Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Report: The Art of Fielding

I thought there would be no way this would live up to the hype. I thought that since intellectuals liked it than it couldn't be an authentic sports book. Glad to be wrong on both counts, because this is a Matt Christopher book disguised as a Great American Novel. Harbach writes with the urgency of a sportswriter hustling to beat deadline, with intricate knowledge of baseball, as well as the feel of the locker room. This book is also as effective at plopping you back into the rhythms of college life with the skill that Harper Lee synthesizes childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Art of Fielding lifts and breaks your heart every other page, makes you feel like you have known its characters all your life and hits you hard with their triumphs and tragedies. Its confrontation of Steve Blass disease is intimate and chilling, and its exploration of friendship and romance at varying levels shimmers with penetrating insight. This is one of those books that's so good that a movie would have so little chance of matching its magic that you hope one never gets made. And then you think of Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, and imagine how perfectly an Art of Fielding Movie would fit into the pantheon of great baseball films that you yearn for a film adaptation anyway. Like a Cubs or Red Sox fans who dreamed of an impossible World Series title that would never come, until it finally did.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

BOOK REPORT: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

The Marquise de Merteuil is one of the great anti-heroes of literature and a bold advancement in the name of the feminism, circa 1782. She twists social and sexual repressions of the times to her favor, playing the social manipulation game with slick cunning. There is no doubt that George R.R. Martin drew heavy inspiration from her when creating Cersei Lannister. She seduces everyone around her in person and with her devilish pen, convincing them to do her dirty work by implanting thoughts and motives in their mind so effectively that they become convinced they were their own.

Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos's subversive plot revels in scandal and keeps the plot lively as his characters embed themselves deeper into the Marquise's web, as well as that of her seeming ally in deception, the Vicomte de Valmont. The book excels at showing that beauty is evil's most compelling and convincing face, and charisma is its most potent fuel.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Book Report: The Chimes

I don't always like Charles Dickens' writing, but I respect his ability to tell a story and push the right emotional buttons. He knew the way to tell an impactful holiday take was to dress the sentiment in dark, brooding surroundings that exposed his characters to a chilling doom and punishing sense of nostalgia that the season can deliver. When you're curled up by the fire reminiscing over beloved memories, you're confronted with the fear that things never may again be so sweet, as well as past opportunities lost.

Dickens embraces this darkness in The Chimes just as effectively as he did in A Christmas Carol, taking on themes such as failed marriages, lost youth and the misery of dedicating yourself to unfulfilling work to grind out a living. Ringing bells come into play again and again, like Poe's raven's haunting calls of "nevermore" -- the sweet sounds belying the harsh finality of times left behind. This is close to a horror story, and even the uplifting ending carries a nagging bitterness with it.

Dickens was in a bad mood when he wrote this, and his work is all the better for it. He went out to tell a quick, sharp story and did away with all the frivolous window dressing he burden his greater novels with. The Chimes deserves more credit than it gets, and sticks with you in the hours in between readings. It's quick enough to be worth revisiting year after year, to provide a grim tap on the shoulder that life and whimsy are fleeting, and the chimes that signal the end of your time on earth will sound for all sooner than expected.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Book Report: The Cricket on the Hearth

Charles Dickens wasn't even trying here.  He wrote the tiny book in three months, but he may as well have only spent three days on it. A schmaltzy attempt to pull heartstrings during the holidays, "The Cricket on the Hearth" is a dull, lazy tale of a Scrooge-like old man who marries a young gold digger, then decides to let her go when the spirit of the season warms his heart. It's somehow even dumber than it sounds.

None of the trademark Dickens charm or whimsy is here, but all of his tendency to over-describe pointless scenes shows up. Mostly made up of scene-setting padding of drab surroundings, the plot could have easily been boiled down to a short story, which in turn could have been edited into one boring run-on sentence that would best be forgotten.

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Report: A Clash of Kings

Martin makes good on all the momentum he generated in A Game of Thrones, bouncing around his landscape to check on characters he's built and destroyed while adding in new heartbreaks waiting to happen along the way. His ability to shift among voices and make no two characters seem remotely similar is astounding. The political themes deepend and continue to flower, and his storytelling delivers shocking, heart-shattering twists that stun and injure your psyche even if you see them coming because you've seen the show.

You need to have read the first book to have any hope of comprehending the context of what's going on, but Martin throws in some welcome background with convenient flashbacks and plot point rehashings. Many of those go a step beyond the norm to shade previous events you thought you understood, throwing in different perspectives to make you reconsider what you know. The book doesn't so much end as it pauses for a breath you have no interest in taking. Bring on book three.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Report: The Jungle Book

Rudyard Kipling definitely took whatever it was people used as crack in 1894. His animals talk to each other like they're having 19th century Paris salon political debates while throwing out "thees" and "thous" like they're in the King James Bible. There was one way to write this book, and that was to bore into it with eyes closed, teeth gritted and arms and feet pumping furiously, without any concern of appearing like a lunatic.

The Mowgli/Baloo/Kaa/Bagheera parts of the book are the only ones that make any sort of sense, and that's why filmmakers ignore all the rest of the junk -- and there is a metric ton of junk -- and focus on that sweet, inspiring tale. You get way more than just jungle when you enter this Kipling landscape. There are barely intelligible, way, way long, bizarrely musical stories about mongooses (mongeese?), walruses, seals, birds and -- why not, "Eskimos." Kipling hops across the globe, telling his strange tales through various animals, all who share the same demented voice. The book punishes you, entertains you, then punishes you some more, leaving you battered, bruised and left alone with the wolves.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review: A Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin is such a good writer that it's blatantly clear that he cut a blood magic deal with Mirri Maz Duur, cutting a horse at the throat and slaying the unborn Dothraki child of Khaleesi -- destined to mount the world -- to secure the unholy deal of granting him unimaginable powers in storytelling and word economy.

Martin bring's an unfairly skilled touch to his saga, matching the drama and tension of his sweeping, unpredictable story with masterly writing that would be unbearably fascinating even if it was about something boring and pointless. He fuses the descriptive economy of Hemingway with the storytelling momentum of J.K. Rowling to create something that makes all other popular fantasy writing seem pathetic and hollow by comparison. Compared to Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are hacks.

The narrative shifts of his chapters, moving from the point of view from one character to another, is a master class in granting distinct voices to the people inside a writer's head. One moment he can capture the whimsical view of a 7-year-old invalid, and the next have you sympathizing with the Machiavellian ambitions of an incestuous traitor. Martin has much to say about race, religious influence on government, geopolitics, the power of oral history as it relates to education, parenting and sexual repression, but Martin keeps his thoughts to himself and lets his readers sort it all out as they watch him juggle his fascinating, cruelly disposed-of characters he sends into dizzying entanglemes with one another.

A Game of Thrones is one of the best books I will ever read, but I will stop short of The Book Is Better snobbery, even if I wouldn't argue with those who swear it is. For me, the HBO is so damned amazing that even Martin's writing can't match it. You can watch the series, ignore the books like most everyone else and be just fine. But if you are at all interested in dorky oversexed fantasy and fail to start this series, you have failed at life and need to take a step back and re-evaluate things. Take the black, commit to the monastic duty of reading or listening to the written word, and let your imagination dance with dragons to see how it compares with the HBO vision.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Report: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Two-thirds of this is a history book and and exhaustive history of French architecture, and the other third is a much more brutal version of the story that became the Disney movie. This is a weird and frustrating book, best appreciated as an exercise in flowery descriptive writing than storytelling or forward momentum. It's like sitting down with a half-senile grandpa and listening to his conspiracy-laden stories from the olden times, and it quickly to the point that you're listening to him not because you particularly believe him or care what he has to say, but because it's enjoyable to listen to him talk.

The ending is harsh and abrupt, which is sort of the way it has to be because there is no good way to wind down a story so depressing and pathetic. The overarching theme is of the way prejudice and blind hatred thrive among regal beauty, reflecting the true nature of man with more honesty than art or architecture can convey. An evil clergyman, a deformed, blind and deaf hero who is more sensitive than those with working senses, and a hapless victim of cultural bias, framed to die for the sins of her own people as well as those of her oppressors. There is beauty here, but it's buried deep and takes a hell of a lot of effort to get to it. As a whole, Hunchback is not worth the effort.