Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Summer Book Reviews (Where I Brag About My Erudition)

Edit: forgot a book, which, when I realized it, made me drop the grade a little.

New books I read this summer:

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (B-): I dropped the grade from a B+ because I had forgotten I read this book this summer, which calls into question how good it really is. Yu creates a mind-bending universe with lots of little metafictional tidbits; after a while I got really irritated and shut off the part of my brain that was trying to make sense of it (Douglas Adams did all this much, much better). However, while Yu is not a great SF writer, he is a great writer: his story is really about a boy trying to reconnect with his broken family, and it's hard not to empathize with the well-drawn characters he creates.

Declare, Tim Powers (A): A really, really good mashup of spy fiction (compared to Le Carre, but the comparison I would make is a pulpy Robert Ludlum), Cold War history, and fantasy (maybe a little on the Eldritch Horror side).
The world-building is well done and mixes together fact and fiction as well as does Eifelheim, which is the undisputed champ in the fantastic-history realm (see below). Oddly enough, Declare  also deals with faith and redemption the way Eifelheim does. Declare's only issue is that it is really dense (you have to know a little Arabic and French, and be willing to read Wikipedia a lot), and often the density obscures the plot, which is suitably twisted but sometimes obscured by all the stuff Powers throws in.

Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Ecco (a generous C): Ecco is, in some ways, a genius, and extraordinarily well-read; unfortunately his work (as translated into English by William Weaver) doesn't hold up very well as fiction. Foucault's Pendulum has some great historical oddities strung together to make an interesting theory or two, and a few nice character moments, but its plot isn't interesting until the very, very end, and all the cool symbolism, funny stories (Aglie is the man...or is he!?!), and themes get buried under minutiae and self-congratulatory cleverness. It's not meant to be a thriller, but it also struggles to make points about the human condition; long-form essay might have suited the ideas better than the world Ecco tries to put before us.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (C+): "Dear Jane," said her Editor, "We really liked Pride and Prejudice, but could you cut out all that lowbrow 'humor' and 'satire' stuff for your next one? It makes the book too accessible to the lower class, and we can't have uneducated people reading our books, of course. Also, we need a heroine who isn't as...interesting as that Bennet woman. I know it might seem like the editorial staff is going against your wishes, but basically, we outvote you. Laughing Out Loud! Women can't vote in this country! Unless you move to New Zealand or something. Rolling On the Floor and Laughing Out Loud! Anyways, make the cuts we want and a sandwich, and we'll have some quid for you, that's a good girl."

The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills (C): Mills has some interesting points to make about the effect of the postwar world on science and philosophy, but his tone is so self-righteous and snarky that it's difficult to imagine him being correct about anything at all when he casually brushes aside entire domains of social science. The Girlfriend has informed me that all sociologists tend to be critical of each other, as a healthy way of encouraging critical thought in the field*; I prefer thinking that Mills failed his stats courses in college and couldn't pick up women in bars, so of course he was going to say that statisticians and interviewers were unskilled bozos. Furthermore, Mills' thoughts on big-picture society reads as being somewhat dated; in the 1950s and '60s, it might have been radical to suggest that capitalism as a whole might not have had an entirely beneficial effect on mankind (actually Death of a Salesman came out ten years earlier, so Mills wasn't even cutting edge in his own time), but it isn't anymore. See? That's me using Mills' tone. Do you like it? I didn't think so.  (Full disclaimer: Paul Lazarsfield is the only sociologist I can remember reading in undergrad and thinking, "that's a cool set of ideas", and so Mills attacking him definitely lowered Imagination's grade)

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman (A-):  The Girlfriend is a huge fan of Goffman, so of course he has to get an A, because I want to present myself as being intellectual and supportive to her. (See? That's me using Goffman...oh nvmd). In all seriousness, Goffman has points to make that are actually interesting, and touch on epistemology, which is one of the themes that I throw around in casual conversation to make myself seem smart to the people whose attention and approval I so desperately crave. Although his examples are a little dated (e.g. "girls who want to date handsome boys often act so stupid they could be extras on Paris Hilton's reality-TV series", p87**)

Wolves of the Calla, Stephen King (B): The book is split into two different sections, one of which is a wonderful Western/science fiction mix about the power of united communities to overcome great odds, with a dollop of Weirdness to keep you on your toes, and the other is a schlocky semimystical romp through alternate versions of New York that drag the entire thing to a screeching, crashing halt.  I think the atmosphere of the Western overcomes the melodramatic-ness of the other story, in the same way that Lost was able to overcome its cliched pulp mysteries with good stories about interesting characters.

Song of Susannah, Stephen King (C- or D+): "Dear Stephen", said the Editor, "We really liked Wolves of the Calla, but could you cut out that Western nonsense? It makes the story too interesting and- WHO AM I KIDDING I'M STEPHEN KING I DON'T HAVE AN EDITOR HA HA I AM MY OWN EDITOR HA HA HA I'M EDITING MY OWN WORK ISN'T THAT META, HEY META SOUNDS LIKE "METAL", MAYBE I SHOULD WRITE ABOUT METAL MUSIC THAT IS ACTUALLY ALL THE METAL IN THE WORLD, SO ITS META METAL, YEAH-------

The Domino Effect, Timothy Zahn (B- or C+): Whew! This one reads quick (finished it in a day) and sets up its universe and its problem very very quickly so you can get right to the twisty, turny plot (I didn't realize it was the fourth book in a series until a third of the way through). Lots of neat ideas, but nothing I could really put my finger on as being particular original or standoutish. A good book to bring to the beach.

Anathem, Neal Stephenson (A-): This is the book I was hoping for from Foucault's Pendulum. If you are interested in math, classical philosophy and Socratic dialog, quantum mechanics, and astrophysics, check it out, but try to read as little as possible about it before you do. I mean it. No reviews, no book jackets, no Wikipedia references. Don't read the intro and don't read the glossary in the back. Just start the book. I'm normally pretty spoiler-happy, but there's an ultimate point to the twists in Anathem that you will totally miss if you decide to spoil it for yourself

*SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS*

Stephenson, in a neat little stylistic turn, puts you, the reader, into a similar state as the main characters, by setting you up in a cozy little world filled with conscious and unconscious assumptions about what you know, and then constantly shocking you by showing you that what you thought all along was completely wrong, in the same way that the characters in the book have strong assumptions ripped apart by reality (in more ways than one). ACK! Can't say anymore! Go Read It!  

*I totally made that up

**I totally made that up too; the quote is on page 22

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