Archive for July, 2011

Evan Dara: The Lost Scrapbook

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Another one of those long difficult books that I bought on principle and then let languish on my bookshelf for a decade (literally; I just went to Amazon to see what the reader reviews were like and it informed me that I had bought this from them in 1999). Like many Gaddis books, it consists almost entirely of unattributed dialogue, although in this case much of it is more like monologue, as (unnamed) people recount occurrences that have happened to them.

Adding to the difficulty, the book consists largely of “scenes” that have nothing at all to do with each other, at least overtly; also, there are no breaks between scenes, even by starting a new paragraph, and in fact a scene/speaker change can sometimes happen in the middle of a sentence. (I say “sentence” even though there is only one period in the whole book; all other sentences are demarcated instead with semicolons; or ellipses… or occasionally both;… you can imagine that this can get a bit wearying).

So basically it’s a big collage, and when you approach it that way it’s actually pretty interesting. The individual stories that make up the “novel” (I feel a little funny calling it that) are generally quite compelling, even in their fragmented form, and about 60% of the way through the book the granularity of the collage changes, so that instead of getting ten pages at a time of different stories, you get one paragraph or even just one sentence at a time, but of the same basic story. This technique, in which a plot plays out just by reeling out hundreds of unattributed sentences relaying people’s varying reactions to off-screen events, is really cool and fairly gripping.

I was expecting all the threads of the book to tie together in the end, but I had to be satisfied with some loose inter-story connections and a well-earned climax to the eventual main plot. It turns out to be a book more about establishing a mood and way of looking at things in the reader than about a plot, which is fine. At close to 500 pages, you’d think it would take months to get through, but it’s actually a pretty quick read, largely because the writing of the individual scenes is very compelling. I was glad to move on to a more normal book when I finished it, but it was a really interesting reading experience that I’m glad to have had.

Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

So I have gotten really interested in jazz over the last year. (Apparently this is de rigueur for men as they enter middle age.) I’ve always had a vague understanding of the musical syntax, and can fake playing cocktail-piano renditions of standards okay, but I’ve never really had a good knowledge of the field as a whole.

My three-pronged approach to remedying this has been 1) reading about jazz theory (largely through Bert Ligon’s Jazz Theory Resources and Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book, about which maybe more later), 2) reading about jazz history, and 3) listening to a ton of music. Reading this book, unsurprisingly, was part of prong 2.

Any book about music starts out at a disadvantage in that the actual subject it is discussing is apprehended by the ear and not the eye. With classical music, at least the score is the definition of the piece, but with popular music even a transcription is just a lens that inherently distorts the subject. The History of Jazz doesn’t even try to display musical excerpts; it’s purely text, and although the text is fairly descriptive, simply reading about the music is completely insufficient if you want to understand anything about its history.

Luckily YouTube is around to fill in the gap. I don’t know how much less I would have gotten out of this book if all I could do was read it, but being able to immediately reach out and listen to 80% of the referred-to repertoire was completely invaluable.

Anyway, the actual book itself. Given that it could only really describe the music at one level of indirection, it was actually really instructive. Jazz, especially once you get to the 1950s, consists of a giant interconnected family tree of artists and styles, and it was really impressive to me that Gioia was able to construct a fairly reasonable linear narrative navigating the entire maze, jumping on to an artist’s path for a few years, taking a couple of detours to describe his peers, and coming back to him later when his subsequent style was more relevant to the current story.

The music that I am most interested in (bebop and its descendants) doesn’t even enter the picture until halfway through the book, but that’s probably unavoidable, and the material on early jazz is really interesting. It hadn’t really occurred to me, for example, how impossible it is to disentangle jazz’s roots from the effects of slavery, which turns the love of jazz into an inherently ambivalent kind of prospect. (Another downer is that everyone seems to die young; if they make it past 40 it’s kind of surprising. I swear that being a jazz musician is more dangerous than coal mining.)

If you’re looking for a 400-page overview of the entire giant field of jazz (up through the mid-1990s), I bet it’s hard to do much better than this. It certainly gave me a broad bird’s-eye view of the genre that enabled me to focus on the artists and periods I thought I would be interested in, and when I came back to it after learning more about a given subject, its summary still seemed pretty good to me. Supplement it with YouTube and you’ve got a perfect multimedia introduction to the genre.

Daniel Abraham: The Price of Spring

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

This is the fourth and final volume of the Long Price Quartet fantasy series, of which I have previously reviewed the first three volumes. Basically everything I said about the other books continues to hold true; it’s totally character-driven (almost all plot developments occur because someone acted or reacted in a manner wholly consistent with their personality) in a really nice way. The life paths of the two major characters continue to diverge (and it’s now 45 years since the series started), with the marked difference in their fortunes simultaneously being no one’s fault (good/bad luck) and totally their fault (it is the result of their decisions and actions). The plot is very well done, and brings the series to a conclusion with a fitting climax, but is almost secondary to the exploration of how these characters ended up as they did. I actually found books 2 and 3 to be the most successful (as with book 3, I though there was a slight sag between the point where you can see what the denouement is going to be and when it actually occurs), but that’s to praise this one with faint damnation. The whole series is great, and is a really nice demonstration of what you can do in the wide genre of “fantasy” without feeling the need to go down the whole elves-and-knights epic fantasy route.

Of course, the series didn’t end up selling that well (Tor didn’t even release this fourth volume in paperback, so I recommend you pick up the 2 UK omnibi, titled Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War), and perhaps in response, Abraham has recently released the first volume, The Dragon’s Path, of his new series — which is epic fantasy. It kind of feels like a retreat, but I’m sure it’ll be great (though I’ll probably wait until I can read it all at once).

Steven Erikson: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Monday, July 4th, 2011

I’ve already posted about the first three books of Steven Erikson’s mammoth epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen [1] [2] [3], but I’ve finished the series in the meantime and if I try to write one post each about the remaining seven, I’ll never get anything else done. So I’m going to rush through the rest and see if I have anything interesting to say about any of them.

IV. House of Chains. The “I can’t believe how epic this series is” moment of this one comes when, in contrast to the usual bouncing back and forth between viewpoint characters, the entire first quarter of the novel is devoted to telling the back story of a single character who so far has only briefly appeared in book two and didn’t even have a name then. (Naturally, he turns out to be one of the more important characters in the series.) Once we get back to the main cast of characters, things move along at a good clip, and it ends with a very effective resolution of one of the main plot lines of the first four books, with a couple of cliffhangers added, including one fairly new character saying that he’s going to tell his backstory…

V. Midnight Tides. Which is this book, my favorite of the series and many people’s least. Once again Erikson starts completely from scratch, with what is effectively a prequel on an entirely new continent featuring an entirely new cast of characters, which I think annoyed a bunch of people who were on tenterhooks waiting to get resolution for the things left hanging from House of Chains. This is actually a fairly self-contained story (I might even argue that it’s the best starting point for the series as a whole) which is much tighter and less sprawling than most of the other books. There’s some Wodehousian humor (the best yet), some horror, some allegorical social commentary, and some great plot twists. A big success, in my opinion.

VI. The Bonehunters. As we begin the second half of the series, events begin to converge a bit instead of just expand, which makes it just a bit less compelling for me. A lot of this book is setup for the rest of the series. There are some highlights, like an awesome single-gigantic-chapter set piece featuring a city on fire, but by the time we get to the last over-the-top set piece (in Malaz City, which we had not visited since the prologue to the first book), I was a little exhausted.

VII. Reaper’s Gale. Here the II-IV-VI and V plots start to converge a bit. I liked the political stuff that carried over from Midnight Tides the most (though, as before, I seem to be in the slight minority here) but an issue that started in the last book continues here: the book gets clogged up with frequent long sections that are basically character studies illustrating the boredom/terror of dozens of individual soldiers. It’s a valid artistic decision, but I felt that those sections could have been pared down a bit. It doesn’t help that a gigantic climax is promised from page 1 (basically, there is to be a showdown between the three biggest badasses in the world) and held tantalizingly out of the readers’ reach until the very end. Still, there is a lot of good stuff here, especially with a plot thread dealing with an entirely new civilization (as usual, I am most excited when stuff keeps expanding).

VIII. Toll the Hounds. And we’re back to the I-III strand! This is a bit of a weird one, as Erikson suddenly goes full-out Dickens. He’s always examined different strata of society, one thing that makes the books’ scope so great, but here I feel him straining to explicitly include all the different groups he can (and, unlike Dickens, the strata reach all the way up to those of the gods!), and there is a ton of authorial intrusion (although under the guise of an in-world character) directing us to cogitate upon all that is being presented to us. That didn’t totally work for me, but there is a lot of great plot and character development, although also a fair amount of getting characters from point A to point B (a general issue throughout the series). There is a pretty excellent “What the hell just happened?” point near the end, which however could have been explained a little better (another general issue).

IX. Dust of Dreams. Now we’re really in the home stretch; this is explicitly part one of a two-part finale. It continues to suffer from the Unending Soldier Character Studies issue from VI/VII, and in general things feel slightly overstuffed, as if Erikson had 1.5 books worth of material and expanded them to two instead of contracting them to one. One (sentient) species that had previously mostly just been alluded to finally takes center stage, which is a nice payoff, In a very Eriksonian moment, one large storyline is launched and comes crashing down all within one book, which some people find a complete waste but I consider to be generally a positive thing, proving that anything can happen to anyone at any time in this world.

X. The Crippled God. And so we reach the end. I probably need to read this again to form a good unbiased opinion of it, but I’m not sure if I ever will, so I’m going to have to go with what I got. It is a good page turner, though I do have some issues with it; for one thing, the main Big Bad, which could have been drawn in some interesting shades of gray (which Erikson does very well in other contexts throughout the series), is not really explored in any interesting way. Although a lot of long plot arcs converge and are resolved in this book, it becomes clear by the halfway point that it’s not going to epically resolve every last thread of the entire series in an narratively orgasmic climax; the story is huge but it’s just one more story. So at the end the series basically is the sum of its parts, rather than transcending them. That’s okay; the parts are pretty great. But if you’re slogging through hoping for some gigantic payoff that will make everything that came before amazing in retrospect, you will likely be disappointed. When I was at the series’ halfway point, I was hoping that I would get to the end and immediately want to start again at the beginning to pick up all the subtleties I had missed the first time around, and that’s not going to happen; but it was a pretty excellent ride.

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

“The federal [student] loans are a good deal, but they are often not enough [to] make up the difference between what a family has saved or can spend out of current income and what the student gets in grants and scholarship money.”

[from the New York Times article A New Type of Student Loan, but Still a Risk]