Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I'll take "Books" for five hundred, Alex

My reading tastes, as I've indicated before, have shifted in the last eighteen months or so to narratives of how people respond to being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Notice that I don't say "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances", because it's always extraordinary circumstances that make people extraordinary, right? You never hear about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances. Well, not much, anyway. I've just completed two such books, back-to-back, which provide a fairly stark contrast between the types of circumstances endured by their authors: one seems fairly banal and only elevated to the level of "extraordinary" by virtue of the author's performance, while the other is clearly extraordinary right from the very beginning.

The first of the books I read follows the latter course. I was looking through the history stacks at the library for some kind of personal war narrative, not really caring about what war or what person's narrative it was. I found a number of such books, too, and finally settled on Tomorrow to be Brave by Susan Travers. The subtitle gives the game away fairly quickly: "A Memoir of the only woman ever to serve in the French Foreign Legion". Automatically I found myself wondering, What kind of woman joins the Foreign Legion? The answer becomes clear at the outset of the book's second chapter, when Travers bluntly tells us, "It is my greatest regret that I wasn't born a boy."

Judging by the way she depicts her childhood, this seems to also be her parents' greatest regret. Born in England before World War One, Travers was raised by fairly distant parents and a downright cold brother into her young adult years, when the family moved to France (making her feel doubly the outsider). She is sent to boarding school, becomes a semi-professional tennis player, and eventually volunteers with the French Red Cross, because she wishes to play a part in the war.

What follows is pretty harrowing stuff, as Travers ends up in North Africa with the Foreign Legion, driving the car for a general with whom she falls in love (and later becoming his mistress). Their affair plays out amidst the desperation of the Foreign Legion's stand against Erwin Rommel's advance across Africa. There's no getting around the sadness inherent in this book, as Travers makes clear she has resisted telling this story until all of the persons in it, save her, have died. Tomorrow to be Brave is part elegy, part testimony, and one of the more passionate books I've read.

Having written her book in 2001, Travers died in 2003 at the age of 94.

And from the last page of this heart-rending book about love and loss in the sands of North Africa in World War II, I plunged straight into Brainiac by Ken Jennings.

Yep, the tell-all book by the guy who spent six months as reigning champion on Jeopardy!. But this is more than a tell-all book about a game show; Jennings instead delves into the "Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs".

Why would I read Ken Jennings's book about trivia right after a passionate tale of forbidden love in World War II? Well, there's something to reading books with wildly contrasting tones and subject matter for me -- "cleansing the mental palate", you might say -- but I do tend to avoid reading books of similar genres back-to-back, or at least more than a couple such books back-to-back. There's always the danger of overdosing on a genre, as well as the danger that a book that's pretty good will look downright bad in comparison to the book before, if that one was a great one. (An extreme example here would be when I tried, years ago, reading the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series immediately after finishing Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana. I never did take any kind of shine to Jordan, but coming right after Kay, he really didn't come off well.) So, anyway, Jennings it was. Not to imply that I expected his book to be crap after the remarkable Tomorrow to be Brave, but rather that I expected it to be totally different. And it was.

But here's the thing: Brainiac is a delight.

Jennings could have given us a boring biography of himself coupled with a fairly dull, blow-by-blow account of his Jeopardy! run, but he doesn't. He's more concerned with the larger subject of trivia: what constitutes trivia, what drives people who make trivia their hobby, what kind of organized events trivia buffs partake in to advance their hobbies, and so on. It turns out that trivia buffs have their own little subculture to themselves, much as role-playing gamers, or anime fans, or football fans, and so on. For this book, Jennings spends a lot of time profiling the world of competitive college Quiz Bowls, the people who actually write the "questions" on Jeopardy!, the history of various trivia TV game shows and home board games, and even ruminates on how Google has changed the hobby of trivia.

But of course, there's a lot of Jeopardy! stuff, too, detailing Jennings's try-out for the show, his method of practice before his appearance (he used his living-room recliner as his podium and his kid's ring-stacking toy as his buzzer), his discoveries of proper buzzing technique, what it's like to tape a week's worth of episodes in a single day, and so on. We learn what it's really like during the "gab session" between Alex Trebek and the contestants during each show's end credits:

This is each show's most awkward moment. All four of you are pretending to be at a jovial cocktail party when, in actuality, two of you are kicking yourselves for muffing your chance at Jeopardy! stardom and lamenting what might have been, one of you is gradually realizing you're going to have to go through the whole stressful ordeal again in about ten minutes, and one of you is wondering how much of the Lakers game you're going to miss.

Jennings also relates some of the logistical nightmares inherent in his far-longer-than-anticipated stay on the show, from the excuses he has to cook up to get out of work constantly (since he's forbidden by contract to tell anyone he's been on the show until it airs), how he works his way into a "home field advantage" of sorts (watch the show long enough, and you note that they re-use questions), and how Trebek himself at one point late in Jennings's run castigates the other contestants after they've played poorly in Single Jeopardy!: "You are not here as Ken Jennings's fan club!" One envisions that episode of The Simpsons, when Homer shows up at the "All You Can Eat" seafood restaurant and proceeds to eat it into bankruptcy.

Jennings writes with a breezy, self-deprecating wit, and when I was done with his book, I knew something that I hadn't known before. And I'm not just talking about all the trivia.

You don't get books that contrast more than these two. And that's good, because I like contrast.

Sprinkled through all of this are ruminations on what makes trivia so compelling, the "anatomy" of a good trivia question, and, yes, actual trivia questions with answers provided at the end of each chapter.

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