25 May 2010

Review: Death in Venice

Well if a book has ever left me with a deep ennui, this was it. I started off hating it, and by the end, I just didn't even care a little. I read it because I plan on studying Benjamin Britten, and he wrote an opera based on the story. Death In Venice is one of German writer Thomas Mann's most famous works, and it's so universally praised that I feel a bit weird for disliking it.

But I just can't get over how unrelentingly creepy it is. Aschenbach, the main character, is a famed, middle-aged, German writer in the pre-WWI 1910s. He feels a deep malaise for his work and decides to go on a trip. He ends up in Venice as Cholera begins to spread in the city. There, he falls madly in love with a 14-year old boy, Tadzio.

Now, Tadzio is apparently beautiful. But that's what you would expect of a thinly veiled metaphor for Apollo. Of course the sun/light/truth god is beautiful, this isn't Hephaestus. So we get to see Tadzi-apoll-o running about the shore and making Aschenbach's day. Sure, Aschenbach never does anything, but he lusts over the boy like a dog looking at a T-Bone. (Also, allow me to clarify that the age is what I have a problem with here, not the fact that both are male).

Thankfully, we're spared Aschenbach's continued awkward creepiness by his untimely death (spoiler alert). It was incredibly abrupt and felt like it came out of nowhere. I'd've been upset if it hadn't felt so merciful.

That said, I did manage to get one awesome line out of the book (one that I think I will use for conference papers when I turn my thesis into them):

But in empty, unarticulated space our mind loses its sense of time as well, and we enter the twilight of the immeasurable.

20 May 2010

Review: The Unnamed

Joshua Ferris completely hooked me with his first book, Then We Came to the End. It was an almost Heller-esque portrayal of office-life. Well, if you know me, "Heller-esque" is about the best characteristic I can think of in a book: the portrayal of both the banal and phenomenal in an absurd light makes for great reading.

So I eagerly anticipated his second offering. Released in January of this year, and titled The Unnamed, V and I picked up a copy at Borders a little later. I've just finally gotten around to reading it, and it was worth the wait. (She did read it before I did, and you can find her review here). It is the tale of Tim Farnsworth, a man with an unnamed disease. You see, Tim goes for walks. But not like those that you or I take, rather these are walks that come upon him suddenly and which he cannot control. His body forces him to walk and the only thing it does otherwise is avoid danger (somehow). After countless doctors and innumerable attempts to figure out what is wrong (is it psychological or physiological?), Tim and his wife have pretty much given up hope of ever ending it.

But the "disease" does go into remission, and during those periods, they're able to live a peaceful life with their daughter. Tim is a partner at a powerful law firm in New York City, and he's got a client that he needs to get off the hook for murder. As the case is readying to begin though, the disease comes back.

Now it doesn't seem like walking would be such a problem. We all do it, after all. But Tim walks to the point of exhaustion, and then falls asleep wherever his body needs to. He doesn't always know where he is, and her certainly can't control when it begins. So he has to keep a backpack with necessities in it with him at all times. And in the winter, he needs appropriate clothes.

The story is really well written, and the best parts are those in which we see the cracks in the relationship between Tim and his wife. There's an obvious and deep love, but the strain the disease puts on both of them is extreme. The thing I've noticed about Ferris is that I don't always love his plots, but he excels at writing about interpersonal relationships so well that I can overlook that. The books are character studies, and the plots are merely instruments to manipulate and expose that character.

It's definitely worth a read, and you'll be thinking about it for days. And if you haven't read Ferris's first book, grab that one too. It's probably the better of the two, but that doesn't mean you should skip The Unnamed, even if you have to walk to the bookstore to get it.

11 May 2010

Review: Are We Winning?

Anyone who has read what I write here knows that I love baseball. It is, without question, the greatest sport ever put on this planet, and one of my absolute favorite ways to spend a few hours. So despite the fact that I was not smitten with his last work (God Save The Fan, essentially a collection of long-winded Deadspin essays), I couldn't wait to get my hands on Will Leitch's new book, Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball.

Leitch is at his best when he writes about baseball. He's got a way with words that incorporates the modern view of the game with the romanticized purple prose of bygone years. It's easy to understand why: he grew up idolizing newspaper legends and went to the University of Illinois with the explicit purpose of becoming one of them. His two passions have been movies and sports, and it is in the field of sports that he truly shines.

Leitch grew up as a Cardinals fan, and he's been able to avoid any wavering from that, thanks in large part to his father. The elder Leitch gave his son sage advice when he left for college: "There's going to be a lot of Chicago people up there, and a lot of Cubs fans. You can fool around with a Cubs fan if you want, but don't you dare bring one home." Are We Winning? is primarily a book about the relationship of Will and Bryan Leitch, and how that has been built around baseball. Bryan Leitch seems like an amazing guy, but he also seems like the stock character father from the Midwest: stoic, hard-working, hard-drinking, and with charisma that bubbles over, allowing him to make friends with anyone anywhere (as with a man at Wrigley wearing a Cubs shirt and a Cardinals hat [makes me sick to my stomach to hear about that]).

The best parts of the book are unquestionably those that deal with the father-son dynamic. Leitch manages to make his stock-character father seem like something more than that. He could have easily left his father with the stereotypical traits and had a fine story, but instead he delves even further and allows the reader to see past the clip-art version of a Midwesterner.

Other parts of the book seem to lag just a little, but probably only because of their juxtaposition with the father-son bits. Are We Winning? is organized into the half-innings of a game that Leitch and his dad attended at Wrigley in 2008. The two die-hard Cardinals fans unwittingly ended up at the game where the Cubs are given the chance to clinch the NL Central against the Cardinals, while Tony LaRussa's squad floundered just out of reach of playoff contention. In each half-inning Leitch weaves general baseball stories with play-by-play of the game and the bits of the father-son relationship.

The general thesis of the baseball stories seems to be, as implied in the subtitle, that baseball is better now than it has ever been. This flies in the face of many baseball old-timers, who see the sport as constantly leaving its better days behind. But Leitch is able to offer a convincing argument: more people watch baseball now than have ever done so before, they are able to access more and better information than before, and the players are better than they ever have been. He's right on all three counts. The athleticism of even the worst baseball players (read: Yuniesky Betancourt) is better today than ever before, and it's led to better baseball. And with MLB.tv and other advances from MLB Advanced Media as well as innumerable blogs and other websites dedicated to baseball, we're more able to access information about this better game. I'm able to follow the Seattle Mariners while living in Washington, DC, and I'm actually able to do so better than I did when I lived in Washington state 6 years ago. That is incredible.

But what happens in the book is that these baseball stories get overshadowed by how incredibly good Leitch's writing about his father is. I love reading random bits about baseball, especially when they're written by Will Leitch. But here, I wanted to read even more about his dad. Maybe this is just the desire for a deeper connection with a parent over baseball. My dad never cared about baseball too much (always supported my little league playing, and went to Mariners games with me, but hates them for being "crybaby millionaires"), and though my mom coached my little league team and always let me watch the Mariners, she hardly follows them any more (she told me the other day "I really only know two guys on this year's team: Griffey and Ichiro." She didn't know Felix Henandez, one of the top-3 pitchers in the American League. See what I mean?). I'd love to have a baseball connection with a parent like Leitch does, and I think that's what made his stories so compelling, and what made the purely baseball anecdotes so anticlimactic.

That said, I can't recommend this book enough. It has some flaws (Leitch periodically reintroduces anecdotes throughout the book that he has already used before several times, and always treats them as new. This really annoyed me for some reason.), but they don't end up doing any major damage to the book. It's a quick read, and one that I'll probably come back to at some point. Why? Because even with its problems, baseball is still the best thing around. Like Leitch says, "We expect baseball to be perfect, all the time. And it is perfect. But it is run by human beings, who are far from perfect, who are not even close." No matter what those human beings do, they can't change the fact that baseball is perfect. Thanks, Will, for reminding why I love this game so damn much.

04 May 2010

Review: I, Lucifer

We've got a long tradition of stories involving the devil from a slightly more humanized view than what the bible gives us. Certainly, many of them still paint him to be evil, but they create a true character. Faust comes to mind, as does the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." Blues musician Robert Johnson was thought to have sold his soul at the crossroads for his ability to play guitar, and who can forget Johnny betting that he can play the fiddle better than Satan? (And of course, Tenacious D met some sort of devil, but banished him with the Greatest Song in the World)

All the music references are the slow way of getting to the topic of today, Glen Duncan's I, Lucifer: Finally, the Other Side of the Story. The book was recommended to me by Jessica Abbazio, a fellow grad student who was working on a paper about the personification of the devil in the Stones' song. Her paper was fascinating, as was the book she sent my way.

The basic premise here: God is giving Lucifer another chance. Lucifer, who only exists in a spiritual realm (and can't even see what we see, but rather the impacts of his doings on our souls), doesn't buy it, but the setup is too good to pass on. He is to inhabit the body of a failing writer, Declan Gunn (took me half the book to figure out it was an anagram for the author), who was about to commit suicide when God snatched his soul away. The upside for Lucifer is that he gets a one-month trial run in the city of London. If he wants to give it a go, he stays in the body and tries to live a good life. If not, he can return to being Lucifer.

What follows is a month of debauchery, where the devil wrecks Gunn's body. He takes drugs, drinks, has promiscuous sex (with the ladies of the XXX-quisite escort service), cheats on Gunn's girlfriend, cheats on his mistresses. He's, pretty much, a little devil. The problem for Lucifer is that he starts to reconsider: should he stay in the body and take his one shot at eternal redemption?

The conceit behind the book is great, and Gunn (whoops, Duncan) pulls it off marvelously. I can't say too much, as the reader is left constantly wondering which way Lucifer chooses. But it's certainly worth a read, and it's definitely quick. If you hadn't had the chance, pick up a copy. I'm sure it can be had for less than a soul.

03 May 2010

The Week Ahead

So I've got a fair amount of nearly-finished, just-finished, and soon-to-be-begun books in store for the week. The nearly finished (not page-wise, but time-wise) is Chuck Klosterman's IV. It's pretty good thus far. I might try and break my responses to it up into little mini posts in reaction to individual essays. More reason to come back!

Yesterday I finished Duncan Glen's I, Lucifer. It had me completely in its grips, and you'll read about that at some point. Finally, I pre-ordered Will Leitch's new book Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball. If you read yesterday's Sunday Book Banter, you know how I feel about the Romanticism of baseball, and a book about fathers, sons, and the baseball bond certainly qualifies. The Kindle version seems to have been taken down (that's what I ordered), but Leitch assures me that any problems there will be worked out soon. In theory, it should come tonight while I sleep!

Should be a fun week. I may put up some first impressions of the essays I've read in the new collection of Britten scholarship. In short: the ones I didn't care about turned out to be ok, and the one that I really cared about was really atrocious.

So be sure to come back this week. There's plenty in store!

02 May 2010

Sunday Book Banter: May 2, 2010

As promised here is the return of Sunday Book Banter. I swear I'm going to be a better blogger...

In today's Washington Post, we get a review of former MLB-er Doug Glanville's new baseball memoir, The Game From Where I Stand. Glanville never really made it onto my radar of players I cared about, but the new book sounds like it could be a fun (and probably quick) read. Dave Sheinin writes:

Glanville, who contributes a column to the New York Times, is a witty, insightful writer, and his detailed descriptions of the unseen banalities and secret vanities of the baseball life -- how players pass the time during rain delays, the proper way to pack an equipment bag after you've been cut, the admission that players practice signing their autograph -- are sometimes riveting and often amusing, even for those of us already intimately familiar with that life. 

Sheinin, I should note, wrote one of the better baseball stories I've read in a while for last Sunday's Post; a great write-up on Stephen Strasburg's first weeks in professional baseball.  If you haven't had the chance to read it, do so, it's got a certain poetry to it. (I kind of love the old-school Romanticism of baseball, and Sheinin does a great job of bringing that back).

Back to the book at hand, apparently it isn't too big on naming names or avoiding clichés (player superstitions!), but Glanville does provide a nuanced approach to the steroid controversy. As a player representative to the union, one expects Glanville to want a hush-hush over steroids, but he also claims to have never used them (and with anemic power throughout his career, I think we can trust him). So he has to be conflicted between his commitment to player privacy and his anger at those who tried to get ahead of him by using drugs. I'll certainly be looking for the book. Seems like it should be a quick read, and it will probably have the little day-to-day baseball stuff that I am always eager to read about (see this review).

28 April 2010

Review: The Guns of August

My Aunt May has been telling me to read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August for what seems to be ages. Boy was I stupid not to do so as soon as she recommended it. Tuchman's work recounts the first month of World War I: August, 1914. I have to admit to knowing very little about WWI, but this made for a great primer into the causes of the war as well as the reasons it got bogged down in the trenches.

A few things surprised me about the opening month of the war. The first was the transitional state that war was in. We tend to think of war as something that happened before mechanized weaponry or something that happened after. WWI shows that this was not the case. Weaponry used in battle of course included heavy artillery, rifles, airplanes, and machine guns. But it also included lances, bicycles, horses, and bayonets. Some of the massive casualties were undoubtedly caused by these discrepancies in firepower. I had the hardest time wrapping my mind around the idea of war that wasn't quite 19th Century but also wasn't firmly 20th Century either.

But the highlight of this book is Tuchman's writing. It took me a while to read, but a lot of that was owed to thesis writing. Tuchman's prose is absolutely gorgeous, and it draws you in. Throughout the book, I found myself angry and sympathizing with the Germans, British, French, Russians, and Belgians. She didn't allow retrospective history to get in the way of writing: the Germans aren't evil, and the British aren't demi-gods. All of the participants are instead just fallible human beings. Its devastating to realize how much human life was lost in the stupidity, and Tuchman really details the magnitude of tragedy involved, regardless of side.

While a lot of people who read the book focus on the (admittedly wonderful) first paragraph, I had a different favorite that really shows Tuchman's style. In Chapter 22, as she is setting up the Battle of the Marne that was to decide the fate of France, Tuchman writes this:

September 4 opened with a sense of climax felt in widely separated places; a kind of extra-sensory awareness that great events sometimes send ahead. In Paris, Gallieni felt this was the "decisive" day. In Berlin, Princess Blücher wrote in her diary, "Nothing is talked of but the expected entry into Paris." In Brussels the leaves had begun to fall, and a sudden wind blew them in gusts about the street. People felt the hidden chill of autumn in the air and wondered what would happen if the war were to last through the winter. At the American Legation Hugh Gibson noted a "growing nervousness" at German Headquarters where there had been no announcements of victories in four days. "I am sure there is something big in the air today."

What a beautiful way to set the stage for one of history's most important days.

If you haven't read The Guns of August and you have even a modicum of interest in history, pick up a copy. It is easily one of the best history books I've ever come across.

27 April 2010

Like Douglas MacArthur, I Return

Hi there blog! It's good to see you again. Sorry I've been away for nearly two months, but thesis writing got in the way. After doing 80 pages of "The Manipulation of the Perception of Time in John Adams's Doctor Atomic," I didn't want to write any more. But that's all done now, so here I am again. I'll have a new review of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August up tomorrow. (Sneak peak: I loved it).

While writing, my to-read list apparently took the rabbit spirit of Easter and multiplied like crazy, so you can expect some new stuff coming relatively regularly again. I've got William Manchester's biography of Douglas MacArthur, Chuck Klosterman's IV, Jack Lynch's The Lexicographers Dilemma (check out this review at VPO), Gabriel García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a bunch of other stuff. I'm thinking of taking a trek through some Shakespeare this summer, maybe the histories. And, despite finishing the thesis, I'm already starting some reading in anticipation of the dissertation, so if I find anything interesting, I'll pass it on! I'll see if I can't restart Sunday Book Banter again too.

As for right now, I'm reading a new anthology of essays on my favorite composer (and likely dissertation subject), Benjamin Britten. Edited by Lucy Walker of the Britten-Pears Foundation, the book is a collection of essays written by mostly new scholars. I'm particularly interested in Cameron Pyke's analysis and comparison of Britten's War Requiem with Dimitri Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony.

So stay tuned! There's plenty more on the way, and this blog will be rolling regularly again!

04 March 2010

"Last Train From Hiroshima" Withdrawn

I wrote about Charles Pellegrino's Last Train From Hiroshima a few weeks ago. Since then, the books publisher has been alerted to several glaring factual errors in the book. In a recent post, Jacket Copy does a great job of detailing what has happened. But it's your typical history book story of "My sources lied!" That seems fair enough, but as the publisher has dug more deeply into the book they've found more and more problems, including the inclusion of someone who doesn't exist (Pellegrino says it was a pseudonym).

An interesting question that Jacket Copy raises is: how much should publishers fact check? Obviously, they can't check everything. There are bound to be errors. But in a book that received so much press and attention, why did it take Henry Holt (the publisher) so long to check it out?

Needless to say, the book is no longer on my to-read shelf. And as far as Pellegrino? He appears to have taken his cue from Major Kong and ridden The Bomb to his own death.

02 March 2010

Review: Odd Man Out

Aside from music, one of my biggest passions in life is baseball. Since 1994 I've been a huge fan of the Seattle Mariners. I care far too much about baseball and spend far too much time reading about it online. But one thing I don't read enough of is baseball books. When I read The Boys of Summer by George Kahn, I loved it (or at least the first half of it). I've read some other baseball stuff that is just superb. But then you get the real clunkers. And when a baseball book stinks, it's just unbearable. I want them to be good so badly that it upsets me when they are not.

Well I was killing some time at the UMD bookstore the other day, and came across Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit by Matt McCarthy. I'm not sure why it struck me, but I looked it up on my Kindle and downloaded it there. I've never been happier with a baseball book in my life. It doesn't have any of the sabermetric statistics that I'm learning to like, and it isn't really advanced technically. What it is is a superb recounting of McCarthy's year in the Anaheim Angel's farm system.

McCarthy was a left-handed pitcher for an abysmal Yale team. In 2002, after graduating from one of the top universities in the world, he was picked in the 21st round of the amateur draft by the Angels. 21st-round picks are usually people that will never make an impact on the big-league team. And the same is true of McCarthy. But his assignment to the Provo Angels, based in the geographic heart of the Mormon religion provides for some fantastic stories, and we're lucky they were experienced by someone who can write as well as McCarthy does.

He tells of extended spring training and his time in Provo, UT. But the best part of the book is the detailing of the players themselves. We get some big names (new Mariners 1B Casey Kotchman's dad is McCarthy's manager in Provo. White Sox closer Bobby Jenks makes a cameo as a drunk blowhard [which in turn makes me like Jenks even more now that I see his complete transformation], Joe Saunders is hated by his teammates, Ervin Sanatana puts no effort into his game, and Alberto Callaspo engages in hijinks galore), and we get some people that even the most avid baseball fan hasn't heard of.

These are the people that make the story special. Two players come immediately to mind, and both were (at one point) McCarthy's roommates. The first roommate, always referred to as Sunshine, was a bit of an eccentric player, who most of the team thought was only there as a favor. He served the season as the bullpen catcher, one of the least glorious jobs in all of baseball. After initially disliking him, McCarthy seems to end up with a great fondness for the crazy Californian.

The other is Randy Burden, a devout Christian who tried to push the Bible onto McCarthy while also trying to be supportive in a non-imposing way. McCarthy details the brusque manner in which he treated Burden, and then reveals that Burden died after the 2002 season. You can sense a profound regret in McCarthy's writing both that he wasn't there for his teammate in life, and afterwards. These segments must have been very difficult for McCarthy to write, as he lays himself out as kind of an ass.

The other truly inspiring character is Tom Kotchman, the Provo Angel's manager. The way he is described, he is truly a "player's manager."If his team plays baseball the "way it was meant to be played" he'll do anything for them. At one point, Kotchman offers any money that his players need with no strings attached. For some, this was they only way they could eat on the meager rookie-ball salary they received. As clichéd as it sounds, I absolutely loved this bit from Kotchman:
If you play hard for me, I will do anything for you. Anything! And to see some of you just going through the motions... it kills me. You're disrespecting the game!
These kids were given the chance to live the dream of thousands of people. To play professional baseball. And while you can't blame them for taking it for granted (most people who routinely do amazing things take them for granted), you have to appreciate what Kotchman is trying to instill in his players.

The author is very straightforward about the fact that he wasn't a very good pitcher. Without fear of spoiling anything (it pretty much gives the ending on the back cover), I note that even though McCarthy got cut in Spring Training of 2003, he's not doing too shabbily for himself: having attended Harvard Medical School.

If you're looking for a good baseball book, but this one now. The pace was fast and the story telling was phenomenal. I can't recommend it enough.

28 February 2010

Sunday Book Banter: Feb. 28, 2010

Well, the Washington Post has been letting me down lately. They didn't deliver during Snowmageddon (understandable), or the next weekend (even after I reported my paper as undelivered), or the weekend after (though they did bring it on Monday). Today I got my paper on time, and the Book World section didn't have a single book that I found compelling. So after a few discouraging weeks, I'm changing the name of this to "Sunday Book Banter" and expanding the scope to the big book sections across the nation on Sundays. Expect it to focus mainly on the WaPo, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, but if something else catches my eye, it may pop up here too. Cue the (new) logo!

Today's book comes from the Sunday Book Review in the NYT. It's the much-anticipated new biography of Willie Mays penned by James Hirsch. Reviewer Pete Hamill immediately begins waxing poetic about the yesteryear of baseball, while showing the fact that it's not a topic he writes on with any regularity:
A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball. This was before 30 major-league teams were scattered in a blurry variety of divisions; before 162-game seasons and extended playoffs and fans who watched World Series games in thick down jackets; before the D.H. came to the American League; before AstroTurf on baseball fields and aluminum bats on sandlots; before complete games by pitchers were a rarity; before ballparks were named for corporations instead of individuals; and long, long before the innocence of the game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.
Ahhh, we're in for a "the game used to be good" screed. Well, before you get on the bully pulpit of baseball, make sure you come to terms with the face that no one uses periods in DH (or 1B, RF, LF, SS, et al. for that matter). I don't mind older scribes going on and on about the beauty of the game (in fact, I often enjoy it), but I want a certain base level of knowledge to be demonstrated before I can take them seriously.

Well, Hamill goes on to list his bona fides as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I suppose I can't blame him for not keeping up with baseball after his team was ripped from him in 1957. Knowing that Hamill grew up a Dodger fan when the Mays-Robinson rivalry was so heated made me expect that he would be a bit bitter about Say Hey.

But he isn't. Hamill describes how he stopped caring at all about baseball after the Dodgers left, and writes that Hirsch does a splendid job of filling him in on what he missed. How Mays could have probably had more than 700 home runs had he not played in the notoriously windy Candlestick Park in San Francisco. How Mays got to play against Sandy Koufax (could that be the best pitcher/hitter combo to ever grace the game?). And how Mays would spend his spare time helping out in the community, long before that was seen as just another good PR move.

Hamill's writing here is good, but I didn't really need any convincing. I'm a baseball fan, so I feel I need to read this book. More than any other sport, baseball has an ever-present relationship with its history. Certainly, the steroids era has has killed some of it, but we can compare our players today with those of yesterday. I know it sounds corny, and probably a bit hackneyed, but part of what I love about baseball is that history. So the Willie Mays book is kind of a no-brainer for me. But if I needed any more convincing, Hamill gives me one last great reason: "Willie Mays brought us joy. All of us."

26 February 2010

Review: Up In The Air

A couple of weekends ago, I had a free Saturday. I had no idea what to do, so I started trying to see if I could find any movies that I would want to but Victoria wouldn't. I saw that Up In The Air was playing at the Gallery Place theatre. Now, I will see pretty much anything with George Clooney in it, and I had heard enough good reviews to make seeing this in the theatre worth it. Turns out, I freaking loved the movie. Some nice humor, nothing too over-the-top, a bit of dark human drama. Pretty much everything I could ask for in a movie.

I decided to pick up Walter Kirn's novel of the same name on which the movie was based. I of course expected some changes, but the general plot would be the same, right? Absolutely not. The book and the movie share a few things:
  • Ryan Bingham is the protagonist and narrator
  • Alex is a love interest
  • Ryan's sister is getting married
  • Ryan is attempting to reach a high number of frequent flier miles (the actual # is different)
  • Ryan fires people for a living
Now that seems like a pretty substantial list. But there are some major differences. The book's Bingham looks forward to not flying. The movie's would find this insufferable. The book's Bingham is based out of Denver and spends most of his time in the West, while hoping for a job in Omaha. The movie's is based in Omaha and is trying to keep his job there while flying across the entire nation.

But the biggest difference between the two is who Ryan Bingham really is. In the movie, I saw Bingham as a fairly down-to-earth (despite all the flying) guy with some definite family and social issues, but nothing you wouldn't expect from a guy who spends his life in the air (to the tune of 10 million miles, all domestic). In the book, we are led to believe that Bingham is either insane, or just very amnesiac. (It's worth noting that other people have seen the insanity in the movie's Bingham. In his review of the movie, Will Leitch writes "Isn’t Ryan Bingham, all told, kind of insane? Just a step or two removed from Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love, he’s obsessed with American Airline frequent flier miles, a loner misfit who can’t interact with another human being longer than it takes to pay a bar tab." So there is that.)

Also, the book's Bingham has a strange fascination with drugs that leads to an episode in Las Vegas which was one of the most disenchanting passages I've read in a while. It is completely out of the realm of possibility to think that the movie version of Bingham would have this same thing happen. And here's where I am a bit confused. Did I find this passage so horrible because I was upset that our "hero" becomes an antihero? I'd like to think I've got enough appreciation for dark literature/film/etc. to like a good antihero, but here I'm not sure. I was really pulling for Bingham to have some sort of fulfillment, and he doesn't get it. Part of my problem though is that the Las Vegas scene doesn't seem entirely believable. Maybe it's partially the movie image of Bingham I had, but I never was able to fully believe that even book Bingham would go on a Vegas bender. It seems too cliché.

All of this said, would I recommend it? Sure. It's a really fast read, and it does have some interesting bits. For instance, this take on materialism (note: Great West is the made-up airline Bingham flies):
I know of no pleasure more reliable than consuming a great American brand against the backdrop featured in its advertising. Driving a Ford pickup down brown dirt roads. Swigging a Coke on the beach in Malibu. Flying Great West over central Colorado. It's a feeling of restfulness and order akin, I suspect, to how the ancient Egyptians felt watching the planets line up above the Pyramids. You're in the right place, you're running with the right forces, and if the wind should howl tomorrow, let it.
So yeah, if you've got nothing better to read, pick up a copy of Up In the Air, but I don't think it's anything you should specifically make time for.

22 February 2010

Review: Right Ho, Jeeves

I had read somewhere about the P.G. Wodehouse "Jeeves & Wooster" stories. I'm not sure where, and I don't quite remember when, but for some reason it piqued my interest. They were described as riotously funny British humor, and that tends to be something up my alley. After some searching, I found out it didn't matter what order one read the stories in, as none of the plots relied on one another. So I dove into one I found for free on Project Gutenberg: Right Ho, Jeeves. Let me go ahead and ruin any anticipation by saying: go buy this now.

That's Stephen Fry as the butler (actually, valet, but we'll go with butler) Jeeves, and Hugh Laurie as Bertram Wooster. Jeeves is your (stereo)typical tight-lipped butler, always willing to do what is asked of him despite what may be obvious defects in a plan. Bertram Wooster is a well-meaning dunderhead, as well as our narrator. Everything he touches gets all mussed up, and it falls to Jeeves to fix it. In Right Ho, Jeeves alone Wooster messes up (and Jeeves fixes)

  • The engagement of his cousin
  • The love affairs of a school-friend
  • The state of employ of the French chef Anatole at his aunt's estate
  • The viability of his Aunt's newspaper
  • A speech giving awards at a local grammar school
The typical formula is as follows: Jeeves wants to fix something, Wooster thinks he can do better, Wooster fails, Wooster fails some more, Wooster proves that there is no floor to failure, Jeeves fixes it all somehow. This seems like it could get tedious, but Wodehouse writes with such concise wit that it never does. 

Another part of why this book was so delightful is that it's an early-30s period piece. What a fantastic time to set a story in. Neat cars, lots of fine drinks, trains to Cannes for the summer, and the leftover sexual inhibitions of the Victorian era coexisting with a more liberal ideology.

I think it's best just to have a few quotes here. They're taken entirely out of context, but you don't really need the context to get the wit (though it does make it even better).

And yet, if he wants this female to be his wife, he's got to say so, what? I mean, only civil to mention it.

I studied it in a profound reverie for the best part of two dry Martinis and a dividend.

I could not but remember how often, when in her company at Cannes, I had gazed dumbly at her, wishing that some kindly motorist in a racing car would ease the situation by coming along and ramming her amidships. As I have already made abundantly clear, this girl was not one of my most congenial buddies

Uncle Tom, in addition to not liking burglars, is a bloke who has always objected to the idea of being cooked in his sleep, so when he bought the place he saw to it that the fire bell should be something that might give you heart failure.

And finally, on Jeeves:

To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.

The whole thing is delightful, like reading a period version of The Hitchhiker's Guide or the novel on which half of Monty Python was based. If you've got any taste for British humor, it's an absolute must-read.

11 February 2010

Review: The Iliad

I finally finished The Iliad yesterday after having it slowed a bit by reading Pride and Prejudice. It was a phenomenal book, but tended to get a bit repetitive in parts. But there is even a reason for that, and it's one I can understand. What the story does really well is portray some characters very deeply, and make them really connect with the reader. I'll break this review down into the good and the bad.

First, the bad: the battle scenes tended to blend in my mind. Though the battles themselves are described in incredible detail, the acts of heroism become redundant after a while. I get that big Ajax is really quite strong. As is Hector. As is Agamemnon. As is Patroclus. As is... you get the point. There are only so many times I want to read something along the lines of "He challenged the son of _____ and called on (insert God here) to help him. He let fly his spear and it hit the buckler in the middle and pierced through. The dark death fell over _______'s eyes." Unless I am invested in the person, why do I need to know their background?

Now, there's a reason for this. The Iliad is a sort of history, but it was also originally sung or recited. The repetitiveness makes two things possible: comprehensiveness and flow. So that's why, while it bugged me, the nitty gritty wasn't a dealbreaker with this story. Which leads me to...

The good: the breadth, emotion, horror, and beauty of this story are unbelievable. Those characters that do play major roles are well-developed. You can't help but feel terribly as Achilles weeps over the death of his friend Patroclus. And the same goes for Priam as he tries to regain the body of Hector. The Iliad really doesn't hide the emotion and pain of war at all, be it through graphic descriptions of killing or heart-rending passages about those affected by the war. There is a reason this story has survived for thousands of years: it's incredibly compelling. Sure, in our modern time some of it seems unbelievable, but I think that added to it. Two armies fighting seems stupid. Two armies fighting while a group of gods do the same on the same field? That seems epic, and as if it is somehow more important. Does it make sense that way? Not really. Nevertheless, that's what I ended up feeling when I read this.

If, like me, you've waited this long to read The Iliad, don't hesitate any more. Go out and get Robert Fagles' translation (it was amazingly good, and never got bogged down in weird turns of phrase) and read it soon. At some point in the near future, I'll be diving into his version of The Odyssey, so expect a report from that in the next couple of months. I need a break from epics for a bit though. So next up will be P.G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves, which I'm already halfway through. Look for that soon!

07 February 2010

Book World Banter: Feb. 7, 2010

I wasn't sure if I'd do this today, since we didn't get our paper (thanks Snowmageddon), but since the series is only one-week old, I figured I ought to. Book World today reviewed a number of interesting books (Henry Paulson's insider take on the financial crisis, and a book about the effects of nuclear power on the American government), but I'd like to focus on what may be the most harrowing. Joseph Kanon's The Last Train from Hiroshima provides an in-depth look at the effects of the atomic bomb on those who survived and were killed by it. Reviewer Charles Pellegrino does an excellent job of balancing the horror we feel at reading about this terrible event, and the fascination which comes from something that so few of us actually understand. What is a nuclear explosion actually like?

Apparently Kanon addresses this from both the human and the scientific standpoints. The horror of living with radiation poisoning and  the biological effects of the plasma cloud that accompanied the explosion. The book focuses on a large cast of characters, and traces the events of the day and their lives afterwards. Like so many books in this style (think The Boys of Summer):
cross-cutting fatigue inevitably sets in, and Pellegrino's account of what happened to everyone later, the legacy, lacks the cohesion of the earlier day-by-day approach. 
That said, the book looks absolutely fascinating and terrifying. One other note that I'm glad to read is that Kanon doesn't address the question of "should we have dropped it?" Certainly, it is still a relevant debate (though no amount of debate will expunge the event from history), but it has its place. A book describing the effects is not that place. If we want a look at the "should haves" we should look elsewhere. This book, however, will be going on my to-read list for sure.

Review: Pride and Prejudice

Take another "Why have I not read this?" book off of my list, and mark it as a resounding success. I finally got around to reading Jane Austen's seminal classic Pride and Prejudice. It was absolutely phenomenal, and I'm glad that Victoria prevailed upon me to read it.

I'm not really sure how much can be said about this book, though. I certainly have nothing profound to offer to the discourse of one of the most popular and written-about books of all time. But I do have a few minor observations from my read.
  • Charlotte, Elizabeth's best friend, has a rather amusing observation about the amount of affection ladies should show to men in order to get the point across:
    "In nine cases out of ten a woman had better show MORE affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on."
    We men have the stunning ability to be quite dense about these things. When it can be painfully obvious to the word that someone likes us, we'll hem and haw until the opportunity has passed. Austen (through Charlotte) has absolutely nailed it here.
  • Austen has an absolutely superb wit, and a really graceful way with words. For instance, we might say "Because Bingley's sister was insincere to Jane, Elizabeth disliked her." Austen gives us:
    "their indifference towards Jane when not immediately before them restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her former dislike."
    Elizabeth relishes disliking these people, and as a reader, I certainly did too. I'm glad that Austen didn't try to make contempt seem bad, because in many cases it's warranted.
  • Another word for the ladies, from Mr. Darcy:
    "All this she must possess," added Mr. Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
    Spot on Mr. Darcy.
  • Mr. Bennet is one of the best characters I've read in a while.
  • Wickham really struck me as being quite similar to Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers. I wonder if Dickens was reading much of Austen's work?
  • Finally, Elizabeth gives Mr. Darcy some of the best advice I've read in ages:
    "You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."
If you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, go out and get a copy post haste. It's really fantastic, and quite shameful that it took me 24 years to get to it.

06 February 2010

Snowmageddon (or whatever it is we're calling this)

We take a break from the frenetic pace of book blogging to bring you an update on the Super Snow-mageddon-ocalypse. If you want better updates, with prettier pictures, I'd recommend taking a look at VPO. She doesn't haven anything up right this second (other than a delicious cookie recipe), but she's been a shutterbug all storm and I'm sure her post will do it more justice than this.

Anyhow, I went and shoveled some snow with our neighbor last night. First time I've ever shoveled snow. This Washington state boy is all grown up, now. Maybe. But, as of 9ish last night, here's the view up our street.

Since then, in the ensuing 13 or so hours, we've probably added a foot. Yeesh. I'll probably go walk around tomorrow once it's all said and done and take a few more pictures, but this looks like it might actually live up to what the forecasts told us! Stay warm, everybody!

31 January 2010

Book World Banter

We here at the VPO-MM household are Sunday-only subscribers to the Washington Post, and this may become a regular feature if Book World keeps having some interesting books. That's hardly a guarantee though, as the paper has absolutely eviscerated the Book World section and made it a shell of its former self. Now, we only get 3-5 books reviewed in the average week. So, if you see a week missing, it's because there wasn't anything great that week. Anyhow, since it's a feature, it gets a logo.

Catching my eye in this weeks Book World is The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior by Paul Strathern (link goes to review). The book apparently aims to tell of the intersection in 16th-Century Italy of Niccolò Machiavelli, the man who inspired The Prince, and possible drag-queen Leonardo da Vinci. Cesare Borgia, the man whose winner-take-all ways inspired Machiavelli's treatise, hired da Vinci in his quest to unite Italy in a new Roman empire. In addition to being a famous artist, da Vinci was a renowned engineer, and Borgia used his talents to wage more efficient war. As reviewer Steven Levingston notes:
Da Vinci contributed his considerable gifts to strengthening the duke's fortresses (curved walls reduced the impact of cannonballs), drawing maps (with the use of his invention, the hodometer, to measure precise distances) and building ad hoc bridges for the duke's army to cross rivers.
After he saw the ruthless duke in action, da Vinci quit his position and was never the same again. Machiavelli was able to observe, mostly from afar, as a diplomat from Florence, and grew to admire Borgia's grasp of power. While he certainly couldn't condone the duke, Machiavelli realized that politics didn't work in the realm of the theoretical and devised his book on governing based on the explicitly real concept that ruthlessness was a phenomenal way of maintaining power. 

Levingston gave the book a fantastic review, and it's been added to my Goodreads list. It seems like it might be in the same vein as Evening in the Palace of Reason, a book about the short meeting between Frederick the Great and J.S. Bach, another book I wish to read. Both detail meetings that certainly didn't define any of the primary actors lives, yet serve as a window through which we may better understand their biography and the society of the time. An interesting method of writing history, to be sure.

28 January 2010

The Iliad: Finally reading it

The Iliad is one of those books that make me ask, "How have I not read this?" If you take a look at my Goodreads list, there are quite a few of those (Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.). I've got a problem with guilt-reading that exasperates Victoria: I will often read books just because I think I should read them, not because I think I will enjoy them.

And that's partially how I came to The Iliad. It had been something I wanted to read for quite a while, just because I felt like I ought to. And then, the same uncle and aunt who told me to read The Pickwick Papers recommended this and The Odyssey. So I asked for the Robert Fagles translations for Christmas, and got them. I'm not sure why I wanted Fagles other than the fact that I like the covers, but I'm glad I chose his versions. I've not finished the book yet, but I've got some midway thoughts after this short intermission.

Achilles for the ladies

I'm only about half of the way through, but even after only a little bit, I think the book is astonishingly good. I remember having to read parts of it in High School (and probably eschewing that responsibility) and hating it. I think the possibility of rhyming couplets completely turned me off. Well, good news! The Fagle's translation doesn't rhyme! Thank the undying gods.

The thing which most surprises me about it all is how incredibly graphic the violence is. I often feel like I'm reading a screenplay for a Tarrentino film. It's not necessarily a bad thing, as it is great at illustrating the horror of war, it was just unexpected. One passage I just read the other night mention someone having their head and arms cut off and rolling away like a log. Eeesh.

I'll be sure to check in with a review after I'm done. As an addendum (I started writing this five days ago), I've started reading one of the aforementioned "should read" books on my metro rides to and from UMD. I'll have a review of the mystery book coming up as well, and it's sure to be positive!

24 January 2010

(Kind of) New Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Book

Well this book is going on my to-read list. A new translation of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book that I hadn't heard of just got a rave review in today's Washington Post. The novel, In the First Circle, tells the tale of prisoners in a Soviet work camp and of atomic espionage in the heart of the Cold War. 

I was amazed by Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I read it in High School, and I have a copy of The Gulag Archipelago that I've been meaning to read for ages. But this may come first after reading what the Post had to say. Just a note to take a look for it.

23 January 2010

A New Look

I figured that since I was helping Victoria out with her new look today, I might as well change mine too. (Go ahead, make the obligatory "Well, if you don't ever post you might as well do something" joke.) I like the new swanky look, though to be honest I wonder if the left side is a bit too narrow. Let me know what you think in the comments.

As for other things, be on the lookout for a post or two about The Iliad, as that's what I'm currently reading. After that, who knows? Maybe some more stuff on the Kindle, though in the real book world I still have Superfreakonomics, Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, The Odyssey, and Adorno on Music to read. Plus, I want to pick up (or get from the library, or whatever) a copy of Game Change, the political book du jour. So be on the lookout for some of that.

18 January 2010

Review: Battle for America 2008

I've been looking for a good inside-story sort of book about the 2008 presidential election for a while now. When the Washington Post reviewed The Battle for America: The Story of an Extraordinary Election, I was intrigued enough to place a copy on hold at the library. The book wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it wasn't bad either.

I was hoping that this book would provide a ton of insider information that you couldn't get elsewhere. And in a way, it did. There are interviews with countless staff members on each of the major campaigns all the way up to the candidates themselves. But interviews alone don't cut it. The book is a phenomenal overview of the election for someone who wasn't there. Balz and Johnson have a knack for strong narrative, and the broad strokes that the book sometimes takes are great for what they are.

But I feel like what they are isn't enough. After an in-depth look at Iowa and New Hampshire for the Democratic primaries, Super Tuesday is wrapped up in just a few pages. From what I remember, that was the tensest time of the entire campaign. Hillary and Obama had split the four early states, so it was do-or-die in Super Tuesday. I'd love to have read more about the operations of both campaigns as they scrambled to get the necessary delegates.

And the other part of the campaign that lacks depth is the coverage of the Republican side of things. I closely followed the Democratic primaries, probably to the detriment of my knowledge in the Republican world. But I feel like a vast majority of people reading this book (if you're a Republican, why would you want to rehash a staggering loss?) are in the same boat. Sure, McCain had things wrapped up pretty quickly, but does that mean that the Democratic primaries should get literally three times more space in the book than the Republican counterparts?

Balz and Johnson also had the annoying habit of assuming a bit too much knowledge. In the final chapter, they wrote this:

The S&P index of the leading five hundred stocks had fallen more than at any time since 1937, with every sector taking double-digit hits...

What in the world does "double-digit hits" mean? Are we talking in terms of percentages (and percentage of what?)? Is it in terms of dollars (a $75 hit doesn't sound too bad to me)? Is it in terms of public opinion? The metric of the S&P 500 itself? I can't tell, and too often Balz and Johnson leave loose ends like this.

That said, the book is a superb broad narrative of the election. A great reminder of how things played out in the larger sense. Maybe I just need to pick up a copy of A Long Time Coming by the staff at Newsweek. Every election cycle they send reporters with the campaigns under the promise that whatever they collect will not be written until after the election. Maybe in that book I can find more of the nitty-gritty for which I was looking.

13 January 2010

Review: The Pickwick Papers

At Thanksgiving dinner, I mentioned to my Uncle and Aunt that I was planning on reading War and Peace over my winter break. Much to my surprise, the two of them hated the book, and thus the idea. So, thoroughly rebuffed, I asked what they would recommend. I got The Iliad and The Odyssey (yes, it's practically criminal that I haven't read them before, but I have new copies that I got for Christmas, and that will be remedied soon). But then they said "read The Pickwick Papers."

Now it was my turn to act disgusted at a book. "Nope. I hate Dickens," I told them. My Aunt persisted, and told me this was like no other novel Dickens ever wrote. The line that sold it for me was, "It's like Dickens was on uppers when he wrote it." How could I say no to that? You'll find the review after the break.

After finishing the mammoth book (875 pages in the edition I had before switching over to the Kindle), I'm glad they convinced me. It's a sprawling novel, definitely in the picaresque tradition, and at times it drags. That said, it has some of the best characters I've ever come across in literature. Mr. Pickwick is the esteemed leader of a club named for him, and the novel chronicles his journeys through England over about a year and a half.

But the character that I liked most was also my biggest shock. When the back cover noted that there was a character with a cockney accent, I knew I would hate him. Nothing is more annoying to me than when an author writes an accent and leaves me to parse through it (See: Dracula). So imagine my shock when Sam Weller became my favorite character in the book. His accent is written out, but easy to understand. That's all I ask for. Take note, authors, if you're going to write an accent, use Sam Weller as your model.

The other reason I was shocked to find I liked Sam was because he reminded me so much of one of my least favorite literary figures: Sancho Panza. Both sidekicks to wandering heros, both love to spout aphorisms, and both figure themselves to be witty. The difference is that Dickens pulls this off. He is actually raucously funny throughout the novel, and I found myself laughing out loud a few times.

Now, all of this is not to say the novel had no faults. At times, it tended to ramble too much. Dickens kept a fairly tight reign, and you could tell that even he understood his characters were often too prosaic, as in this example describing Mr. Snodgrass revealing his love:
...it afforded him an opportunity of acknowledging, before their mutual friends, that he loved Mr. Wardle's daughter deeply and sincerely; that he was proud to avow that the feeling was mutual; and that if thousands of miles were placed between them, or oceans rolled their waters, he could never for an instant forget those happy days, when first - et cetera, et cetera.
This was one of the points I laughed out loud. You can almost hear Dickens yelling at his narrator: "GET ON WITH IT!!"

This book really is fantastic. I do need to learn that picaresque novels (this, Don Quixote, etc) tend to annoy me at times, so I should try having some secondary reading material on hand. But if you haven't read it, go out and get a copy (or grab a public domain version online) and give it a look.

03 January 2010

Kindle! and Blogging this Year

So I'm pretty pumped after getting a new Kindle 2 for Christmas. I've been toying around with it, and discovered a way to get Project Gutenberg books on the Kindle almost effortlessly. I've been reading the real book of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, so I found a free public domain copy for the Kindle. Thus far, it's an enjoyable experience, though it will certainly take some getting used to. That said, now that I can get a load of public domain books both instantly and for free, expect to see me reading more classics this year.

And what else can you expect this year? I'll be trying to blog more regularly. Let's see if I can't be half as productive as Victoria. I'll try to do more regular reviews, and maybe see if I can't get outside of just doing that. As a note, I'm going to be writing my thesis this semester so that may slow things down. Theoretically, though, the bulk of that work should be done by mid-March (eek!).

Finally, you ought to go check out Ennui and Ivory, a new blog by friend of the blog Paul Campbell. It could be fairly interesting, if he keeps it up, as he's an excellent writer with a deft hand at pith.

That's it for now, but I'll be checking in later this week!