Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I don't know if I've ever read a book quite like The Windup Girl. Normally, I try to situate a book I've just read in relation to other books, no matter how tenuous and personal the connections may be (I can't explain why I always think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a more interesting version of On the Road, for instance.)

But this, I'm at a loss. Nothing springs to mind. It so rarely happens, but The Windup Girl stands alone in my mind

And it has snuck up on me. I ended up reading this book over a long period of time, and while I never felt deeply affected by it noticeably, it ended up changing how I look at the world around me. I don't know how long it will last, but I've started to become hyperaware of waste, of packaging, of the calories that went into creating anything I use, particularly anything disposable. This wasn't a bolt from the blue, it was a slow creeping up of awareness. I make no claims that it's going to stick with me in the long-term, but it was interesting feeling how it snuck up and insinuated itself into my perceptions.

The world Bacigalupi creates is utterly unlike any I've seen, and convincing. He puts forward a post-Collapse civilization that has not fallen utterly to pieces (although it has disintegrated quite a bit), but which struggles to keep some technology going, while others campaign to limit how things can change, fearful of setting off another cataclysm. (The treadle-pump computer was mentioned only once, but illustrated so well to me the world.)

In this world, the city of Bangkok struggles to keep back the rising seas, and to do so, closes its borders in most ways to outsiders of any sort, refugees, or companies. But by the time the book has started, enough time has passed that inroads are starting to be made. Will they change the way the city exists, the politics that surround it? Yes, but probably not in the way you expect. Certainly not in any way I expected. 

In the centre of the struggles between the Environment Ministry and the Trade Ministry, which a representative of the "calorie companies' tries to exploit, there stands Emiko, the eponymous Windup Girl, a genetically modified human being, marked arbitrarily with a jerky, wind-up motion to single her out as other-than-human. Deserted in Bangkok, regarded as soulless by most of the world, subject to being composted if she is discovered without the proper bribes, Emiko suffers immense degradation, and yet, persists. Struggles. Despairs. Survives. 

I enjoyed The Windup Girl thoroughly, and it often took me by surprise. As I said, I've never read a book with quite the same feel. It's nice to be surprised.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

Welcome to another edition of Megan's Damning With Faint Praise!

This book is fine. It is readable, it didn't piss me off, I enjoyed it while I was reading it. These are things I almost always say about books I liked but inspired me to no passion, one way or another. And it's true in this case as well.

But the main problem of this book is that I don't feel the urgency - she creates a situation that should make me anxious, but I wasn't feeling it. I was wondering if it was me, but then I picked up and read about 20 pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest, from a section near the end, and realized, no, it's not just me. Those 20 pages contained more tension than the entire book of The Midwife of Venice. And so, partly by comparison to a truly great work of sort-of historical fiction, this book falls flat.

I think I know why - the author tells us many times that the Jews are in constant danger in the ghetto at Venice, but nothing ever happens to make that threat real. We are told that enslaved men on Malta often die from maltreatment before they are ransomed, but that never happens either. We are told that babies frequently die in childbirth, and mothers, despite the skill of the midwife, which Hannah most certainly is, but they never do while in our sight. All these threats are told about, not shown to occur, not even to characters we have no connection to. 

Telling, in this case, does not work that well. We need to see those consequences, feel them keenly, dread them happening again. 

The characters are, for the most part, well-drawn, although they did suffer at times from inconsistentitis - you know, where characters do something entirely out of character, because it's what the plot demands. The main character, Hannah, when her sister reproaches her for something entirely reasonable, and for which Hannah has already held herself responsible, decides that this is outrageous, the straw that broke the camel's back, her sister is now dead to her! Sorry? Come again? 

So that's a problem - not a huge one, for it doesn't happen that often, but a problem. 

Yet, the characters are interesting, the book held my attention while I was reading it, it was a fast and non-taxing read. It's just not more than that, and it aspires to be more. I hope Roberta Rich writes more, and puts more on the line in future books, because she has skill, but not yet craftmanship.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl is still alive? Wow. And won a Hugo as recently as last year, for his blog. That I will have to check out. This is a guy who has been around science fiction for a long time, as a writer and as an editor. And Gateway was my first introduction to his work. Let me just go add him to the list of authors I want to read more of.... (That's not rhetorical - it's on a Sticky on my desktop.) I will want to be reading more of his work.

Gateway is a really good book - not one that knocked me over, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed, for a whole bunch of reasons. 

In a heavily overpopulated solar system, humans have discovered relics of an alien society, but only a few. One of them led people to Gateway, where Heechee ships sit with potential courses preprogrammed, but no way to really control or understand them other than picking a setting and going with it. Crew have no idea where they're going to end up, if they'll survive, or if they even have enough food or water to get where they're going and get back. So, why would anyone prospect? Well, the same reasons as the California Gold Rush - if you hit it rich, you could potentially hit it rich big time. So what if 2/3 of the ships fail to return with live crew? If you're desperate enough, it still sounds pretty appealing. 

It did for Robinette Broadhead, at least until he was faced with the prospect of actually going. 

Gateway is told by switching back and forth between Robin at his robot psychiatrist's and Robin as he first came to Gateway. Obviously suffering from some sort of trauma, Robin is combative with the psychiatrist he has freely chosen to see, and treats the sessions like games of oneupmanship. Knowing that something obviously goes horribly wrong, Robin's story on Gateway gains a subtle air of menace.

The book is also peppered with science lectures and ads from those buying and selling services to prospectors on Gateway. Some of these may be more important than they appear. Don't skip them. But even those that aren't directly related to the story at hand add important texture. 

Pohl switches elegantly between the narrative strains, and Robin is a fascinating, if sometimes annoying, character. But I was also impressed with Pohl's female characters, all of whom are well-rounded. Not perfect, as that would be as annoying as too flawed, but real people. Not cutouts who "gurgle happily" (my least favourite descriptive word for how some science fiction writers think women talk.)

And underlying the psychological makeup of Robin and his experiences, there lurks the larger mystery. Who were the Heechee? Where did they go? Why did they take most of their stuff with them, but not some things? What the heck did they even look like?

I'm looking forward to reading more of the Heechee books, and seeing if any of those questions are answered. But I like them just fine as mysteries too.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yee

I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did. I wanted to be moved. But in the end, it left me a little cold.

I enjoyed the premise, the set up, the notion of living already in a science fictional universe where, at certain points, the reality ratio went up, but at others, significantly down. I liked the idea of born Protagonists, and what happens to all the poor Joes in a science fictional universe who live in the background of the stories, and keep things running. Except these things were alluded to, once or twice, but never developed.

And dammit, I liked the idea of time travel as a metaphor for what we all do anyway, sometimes, which is dwelling in the past. Yu's time travellers never seem to go to the future, they go to their pasts, to the moments they find unbearable in their own personal histories, and try to change them, or simply watch. The main character lives in his time machine, repairs the time machines of others, but he is constantly looking for where his father might have gone in time, how he might have gotten unstuck, while his mother is trapped (voluntarily, at the start) in the same slice of time - dinnertime with her family, over and over again. 

And then, of course, the main character (with the same name as the author) meets himself coming out of his time travel machine one day, and shoots him. And then has to go through what he has, in many ways, gone through many times before, and leads up to being present to be shot. On the way, he reads a book as he writes, and uses this to watch some of the moments that tell him where his father might be lost.

These metaphors this books uses to tell the story are powerful, and yet somehow, at the end, I wasn't particularly moved. The ideas themselves are evocative, but I didn't feel like the writing itself helped really bring home the emotional impact. I hope Charles Yu writes more, because he has great and poignant ideas, and the seeds of being a great writer. But this book didn't quite deliver.

How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe is a good book, but not a great one. Yet it has seeds of greatness within it.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief is bursting with so many ideas that it is an exhilarating read. What it needs is just a little more finesse, a slightly better pace for doling out information, for letting us play in this wonderful playground he's created. It is so complete, but so alien, and I needed just a little bit more of a guide. I like to flatter myself that I'm not an unperceptive reader, and I certainly don't mind it when authors don't tip their hands all at once and want me to work for it.

But where I had a few problems was where there weren't explanations (or weren't particularly good ones) of some core concepts, so later, when I was supposed to find this particular use of an idea horrifying, it didn't have the emotional punch it needed to.

Just a little bit more of not expecting all your readers to have all your specialized knowledge in the next book, Hannu Rajaniemi? Don't talk down to us, just learn how to pace your reveals about how this world works. Specifically, I'm talking about gogols. I always thought I knew what that meant, in general, but implications of that in this fictional universe, why they were and could be horrifying I could only guess at. And that made some emotional punches fall flat. 

What I'm saying is, I want to play too. But you have to explain the rules. Even if you're playing Calvinball and the rule is that the rules are constantly changing.

This reminds me very much of a show I saw some friends in, years ago. It was a comedy. They had overrehearsed. And because they had, they'd forgotten where the original laughs were, and were adding extra stuff in to make each other laugh. What this did was make it inaccessible to the audience, who hadn't been there through two+ months of rehearsals. The underlying jokes were obscured by in-jokes. And that was funny for them, but not for us. 

That aside, this is a dizzying exploration of ideas that tumble free and fast, one after another. The sheer exhilaration of the new ideas is breathtaking, when I could keep up with them. And while I find there are some first-book problems, characters are, thankfully, not one of them. I found them complex and compelling.

Jean le Flambeur, master thief, is sprung from prison by Mieli, a warrior from an Oortian culture. (A little more on what that means? The tastes we get are very interesting, but they're not much.) She is doing this to help her find a lost love, working for one of those who seem to play with reality on a galactic scale. (Again, not much detail on what this means in practice.) She takes him to the Oubliette on Mars where he has to recover information he left for himself. But to get it, he'll have to choose to pay a terrible price. Or not to pay it. 

The Oubliette was the most fleshed out concept in the book, and it was fascinating - proving Rajaniemi can explain things interestingly, and with emotional punch, when he wants to. It is a total privacy society in the midst of total surveillance. While everything is recorded, control over who can see or do what extends even to who can perceive you when walking down the street, and whether the two participants in a conversation allow each other to remember it happened at all, let alone the contents. 

And when we get into what memories might be accessible or inaccessible, what might be tainting them, and who might be behind the scenes - not to mention revelations about the nature of the Oubliette itself, I was at my most enthralled. This book turned me on my head several times. 

I've heard the next book is even better, and I hope that's true. I hope he does more of what he does so very very well in the next one, and less withholding just to withhold. This is an excellent first novel, but it's challenging, and not without fault. I love that he's trying to do so much. Next comes the skill to manage so many elements. Rajaniemi is almost there. I can taste it.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Crow Road by Iain Banks

I was enjoying the hell out of this book right up until, near the end, it decided without warning to become a murder mystery. That section felt so out of place with the rest of this meandering, detailed meditation on death and growing up.

When life was full of mysteries and strangenesses, and talking moles (the skin thing, not the animal), and unfortunate bolts of lightning and litter bins, that was the book I was enjoying reading. One that didn't need to supply an answer for everything, that bravely asserted that not every death has a meaning, and sometimes the world is tragically absurd.

And then, for several chapters, it became about Prentice, the main character, solving several murders and playing cat and mouse with the killer, and it just didn't hang together with the rest of the book. 

The book starts with Prentice's grandmother's cremation, at which she blows up. I'm not spoiling anything, that's the first line of the book. He is on the outs with his father over his lack of atheism, desperately in love with a not-cousin. (A cousin of his cousins, if that makes sense. No blood relation.) He is flunking out of school. He is a bit of an idiot. 

And Prentice continues to be a bit of an idiot for a good portion of the book, as he sulks, drinks, and pushes people away. That was a bit trying for a while, but there was enough there to keep me interested. Specifically, the wealth of detail Banks brings to his world enchanted me. It was so complete, so tactile, the details so small and odd that it felt both familiar and strange. The taillight game that Ashley plays was so precise that I was sure the author must either do that himself, or know someone who does. 

Then life dishes out the kind of irony that only exists in fiction and real life, and Prentice has to start to consider who he actually is and what he's going to do. 

And then the murder mystery part happens. It felt like a payoff that didn't live up to the mystery. As a meditation on growing up and death, I highly recommend this book. But if Banks wants to write a murder mystery, he should just write a bloody murder mystery.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

It has been over a week and a half since I last finished a book. This is so extremely unusual. I'm trying not to hold it against the collection of books I've been reading that week in a half, but at times it's hard. I find myself eyeing Ulysses suspiciously, poking The Reality Dysfunction every once in a while to see if it's moved, or tucking The Idiot in my purse to try to get through just a little more. (Does anyone else think it's odd that a 600+ Dostoyevsky book is the only one that will fit in my purse?)

And Lord Jim, which I've also had underway for most of that time. And is the first of the bunch I actually finished.

Studying masculinity as I do, it's hard to not see Lord Jim as a novel about what it means to be a man. Jim, as a young man, is the epitome of what a British sailor should be like. He looks reliable, he looks like "one of us," he's got the bearing and stature that should, if appearances mean anything, tell you that he is to be relied upon and trusted.

If, of course, appearances mean anything. Who can you trust if you can't trust a ruddy-cheeked, healthy Englishman?

But there is an incident in Jim's past, one that haunts him, that makes him, for a while, an outcast, and even after the point where everyone else might have forgotten what he did, his own inability to do so, his own consciousness that that at least once, his outward appearance was not matched by word or deed, drives him further and further away from white colonial society, and eventually to become the only white man in the depths of a Malay settlement, where he rises to be considered "Lord" Jim. But even that distance may not be enough.

What actually happened on that fateful day is shot through with ambiguity - we have Jim's version, of course. But there are doubts that he is telling the whole truth, or even that he knows the whole truth. Jim's story is such a threat to others and their own identities, who see a shadowy reflection of something they themselves might have done, that it causes it to be more harshly judged, more critically gossiped about, and the unease it engenders in one of his judges drives that judge to an extreme act of self-destruction.

If one upstanding young man can act that way, what does it mean for the masculinity of the rest?

As for the experience of reading the book, I found it dragged quite a bit for the first 50-100 pages. I had to pull myself through it by sheer force of will, as Conrad danced around the topic of what Jim had done without ever quite spelling it out. But then as it started to become clear, not necessarily the event itself, but what Conrad was examining, the instability of masculinity in a colonial world, and thus the need for it to be ever more vigilantly guarded, I became absolutely engrossed.

Then, halfway through, it started to drag again. But by the end, I was as caught up as ever. I'm not sure if the book ebbs and flows that way, or if some days I was in the mood for this one, and some days I certainly wasn't.

But the issues it raised about white male identity in a colonial world, and the betrayal of self and the long-lasting repercussions that had for both Jim and others, the actions to which it drove them, the judgements they made, (view spoiler)and the final action of Jim's life, where he atones for a second mistake in the only way he thinks he can and still retain who he is, they made this a book well worth reading.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

A Storm In Flanders by Winston Groom

This is a very awkward review to write. I've spent the better part of the last ten years turning myself into a historian, see, and so I feel like I should be speaking as an expert, analyzing this book of popular history, pointing out what's right and wrong, speaking from my so-called vast knowledge on the value of a book about Ypres written by the author of Forrest Gump.

The thing is, I don't know a damned thing about military history. I mean, I know the basics of the War of 1812 and Canada's participation in the World Wars, but man, that is it.

So really, I have no idea how accurate this is, or what more seasoned military historians would say. I have no gauge. (Well, his one pronouncement on the area I do know cold is utterly wrong, but then again, it's something the vast majority of people get utterly wrong, including historians.)

And my opinion as something very close to a layperson? It's all right. I didn't love it, but it was accessible, easy to read, and he incorporated some soldier narratives in interesting ways. This isn't a riveting book, as far as I'm concerned. (But then, I'm biased - there's a reason I generally stay away from military history.)

The descriptions of trench warfare, however, are vivid and stark, and he does a good job of capturing the long days and weeks and months with very little progress made. While Groom covers the decisions being made by the generals and politicians, he frames them in terms of the impact on the men who had to carry them out.

So, should I recommend this book to others? I'm not sure. But if you're interested in military history, it might be worth a read. Then again, military historians might come along and remind me I'm talking out my ass. And I am.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This was my second time reading Middlesex, and I have to admit I approached it with some trepidation, wondering if I would enjoy it as much the second time, if I would be as swept up in the story, if, indeed, it would hold up.

And it did. While I wasn't swept away in the dizzying rush of plowing through it (harder to achieve when it's a bathroom book,) I still thoroughly enjoyed the depth of the story, the wide cast of characters, the tour through Detroit history, the allusions to classical literature. (I caught two - there were probably more. The obvious one to Homer at the beginning, and a definite allusion to the last line of Jane Eyre at the end of the chapter. Which was much better done than the attempt to make the same sort of allusion at the end of The Gate at the Stairs, which you'll remember I absolutely hated.)

Middlesex, if you read the back cover, is the story of Cal, formerly Calliope. Who is raised as a girl, but at some point discovers her genitalia are more ambiguous, and eventually decides to live as man - this isn't a spoiler, the adult Cal narrates the novel. But it isn't just that, although Cal's story is fascinating. It's the story of three generations, of leaving Europe, of arriving in America, of negotiating the changing landscape of Detroit over decades, culminating in the growing up of Calliope and her brother, Chapter Eleven, in the 1960s.

It's the story of grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, who left in the middle of a war, and tried to find a place. (The section on working at the Ford motor plant, and their intrusions into workers' lives made me livid.) It's the story of their son, Milton, and his wife, Tessie. And their two children.

While Calliope/Cal is at the centre of the story, making this a generational novel was a brilliant move. It places Cal in a context, in a family, in the midst of a cast of characters, instead of being a novel about an isolated individual and individual struggles. Stories do, after all, always take place in context, and by choosing to root this story of indeterminate biological sex in a wider sweep of character and history, Eugenides adds depth and place to a main character who is trying to make sense of their life, trying to make sense of where they are and who they are.

Eugenides is also not trying to tell the story of a community - indeed, Cal writes of shying away from the intersex community, although he's also unsure why, or if that's the right decision. It is the story of one person, one experience, and makes no claims to definitive or universal. But the particular, strange as it sometimes is, manages to reach beyond that and be accessible (though sometimes challenging) to much more than one person, one medical condition, and one life.

Monday, 13 May 2013

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Note to self: While taking books you want to reread and write reviews for and putting them in the bathroom to be read over a month or so is a good idea, before you embark on this in the future, take a good look at the book. Is it monstrously long? Then it may not be ideal bathroom reading.

Not only is it heavy, that means I took around 6 months to read this, which, on first read, took me maybe two weeks. Maybe.

While this may have accidentally meant I read it much like his original readers did, when it was released in 19 monthly installments (or so wikipedia says), it did mean that now, having finished it a few days ago, I'm struggling to remember the beginning. Would this have been a problem Victorian readers had? Or would they have gone back and read favourite bits to refresh their memories?

David Copperfield is one of my favourite Dickens' books, and I tend to enjoy Dickens quite a lot. It's not a perfect book by any means, and on this read, I noticed that it lagged in the middle. (I suddenly found it much harder to pick up and was more easily distracted by the graphic novels that are my husband's bathroom reading materials.) But it picked up again by the end.

The characters are what make these books sparkle. You could accuse some of them of being caricatures, and you wouldn't be far wrong. But, oh, what wonderful caricatures they are! While not, perhaps, fully fleshed out humans, they fairly leap off the page. It's like I came into the world with spots for Mr. and Mrs. Micawber and Uriah Heep and Mr. Murdstone and Betsey Trotwood and Peggotty already in my brain, and just had to discover the characters that fit there.

When I first sat down to start this reread, I remembered very little of the book. But as I was reading, every sentence was like deja vu. I recognized even as I read, and even small events, even characters like Traddles who had somehow slipped my mind, emerged again as old friends.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, David Copperfield is thrust unkindly out into the world by fate - first rejected by his aunt, as he wasn't a girl, then subject to cruel discipline and alienation by his stepfather.

As David grows up, he finds both bad and good in the world, runs into people who help him and who hurt him. Some of the time the worst blows are dealt by those in whom he had the most faith.

But the story isn't the story here. Yes, David Copperfield is a wonderful book, but it's not because it has a driving plotline. This is a book for those who enjoy meandering, the textures of the world he creates, and characters he populates it with. I reread this simply to follow along again as David wends his way in the world, and to shudder and cheer his setbacks and successes.

I did find that, after David Copperfield moves to London and takes up his place as a clerk at the ecclesiastical court, my attention lagged. It picked up again when the Micawbers reentered the picture, and the storyline about Uriah Heep is probably my favourite, because it's so satisfying to see such an unpleasant character get his comeuppance.

I can see these characters, and that's unusual for me. In David Copperfield, Dickens was at the height of his powers for creating memorable people and setting them loose to live their lives.

Now to pick something much shorter for my next reread.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Reading this book was a lot like riding in a car that steadily picks up speed and then stalls out. I wanted to like it a great deal more than I ended up doing.

I would be trucking along, really getting into it, starting to get eager about turning the page and finding out what was going to happen next, and then...some reference to "hairy-legged academic feminists" or the "Ejaculation Control Commission" or "those things women always say to manipulate men" and my enjoyment would come to a screeching halt.

Okay, the second one was a little funny, at first, until the character went on to explain in great detail how women run the world to prevent men from ejaculating in anything but approved receptacles. With no obvious sense of satire.

Since I'm a feminist, and an academic, who sometimes has hairy legs, depending on whether I remember or care on any given day, this was less than fun. It was frustrating as hell to have a story I was enjoying interrupted about once every two hundred pages for a little diatribe on how feminists/women/the PC police were ruining the men they encountered.

You know, like the digression where one of the main characters writes that he's sure that the "PC police" would call him going on a date with a woman rape, since, although she asked him, she was the daughter of a guy whose company had been contracted to do some work for the main character's company. Not just sexual harassment, rape.

Straw man much, Neal Stephenson? Come up with a bullshit thing you think the "PC police" would say, and then destroy that bullshit argument, again and again? This, sir, is a logical fallacy.

Look, I'm not saying that academic wanking is unknown. Goodness knows it exists. But dude, you're a writer. Are you trying to tell me you think self-indulgent masturbatory writing is restricted to academia? Really?

So all of the aforementioned kept taking the wind out of my sails, and every time it happened, it took longer to get my enthusiasm up again, which made reading this book a very bumpy 1131 page ride.

Outside of this major issue that pretty much spoiled the book for me, there were some good things here. The story was a little overlong, but when I was into it, it was very enjoyable. The chess game of World War II cryptography was fascinating. The male characters were fairly engaging, when they weren't pissing me off. High tech business strategies as they played out through the book kept my attention.

This story takes place across two time periods, World War II and the present, and involves secrets, codes, and a very large hidden pile of gold.

There's an interesting story here. It occupies most of the book. But the things that bothered me took me so aback that they spoiled huge swathes of my reading. And it was frustrating, because the misogyny had exactly zero to do with the story, and contributed exactly nothing to the plot. That's a large part of the reason it kept taking me by surprise, the first two or three times I ran across these sections. They are few and far between. But why the hell are they there in the first place?


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

For some reason, I had the impression that Day of the Triffids was about the sudden attack of man-killing mobile plants. So I was surprised when it was revealed that the triffids had been around for a long time and a worldwide case of blindness was the cause of the catastrophe - the triffids merely took advantage of it.

For the main character, laid up in hospital with his eyes bandaged, he missed the spectacular meteor shower that seems to have caused the problem, and is one of the few who can still see. The end of the world John Wyndham paints is curiously quiet. People are alive, and blind, but the main feeling the main character encounters, with some exceptions, is one of absence, even on the first day after the event. Much of the rest of the book is an exploration of different ways to cope with the aftermath - from a newly polygynous society, to a socialist attempt to try to keep the blind alive, to a heavily moralistic colony, to a neo-feudal society with the blind as slaves. (Although, given what Wyndham painted, that there are enough blind people left alive three years after the event to make them useful serfs seems somewhat unlikely.)

Through it all, we follow the main character and the first sighted woman he meets, and later, his attempts to find her after they are separated.

I enjoyed Day of the Triffids, but I can't say I was deeply emotionally attached to the characters. Something about the book felt detached to me. But it was an entertaining and unsettling read.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

What is it about Vonnegut's authorial voice? It's simultaneously wry and tender, sarcastic and gentle. I don't know of any other authors that can manage that particular combination. And here, writing about the end of the world in so many different ways, it is on full display. 

The narrator is a journalist, writing a book about "The End of the World" - people's remembrances of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped. In the course of his research, he seeks out one of the main scientists, Dr. Hoenikker. Dr. Hoenikker has since passed, but the narrator corresponds with his children and colleagues. In the process, he learns about the good doctor's next project.

And is drawn to the small island nation of San Lorenzo, and its native religion, Bokononism, built on comfortable lies and good stories. Vonnegut seems to imply that this is as good an excuse for religion as any. Bokononism is about recognizing the simple humanity of others, and the sheer ridiculousness of the world. 

That is one of the things I love about Vonnegut - he recognizes the ridiculousness of people, their failings and flaws and pettinesses and short-sightedness, yet it doesn't make him sour about them. Slightly exasperated about them, but not nasty. That that warmth can survive gives me hope. 

And those frailties are in full supply. Without ever entirely meaning to, people keep doing things that lead to very bad outcomes! They fail to think through their actions, they fail to take responsibility for what they're doing, one scientist treats a new technology that could end the world as a game, and another bridles when the narrator suggests that maybe such an attitude is immoral. 

"It's not my responsibility, I just did this one thing!" echoes through the pages. People are short-sighted and defensive and insecure and jealous - but not evil. And yet, it doesn't take evil for terrible things to occur. It just takes flawed humanity and bad luck.

What can one do in the midst of such ridiculousness? Laugh and thumb your nose at god, Vonnegut suggests. Sometimes it does seem like the only response.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow is just okay. It's being marketed as a book on psychology (and economic psychology, in particular) for the layperson. I'm not sure if other laypeople agree, but this wasn't really for me. And it's not that the prose is too technical (okay, sometimes it is) but rather that Kahneman is stuck somewhere between academic technicalities and clear expressive prose. 

In short, sometimes, this book is clunky. There is this one example that I reacted to strongly because I didn't understand his explanation. Or rather, to give myself a little credit, because his explanation was crappy. I can think of one simple sentence that would have clearly and easily laid out the whole logical fallacy that I (and, apparently virtually everyone else who read this question ever) fell into. It's very simple. It's very simple to explain.

He doesn't do it. He talks around it, sure, but never gets to the actual nuts and bolts. It wasn't until a stray line at the beginning of the next chapter set off a bunch of associations in my head that I understood what I'd gotten wrong. And if you're trying to explain to people common mistakes in how we think and how to look for them, being able to explain clearly what they are is a bonus.

Once I figured it out, it was obvious. I did exceptionally well in probabilities in my last year of high school math, in the course for those not going on to do any more math ever, entitled "Finite Math." (I did so well the teacher suggested I should think about math as a career. I laughed and laughed.)

There is some good stuff here. There are interesting examinations of why we try to use "intuition" to think statistically, and why that doesn't work. Why we overjudge risk. When we risk, and what the psychology is. Most of the psychology is the psychology of how people interact with the marketplace, and how badly we do it (even, and perhaps particularly, the professionals). I'd be interested to hear how these concepts might be applied to non-economic psychology.

There is a lot of meat in this book. The problem is, to get to it, you have to slog through a lot of fairly boring prose. And I do that during my actual work anyway. I'm not that interested spending my leisure time doing the same. And as the book goes on, the anecdotes that illustrate concepts get fewer and fewer.

This is a fascinating topic, and Kahneman clearly knows his stuff. But the prose style is dry. Take those two things into consideration, and decide whether this one is for you. I don't mind having read it, but I can't say I thoroughly enjoyed it, either.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I was startled by how much I liked this book. I tried to go into it without expectation, without expecting it to be good or terrible, or like Harry Potter, or anything. But it grabbed me almost immediately and didn't let go.

There is, of course, very little in common with Harry Potter. But that doesn't mean there is nothing in common. That strong sense of plot, the ability to hold a million aspects of her story in her head at the same time, the interesting characters, and the deft touch at dropping in details without signposting "This here is important!" Some mystery writers don't have that talent. Rowling has it in spades.

Barry Fairbrother is dead. Sounds like it should be a cozy mystery, huh? Except there's no mystery. There's no crime. There is only death, and the absence it causes. And because Barry was who he was, there is the aftermath, as friends try to cope with his death, as his wife resents the issues he spent his life campaigning for instead of spending time with her, as his adversaries on the local parish council try to take advantage of the ensuing election to push through some local legislation that could have a devastating effect on some of the inhabitants.

Who gets to call themselves a Pagfordian, anyway? That's one of the core questions of the book. How do we draw those lines? What do we do when people cross those lines? How can we keep undesirable people from infringing on our pleasant existence? How can we make it someone else's responsibility?

So many issues of modern family life are raised in this book, but The Casual Vacancy centers around poverty. How we romanticize it. How we demonize it. How we treat it, how we alleviate it, how we punish it. Those who merely want the poor to go away. Those who want to help. The fucking complexity of the issues, and the inability of simple band-aid solutions to address anything.

And I loved the characters - they jumped off the pages at me. I loved how complex they were, and the way the story wove in and out of different families, different experiences, and layered on information that continually made the story more complex. This is not a straightforward narrative. If you're looking for that, this may drive you crazy.

I loved Krystal Weedon, the person who stands to lose the most from Barry's death, but is seen as one of the least deserving to mourn him. I loved how complex she was, how the story showed her from so many different people's perspectives, and let you understand why each person felt the way they did. I ached for her, wished I could come up with a solution.

There aren't easy solutions. But there are material things we can do to not make life worse. J.K. Rowling looks at those things, and how people justify being on different sides of the same issue. How they're motivated by personal issues, personality conflicts and history.

This is a difficult book. But a really good one, and I'm so glad I read it, for all the gutwrenching.