Books of July 2017

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays - David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has an unbelievable knack for making the mundane interesting and distilling deep insight from the obvious, and the best analogy I can think of that captures the experience of reading this brilliant collection of essays is watching a good magician's slight of hand. At some point in every essay, there is a "wow" moment, a moment always preceded by a period of confusion when it seems like he is just rambling about a particular subject. To be fair, it is a very interesting and eloquent type of rambling, but there doesn't seem to be a purpose until the "wow" moment, when in a few sentences he explains the point and you just have to put the book down and admire his brilliance. That is what makes these essays so good- like a skilled magician's sleight of hand, when you see it you can't help but "ooh" and "aah" in appreciation. In "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," DFW writes a scathing review of tennis player Tracy Austin's autobiography and sports autobiographies in general that eventually reveals itself to really be about the difference between the perception of talent and divinity and the actual possession of it.

I imagine most people probably know what they're getting into when they ask DFW to review something- ask for a review of a sports biography, get a moving soliloquy on the nature of skill and talent; ask for a review of a book on American language usage, get an exposition of the different camps of American lexicography; ask for a short story on McCain's campaign trail, get a full magazine length article on the realities of modern politics- but I imagine some poor bastard who commissions a piece only knowing DFW is a famous writer and gets an examination of the morality and ethics behind boiling animals for consumption when he just wanted to know if the lobster rolls were good.

My favorite essays were two of the longer pieces in the collection, "Authority and American Usage" on American lexicography and "Up, Simba" on McCain. I found them especially insightful and the wow moments especially wow-y. "Authority and American Usage" is nominally a review of Brian Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage, a usage dictionary for English, but in actuality is a more general discussion of American lexicography as a whole used as a medium to discuss the relationship between authority and democracy and between authority and Authority (see what I mean about the sleight of hand?).

"Up, Simba" is the original, unshortened essay he wrote for The Rolling Stones about the week he spent on McCain's campaign trail, when McCain and Bush were both running negative campaign ads. During that week, Donna Duren, a parent of a young supporter of McCain, asks about push-polling and aggressive campaigning in a public Q&A. The essay is not so much about McCain the person, but rather about McCain the candidate and the excitement he generated, and what that shows about marketing and advertising in politics and the millennial attitude towards politics. I have never read or heard anything by anyone so eloquently sum up the malaise and apathy, the boredom and disgust millennials feel towards politics and politicians. I admire it so much I'm not going to butcher it by even trying to paraphrase it, and instead just quote a representative passage:

"Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit."

He writes very eloquently, drawing from an impressively large vocabulary. I wrote down all the words I didn't know while I was reading Consider the Lobster and I ended up with something resembling an SAT vocabulary list. He is clearly a master of language, but he never uses his vocabulary condescendingly or intentionally obscure his points in difficult-to-understand academic English (in fact he criticizes what he calls SNOOTS in "Authority and American Usage"), opting mostly for a more casual, conversational style. You can really get a sense of his style from the fantastic opening of "Authority and American Usage":

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near Lewinskian scale? 
____(more rhetorical questions about US dialects)___
Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

Essays that I particularly liked were:

  • Authority and American Usage
  • How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart
  • Up, Simba
  • Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the recollection of some haunting childhood memories by this guy who returns home and begins to remember things long forgotten. It is pretty classic Gaiman, with strong elements of fantasy intertwined with reality written in a mythical, almost dreamy style. 

Just like Coraline, another dark fantasy novella by Gaiman, the book is a little nightmarish at times, and the antagonist is seriously scary (I still remember the button for eyes in Coraline). But seen through the lens of the young protagonist's childhood innocence, it becomes easier to appreciate and accept the supernatural characters and events, making the experience of reading the book feel like remembering a bad dream. 

It's not really anything groundbreaking or special, but it was a pretty enjoyable and engrossing read.

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America - Michael Ruhlman

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America is a surprisingly detailed look into grocery stores in America. There is a little bit on the history of grocery stores, but the book mainly focuses on how grocery stores are organized and why, where produce and new products come from, how grocery stores are managed and run behind the scenes, and most importantly, how grocery stores affect us and how we in turn affect grocery stores. Ruhlman puts special emphasis on middle sized grocery stores because they have an especially strong relationship with the everyday consumer- their size means they are more likely to explore and innovate because they have the dexterity, capital, and greater sensitivity to consumer needs, but are also more likely to be able to influence national trends, affecting what we buy and see in grocery stores of all sizes.

He also includes in the middle chapters a digression into the health aspect of grocery stores. I liked the portion discussing the growing interest and investment into health related products (health supplements, superfoods, the kombucha craze, etc.) at many grocery stores, but I could've done without the rant on the healthiness of the foods we eat. I didn't find it very relevant to the book, and wasn't that interested in what has already been covered by mountains of literature. 

Besides the holier-than-thou rant on nutrition, the book is really insightful and packed with interesting detail. I really liked the chapters on where the food we see in stores come from or who grows the produce and raises the animals for meat. We have an amazing abundance of food available all the time that we (or I, at least) never really think about, so it's cool to learn about where produce, meats, vegetables, and fruit are actually sourced, and how stores cycle through seasons and countries to always get fresh produce. I also found interesting the scale at which grocery stores operate- there are massive amounts of food bought and sold at razor thin margins in grocery stores everyday, and the stores are chaotic to manage and operate. He ends the book with the prediction that grocery stores of the future will be smaller specialty stores, because as Amazon continues to grow, they cannot compete with the economies of scale and will always lose out on convenience and price. I see a similar trend nowadays in bookstores. It is tough to justify buying a book in a bookstore when Amazon offers the same book for much cheaper, so bookstores now try to compete by filling a niche via specialty book stores, or offering supplementary experiences that big online stores offering only cheaper prices don't have.

It is obvious that he loves food and grocery stores (enough to enjoy being a bagger for a month), which really comes through and helps make the book more interesting. He also did some pretty cool field research for the book, like trekking through a field looking for lambs to visit the source of Lava Lakes lamb. He does have a tendency to repeat himself a lot, and the book doesn't seem to be organized around any central thesis except for "things related to the grocery store," but it certainly is a good educational read.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry - Fredrik Bachman

This is the second book by Fredrik Bachman that I've read so far (the first A Man Called Ove). My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is a very similar book, with a similar story, setup, characters, and style, but falls a bit short and isn't quite as good. I really liked the idea behind both books (curmudgeonly old man with a sad backstory or a headstrong little girl in an apartment with quirky characters- both pretty solid premises) but the execution was weaker and the characters were not as interesting. I loved most in A Man Called Ove its heartwarming character development and satisfying twists and resolutions, but I didn't get the same sense of gratification with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry.

That being said, A Man Called Ove is a damn good book, so it's a tough comparison, and if you liked that book you'll definitely like this one. Elsa, the main character of the book, is a 7 year old precocious girl whose only friend is her grandmother, and they share a land of fairytales called the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas. When she passes away, Elsa is sent on a quest by her grandmother to deliver apologies in the form of letters to the various residents in the building she lives in. The setup is kind of obvious as it is with A Man Called Ove- there are parallels between her apartment and its residents and the world of fairy tales that they invent, and as she delivers the letters, Elsa learns her grandmother's history and befriends the various residents. Smart, sassy, and obsessed with Wikipedia, Elsa is in her own way just as lovable as the grumpy old Ove. 

A complaint I read from Goodreads before starting the book was that the fairytales told in the beginning are a little confusing until they are reintroduced and tied in later in the book. I also had to go back a few times to reread some of the early stories, but I didn't think find it too bad (maybe because I was forewarned?).

I liked the book (especially Elsa), but some of the twists were pretty obvious, and while the characters were sympathetic, I just didn't cheer for them the way I did in A Man Called Ove. I I think some of it may be because the twists are already explained in the early stories, and the major reveals later on only connect how each resident relates to the characters in and the events of the stories. Still, this was a pretty good book, and if you're looking for a simple feel-good read along the lines of A Man Called Ove, this is a pretty decent choice.

Beartown - Fredrik Backman

Beartown takes place in the eponymous hockey town, a small town with a failing economy and a dying community. Isolated and forgotten in the cold woods, the town's only hopes for revitalization rest on the shoulders of its junior hockey team, a bunch of teenagers carrying the heavy burden of a town's future into the nationals. Beartown is a huge departure from Backman's typical, feel-good works, and far from his whimsical style and gratifying novels, Beartown is dark, heavy, and deeply profound. I love reading books different from an author's typical work, and I think a mark of a good author is the ability to tackle many different genres. Backman does this admirably in his new work- Beartown is painfully good. 

Backman is fantastic at building suspense and setting up situations, but done in his other books for the eventual satisfying resolutions, he applies his skill in Beartown very differently. The brutal parts of this book are absolutely glacial- you see them coming from a mile away and he is generous with the foreshadowing, but it comes so slowly and with such delicious tension that it is almost hard to read on. Waiting for the bad shit to happen almost feels like being a passenger on the Titanic watching the approaching iceberg. 

But like his other books, the strength of his books is in his characters. Backman always introduces a great cast of characters, people that are complex but relatable, flawed but sympathetic, and Beartown in particular has a wide spectrum of characters diverse in background and personality. New characters are introduced constantly, but they are interesting and different enough from each other that it is never difficult to keep track, and the characters never felt like a tick on a checklist. Each character offers a unique voice and perspective that enriched the novel, endowing it with both a subtle realism and a magical quality that draws you into the story and makes it painfully real.

Despite its name and cover, the book is not about hockey and not about the town. It is ultimately about the individual people, and the struggles they face and the choices they make that determine who they are, what they want to be, and what kind of community they build around and for each other. Backman brings to life their hopes and dreams, frustrations and difficulties, adults and teens alike, and I felt deeply and painfully the crosses they bear. 

Beartown is not a light, happy book- it grapples with some difficult, heavy themes, but despite itself there are still beautiful examples of forgiveness and courage. These glimmers of hope are appreciated even more in the backdrop of immense injustice and suffering, and whatever it is: pain, respect, sympathy, passion, anger, sadness, pride, joy... you feel it all in this beautiful book.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World traces the history of cod, from its early abundance and historical/economical/political significance to its current state of endangerment from overfishing. It is another one of those really popular topical books by Kurlansky, along with Salt, Paper, etc. 

I don't really know anything about fishing or fish and I can't say I have a great passion for cod, but I did learn some interesting stuff from the book:

  • Cod was really important for travel, because it could be preserved and dried for long distance naval travel, and was very nutrient rich and dense in protein.
  • Cod was important economically for many European countries, but particularly for New England. For a time cod was the sign of economic abundance and the success of New England. Fishing and selling cod made a great deal of people very rich.
    • "Cod was creating an entrepreneurial class in Iceland, the same way it had in New England in the 1640s."
  • Cod was also tied closely into slavery in New England, because it was often sold as cheap nutrition for slaves in Central and South America. When there was a cod shortage in New England & not as much dried cod was available, many slaves tragically died from starvation. 
    • "New England society was the great champion of individual liberty and even openly denounced slavery, all the while growing ever more affluent by providing Caribbean planters with barrels of cheap food to keep enslaved people working sixteen hours a day."
    • "Regardless of how many ships actually did or did not carry slaves, or how many New England merchants did or did not buy or sell Africans, the New England merchants of the cod trade were deeply involved in slavery, not only because they supplied the plantation system but also because they facilitated the trade in Africans. In West Africa, slaves could be purchased with cured cod, and to this day there is still a West African market for salt cod and stockfish"
  • There is a great deal of thorny politics involved in fishing, particularly for European countries like England, Iceland, and Spain. England especially because fish and chips is made from cod, and it is sacrilegious to use any other whitefish. Fish and chips is also regarded as a worker's food, so as cod becomes rarer, the price goes up correspondingly which make lots of people upset.
  • Besides being political and economic, cod is also surprisingly nationalistic- instead of recognizing problems of overfishing & governmental policy, oftentimes fishermen of various countries blame each other (the English blame the French, the Americans blame the Canadians, for example)
    • "If there is anything as basic and universal to the British working class as fried fish, it is xenophobia."
  • Cod is super overfished, and in the 1800s and 1900s cod was thought to be able to weather any human interruption and the stock would never be depleted to dangerous levels. Instead, innovations such as freezing & bottom trawlers raised the demand for fish and also the ability to supply it, causing more and more cod to be fished from the sea.
    • "If ever there was a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod—the common fish. But it has among its predators man, an openmouthed species greedier than cod."
  • This requires political solutions, and Kurlansky discusses a few of them like quotas, restrictions on boat activity, etc. There are a ton of varying attitudes and perspectives on overfishing, and it is a particularly tough conversation for fishermen who rely on the sea for a living.

I also like how he closes each chapter with a cod recipe, and ends the book with a chapter of recipes from across the world. He writes in a nice casual style that makes the book easy to read and its information easily digestible. I'm not really sure what I expected, but I guess it is about as interesting as a book on cod can possibly be. 

Lily and the Octopus - Steven Rowley

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Lily and the Octopus is about a single, gay writer and his best friend, his dachshund Lily, who he speaks with regularly. Lily, unfortunately, has a tumor on her head that takes the form of an octopus, and the book is mainly about how he deals with her illness and her eventual passing (I am sorry for the spoiler, but this book is about grieving, and one of two main characters is an aging dog with a big tumor on her head- what did you expect?).

As with any work with a dog that passes away, Lily and the Octopus is very sad, and it is a profound exploration of grief. But not just any grief- this book explores the grief for a pet, the grief you feel for one wholly dependent and completely in love with you. I thought the beginning (the parts where we learn about their background and see how they live together) and the end (when he deals with her passing) were the best parts of the book. I love the interactions with Lily, and when Lily talks to Ted she speaks in all caps and exclamation marks following every word. She is super cute, and their relationship is so endearing. 

The ending was very raw and emotional, especially because of my adoration for Lily and their relationship built up over the book. I also like how he explores and reflects on their relationship in the later chapters, acknowledging how he loves Lily but also used her as a way to escape from the difficult things in his life (something he dubs enclosed-world syndrome). 

There  is a good bit of magical realism in the middle, a type of writing I'm not a big fan of, and I don't think it worked very well here. I thought it was a little confusing and out of place, and the book would've been just as good without it. But barring that, the rest of story was great, and I think it is a wonderful expression of love, longing and letting go of our best friends of the canine persuasion.

Some quotes I liked:

  • On LA:
    "Fucking L.A. Professional dog walker. Is that a thing? Are most dog walkers maintaining their amateur status to compete in the Dog Walking Olympics?"
  • Lily on eating the remains of Thanksgiving turkey:
    "PUNISH! ME! IF! YOU! MUST! BUT! IT! WAS! WORTH! IT!"
  • On forgiveness and new opportunities:
    "Because dogs let go of all of their anger daily, hourly, and never let it fester. They absolve and forgive with each passing minute. Every turn of a corner is the opportunity for a clean slate. Every bounce of a ball brings joy and the promise of a fresh chase."
  • On grieving in dog time:
    "ONE! MONTH! IS! LONG! ENOUGH! TO! BE! SAD! I want to argue with Lily—one month is not long enough. But in dog months that’s seven months, over two hundred days. But none of it matters; to her even one day of my sadness was one day too many."

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an account of Oscar De Leon's life, a fat, lonely, nerdy Dominican American obsessed with science fiction and fantasy (what he calls the more speculative genres) and falling in love. The middle sections of the novel interposes Oscar's life with stories of his sister, Lola, who struggles with her headstrong mother, his mother, Belicia, and her childhood growing up as an orphan in the Dominican Republic, and his grandfather Abelard, imprisoned unfairly under the Trujillo regime, a family plagued by the fuku curse.

The book is a bit of a sprawl, and it is messy in the sense that there is a lot of stuff going on, but I think that is part of the charm of the book and representative of the diverse Diaspora that Diaz is writing about. Drawing from many sources and switching between different voices, Diaz freely blends Academic English, Spanglish, slang, superstition, and nerdy references (sci-fi, high fantasy, animation, etc.), creating this wonderfully alive story with a really unique voice. Each character speaks very differently, and phrases like "I do not move so precipitously" sit side by side with descriptions like "Beli might have been a puta major in the cosmology of her neighbors but a cuero she was not." 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is often described as magical realism, a genre I'm not usually much into, but I think it works very well in this book as family and cultural folklore. The supernatural elements are described very mundanely, imbuing the story with a mysticism and magical power but in an understated way that emphasizes its ubiquity in Dominican culture. For example, "it was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond," and descriptions of the godly mongoose who save Beli and Oscar's life are preceded by a disclaimer on the accuracy of the vision of the mongoose. 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a fantastic multi-generational slice of Dominican diaspora- definitely lives up to the hype.

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan

Man I thought this book was terrible, and I cannot believe there are two more books in this series. I don't hate fluffy books and I definitely don't hate comedy, but this book was just egregiously bad. I found the writing bad, the characters shallow, and the plot boring and predictable. I did not give a shit about any of the characters, and there were just far too many of them, undistinguishable in their wealth and their horrible personalities. I had to flip forward to the family tree to remember their names in the first half and just gave up in the last half. Game of Thrones is excused because of George R.R. Martin's fantastic world-building; what's Kwan's excuse? Shallow characters do not necessitate shallow writing- Joffrey is pretty 1-dimensional but everyone hates him with a passion because he is written well. The twists are also really really bad- the major surprise at the end of the book sucks, and the followup twist to that sucks even harder. Its only impressive and surprising part is how impressively and surprisingly bad it is. 

To be fair, it was a little fun to read about their excessive wealth and their profligate spending (I liked when the main character, whose name I now forget -_-, first went to her boyfriend's grandmother's fancy house), but just like any guilty pleasure, the extravagance gets old really quickly, and then you're left with a pretty subpar story populated with pretty subpar characters. You'd probably get the same level of enjoyment out of just reading the synopsis on wikipedia.

I will say though, this line is pretty funny:

Please watch over dear Sister Eleanor, Sister Lorena, Sister Daisy, and Sister Nadine, as they try to sell their Sina Land shares …

Dark Matter - Blake Crouch

Dark Matter is a sci-fi thriller about a physicist who gave up his exciting research on the many-worlds theory years ago for his family. One night he gets kidnapped and wakes up in a different world, a world where he continued his research and left his wife to pursue his career. 

I didn't really like the book and didn't manage to finish it. I thought the writing was not very good, and I found his style very jarring. I especially disliked his sentence structure- writing sentences without subjects do not automatically make your story suspenseful. The characters were also not that interesting, and a lot of their motivations & backstories were not fully fleshed out. I didn't really feel that invested in what happened to them, so it was hard for me to get interested in the "thrilling" parts of the book.

That is unfortunately pretty common in a lot of thrillers that I still end up enjoying, because they are redeemed by the plot, but I didn't find the plot line engaging either. I read about halfway then gave up and googled it to see if there was some plot development that would be worth reading on for, but found out about this trite relationship development, groaned out loud, and gave up on the book. The multiverse, or in general variations on your current reality, is a pretty oft explored concept, and I didn't think Crouch's take was particularly new or engaging. Examples of multiverse stories I thought were very strong are Gaiman's Coraline, Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and Bioshock Infinite.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a cult classic from the early 70's detailing journalist Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo's drug fueled trip to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Unfortunately, their job is repeatedly obstructed by their rampant drug abuse: on their psychedelic trip to and across Las Vegas they smoke, inject, snort, drink, consume, and inhale everything I could think of and some more (what is mescaline?). In the grips of their constant high and bizarre hallucinations, they destroy hotel rooms, wreck cars, and generally terrorize people.

Considered the finest work of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an energetic, first person perspective style of journalism that involves the author as a protagonist and closely ties in his personality. In a smooth blend of facts and fiction, there is no real consistent narrative or plot, and the book slips freely between reality and fantasy until it's hard to separate what actually happens and what their drugged up brains perceive.  

The book is famous for Thompson's vivid descriptions of egregious, outrageous drug abuse, but it is a classic of American literature today because it is a fantastic capture of the zeitgeist of the 70s, a sardonic but thoughtful rumination on the collectively felt disillusionment in the American dream and the freedom and excitement of the 60s. Through the crazy experiences of Duke and Gonzo, we see and feel the failures of the counter culture movement in its starkest opposite, Las Vegas, and the ugliness of a city of greed and excess while the duo destroy symbols of American consumerism like big hotel suites and fancy rented cars.

The preface quotes Samuel Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." Seen through this lens, the drug abuse is less about the recreational "drug" part and more to do with the "abuse" part. The abuse is intentional; they mean to destroy themselves to escape the harsh realities of American life and the decline of the American dream. 

Here is my favorite quote from the book, also illustrated in a Zenpencils comic here:

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride...and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well...maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” 

How to Set a Fire and Why - Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why features a young arsonist Lucia Stanton, who, in addition to the usual high school angst, has it especially rough. Her father died in a car crash when she was young, and in the same accident her mother now lives in a mental hospital, spending her days staring vacantly at the pond. Lucia lives with her aunt in a garage-turned-bedroom, eats only hard boiled eggs, bread, and stolen licorice for lunch everyday, has very few friends, and (claims that she) never laughs. Kicked out of school for stabbing a basketball player in the neck with a pencil in class, Lucia attends a new school where she joins the Arson Club, a group of young arsonists with 2 simple membership requirements: 1) set fire to something, 2) never tell anyone about it.

The book has a really unique narration style, combining story, diary, "predictions," and eventually a double column pamphlet named "How to Set a Fire and Why." The book is all written in first person, and the protagonist Lucia is very vivid and engaging- so much so that the best part of the book by far is Lucia. She is quirky, smart, funny, sardonic, really likeable, and really really cynical. The book is full of profane and profound observations like:

"What I mean is: the shitty little cells that cluster together to muster up in sum total the person I used to know are now clustering in some inferior way and the person I know cannot ever be found."

about her mom, or when she talks about sports with a classmate:

“One girl asked me if I was going to go out for sports, which made me spit out the apple juice I was drinking. I said that sports were part of the spectacle. She said what. I said the ruling class. She looked confused. I said otherwise people would get fed up and they couldn’t be controlled, so no. I mean, I would go for a run if it was a nice day, or definitely swim. I would do judo or something if they had that. But chase a ball? Do I look like a dog?”

Unfortunately, I think the book loses focus a little as it develops, and when I finished it I felt a bit disoriented, and wasn't really sure what the book was about. I enjoyed Lucia's sharp, funny perspective and commentary a lot, and she really is a fantastic character, but they fade away in somewhat flat accompanying story.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman 

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is the story of a modern day apocalypse. Prophesied hundreds of years ago, the capital-A Apocalypse is due to happen in a few days, but an angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley who have grown to be quite fond of each other and the world team up to do everything in their power to stop the Apocalypse. The unlikely duo are but a part of the book's wide cast of quirky characters, also including the Antichrist, a nice boy named Adam, his group of friends, a witchfinder named Newton Pulsifier, and his love interest and witch Anathema Device (whose ancestor, Agnes Nutter, wrote the book of prophecies and coincidentally was burned at stake by Newton's ancestor, Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifier). 

I really like the premise of the book, and I have always enjoyed supernatural fantasy stories of biblical proportions with heavy dose of humor and featuring very normal, relatable characters. For the same reasons, I am a big fan of Rick Riordan's work and I adore A. Lee Martinez. My favorite minor characters were the modern day Four Horsemen, War, Famine, Death, and Pollution (Pestilence retired a few decades ago because of antibiotics, apparently), updated from horses to Harley Davidsons. 

But what makes the book so phenomenal is its wacky, Douglas Adams-esque type of British humor. Some of my favorite examples are:

  • "'It’s on the street, it knows the risks it’s taking!' said Crowley, easing the accelerating car between a parked car and a taxi and leaving a space which would have barely accepted even the best credit card."
  • "It was state of the art, he said. The art in this case was probably pottery."
  • "His voice was a dark echo from the night places, a cold slab of sound, gray, and dead. If that voice was a stone it would have had words chiseled on it a long time ago: a name, and two dates."
  • "Archimedes said that with a long enough lever and a solid enough place to stand, he could move the world. He could have stood on Mr. Young."
  • "What was going to happen soon would make barbarism look like a picnic—hot, nasty, and eventually given over to the ants."

I liked all the characters, but it gets hard to keep track of all of them, and there are a lot of subplots, flashbacks, and backstories to read through. It makes the story a bit slow especially in the middle when there are a lot of different threads to follow, but this is a small transgression because all these stories come together very nicely in the end when they all gather for the final hours of the Apocalyse. 

Hidden behind all the funny and exciting bits, Pratchett and Gaiman managed to sneak some pretty profound messages (as is always the case in the best books of this genre). I can't say too much without too many spoilers, but in the end Adam makes an important decision and makes a profound speech on ineffability, on making choices, and on human morality in between the forces of absolute good and absolute evil.

Kekkaishi - Yellow Tanabe

According to legend, 500 years ago, there was a lord whose mysterious power drew ayakashi (demons) to his land. To protect his land Karasumori and his castle, the lord hired Kekkaishi Hazama Tokimori, but when the lord died, his powers remained on the land, sealed by Hazama. To protect the land in the future, he created the Sumimura and Yukimura families to inherit the Hazama-ryu style kekkaishi he invented, and in present day the legitimate successors Yoshimori and Tokine guard Karasumori from ayakashi that still intrude nightly. 

Kekkaishi is illustrated and drawn by Yellow Tanabe (a brief sidenote: isn't it interesting that two of the best shonen, a genre typically catering to a male audience, are both drawn by female mangaka? Full Metal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa is GOAT). But while FMA is critically acclaimed and has a fantastic anime adaption, Kekkaishi is a criminally underrated shonen. 

Many shonens suffer from a condition known colloquially as "ass-pulls." Bleach is especially egregious; none of the abilities actually make any sense and people pull stuff out of their ass all. the. time. Abilities have to make sense; there has to be some kind of logic that allows for suspense of realism. Despite the impossibility of creating a new energy source in a cave, we can accept that Ironman flies around in a superpowered suit, because in the framework of the story the dubious compliance with the laws of physics are ok. 

A similar offense is the power creep. While training arcs are an important component of shonen, and being able to watch the MC grow and develop is very satisfying, there has to be reasonable jumps in ability. There should be significant divergence in skill from start to end, but it has to progress logically and reasonably. TOG does this really well; there are always characters stronger than the MC, the power limit doesn't keep on shifting, and there are dedicated arcs where the MC receives sensible powerups. An example of doing this badly is freaking Naruto, where in the beginning they throw shruikens and at the end they throw literally meteors at each other, or Bleach where in the beginning they hit each other with swords and in the end rewrite the past, present, and future (talk about an ass-pull...).

One approach is to do it the DBZ way and just make everything ridiculous, until eventually they become literal gods and can destroy planets easily (shifting the power limit...). This works because it's DBZ and it's supposed to be a little ridiculous, but I think a better and more suitable approach for most mangas is something similar to what Kekkaishi does. Characters don't suddenly and inexplicably get stronger; their source of power is preplanned and sensible, and there is a good gradient (strong people remain strong and don't suddenly become irrelevant as stronger people pop up randomly). Some characters are definitely stronger than others, which is key to development and struggle that make shonens so satisfying. It is generally no fun to see the MC stomp everyone all the time (sole exception: Onepunch man).

This is related to good world building, because characters and storylines that are planned well go hand in hand with a logical framework for abilities. The plot in Kekkaishi flows well, and there are no jarring arcs that don't seem to fit into the main progression of the story. In Bleach, what the hell are Fullbringers, and where did they come from? In Naruto, who the hell is Kaguya and from what ass was she pulled from?  On the other hand, Kekkaishi unfolds with intent, and each arc contributes towards the tension and resolution of the final arc. Just like in FMA, the MC has a big goal to accomplish, and the story is always moving towards that goal. Obviously this is easier the shorter the story is, because the story tends to be more cohesive when it is shorter and better planned (see again: FMA), but it is possible in longer mangas too (see: One Piece). 

Characters are also important in a shonen, and especially character design, because there tend to be many characters and villains, so it becomes hard to be invested in the new characters that get introduced with every arc. But antagonists in Kekkaishi are more than the villain archetype- they aren't just evil because they're evil. Many have complex backstories, and all the characters have different motivations and reasons for their actions. This is especially true for Yoshimori and Tokine, the MCs, because as the story progresses, besides growing in strength and abilities they grow in character. Even minor characters get decent exposition, so you actually care about what happens to most of the characters. 

But the most admirable part of Kekkaishi is what sets good shounen apart from great shonen. Yellow Tanabe tries to convey a message in the story, and there is actual meaning beyond the "Wow! Kill stuff!" parts so characteristic of a shonen. Kekkaishi explores the relationship between power and arrogance, and the possibility of destructive human folly but also great virtue.

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow is the 30 year saga of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, put under house arrest in the Metropol hotel in Moscow in a time of great change and activity in Russia. An ex aristocrat but a permanent gentleman, Count Rostov forms warm relationships with staff and guests, deals with unexpected twists of fate, and otherwise masters his circumstances, persevering despite his lifelong imprisonment as a "Former Person" in the rise of the Soviet Union.

It is a beautiful book compelling told by Towles, and reading it feels like eating a lovely piece of rich chocolate cake. The strength of the book is not in its plot, but rather in its exquisite detail and amazing characters. The major focus of the book is on the small things that happen at the hotel, and the people that the Count meet and form relationships with. There isn't much substance to the plot, and it's hard to explain without it sounding boring (Count Rostov gets a haircut. Count Rostov eats dinner at the Boyarsky.), but the book unfolds wonderfully and remains super engrossing because Towles' writing is fantastic and you love the characters. I adored all of them: the chef Emile, the seamstress Marina, the maitre d Andrey, the girls Sofia and Nina, the actress Anna, and especially Count Rostov.

Count Rostov is the quintessential gentleman: well-spoken, polite, knowledgeable, determined, classy, and an expert in wine, food, music, literature, and etiquette alike, but instead of the obnoxiousness so endemic to many depictions of "gentlemen," there is an elegant style and thoughtfulness to him. You can't help but appreciate the kind of man who, on a "walk of shame," describes his late night return to his room with a comparison to Hamlet:

Like Hamlet’s father roaming the ramparts of Elsinore after the midnight watch . . . Or like Akaky Akakievich, that forsaken spirit of Gogol’s who in the wee hours haunted the Kalinkin Bridge in search of his stolen coat . . .

a red wine poorly matched with a stew as:

The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy.

and first impressions as:

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

That is beautiful. However, what is most respectable and admirable about Count Rostov is not his class or his eloquence- it is his attitude towards people and life, freely giving in his relationships and freely accepting of the hardships in life. He lives his life by the belief that "adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances than he is bound to be mastered by them," so treats every person with humility and respect and faces any tribulation with an indomitable spirit and good cheer. One might expect a perpetual imprisonment in a hotel a downer, but Count Rostov embraces his situation with a joie de vivre and optimism that permeates the book. 

In A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles creates an entire world in a tiny hotel, and it was a genuine pleasure to get to know the characters and appreciate the world of Count Alexander Rostov.