from the government telling us what to believe or where to live. But ancient liberty, Breyer’s active liberty, is the citizens sharing decision making with the government.

Instead of laying out a firm ideological stance, Breyer is more pragmatic in his approach. As I am nearing thirty and now own a home and pay considerable taxes, I am much more pragmatic than I was as impoverished far left college student. But that doesn’t mean I have abandoned my beliefs or backed down, only that for many things (like school performance) I have no real preference other than to know that my tax dollars are being spent wisely and effectively. Breyer’s book is more of an interpretive guide to show judges a way to give more weight to the practical consequences of his or her rulings, and to the structural elements of American democracy that favor citizen participation. He feels this would move the Court back towards the years of Earl Warren, and away from the Rehnquist model. (The book was published in 2005, on the cusp of the Roberts court.)

All this is well and good, but the examples Breyer uses are a bit staid. The best case study is of Grutter v. Bollinger, where the Court ruled on the ability for the University of Michigan’s law school to give preferential treatment to minority applicants. Siding with the university, which prevailed in the case, he gives practical consequences for his decision, claiming that the workforce needs diversity. He uses examples from the military, whose officer corps gives a leg up to minorities, which seems incredibly smart and important when one considers the large number of white officers and the overwhelming numbers of minority enlisted.

What Scalia and the originalists claim is that without sticking precisely to the text of the constitution, a judge is just making up the law as they go. What Breyer attempts here is attempt to give a different method of interpretation that uses a consistent application of legal principles, a more practical argument than impassioned one. He also cringes when courts seem to decide cases based on their own feelings of right and wrong, preferring to judicial restraint.

While I agree greatly with most of Breyer’s assertions, he lacks the passion of Scalia. Despite what one thinks of the man or his opinions, it would be hard to dispute that he is an interesting guy to listen to. I suppose that after coming to really admire Breyer when reading Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, I wanted this to be an effective punch thrown against originalism. Instead, Active Liberty seems to only be a glancing blow.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008's Best of 2008 List

In one of the first of the soon to be ubiquitous Best of 2008 lists, has selected Philip Hensher’s novel, The Northern Clemency, as the best book released this year. People are always quick to criticize these lists, often for good reasons, yet I kind of enjoy them. They expose me to works that I otherwise would never even be aware of, not so much due to my ignorance but more because of the dearth of book reviews being generated by newspapers and the like. I’ve never heard of Hensher or his novel, but it does sound interesting and I may look it up in the near future.

Of the 100 Best Books of 2008, I have thus far read nine. That’s actually a better average than I am used to; looking at the New York Times’ Notable Books for 2002 leaves me wondering how it is I have only rea
d six, even with the extra time. Of those nine, I only really have a problem with the inclusion of Philip Roth’s Indignation. I read this book over the summer and was struck at the lack of freshness in theme and prose from one of America’s supposedly leading writers. Perhaps it isn’t that the novel was included that irks me, but there is no way that Roth’s 33rd novel is the 32nd best of the year. More obvious bias toward an established author.

By the way, the best book of 2008 that I have read: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s got cricket and crime, not to mention stirring, emotional prose. It’s fifteen on Amazon’s list, and the highest among those I have read (which might mean I should pick up the first fourteen).

Amazon also included a Customer’s Best of 2008 list. But rather than being a list compiled by the opinions of the site’s millions of users, it is in fact merely a Top 100 Bestseller list. Why a company who pioneered the consumer-rating system would print such a list is beyond me. Bestselling in no way means best in quality. I am sure that all books on the Founding Fathers and WW2 sell well, but that is because no one knows what to get their father for Father’s Day. Millions of people watch American Idol, as they do movies with Keanu Reeves. Enough said?

Example: Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which apparently was the 23rd bestselling book of the year. An exploration of so-called behavioral economics, trying to latch on to the Freakanomics audience, Ariely’s book couldn’t be less interesting or insightful. He points out things that everyone already knows, for instance that I’ll likely help you move your couch for free but not for a dollar, and his prose style is soporific.

Why not have the best reviewed books by customers in 2008? Sure things would be thrown off a bit, with political books dragged down by partisan votes and popular books receiving many votes being at a disadvantage to those that receive but a few. But that would be interesting, and more in line with the way Amazon is trying to sell its Customer List. And it just might get some publicity for the site.

That said, the bestseller list isn’t without interest itself. The bestselling book was the last Twilight book by Stephanie Meyer that I understand involves teen romance and vampires. But this is something anyone who reads the NY Times Book Review would already know. What really is surprising is that the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Core Rulebook Gift Set
was only outsold by 24 other books this year. I had no idea so many 49-sided dice were being rolled out there.

For what it’s worth, the bestselling book on Amazon that I had read is Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which I finished last week. Expect thoughts on that before the weekend.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

As I think more and more about it, the easier it is to understand just why Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is considered one of his better books, landing on all those Top 100 novels of the 20th Century list. The comical prose, Portnoy’s sexual desire and frustration, and the touches of the self-conscious in the prose all foreshadow what later become so central to all of his work. But on its own, at least in 2008, it just doesn’t really work all that well.

I’m not a person to get offended by bad language; of Carlin’s seven words, I probably use at least three on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Published in 1969, during the sexual revolution (among others), the novel seems to be dated today, likely due to the lack of shock our society has over a lot of the discussed themes and words. While I don’t necessarily hear the word ‘cunt’ all that often, it doesn’t exactly make me flip out.

The novel is narrated in a continuous monologue, by Alexander Portnoy to his psychologist. The narrative jumps all over the history of his life as he relates scenes from throughout, all centering on h
is central problem: the inability to enjoy all the sexual feelings he experiences, causing him to seek out grater acts of debauchery to satisfy the urges. He frequently uses bawdy and descriptive language to describe these scenes, also hitting on such taboo subjects as incest and prostitution.

The book strikes one as highly autobiographical, which is frequently alluded to by Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, and in Zuckerman’s family’s reactions to Carnovsky, the fictional Portnoy’s Complaint. Zuckerman doesn’t understand why no one believes that he just made all of it up, and to an extent I agree with him. Nothing here is beyond the faculties of most people to create on their own.

In his autobiography The Facts, Roth describes the genesis of the novel being a dinner table comedy routine he performed for friends. More than anything, this feels like a sort of routine gone too long. The joke wears thin long before the book is even half over. Critics have compared the narrative to those performed by Lenny Bruce, which is interesting though I am unfamiliar with Bruce’s work.

One interesting note: the theme of indignation is addressed here by quoting the national anthem of China. This forms a central component to his latest novel, Indignation, and I am sure there is a paper there for someone to write.

Portnoy’s Complaint may be essential reading for those trying to understand Roth, for it does mark a turning point in his fiction. However, for one just wanting to enjoy a novel by the man, I’d start with The Ghost Writer. Read out of context, it wouldn’t surprise me if more people of my generation found the novel unsatisfying because we’ve already become inured to its shock value.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mere Mortals by David Mack

Ever since The Empire Strikes Back, the middle story in a trilogy almost always seems to end with our heroes facing seemingly unconquerable odds that we know they will find a way to overcome. Actually, it’s probably been around a lot longer, but I am a man of my generation. Anyway, it comes as no surprise at the end of Mere Mortals when the shit has hit the fan and the whole future of the known ST universe seems in doubt.

While this general principle doesn’t spell disaster for a storyline on its own, I can’t imagine how David M
ack’s Destiny trilogy is going to have a satisfying conclusion. Incorporating elements from every television series as well as a handful of the novels, he has constructed a plot that actually is able to sustain it all. Unfortunately, there are visible seams where he’s sewn it together.

Nothing much happens in this book. Of the three basic storylines, only Captain Hernandez’s long history with the Caeliar has any real movement, and essentially that’s just to catch the reader up to the present day, so the final book can wrap everything up. The Enterprise and Aventine are at the explosion site of Erigol, which has spawned a cluster of hyperdimensional portals, one of which the Borg is using to launch their attacks
on the Federation. Their mission: find out which pathway and collapse it. Of course, it’s not that simple; there has to be a third book. Titan is trapped at New Erigol in the same manner that Columbia was in the last book.

At the conclusion, as anyone with half a brain cold have predicted, the Borg haven’t been stopped but are in the process of launching a massive attack on known Federation and Allied space. Yawn.

The worst part of the whole scenario is that with Hernandez’s powers via the Caeliar, it seems probable that she will be instrumental in defeating the Borg. Our heroes are going to essentially sit back and watch helplessly. To anyone reading the first two books, it is obvious that the Caeliar and Borg share an origin, and with the stated power of the Caeliar to displace entire civilizations, it is all but certain that the Borg will be displaced to another galaxy.

Mack’s juvenile sensibilities are on display again, too. Hernandez has a mishap with a musical instrument, playing a note so low it causes her to shit her pants. Ha ha. It amazes me that he was able to resist prison-style lesbianism as the four women are trapped together without men for decades. But even in a meaningless fight between the crews of Enterprise and Aventine with the Hirogen, Mack is able to write compelling hand-to-hand fight scenes. This is his real strength, but unfortunately something better suited to a visual medium.

The astropolitical ramifications of events are a refreshing change as well. Too often it seems that events happen in a vacuum, but here we see manipulation and bartering that make up the best of politics in any realm. Though I am not a huge fan of aping The West Wing, Mack stayed away from that with President Bacco, and she seems like her own character for the first time here.

There are a bunch of little things to nitpick. One, even the grunts on Enterprise are officers. Why Starfleet never has infantry makes no sense, especially in wartime. Hernandez doesn’t sound like the actress who portrayed her at all, though that may be the one-dimensional writing of the television show than a fault of Mack.

But what really stands out, as in the last book, is why Ezri Dax is captain of a cutting edge ship. There is technology on Aventine so secret that not even Geordi has clearance to know about it. Surely Starfleet didn’t just build one of these. If these new ships are so powerful, where are the rest of them? It’s blindingly obvious that for plot purposes Mack needed a ship that could do all sorts of things an average ship couldn’t. So he invents this new ship to fill that need, even though ramifications of the new class’s construction aren’t considered.

So we have a largely plot based story that is massive, yet it would be easy to sit down and graph the outline that was probably used. And since one is able to do this before the third book has even been released, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be any surprises when Lost Souls comes out. Perhaps Destiny is going to change the ST universe forever, but it seems to me that mot of the changes won’t really affect our characters all that much.

Damn shame.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Nick Hornby's Slam

If you are a fan of Nick Hornby, you’ll enjoy his young adult novel Slam. The same charm and wit that made About a Boy so good from both perspectives is available here, and while this novel isn’t among his best, it is an enjoyable ride.

Fifteen-year-old Sam is Hornby’s narrator, a skater in London who lives with his mom. They aren’t rich, but they are making it. Sam’s mom had him when she was sixteen, so Sam has heard time and again how important it is not to get someone pregnant at a young age. So of course when Sam meets Alicia, they quickly fall in love and she ends up pregnant. Before they find out though, the relationship—as those between teenagers often do—cools when the freshness is gone.

But rather than some typical ‘boy has to grow up and be a man’ narrative, Hornby deals with the stress and fear of telling parents and worrying about the future in a bit of a satirical way. Already some kids at their school have children, the school even has a new program in place to help teenage parents, and so it is somewhat happy to be able to try it out.

Alicia’s parents are college professors, while Sam’s dad is a plumber. I was surprised at how well the class disparity was used; Alicia’s parents don’t understand why ‘you people’ can’t ever control your kids. Hornby doesn’t let this disparity take center stage, but it is an undercurrent demonstrating how the world looks at teenagers from different classes, if not races. It also subtly reflects how so often we never get farther than our parents did, no matter who we are; those with affluence stay there, those who grew up in a trailer park usually stay there too.

Some of the plot devices just don’t work. Sam talks to a poster of Tony Hawk who often responds with quotes from his autobiography. He also whooshes Sam forward twice so he can see his own future. These trips seemed to do little for him or me; sure we get a flash-forward to see what’s going on then, but no one really seems to learn anything. And Hornby ends the novel with a Q&A between Sam and the reader that neatly ties up loose plot ends. That’s a device that almost never works (and it doesn't here).

Yet I found the book oddly moving. Teenage pregnancy is dealt with in a reasonably real way, especially with regards to the relationship between Sam and Alicia. They live together in her parent’s house after the baby is born, but that doesn’t last. Yet they still find a way to be happy, even in a nontraditional sense, something that I wish was more prevalent with the people I grew up with.

For a novel targeted primarily at teens, there is a message underlying everything: be careful, don’t get pregnant. But if you do, neither of your lives will be over, just different. You can still be happy. How much easier would it be on teens in this situation if that were how they really felt their families and friends would receive them?

Changing subjects: those of you who know me are aware of my interest in the design of books, both their out
ward appearance and the interior writing space. The above cover is from the paperback version of the novel that has just been released. I think it works well on a number of levels: the stork kind of depicts the contents, and the design is reminiscent of Hornby’s other novels. It’s simple, it helps orient the reader with a style familiar with a big author like Hornby, and it reflects the narrative.

But the second cover here is from last year’s hardcover. Hornby’s name is prominently displayed, but the style doesn’t remind me of his other works nor does it give any real insight into the book. All I can tell is that a kid likes to jump around. I guess it may reflect the narrative, but it's so vague that no one would have any idea what it was about.

Clearly I have a preference for the paperback, but for more than one reason. I understand that a lot of books are being marketed as young adult fiction because it is more profitable for the publishing company. If you can tie in to even a small percentage of the Harry Potter market, you can build a new story onto your house.

But with a book like this, by a name author who has written a text that is equally accessible to teen and adult audiences, it might be a better option to go with the cover that reflects his adult works. Were I Barnes & Noble, I’d slide a few copies into the adult section and maybe on a table somewhere up front. You can cross-market these novels in an effective way, but not if their covers are telegraphing that ‘young adult’ label.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Reading List: October 2008

This analogy has never been more true: procrastination is just like masturbation; at first it feels great, but then you realize you're just fucking yourself. Despite the October 27th due date for my thesis proposal, I have yet to actually sit down and write a single word. Most of it is plotted in my head, but I can't seem to find the stamina to sit down and get it on paper. However, my academic writing comes in powerful bursts after long periods of inaction, so I am expecting to be able to type a few thousand words tomorrow afternoon so I don't look horrible in front of my thesis chair.

Among other things, casual reading has provided a means of distraction, one that I am unsure I will ever be able to do without. The common wisdom is that has no time for personal reading when in grad school, but I have found a way to balance both. Perhaps my program is easier than some, perhaps my ability to write polished first drafts keeps my grades artificially high. No matter the case, I need to develop better habits in academic writing or the professorial career I am pursuing my be much more unpleasant than I am expecting.

Anyway, while I was avoiding reading scholarly works on semiotics, I managed to finish 15 books and graphic novels:
I also am making slow progress through Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, which at times I feel is a masterpiece and at others terribly bored by the glacial progress. I did write a response to Bacevich's book on the US as an imperial power, but felt it was much too personal to post here. I hope to use it later when writing a broader piece. If you haven't read the book, Bill Moyers did a fascinating interview with Bacevich on PBS.

I'll also have so thoughts on Hornby's Slam in the next day or so.

Your questions and comments, as always, are appreciated.