Saturday, June 30, 2012

Half-done Book a Week!: The Aspern Papers

Not often you see an exclamation mark followed immediately by a colon, is it? I can only hope reading these twenty-six books in half a year earned me the right to do it at least once. May the next twenty-six be just as great.

June 24-30: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Literature (1888 - 96 pp.) 

"When Americans went abroad in 1820 there was something romantic, almost heroic in it, as compared with the perpetual ferryings of the present hour, when photography and other conveniences have annihilated surprise." (846, 1999 Campbell edition) 

In The Aspern Papers, Henry James combines his love for international experiences (he writes about Americans in Venice) with his love of the Romantic era (the book's namesake Jeffrey Aspern is loosely based on Percy Shelley). The result is a surprisingly quick read that is not only full of literary references but also full of humour for those who get said literary references. James writes a literary critic in as his protagonist, echoing his own profession, which allows for self-parody at times and exploration of the discipline at others. It all holds together well. Although The Aspern Papers is very much a relic of a time when the most literary works rarely had enticing plots, James's world is so vivid and so flippant (flippantly vivid? vividly flippant?) that it is easy to stay entertained the whole time. 

A key aspect to The Aspern Papers - and this is not even a spoiler - is that the papers themselves are an extreme MacGuffin. Not only does the reader not know what they contain, or are they ever read by any of the characters while the story is taking place, but they are never seen to the reader or the protagonist. We merely presume they exist through the testimony of characters the protagonist, and to some extent the reader by extension, are inclined to distrust. 

It was difficult to pick which Henry James story to read for this week, as he was so prolific in his time that there is an abundance to choose from. I readily admit I could have read something else, something longer, perhaps The Aspern Papers plus a short story, yet this format worked well. This is his fourth I have read, the preceding ones being "A Landscape Painter" (1866), "Daisy Miller" (1878) and "The Real Thing" (1892). The Aspern Papersfalls in the middle of the latter two, and it certainly seems that way thematically. That James not only wrote so much but did so over such a long period allows the reader to progress from the travelogue-style narration of his earlier years toward the realism of his later years. If you have a lot of time on your hands, or a good enough memory to read a bunch of his stories over the course of years without forgetting them, it is worth doing. 

What may be one of the book's greatest bits of wisdom comes almost as a throw-in. James, writing potentially years before his time, has his protagonist state that "Writing books, unless one be a great genius - and even then! - is the last road to fortune." (873) However true that statement was in 1888, it is certainly even truer in 2012. 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 6 

Book a Week is now half done! At the most convenient possible time as well, on the last day of June. The happy miracles of New Year's Day being a Sunday and it being a leap year, thus making July 1 also a Sunday, make 2012 the best year for Book a Week in... quite some time. Some things are just meant to be, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Drank the Toxic Cocktail

A novelette, also released today, also by me. This one is a psychological thriller based on Kavka's Toxin Puzzle. How do you decide whether to leave your life behind?

It can be found for free here: Available in e-reader formats as well as ones you can read online or offline.

The White Apple

A short story, released today, by me. A literary drama about two young professionals who love each other a little more than their marriages - to other people - might suggest.

It can be found for free here: It is handily in e-reader formats as well as ones you can read online or offline.

This Week's Book: Island of Vice

More America.

June 17-23: Island of Vice by Richard Zacks

Non-Fiction (2012 - 368 pp.)

After so many classics, it's interesting to read a book that's truly brand new. It came out in March and I've owned it since then, finally having had the chance to read it now. The quick version of the background is that Richard Zacks, a New York City columnist, decided to write a book on a particularly tumultuous time in his city's history, when Theodore Roosevelt was Police Commissioner from 1895-1897. The closest comparison for a book like this is Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, another work of journalism that takes place in the same country and decade. It's odd thinking of a non-fiction book set in this time period as not being history but that works to its advantage, as well researched as Island of Vice is.

The descriptions are a little more vivid than the sources provide but the world Zacks portrays is very real. The characters are of course the basis for the story, with Roosevelt in front. The book is less than flattering toward his tenure as police commissioner, and I have not read any additional works on the subject to be able to support or refute the claims Zacks makes. I suspect he's a little on the harsh side. Then again, I was often more sympathetic with Andrew Parker and the German-Americans, albeit for different reasons. As someone who enjoys drinking beer on Sunday (can you say NFL?), 19th-century blue laws astound and befuddle me. Looking into which laws feel relevant and which laws need to be enforced more strictly is an interesting question for police boards everywhere. 

The most interesting aspects of Island of Vice are Roosevelt's dealings with his fellow police commissioners, famous policemen like "Big Bill" Devery and Chief Conlin, and outside figures like Henry Cabot Lodge. His thoughts in private and in public, or to one audience or another, demonstrate a lot about how Roosevelt saw his surroundings and how he had to project himself. Others' views of him are equally mixed. The Roosevelt/Pulitzer feud is especially interesting, with some of the comments made and comic printed being utterly hilarious.

The one limitation Island of Vice has is how concentrated it is. Focusing on such a short period of time means poring over every month, and often every day. The prologue and epilogue, along with the chapter on Roosevelt's brother Elliott, read faster and flowed better than the others simply because they could draw from a greater time span. At times the book felt like half a dozen consecutive chapters of reminding the reader that Teddy was against drunkenness, debauchery and gambling.

An interesting fact: although Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history at age forty-two - an event portended in Mark Hanna's protest to Roosevelt's being picked for vice-president in 1900 - he died a decade after leaving office, which is roughly average.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 8

Monday, June 18, 2012

Last Week's Book: White Fang

As long as I can read this week's book in five days, I'll be set! That shouldn't be too hard. Meanwhile, here's an American classic. Since I only have about six weeks left in this grand nation, I figure I'll spend as many of them as possible reading books by American authors that are either classics or about the country itself in some way. You're welcome to consider Generations a head-start in this area if you like, although White Fang is the true first installment.

June 10-16: White Fang by Jack London

Literature (1906 - 194 pp.) 

Much like In the Days of the Comet, I'd been waiting years to read this, only saved from that waiting by Book a Week. Also much like In the Days of the CometWhite Fang was released in 1906 to great commercial success and critical acclaim. The page counts are also far lower in my versions than any others I have come across, making these deceptively long books. There are no other similarities, I assure you. 

The most striking aspect of White Fang is how gory it is. Far from the early '90s movies and TV show, which portray White Fang's world just a teensy bit rosier than Jack London does, White Fang reads like it influenced slasher movies. Graphic descriptions of assault, murder and cannibalism are found frequently - indeed, they personify the nasty aspects of nature London is intent on letting the reader feel. He certainly succeeds in making the world that shapes and damages his eponymous character not only appear but also feel terrible. The Nietzsche meets socialism meets scientific racism that pops up whenever poor little White Fang learns a lesson about the world call to mind more easily the rantings of a deranged lunatic than a celebrated historical figure, yet this is what London establishes as the savagery of the wild. 

Whatever London's political leanings, debated as they are by people far more educated in literature than I am, it is plainly clear that White Fang is not really about wolves at all. It is for all the allegory and symbolism about human nature, and its interactions with the natural world, that I find the lack of realism completely acceptable. Wolves simply do not eat lynx or dogs, yet White Fang imagines a world so horrible they do. This book shouldn't be taken literally as some sort of manual regarding the habits of wild animals. If at least that lesson isn't learned, maybe a sad part of this book's legacy involves some unwarranted mistrust of forested areas and the canines inhabiting them. The wild of White Fang is like a city in Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things, released eighty years later, a distortion of the real crafted to illustrate a point. London's point is at least as much about the nature of man and society as it is about the harsh cold of Yukon. 

As to whether this was a fun read, it's tough to say. The first third flew by, the second third became difficult, and then the last third flew by again. It's definitely worthwhile for its narrative structure. To see White Fang's life unfold is impressive. To see a book I thought of as the most disturbing thing I'd ever read transform into something truly tear-jerking in the span of about three or four pages is even more impressive. The political insertions can get a little jagged at times, in that didactic Rasselas way, yet London replaces Dr. Johnson's attentive teacher with a prophet of doom. How a cartoon boy and his faithful furred pal emerged from this tale of carnage, I'll never understand. 

Ease of Reading: 6 
Educational Content: 2

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Another Book Before Last Week's Book: Ender's Shadow

Hard to believe a week has flown by already... I'll catch up soon though! Look for blog posts about non-Book a Week subjects too.

June 3-9: Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card

Science Fiction (1999 - 379 pp.) 

Ah, young Bean and his perspective on the sci-fi classic Ender's Game. It's amazing I hadn't read this by now considering how much I love the original. First things first: in the introduction, Card claims this to be a standalone book from Ender's Game, with it being just as easy to read either one first. I beg to differ. I had a tough time recalling events while reading this, having not read the first one in years, and it would have helped a lot to have re-read Ender's Game in advance of this one. Certain knowledge is assumed that makes Ender's Shadow a bit of an odd standalone read. 

It's not common to see a book effectively rewritten from another character's perspective. That immediately wins my respect. More to the point of the book's contents, the Bean origin story that takes place on the streets of Rotterdam is a welcome surprise, showing sides of him and of background non-Ender's Game characters we would never have seen otherwise. It was also interesting to see an extended version of how these characters act outside of Battle School. Bean's young age makes the whole thing a little less plausible, but this is not a genre known for being plausible and Card makes the characters work well. Poke attracts a combination of sympathy and disdain, for example, while Sister Carlotta acts as one can only imagine a nun may in that bizarre world. 

As far as the events overlapping with Ender's Game go, the different perspective allows for the reader to get a greater handle of what it's like to live beside the spectacular Ender. So many books discuss the surroundings of a dominant character through his or her perspective, or following his or her events, but it's not as common that the dominant character is one of the surroundings. An outsider's look at subjects like whether Ender is worth all the hype, how he acts in individual versus group settings, how his beliefs and actions are interpreted, and everything else about him make curious objects of study. That Ender's selflessness could be deemed inexplicable, for example, makes the reader consider Ender's heroism in an entirely different light... until Bean understands his own lack of perspective. 

If I were to have a qualm with this book - other than the VH1 Behind the Bean Revenge of the Sith-style atmosphere that pervades the whole story - it would be how close Ender's Shadow comes to threatening Ender's mystique. There are times when it seems as though Bean is just as special as Ender, and even smarter, making Ender's exclusively special nature less determined. There are other times when Bean venerates Ender, especially when the two interact, but the taste remains. Whether this is simply due to Bean's hubris or due to Ender not being as far ahead of some of the other students is I suppose debatable. 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 1

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Week Before Last Week's Book: Generations

I have a relatively free summer and I'm a solid two weeks behind on these. Let's get reading!

May 27-June 2: Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe

History (1991 - 538 pp.) 

Generations is, by any measure, very atypical for a history book. It relies more on statistical analysis and journalism-style digging than traditional primary- and secondary-source research. It applies normative judgments here and there, much as it is usually successful in its attempted neutrality. It even has an entire part at the end predicting the future, the exact type of writing that makes historians bristle. All of these things are what make Generations so fun for someone interested in learning more about his or her place in American history. One of its authors holds a doctorate in history, the other a master's in public policy and a law degree, a perfect mix for this type of study. 

I will not go into depth describing the theory behind the book, as that is already recounted in countless places, so this entry may seem a bit confusing to those unfamiliar. The basics are that generations repeat themselves every ~88 years based on "social moments" in the form of Awakenings and Crises. About every 22 years, the type of generation changes based on its reaction to the social moment in question. As such, Idealists come of age during an Awakening, Reactives are born during an Awakening, Civics come of age during a Crisis, and Adaptives are born during a Crisis, with a few years' give and take at times. Each generation then has a collective identity, or a "peer personality", it takes with it to the grave. No effort can possibly enshrine terms like "The Lost Generation" and "The Baby Boomers" more than something like this. 

Generations truly is a compelling story regardless of the criticism it has drawn. Any blanket theory like this one is bound to be full of holes, and indeed, Strauss and Howe attack their biggest one (the U.S. Civil War) head-on. What it does provide are some comparisons between generations I had not previously known and some insights into the human side of American history. It also allows me to see my own (Millennial) generation in context. The values and ideals used to describe Civic generations like mine seemed like the utmost compliments, while the ones ascribed to others seemed less than flattering. I imagine Adaptives, Idealists and Reactives could all say the same thing. I certainly identify with the Republicans (not named after the party, but rather the founding of the Republic) and the G.I.s better now too, much as my ancestors had different perspectives from them. 

Almost exactly one generational cycle after Generations, it is truly amazing how well Strauss and Howe have called events. Shift the end of Generation X, which they call the "13ers" for being the 13th generation of U.S. citizens, back to 1979 from 1981 for a moment. Many historians and sociologists place it there, and I agree with them. Fast-forward 22 years and you have 9/11, an event lining up with what Strauss and Howe estimate as the beginning of a new crisis, and they even post a potential crisis as involving terrorists and New York City. Their warnings of Boomer (Idealist) religious fervour becoming a topic of political discourse have come true as well. A less violent outcome Strauss and Howe did not predict was that the Silent Generation (b. 1925-1942) has never produced a U.S. president and likely never will - an atypically young Bill Clinton saw to that only a year after Generations was released. 

As a Canadian, Generations felt relevant to me and my last few generations of ancestors. However, this is a self-aware book about American history, with historical events perceived from American eyes. Wars like the French and Indian War and World War I may have been critical parts of alienated Reactive lives in the United States, but to continental Europeans they were Crises. This is not even really a criticism, though, as the book not only does not intend to be global but encourages other historians to write similar volumes for their parts of the world. It is worth mentioning, though. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 6

...and what a fun read this was. Shame I can't go on about it forever, because I could seriously write a 10-page essay on it. Be thankful I haven't said that about Dickens or Wells, I suppose.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Late May's Book, At Long Last: In the Days of the Comet

This should have gone up a couple weeks ago. I also graduated a couple weeks ago. Figures, doesn't it? Book a Week should be back on track after another couple days of, well, hitting the books. Expect some more sci-fi, albeit a lot easier reading, and some historically focused books in the next few days.

As there's just so much to say about anything by H.G. Wells, this is my longest entry.

May 20-26: In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells

Literature (1906 - 162 pp.) 

My last three books have been The Hunger GamesThe Dilbert Principle and Fool. Apparently I thought these books were too easy... 

A quick disclaimer on In the Days of the Comet that is necessary for any science-fiction fan like myself: Do not expect another The Time Machineor The Island of Dr. Moreau, which I read at 16 and 12 respectively. Difficulty-wise, In the Days of the Comet is far more like Bleak House, which I read back in January. Do not be fooled by the 162 pages listed here; according to other sources (okay, "other sources" is Wikipedia, but I am not digging up a bunch of editions of the book), it clocks in at 378. My version is in an old leather-bound compendium I keep handy to make my bookshelf look more impressive or something. 

Now that I have properly outlined the extent of this book's pedantry, I will attempt to discuss the subject matter in a way that, as always, does not spoil the book for any prospective reader. The book's three parts detail the world before the comet, the impact of the comet, and the world after. Part I is concerned with the socialist perspective on Victorian/Edwardian industrial relations and society, as well as the stunted romance between our hero William Leadford and his paramour Nettie Stuart. Part II consists of the world as altered by the comet and what William makes of it. Part III resolves the whole thing by discussing the nature of human relationships, the departure of the new from the world, and the fashioning of a far more pleasant order than existed in the past. Part I is a dystopia and Part III is a utopia, making In the Days of the Comet a rare work of both dystopian and utopian fiction. 

The most interesting aspects of In the Days of the Comet lie in its carrying of the dystopian, transitional and utopian worlds. The vividness of their portrayals is evident is passages like "I held up my left hand and arm before me, a grubby hand, a frayed cuff; but with a quality of painted unreality, transfigured as a beggar might have been by Botticelli" ("The Change", p. 1). The more political side of the book has its merits too, like the convincing demonstration of the hapless British Cabinet that finishes Part II, and indeed even makes reference to Bleak House as a point of comparison for how far removed the politicians are from their surroundings. The statements made in the book are pointed and relevant regardless of your views on them. As a capitalist and as someone whose grandparents were born more than a decade after In the Days of the Comet's release, I suppose I am somewhere between disagreeing and uninformed. Past Victorian reading and historical research helps here, thankfully. 

My least favourite aspect of the book is one I was not expecting given my previous adventures with Wells. His other works tend to contain adventure, excitement, and usually some breed of monster. In the Days of the Comet barely has a plot, often preferring to spend pages on setting description or political musing rather than advancing a character's interests. There is also very little science fiction, it being entirely an appellation of the comet. At times, though, it feels like anything could have caused the change, not necessarily a comet. It is tough to imagine anything more realistic, odd as this sounds, and that may indeed be a point Wells is making. To suddenly halt a prophetic Anglo-German war (the book was written in 1906), to make a would-be murderer turn placid, and to make Britain's politicians act responsibly as Wells would have it, a comet may have truly been necessary. 

I had been wanting to read this book for at least a decade and now I can say I have. I am aware this is an egregiously late entry but sometimes life gets in the way. More entries will follow soon. 

Ease of Reading: 1 
Educational Content: 9