Thursday, December 01, 2016

Book Report: Team of Rivals -- The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln



Goodwin uses a storyteller's eye to spin what could be drab history into a novel-style story. Scouring history books, diaries and newspaper clippings, she breathes life into the era with the skill normally reserved for a screenwriter. She also dug up some fascinating fatoids:

-Abe Lincoln slept in the same bed with a dude for several years.

-Abe Lincoln didn't believe in an afterlife and was probably an atheist.

-Mary Lincoln was a crazy person who tried to kill him more than once.

-Abe Lincoln never went to college and became a lawyer just by reading a bunch of books.

-Abe Lincoln never voted for himself in a presidential election. The first time he demured because he found it unbecoming to vote for himself. The second time, when he wanted to vote for himself because he was terrified he was lose, he wasn't allowed to because his home state of Illinois didn't involve absentee ballots.

-The Civil War started simply because Lincoln became president and southern states were afraid he would try to abolish slavery, even though all he wanted from the outset was to prevent new northern territories from becoming slave states. He was perfectly cool with letting the southerners go on with their slave thing as long as they were willing to remain a part of the union.

-Abe Lincoln really messed up the beginning of the Civil War. Possibly so he could justify seizing more power and ramming through his buried anti-slavery agenda.

-Abe Lincoln knew his assassin's dad and watched him perform in plays quite often.

This was everything I desired out of a biography, and highly recommended reading to anyone who wants a more complete understanding of the era and its politics.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Book Report: The Martian


This is a science textbook disguised as a sci-fi space travel adventure. Weir switches up narrative devices in the manner of Bram Stoker's Dracula, alternating from journal entries to TV reports and mission logs to paint a thrilling and often funny story of survival.

The movie was excellent, and the book is every bit as good. Enraptured with its own exuberant nerdiness, it's a novel that manages to make thermodynamics, calculus and planetary physics fun. I probably understood about 2/3 of the concepts, and found myself looking things up when I was away. It's based on rock-solid science that's probably prophetic of a future in which regular manned Mars missions are commonplace. Upbeat while pragmatic, the book is based on a belief in human ingenuity and fascination for discovery.

There should be college courses based on The Martian. I'd like to sign up.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Report: Go Set a Watchman



There's almost zero chance that Harper Lee wrote any of this, but that doesn't matter much because a lot of people don't think she wrote all that much of To Kill a Mockingbird either. What matters is that the ghostwriter is in spiritual sync with the rhythms and gentle eye for Southern-fried detail as was -- rumor has it --Truman Capote in the original.

The classic novel was a tenderhearted and intensely realized rumination on childhood set against the backdrop of a revisionist fable about the struggle of social justice against amid a ravenously racist society. The new book is pretty much the same thing, only with childhood replaced with quarterlife.

Tomboy Scout has grown into into budding New York artist Jean Louise, who retreats to Maycomb, Alabama for two weeks every year to slip back into the flipside of her double life, complete with her doting father, the legendary Atticus, and extremely patient beau, Hank. A condescending liberal amid a nest of down-home conservatives, Jean Louise plays the role of Ugly Yankee, mocking social customs and bristling at bitter prejudices that are rooted in the fabric of the Maycomb time warp.

The writing is breathless and beautiful throughout, conjuring much of the same magic of To Kill a Mockingbird. Nostalgia-dripping asides flash back to the To Kill a Mockingbird era and years that have since passed, in passages that could easily pass as lost chapters of the original.

When things get intense, and Jean Louise bares her claws to dig in to a pseudo white supremacist cell that has spring up in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, it becomes something more than the sum of its already strong parts. The writer decides to shift into psychosocial deconstructionist mode in the form of a pair of lectures delivered by Atticus and his eccentric brother. Never have I heard a more rational and convincing defense of ingrained Southern defiance to social change. The climactic metaphor argues that the North and South always complemented each other, in the manner of the aeronautical concept of lift and drag, conjuring a balance that leads to soaring American greatness.

Is it all a little too neat and convenient? Sure, but so was the original. I would not mind a third book in the series that catches up with Jean Louise in middle age.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Book Report: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms


Unburdened by the seven-book Game of Thrones saga that tumbled down on him and made him feel trapped as a writer, George R.R. Martin cuts loose by shifting the setting and telling a fun, breezy story loosely connected to the main series that could almost be a children's book.

His skill for transporting you into his characters' minds and relating their emotional states with brisk economy is at its peak. This is truly great writing that is easy to savor and enjoy.

The subtle nods and references to the lore ups the intrigue for superfans who have plowed through all the Game of Thrones books, but in many ways this book is a perfect intro to the series rather than a light dessert. The epilogue makes it clear that the stories of Dunk and Egg are far from over, and there is a sense that Martin is as giddy to tell them as he is to continue his death march through Westerosian winter.

Friday, September 30, 2016

BOOK REPORT: A Dance with Dragons


This is the point  in the series in which the series starts heading off in a different direction, and almost all the choices the producers made are more sound and cohesive.

But Martin's story is still fascinating in his own right. In book five he recaptures the pace he lost when he got stuck in the mire of the somewhat muddled A Feast for Crows, resuming killing off key characters with ferocity and arranging his chess pieces for their places in the grand final conflict he envisions, although may never actually get to because he has been battling the world's nastiest case of writer's block for several years.

If the series ends here, that would be OK, allowing the hordes of unsullied fan theory crafters to eternally pitch their ideas back and forth. There would be sad beauty in the series staying unfinished, like one of Melisandre's prophecies flittering away in the flames before in manifests.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Book Report: A Feast for Crows


This is still a fascinating book, but a sharp dropoff from the previous three. It's as though Martin got to the midway point in his series and realized he had killed off too many major players and had barely delved into several unexplored society. The fix was to abandon several important storylines in favor of a rush job to prop up all sorts of new people, with their own accompanying belief systems and lore.

While Westeros feels more full and alive, many of the new characters just aren't as compelling as those who came before, so when Martin kills them off in his sadistic manner it doesn't sting nearly as badly.

The TV show avoided the same trap by introducing many of the characters earlier and continuing the storylines that Martin left aside to keep the overall story more cohesive. Everything in A Feast for Crows feels like more of a sketch than a completed portrait, and that carries through to the end, which simply stops an uninteresting sideline rather than casting a shadow toward the future and finishing on a chilling note like his first three books did.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Book Report: A Storm of Swords


I went through this book as I watched season six on TV, and both helped deepen my experience of the other, with all the references, callbacks and plots hatched in one that paid off in the other. It made me feel like Bran checking out history through the three-eyed raven's pensieve-style magic, and gave me the best possible way to appreciate the subtle ways Martin foreshadows and extends his characters and themes, giving a sense of order to the otherwise random-seeming way he hops among perspectives and plotlines.

Just as the show does, the story in the books only grows richer and more spellbinding as it wheels on. That makes it all the more jarring and painful when he takes characters away with such ruthlessness. Even when you know the beats come, they hurt just as severely. Bullet point by bullet point, the stories would seem like a gloomy death march, but the beauty and sense of joy Martin unearths as you move through his stories are what set them apart from nearly anything else ever written. He was a genius at the height of his powers when he wrote these, and even if he doesn't finish the series what he's accomplished deserves to stand as an incomparable masterpiece of an epic saga.