Monday, February 18, 2008

Winter Book Reviews

Winter is usually a good time for reading, but for whatever reason I haven't gotten through too many books since the beginning of the year. Here are reviews of five books I've finished since January 1.

I just started two biographical books, Walter Isaacson's "Einstein" and "Dear Theo", a compilation of letters from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Death in Suburbia

With "Suicides" (implying more than one) in the title, talented author Jeffrey Eugenides' debut The Virgin Suicides promises to be somewhat depressing, and it delivers. Plot becomes unimportant as the only mystery is just how many of the five daughters in a suburban Michigan family of the 1970s will kill themselves and how. Suicide number one by the youngest happens in somewhat spectacular fashion. The rest of the novel is given over to a third person description of how the family handles the tragedy as told by someone (an unnamed neighborhood teenage boy) who can only infer much of the action through closed drapes, rarely opened doors, and a collection of objects that is eerily archaeological--artifacts of a culture that has died right before his eyes.

All of this can be a bit confusing and a lot depressing to the reader, but I expect that such a reaction is exactly Eugenides' point--sharing the outsiders' view of what has to be an intensely personal tragedy for any family. Then again, perhaps the suicides and parallel ongoing extinction of elm trees by Dutch Elm disease are metaphors for the death of the American suburban soul.

For me, The Virgin Suicides was better in the analysis (four stars) than in the reading (three stars), during which it reminded me greatly of another depressing, but well-written tale of suburban life, Rick Moody's The Ice Storm: A Novel. I'll round up to four stars. Readers would be better served to start with Eugenides' amazing 2002 offering Middlesex: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club), a definite five-star book all the way.

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner

Approachable Faulkner

A local English professor's answer to a radio call-in question, "What's a good place to start reading Faulkner?" sent me looking for The Unvanquished. This short novel of the Civil War and Reconstruction was created out of a series of magazine stories written by Faulkner in the 1930s, with one previously unpublished story added. Faulkner maintains his famous stream-of-consciousness style, but manages to remain approachable, perhaps because his narrator is a young boy, around whom (and his slave/friend) the stories revolve. The narrative is a little disjointed on a chapter-to-chapter basis, as each was written to stand alone. Apparently Faulkner didn't add much to enhance continuity in the novel format.

Like Cold Mountain, the story focuses on the homefront during the Civil War. Rather than spouses, children and older people are the lead characters. Their ingenuity during the hard times of war is impressive, as is the general chaos surround organizing a war effort. The book's last chapter "An Odor of Verbena" focuses on the Reconstruction period. Our current politics can't compete with this era for danger and intrigue, depicted at the local level in this story.

Some of my forays into Faulkner have foundered on his infamously difficult style--dense language, paragraph-long sentences and chapter-long paragraphs. The Unvanquished lowers this hurdle while retaining the sense that you are inside the character's minds while they deal with the challenge and tragedy that is the Civil War.

Recommended for all adult readers and even teenage readers with an interest in literary fiction or the Civil War.

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus

Evolutionary Developments

In Kluge, author Gary Marcus takes on the evolution of the human brain, a potential subject for a difficult 10-page article in Scientific American, and presents it in a well-organized and readily understandable 200-page book. In chapters on memory, language, belief, and other aspects (including even mental illness) of human brain function, Marcus shows how lower, reactive brain functions, carried forward from man's earliest non-mammalian ancestors, both complement and compete with higher, analytical functions, and how each may have travelled the evolutionary path. Fascinating also is the idea that evolution is not an long-term optimizing process, as it can only add to what's developed already, when sometimes the best answer in hindsight might be to start anew (the non-brain example of the esophagus being used both for breathing and ingestion illustrates this concept well--choking wouldn't be a risk if we had separate paths for each). Marcus spices the text with descriptions of various modern psychological experiments that demonstrate aspects of the kluge (an inelegant solution to a problem) that is the modern human mind. Highly recommended to readers with even a casual interest in the field, including teenagers. Another book coming at the subject from a religious perspective is Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution!: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, which I'm still reading and will review later.

Note: As an Amazon Vine reviewer, I read a pre-publication copy of this book, which will be generally available on April 16, 2008

An Unpardonable Crime by Andrew Taylor

Great Story But Someone's Missing

Andrew Taylor's 2004 publication, An Unpardonable Crime, is billed as a period thriller suggested by the years Edgar Allan Poe spent in England as a orphaned child. As a period thriller, it works beautifully. Like a 21st century Dickens, Taylor takes the reader deep inside 19th century London (a place where I've spent a good deal of fictional time lately, having just seen "Sweeney Todd" at the movies)--to the landed gentry, public squalor and many places in between. The thrill ride has the requisite number of twists and turns--the villains are dastardly, the settings foreboding, the murder circumstances murky and the hero determined, albeit a little at odds finding his place within society, having been rescued from an asylum by his now dead aunt/benefactor.

The book was a quick and fascinating read that I finished in less than two days. Ultimately, what it wasn't, however, was very intimately involved in the life of young Poe, who appears as essentially an extra character. Perhaps his exposure to macabre events like those depicted in this the book shaped his literary sensibilities. Certainly his years in Europe helped him write convincing fiction with European settings. But we didn't need this novel to know that. I came to this book on the recommendation of a Poe scholar, for which I thank him. Still, An Unpardonable Crime enhanced my understanding of the life and mind of Edgar Allan Poe very little.

I recommend the book to lovers of both mysteries and 19th century period fiction about Great Britain (5 stars). As a story I liked it even better than the similar The Dante Club: A Novel by Matthew Pearl. However, I warn Poe fans that they may not get much about the anticipated connection between Poe's life and this story (minus one star). Total--four stars.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Self-Taught Copper

Having enjoyed Going Postal, my first Terry Pratchett, I jumped on Night Watch with a Christmas gift certificate and started reading it right away. Somewhat inexplicably, the book took me nearly a month to finish. Pratchett parodies modern societal infrastructure in his books (communications in Going Postal; law enforcement in Night Watch). Perhaps I'm just not clued in enough to police work to get all the jokes.

The story blends elements of The Time Machine (as protagonist Sam Vimes is accidentally thrown about 30 years into then past), Les Misérables (Signet Classics) (a citizens' revolt involving heavy use of barricades makes up much of the action) and The Streets of San Francisco - Season 1, Vol. 2, but with a time-twist as the veteran Vimes (the Karl Malden character) trains a young Vimes (the Michael Douglas character) thirty years in the past. I expect that there's a British TV version of this old cop/young cop story (without the time-shifting, of course).

Still, it doesn't work out as wackily as it sounds. Slowing down the fun, Pratchett devotes many pages to the drudgery of night policing (the "night watch" of the title) and to the inner workings of a precinct house. Sectioning the book into more chapters might have also helped the story flow better. I will say that the ending came together well, if a little on the sentimental side. Though I didn't enjoy Night Watch (3 stars) as much as Going Postal (4 stars), I still plan to read more Pratchett. I'm told that some of the earliest books in the Discworld series have more of the jocularity that charmed me in "Postal".

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