The Unfinished Game.

I’m still playing a bit of catchup on stuff I read during March (and just finished Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War over lunch today), but one title I definitely want to bring to everyone’s attention is the delightful, short book by mathematician (and NPR’s “Math Guy”) Keith Devlin called The Unfinished Game, which explains how one specific letter in the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat opened the door to the world of probability and everything that this branch of mathematics makes possible.

The unfinished game of the book’s title was based on a common, popular controversy of the time surrounding games of chance, which were largely seen as incalculable – our modern, simple way of calculating odds of things like throws of the dice just did not exist at the time. Pascal and Fermat discussed the question of how to divide winnings in a game of two or more players where the players choose to abandon the game before any one player has won the requisite number of matches. (So, for example, they’re playing a best-of-five, but the players quit after three rounds, with one player having won two times and the other one.) The controversy in question will seem silly to any modern reader who’s taken even a few weeks of probability theory in high school math, but Devlin is deft enough to explain the problem in 1600s terms, so that the logical confusion of the era is clear on the page.

The confusion stemmed from the misunderstanding about the frequencies of subsequent events, given that the game would not always be played to its conclusion: You may say up front you’re going to play a best of seven, but you do not always need to play seven matches to determine a winner. If you quit after three games, in the situation I outlined above, it is possible that you would have needed just one more match to determine a winner, and it is possible that you would have needed two more matches. Pascal’s letter to Fermat proposed a method of determining how to split the winnings in such an unfinished game; the letter was the start of modern probability theory, and the problem is now known as the problem of points. (You can read the entire surviving correspondence on the University of York’s website; it also includes their conversations on prime numbers, including Fermat’s surprising error in claiming that all numbers of the form 2(2n)+1, which is only true for 0 ≤ n ≤ 4. Those five numbers are now called Fermat primes; Euler later showed Fermat’s hypothesis was wrong, and 2(25)+1 = 4294967297, which is composite.)

Fermat realized you must count all of the potential solutions, even ones that would not occur because they involved playing the fifth game when it was made unnecessary by the first player winning the fourth match and taking the entire set, so to speak. (The problem they discussed was slightly more involved.) Pascal took Fermat’s tabular solution, a brute-force method of counting out all possible outcomes, and made it generalizable to all cases with a formula that works for any number of players and rounds. This also contributed to Pascal’s work on what we now call Pascal’s triangle, and created what statisticians and economists now refer to as “expectation value” – the amount of money you can expect to win on a specific bet given the odds and payout of each outcome.

Devlin goes about as far as you can when your subject is a single letter, with entertaining diversions into the lives of Pascal and Fermat (who corresponded yet never met) and tangents like Pascal’s wager. At heart, the 166-page book is about probability theory, and Devlin makes the subject accessible to any potential reader, even ones who haven’t gone beyond algebra in school. Given how much of our lives – things like insurance, financial markets, and sports betting, to say nothing of the probabilistic foundations of quantum theory – are possible because of probability theory, The Unfinished Game should probably be required reading for any high school student.

Next up: I just started Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Magician’s Land.

I loved Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, reading the entire book (a review copy from the publisher) on a single cross-country flight right when the book came out, for the deft blend of parody of the coming-of-age magic saga subgenre (Harry Potter, LotR, Narnia) with a fantastic, original story. Quentin Coldwater’s journey from alienated youth to magic school to fighting a save-the-world sort of magic battle followed familiar conventions in structure but always took unanticipated turns, and brought us a small group of well-developed, engaging characters to follow through the trilogy.

I disagreed with most of you on the second book, The Magician King, which felt transitional to me and took away some of the magic (the reading sort, not the kind in the books) for me that had me loving the first book. So I held off for a bit on book three, The Magician’s Land, to see if it would redeem the whole series for me or give me another downer note that detracted from the joy I experienced in book one. It gave me much more of the former, another rousing story that again walks away from cliched plot lines, moving the giant fight scene (masterfully written) to the middle of the book and concluding the series on a fitting note that manages to be a victory lap without giving the main character an improbably perfect ending.

When the book begins, Quentin is an outcast, having lost his crown and even his right to live in Fillory, and is recruited to join a mysterious magical heist. We jump back and forth for the first half of the novel, learning how Quentin returned to Brakebills briefly to teach, then lost that position while rescuing a student, also encountering a demon who appears to be after him personally. Meanwhile, in Fillory, the world is quite literally ending, and Eliot and Janet have to set out on a quest to try to save it – but, this being Quentin’s trilogy, really, he’s going to have to help them do it. Grossman turns several conventions of the genre on their heads with the complex resolution, and while he leaves a few strings poorly tied (such as Betsy’s adventure) and we get the unlikely conclusion where no major character dies, he settles the Fillory timeline in a way that makes internal sense while also giving Quentin and some of his friends a sensible ending.

Aside from the usual references to other classics of the genre – the Russian professor mocking “Dum-blee-dore” and the nod to seven-league boots (found in C.S. Lewis’ and Diana Wynne Jones’ books, among others) were my favorites – Grossman seems to have centered much of this final leg of the trilogy on the relationship between reader and story, and what stories can tell us about us. All three books have sought to undermine the sense of life as story, that our narratives are arranged for us and that life’s plot threads will all be neatly tied together for us. Grossman has to balance between the use of “destiny” in the constructed world of Fillory – constructed by whom, it is never revealed, although we do learn that it is indeed turtles all the way down – and the lack thereof here in the real world of the books; Quentin and friends have to piece together solutions without magical or divine guidance, don’t always get what they want, and face frequent disillusionment when their lives don’t unfurl like the stories they loved. (Grossman also gives us more of the story behind the stories, although nothing could match the revelation about Martin at the end of the first book.)

Where the magicians do benefit from their lives in two worlds is how Fillory specifically and magic in general gives them a second lens through which to see their secular lives. Most YA magic novels are coming-of-age stories where the characters come of age through defeating enemies in the magical realm. The Magicians novels have characters coming of age in both worlds at once, one supporting the other, not always in clean or planned ways. Where Grossman diverts from this path, keeping everyone intact for the end of the series, it makes for a satisfying conclusion because we like most of the characters, but it does shift a little from the thread of realism in the first two books. A few redshirts die this time around, but the core characters get their mostly happy ending. I’m okay with that, just like I didn’t want to see Harry, Ron, or Hermione die (and I’m still bitter about Fred), but it conflicts with the book’s theme about fiction failing to capture the the freedom and chaos of real life.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but I did just begin Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War today.

SVIIB.

School of Seven Bells were working on their third album when member Ben Curtis, who was half of the group along with Alehandra Deheza, was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma; ten months after announcing the diagnosis, he died of the disease in December of 2013, leaving behind much of the music that has now appeared on the group’s final album, SVIIB (amazoniTunes). Deheza, who was both Curtis’ musical partner and his former romantic partner, has done a number of interviews about the difficulty of revisiting this material and completing the album, which she did with the help of Curtis’ brother Brandon (of The Secret Machines) and producer Justin Meldal-Johnson, after taking a break from music to grieve. The resulting record is a gorgeous elegy to her late partner and their life and work together, bringing the same ethereal post-new wave style of music but with a new lyrical direction and, of course, the subtext of Curtis’ death underpinning the entire album.

The opener, “Ablaze,” is probably the most recognizably SVIIB song, teetering on the edge of upbeat dream-pop and their more traditional soundscape musical style, but when Deheza appears with the opening line, “How could I have known/the god of my youth/would come crashing down on my heart?” it’s clear that we are no longer in typical lyrical territory for the duo. It is impossible to hear Deheza singing (or sing-talking, as she does on several tracks) without thinking everything is directed at Curtis or is merely about him, whether it’s the references on “Ablaze” to Curtis relighting the spark in her life when she “had sunk into the black,” or the dual meanings on “Open Your Eyes,” one of which is directed at the partner whose eyes will never open again.

School of Seven Bells’ best tracks from their first three albums combined strong pop hooks built on layers of synthesizers and drum machines, a huge shift from Curtis’ work with his brother in The Secret Machines or as drummer for Tripping Daisy, but better built to take advantage of Deheza’s lower registers and the smoky quality to her voice. They seemed like the spiritual descendants of early Lush, but with cleaner sounds than shoegaze acts from twenty years ago, so that you could easily distinguish between the layers of music and could understand the lyrics. The first seven tracks on SVIIB all follow a similar template, most of them very successful as alternative/pop songs; “A Thousand Times More” could be a HAERTS track, while “Signals” meanders more into Chairlift/Grimes territory, but with richer textures, with a deluge of sound in the intense chorus.

And then we get to the final two tracks, “Confusion” and “This is Our Time,” where the tempo slows to match the mood of the lyrics, from elegy to eulogy, songs drenched in loss and grief. What we lose in melody we gain in emotional power as Deheza sings to Curtis’ memory over the album’s sparsest musical arrangements. She opens the latter track’s chorus with “Our time is indestructible,” but with Curtis’ passing she can only be referring to her memories of their time together, and how those can carry her forward despite her grief. I felt that the transition from seven mostly uptempo tracks to what is essentially a two-part closer with a slower pace and more funereal feel was sudden, but there’s no smarter way to organize the nine songs on the album, and pairing these two at the end makes clear the album’s dual purpose and the finality of its subject.

There are still missteps, like the lyrics to “On My Heart,” a shimmering pop song where Deheza trips herself up by eschewing the more poetic, image-laden words on the rest of the album, and her sing-talking technique starts to slip off-key. I’d much rather hear Deheza sing, even though her style is more finesse than power, given her voice’s airy, sensual quality, but it also seems like she had so much to say on some of SVIIB‘s tracks that singing the lyrics might not have left her enough time to get it all on the record. The album was probably going to receive praise anyway, because who’s going to trash an album recorded by a deceased musician and his grieving partner, but it turns out that School of Seven Bells’ swansong is their finest work to date, deserving of all the accolades it’s receiving and likely to end 2016 as one of the year’s best albums.

Station Eleven.

I ranked the top ten prospects by position (plus ten more starting pitchers) for Insiders today.

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven joins a recent tradition of literary works set in a post-apocalyptic setting that sits beneath the story rather than dominating it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with The Road, an impossibly bleak setting that McCarthy uses to depict the lengths to which a parent will go to protect his or her child. David Mitchell worked it into the innermost story of Cloud Atlas. Margaret Atwood may have been the first to write a novel of high literary merit in this sort of setting with The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrating the possibilities of telling a story that transcended the typical tropes of science fiction. St. John Mandel’s work, which won the Clarke Award and was a finalist for many other honors, goes as far as any of these works in creating a story that exists and succeeds independent of the setting, because she has been able to populate her universe with compelling, realistic characters before placing them in a possibly-unrealistic setting.

Station Eleven opens on the last night of normal life on Earth, at a production in Toronto of King Lear where the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies of a heart attack during the performance, a scene that introduces us to several major characters in the book. That same night, a devastating virus from the Caucasus known as the Georgia Flu has shut down a major hospital in the same city; the virus kills within 48 hours, and in a matter of days global civilization collapses. Over 99% of the human population is wiped out by the disease, leaving the handful of survivors to return to subsistence living.

One group of survivors forms a traveling company to perform Shakespeare’s plays and classical music concerts to the small gatherings – “towns” of 20 or 30 people, usually” – around what had previously been the lower peninsula of Michigan. The group’s motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, is “because survival is insufficent,” referring to one of the book’s constant themes of the survivors’ way of clinging to culture as a reminder of what came before. One member of the troupe, Kirsten, was on stage as a child actress during that performance of King Lear, and of the group of central characters she is the primary protagonist, with nearly all of the present-day action swirling around her. St. John Mandel also presents a series of flashbacks revolving around the life of Arthur, who came from a tiny town on an island in British Columbia and rose to become a famous film actor, rolling through three marriages and many friendships, with some of the characters appearing after the collapse along Kirsten’s path. One of Arthur’s friends grants us a window into another survivors’ colony located in an airport outside of Chicago, a speculation on how a group of strangers thrown together by fate might start to form a community in the face of a global catastrophe.

St. John Mandel’s prose is wonderful, but it’s the characterization that sells this book. The core characters are indirect victims of the pandemic – orphaned children, widowed spouses, but even people who came through with some family intact have lost essentially everything. She mentions unnamed characters who die from a lack of necessary medications. The few who survived suffer some guilt, but are more crushed by the weight of having to start everything over while trying to forget what they’d lost. Within this context, she shows remarkable insight into human thought and behavior, especially in response to trauma – the survival instinct, the nostalgia, the desire to be social, to form communities around shared interests or needs, along with glimpses of the darker side of humanity in the form of one person who takes advantage of the vulnerability of certain survivors.

Kirsten, who remembers virtually nothing from before the virus and absolutely nothing of the year she spent walking south into the former U.S. with her brother, receives the most three-dimensional depiction, a woman capable of ruthless behavior when her life is at stake, but still grappling with guilt and remorse when she has to resort to violence. The troupe has become her surrogate family, as it has for most if not all members, and she has complex relationships within the group that resurface when three members go missing after a visit to a town that has become the headquarters of a doomsday cult. We also get a full depiction of the charmed life of Arthur Leander, a men whose ambition led to great success, but then who ends up with a life full of regrets for what he hasn’t done or for friends and wives he’s hurt or discarded along the way. His friend Clark ends up playing a significant role post-collapse, although to say much of his character’s development would spoil a bit of the plot.

The book’s title comes from a comic book in Kirsten’s possession, a very rare but beautifully rendered sci-fi story about a space station that has become lost in space, and its hero-scientist Dr. Eleven. The story within the comic book is never revealed to us, but the book’s existence serves as a tie between multiple characters, a plot device for the resolution, and one of the most potent symbols of loss and remembrance within this emotional book that thrives on the heart it finds in a world where everything that seemed to matter is gone.

The novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014, but didn’t even make the final six. If I’m getting the year right, it lost out to Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautifully written but dull The Lowland, Donna Tartt’s smart but overlong The Goldfinch (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and the eventual winner of the Baileys Prize, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (on my to-be-read shelf). The book may have been on the 2015 longlist instead, in which case I can’t offer an opinion since I haven’t read the winner or the five shortlisted titles, but if it was eligible for the 2014 prize and missed the shortlist, boy did the judges ever screw that one up.

Next up: I’m trudging my way through John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest after finishing Rabbit is Rich last night. They’re both Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners; after I finish this I’ll have read all the winners from 1980 on.

Quiet.

My ranking of all 30 MLB farm systems is now up for Insiders! The top 100 prospect list goes up in the morning, and I’ll hold a chat here at 1 pm ET.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking felt, at first glance, like a fluffy self-help book. It certainly opens that way, as if the book’s purpose is to make introverts feel better about their introversion in a world that does indeed reward and revere the gregarious and the garrulous. But there’s a modicum of science behind Cain’s arguments and a lot of insight from experts that allow her to present the case that introverts can be just as important and productive and happy as extroverts can, as long as we allow them to be who they really are.

Cain starts out on the wrong foot, talking about the history of extroverts and introverts, explaining how we got to this point where extroverts are lauded as, essentially, better people. It helps create a narrative, but feels like padding when there’s real insight coming shortly afterwards, like the third chapter, where Cain goes into the evidence (some anecdotal) on how extroverts working together come up with inferior results to introverts working alone, and how forced teamwork can subvert the creativity of introverts by muting them and putting them in a space where they can’t produce. Not only is it well-presented and well-argued, but it’s insight with a specific call to action for employers, teachers, group leaders, anyone who is responsible for overseeing a team or collection of people in pursuit of a common task or goal.

(This is probably where I should step in and reveal myself as something of an introvert. I fell right in the middle of the twenty-question quiz Cain presents, which would make me an “ambivert” – kind of like Pat Venditte – but my introvert tendencies are very strong. I enjoy solitude, I do my best work on my own – this isn’t even close – I like celebrations to be small and intimate, and so on. I was very shy as a kid, and I still have a lot of shyness even today. I can get on a plane, read one book for five hours, speaking to no one but the flight attendant, and call it an afternoon well spent. Or on that same flight, I can sit down and write four articles or dish posts in a row like it’s nothing, because I get focused and thrive in an environment without interruptions. I can also sometimes come across as aloof or diffident, have people think I don’t like them when that’s very rarely the case, and I get lost in my own thoughts at least once a day. Prior to taking anti-anxiety medication, I was very sensitive, not just emotionally but even physically, being oddly jumpy when hit or touched. It’s just who I am, and big chunks of this book spoke very directly to my sense of self.)

Cain takes advantage of recent fMRI studies, without which I think the entire subgenre of pop-science books may not exist, in this case showing neurological responses like extroverts having more active dopamine pathways, so they get a faster reward response from activities like stock-trading or gambling, whereas introverts get less of a buzz and thus are better able to regulate their activities. She also discusses the relationship between the amygdala, an ancient part of the human brain found even in primitive mammals, and the relatively new prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate the high-reactive features of the amygdala. When you learn a fear or anxiety, your amygdala holds on to that pretty much forever; your prefrontal cortex is where you learn that, hey, you’re really not bad in crowds, and you’re totally fine to give that speech. Extroverts work better in situations with distractions like loud noises. Introverts are more sensitive and thus more empathetic.

Where Quiet gets really interesting is when Cain looks at introverts in marriages and in the classroom. She examines conflicts between couples comprising one introvert and one extrovert, dismantling the inane axiom about Venus and Mars and pointing out how two people of such different personality types can argue right past each other and end up with one partner feeling like the argument was productive while the other is deeply wounded. She also looks at introverted kids in the classroom and how the growing emphasis on group learning may leave those kids behind. My daughter, who is quite extroverted, is in a Montessori school, where most activities are done collectively; it’s a great fit for her, but would have been a total disaster for me.

I may have felt the greatest connection with Cain’s book in chapter 9, “When Should You Act More Extroverted?,” which looks at introverts who have to gear up to play the extrovert, often for work. I go on television a few dozen times a year, often for an hour at a clip, as part of my job. Doing so, especially when it’s two hourlong shows in one night, is absolutely exhausting. It is not physically demanding – although standing for an hour in dress shoes is no picnic for my joints – but the physical exhaustion is quite real, because I have to shift modes to become the extrovert on TV. (It turns out that I am a “high self-monitor,” a term that relates to how people behave around others and whether such behavior is dictated by internal controls or social cues.) As it turns out, what I do – playing the extrovert in my work life – is quite normal, but it’s also legitimately taxing, and playing someone you’re not too often can have physical consequences. Too much TV really might be bad for my health. (It probably doesn’t help that my TV work often ends at 1 or 2 in the morning.) Going to games, on the other hand, where I am often working alone and rarely talk to more than a couple of people, is quite relaxing even though it’s every bit as much an evening at the metaphorical office as a night in Bristol.

Cain’s book may have just been marketing incorrectly – or maybe marketed well, for more sales to a wider audience, when in fact she has crafted a scholarly work on a topic that generally doesn’t get such serious treatment. You might wish for more science to back up some of her theories, but she does include quite a bit of research and brings in a number of scientists and researchers to discuss their ideas. It’s also a book with a number of clear calls to action, for parents, bosses, teachers, and introverts themselves looking to find a bit more self-assurance in a society that tends to praise the things they’re not.

The Meursault Investigation.

Standard reminder, since I’ve been asked this several times a day lately: The top 100 prospects package starts to roll out on Wednesday, February 10th, with the organizational rankings; the top 100 list itself follows on Thursday, with the org reports (including top tens) posting the following week.

I did not like Camus’ The Stranger, which is widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written – it was #58 on the Novel 100, and appeared on the Bloomsbury “100 must-read classic novels” list too – because it is a book completely devoid of … well, anything. Emotion. Feeling. Heart, at which I suppose Camus would have laughed derisively. Camus rejected the “existentialist” label often applied to him, and devoted much of his writing, fiction and philosophy, to refuting the nihilist philosophies of his contemporaries in the surrealist movement. Yet The Stranger struck me as nothing if not nihilist, a book that argues that there is no meaning in anything, not even in the killing of another man, in this case the nameless Arab (later made famous a second time in a song by the Cure) whom the protagonist kills, leading to his own execution. It’s a story of disaffection turned into total disconnection, a novel that is both atheist and anti-humanist at the same time. If that’s not nihilistic, I’m more than a bit confused (again).

Kamel Daoud’s critically acclaimed 2014 novel The Meursault Investigation is a response to Camus-cum-Meursault, written as a serious of monologues delivered by the narrator to an unseen journalist. The narrator, it turns out, is the younger brother of the nameless Arab, and he is seriously pissed off. Mostly at Camus for killing his brother “twice,” once in the murder, a second time by refusing to deign to give the victim a name, even while creating this enduring novel about the act. The victim’s name was Musa, and his brother, Harun, would like us all to know that – and in so doing, opens up a series of doors on the historical relationship between west and east, white and nonwhite, European and African or Asian, and so on down the line.

Daoud’s angry narrator distills the rage of a race and a religion and a color into the righteous indignation of a younger brother whose life was irreperably altered by the senseless murder of his older brother. Harun’s father had abandoned the family, and with Musa dead – and no body to bury – he and his mother end up moving out of their city home to a village outside of Oran, but not before Harun fulfills his mother’s wish that he kill a Frenchman in symmetrical vengeance for the death of her son. This event splits his life into before and after, and becomes part of the foundation of his own anti-nihilist philosophy, one that simultaneously rejects religion and views God as “a question, not an answer,” one that blames France for screwing up Algeria through colonialism and then blames Algeria for screwing up Algeria once the French have left. And let’s not even start on how much he blames his mother, whose inability to grieve for the dead son whose body was never found (because Camus erased it) has derailed the life of her younger child.

The Stranger struck me as a work of dead prose, what a novel would look like if the author stripped out any sense of emotion, feeling, even senses like wonder or fear. It’s like Gadsby, the novel written without the use of the letter ‘e,’ a neat trick that does nothing to make the novel any better for the reader and probably makes it worse. The Meursault Investigation infuses all of that missing emotion back into the book, as the pages practically glow with the narrator’s rage and weep with his frustrations. It’s alternately funny and infuriating, the extended monologue of a man drunk on emotion rather than alcohol. Daoud is giving Camus a giant middle finger by turning the French author’s novel inside out and revealing to us everything that Camus left out. As someone who simply can not understand the mountains of praise heaped upon the earlier work, I read The Meursault Investigation with great joy, as if I’d finally found a kindred spirit who rejected The Stranger for its nihilistic implications, yet one who providers layer upon layer of complexity that a reader of Camus would likely never have begun to consider.

The Executioner’s Song.

Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980, is the longest work to take home that award, a strange historical footnote in the prize’s history because it’s almost certainly not a work of fiction. Mailer, who had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Armies of the Night, had access to an unbelievable depth and breadth of source material on Gary Gilmore, the very real subject of The Executioner’s Song, and just about everyone else involved in his life, crimes, imprisonment, and eventual execution, producing a work that moves as quickly as any thousand-page book I’ve ever read*. It would have been more than enough for Mailer, using the recordings and notes compiled by his collaborator Lawrence Schiller, to produce a work of great academic scholarship by providing all of this detail on Gilmore’s life and ultimate desire to rush from sentencing to the firing squad. Instead, Mailer manages the nearly impossible task of humanizing Gilmore without making him the least bit sympathetic, while populating his world with countless well-described, three-dimensional characters, into whose private struggles we gain access thanks to their candor with Schiller and to Mailer’s ability to turn their thoughts into richly developed portraits.

* N of 6.

Gary Gilmore was a lifelong ne’er-do-well who had spent much of his childhood in reform school, then ended up in jail, and just a few months after he was paroled at age 36 after serving about four years of a term for armed robbery he committed while on conditional release, he killed two service workers in the course of two separate armed robberies, with both murders taking place after he’d already obtained the money. The Supreme Court had suspended the use of the death penalty across the United States in 1972 after a 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which held, among other things, that sentences of death were applied inconsistently based on the races of the defendants – black defendants were much more likely to be sentenced to die than whites, which three of the five justices ruling for the plaintiff held to be a violation of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth (equal protection of the laws) Amendments to the Constitution.

(Two other justices held that the death penalty was per se unconstitutional, which I think should be blindingly obvious but, sadly, is not. The death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime, and is not cost-effective, which means its use is merely a case of the government providing vengeance for the victims’ families.)

Shortly before Gilmore committed the two murders, the Supreme Court ended the suspension of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, as long as the trial in question contained two separate phases for the determination of guilt and for sentencing. Gilmore’s case was egregious and his lawyers, recognizing that they had no defense (there was a witness in one of the cases who saw Gilmore leaving the scene with the gun in his hand), merely hoped to get him life imprisonment. However, Gilmore not only accepted the death penalty but attempted to waive all appeals, asking the court to carry out the sentence as quickly as possible – within 60 days, as required by the Utah statute at the time (which, by the way, did not include a mandatory appeal of any death sentence, because Utah). That stance turned Gilmore into a national celebrity, drew in the ACLU to give Gilmore a defense he didn’t want, and resulted in some darkly comic scenes of legal wrangling that went on right up until a few minutes before Gilmore was executed in January, 1977, the first person to be put to death for his crimes in the United States in nearly ten years.

Although Mailer’s name is on the book’s spine as the author, Schiller, a filmmaker and screenwriter, gathered all of the source material. Several journalists descended on Utah after Gilmore’s sentencing and pronouncement that he wished to die in search of a story; Schiller came out victorious, using various schemes and intermediaries to gain hours of recorded dialogue with Gilmore, Q&As that Gilmore filled out, and interviews with dozens of people relevant to the case, including the widows of the two victims and the girlfriend whose relationship with Gary was, he alleged, the reason he snapped and went out in search of someone to kill. (It’s a facile explanation not supported at all by everything Mailer and Schiller give us in the book.)

Gilmore himself was a complex character, which Schiller realized, driving him to keep attacking Gilmore with questions – asked by his intermediaries, Gilmore’s attorneys – designed to provoke more revealing responses about his childhood. Schiller was clearly looking for something, like a history of abuse or repressed sexual urges, that would explain the killer’s psychopathic behavior, including his controlling, manipulative hold on that girlfriend, 19-year-old Nicole Baker, herself a badly damaged child with a history of drug use and sexual victimhood. But Gilmore was in no way sympathetic, and Mailer doesn’t try to make him so; if you feel anything on Gilmore’s side of the battle over his sentence, it will be for his family members, including his invalid mother, and some of the people who poured their emotions into stopping a punishment that they believed to be morally wrong, only to lose thanks in part to a last-minute flight from Utah to Denver to overturn a judge’s stay. Indeed, the rush to kill Gary Gilmore does nothing to rehabilitate his image, but paints Utah in particular as a state so driven by bloodlust that it comes across as a sort of nightmare totalitarian society. (Mailer also seems to have little use for the domination of the state’s government, including its courts, by Mormons, other than Judge W.W. Ritter, who twice ordered stays to Gilmore’s execution; the book includes Gilmore’s accurate paraphrase of the speech given by Brigham Young where the preacher and openly racist Governor of the Utah Territory said that it would be right and just if he, finding one of his wives in the act of committing adultery with another man, ran them both through the breast with a knife, sending them to the afterlife where their sins would be cleansed. I don’t think you include that passage unless you want the reader to know just where you stand on the Mormon church.)

The first half of the book proceeds like a disaster unfolding in slow motion; we begin with Gilmore’s parole, and get an almost daily look into his struggle to assimilate himself into normal life outside of prison, especially in relations with women. When he meets Nicole Baker, who comes across as a space cadet throughout the book and is always described as stunningly beautiful (you can judge this for yourself, but I don’t see it), he finally gets the reliable outlet for his sexual desires – including disturbing threesomes with an underage friend of Nicole’s – but enters into a relationship toxic in both directions. Nicole, pressured by family members concerned about Gilmore’s manipulative tendencies and violent temper, breaks it off with Gilmore, after which he commits the two murders that ultimately send him to jail.

The second half diverages from your standard true-crime, non-fiction novel, however, by making the chase for Gilmore’s story the actual story. Schiller enters the pages and never lets go of them, while we also get a cast of lawyers with conflicting interests, other journalists, Hollywood producers seeking film rights, and enough clowns to fill a clown Escalade. The media takes a special beating in the book, largely well-deserved. Geraldo Rivera was apparently a soulless hack at the time, trying to do a live TV interview with Gilmore’s cousin Brenda right after the execution while she was still in the hospital recovering from major surgery. (He actually asked to do the interview in the hospital room itself.) Newsweek cited a couple of verses of poetry that Gilmore wrote, failing to recognize that the verses were from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant.” Reporters and photographers throw all ethics out the window to get images of Gilmore or Nicole, or a quote from anyone in the case, even barging into people’s houses without permission. While I’m sure such things still happen today, the frequency of such events in this book – with no apparent repercussions – is nauseating.

Mailer and Schiller even manage to humanize the many lawyers involved in the case, those seeking to uphold the death sentence and those trying to at least delay it and push through what we would, today, consider a standard process of appeals. Gilmore became a peculiar folk hero and a target for letters from women and girls across the country (gah) because of what was perceived as his stoic acceptance of a just penalty, but as the first execution after nearly a decade-long gap, the last four years under a Supreme Court moratorium, Gilmore’s trial and execution had ramifications for many capital cases to follow. He may have been okay with the sentence handed out to him – and his lack of emotional response to it would seem to support Schiller’s belief that Gilmore had some sort of mental infirmity, like dissociation – but groups like the ACLU needed to fight for his rights to try to establish rights for future defendants.

I don’t see how anyone could read this book and avoid at least feeling a tug toward the side of the debate that opposes capital punishment. It is a brutal sentence, and an expensive, wasteful process to adjudicate it and carry it out. It is also increasingly seen in the developed world as barbarous. Only one other country in the entire Western Hemisphere actively uses the death penalty, and that one, St. Kitts and Nevis, has executed one person in the last 17 years. The only country in Europe that has the death penalty at all is Belarus, ruled by a repressive dictator and serial human-rights violator. Japan still has the death penalty and executed one person in 2015. The United States has more in common with countries like Iran, China, or Saudi Arabia than with any western democracies when it comes to capital punishment. So while the death penalty is decreasing in usage in other nations to which we might compare ourselves, it has little or no deterrent effect on violent crime, and it’s damn expensive to put into practice, Mailer, without appearing to take a side, shows the real human cost of a death sentence by focusing on all of the people besides Gilmore who were hurt by his execution. And while Gilmore destroyed many lives – the two men he murdered, their wives, the three infants left without fathers – killing Gilmore did not restore what he took away. (Both widows cooperated with Mailer and Schiller in providing their stories with their late husbands, acts of significant grace given the amount of shock and grief they must have been suffering.)

Apropos of nothing else, I caught two quotes in the book with some connection to baseball. Gilmore’s first comment or question to a reporter after he was first sentenced to death was, “Who the hell won the World Series?” (That was the Reds, four games to none.) And both Gilmore and his cellmate after his final conviction, the enigmatic Gibbs, had “used the same drug, Ritalin, a rare type of speed not in common use” as their first experience with illicit substances. Yes, Ritalin and Adderall have valid pharmaceutical uses in the treatment of ADHD, but there are far more MLB players with exemptions to take these drugs – Adderall is a combination of two amphetamine salts; Ritalin is not technically “speed” but is also a CNS stimulant and dopamine reuptake inhibitor like amphetamines – than you’d expect from a random sample of men in that age range. And the evidence that these stimulants are performance enhancers, while still anecdotal, is strong.

I read the book via the Kindle app on my iPad – it’s also available via Apple’s iBooks – since, at nearly 1100 pages, it seemed like it would be a bit much to tote around. It was also on sale for $2 on Christmas Day on amazon, along with the book I’m reading now, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (miniseries).

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 best-selling novel and winner of the Hugo Award, in November of 2008, an experience so immersive and enjoyable that I can remember specific places where I sat and read it. It’s as perfect as any contemporary work of fiction I’ve encountered, with numerous complex characters; a soaring, multi-faceted plot; and the highbrow British-English prose style appropriate to its early 19th-century setting. I’ve read at least a half-dozen novels of a thousand pages or more, including some considered among the greatest novels of all time, but I’d still take Jonathan Strange over all of them, not least because there isn’t a wasted word among the over 300,000 in its text.

That experience with the book raised my expectations for the BBC adaptation of the book to unreasonable levels, even though the network chose to adapt it as a seven-hour mini-series rather than trying to cram its bulkl into a single two-hour film. The resulting series, available on iTunes for about $20 (it’s not streaming anywhere I can see; amazon has the Blu-Ray for $25), is one of the best TV series I’ve seen in years, better even than season one of Orphan Black or Broadchurch, even on par with The Wire for giving viewers so many well-acted, complex characters intimately involved in the central plot.

The titular characters of the novel and series are magicians in the early 1800s who endeavor to restore English magic, which has been lost from the land for about 300 years. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the mousy, pedantic, egotistical magician of learning who sets off the book’s events when he restores a dead noblewoman, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), to life by summoning a creature known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), making a bad bargain that reopens the door between England and the otherworld where magic resides. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is the young prodigy whose innate talent for magic draws the interest of Norrell, who wishes to tutor Strange in book-learning rather than in “practical” magic, only to set off a rivalry between the two when Norrell’s acts exact a very high cost on Strange and his young, beautiful wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the Gentleman, having regained access to this realm, lays his claim to Lady Pole, enchants the servant Stephen Black (Arikon Bayare), the “nameless slave” who is to become king under the prophecy of the fairy/magician known as the Raven King, who appears only briefly on screen and looks like a refugee from a Norse black metal band.

The series is remarkably faithful to the original text, preserving all of the essential characters, including many I didn’t mention above such as Norrell’s servant (and occasional practitioner of magic) John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, whose voice I wish to steal) and the vagrant street-magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), while limiting diversions from the book’s plot to minor changes of convenience. Yet the series is powered primarily by the command performances of its two leads, Marsan and Carvel, with Marsan playing Norrell as a sort of upper-class Peter Pettigrew, simpering yet also dismissive, while Carvel imbues Strange with the passion and exuberance befitting his character’s youth before the character’s disillusionment drives him to madness. The great performances extend to the actors I’ve cited here, playing secondary roles, particularly Warren as the predatory charmer The Gentleman, with clawlike fingernails and “thistledown” hair, and Kaye apparently having the time of his life as the staggering, filthy Vinculus.

The demands on the editors of this series must have been huge, with a variety of sets and settings and impressive special effects for a television series, leading to many potential points of confusion as the focus shifted from Strange to Norrell to the King’s Roads (the “otherworld” of magic and fairies) and back around. I’m of the lay opinion that editing is a lot like umpiring in baseball: you notice it far more when it’s bad than when it’s good, and if it’s really good, you forget it’s even there. It was only while watching the final episode that it occurred to me how seamless the transitions from scene to scene or even shot to shot were, even though the pacing had increased in the final two hours of the series. Once Strange has entered the King’s Roads and descended into the madness that drives all of the related subplots toward one huge conclusion, the story starts flying and the use of more magic within the story could easily create confusion for viewers unfamiliar with the story, but strong editing and camerawork ensure that the viewer never loses the perspective required to keep pace.

One of you mentioned some dismay that Strange’s time serving as the official army magician under Wellington was given relatively less time on screen than on the page, an understandable disappointment at a choice that was likely made either for budgetary reasons or because the writers didn’t want to bog the story down in a segment where Strange and Norrell are completely apart. I thought the portrayal of the sycophantic fraudster Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) was too much of a caricature, and the relationship between Strange and Flora Graysteel in Venice required some more on-screen explanation. On the plus side, the series did a better job portraying the book’s ambiguous conclusion than Clarke herself did on the page, and while I still wanted a happier ending, at least the series turned the vague resolution into clear images the viewer could take away.

I would still suggest anyone interested in the series start with the book, both for background and for the sheer pleasure of the experience. The novel has much dry wit that can’t translate to the screen, as well as copious footnotes that mostly add humor to the story, and Clarke’s prose sparkles in ways that will never come through on film. But the adaptation here is so thorough that I believe any viewer could approach it without the background of the book and still follow the entire story without any trouble, which, for a work this dense, is a major achievement. I know in the time of “peak TV” there’s tremendous competition for your eyeballs and nowhere near enough time to watch everything you want – I might see a tenth of the series I’d like to see – but if you’re going to binge anything this offseason, put Jonathan Strange on your list.

Hyperion.

I reviewed the boardgame Orleans for Paste this week, and my latest Insider post breaks down the Aroldis Chapman trade, including my disdain for the Yankees’ decision to trade for someone with an unresolved domestic assault accusation attached to him.

I decided last year to start working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel (there are now 64 winners, and I’m through 27) because I’m obsessed with lists, but more importantly, because it seemed like a good way to find the kind of big, immersive, ambitious novels I enjoy most, works that stick with me long after they’re done. The Left Hand of Darkness was one such discovery; To Say Nothing of the Dog was another; Among Others totally blew me away. There are duds, like Red Mars, but I’ll take a couple of those along the way when some of the winners are as amazing as Dan Simmons’ 1989 novel Hyperion, winner of the Hugo in 1989.

Hyperion is one of the most remarkable sci-fi books I’ve ever read – a highly literate, ambitious novel with an unusual structure and a delightful habit of defying reader expectations at multiple turns. Modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and presaging the very similar structure used by David Mitchell in his nested novel Cloud Atlas, Hyperion follows seven pilgrims on a journey to the planet of the book’s title, where they go to meet the mysterious creature known as the Shrike, a trek from which most pilgrims do not return. The fate of their requests of the Shrike may connect to the fate of humanity, which has spread itself around the galaxy and spun off a splinter group of violent rebels called the Ousters as well as an independent entity powered by artificial intelligences that became sentient and seceded from man.

The meat of the novel is those pilgrims’ stories, each told in a different voice and different style (as in Mitchell’s novel), from the priest who reads from the diary of his friend who died on Hyperion to the private investigator whose story unfurls like a detective novel to the Consul whose paramour, Siri, is the original time traveler’s wife. Simmons infuses each of these characters, some of whom are, shall we say, less than entirely sympathetic, with depth and complexity, enough that any one of them could have carried an entire novel by him/herself. The story of the father who makes the journey with his infant daughter is just heartbreaking, and while Simmons probably pushes one sorrow button too many, his description of that father’s experience watching his daughter’s pain is stunning and never forced.

Simmons has also created, in one book, a literary universe the size and scope of that in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, one that Simmons revisited in three subsequent novels (about which I’ve gotten mixed reviews from all of you over the last ten days). His vision of a distant future is bleak in spots, but he hasn’t given up on humanity entirely, while his incorporation of unrealistic or impossible scientific advances (such as interstellar travel using “farcasters”) at least brings the veneer of realism – and many of these technologies are critical to the book’s stories. Simmons created a mind-boggling world, then put his characters through grueling life tests within it, showing us their reactions and their development in response to these trials.

However, Hyperion doesn’t deliver what I expected most from it: an ending. The journey is the story; the pilgrims do not reach the Shrike at the end of the book, and the resolutions of their various stories come in the sequel, Fall of Hyperion, which I understand departs from this book’s narrative technique. Simmons leaves so many questions unanswered, from Rachel’s fate to Hoyt’s real purpose to the Consul’s ability to achieve his goal, that even though Hyperion is an immensely satisfying work on its own, the ending felt too much like a cliffhanger to think of it as a completely self-contained work. “All Prologue” is fine and good up to a point, but giving us all back story and virtually no present works against the power of the book as a whole.

Next up: I’ve finished Michio Kaku’s Beyond Einstein, a 1995 book on the history of superstrings, and just started another Hugo winner, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls.

The Keepers of the House.

My thoughts on the Jeff Samardzija contract are up for Insiders. I’m still waiting for details on Hisashi Iwakuma’s reported contract before writing that one up.

Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The Keepers of the House, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1965, is an outstanding work of seething rage that manages to address themes of race and racial injustice by telling the story of a white family, of all things, in rural Alabama, from the late 19th century through the period just before the book’s publication. It is obvious to me why it won the award, and baffling to me that it has all but disappeared from reading lists, with no film adaptation or anything else to keep it alive.

The book nominally details seven generations of the Howland family, but the focus is primarily on two of them: the fifth William Howland and his granddaughter Abigail, who returns with her mother to live with her grandfather after her father abandons the family to fight in World War II, and ends up raised by her grandfather after her mother dies shortly after. William brought a young black woman named Margaret in to be the housekeeper after his own wife died in childbirth, and Margaret eventually became his mistress, bearing him three children, each of whom was sent away to schools in the north where their mixed heritage would not be held against them. While the relationship was commonly known in the area, the locals – depicted by and large as the sort of upstanding racists you might associate with the South of the 1950s – overlooked it as a quirk of those crazy Howlands.

After William dies, Margaret moves back to the black section of town with her family, and Abigail and her ambitious politician husband John Tolliver move into the Howland estate. When John runs for Governor of Alabama, a post he’s favored to win in a landslide, one unknown detail emerges about William and Margaret that derails his campaign and marriage while bringing the wrath of the town upon Abigail, thereby unlocking within her generations of outrage at the hypocrisy all around her, from the local whites who would tolerate such miscegenation up to a point to William and Margaret’s children who try to reject their black heritage.

The first three-fourths of Grau’s novel feel like many other novels in the subgenre of southern literature, telling a vast story of a family that once ruled a vast estate or accumulated great wealth but watched it fritter away via complacent or dissolute descendants. But Grau plants many seeds (no pun intended) in the early going to set up a dynamite climax (same) that gives Abigail two shots at revenge on her family’s tormentors, taking advantage of the unspoken dependence of the townfolk to enact a vicious vengeance. Abigail serves her revenge piping hot, and because of its genesis, it’s an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion for the reader.

It’s even more potent for Grau’s decision to tell the story with Abigail as the narrator. Imposing that fog over the family history – it’s passed down orally, so bits of it seem embellished, perhaps impossible – meant that images become clearer as the story approaches the material Abigail herself would have seen, and allows us to trace the development of her identity as a Howland, especially from the time when she goes to live on the family estate. In the time when Grau wrote Keepers, it was unthinkable to have a black character enact the sort of revenge Abigail gets – as it was, Grau ended up with a cross burned on her lawn after the book was published – so giving us a white woman who was raised in a house where black children were treated as cousins was probably the closest Grau could get. And in so doing, she never spared the white racists who smiled and said the right things but harbored the same centuries-old bigotry in their hearts.

Next up: I just finished Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, a Nero Wolfe mystery, and have begun Stephanie Kallos’s highly lauded 2015 novel Language Arts.