Toni Erdmann.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now!

The German film Toni Erdmann (amazoniTunes) was critically acclaimed all over Europe and here when it first appeared last year, winning the German equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture and earning a nomination here for Best Foreign Language Film (which it lost to The Salesman). The 165-minute movie has been widely described as a comedy, but it is anything but. It is a truly unpleasant movie to watch, an extended, pointless exercise in misanthropy and the humiliation of its characters.

Winifred is a divorced and apparently retired German man, probably around 70, who appears to be unable to stop himself from playing juvenile pranks on people, most of which involve the use of a set of false teeth. His daughter, Ines, is an ambitious, hard-working management consultant who is working in Bucharest on a difficult project involving a Romanian oil company. Winifred tries to connect with her for some quality time, showing up in Bucharest unannounced for a weekend, but the effort fails as she prioritizes work over her father. As a result, he decides to play a huge prank, posing as Toni Erdmann, a life coach to the oil company’s CEO, with an utterly ridiculous shaggy wig of black hair and those same false teeth. Every plot description says he’s doing this to spend time near his daughter, but I think he does it because he’s a giant asshole who doesn’t care what damage he does to anyone else as long as he gets a laugh.

I said as long as he gets a laugh, because we don’t. This movie isn’t funny, and I don’t think the script was trying to be funny most of the time. I suppose the brunch scene at the end may have been intended as humor, but it is so unrealistic that it doesn’t even get the cringe comic effect of the excruciatingly awkward. If Toni Erdmann had some charisma – say, as a platitude-spouting new age thinker, or a parody of the consultant who borrows your watch to tell you the time – he could have been hilarious. Instead, he’s just constantly in the way, and the script is totally unable to achieve the comic effect of the bumbler or the walking satire.

It doesn’t help that neither Winifred (outside of Toni) nor Ines is a particularly sympathetic character. We’re almost forced to believe that Winifred misses his daughter, but without any context for their past relationship, it’s hard to imagine why she’d suddenly want to be closer to him when he’s still unapproachable. Ines’ character is written as the woman who has to work twice as hard as the men around her to get the same respect, and has the awful habit of deferring to men in meetings even when they’ve disagreed with her or even undercut her points, but the script gives us nothing to hang on to in support of her character – no evidence of inner strength, or even something to explain her sheer competence, some reason to root for her against the dimwits and chauvinists around her.

(I also felt that the look of Ines, played by Sandra Hüller, didn’t work. Here’s a character who, again, we’re supposed to accept as a strong, hard-working, sharp woman in a male-dominated workplace. Yet she’s almost sickly looking at times – her hair, makeup, even her clothing all work against the character, and Hüller being so pale unfortunately plays into it as well. It was a chance to reveal something more about Ines by exaggerating her physical appearance. Perhaps this is a woman unconcerned with her appearance, but that would contradict a scene near the end where she seems overly concerned with it instead.)

So much of this movie just does not work on screen, in ways it’s hard to fathom would have worked on the page. What begins as an unconvincing sex scene between Ines and the coworker she’s sleeping with turns into an utterly gross non-joke, as if she’s playing a bizarre prank on her partner (who may have had it coming – but I liked almost no one in this movie anyway). Somehow Ines and Winifred end up at a Romanian family’s Easter dinner, where Winifred volunteers Ines to sing a song, which she does, and then runs off, after which the whole event is simply forgotten by all participants. At one point, a few of the characters, including Ines, do lines of coke, which seems completely out of character for her given everything that came before. And the brunch scene … well, without spoiling it, I’ll just say the whole thing was so preposterous I couldn’t buy into any aspect of it.

I tend to think that English-language remakes of foreign films always lose something from the original. But with word coming that there’s an American version of Toni Erdmann in the works starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig, I wonder if it could be any worse than the German film; if nothing else, it will at least be shorter, as there’s no way they could expect American audiences to endure nearly three hours of this. And Wiig is truly too funny for the original script. I can only hope they rework it from scratch and see if there’s actually something good to be found in this premise.

The 13th.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, available for free on Netflix, aims high, trying to tell the history of mass incarceration in the United States while tying it inextricably to the history of the oppression of African-Americans post-slavery. DuVernay assembles a formidable group of pundits, activists, and politicians – not all black, and not all from the left – to examine the arc of American prison culture over 150 years through an narrator-less stream of commentary. It is almost guaranteed to disturb anyone who sees our racial divide for what it is, in social and economic terms. It is also an infinite loop of anecdotal fallacies, so light on hard evidence to support any of its many assertions that it is unlikely to convince the unconvinced of anything at all.

The 13th traces the history of the subjugation of the African-American in the United States from the passage of the 13th Amendment (hence the title) through the present day’s Black Lives Matter movements and the overt dog-whistling of President Trump while on the campaign trail. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery but left a glaring exception within its text:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Did you know that “except” clause was there? I couldn’t have told you that if you’d asked me three days ago what the 13th Amendment said or did; I thought it ended slavery, full stop. What ensued set the stage for the modern era of mass incarceration, according to the various historians and pundits we see in The 13th: The southern economic engine ran on free black labor before the Civil War, so after it, blacks were arrested on trivial spurious charges, imprisoned, and then put to work to keep the engine running. White authorities used jail as a way to quell civil rights movements as well as a source of free or cheap workers, imprisoning nearly all of the major civil rights leaders at some point during the 1950s and 1960s, a practice the film implies ended with the acquittal of activist Angela Davis – a scene I’ll return to in a moment – only to have the system roll back over again on itself with a new tactic. “Tough on crime” politics gave authorities new reasons to lock up African-Americans, especially men, for longer periods of time even on lesser charges. Sentences for possession or distribution of crack were longer than those for equivalent quantities of powdered cocaine. Multiple levels of government enacted mandatory minimums and three-strikes sentencing rules. Many people were locked up simply for their inability to pay fines or post bail, something John Oliver covered well two years ago on Last Week Tonight. Prisons were privatized, and firms like CCA are now paid based on prison populations, so they have every incentive to keep jails full. The film asserts that all of these factors contribute to the ongoing high rates of incarceration for African-Americans relative to white Americans. You’re about six times more likely to spend time in jail in your life if you’re a black man than a white man.

It’s easy to sit here in 2017 and handwave away much of the black-and-white footage in the film as relics of our racist past, but much of what the film covers from Reagan forward should really get your attention. The War on Drugs could easily take up this entire film for its effects on people of color, our system of mass incarceration, and the colossal waste of public funds for little to no public benefit. Decriminalizing possession works in many ways, including reducing usage. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2000, adopted a recovery-centric approach to helping addicts, and has seen drug use fall while HIV infection rates stayed stable. The Netherlands decriminalized in 1976 and they have so many empty prison cells they’re using them to help house migrants. I thought The 13th could have gone even farther down this road, talking not just about what imprisoning African-Americans on minor drug offenses does to the community (and how it provides free prison labor and supports an entire industry of firms that contract with prisons to provide goods and services, including Aramark), but looking at violence related strictly to the War on Drugs and the effect that has on people of color.

As for Angela Davis, who appears many times on screen to discuss the issue at hand, the movie totally whiffs on her own backstory. The film never explains why she was on trial in the first place, implying that it was a politically-motivated charge to silence her, praising her for dominating the proceedings with her defense, and claiming that the state wanted to give her the death penalty. Davis was actually charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy related to the Marin County courthouse incident, where an armed 17-year-old tried to free his brother and two other men, who were charged with killing a prison guard – it’s a complicated story, so I encourage you to read those links. The assailant used guns purchased by Davis two days prior to the attack. The charges may indeed have been trumped up for political reasons. She was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List while she was on the run, which also seems like it was a political move. And I don’t see how she could even have been charged with anything but conspiracy if she wasn’t even present at the crime. But the film mentions none of this, and it’s pretty damn relevant to that entire sequence. The prosecution of Davis may have had a political motivation, but she wasn’t arrested without cause, either.

That’s a single example of a maddening problem with The 13th: It’s 90% opinion and 10% fact. Do I believe there’s a pyramid of firms profiting off our system of throwing people in jail for nonviolent offenses? Absolutely. But give us some data on that – how many people are locked up for these crimes? How many days or years are lost? Who’s paying for that imprisonment, and how much? In jurisdictions with lighter sentencing, do we see positive effects? Mandatory minimums vary by state; how have states that rolled back these laws fared? How about third-strike laws, which only exist in 28 states? These are subjects of real academic research, but instead of giving us data, or scholars discussing their work, we get circular reasoning, solipsistic assertions, and appeals to emotion. In fact, I thought the most fascinating commentary came from one of the film’s few non-African Americans to speak: Newt Gingrich, who offered thoughtful, intelligent remarks on the failures of the 1980s and 1990s efforts to get “tough on crime” and of the imbalanced sentencing laws on crack and cocaine.

The 13th has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary feature along with Life, Animated; Fire at Sea; I Am Not Your Negro; and ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America. While it has sort of the political angle the Academy tends to favor in voting, it’s so full of rhetoric without evidence that I couldn’t possibly consider it over O.J., even before considering the latter’s length and vast scope. This is more of a call to action to the faithful than the film to send your “All Lives Matter!” friend to get him to realize he’s being ridiculous. (Better to unfriend him anyway.) It’s a demand for change, but to convince enough people to push the change through in the face of enemies with enormous economic incentives to support the status quo, we’ll need a lot more than The 13th provides us.

Le Havre the Inland Port app.

The new app version of Le Havre: The Inland Port (for iOS) – itself a two-player adaptation of the highly complex strategy game Le Havre – is a beautiful port of a boring game. That’s probably enough to keep most of you from reading a long review, so here’s a short one instead. (And if you’re looking for a good new two-player game, try 7 Wonders Duel instead.)

The boardgame version of Le Havre The Inland Port takes the theme of the original game and creates a much simpler two-player experience, where a stream of buildings, advancing in cost and productivity/value, comes up for sale in the central market, and players must balance gaining resources from buildings that they’ve already built (you can use yours or an opponent’s, paying one coin for the latter) against buying new buildings to add victory points and go for two game-end bonuses. The buildings are the same in every game and even the order in which they appear for sale doesn’t vary much at all.

Resource production/acquisition is the strangest part of the game, a peculiar mechanic that seems to be peculiar for its own sake. You don’t just get, say, 2 wood or 1 bread, but you move your four resource tokens (wood, coal, bread, fish) on a numbered array, going up a row (plus 3), right one space (plus one), up and to the left diagonally (plus 2), and rarely up and to the right diagonally (plus 4). When you spend resources, you can spend in combinations of 1, 3, and 4, which means sometimes you have to pay an extra unit or two, for no reason other than that’s how the game was designed.

Most buildings bring you new resources, showing an arrow in one resource’s color, with the arrow telling you in which direction to move. When you buy a building, it goes in the zero column of the main board, and each “day” of the game that you don’t use it, it moves one column to the right, with the columns numbered 2, 3, 4, and 4+. The number tells you how many times you can invoke the building’s capability – for example, if the building with the brown arrow pointing to the right is on the 3 column, you can use it, moving your wood (brown) token three spaces to the right, then returning the building to column 0. The + symbol in the last column gives you one coin in addition to the building’s regular function, and if you don’t use that building before the end of the current day, it’s sold back to the bank for half the face value (which you get).

There are five special buildings that can award bonuses at game-end. There’s one “anchor” building for each resource that gives you one point per unit of that resource that you have on hand when the game is over. A fifth building, the dock, costs 7 coins to build (but no resources), and gives you ten points for each of those other four anchor buildings.

Because turn order is determined from the start, the player who goes second will get the first shot to buy the Dock when it appears on Day 12, the last Day of the game. So if s/he plans properly, s/he gets an automatic ten-point bonus – the dock plus one of the two anchor buildings that show up in day 12. (The other two appear in day 11.) That gives the game a deterministic feel, and I found after two or three plays I felt like this guy:

As for the app itself, it looks great, with bright colors, clear graphics, and a thorough tutorial. The AI has five levels of difficulty, but I beat the medium player the first time through, and took down the hard AI player (named Pascal … of course) after two or three tries. I hope the developers choose a better game to port next time out, because their work is good, but this title just wasn’t worth their efforts.

Red Mars.

I have a scouting blog up with notes from three games I saw last week, covering Jeff Hoffman, Gleyber Torres, Matt Strahm, Spencer Adams, and Brad Markey.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy won a Nebula Award for the first book (Red Mars), Hugo Awards for the second (Green Mars) and third (Blue Mars), and Locus Awards for the second and third, as well as a passel of other awards and nominations. I just finished Red Mars, the dense 570-page opener, on Friday, and I can’t fathom why it won the Nebula or has spawned a cult following that appears to be leading toward a scripted series on Spike TV.

The Mars trilogy covers the first human attempt to colonize Mars, with a mission leaving Earth in 2026 (heh) with 100 colonizers chosen largely for their scientific and engineering skills. The goal is merely to establish a permanent settlement that may open the door for further research and potential economic activity like heavy-metal mining, but as conditions on Earth deteriorate due to war, pollution, and overpopulation, emigration to Mars becomes a reality and accelerates beyond the point that the red planet can handle it – especially since Mars is freezing and its thin atmosphere comprises mostly carbon dioxide. This in turn exacerbates the initial philosophical divide among the “first hundred” of whether humans should attempt to terraform Mars and make it suitable for long-term human settlement, or if humans have any responsibility to maintain the planet’s environment and, if present, any ecosystem that might exist at a microscopic level.

Red Mars is hard science fiction, very heavy on the technical aspects of its subject, with painstaking attempts to keep it as scientifically accurate as it can be. That means the book is about as dry as the Martian equator, as Robinson devotes paragraphs and even pages to details that contribute nothing to the plot and only serve to show that the author has indeed done his research. I can understand the desire to convince the reader that something like the space elevator transportation system is feasible, for example, but the point of including it in a work of fiction should be to show its effect on the characters within the story, not merely to say, “hey, cool, a space elevator!”

Robinson seems so caught up in demonstrating the technologies required for the mission and his mastery of their specifics that he spends very little time developing the book’s central characters, roughly a dozen of the first hundred who play significant roles in the novel’s multistranded story arc. Two of the most significant ones are dead before the book even ends, as are a few characters of less importance, and while many dramatic works benefit from the uncertainty around characters’ fates, Red Mars isn’t one of them. There’s no sense of impending jeopardy to raise tensions, and when the novel ends with a lengthy journey where several of the first hundred escape from Terran forces, I never doubted that they’d succeed in reaching their destination. And, most damning of all, I didn’t really care if they didn’t, so long as Robinson didn’t bore me to death first with details of how their little rovers worked or more about that bizarre flood that, even with all his descriptive text, I still could not for the life of me manage to picture in my head.

So my question to those of you who’ve braved this series is whether it’s worth it to continue, as I’ve been reading past Hugo winners, which would include both of the next two books in the series. My instinct is no, that the issue was Robinson’s writing style, and that seems unlikely to improve from book to book, at least not enough for me to plod through another 1200 pages.

Next up: I just finished A Bell for Adano, a wonderful satirical war novel by John Hersey (author of the famed New Yorker piece Hiroshima) and have begun Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Haruki Murakami wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, his magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a masterful blending of reality and dreamlike sequences (some literally in characters’ dreams) that combine to explore Japan’s trouble dealing with its brutal legacy from World War II. It’s #16 on my top 100 novels of all-time list. He followed that up with another tremendous novel, Kafka on the Shore, in 2002, another book that deals with the philosophical aftermath of the second world war, weaving a brilliant twin narrative that also delves into dialectics, the dream/reality divide, and “really good dumps.”

Since Kafka, however, Murakami has written just three novels, none up to the level of those two works. After Dark was short and felt unfinished, while I never bothered with his thousand-page tome 1Q84 due to its heft and comments from friends that it wasn’t worth the time required. Given the positive press around his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I at least had some optimism that Murakami was getting back to peak form, but after ripping through it last week, I am sorry to report that this book sucked. It’s a cold, aimless, distant, unsatisfying novel that takes Murakami’s frequent theme of alienation to the extreme of alienating the reader from the book itself.

The title character is seriously bummed out, with good reason: once part of an extremely tight-knit quintet of friends, he found himself abandoned and shunned by the other four without reason or warning, entering a period of suicidal depression for six months before emerging a very different person on the other side, although his life afterwards remains monotonous and largely friendless. Now in his late 30s, Tsukuru, an engineer who designs railway stations, finds himself in the first serious relationship of his life, but his semi-girlfriend, Sara, insists that he confront his four friends to deal with the unresolved sadness and angst that is blocking him from fully committing to their (or any) relationship.

It’s a solid premise for a book, but what happens next is a whole lot of nothing. Tsukuru visits his friends one by one, eventually going to Finland for the last of the encounters, and gets factual answers to his questions of why he was excommunicated, but only in the most superficial way. He learns about two crimes committed against one of the friends, the first of which was loosely connected to his banishment, but Murakami never bothers to go into those in any detail, much less tell the reader who committed them. While the novel ends with Tsukuru obtaining a sort of closure, it’s a thoroughly unsatisfying variety at least for the reader; there’s no cathartic event, but there isn’t even enough of an explanation to justify Tsukuru feeling any resolution of what’s “blocking” him. He believes he’s “colorless,” but why did the novel about him have to be that way too?

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant.

The Goldfinch.

I have Insider posts up on Troy Tulowitzki trade, the Ben Zobrist trade, and the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

Donna Tartt’s nearly 800-page bildungsroman The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, sparking an ongoing controversy over its worthiness, with some highbrow critics arguing that its prose was too pedestrian while other critics and authors railed against the inherent elitism of those claims. I think I come down in the vast middle between the two camps: It’s a good novel, certainly not dumbed-down for anybody, elaborately plotted and written in an adult voice, yet it finishes weakly and doesn’t seem to fit the admittedly vague guidelines for the Pulitzer (“for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”). It is, however, one of the only books I’ve ever read that seems to take a serious view of post-traumatic stress disorder and tries to bring it to life in an empathetic yet unstinting fashion.

Theo Decker, the protagonist and narrator of The Goldfinch, is a typical, bookish thirteen-year-old boy, living in Manhattan with his adoring mother after his alcoholic father walked out on them a few months earlier, when the two of them are caught in a terrorist attack on an art museum that’s exhibiting Dutch painter Carel Patritius’ (real) painting of the book’s title. The blast kills Theo’s mother, while Theo, in another room at the time of the explosion, tries to comfort an older man who’s dying near him and who tells Theo to take The Goldfinch from the wall, perhaps to protect it. Theo ends up carrying the painting with him for years, a physical manifestation of the PTSD (reminiscent in a slight way of Emma Sulkowicz’ Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)) from the attack, which he chooses to self-medicate via substance abuse and reckless behavior. The story takes him from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam, where the novel makes a sharp left into this weird noir-ish crime-story territory, losing much of the emotional impact from the first five hundred pages or so, losing the thread of the PTSD exploration in favor of, I think, finding a way to wrap up the book.

Some critics called the portion of the ending that eventually gets the painting back to the authorities too obvious/predictable, something Theo should have done far earlier, but I think that ignores or dismisses the idea of the painting as a symbol of Theo’s PTSD – he can’t get rid of the painting just by wishing to do so, but has to find some way to start to heal himself before he can do so. I could argue that Tartt fails to establish his healing well enough by the ending, but then again, the book was already too long by a third and by that point the escapade around the painting’s theft was approaching the ridiculous.

Theo is a flawed character but a well-developed one, and with almost 800 pages to spend in his head we get a full picture of his personality and his struggle to come to any kind of grips with the death of his mother and everything bad that comes after. He’s the only character in the book to get that treatment, however, as everyone else has a two-dimensional quality, from his angelic mother to the similarly wispy Pippa (a crush who is, herself, tied to the museum bombing and thus remains in a tangible way just beyond his reach) to the furniture restorer Hobie who becomes a surrogate parent to Theo in the latter half of the book. Even Boris (why always Boris?), Theo’s best friend during his time in Las Vegas, is half character and half caricature, not to mention capable of consuming unfathomable quantities of drugs and alcohol … although fictional Russians have a preternatural capacity to metabolize vodka.

The Pulitzer committee gives only a terse explanation for each winner’s selection, so we’re left guessing what they saw in The Goldfinch that many critics didn’t see or didn’t value. The only explanation I can conceive that fits the guideline about “American life” is the PTSD angle: the National Center for PTSD says about 8 million U.S. adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, with causes ranging from military combat to rape to disasters like the book’s museum bombing. PTSD isn’t quintessentially American, but it is a fact of life all over the world today, and it’s increasing in our consciousness if not in prevalence, especially with soldiers returning from lengthy tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the disorder. If that’s the book’s greatest strength, however, the slapdash finish undermines the exploration of the disorder and its effects. Theo’s recovery, such as it is, is unsatisfying from a reader perspective and, I’d guess, from a clinical one too. The Goldfinch spends two-thirds of its bulk as a serious literary work, but by its final pages it has devolved into a smart page-turner, diluting the impact of its more ambitious passages.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

A Beautiful Blue Death.

Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. I’ll be at Citi Field Saturday and part of Sunday for this year’s Metropolitan Classic tournament.

I received Charles Finch’s debut novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, as a gift for my birthday from someone who knows of my affinity for both detective novels and British literature, making it a potentially perfect fit, with reviews and pull quotes comparing its main character to Sherlock Holmes. With that leadup, you know I’m going to tell you that I hated this book for its dull-as-an-old-butterknife protagonist, formulaic plot, and obvious resolution. It’s a sappy trifle that I was sad to see has spurred six sequels in a matter of as many years.

The detective at the heart of the novel is the Victorian gentleman Charles Lenox, a man of leisure and broad knowledge and apparently some renown in London of the 1860s for solving difficult crimes, something we learn by frequent mention of these amazing feats of deduction – all seemingly non sequiturs that make no sense to the reader because they refer to events that never happened. More problematic is that Lenox is a damn bore. He’s too perfect – kind to everyone, thoughtful, sending anonymous gifts and donations to side characters who might otherwise make the reader sad – and has a strictly platonic relationship with the widow next door, Lady Jane. Lenox’s biggest flaw seems to be a habit of disappointing his travel agent, with whom he plans long international journeys only to cancel them, but he even sends the gentleman a £50 deposit just to make everything okay.

The story itself is fairly mundane, a slight twist on the formula that’s as old as Miss Marple – a murder in a closed house, with a limited number of suspects, one of whom will inevitably be killed in the middle of the book around the time that he becomes the primary suspect himself. The first murder is that of Prudence Smith, former lady’s maid to Lady Jane, later a maid in the house of George Barnard at the time of her death. Barnard had two nephews and three business or political acquaintances staying with him at the time, all of whom become suspects as well as one or two of the servants. Lenox dispatches his Jeeves-like butler on various fact-finding missions, gets assaulted by a pair of thugs who leave a cryptic message, then stumbles through a series of incorrect theories before arriving at the right one – little of which bears any resemblance to Holmes or any other “gentleman detective” of that era.

Dorothy Sayers created the archetypal gentleman detective with Lord Peter Wimsey, setting her character in interbellum London, but infusing his character with more complexity and even a few flaws, something Lenox lacks. Wimsey was wealthy with a patrician upbringing, but speaks in a lower-class vernacular. He suffers from shell shock (PTSD) after service in World War I, which redefines his relationship with his manservant, Bunter. Yet Sayers received criticism for making Wimsey too perfect, given his breadth of knowledge and talents, which grow over the course of the series. (Full disclosure: I read the first book, Whose Body?, didn’t love the ending, and haven’t picked up the second title.) Yet Wimsey is a train wreck compared to the pristine Lenox, whose character has no flaws and no exceptional strengths, making him the worst thing a fictional detective can be: Boring. Hell, even Holmes had his cocaine. Perhaps Lenox should give laudanum a try.

Next up: I’m slogging through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, only to learn yesterday that there’s a newer, better translation than the one I’ve got. I’m halfway done so there’s no point stopping now.

The Yard & Adam Bede.

The Yard, Alex Grecian’s first prose novel – he’s previously co-authored the graphic novel series Proof – is a hopelessly formulaic, lurid crime story that feels far more like an attempt to create a franchise than a desire to tell an actual story. Set in London just after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror has ended, The Yard wants so badly to tell us how awful Victorian society was for those outside the privileged classes that it pelts the reader with a series of hoary details that beat that horse until it’s glue and steak frites.

The Yard opens with a cheap attention-grabber – a dead cop is found stuffed in a steamer trunk at a London railway station with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. This introduces us to Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, a group of a dozen (now eleven) detectives assigned to look solely at homicides, of which there are far too many in London for this unit to handle. We also encounter Dr. Kingsley, the amateur forensic pathologist and assigned Voice of Reason whose mere presence makes this feel like the pilot for CSI: London. The detectives, led by the just-promoted Inspector Walter Day, work to solve the murder of their colleague, eventually splitting into factions to investigate potentially related crimes, including the murders of several bearded men, which eventually put several of the detectives in jeopardy (of course) and lead to two resolutions.

Grecian’s characters are his saving grace, and if I had any desire to continue with the sequel The Black Country, it would be to follow them. He’s crafted four strong police characters in Day, Inspector Blacker, their boss Sir Edward Bradford, and the constable Hammersmith, each of whom has a well-defined personality and admixture of positive and negative traits. (There are no worthwhile female characters, so the book flunks the Bechdel test entirely.) We get too much of Day’s home life without any real payoff, but Hammersmith’s back story turns out to be critical in defining the character and explaining some of his subversive actions.

Unfortunately, Grecian panders to the audience from the start by keeping his crimes graphic and offering repeated “shocks” to end maybe half of the book’s hundred-odd four-page chapters. We have the initial police murder, and then the murders of the bearded men who were shaved and then had their throats slit. We have a dead child, left to die in gruesome fashion, and the kidnapping of another by a man who may be a pedophile (Grecian implies this but, in a welcome bit of self-restraint, spares us any such details) but is certainly a psychopath. We have prostitutes, one a surviving victim of Saucy Jack himself. We get lots of time in Kingsley’s lab, with murder victims and others like the child laborer whose jaw was eaten away by phosphorus due to her work in a match factory. None of this was essential to the central plot, just extraneous details to titillate the reader and satisfy the same cravings that make lowbrow shows like Criminal Minds so successful.

The two central crimes also failed to grab my interest, and their resolutions revolved too much on coincidence and too little on actual policework for a novel ostensibly about police work. We learn the identity of the cop-killer before the quarter mark, and we get interludes from his perspective that add nothing beyond making it clear he’s a dangerous loony. He keeps showing his hand to the detectives, and he’s eventually found out through dumb luck. The so-called “Bearded Killer” is revealed a little later in the book, but it’s a crime without intrigue and only comes into play because Hammersmith ends up the target here before another idiot gets in the way and takes the razor intended for the constable. The Yard doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes, solving cases in a few hours through the powers of deduction, but I can’t say London would be any safer through these bobbies blundering through their cases and waiting for the killer to all but turn himself in.

* I’m dispensing with a full writeup for George Eliot’s Adam Bede, which appears on the Bloomsbury 100, as it was dull and a tough slog, a real disappointment after I enjoyed Middlemarch. Adam Bede is preachy, with its too-perfect characters and over-the-top depiction of a girl in trouble treated unfairly due to Victorian attitudes. (I’m sure it’s all quite accurate, but I don’t imagine this story would have changed many Victorian minds through its telling.) Adam is a simple, kind laborer who wants to work for a better life, falls for the wrong girl, then eventually falls for the right one, the end. It reads like a first novel, which it was, and takes so long to even get into the main plot that I would have given up after 100 pages had I not been so hellbent on finishing the entire Bloomsbury list.

* Next up: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which was a finalist for both the the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the year when the board declined to give the award to any title) and the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal (losing to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz).

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The titles listed in Bloomsbury’s 100 Must-read Classic Novels (actually 99 novels plus Chekhov’s short stories, which is totally cheating) were largely familiar to me before I’d even started working my way through the list, skewing strongly toward classics of British literature (42 of the 100 titles were by British authors, plus five by Irish authors). The list’s creator, Nick Rennison, did show one clear and regrettable bias in his selections, however, with several titles that advocate political change toward socialism, generally to the detriment of their value as works of literature. News from Nowhere was one such title, a dreadful utopian novel that, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is the prose equivalent of an actuarial table. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published three years after the author’s death, resembles an actual novel more than News did, with real characters and proper plots, but there is so much sermonizing and so little character development that the book amounts to little more than 600 pages of didactic sludge.

Tressell, the nom de plume of the Irish-born writer Robert Croker (later Robert Noonan), based The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in large part on his own experience as a house-painter, working for subsistence wages while the merchant class and politicians grew rich off his and his colleagues’ labors. The title refers to these workers, who give so freely of their efforts to enrich others and seem, in Tressell’s view, to acquiesce to a system that is designed to exploit them and perpetuate that exploitation for generations. In that, Tressell was partially right – England’s labor laws were heavily stacked against the working class until the Labour Party took power in the 1906 election, before which a trade union could be held liable for losses resulting from collective actions such as strikes. Even as Tressell was writing his manuscript, completing it in 1910, the situation was only beginning to improve for the “philanthropists” of Great Britain.

Labor protection proved the solution to many (but not all) of the ills Tressell attacks in his novel, but his extreme naivete about human nature led him to advocate strong socialism, with little or no ownership of private property and penalties on savings or investment, rather than fair labor practices. Tressell has the two socialist characters, Owen and Barrington, deliver tiresome lectures to their fellow painters about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, all founded on now-discredited beliefs that people would still continue to expend maximum efforts when all incentives for good work or for ingenuity have been removed. By removing the possibility of large gains for the large sacrifices involved in inventing or developing new goods or processes, innovation will slow, and funding for high-risk projects (like most startups) will flow to countries where the potential for high returns still exists. Socialism as Tressell describes it has been tried and failed in countless economies, so reading his prescription for a command economy like those that collapsed across Eastern Europe and that have only enriched those in power in Africa is sadly comical.

Tressell’s awkward satire is actually more effective when he attacks the hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians, mouthing the words of their Messiah while doing quite the opposite. Tressell limits his attacks on the religion itself – although I’d infer from his text that he was a nonbeliever – and instead focuses on those who preach the Gospel while doing nothing to help the less fortunate, and often would use their working hours to keep the lower classes in need of basic assistance like food, lodging, or medical care. Tressel’s primary antagonist, the painting-firm owner (and thief) Rushton, is found in the streets spreading the Good News – and making sure he uses these words to keep the poor and unemployed from banding together to try to improve their situation. It’s easy to see a parallel in the sliver of the U.S. electorate that professes ardent belief in the same religion and yet votes against programs that might help the very people Christ implores His followers to help.

Tressell also falls into one of the worst traps for the would-be satirist, violating what is now Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names: Funny names aren’t funny. Tressell populates his novel with obvious and unclever puns, like rival painting outfits Pushem and Sloggem, two-faced philanthropists Crass and Slyme, the ineffectual city councilor Dr. Weakling, and the venal landowner and MP Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Satire need not be hilarious to be effective, but the failed attempts at humor here only serve to further insult the intelligence of the reader who might not have already given up in disgust at the author’s ignorance of basic microeconomics.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of the Indian-born mathematician Ramanujan, whose brief life was marked by enormous insights into number theory despite his lack of any formal education in the field.

Dominant Species app.

The complex board game Dominant Species has moved up into the top 20 on boardgamegeek’s global rankings despite its high cost (over $60) and one of the most intricate decision trees I’ve come across. Players represent different classes of creatures, exploring and populating the planet by placing hex tiles on the board, receiving points primarily for “dominating” specific tiles. Players have a large number of potential actions but are competing for space on the board and for priority in each type of action. You have a lot to weigh each time you choose which action to take, and the cleanup and scoring in each round also takes a lot of time and effort.

There is an app implementation of Dominant Species for iPad that gives you a fair introduction to the game for $4.99, but still leaves much to be desired. I’ll review it here for completeness, but I don’t recommend it unless you want to try the game out before shelling out for the pricey boxed game.


Evolutionary status: It’s complicated.

In Dominant Species, players will build out the game board as they go, placing different land/water tiles and also putting “element” tokens on the vertices of the hexes, then populating those tiles with their own species. The bottom line is that you want your species tokens on tiles, especially water tiles, that are surrounded by several of the element tokens you also have on your card. Each player starts with two of these element tokens, depending on which botanical class he draws, but can add more as the game goes on.

The board can change in several ways as the game evolves, with tiles changing to tundra (where most species are removed, and eventually all might be wiped out) and elements added and removed frequently. Each player has a specific element type that gives him the potential to “dominate” any tiles where that element appears and he has species, but players can also acquire new element tokens for themselves and adapt to allow them to dominate new tiles on the board. The key to the game, at least in my limited experience, is the Domination phase at the end of each round: There are five Domination spaces for action pawns, and each player who places a pawn there can choose a tile on the board to dominate, where the player who has the right elements (matching those around the tile) and has species there gets a point bonus, and may get a Domination card that gives him more points or the ability to add or remove items from the board. There’s a lot more involved – players have several action pawns to place each turn, and can acquire more as the game goes on – but those are the key points. Players can undertake less significant actions like turning a tile to tundra, claiming points and potentially removing another players’ species; migrating species from one tile to another to avoid extinction; and knocking out a single opposing species token from any tile under “competition.”

The publisher of the physical version of Dominant Species, GMT Games, chose to develop the app in-house, and unfortunately they half-assed the initial release and may have abandoned the project entirely. The AI players are poor, and a promised introduction of a harder AI player remains undone after a year. The UI is also weak, mimicking the physical game rather than taking advantage of what the tablet can offer in different graphics, animation, even stuff like replacing colored wooden cubes with, I don’t know, maybe actual animal shapes? Trying to squeeze everything on to one screen – both the game board and the action selection board – means nothing is clear, and there’s still a lot of info hidden on drop-down screens. It feels rushed and uncreative, rather than an attempt to approach the game from an entirely new perspective. And it lacks online multiplayer.

I’m guessing that playing the physical game with people who’ve played before would be fun, maybe not top 20 overall fun but with enough interaction between players to keep it interesting and social. It is probably a touch too involved for my personal tastes, and I’m still not sure I understand all of the rules regarding some of the less-used phases in each round. A better tutorial, a hard AI opponent, and improved graphics would go a long way to making the app better, and with the boxed game selling for over $60 they could use the promotional boost.