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 clich├ęs (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).