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#9 – First Among Sequels

June 8, 2008

First Among Sequels is Jasper Fforde’s seventh book, and fifth in the exceptional Thursday Next series. The last two things I read by him were the comparatively inferior spin-offs The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear, so I think I had forgotten just how great Fforde is when he’s at the top of his game. Therefore, reading this one never ceased to impress and surprise me. Jasper Fforde has such an affinity for insane concepts and stupid jokes that he lulls you into a false sense of – I’m not sure what. Thinking you’re reading a less powerful book than you actually are, I guess. Because when he starts bringing all of his ridiculous plots together, all of a sudden you find yourself completely absorbed by the story, regardless of how weird it seemed at first.

It’s hard to compare the five Thursday Next books to one another, because they kind of go over the same material every time. The same usual crew is here: BookWorld, Goliath, Jurisfiction, the Chronoguard, and the characters of dozens of British novels. However, Fforde always puts an interesting enough twist on his familiar themes that you never find it derivative. I would compare it, if you can forgive me for doing so, to the Metroid series of Nintendo games: you go through the same basic areas in the games over and over agin, but every time you backtrack through them you understand better how things work, and you interact with them a bit differently, and you never feel like you’re repeating yourself. Here, like always, we get to learn a bit more about how the BookWorld works, we get all kinds of geeky literary jokes, and we see some kind of ludicrous imminent peril the world is facing, and it all manages to shed new light on everything that happened before. Every time I finish a Thursday Next book, I want to start the whole series over again from the beginning, just to pick up all the little nuances along the way. I half expect the old books to have physically changed when I go back to them.

There’s no point in my recommending First Among Sequels to you. If you haven’t read the first four books in the series, you would be hopelessly lost starting here. And if you have read them, then you’re obviously a big enough fan that there’s no reason to not pick up this one too. As an added bonus, it ends on an awesome cliffhanger, with a promise that “Thursday Next will return” in the yet-untitled sequel, with eight potential titles given. My vote is on Paragraph Lost, but I’m mostly just looking forward to another brilliant book. My apologies for underestimating you, Mr. Fforde, and keep up the good work.

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#8 – Making History

June 2, 2008

When I was a kid, I had a picture book that my parents got for me from a booth at the mall. They had this computer which would fill in characters in the story with the names of me and my friends and family, and print out a personalized book. (You might also know this idea from The Simpsons: “Lisa’s favourite book is: magazines!”) I can barely remember my story, just that it involved me going back in time and meeting dinosaurs (awesome), but I remember loving it because it was about me. I bring this up now because, with Making History, Stephen Fry has done basically the exact same thing. The main character of this book is a quiet, nervous 24-year-old university student who is finally finishing school after years of work. He studies History, which he finds interesting, but claims his real passion is for films, music and literature. However, he claims he would never be able to study them academically, because he loves them too thoroughly to be able to put forward any valuable critique. Fry might as well have called this A Book About Calum MacLeod, If He Were British and Had Access to a Time Machine.

Okay, so – the time machine. The fascinating premise of this book is: Michael Young, a student at Cambridge, has just completed his doctoral thesis on the birth and childhood of Adolf Hitler, his research on which has made him about the preeminent expert in a very specific field. Through a chance encounter, he meets a physics professor at the university who has just completed work on a time machine. This is far from Back to the Future style time travel here. It’s not even quite Terminator level. The best point of reference is the old LucasArts game Day of the Tentacle, I think: people can’t go through it, but small objects can be sent one-way to a specific place and time. Good enough to start Michael and the professor thinking – with their collective knowledge, they could arrange it so Hitler was never born. This seems to be about the most common thing for people to do with a time machine, besides hunting dinosaurs and killing their own grandfathers, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the travellers actually succeeded. And here’s where Fry poses an interesting question: what if, without Hitler there to take control, the National Socialists were led by somebody more charismatic, more politically savvy, and even more sinister than him?

In the second half of Making History Fry explores this premise, and it’s pretty impressive. I don’t want to reveal too much of it here, because at the start of the second section Michael finds himself in a present he doesn’t recognize, Back to the Future Part II style. His confusion as he slowly figures out what is happening matches the readers, as information is very gradually doled out and keeps raising more questions. In fact, I think my favourite chapter in the book is one where Michael just sits in the library reading a textbook. Fry has written such an interesting and rich alternate history that I think the narrative of the novel actually suffers in comparison – despite how much I related to Michael at first, I no longer cared about him by the end, I just wanted more discussion of the global effects of Hitler’s nonexistence. When a romantic subplot shows up out of nowhere, I got annoyed that it was dragging Michael out of the library where he could read more history books.

I had never read any of Stephen Fry’s books before this, I basically just knew him from Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. So I was naturally expecting this to be funny, and it kind of was. It was really funny for a book about Hitler and the geopolitical ramifications of persistent European fascism, but apparently not as funny as Fry’s previous books, which have less dense subject matter. So this may have been a poor introduction to him as an author for me, because I was looking for some hardcore English hilarity. I’m not going to say I didn’t like Making History, because it was very well-written and I couldn’t put it down at parts, but I think the potential it showed at first kind of fizzled out the more the narrative went on. I’d still recommend it, but I’m more looking forward to reading Fry’s The Hippopotamus now.

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#7 – Carter Beats The Devil

May 25, 2008

In my review of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, I mentioned that a friend had recommended it to me by saying “I wish I’d never read it so I could read it for the first time again”, and J.S. from BiblioAddict mentioned in the comments that she felt the same way about Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold. This is, to me, about the highest praise someone can give a book; that feeling of being completely captivated as an unfamiliar plot unfolds in front of you is all too rare. So I had to put this one high on my reading list. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I’ve got to say that I’m dumbstruck. I agree with that sentiment entirely, because I haven’t found a book this genuinely exciting in some time.

Carter Beats The Devil has a similar setting to the films The Prestige and The Illusionist: the world of famous, rock star magicians at the turn of the 20th century. The novel, told in three acts, tells the story of Charles Carter, a.k.a. Carter the Great, from childhood and through the highs and lows of his magic career up until his final and greatest illusion: the titular Carter Beats the Devil. Along the way, Carter encounters and befriends many actual historical figures: President Harding, the inventor of television, the founder of BMW, and naturally, Houdini. This is Glen David Gold’s first and currently only book, but he’s already a damn master storyteller: He’s got dozens of characters in various narratives running at the same time, jumps back and forth between locales and time periods with each chapter, but he balances them all perfectly and keeps the suspense amped up the whole way through. You’re always equally excited and disappointed to see each chapter end, because while I was desperate to see what happens in the situation I was just reading about, I quickly realize that Gold is going back to another section that I was equally desperate for him to go further in. It’s a great trick. I’d compare him favourably in this to David Foster Wallace’s insufferable Infinite Jest: I was always pleased there to get to go pick up another storyline, but that’s because every individual chapter went on way too long and nothing ever happened, so I got sick of the characters Wallace was focusing on and wanted to hear about something else for a change. Complete opposite case here.

Gold runs through a dozen different genres in sequence here, and he pulls them all off exceptionally. Carter Beats The Devil has some of the finest action sequences I’ve ever read, fascinating intrigue between rival magicians, subplots about the birth of the Secret Service and the rise and fall of television and vaudeville, secret societies, prohibition and speakeasies, not one but two sincerely moving love stories, and a hugely interesting section where Carter sinks into a depression in the middle of his career. Gold spends a great deal of time describing the creation of new illusions, and the existentially bleak concepts Carter comes up with at this time are just astounding. (Oh, and incidentally, there is one part where Carter admonishes his practical, business-minded brother, “They’re not tricks, they’re illusions“, thereby confirming all my beliefs about magicians.)

I don’t want to reveal any more than this, because you’re only going to get to read this book for the first time once, and the less you know about what’s happening the better. So I’ll take my lead from the playbill which opens the book: “The management request that, due to the intensified nature of the performance, no patron reveal details of Act III, ‘Carter Beats the Devil’.” I’ll just say that this is certainly the best book I’ve read so far this year, and you should unquestionably check it out and see if you aren’t instantly drawn in by it. I will, however, add two interesting facts that I learned after finishing the book, unrelated to the plot:

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#6 – Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

May 20, 2008

Like everyone from my generation with any sense, I was a big fan of Roald Dahl when I was a kid.  Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was probably the most exciting book I had ever read when I first picked it up in Grade 3, and I went on to read most of Dahl’s classics after that (but still haven’t gotten to The BFG yet, sorry Clare).  I never got into his mature writing back in the day, though – I got The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More as a gift once and was pretty moved by it, but that’s as far as I got.  I clearly had no idea what I was missing.

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl is an omnibus of two of Dahl’s apparently numerous adult short story collections, Someone Like You and Kiss Kiss.  I can’t recall exactly who recommended Someone Like You to me, but I thought this would be as good an introduction as any.  And I was surprised to find that many of the stories here were eerily familiar to me.  Some of them I could easily identify: I read “Skin”, about an old man with a lost painting tattooed on his back, in an undergraduate English class; “The Champion of the World” is an early version of the children’s book Danny, the Champion of the World; and the story about the man who bets his finger that he can light a lighter ten times in a row was used in the movie Four Rooms.  But there’s others that were swimming around my subconscious, and I don’t know how they got in there.  It made these already creepy stories even creepier when I seemed to have some murky memory of them.

And like I said, these are some creepy stories.  Having just read Dahl’s children’s work before this, I wasn’t really prepared for how unsettling Twenty-Nine Kisses is.  I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a prevalent theme throughout the stories – there’s a bunch of gamblers, con men and poachers in the mix, but there are also beekeepers, computer programmers, and random nobodies.  There are morality fables, tales of the idle rich, and the odd science fiction story thrown in.  The only real common thread is that every story just throws you off a bit.  Half of them end in death, the one that starts off vaguely like a children’s story turns jaw-dropping horrifying by the end, and the most seemingly happy ending comes in one of those stories where the guy turns out to be Hitler.  Hard to enjoy that at face value.

Not to say I didn’t enjoy this book, though – on the contrary, I thought every story in it was brilliant.  It was never what I was expecting (except where I had some weird recovered memory or something of the punchlines), and it made me laugh out loud in surprise more than once.  If, like me, you’re uninformed about the creepier works of Roald Dahl, this is as good a place to get acquainted as any.

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#5 – Special Topics in Calamity Physics

May 13, 2008

Okay, first things first – I’m finally done school! Hopefully forever! This is going to change around the format of Small Victories a bit, because instead of having no time to read 8 months a year and tons of time to read as much as I can over the summer, I should have the same amount of limited spare reading time all year round now. So my updates here should be more regular now, if not as frequent. To commemorate this, I thought it was about time to get a new theme from WordPress. I hope it’s just as easy to use as the old one.

So: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. A title like that basically demands an explanatory A Novel after it, and could probably use a parenthetical (But It’s Actually Really Interesting, You Guys, I Swear) as well. That’s pretty much how it was recommended to me, and it’s a good thing, because there’s so way I would have picked up a book called Special Topics in Calamity Physics and read it for fun without some outside impetus. Because I regularly judge books by their covers, that’s just how I roll.

After actually reading it, it turns out there’s very little scientific about this one, contrary to my initial concerns. It is a very academic book, though. Ridiculously academic , in fact – the main character cites various textbooks in her narration, characters speak in elaborate and wordy metaphors, and every chapter is named after a classic work of literature. And there is a test at the end. (I am not joking, I should have taken notes.) The story is about Blue van Meer, a well-read high school senior, and her father, a hugely pretentious and pretty hilarious university professor. Blue is just getting settled into her new school and new group of enigmatic friends when her teacher mysteriously dies. Or was it…murder?!?!?

Even though the death of the teacher is mentioned in the first sentence of the first chapter of the book, and even though the library put a big “MYSTERY” genre sticker on the side, when the story suddenly develops two-thirds of the way through into a murder investigation it’s a pretty thrilling turn. The book up until then is a lot of exposition, and as I said, a LOT of metaphors. Really interesting ones, and unique: in my favourite example, Blue describes a character’s beauty as like that of a woman who catches your eye from a black-and-white photo in a random biography:

It wasn’t her biography, but the portly Nobel Prize-winner she sat next to; but so arresting were the dark eyes, the sleek hair, the strict expression, one wondered who she was, and didn’t want to keep reading when there was no other mention of her.

I love that line so much, I actually did make a note of it. But here’s the thing: that bit of brilliance comes in the middle of a story the character in question is telling; Blue interrupts her in the middle to drop that bit of narrative gold. While it’s a pleasure to read, it makes it pretty slow going for anything to happen until the previously mentioned death sends the narrative racing off at a surprising rate. At which point the book more than makes up for any lulls in the story that came before. I would recommend Special Topics in Calamity Physics if you’re a patient reader, because it’s a book that definitely rewards you.

This is Pessl’s first and, to date, only novel; according to Wikipedia her next one is due out in 2010. I look forward to reading it when she’s done, I’m curious to see what she’ll come up with next. I know she can do beautiful prose, and I know she can do thrilling plotlines, but can she combine them a bit more elegantly next time around?

(By the way, when I was grabbing that picture of the book’s cover I checked out a few other reviews online, and like Raych from Books I Done Read, I was also tempted to just link to this perfectly brief review from Slowly Going Bald and be done with it. That’s exactly what I thought of this book, in like 1/15th of the words I used here. Outstanding.)

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#4 – Getting Past No

April 5, 2008

we gotta get out of this place before it gets us firstOH MY GOD

WHY AREN’T I FINISHED SCHOOL YET

Okay, so, I just read this guidebook by William Ury cover-to-cover as research for a paper I’m writing for my Negotiations course. Like everything I’ve ever read about negotiation, it has a few decent suggestions, but a lot of weirdly manipulative psychology and seemingly no idea how people actually talk to each other in real life.

Three weeks until school is done, and I can’t wait to get back into reading for myself again. I just heard about this novel Crooked Little Vein from comic author Warren Ellis, which sounds absolutely incredible. I’m going to be sitting here studying for my last exams and salivating over the thought of picking up a copy. See you soon.

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#3 – Into The Wild

February 3, 2008

you’re the one who ran in the wild, a virgin to a name, you’re the one who lived off a forsaken landWell, that took a bit longer then expected.  Between all of my assigned readings for school, it’s taken me almost a month to get through this relatively easy read.  It’s probably safe to say that this will be my last entry until I finish class in April; reading books 10 pages at a time over a series of midnights just doesn’t do that much for me.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild.  He’s the guy who hiked into Alaska under the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp and starved to death in an abandoned bus in 1992.  Krakauer’s book was published in ’96, and Sean Penn’s adaptation of that book just came out last year.  I only bring this up because I was surprised, considering how long this information has been out there, how misinformed I was about McCandless when I started reading this.  From what I’d heard, I assumed he was some idiot kid who went up north for an adventure, found himself completely unprepared and died as a result.  And, okay, there’s some truth to that, but that’s only part of the story.

McCandless is a very polarizing figure, as Krakauer takes care to never portray him fully as some tragic hero, nor as a spoiled rich kid from Virginia, though there are elements of both to be found.  As a result, this book gets some of the most diverse reactions I’ve seen from a non-fiction work: one person I know says it’s his favourite book, while the friend who lent me his copy was so annoyed with McCandless that he couldn’t even finish reading it.  I guess I fall somewhere in the middle there.  I didn’t love Into The Wild, but it was very interesting, and I found McCandless a much more sympathetic character than I would have ever expected.

Many of Krakauer’s interviewees for this book say the same thing about McCandless: he was just a guy who was born at the wrong time.  He read the books of Jack London fanatically and wished it was still possible to have an adventure in this day and age, so he gave away all his money and possessions and tried to make one for himself.  And he succeeded, too, to a certain extent.  What I didn’t know before reading Into The Wild is, before heading to Alaska, McCandless spent two fascinating years wandering the United States.  That was by far my favourite part of this book, seeing him drifting from town to town like Kwai Chang Caine and already having a better adventure than most people will ever have in their lives.  It also makes his inevitable death, revealed from the first line in the book’s introduction, seem that much more pointless.

From what I’ve heard about the movie version of Into The Wild, it’s supposed to be very good unless you’ve read the book first, in which case it pales in comparison.  I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not sure if I’ll bother now, but I did enjoy the book.  It’s a very humanizing portrait of a guy who would have been insufferable if written wrong.  Additionally, Krakauer weaves the stories of a number of similar adventure seekers (himself included) in with McCandless’, making this a book that’s almost more about a state of mind than about one individual man who died alone in the wilderness.  Pretty decent read overall, and it shouldn’t take that long to get through, presuming you’re not in your last term at law school.