Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Five Brisk Reviews

Book: Gilead, by Marianne Robinson.
Source: I picked it up because I read somewhere that it was good.
Findings: In the form of a long letter from an older father to his son, Gilead is an incredibly graceful and evocative look into (a) small town life, (b) the mid 20th Century in the United States, (c) American religious life, and (d) the human experience in general. It tells the story of a life of no more than the average level of drama and event, yet is quietly riveting. The spare, elegant writing style reminded me of Housekeeping, a book that I read for the Reading List project last year, yet I managed to be surprised anyway when I realized that two books are by the same writer. Where Housekeeping spoke in very spare language of momentous events in the narrator's biography, Gilead invests great emotional weight in the everyday. It is quite lovely.

Book: Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake
Source: Karmasartre recommended it after I reviewed Sprawling Fantasy Epics a few months back.
Findings: The first book of the Gormanghast trilogy, Titus Groan is a coming-of-age fantasy novel as Edward Gorey might have written one. The book is populated by grotesque, parodical figures fulfilling their ceremonial roles in a vast, decadent provincial castle. Unlike the many fantasy tales where the point-of-view character is by definition good and his or her enemies evil, Titus Groan treats us to a world where no one really has much to recommend them in the way of moral fiber, and the most intelligent and dynamic member of the cast is also spectacularly self-serving. Written in the 1940s, this book can be read as a critique of both the blandness and blindness of traditional authority and of the limitations and hypocracies of anti-authoritarian movements. Or, it can just be enjoyed as a darkly funny imagined universe, beautifully realized outside of some long descriptive digressions that veer towards the purple. Either way, I'll definitely be back for the second installment.

Game: Purgatory
Source: MyDogIsChelsea told me to buy it so her friend, who designed it, could keep his patent rights or something.
Findings: An attractive, entertaining, and nicely designed trick-taking card game played by two teams of two, Purgatory is similar to Hearts in terms of its gameplay, and likely to appeal to people who like the more common game. The deck has three suits (green, purple, and blue) with numbers 1 - 13, "devil" cards that carry a penalty (a bit like hearts in Hearts), and "angel" cards that work a bit like a permanent trump suit. The most innovative twist in the game is that the three six cards are particularly significant; making a mid-value card more important than high or low cards challenges a player to come up with new trump-taking strategies. Mrs.5000 and I got our butts handed to us on our initial outting with the game, but had fun just the same.

Rock Album: The Thermals, Now We Can See
Source: I would have got to it eventually anyway, but d alerted me to its release.
Findings: The Thermals are The Rose City's other band of brainiacs, less overtly theatrical and bookish than the Decemberists and considerably rougher and more noisy. But listen through the punk-flavored guitar attack, and you'll discover songwriting that is intelligent, clever, and pointed. This new album continues their general direction towards an increasingly spare lo-fi rock minimalism, and teaches us again that just because a guitar power trio is rocking the hell out doesn't mean that they don't have anything interesting to say.

Book: Data Flow: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design
Source: I think I saw this one on bioephemera, maybe?
Findings: Graphical presentation of information is incredibly important to clear thinking. The ubiquity of Microsoft Office products, the graphical capabilities of which are bizarrely rigid and underdeveloped, has been disastrous to information visualization, so I was excited to see a text that could counterbalance the brilliant but idiosyncratic and unsystematic work of Edward Tufte in this field. Sadly, Data Flow is mostly a portfolio of truly awful graphic design that does more to obscure than convey information. With only a few exceptions -- notably, Jessica Hagy's droll hand-drawn graphical cartoons -- the work in this book abuses the capabilities of computer graphics to create images that are garish, busy, opaque, and often obnoxiously smug in their own cleverness. The ghost of the jagged, sloppy wave of early '90s graphic design infuses this work, so much so that I double-checked to make sure that this was really a new book. Depressingly, it is.


Elaine said...

I am always UP for a good addition to my reading list! Marilynne Robinson, here I come.
In repayment, J. Fforde (Welsh) is my "new" discovery, thanks to a friend. The first book has _Eyre_ in the title, but I am too lazy to run downstairs to check exactly. Normally I do not go for futuristic/sci fi/fantasy, but this is so cleverly wrapped in tood writing with classic novel tie-ins that I am loving it and planning to work my way through all of his books in order.

Jennifer said...

Elaine--you're thinking of The Eyre Affair. :-)

Michael5000 said...

She is. It's on the Reading List!

Jenners said...

I love your brisk reviews and what a wide variety of products you covered! Cool!

Elaine said...

Tood writing? good Lord. I missed the G. Did I mention my A in soph HS yr in typing? I made a mint on college and grad school papers by offering to spell everything correctly for an extra 15 cents/page. Everyone won.....

Yes, The Eyre Affair....enjoying it so much! Next one in the queue is already packed for the trip!

DrSchnell said...

Just finished "The Eyre Affair" and was highly entertained....

Laura said...

I am so morbidly behind in my blog reading it's embarrassing. But yesterday, after a round of Purgatory at lunch, I had a vague memory of a Gmail chat in which you mentioned a review... and, why, yes, here it is!! I hope you've since learned how to not get your ass handed to you.