Meadow Muffins of the Mind

The droppings of some guy's imagination.

Tag: books

Picked Up Pieces from Two Books of Ice and Fire (MORE SPOILERS!!)

Continuing the discussion on the first two books of the George RR Martin saga – the previous ones are here and here – and incorporating some of the commentary I got from both the referred entries and re-working some other thoughts.

  1. Obviously I forgot about Bran as one of the leads in the second book.  What is interesting about him is that while what has happened to him – especially in the first book – was a sad fate, what lies ahead is pretty interesting.  Yes he is learning the ways of being a lord and whatnot – and like many of the Starks, he is really more comfortable being a fighter, or at least more comfortable in activity than in simply being a noble twit.  His crippling has him down – but he is still young and has the spirit that comes with it.  He still wants to be active certainly.  His escape following Theon’s attempt to take over Winterfell is one of the better scenes in the book certainly.  The future is uncertain, especially as they try to stay away from the myriads looking for them.
  2. Wait, how could I be finished with Bran?  What’s with the dreams?  Indeed – dreams seem to be a common thread in the Starks’ world, whether it be Eddard’s inner conflicts and complexities in the first book – and what Bran has now.  The wolf dreams hint at much more than meets the eye.  Sure Bran can’t move – or can he?  We know that he can get inside the wolf’s vision – but is he driving?  There are hints either way.  Personally I would be surprised if this did not lead to a more amazing power.  Either way, it lends flavor to the saga, that bubbling of other worldly stuff underneath the intrigue of the day.
  3. The wolf dreams themselves seem to tie together one of the interesting narrative devices Martin employs throughout the first two books, especially as the number of characters and capillaries of plot threads start to pile up.  I know that I can’t keep track of every storyline, but one tends to think that Martin is not expecting you to either.  But what he has done is paint the characters – subtly and with detail yes – with broad brushstrokes of characteristics.  The winter and wolves are evoked so well in the Stark clan, for instance, that you almost feel the clouds and winter whenever a chapter comes up.  Winterfell feels like a place, sure – but moreover a clear contrast with the Greyjoys who clearly evoke a seafaring people.  Indeed knowing Balon and the Starks, it makes Theon’s quest all the sillier.  The Dothraki are sharply drawn as nomadic marauders.  I guess what this is a haphazard way of saying is that the various factions seem uniquely a product of their environment and the gods they believe in and the land they are from – and it helps keep certain things straight.  I guess knowing Winterfell and what it and the Starks connote in the mind’s eye – it leads to some impressions over the virtues that might succeed over the wall.  But I don’t know.
  4. One of the themes the book has carried through so far – and continues to ruminate on if not actually deliver profound insights – is our societial proclivity to not separate the art of war and the job of governance.  So many countries have made a fetish out of military virtue as a prerequisite for leaders – let alone the number of military let coups and dictatorships and whatnot – but can a country be ruled well with the skillsets that it takes to win in battle?  Obviously notions that our military instills, and talk about things like “leadership training” imply that it IS transferable, but really?  One can counter that war requires advocacy for your side against an adversary, while governance requires advocacy for the people as a general whole, over your own interests.  It is a different worldview.  I gave Eddard short shrift in the first book – as he made wrong move after wrong move in his time as Hand of the King (very much a Spinal Tap drummer position considering what has happened to the three hands we know about prior to Tywin Lannister) – but he DID take governing seriously.  We know that he went way back with Robert and cared for him very much – though he saw Robert’s foibles clearly.  Robert was certainly an example of the sort of guy who knew and craved war and being in battle, but not governing and being in boardrooms.  Eddard offered more than that – he just let personal loyalty and a bit too dogmatic view of honour foil his ability to embrace realpolitik.  It’s too bad.
  5. Considering he has the Lady in Red (and Chris Deburgh undoubtedly in the back of the battalion providing soundtrack), it is not too big a leap to think that the setback suffered by Stannis is only temporary.  As I noted earlier, I have no idea who is driving that train – can Stannis really harness the crazy sick power that this lady is offering him – but it should be good for one battle.  What is interesting is how his court’s fool Patchface in his seemingly inane ramblings spoke of the danger of the sea.  With the fallout of this battle, did a supposed halfwit really offer prescience?  It is interesting and worth tracking.
  6. Of course, I went throughout my 1500 word rambling on the second book without actually mentioning the genuine surprise in the middle.  Let’s put it this way – Eddard’s death was a surprise in the early book, only because it felt inevitable given his moves, but as readers we are conditioned (in this sort of genre at least) to think that something good will happen, deus ex machina or otherwise.  Here, the true gameboard changing surprise DOES come out of nowhere – if you thought you could pick Renly’s fate before, you are a smarter person than I.

A Clash of Kings (SPOILERS!!!)

It is hard to sit here and try to tell you that a 969 page book qualifies as fairly taut, but somehow A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin’s sequel to A Game of Thrones – which of course became the HBO series of the same name which launched Peter Dinklage into the lead for now over Warwick Davis in the greatest living little person derby – qualifies.  The book takes the virtues of the first novel – and expands the world and the established conflicts.  However, it does more than that.  One of the normal things with any sort of series I think is trying to figure out how to keep people ready for another novel while not jerking them around.  In the movie realm for instance, The Matrix in its secret of the universe or whatever, promised a lot and contained a lot of literate movie psycho-babble.  But when it came time to deliver, the movie was not equal to the task.  It is hard not to feel screwed.  What the book does deftly is provide emotional payoff, a measure of quasi-comic relief and still move the story forward and create more mysteries.  As far as the story goes, the various threads have grown, and I have to discuss it freely – we discussed the first book here – spoilers abound …

  1. Like the previous book, Martin tells his story as snapshots from various points of view.  Just like in the first novel, we have Tyrion, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, and Catelyn providing viewpoints.  But this time we also add Theon, Robb’s former squire who has returned to his folks on the Islands to present an offer of peace, and something more.  In these choices – to be discussed a bit further – Martin has continued the practice of showing people who are looking up at the people with real power.  Tyrion and Theon here take the place of Eddard in the last novel, he who has a version of nominal power, but almost no actual power.
  2. Theon’s arc – like Eddard – does not even get out of this volume.  In a sense I think his story provides the sort of comic relief of the various story arcs during this stormy time in the kingdom.  Theon returns to his family after having been held “hostage” essentially since he was a youth.  His delusions of grandeur, his feeling that he will be welcomed as a conquering hero – his feelings about what a stud muffin he is – are all gloriously misaligned with any form of correct thinking.  It’s almost touching how silly he is if he wasn’t so boorish.  His meeting with his long lost sister is priceless.  It is a shame the suffering he unleashed on Winterfell as he tried to conquer his old stomping grounds (where predictably, those who knew him were either appalled or trying to see if he is for real) – but his comeuppance was gotten in spades.
  3. The split Stark clan show varying signs of awareness.  Arya was one of the most loveable characters in the first book, and she continues to show – frankly – that she might actually get through this.  She is made of tougher stuff than her male mates – I am not sure if she will survive her escape from Harrenhal, but The Bull did not have the guts to initiate it.  Sansa, so clueless and unprepared for the earthquake that was going to take place in her world, at least now recognizes the personalities she is stuck with.  Joffrey is still a wholly detestable prick – but she is not at all in the dark.  In some ways her knowledge is sad – no child should have to learn about dudes and whatnot this way.  As political football takes place, her fate looks ominous – but you never know.  There is not a ton of mobility for women being “respectable”.
  4. Catelyn is worried for her children of course, but she also tries to broker a peace.  That springs one of the real genuine surprises – and it is hard to get surprised when you have read enough books in your life.  Her father is on his way out, and with her family allied with the Starks – Robb’s exploits are promising, but it is hard to say just HOW promising.
  5. It’s clear the Red Priestess that Stannis has made a Faustian deal with (well, if those sorts of religious constructs existed) is doing something.  We see her power work in a couple of jarring ways.  We know she has considerable power, which poor Davos saw – and we know Stannis was tied of not being king or whatever.  But who is really driving here, and does he have the ability to manage Melissandre.  At some level, she is going to have to cash in the relationship – what does HE offer HER?  Davos is the protagonist here, but it feels like Martin does not really see him as any more as a narrative device.  He is telling this story from the eyes of the middle … the folks without much pull … so Davos makes sense.  However, Davos is the weakest of his main characters, he just seems to exist as a witness to the Stannis side of the plot.
  6. Tyrion, so close to the titular villains in this story – is one of the more interesting arcs.  Like all of the other POV characters, he is trying to prove himself – this time to his dad.  He comes in as Hand of the King until his father is able to take over.  What is interesting about his turn as Hand is that, unlike Eddard, he is not at all unaware of realpolitik.  It just feels like he did not have all the bases covered – and there is just not enough good counsel when everyone else is positioning, and frankly his family doesn’t have his back – at all.  Varys the Eunuch seems like the most useful – and Tyrion DOES use him correctly.  He gets the city employed and he does try to make things better.  Indeed, he does his job – despite how bloody the triumph was – but clearly he ain’t gonna be getting a medal for his role.  Only Podrick Payne seems to be in his corner – we’ll see if he gets any shit for that or not.
  7. Meanwhile, in a land far far away from the main battle, we have Daenerys, fresh from her triumph and rising as queen.  However, the Dothraki have largely gotten away from her, and she is trying to take over as queen and avenge the death of her father.  She is trying to move full speed ahead with the Dothraki and her ragtag team (picking up more at the end).  However, I’m not sure she is doing much planning.  She knows the goal and knows she wants it – but it feels like the tactics have been very improvised, just driven by putting out fires.  Does she have alliances?
  8. Finally, we get to the Wall.  I am not sure if Martin had terrorism in mind as an allegory or something – probably not though it is interesting – but the events of the Night Watch above the wall feel like a version of what he hear about with the CIA and that sort of double secret Men In Black/Jason Bourne sort of stuff.  All these people are fighting their wars down there, but there is a giant force underneath that makes all of our problems not amount to a hill of beans.  I don’t know if I am articulating it correctly.  At the end, Jon’s fate is particularly fascinating.  The threat there feels like the trump card here – but aside from offering a threadbare Night’s Watch of society’s refuse (not that they should be, just sayin’), the resources do not seem sufficient for the scale of the real threat.  Do the folks at Casterly Rock or King’s Landing GET the threat?  It feels like a no.  Aside from punishing deserters, do people really CARE about life beyond the wall?

Overall the stage is set nicely for the next book.  In particular, the battle at Blackwater is a great literary scene – and the image of the water being on fire and the hell that the Lannisters must survive to hold the throne is well worth those chapters.  The world Martin produces is very rich – and the next book promises much.

Notes on A Game of Thrones (SPOILER ALERT!!!)

I noticed that in my initial review of George R.R. Martin’s tome, that I seemed to focus mostly on writing style and the peculiarities of the genre.  It was a review more than a commentary on the substance.  However, as 800 pages of a 4000 page saga or so (and one definitely worth reading by the way), some comments on what actually is happening is worthwhile.  So, be warned, there are spoilers here.

  • One of Martin’s neat tricks is to separate the sympathetic and virtuous from the savvy and the wise.  The heart and the head are not in the same place often.  Most notably this is seen in Eddard Stark, who seems to carry many of the traits of the traditional hero – in terms of honor and virtue – also doubles as being intensely frustrating and mind-bendingly stupid.  Indeed his utter lack of survival skills in this sort of setting make me wonder about plausibility.  Of course Stark’s blunders brings to light the folly of putting military folks in charge of governing, as if they are similar skillsets.  However, we make a fetish of the military culture when following our politicians.  Hmm …
  • Daenerys is clearly the favorite of the rotating protagonists in the book.  In some ways she is Ned’s counterpoint.  She starts in a position of disadvantage, being pimped out by her brother to a dude who can’t speak her language.  No hand of the king at work here, but she figures out survival skills and politics on the fly.  The ultimate fate of her brother and her decisions leading up to that point are sublime – recognizing how institutions work – even something as “savage” as the Dothraki.  The final scene of the book is kind of awesome.
  • In terms of rating the protagonists, Daenerys > Arya > Jon > Tyrion > Sansa > Catelyn > Ned.  Catelyn is ultimately kind of sad – not bound to a code of honor to an insane degree like Ned, just basically rash.  Her decision to capture Tyrion ranks as truly bad.
  • Tyrion is of course enormously likeable on TV – how can you not be impressed with a guy played by Peter Dinklage?  His verbal wit and his ability to manipulate and escape situations is fascinating.  That said, exactly where he stands is hard to tell.  He feels like more of a survivor than “of” the evil Lannisters.
  • Joffrey is a first class twerp.
  • I give Martin credit.  I have no idea where the story is going, and for a lot of exposition, I had fun reading it.  The threads can go in a lot of direction, especially as more factions get introduced.  The stuff with the Night Watch and beyond the Wall is particularly fascinating.  I have no idea how it will fit into the big picture yet, though the signs are interesting.  We know we have at least one former “you coulda been somebody” in Master Aemon.  However, is that the extent or is there much more?  It can’t be that easy to just compartmentalize rivalries of past.

Anyway, I’m about 20% of the way through with A Clash of Kings at the moment.  We’ll see how it goes.

A Game of Thrones

Well, after the HBO series and, frankly, quite a bit of peer pressure, it was time to dive into George R.R. Martin’s extensive – and rather verbose – A Song of Ice and Fire saga.  The first edition, A Game of Thrones, is the book which aligns with the first season of the HBO series.  The sweep of the novel, which contains an awful lot of exposition and introduction, is appropriately vast compared to its obvious fantasy novel predecessors.  The kingdoms covered by Martin are imagined fully and with terrific depth.  Martin has created this world from the embers of archetypes, fantasy novel lore (both real lore like Tolkien and the sort of collective unconscious of the swords and sorcerers set) and his own imagination – and the world and conflicts are as fully formed as George Lucas’ world in Star Wars.  However, Martin does a better job than post 1985 Lucas of showing us the human scale and providing the reader access points.  We are able to care about how these far off conflicts go and have a rooting stake in the outcome – and that the 805 pages here is not a slow dirge is kind of impressive.

This novel is the first in a series that is still ongoing, so there is a lot of introduction to get done.  This is something that could have been deadly, stupefyingly dull – an encyclopedia entry about a place I don’t give a crap about.  However, Martin sidesteps this pitfall by using multiple perspectives, and changing primary viewers each chapter.  In this case, we are mostly following the Stark family – who have ruled the North where the Wall is which is keeping out apparently evil, occult spirits.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is the lord of the domain (I guess sort of a governor of a state sort of thing) and his family includes his wife and give children.  One day, Robert – his old friend who has since risen to the King of the entire realm, summons him and names him to replace the deceased Jon Arryn as the King’s Hand. (his right hand man basically)  Eddard is reticent – he has known Winterfell and the North his entire life and does not want to uproot his family.  However, the king appeals to Ned’s honor and friendship and somehow he is up and leaving his family.

We get this story from Eddard’s perspective.  Stark is a good and decent man – he has a code and tries to stick to it.  However, we also get viewpoints from other areas.  Martin gives voice to the thoughts of Stark’s wife and four of Stark’s children (Bran, Jon,  Arya, Sansa), as well as an outsider of one of the ruling families as well as a princess of an order that was nearly destroyed.  Martin follows each of these stories with great care – all of the characters are outside of the power structure, but trying to survive.  We see how events outside of their control (mostly) shape their own experiences.  Martin’s smartest decision here was to stick with a small, fairly easy to follow group of characters.  There are dozens of more perspectives, but the narrative gets very cloudy with more than the half dozen or so that we end up hearing about.

Martin’s structure is sound, and his real strengths are in character development and associated plotting.  The fates of the characters all make sense – and spring from their organic personalities.  As a reader it makes it both compelling and frustrating, for instance, to see Ned Stark in action.  His values are clearly the purest of the folks introduced in this concept (and I know I am being circumspect about the plot) – but he also makes the worst decisions, and puts the dogmatic right thing ahead of situational ethics and realpolitik.  Sansa is a pathetic creature, so sweet and wanting to be the right kind of lady (of course in this realm that means catching a powerful husband – don’t shoot the messenger), but unaware of the gravity of what is going on under her nose.  Martin is spinning a lot of plates here plotwise, setting the scene for apparently complicated future doings, but we are rarely lost and the motivations are clear.

If Martin is weak in any area though, it is verbosity.  At 805 pages we get a lot of detail.  However, we also get a lot of flowery, ornate descriptions of landscapes that I suppose are supposed to provide texture, but instead seem like a parody of an author like Dickens or something.  It feels like tightening his focus could have reduced the novel by about 20% and concentrating the abundant amounts of good stuff.  That said – we have 805 pages that turned quite easily.  The sequel definitely gets my attention – and maybe some more plot discussion when that review comes up.

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

One thing that can be said about the hardcover version of Those Guys Have All the Fun is that it is a heck of a doorstop, clocking in at 750 pages or so.  Like Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, it is attempting to cover an incredibly comprehensive topic – the history of ESPN.  The author James Miller, had success with this format before in his oral history of Saturday Night Live, so he took he same method to ESPN.  In a sense, Miller did not write the book so much as he edited numerous interviews with tons of people, on air, off, famous and less so, from all aspects of the industry.  You can’t say the book was not comprehensive.  However, when we are talking about comprehensive research and copious editing, we are still thinking textbook virtues – but is the book actually, you know … entertaining?  As an ESPN fan (or at least, observer), the book certainly was something I was looking forward to reading, but as the history of ESPN progressed, the story got progressively less compelling.  Murray’s editing choices here raise some question – and the latter half of the book ends up reading much like idolatry, without a ton of deep substance.

The best parts of the book actually come fairly early.  At the outset, we read about the Rasmussens, a troubled family and Bill Rasmussen who was, for all intents and purposes, the founder of ESPN.  His vision of course was fairly limited, wanting to use this new cable tv to broadcast Connecticut sports.  However, when the dish salesman tells him that a satellite can transmit everywhere – one is reminded of Jed Clampett running into some Texas Tea.  The entire early history is fascinating – how slapdash the production was – the large promises of Rasmussen without any real delivery mechanism.  In a lot of ways in the early days, it was a miracle for the shows to get on the air.  And then with early deals with the NCAA and NFL things started to happen.

Murray tracks these sorts of developments through things he describes as “steps in ESPN’s rise to world domination”, which is a little smarmy sounding as a thesis, though understandable.  Murray does a good job tracking the changes in management and how different managers’ decisions at specific times were key.  The Rasmussens were key at their time with a big idea, but they did not know what to do next.  The next level involving identifying the dual revenue stream so crucial to cable was interesting, and how they were stuck in very bad deals and how to get out of them.  The behind the scenes drama here is fascinating.

However as the book trucks along, the challenges become more about what is happening on the air as the on-air product gets more refined.  Murray gets amazing access to all of the major anchors and personalities people know, and perspectives on everything, including dish on each other which seems rather not team-playery.  Bob Ley, Robin Roberts come off as pros.  Chris Berman – the most famous of them all – is portrayed as a deeply simple, rather dumb man.  Indeed he is quoted at one point saying “I’m a simple guy. I don’t watch TV. I don’t go on the Internet. So I never watched Playmakers, but I knew if the league was pissed, I probably should be pissed.” about the NFL, the sort of bowing to a master that a Brown University (among the most establishment-skeptic university cultures around) alumni might vomit at.  He becomes the organization’s biggest star, and his depiction as a lunkhead ends up matching quite nicely with the Ted Baxters of any newsroom.  The book’s most complicated and three dimensional personalities are Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann.  They have been inextricably linked with their tour together on Sportscenter – but in a lot of ways they represented the core battle in the organization, between personalities on air trying to grow in their profile, against a network that desperately wants to keep cost down (and by extension the fame of its participants).  Dan Patrick was a team player clearly, and seems like the nicest guy you’d want to meet there – the sort of guy who had the back of the working schlubs.  Olbermann by contrast, decidedly did not – the student who was smarter than the teachers and had trouble hiding it.  The book’s portrayal of Olbermann’s stormy time, his issues with Bristol, CT and the disaster that was Sportsnight on ESPN2 were among the best sections.  Sometimes it seemed like Murray was casting Olbermann as the villain – Keith seemed remarkably self aware about his tendencies.  He and Dan are easy to “get” even if it was not fun to be their bosses.

The guys who come across worst in the book are pretty clearly Mike Tirico – both in terms of being something of a lothario on the Bristol Campus, and in his lack of generosity to Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football – and interestingly enough Bill Simmons.  Simmons, long one of my favorite writers clearly, is also incapable of writing and editing – his writing has a lot of the long winded rants of Adam Carolla in them. (it makes sense they worked together)  His quotes, in the later section of the book, show a guy who is either deeply insecure, or just a prick about his own work – and deeply suspicious about other people’s opinions.  He observes that Olbermann is way “crazier than I am”, but it is hard to dispute that Simmons might be harder to work – though his 30 for 30 creation was excellent.

Ultimately though, the book peters out a bit after nearly 500 pages.  After Olbermann’s departure and the systematic marginalization of Dan Patrick, the coverage of the Mark Shapiro years where PTI, Around the Horn and other shows are introduced becomes sort of dull.  Partially this is because of the inherently inside baseball nature of such stuff, but also very little new is revealed compared to what we already knew.  In a sense, it was stuff that has been covered – it’s too recent to be interesting TV.  Even the coverage of the LeBron James TV show is flawed because ultimately, we know all the angles.  What’s the point?  While the latter half  of the book is well researched, it is deadly dull.  But for about 500 pages, Murray’s mission is a fascinating look at a TV network going from birth to wobbling up on its own two feet.

Farewell, My Lovely

After the breezy whimsical human comedy Dashiell Hammett displays in The Thin Man, the adventures of Philip Marlowe have considerably more depth.  In Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, his second Marlowe novel, the stakes seem considerably higher.  The banter is less, the darkness is a little more latent, and the central character has just a little bit more weight.  This is no slam on Hammett’s final novel – but Chandler in this story has created a truly atmospheric story – with a gallery of characters and themes that make it more than just a readable potboiler (though it certainly qualifies on that front).

The story begins with a newly negro-owned bar that Marlowe happens to be near and the entrance of a giant hulking man named Moose Malloy.  He has just gotten out of the joint and goes there to locate an old flame.  Malloy, who went into the pen before the place changed hands, is not pleased to see how little help he is getting.  He summarily kills the bouncer, seriously roughs up the owner and leaves.  Marlowe is a witness to all this.  When he takes this to the local Lieutenant, as one can imagine in that time, he is not given much serious help.  Indeed Nulty (the lieutenant) and his men’s comical false alarms about catching Malloy is one of the fun parts of plot.

At the same time, Marlowe is called for an actual paying job by Lindsey Marriott, who is slated to pick up a jade necklace being held hostage by some gangsters.  Marlowe is asked to come along to provide backup, though Marriott does not offer why Marlowe was selected.  They go to the pickup location – and when Marlowe looks for the people – he gets roughed up and Marriott is killed.  The person who finds this mess is Anne Riordan, a spunky redhead who – well, she exists as the “good girl” here – but Marlowe sure does not seem like that type.  “I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin” (166-167)

The plot gets much murkier – as Marlowe starts digging on the Malloy side and the jewel side.  I have only hinted at the complications.  What is particularly effective is how Chandler evokes atmosphere and scenery.  His descriptions of his characters reveal both great description as well as interesting insights into Marlowe himself.  Even early on, when Marlowe meets Malloy for the first time, “looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food” (3).  Chandler is not content with banal descriptions.

Marlowe, as he moves through this world is a fascinating protagonist.  He does not have time to really love someone like an Anne Riordan, but he sees romanticism clearly.  He tries to do the right thing – he pursues the Malloy matter without prompting – but also chasing two-bit jobs.  His fleabag office and rather pathetic existence hints at a sleazebag, but Marlowe is more literate and knowing.  He is a complex character who understands people – and so when Chandler gets him into action, it has weight.  When he gets hit, it hurts – and the reader can tell.  Similarly, Malloy is not what he seems – a brutal killer at the beginning, Marlowe begins to sense the entire story there.

Ultimately, the characters and the prose drives Farewell, My Lovely.  However, the plot holds together very well – and when we get to the final reveal, the clues do fit together, even if the resolution has a messy real-life credibility.  This is a terrific piece of noir – I cannot wait to discover more.

The Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles are two of the more iconic characters in mystery creation.  What is fascinating about this reality is that they were only featured in this, the last of Dashiell Hammett’s novels.  The Thin Man, published in 1934 – introduces Nick and Nora.  The book made such an impact on popular culture that it spawned a TV series and movie.  Reading it, I am not sure if the book is precisely a literary classic – but it is certainly a superior page turner.  The book certainly is better than the potboiler bilge that Dan Brown and John Grisham pump out in this age, but it also stands as very much a popular culture artifact.  Unlike a lot of “classic reads” (which often connote schoolwork), this is a pretty fun breezy read – that doubles as both a worthwhile mystery as well as something of a sideways comedy.

The novel, set in New York, involves Nick Charles, a former detective who married into Nora’s family for love – and money.  He is now in the upper class twit tier of society – although he always hints of his former life.  Into their lives wanders Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of an eccentric scientist Nick had done some detective work for – apparently the scientist’s assistant has turned up dead.  The scientist, Clyde Wynant, in fact never appears in the book – he communicates via telegram and through his attorney Herbert MacAulay, but he exists as a spectre – and given the weirdo depiction of him, the obvious subject.  Nick does not want to get involved, but suddenly is pulled in by forces from his past – and soon enough he finds himself tagging along with the cops in a couple of cases, being a private dick sort of management consultant.

They mystery is sufficiently interesting, but while the plotting is undistinguished (any student of the law of the conservation of characters can probably figure out where this is head), where Hammett does great is in atmosphere and imagery.  In the depiction of sad sack basket case Dorothy, her not so sad sack but crazy mother, her dark, lurking brother – the Wynants would make for its own sort of sitcom, as long as David Lynch were developing it.  We get a great sense of smoke, color and place here – and it feels like we know these people.  Indeed the witty repartee between Nick and Nora and the comedy of the upper class twits is the highlight.  She is a very funny drunk (everyone drinks all the time – I am not sure how they managed to stay awake long enough to solve crimes) and is a useful foil for Nick.  Ultimately, it is hard to call The Thin Man great literature, but it is superior popcorn – and what’s wrong with that?

Out of Water

FULL DISCLOSURE: I sort of know one of the authors

Well, if you were looking for sex Out of Water is not the book for you. The distinct lack of eroticism and steamy shower scenes fatally infect that pursuit. On the other hand, if the intent is to read an informative and surprisingly tractable articulation of the pending water crisis in this ever populating world, Colin Chartres and Samyuktha Varma’s survey of the (rather literally) barren landscape is a good choice.

Water scarcity is a crucial problem facing our planet. I mean, even if you are the most fanatic climate change skeptic, the sheer math is daunting. By 2050 we will be 9 billion people living with largely the same planet elementally. 50 percent more toilets to flush!  But alas, with the increased urbanization of the population, the amount of potable water makes the math more complicated – and if you want to add effects of climate change in – the math is very very tricky.  The problem with the water scarcity problem as a marketing slogan is that frankly, in the bourgeois United States (hell, even the impoverished United States) potable water is not a huge problem.  We whine about urban water supplies, but comparing that to what villagers in rural India face is utterly ridiculous.  The effects of the potential lack of water is clear, but the symptoms are often second order – fortunately we are not at armageddon yet.

What Varma and Chartres (perhaps referred to as Chartma in this document because I am too lazy to write out both names) do effectively in this book is to concisely outline the conditions in a few representative case studies – both in what is happening to the water supply, and measures that exist to solve it.  In some ways the book is predictable (we have a problem), but the insights provided on the issue are clearly well researched.  In particular, Chartma’s identification of a flawed worldwide water management paradigm is enlightening.  That is, while most resources are regarded economically – water is regarded in a more schizophrenic manner.  Water is an economic good, especially for matters such as irrigation, but it is obviously a social good – a utility if you will.  Governments have not been very good at unifying management approaches to accomodate both uses of the same resource.  As a result, the interdependence of agriculture with individual consumption is often given short shrift.

Chartma goes on to specifically go over cases in the Murray-Darling Basin, South Asia and North America.  The book surveys both the management philosophies and regulatory environments in place, as well as the specific circumstances.  Australia seems to have been “scared straight” the most by their issues, and thus have the most pro-active view of the situation.  That said, the facts and the outlines of the cases are probably the weakest part of the book.  This is not because it is poorly researched, but because it is so exhaustively researched.  The pictures, and exhibits become a little overwhelming – and endnotes fill me with anger and scorn.  Of course I have no doubt I am not the target audience here.

That minor quibble aside, Varma and Chartres have put together a concise, valuable explanation of the pending water scarcity crisis.  For a fairly academic pursuit, the writing is taut and actually pretty accesible prosewise – the jargon is kept to a minimum.  This is a really important issue, and Out of Water does it full justice. But alas, there is no sex.

The Master and Margarita

Before I dive into this fully (and there is a lot to dive into), I will note that this is the first book I read on the Sony Reader.  I was worried that my eyes might get tired or something like reading a computer screen, but the E-Ink technology really is pretty good.  I use the Pocket E-Reader which means I don’t get wi-fi or a touch screen.  On the other hand, the reader is very compact, and the managing of the books is easy.  If I dive more into the Gutenberg project, this will be invaluable.  Anyway, now for the review.

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Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the #1 on Keith Law’s 100 Greatest Novels list, is a savage satire of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Of course, like any good novel, it does not stop with the tone of satire, but instead also touches notes of sadness and hope in its parallel stories.  In particular, Bulgakov spins a tale of Moscow under the enforced atheism (consider the deep irony of that turn of phrase) of the Communist regime – and speculates about what would happen if Satan visited.

Indeed, Satan DOES visit – and descends upon Berlioz, the head of the state sponsored literary guild, and Ivan, a poet who is writing atheistic poetry for the State.  The Devil talks to Berlioz about being witness to the execution of Jesus, and tells the story of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome who oversees said execution.  And (I am not giving anything away here), the Devil summarily predicts how Berlioz will die.  Berlioz pooh poohs what he sees, and indeed … well, no points for figuring out what happens.

In a lot of ways, a one sentence description of The Master and Margarita could be “the Devil starts some shit in Moscow”, and the first half of the novel is dedicated to Satan’s causing mischief – exposing people’s dirty laundry, sending others to death, culminating with a lovely scene where he gives clothes to all the women in town and rather inconveniently takes them all away.  Bulgakov has fun with this savaging, and as a reader, it is actually quite breezy.

However, at the second book, we start discovering a sadder tale.  We learn of the Master, a guy who was divined Pontius Pilate’s story and is engulfed by the effort to write the book.  In this story, Bulgakov is less satirical, and we see a man who is holding up free thought (in this manifestation, non-atheism).  As the master is engulfed he eventually leaves his wife, the Margarita of the story, and she has spent her time waiting for him to return, or living in suspended animation as he is all that matters to her.

What works throughout the novel is Bulgakov’s imagery – that of Satan, Margarita.  The novel is clearly contemporary to its time.  Particularly audacious is Bulgakov’s portrayals of Jesus and Satan.  In fact, Satan could be argued to be the real protagonist in the story.  The Master and Margarita’s fate is essentially adjudicated by Satan and his crew, and indeed they are not presented as simply evil personified.  While nobody would confuse Bulgakov’s Devil with Martin Luther King, he is much more nuanced than an instrument of evil.  Really he seems more a messenger of the divine message than anything – someone to smite those so aggressively denying the existence of God … and perhaps by extension less the existence of any other mode of thinking than a state sponsored one.

Is this the greatest novel of all time?  What is tough when you get to these sorts of lists is personal criteria, and so much of the context and knowledge of reservoir literature of the time is important.  Bulgakov references the Bible and Dostoyevsky and classic Russial Literature, all allusions that are less resonant to yours truly than to others.  While this limits its “super greatness” to me, even not being 100% familiar with everything out there, it is still a very good read.  Bulgakov’s passion and sense of justice drive the story along, and the wit and irony are there, even if a reader (like me) does not know ALL of the nooks and crannies.  It is very readable for a “classic” (even with the textured weaving of the Jesus, Moscow and Master threads), and definitely a worthwhile book to get around to – if nothing else as a useful artifact of what Communism was like from the inside.

The Breaks of the Game

My favorite baseball book ever was Peter Gammons’ Beyond the Sixth Game, which starts with a team that was the finest young team in baseball, the 1975 Boston Red Sox.  One of the things that time has forgotten a little bit is that when these Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds, the perception was that this would not be the last big result for this bunch.  Fred Lynn had won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP (and unlike Ichiro, was actually a first time major leaguer).  Carlton Fisk would go on to the Hall of Fame as would Jim Rice – Dwight Evans would be a Gold Glove winner.  The future was so rosy – but then free agency became codified in the sport at the same time.  Gammons explores how the sport fundamentally changed – how market prices started to take over as players had evolved from the reserve-clause indentured servants of yore  to free agents actively pursuing to be paid according to their marginal revenue.  Gammons looks at the league from the inside and out, how it changed locker rooms, how it changed management’s view of players and how different teams coped with the gameboard suddenly changing.

What Gammons captured in Beyond the Sixth Game, David Halberstam captures with remarkable reportage in his The Breaks of the Game. The team is the 1980 Portland Trailblazers.  The team of course, won the title in 1977 – with some perfect chemistry it seemed, Bill Walton at the height of his powers, and Maurice Lucas providing some key help, and a starting lineup of guys age 26 and under.  Like the 1975 Red Sox, the future seemed limitless.  Like the MLB of that time, money was changing thing, and the ABA/NBA merger caused uncertainty.  Halberstam, as he does in all of his books, narrates the season almost as a novel.  There is reporting, but it all flows very naturally.  Every player gets some background, the coach Jack Ramsay is profiled in segments.  But what Halberstam does is bring the individuals to the narrative.

For instance, consider Kermit Washington, the Blazers Power Forward.  Halberstam unobtrusively describes how he became part of compensation (part of the settlement of the merger was that teams who lost free agents were entitled compensation as determined by the commissioner).  But he also discusses a man with a self confidence problem, who learned how to believe himself – who seeked out coaching – who had a home in San Diego he was settling in when he suddenly got traded to Portland.  Bobby Gross, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Walton, Moses Malone (imagine if the Blazers kept him!) all get some dedicated pages in the same vein.  Halberstam’s writing is full of these nuggets.  However, he also talks about television, how the NBA over expanded, how it mismanaged their television dealings – and how CBS had to deal with trying to sell a black game to a white corporate audience.  The book’s narrative is clean – there are not individual chapters dedicated to these individual threads, Halberstam works in and out – while following the Blazers around, trying to handle contract disputes, individual agendas and trying to hang on to the last vestiges of the 1977 glory.

Halberstam was a great reporter and writer, and for basketball books The Breaks of the Game reads so naturally and covers so much.  It is a great read.

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