Category Archives: Book Shelf

Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Like with most enthusiastic Harry Potter fans, I read the entire book over the weekend.  Amazon didn’t bother to deliver my copy until 6PM, and extenuating circumstances had left me exhausted, so most of my reading was done on Sunday.  I wanted to give myself a few days to digest the book.  My personal history suggests that when my excitement and anticipation are high, I cannot help but overlook a lot of errors and general badness on the first run-through.  (To wit: I adored The Phantom Menace after the first time I saw it). 

It’s been three days, though.  Enough for various Biblical characters to arise from the dead, and therefore, enough for me to analyze Harry Potter.  The next couple of paragraphs are going to be general statements about the book, the series, and the author.  After the break I will have my more detailed thoughts, which will include spoilers.  If you haven’t read the book yet, do not proceed past the break. 

I really do feel like this is, in many ways, the best book in the series.  It’s greatest (and, depending on perspective, only) weakness is a roughly 150 page section in the middle of the book in which there is not much happening.  The narrative follows Harry throughout its entirety, and so when he and Ron and Hermione are stuck and frustrated on their mission, the reader must suffer through a seemingly interminable series of chapters devoted to very little action or plot development.  This may have been easier to swallow if Rowling spent time with some of the rest of the wizarding world (the students at Hogwarts, the Order of the Phoenix members, Voldemort and his crew).  She does not, however, and the book suffers, only slightly, for it. 

There have been criticisms regarding Rowling’s prose in this book.  Actually, there have been criticisms regarding her prose since the beginning of the series.  The main criticism of her prose is that it’s “clunky”.  I am uncertain what this means, exactly, except to say that, perhaps, Rowling’s prose is not naturally rhythmic.  Personally, I don’t think her prose is any different, in terms of quality, than the other books, and I thought her prose was very good back then, too.  It’s an unadorned style of prose, not given to long, fanciful metaphors or asides.  It relies, instead, on clarity of thought.  Rowling’s biggest gift, as a sentence writer, is to convey very clearly what she means at all times, and to evoke the images and feelings in her writer that the story demands.  In some ways, I thought her writing had improved significantly in this book in one respect: regarding action.  In Goblet of Fire and especially in The Order of the Phoenix, her actions sequences were confusing and unclear.  This final book features more, and grander action scenes than any book previous, and Rowling delivers outstandingly. 

Rowling’s greatest strength, overall, is that nature of her imagination.  Her creativity is so boundless, and her storytelling so intriguing, that the so-called flaws of her prose are irrelevant.  She has created a series for all time–to be treasured alongside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  I was asked a number of years ago to describe the Harry Potter series, and the best I could offer was this:  Imagine Lord of the Rings, with its vastness, its detail, its magic and wonder; with the wretched might of its villains and grace and courage of its heroes.  Now imagine that the story had been written by Roald Dahl, with his own sort of magic, and wit and wonderment; with his touch gentler than JRR Tolkien’s, and more universal.  I do not feel like I’m crossing a sacred line or being too generous by comparing Rowling’s work here to Dahl and CS Lewis and Tolkien.  She has earned her place within their pantheon. 

Harry’s nickname, The Boy Who Lived, is a stunning phrase, and a perfect term to sum up the series.  A boy who lives is unremarkable.  There are several billion boys on this planet right now.  But it is the nature of the series, that something so simple, so ordinary and natural, should hold such magic and charm and allure.  The Harry Potter series is not about a lost king or any sort of mythical beast of magic.  It’s about an ordinary boy, and that’s what makes everything so extraordinary. 

The series is complete, and its completion is as near to perfect as I, for one, could possibly ask.

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf 6: The Soul of Baseball

I have written before about Joe Posnanski, a baseball writer for the Kansas City Star, and one of the finer baseball bloggers actively posting. JoePo started his baseball blog, The Soul of Baseball, in part, to advertise for his most recent, eponymously titled, book. He also started it to talk about and celebrate my favoritest sport in a way that he is unable to in his columns. The blog is wonderful. His columns are wonderful. His book is, well, cheap, so I decided to buy it, despite knowing little about (and thus having little interest in) Buck O’Neil, and being generally wary of full-length books penned by people who are used to 800 words at a time.

TSOB has a simple premise. It is merely a series of roadtrips, with Joe and others accompanying Buck O’Neil as he travels around talking about life, and baseball, and the Negro Leagues. To hear that this is a book about a sportwriter taking down the ramblings and actions of a 90-some year old man is to make the book sound like Mitch Album’s literary abortion, Tuesday’s With Morrie. TSOB is not like that. It’s a largely celebratory thing, and not an “here’s some ‘invaluable’ and immeasurable cheesy advice about life and love and sex and shit” book.

There are certain biographical elements to the book, but these are needed for the larger context. Buck is a man who adored baseball and baseball players. He loved the community of it, the generational aspect of it, and the sizzling technical excitement of it. While Buck certainly misses some of his fellow Negro Leagues, this is mostly because Buck was born just after the turn of the century, and most of his fellow Negro Leaguers are long gone. The only time the book gets nostalgic is when an interviewer asks Buck if he misses anything about baseball from the old days, and Buck wistfully remembers how baseball games used to get played on Sunday afternoons, and so everyone in the stands would come straight from church. Buck misses looking out into the stands and seeing everyone decked out in their Sunday finest. The game, though, is still the same, he says.

By the end of the book, I felt a bit ashamed that I wasn’t aware of Buck’s place in history, and like many who were previously familiar with him, felt outrage that Buck was omitted from the Hall of Fame. The book is a very quick read, and well written and interesting. Worth picking up for any baseball fan.

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America
Joe Posnanski
Hardcover: 288 pages
William Morrow
Amazon

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf 5: The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones is the ninth installment of Neil Gaiman’s landmark series of Sandman graphic novels. It is easily the longest in the series (at least, so far, though I cannot yet speak to the length of final volume). It possesses this distinction because it concludes (or continues) so many storylines from previous books, and because the story is structured, brilliantly, in the form of a Greek tragedy-even to the point where we’ve got a Greek chorus of witches (as you might remember from reading Macbeth in high school), as well as the Eumenides, here called The Furies, or The Ladies, or, as in the title, The Kindly Ones.

It’s fairly useless to go into the story-it’s so vast and complex that anyone unfamiliar with the books wouldn’t be able to follow with extensive explanation. In short, the immortal Dream of the Endless has granted his son, Orpheus, the boon of death. As a result, the Furies-ancient Greek agents of vengeance-are after him, and there is little he can do to stop them.

The book is the most complex in the series, and in many ways the most brilliant. The references to Greek tragedy and mythology are well established, and well executed, fitting naturally into the long, but tight, storyline. The artwork in Kindly Ones, however, is not my favorite in the series. Marc Hempel, the primary artist, tends to draw a little too simply for my taste, producing an almost cartoony effect. While the artwork doesn’t do much to impress, it is satisfactory in executing the story, and Hempel admittedly does an excellent job of blocking and depicting the action, even if I don’t appreciate his style as much as I’ve enjoyed some of his predecessors in the Sandman series.

This is the second-to-last episode in the Sandman series, which on the whole has been as excellently crafted as just about any novel I’ve read, and, frankly, I’m almost loathe to get the final book, knowing that with it, comes the end of the series for me. It should be required reading for any serious and adventurous reader, and especially for anyone who enjoys non-traditional comic books.

The Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones
Neil Gaiman
Paperback: 352 pages
Vertigo
Amazon

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf 4: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

As Michael Chabon would tell it, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed establishing a refugee camp in Alaska for persecuted Jews fleeing Nazi-Europe. Whether or not this bit of historical trivia is accurate, I do not know, but Chabon takes the idea and runs with it, presenting Sitka as the Alaskan home for the “Frozen Chosen”. The agreement was that the camp would last sixty years, and thus, this community of Jews gave birth to new generations who had never known life outside Alaska, and yet knew that their time in the place of their birth was coming to an end, as the contract was about to run out. The main character of Chabon’s newest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is Meyer Landsman-a modern day Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, but with the twists of being both Jewish and, it would seem, manic depressive. Like his predecessors, however, Meyer possesses a profound drinking problem, and a knack for luck and smarmy observation. The story begins as Meyer is awakened by the night manager of the Hotel Zamenhof, where he lives. One of the other tenants is dead, obviously killed, and Meyer, as both an obsessive policeman and paranoid king of a ransacked castle, start the investigation immediately.

His investigation leads him throughout Sitka, where he’s confronted by family-all old, some missed, and some unwanted; by pious Jewish gangsters-the “black hats”; by chess masters and by, perhaps, the Messiah. Overhanging the whodunit caper is the matter of how, in a short two months, the Sitka Jews will be Diaspora again, with many Jews not knowing what they’ll do, and some, like Meyer, barely caring.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union moves far more quickly than Chabon’s masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but it builds upon Chabon’s goals for his writing. Namely, he manages to infuse an actual story with brilliant prose and three-dimensional characters. The book makes heavy use of the Yiddish language, as well as its accompanying Jewish culture, and every one of its quirks are put to fine comedic, or plot-moving use. The novel reads easily, and beautifully, and it is a kind of well-paced, well-written fiction that should be celebrated at every turn.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon
Hardcover: 432 pages
HarperCollins
Amazon

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf 3: Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s black satire, Catch-22, is widely regarded as one of the best war novels to come out of World War II. Heller’s style is impressive, displaying a near-constant string of juxtapositions and contradictions. Through these contradictions, Heller creates humor, but also creates a complexity in his characters that might not be possible otherwise. These contradictions start off humorously (“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous, and likable. In three days, no one could stand him.”), but as the book progresses, these seemingly innocuous conflicts become a matter of desperate frustration, as we view the world through the eyes of Capt. John Yossarian, the protagonist.

The title comes from an interaction between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka about getting grounded. The passage is after the break.

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: Breakfast of Champions

It is a very minor coincidence that Kurt Vonnegut should die the same week I find myself in the midst of one of his novels for the first time. Of course, it would have been nice if that novel wasn’t Breakfast of Champions. According to the back cover, the novel is Vonnegut’s seventh, and it would seem that reading at least a few of the previous six would give me a better appreciation for this novel’s events. All the same, even with the dearth of experience in Vonnegut’s novels, there was plenty of meat here.

The story is the meeting of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” These two men are Dwayne Hoover, a fabulously well-to-do Pontiac salesman in the fictional Midland City; and Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer from New York City. Trout, a recurring character throughout Vonnegut’s novels, is invited to be a speaker at an arts festival in Midland City. Meanwhile, Dwayne Hoover’s got “bad chemicals”, and appears to be going insane.

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: The Final Solution

In the on-going effort to add more material to the Curious Mechanism, we’re presenting a review. We’ll do stories from an era, of anything length (and, potentially, written in several languages), and we’ll publish our two cents upon them whenever we’ve read them. Hopefully, the bookshelf will get another addition every week or so, but if we get around to reading Les Miserables (1779 pages), War and Peace (1500 pages), or In Search of Lost Time (a mere 1.5 million words) you’ll forgive us if we need more than 7 days. Actually, if we read that last one, we’ll probably just review the sections as we go along.

Furthermore, if you have any suggestions for books that we simply must read, either email us or leave a comment. We’ve got a really sweet Amazon account that’s just itching for more use, and genuine love for all kinds of fiction, and most kinds of non-fiction (though the over-wrought, over-long biography is a point of frustration, that kind of thing can always be passed of on Mrs Thursday). Though, if you recommend us anything written in another language, we ask that you provide your favorite translation. We’ve got some knowledge of other languages, but we’re not about to pick up Dutch just because you think we should read Soren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Though, seriously, anyone who recommends something like that is probably a sadomasochistic jerk. Have you read that? It’s insane. Remarkable, but, come on. Like you want us to start writing about dialectics here. Do you know how much philosophy the people responsible for this blog have read? Really. Recommend to us fiction and history books. Please. Be kind.

After the break, our first book, Michael Chabon’s detective story, The Final Solution. Yes, it’s 2 years old, and yes, it’s only 131 pages, but we’re easing into this thing.

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