Wednesday, August 01, 2007

BooksFirst - July 2007

Books Bought

Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Genghis Khan and the Making of The Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Books Read

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling


I read The Blind Side back in November which is the football quasi-follow-up to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. Lewis has nailed the fly on the wall narrative style for situations and businesses you would otherwise never learn about. Liars Poker is the definitive 80s money book and Moneyball is the baseball book for both fans and non-fans like me. He spends a season tracking Billy Beane as he manages the Oakland A’s to a playoff spot with a fraction of the payroll of bigger teams. In addition to following the drama of the wheeling and dealing, a lot of colorful baseball history and lore is exposed as poppycock. This is baseball as played by Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe. The narrative alternates between the saga of the A's and background information on the statistics and probability of the most documented but also most superstitious of sports. The access Lewis has is nearly omniscient and only rarely does he intrude himself into the narrative. As an erstwhile Orioles fan, I can’t figure out why these methods don’t work everywhere. I will never be able to hear a trade deal again without second guessing the value of the players and wondering what is really happening behind the scenes.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a well-respected science fiction writer that I have never read before. Perhaps his most famous work is his Red/Green/Blue Mars series. His newest trilogy starts with 40 Signs of Rain. I bought it mostly because it is set in Washington DC and I wanted to read about the destruction of our nations capitol. For the most part, Robinson gets most of the geography right. He sets scenes in and near the Red Line, Alexandria, and around the Mall. The set up is the same one used much more hokily in The Day After Tomorrow, global warming shuts off the Gulf Stream and chaos ensues. I immediately liked the clean crisp style of the book. The characters suffer from science fiction hero earnestness and hyper-competentness, but they have quirks and foibles as well. The most interesting one is the venal visiting scientist who always seems to be working an angle. As the first book in a trilogy, this book is all wind-up. There really isn’t even any action until the last one hundred pages. The real action is looking at the behind the scenes inside baseball in scientific research and politics.

Yes, I broke down and read it. I succumbed to Pottermania and has to see what the big deal was about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And as I suspected, I don’t think I suffered any from not having read the middle five books. I’ve seen all the movies except for the newest one, so I kind of knew what was happening. It’s not hard to figure out who is good and who is evil. It is that kind of book. It probably deserves its own post where I can put in some spoiler warnings for those people would read it, but haven’t by now. Part of the problem with a book as huge as this one, is that I didn’t read it as much for the story as I meta-read it, always comparing it to other books in the genre and second guessing the plot twists. While the first half of the book dragged, once the final showdown got set into motion, the pace picked up. While I enjoyed the story, I’m still glad I haven’t spent a couple of thousand pages getting there.


Anonymous said...

You know, the reason you're glad you didn't spend a couple thousand pages getting to the Deathly Hallows is that you didn't spend a couple thousand pages getting there. Sure, you were able to read a coherent story and all, but you were missing a lot of the depth and background. Going from book 1 to book 7 is rather like reading LoTR up to the point where Gandalf explains everything to Frodo and then skipping ahead to the chapter where Sam and Frodo are on Mt. Doom. It's easy to figure out what's going on, but there's a lot you'll miss.

KSR was my freshman writing instructor at UCSD in 1980. So I have a special place for his work and probably like it a little better than I would otherwise. Still, he tends to be a good read if he doesn't go all magical realism on you.

Cedar said...

I had Jack Weatherford as a professor in college. He taught in the anthro dept; I was a linguistics major, and took some classes of his. He was a great teacher, and his Ghengis Khan book, which I read after graduating, was thought-provoking and engaging.

2fs said...

I'd say the difference between reading just the first and last books in the HP series and having read all seven in sequence is similar to the difference between meeting some old friends after seven years' absence, catching up on what's been going on in their lives, compared to actually having lived through those years with them.

There's an awful lot of character-based situations that would not communicate without the middle volumes, and many plot points, while clear enough in their outlines, are so much more resonant with the backdrop of the entire story.

But as you say, you're sort of "meta-reading" the series...and I suppose that if you can't help but read that way, it might be harder for those things to have made themselves felt if you'd read all the books.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, yello. I'm sorry I didn't stop by earlier to thank you for entering the Summer's Hidden Treasures contest; your entry hit right as I was trying to catch up from a five-day absence and to say I was swamped was an understatement.

At any rate, your name was randomly chosen as a winner for a prize in the contest, so if you'd be so kind as to send me your address, I'll get it out to you. You can e-mail me at susan at west of mars dot com -- no spaces and all that jazz.

Thanks again for joining us; I hope you'll come back for our Debut a Debut contest in the new year. And congratulations on winning, too!