Sunday, February 5, 2012

Leafing Through: The Books of January

Keys to the Kingdom: Lady Friday, Superior Saturday, Lord Sunday
This series really carried through in its final volumes, erecting a complex and vivid world full of interesting nooks and crannies that burst with fun characters who all tumble towards an earth-shattering climax. For more depth, check last month’s look inside books 1-4.

The Necessary Revolution
A good book to read once one’s in middle- to upper-management of a firm or other organization, but The Necessary Revolution isn’t stimulating enough for a good casual read. The authors lead off with a familiar list of valuable environmental statistics and issues, follow up with a strong set of case studies to pique the reader’s confidence, and then spell out dynamic steps that can help one lead a team towards a brighter, greener future that we all must embrace (the book’s sentiment in that kind of language, not mine). I’d happily refer to it in the future but wouldn’t recommend it for the bedside table.

Eragon: Inheritance (Book Four)
I read volumes 1-3 of the Inheritance Cycle during the summer and came away entertained, if not enthralled. I couldn’t get over the books’ parallels to earlier Star Wars and Lord of the Rings story lines and characters. The guessing game of how Eragon connected to Skywalker and whether Obi Wan Kenobi or Aragorn would turn up next became almost as fun as the adventure at hand.

Throughout the series, I found much to smile and squirm about--sometimes in sympathy with an unsubtle character or plot development; at other times, just caught by the embarrassingly earnest dialog I was reading. The characters all behave so sincerely, with any protagonists’ guile and misbehavior examined and explained away to such an extent that I couldn’t help but falling into disbelief again and again.

This final work continued the old roller coaster with bigger battles, tenderer emotions, and more-involved magical edifices. While often fun, by the halfway point I was looking forward more to the end than the conclusion. I don’t remember my original response to Frodo’s departure at the end of the Return of the King, but I think its novelty saved Tolkein from some of the groaners that littered Paolini’s final pages. I never found it in me to care about the inhabitants of AlagaĆ«sia in the same way that I loved the shire and its hobbits.

Paolini introduced several innovations in the Inheritance Cycle. His dragons and their riders shared more than most mythical partnerships and generated an entire lore and magic worthy of exploration. Paolini’s elves, though similar to many past fantastical generations also bore several characteristics--vegetarianism, for one--that reflect sentiments in touch with our times. While they never swept me of my feet, this book and Paolini’s debut epic did a good job of bringing new ideas into an established genre.

It turns out that two dragonrider books in one month are too much. A clue to why this classic work didn’t hold my interest came in the Wikipedia entry when it mentioned this book in connection to an award for the author’s “lifetime contribution in writing for teens.” Dragonflight is the first in a trilogy which includes Hugo- and Nebuala award-winning novellas, but as its pages turned, they never offered much to keep me going. The characters lacked spark and development, there was no serious over-arching or active enemy (just a bunch of non-sentient invasive species to hunt down and destroy), and the plot is more about the lore and logistics of preparing for battles to come than actually charging the reader through a blaze of light and magic. I can’t see myself plunging into books two and three.

The Food of a Younger Land
The book for all slow foodies, if not vegans. Return with the scribes of the depression-era Federal Writers Project as they scoured the land for recipes, tales, and good times with all manner of folks and their food. Though their original project, America Eats, got lost in the shift into World War II and was never published, many of its best findings and fun have been collected into a volume that leads readers from maple syrup collecting in New England to a salmon feast on the Columbia river.

At every stop, locavores get to salivate over the details of chitlins preparation, the legends and reality surrounding Paul Bunyan’s sourdough pancakes, and the diverse works of a cast of writers who went forth to find what America ate. If only more of their favorites could fit on my restrained menu.

I am Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe writes the pants off college in I am Charlotte Simmons. In December, I thoroughly enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and its portrait of life before and after graduation in the storied halls of Brown and the various destinations of three of its graduates. Wolfe tackles College itself in fabulous form, reintroducing Americans young and old to that land of experimentation and heartbreak, the American campus.

The wanton portrait Wolfe paints of fictional Dupont University comes from several years’ research in and around the elite campuses of several Ivies, Duke, and Standford, wading into frat parties and students’ lives in his trademark white suit at more than seventy years of age. The resulting book may not have stormed the critics’ hearts, but it did win Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the anatomically worded, awkward intercourse that Wolfe plays with to hilarious effect.

We follow the brilliant naivete of Charlotte Simmons as she makes her way down from the West Virginia Appalachians into a bewitching maze of academics, parties, and boys. Wolfe’s mix of archetypal characters: beauty, nerd, jock, and frat king all writhe around each other to fantastic effect as Charlotte Simmons learns what college is and where she wants it to take her--hopefully without getting dragged too far through the mud.

Perhaps the most fun, for me, at least, comes in Wolfe’s send-up of so many sacred collegiate cows. From rich, bratty roommates and brain-dead jocks to the awkward elitism of wanna-be masters of the universe and snarky, paunchy professors, no clique or ritual escapes unskewered. While all involved take a few hits, by the end there are definitely winners and losers, and the glorious thing is watching Wolfe deliver each player to their proper place on the mortarboard.

The Ascent of Finance
Niall Ferguson proudly offers up a positive narrative of market-based progress that reflects his conservatism and fondness for colonial-era development. At times, Ferguson’s interpretation and analysis oversteps historical evidence, but, for the most part, his book provides a comprehensive overview touching many important benefits generated by financial innovation. Interestingly, the book went to press in the first stages of the 2008 financial crisis. Seen with the benefit of hindsight, his relatively benign interpretation of financial instruments like mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), credit-default swaps (CDSs), and credit-default obligations (CDOs) looks more than a little off the mark. Still, Ferguson’s ode to the bounties made possible by debt, credit, and limited-liability corporations offers an absorbing introduction for the lethargic accounting major in need of inspiration as well as the curious by-stander. Because, after all, financial ignorance can really bite.

I love Dave Barry, and it’s probably good for me that I don’t often get to read his books or the movies that they spawn. Luntaics continues his tradition of zany excellence as two middle-aged, Jewish New Yorkers feud their way around the world and onto international headlines. Notable encounters: a terrorist in a Chuck E. Cheese suit, Cuban rebels, Somali terrorist-pirates, Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agents, and “The Donald” Trump. I had a blast with this book, now just yank me away from it so I can get back to more boring fare.

The Leftovers
I really got a kick out of Perrota’s earlier novel, The Abstinence Teacher, and had high expectations coming into The Leftovers. The post supernatural-phenomena/Rapture setting of the book and the reactions it inspires in various cliques of people, young and old, are the primary selling points of this book, and Perotta spins out a number of interesting hypotheticals to examine what people might do when the world breaks down for no apparent reason.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin
I’ve known about Uncle Tom and Uncle Toms for much of my life, but never before had I actually cracked the spine of this Civil-War-inspiring classic. Harriet Beecher Stowe writes her characters as moral metaphors and places them in situations that illustrate her convictions. Luckily, she also happens to write great literature in the process. Although Uncle Tom's Cabin isn’t trying to be as mundanely honest as much of modern fiction, each horror of southern slavery that it depicts still bears the seal of truth.

I can understand the fury that would have greeted Stowe below the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed, Stowe’s record of white Americans’ cruel bigotry towards African slaves echoes, in my mind, off the inhumanity of animal agriculture. The separation of mothers from their offspring, careless physical abuse, unsanitary accommodations, and soon-drained lives suffered by human and animal chattel, alike, sound as miserable in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as they do in muckraking works such as Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation.

Particularly poignant, is Stowe’s indictment of the high-minded Miss Ophelia of Vermont. Ophelia accompanies her slave-owning cousin, St. Clare, to his palatial estate of ease and idleness, bringing her sense of abolitionist righteousness and contempt for the abominable South. Gradually, St. Clare reveals, through twisting conversations and the crucial test of educating Topsy, a young slave girl whom he gives into Ophelia’s care, Ophelia’s--and thereby the North’s--hollow support for the Negro. Ophelia, and many northerners from Boston to Chicago, don’t love Blacks, slave or free, and this lack of empathy condemns them to live with a race that, once taught how to be a beast of burden, the slave, struggles for generations to recover the full beauty of its humanity.

It is Eva, St. Clare’s saintly young daughter, raised amongst household slaves, who shows readers of all regions the way, when she wraps Ophelia’s unwilling slave pupil in unwavering love and faith. It takes Eva’s honest, un-blinkered love to begin to dissolve the knot in Topsy that learned, "I’s wicked, – I is. I’s mighty wicked, any how. I can’t help it." In this morality play, Stowe presciently anticipates the strife between different races over jobs, equal opportunity, school busing, housing, and law that continue to mar societies in both North and South and also across Europe, Latin America, and the rest of the world.
Little Eva and Uncle Tom by Edwin Longsden Long

Stowe based her book upon personal observations and descriptions given to her by friends. Her words, wrapped around fictional characters, found and seized consciousnesses in both North and South and around the world, turning America irrevocably away from passive acceptance of the South’s Peculiar Institution. I delighted in Stowe’s work as a work of literature, but also as a brilliant piece of the best kind of  propaganda, one created to pierce the ignorance and studied indifference of individuals anywhere. Her work gives hope to me that some successor may shatter the ongoing illusions of animal agriculture.

The Black Banners
Anyone with faith in “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” or doubt in the skill and dedication that can be found in American public servants should read, from the front cover to the back, Ali Soufan’s account of his service with the FBI. Soufan takes readers, and CIA censors, through an intimate, engaging look at his career, including counter-terrorism investigations, high-level Al Qaeda interrogations, encounters with Cheney’s promised “dark side” at Guantanamo Bay, and much more.

This isn’t my first book on the subject, but Soufan endows his writing with credibility by dint of his extraordinary record and successful techniques (Geneva Convention-compliant). With numerous examples of initial success followed by coercive failure, as practiced by CIA contractors, Soufan makes a compelling front-line case for outsmarting detainees, confounding their expectations, and outmaneuvering their resistance training without stress positions, waterboarding, or other un-American techniques. Don’t believe me? Read the record of history from the man who cracked Al Qaeda’s most dangerous without breaking American law.

The Face of Battle
I don’t know what got into me this time. I like reading about war, and I mistook this book for Keegan’s typical detailed pursuit of pivotal combat and grunt-level guts. At its heart, The Face of Battle delivers just such a dissection for the fantasy soldier or armchair general. At each end, however, Keegan critiques and contributes to the theory of war and battle battle history as well as the life and death in its midst. The accounts Keegan provides of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme are all rich, varied, and in the mud of the moment, but the casual reader should jump over long initial chapters that investigate the failings of traditional battle histories that get wrapped up in generals’ cloaks, lost in poetic license, or locked into argument rather than analysis.

Don Quixote
"Don Quixote" by Pablo Picasso (1955)
I made it through volume one of Don Quixote and might return for volume two. The book resembles sketch comedy, wrapped around a wandering imbecile who’s drunk on chivalric literature. Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, bump and meander their way into situations that are perceived as extraordinary inside Quixote’s delusion and turned hilarious by his behavior. To the fallout of Quixote himself, add several stories of adventure, romantic love told by travelling companions or passersby, and a messy love triangle that unwinds itself in the climactic encounter at an inn or a castle if you live under Quixote’s barber’s basin of a helmet.

I didn’t fall in love with Cervantes’ masterpiece. The plot and humor repeat themselves without characters developing depth or nuance beyond their initial conditions. In the context of literature, rather than the roller coaster of popular fiction, Quixote is quite pleasant. Just be ready for farce and plot similar to Shakespeare, without the Bard’s verse or revolutionary style. If you can smile through the repeated harangues against chivalric literature and knights-errant, then Quixote will entertain.

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