Books

TV and Facebook are rotting your brain. Go read a damn book. Here you’ll find reviews for science fiction, fantasy, nonfiction, YA books, and more.

Jul 1, 2013

Earth by David Brin

Book cover for EARTH by David Brin
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

It’s the year 2038, and Earth ain’t doin’ so well. The planet is overheated and overpopulated. Economies have failed; income inequality is rampant. And somewhere, deep inside the earth, a technological innovation has gone awry as an artificial black hole may eat the planet from the inside out.

Hard Sci-Fi in a Nutshell

Earth was published in 1990, and it’s set in 2038. This dates the book occasionally, but, as with all aging science fiction, it’s interesting to see what the author was and wasn’t able to predict about our present. (Let’s all hope Brin’s completely wrong about future catastrophes involving black holes, though.) Old predictions about our present and future, however, no matter how intriguing or impressive, don’t necessarily breathe life into a story. When it comes to spirit, Earth is pretty much all “head” and no “heart.”

Brin is a scientist himself—according to his website, he’s even cowritten “NASA-funded studies with California Space Institute, regarding robotics & space station design” (so, like, wow)—and like many scientists who dabble in fiction, he journeys into the hard sci-fi genre, attempting to create plots that are theoretically possible, even if improbable.

This sort of writing isn’t for everyone, and it’s why there’s hardly any heart to Earth. It’s also why hard science fiction can sometimes seem preachy as an author tries to teach readers a lesson. It’s a genre where good characterization is frequently sacrificed at an altar of science, projected or pseudo. Earth does have its preachy moments—it would just about have to, given the book title—but it’s the characters who suffer most as Brin molds them from stereotypes (or obvious stereotype reversals) and dedicates the content of their thoughts and dialogue to awkward infodumps.

In my experience, these are expected shortcomings of the hard sci-fi genre, but Brin’s Earth faces a much more common problem seen in works from all genres of fiction: there are too many characters and subplots, and most prove to have no purpose. To me, this is unacceptable in a book that is seven hundred pages long. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Earth wasted a bit of my time, and that was with considerable skim-reading.

So what did I enjoy about Earth? I can answer that easily. Between some of the book’s chapters, you find nonfiction-styled excerpts that are about the state of the planet and society during various periods in (future) history. It comes as no surprise that Brin is better suited to nonfiction, and these bits and pieces turn out to be a much more interesting conduit for his predictions. If I could have read the entire story through a filter of these fictional articles and transcripts, my feelings about this book would likely be very different. As it is, though, these works were what kept me tolerating the rest of the book.

Whether you will like Earth or not depends upon how important quality characterization is to you and how much clichés—surprise, there are aliens—and a deus ex machina ending will bother you. As to that ending, I must quote a Goodreads reviewer’s comical thoughts:

Just be prepared to be disappointed by the ending. Just make up your own, and pretend like the written ending isn’t real.

If you can be satisfied with contemplating interesting scientific possibilities alone, you may find you’re able to overlook Earth‘s shortcomings. Some readers will no doubt love it.

If anything purely objective can be said of Brin’s writing, it’s probably that it’s a good example of what’s to be found in the hard science fiction genre. It plays well enough to its audience, but not everyone is part of that audience.

Buy Earth from Amazon or iTunes
Follow David Brin on Facebook and Twitter

Quotes from Earth

Apocalypses, apparently, are subject to fashion like everything else. What terrifies one generation can seem obsolete and trivial to the next.

One of life’s joys was to have friends who gave you reality checks…who would call you on your crap before it rose so high you drowned in it.

…worried governments suddenly began pouring forth reams–whole libraries–of information they’d been hoarding, stumbling over themselves to prove they weren’t responsible for the sudden outbreak of gravitational war.

Heft by Liz Moore

Book cover for HEFT by Liz Moore
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.

The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves

Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.

Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.

When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.

Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.

The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)

My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)

This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.

Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.

Buy Heft from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Liz Moore on Facebook and Twitter

Quotes from Heft

The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.

Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.

I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.

Jun 1, 2013

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Book cover for FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

In her graphic novel and memoir, Alison Bechdel—of Bechdel test fame—relates the story of growing up in the confusing intensity of her dysfunctional childhood home—and in the family’s funeral (“fun”) business—in 1970s Pennsylvania. When her father, Bruce Bechdel, dies unexpectedly while she is away at college, Alison must face a series of unanswerable, existential questions. Why did her father make the life choices he did? How and why was her relationship with him always so strained? Fun Home is Bechdel’s journey toward accepting both her father and herself.

A Cathartic Journey Toward Acceptance

Fun Home is immediately relatable as Bechdel capitalizes on the things so many of us have experienced: the family member who obsesses, the secrets we sense swirling around us in childhood but never quite understand, the awkwardness of puberty, and the mundane moments that take place in our own back yards.

Weeding comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Bechdel alternates between stories from her childhood and early adulthood. Her childhood is all about confusion—the confusion caused by her parents’ distant, dysfunctional, and mysterious relationship, yes, but also just the simple confusion that comes from having a child’s understanding of the world.

Oven comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I could read and look at comics about Bechdel’s childhood all day. One after another, they are a delight.

Unfortunately, Bechdel’s reflections on her college years are not so neatly portrayed. It’s as though she were unable to distance herself from them in the same way—understandable, perhaps, but also less enjoyable. Whereas her reflections on her childhood are poignant and witty, her reflections on young adulthood are all about searching for an answer. Suddenly, what’s “nonlinear” seems more disjointed, as though Fun Home is less of a planned memoir than it is a cathartic personal project.

Lesbian comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

At nineteen, Alison Bechdel comes out as a lesbian to her parents. It’s a recent revelation, even for her, but one she knows has always been true. Her father, Bruce, is surprisingly accepting, while her mother is concerned and disappointed. Then a secret, the secret, is revealed: Alison’s father is gay, too. Bruce has tried “fixing” himself many times over the years but has always “failed.” All at once, so many things make sense—and so many others do not.

As if coming out and learning of her father’s deeply closeted status wouldn’t be enough to shake Alison, Bruce is killed in an accident a few months later. Chillingly, Alison and her mother wonder if it was an accident at all.

Suicide comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Alison’s story is interesting, but she does such a good job describing her father that I would have much preferred a book about him if I couldn’t have a book that was just about her childhood. You see, Bruce Bechdel is heartbreaking—and fascinating through that heartbreak. In his life story are all the people who’ve forced themselves to live a lie in order to survive the society around them.

Memoirs eventually require authors to come to conclusions about their experiences and themselves. These conclusions can fall flat or come out hackneyed and overly dramatic. In Alison’s case, she attempts to understand her father and her relationship with him through a filter of literature, the one interest they always shared. The result is sort of a pretentious mess, which usually seems to be the case when anyone tries to make life more profound by bringing up the classics.

Ulysses comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Also, if one more writer uses The Great Gatsby to try to make sense of life, I just might to lose it.

Gatsby comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I like the humor and candidness found in Fun Home, especially when Bechdel discusses her childhood—and I’m not about to suggest she’s come to the wrong conclusions about her own life, by the way—but her memoir doesn’t quite resonate with me by its (eloquent) end. Even so, Fun Home is well worth a read.

Buy Fun Home from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Alison Bechdel on Facebook and Twitter

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Book cover for THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

When Pat Peoples’ mother brings him home from the neural health facility, he sees it as a turning point in the “movie” of his life. Perpetually optimistic, he believes he will soon be reunited with his wife, Nikki. First, though, Pat knows he must continue to improve himself, to become the man Nikki always needed him to be. With the help of family, friends, and American football fans, Pat discovers life may not always go according to plan, but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Stereotyping Abounds in Silver Linings

My review should be prefaced with the following:

  1. I read The Silver Linings Playbook because I knew the film adaptation was “about mental illness” and had been nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars.
  2. At the time of this review, I still had not watched a trailer for the film.
  3. I did not read a review or even a summary for this book prior to reading.

In short, I entered Silver Linings with very little knowledge of what it was about, and my review covers the confusion I felt while reading it.

In the first several pages of Silver Linings, author Matthew Quick sets the tone for the entire book: It’s to be one of those vague memory loss stories where the main character has to discover his own past. It’s here that you’re introduced to Pat Peoples’ stilted and juvenile, first-person narration, and I’ll admit I had no idea how I should view it.

Seemingly suffering from convenient memory loss, Pat strangely calls the neural health facility he’s lived in “the bad place” and refers to the separation from his wife, Nikki, as “apart time.” He struggles to understand certain emotions and has an almost childlike understanding of the world around him. Any negative reality is avoided in favor of the more hopeful “silver linings” of life. He occasionally has hallucinations involving Kenny G—seriously—which often result in violent outbursts. He’s prescribed numerous medications for his mental health, but no clear diagnosis is revealed.

Pat is neither a good main character nor an accurate portrayal of those who struggle with mental illness, neurological disorders, or traumatic brain injuries. There are times when Pat seems mentally handicapped (whether since birth or as a result of an accident, one can only guess for most of the book), clinically depressed, schizophrenic, or psychotic. In the first few pages, I even thought Pat’s stilted, aloof descriptions of his life were meant to indicate some form of autism.

In other words, Pat is whatever the author wants him to be in the moment, science and logic be damned. This is the sort of thing that happens after one watches half a dozen Hollywood films on memory loss and says, “What the hell? I’m pretty well a licensed psychiatrist now. Time to write that book.” And so Silver Livings seems to have been irresponsibly born to add to the plethora of poorly-researched media about the brain. Even once some minor explanations are given later in the book, not all of Pat’s problems can be attributed to them.

Silver Linings might be forgiven for its inaccuracies if you don’t care or know better, but the book has other problems as well. None of the characters ever quite come alive.

  • Pat’s mother comes closest to “popping” off the pages, but she’s less defined by her own actions than by the abusive and codependent relationship she finds herself in with Pat’s father.
  • There’s clinically depressed Tiffany, who doesn’t behave like any clinically depressed person I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a few—whose world revolves around Pat and a dance recital.
  • Cliff, Pat’s therapist, is defined by his love for football and the color of his skin (he’s a brown-skinned Indian! if you missed that, it’ll be mentioned again in a few pages).
  • Danny, one of Pat’s friends from “the bad place,” is mostly narrowed down to his blackness and just how stereotypical Quick can make him, but he “uncharacteristically” likes Parcheesi, so all the stereotyping is okay or something.
  • Pat’s brother, Jake, is only defined by his wealth, occasional violent outbursts or threatening behavior, and love for football.
  • Likewise, Pat’s father is known for his abusive nature and obsession with football.

You may have noticed a trend with the characterization of the men in this novel: they’re all big football fans. (Many of them also happen to be violent, encourage violence, or accept violence. Make of that what you will.) Pat’s (Quick’s) love for the NFL‘s Philadelphia Eagles is often used as a shorthand for adding depth to side characters. Nearly all the men—never the women—are passionate about football, enough so that they randomly chant team songs everywhere. I’ll admit that I don’t “get” watching sports, but I’ve lived around some pretty die-hard football fans, and never in my life have I seen people break into song as often as Quick’s characters do for the Eagles. Not only did this not add depth to the characters, it also quickly became repetitive and…um, weird.

Finally, Silver Linings‘ ending feels rushed, and loose ends remain for nearly all the characters. However, in Pat, Quick has created a character with numerous, severe problems that he then bestows an unrealistically positive ending upon. Pat eventually remembers his past, and of course the “silver linings” in his life aren’t exactly what he was expecting them to be, but he’s given some minor closure, which is more than can be said for several of the other characters. Still, it’s hard to care about any of it when you’re not sure what problems remain for Pat. There seem to be many.

At the very least, Pat needs to take a writing class to learn about the value of contractions because, Christ, he never uses them. Yes, that’s how I’m ending this review.

Aside #1: Probably in some attempt to make his book appear intellectual, Quick spoils a lot of the classics—Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—so if you haven’t read them, but plan to and hate spoilers, don’t read Silver Linings.

Aside #2: I eventually watched the movie. It made me want to throw things.

Buy The Silver Linings Playbook from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Matthew Quick on Facebook and Twitter

Quotes from The Silver Linings Playbook

After I returned to New Jersey, I thought I was safe, because I did not think Kenny G could leave the bad place, which I realize is silly now—because Kenny G is extremely talented and resourceful and a powerful force to be reckoned with.

He does the Eagles chant–“E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!”–which makes me laugh because he is my therapist and I did not know therapists could like NFL football.

…and I do wonder why women are always hemorrhaging in American literature.

May 29, 2013

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover for MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

Mother Night is the first-person account of Harold W. Campbell, Jr., an American spy in World War II who has been so good at his job that he’s lost his own identity. Follow Campbell as he recounts the tangled web of his personal history as a writer, spy, Nazi propagandist, and more.

Spies Make for Unreliable Narrators

I’ve encountered passages from many Kurt Vonnegut books over the years, but Mother Night is the first book by Vonnegut that I’ve read in full. It’s Vonnegut’s most favorably rated book on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good place to start. However, in hindsight, and given my general dislike of World War II fiction, I probably should have stuck with Slaughterhouse Five. As much as I sometimes enjoyed Vonnegut’s ideas and famed dark humor, I was unable to grow attached to Mother Night‘s story or characters.

The story starts off by employing metafiction. Vonnegut describes himself as the editor, not the writer, of the novel’s first-person account. It’s mildly interesting, but this ultimately has little to no impact for the reader. Adding another layer to the onion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got an onion.

Once you get past the intro, you meet Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the book’s first-person narrator. Campbell is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison for war crimes, specifically his involvement with Nazi Germany’s propaganda during World War II. While in prison, Campbell writes the story of his life, which is what you read in Mother Night. It’s the story of a man who has done both normal and questionable things. Throughout, Campbell claims he is an American spy who was embedded in the heart of the Nazi movement for a confusing mix of reasons. But is Campbell always telling the truth in his autobiography?

“How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?” said Wirtanen. “Hmm?”

Can a man like Campbell even believe himself?

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Uncertainty is one of Mother Night‘s core elements. Is Campbell being truthful? Is Campbell good or evil? Can good or evil be defined at all—if so, how, to what extent, and by whom? In Campbell’s case, does truth matter if it’s not a truth everyone else believes?

As a fan of unreliable narration, I enjoyed Vonnegut’s exploration of these questions through Campbell. However, for me, there is something missing from Mother Night. These questions are intriguing, but they have no depth on their own. They must be asked and answered through characters you love (or hate), characters that make you feel something. Unfortunately, Howard W. Campbell’s narration is dry, at best, and the supporting cast, though sometimes well-described, never seem that meaningful. Considering Nazi death camps get a few mentions, I feel like I should have had a more visceral response to something in this book.

Perhaps it’s my own dislike for certain parts of Mother Night—the subject matter, the appearance of pointless metafiction—but, after a while, I found I didn’t quite care if Campbell was being honest or not. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I didn’t care if his various romances worked out because they were boring—or, worse, melodramatic—loves. I didn’t care about those who hated him because they didn’t matter. For me, Mother Night is one of those books where I realize the ideas and messages have value, but find they are ruined for me because the characters never take hold of my emotions.

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous saying from Slaughterhouse Five, which also makes an appearance in Mother Night, is “So it goes.” It’s a salty way of expressing the inevitable nature of things, usually death. C’est la vie. I think Mother Night can be boiled down to a couple of words, too: So what?

Buy Mother Night from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Kurt Vonnegut on Facebook

Quotes from Mother Night

“You hate America, don’t you?”

“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me…”

Most things in this world don’t work, but aspirin do.

His mother understood my illness immediately, that it was my world rather than myself that was diseased.

3
Around the Web
See more links?