Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Couple Weeks Ago's Book: The Games that Changed the Game

I'm getting closer, I swear! One of the nice things about Book a Week is how different these past two books have been in pretty much every way possible.

On an administrative note, of my five July entries, one was on July 1 and three are on July 31. It's like I'm posting a lot this month, only not. Well, guess that's the way it goes.

July 15-21: The Games that Changed the Game by Ron Jaworski with Greg Cosell and David Plaut

Non-Fiction (2010 - 285 pp.) 

The Games that Changed the Game is nominally by Ron Jaworski and two senior NFL Films producers but is written as a first-person narrative by Jaworski. I applaud the lack of a named ghost writer and the consequent notion that this is Jaworski's writing voice - it's a good voice. I presume Greg Cosell and David Plaut did mostly behind the scenes work related to these and other games. The setup works well. 

The book's subtitle, "The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays", says it all. Jaworski tracks seven coaches through groundbreaking performances their teams had, specifically on one side of the ball. Three offences and four defences are included. Having grown up too late to have seen any of these games but the last two, with only the last one holding any clarity, the book was a football history lesson to me. I imagine fans of different ages would get drastically different impressions of the protagonists herein, and that's the kind of conversation I've had many times with my dad. 

The Xs and Os are only sometimes drawn. This is where a good working knowledge of NFL formations helps the reader greatly. Familiarity with the players involved isn't always as important, as Jaworski often gives detailed mini-biographies, but every little bit helps. Although the mechanics of each drive provide the real meat of the book, it's the back stories that make it all worthwhile. Think of the drives Jaworski charts as the economic base and the character-driven subplots as the superstructure, if you will. The book is more exciting than any football-based fiction and it's written with boundless enthusiasm toward the subject. 

There are really only two qualms I can have. One is which game is picked to exemplify Dick LeBeau's still-feared zone blitz. Jaworski admits this openly - the problem is that he picked a game those vaunted Steelers lost. It's not so much the outcome of that particular game as the other games Jaworski mentions in the chapter, specifically the three Steelers/Bills rematches over the next three seasons that would see the Steelers win out. It's as though the necessity of picking the first big game when the strategy was revealed won out over picking the best game, yet this logic specifically isn't used in the game chosen to show off Buddy Ryan's 46 defence. The other one is that the two most recent offences chosen are from late 1980 and early 1982, less than a year and a half apart. If not for mentions of more recent offensive innovators like Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid peppered into the book's last four chapters, a reader might think offensive innovation ended with Bill Walsh! That said, the difficulty of condensing thousands of hours of film into seven games is so unfathomable I can't hold Jaworski at fault. Plus, there's the important detail in the paragraph directly following this one... 

Ron Jaworski knows galaxies more about football than you or I ever will, and nothing we can do will change that reality. The kind of perspective that is only gained through decades of football obsession shows in each description or anecdote. There are times when Jaworski injects a few pages of his personal experience into sections that don't immediately strike the reader as during his playing era (the '70s and '80s, right up to a final game as a Kansas City Chief in 1989). He's earned that right. He's also a great storyteller, making me feel like I was the young Bills fan who learned passing mechanics from watching a Joe Namath road game. 

Ease of Reading: 8* 
Educational Content: 9** 

*If you aren't a lifelong football fan, this number drops dramatically. Someone altogether unfamiliar with the game may as well be reading Bleak House
**It's extremely educational about football. That doesn't make it educational about history, politics, economics, literature, or any of the other wonderful topics that usually make a book rise in this category. This is really, really educational about football, though.

Travelling Back in Time: Wizard's First Rule

This is my July 8-14 book. I'm slipping, I know. It'll be rectified soon. Hope everyone else's summer is as packed with fun as mine - and not just the fun of sword and sorcery.

July 8-14: Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind

Fantasy (1994 - 600 pp.) 

For those familiar with The Sword of Truth, this entry should be coming almost two decades too late. For those unfamiliar with the series, it's become one of the definitive sword and sorcery series and Wizard's First Rule is both its first installment and somewhat of an origin story. A magic sword, dragons, a muddled story behind a courageous hero, the kind of realistically awkward human interaction only fantasy can muster... it's all here, and how! An equally important mention is that this book fits at least indirectly with the American theme I was trying to get going, as it fits nicely within the long list of real and fictional American-written works exploring medieval themes. 

I really like what Terry Goodkind does within his world. The characters are believable inasmuch as willing suspension of disbelief will allow - that is to say, the guy with the magic sword has relatable childhood memories, the cartoonishly enchanted girl he likes still struggles with her feelings, etc. A few are too far gone into the stock realm, like the antagonists who derive pleasure from hurting people seemingly for the purpose of establishing them as our friends' enemies. The settings are varied, with enough of the world left open for later books yet plenty of forests, swamps, mountains and plains explored here. (What about the islands? Many a self-assured fantasy nerd like me should love that reference.) The plot twists get a little over the top, underscoring what I tend to dislike about magic's tendency to venture into a deus ex machina more often than it should, and there are a couple plot inconsistencies I won't share due to anti-spoiler concerns. I was jumping to the front of my couch a lot, though, which is really the main thing I could have asked. 

Like many fantasy novels, Wizard's First Rule is a light read but a long one. There are times when it takes a while but Book a Week's constraints are to blame there. Wizard's First Rule feels like a book that's already been read by everyone who would really be into it, but then again, I hadn't. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 2

"I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar" -Kyle Wiens of iFixit

This is a refreshing op-ed. It's about time more business articles focused on the importance of writing. I couldn't agree more. (As an aside, the cutoff in the link is hilarious.)


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

This Week's Book: House of Leaves

It's nice to be through one of my longer reads again. Hopefully I can fit in a couple more this summer.

July 1-7: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Horror (2000 - 709 pp.) 

House of Leaves is, for lack of a better term, a work of fiction about fictitious criticism about a fictitious literary work. That is how fabricated its world is. The book consists of said fictitious work of fiction (The Navidson Record) interspersed with the narrator's life at the time of its release and a slew of faux-academic citations leading to authors and journals that usually don't exist. Any one of these would make for a rather poor story on its own, albeit the narrator's life serves as a more or less stock period tale on Generation X disillusionment. The interaction between them all is what makes the House of Leaves interesting. 

The underlying concept of The Navidson Record is that the house is larger on the inside than on the outside. At first I thought this was a good thing - imagine buying a certain size lot then getting more house! This premise works nicely for a horror book, though, as the enemy becomes pretty much impossible to kill. It also plays on the idea of being lost in total darkness with nothing around for an unknown distance, not to mention the cold. The house's hidden hallways' black, ashen walls are pristine in the way an acid lake is pristine. It is a haunted house tale that actually haunts because of the distinct lack of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, or any other creature (with one potential exception) that actually serves as an antagonist. 

The e.e. cummings style words all over the pages have an almost Tristram Shandy-like quality to them. They certainly disqualify this book from most e-readers, at least if Danielewski cares about which page is which. Pseudo-edgy formatting doesn't do a ton for me except that as someone who read this book in a week, it was very handy to be able to blow through 15-20 pages basically all at once. Not Danielewski's intention, I know, but it worked well enough. This book is readable in a week but it is long, and the dense passages of footnotes are broken up nicely whenever there's a venture through the house. Footnotes of footnotes are interesting but can get confusing, especially given the setup of the book. For all the charm of certain sections of the Appendices, the letters from Johnny's mother can largely be skimmed. 

My favourite part of this book is just how well Danielewski lampoons literary criticism. I couldn't help but chuckle every time he invents a radical feminist critique (the house as a womb or vagina, the postulation that only men can be afraid of the dark because women are darkness), or the countless instances of what seems like an invented critic reading way too much into something that was more than likely unintentional. I felt like I was back in literary theory class sometimes reading some of those fake passages. 

Much like last week's Aspern PapersHouse of Leaves contains a great little bit of wisdom for authors everywhere. It comes from an invented critic who discusses The Navidson Record in a wider context: "Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience... It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer." (527, Pantheon full color edition) How true indeed. 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 3

Sunday, July 1, 2012