Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Year in Review

It's hard to believe my third year book blogging has come to an end. My tastes and preferences have shifted some since I first began, and this year especially marked a move away from YA and towards more adult fantasy and sci-fi as well as nonfiction. Though five YA books made up my top ten last year, only one made the list this year (Ship Breaker). Three nonfiction titles made the list, including Fey's Bossypants, which is even better in audiobook (in fact, four of the top ten books I listened to on my iPhone). The order of the list below is only mildly significant.

My top 10 books read in 2011:
1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (sci-fi fiction)
2. Bossypants by Tina Fey (nonfiction/audiobook)
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (classic fiction/audiobook)
4. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (nonfiction)
5. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (YA dystopian fiction)
6. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (fiction/audiobook)
7. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (dystopian fiction)
8. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (fantasy fiction)
9. The Magician King by Lev Grossman (fantasy fiction)
10. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal (nonfiction/audiobook)

Total books read and reviewed: 85
I read fewer books this year (I read 109 in 2010), but I'm not at all disappointed with my number. This year I participated in more after-work activities (e.g. taking cooking and mosaic classes), and I also started taking daily walks, all of which cut into reading time, but in a good way.

Fiction read: 64
Nonfiction read: 21
Nonfiction became a larger part of my reading this year (25%), and many of my favorite books were nonfiction, including the three listed above, Packing for Mars, and Just My Type (the latter two were both shortlisted for my top ten list). My interest in the weird, nerdy, and random, which so guides my fiction reading, can be well-fulfilled in through many nonfiction books.

Adult read: 70
Young adult read: 15
The last two years I had a goal to keep YA to no more than one-third of my reading total. Though I kept the same goal this year, it wasn't even necessary, as YA made up only 18% of my reading. I think I've been somewhat burned out from it, and there hasn't been a lot that's kept my interest. However, in addition to Ship Breaker, listed above, I did enjoy Rampant a lot.

Female authors: 34
Male authors: 51
For most of the year, these two numbers were fairly equal. Then, sometime in the fall, the men surged ahead and I never read enough by women to make up. It's something I'm a bit disappointed in, though I'm not sure it's something I want to actively work on equalizing.

Years published:
- 2011: 32
- 2010: 15
- 2000-2009: 21
- 1990-1999: 8
- 1900-1989: 7
- 1800-1899: 2
Though I don't have the official stats, I'm definitely reading more newly published books than before, largely because my "oh, I always meant to read that!" list has grown rather short. 

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 74 (68 from library, 6 from friends/family/students)
- Total purchased: 2
- Total for review: 5 (4 from NetGalley, 1 from NCTE)
- Total otherwise acquired: 2 (1 from Paperback Swap, 1 free for Kindle)
- Total already owned: 2 (these are books I've had for over five years)
No surprises here. Because of my daily walking and many long car trips, I did listen to a lot more audiobooks (13 total, all from the library) than in previous years. I purchased a grand total of two books this year. One, Game of Thrones, was purchased because we had a Borders gift card and I thought my husband, who takes forever to read books, might read it. The second, Across the Universe, was due to the author's clever marketing (see post).

Challenges I participated in:
- Back to the Classics Challenge 2011
- POC Reading Challenge 2011
I got a little distracted and never finished the Back to the Classics Challenge, though I did meet my goal by reading seventeen books for the POC Reading Challenge.

Happy new year and best wishes for 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

"Embassytown" by China Mieville

One of the purposes of science-fiction is to take the reader into a new environment so that he or she can approach traditional ideas and concepts from a wholly different perspective. That's why world-building is so essential to the genre and why, when it's done right, sci-fi can be so thrilling. This is the case in Mieville's Embassytown, a novel which transplants the reader to a world of Terres (humans) and Ariekei in order to explore the nature and evolution of language.

Embassytown is not for the weak reader or someone wanting just fun escapist fiction. It takes some work, especially in the beginning, to understand the world that has been created, and throughout the book close attention is needed in order to understand the discourse on the nature of language. The book focuses on a peaceful settlement where humans live and work with the native Ariekei. The Ariekei speak in Language, which is formed by speaking separate words simultaneously from two different mouths; however, in order for true Language to happen, not only must the right words be spoken, but they must be said with the right intent, with a single purpose. For the Ariekei, Language is truth and can communicate only what is true; lies do not exist. The only way the humans have been able to communicate with the Ariekei is by creating Ambassadors, human clones trained from birth to speak the Ariekei words and communicate as a single organism.

The protagonist of Embassytown is Avice, a traveler who, as a child, was made a simile in the Ariekei Language. Though she doesn't speak Language herself, she becomes embroiled in the human/Ariekei relationship when the stability of Embassytown becomes threatened.

Mieville's exploration of the differences between human and Ariekei language and the evolution of both is fascinating, but way too difficult to try to describe here. I was also interested in the novel's approach to the nature of colonization. Embassytown, in the beginning, is far different from most human colonies in that the two species coexist peacefully and for mutual benefit. However, when a new Ambassador, EzRa, creates a dependence for their language among the Ariekei, that careful balance is tipped and near chaos and destruction occur.

Avice is a great protagonist, both a part of Embassytown and separate from it. She's able to float between worlds and has a more nuanced point of view than many others. Her relationship with her husband, Scile, was a little less clear, especially because he disappears fairly early in the book.

I'd highly recommend Embassytown to fans of classic high science-fiction, especially those looking for something totally new.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 POC Challenge Wrap-Up

This was my second year doing the POC reading challenge. I signed up at level five (16-25 books) and was happy that I achieved my goal by reading 17 books by authors of color. Last year in my wrap-up post I noted that I was disappointed that I hadn't read more books with authors of color (rather than books with protagonists of color but white authors), so I made it a point to focus on that this year. Here's what I read:

Books read:
1. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
2. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
3. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
4. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
6. Complications by Atul Gawande
7. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
8. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
9. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
10. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
11. Pym by Mat Johnson
12. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese 
13. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 
14. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh 
15. The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin 
16. Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling 
17. Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Books by white authors with protagonists of color: (not counted toward challenge)
- Gardens of Water by Alan Drew
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

By far my favorite books were from Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. I loved each book in her fantasy series. I also enjoyed River of Smoke, a sequel to a book I read a few years back. My least favorite books were Wench and Cutting for Stone.

Like last year, I realized that it takes some work to consistently read authors of color. I made a point of actively seeking such authors in the beginning of the year, but there was a five month gap in between reading my 11th and 12th books for the challenge. It was too easy to be exposed to primarily white authors.

I'm glad I did the challenge again, especially because I've met some great authors like Jemisin, Murakami, and Ghosh.

"A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness

I'm an enormous fan of Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy and thus had no hesitation checking out Ness' newest book, A Monster Calls, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. However, this book has a significantly different feel and purpose than his previous novels, which makes them hard to compare.

First, though A Monster Calls is packaged as a novel, it's really a short story that, through large type, large margins, and many illustrations, has been stretched to two hundred pages. I don't think there's anything wrong with the length of the story, but it would have been helpful going in to know its format. There are different expectations for a short story than for a novel, and a certain absorption into the book that's not possible at shorter lengths.

In its style, A Monster Calls most closely resembles a fairy tale in which a hero must confront his demons to learn the truth about himself. The book's protagonist is thirteen-year-old Conor, whose mother is dying and who has a terrible secret he's unwilling to tell anyone. He's confronted one night by a monster that takes the shape of the yew tree outside his home; the monster will tell Conor three stories, and Conor will provide the fourth and final tale. The piece is a clear allegory, with the yew tree monster representing those aspects of the hero that he most wishes to hide from.

Ness does an excellent job of capturing the dark and stormy atmosphere of Conor's inner life. The accompanying illustrations, done by Jim Kay in smudgy black and white, powerfully reinforce the mood. There's a clear message in the end--that there is both bad and good inside us all, and only by speaking the truth of both can we be healed--which is brought home in forceful and moving way.

Despite all this, I wouldn't say the book really got under my skin (in a good way) or will have a lasting impression, completely unlike the Chaos Walking books. I can see it as a book an adult might read an (older) child--it's quite dark, but there's are elements that feel like they need to be shared to be understood.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Just My Type" by Simon Garfield

I suppose you have to be a true nerd to be excited about a book like Just My Type, a compendium of essays on all things related to fonts. But, really, it's a fascinating subject, and it's to Garfield's credit that the book keeps a light tone and is chock full of party facts (e.g. "Upper or lower case? The term comes from the position of the loose metal compositor's hands before they were used to form a word--the commonly used ones on an accessible lower level, the capitals above them, waiting their turn" (23).) 

Just My Type takes the reader through the creation of type, starting with Gutenberg's printing press and continuing through modern digital type. He also discusses the history of many of the most well-known and ubiquitous fonts, as well as the philosophy and controversies behind typography itself (Should fonts be beautiful and recognizable? Or are the best fonts unnoticeable?). There's not a straightforward or linear structure to the book; each chapter addresses a specific topic, which makes it easy to read and digest.

There were many surprises for me. For example, the word "font" didn't enter ordinary language until the first Macintosh computer, which allowed users to easily change fonts for the first time. The creation of fonts would have seemed, to me, a relatively easy endeavor, but it was striking how much time and work went (and goes) into developing new fonts--it's an art form and a science.

Perhaps what I liked best about reading the book was how it brought out my own font feelings and prejudices. I'm a Times New Roman devotee, most likely because it was the default font on Microsoft Word in the mid-'90s, a time when I would have been first regularly crafting papers for school. Though, like all young people, I experimented with all the available fonts, writing some terrible play in which each new paragraph was a new font, I was largely conservative. To me, Times New Roman was the only real font, and I somehow just assumed everyone else felt the same. In fact, I probably would have (wrongly) said that all books and newspapers were printed in it--it's just so academic, so stately. It says, "I am intelligent and have something worthwhile to say" (even its appearance on a list of "worst fonts" in Just My Type does not deter me). Every document I write, whether it's a business letter, an application, or a handout for my students, is written in Times New Roman. 

I've always hated Arial, a font my classmates began using at a time when I was rigidly Times New Roman. To me, Arial, with its more rounded lettering and wider spacing, says:
I'm not very smart, and clearly I'm trying to cover up that my essay isn't long enough by using this font.
I felt somewhat vindicated to see many other people hate Arial, though their disdain comes from it being derivative of Helvetica.
But the font that really drives me bonkers is Calibri, the new default font for Windows 2007. The school at which I teach recently updated to Windows '07, and now all the computers are set for Calibri. It's even more rounded and soft than Arial, but it's somehow smaller than Times New Roman, so it's impossible to see when I'm trying to read my students' essays on their computers. Blech.
How would I ever consider giving an essay an A if it was written in Calibri?
 Just My Type is one of those books that has to be enjoyed as a book--not an ebook or audiobook--as the viewing of different fonts and accompanying photos is essential to its understanding. It's enjoyable and eye-opening, as it shows just how much an impact fonts have on our everyday life. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Dreams From My Father" by Barack Obama

I voted for Obama in 2008 and will do so again in 2012, but I realized that, like with most politicians, I don't know a whole about him personally, beyond the basics. Dreams From My Father, written well before his presidential and senate days, seemed an ideal place to start.

Obama's memoir is an interesting, though not especially absorbing, book. Though it's personal in its exploration of issues of identity and race, there's a certain aloofness to it as well. I learned a lot about Obama's early life, his complicated family, and his struggle to define himself, but I didn't feel like I got to know Obama as a whole. The cool and calm demeanor he's known for now seemed always present.

However, there's a lot to gain from Dreams beyond studying Obama himself. He's especially astute in discussing the black experience in America and the difficulties of improving individuals' and communities' lives. Obama spends a while discussing his time as an organizer in Chicago. It's admirable work but extraordinarily frustrating; I kept finding myself becoming cynical about anyone's ability to enact change. When he travels to Kenya to meet his family through his father's side, he's able to compare and contrast the lives of people in two very separate countries.

From Dreams From My Father I learned about Obama's early life, and I appreciated his analysis of race, but I feel like I missed out on connecting to him as a person. Of course, that's what I wanted out of the book, not necessarily what Obama intended, and perhaps what he did discuss was more important for me to read.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities has been immortalized by its opening ("It was the best of times...") and closing lines ("It is a far, far better thing that I do..."), and when I began reading the book for the second or third time, I doubted Dickens' renowned words would have much effect on me. So, I was surprised that by the time I reached Carton's famous last words, I was teary and emotional, overwhelmed despite my intentions otherwise.

Dickens' story of the excesses of the French Revolution comes down firmly against the revolutionaries, though it is sympathetic in the plight and exploitation of the people by the aristocrats. I would have preferred some nuance here, but Dickens is so skillful in his description and in evoking emotions of outrage (both against the rich and the mob of the people) that the novel works anyway.

For me, the greatest weakness of Dickens' story is the simplicity of his characters, who are mostly one-dimensional: either noble, true, and innocent or bitter, ruthless, and unforgiving. This dichotomy is most present in his female characters of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Lucie is young, pretty and pure, and because of that, she is beloved by everyone--and I found her annoying. Like Les Miserables' Cosette, Lucie has no real personality yet is the axis on which all the other characters turn. Evil is always more interesting, and so is Madame Defarge, even though she's no less a flat character. Defarge's constant knitting serves as one of the most indelible images from the novel, and her single-minded pursuit of revenge forces the narrative forward. However, even when her backstory is revealed, she is made no more sympathetic, which is a shame.

The male characters are somewhat better, though Darnay is for the most part a mirror of his wife Lucie, and Mr. Lorry benefits only from his age and kindliness. Sydney Carton, the hero of the story, is the only real exception, as he's a man with true good and bad inside him.

Listening to the novel at a leisurely pace was a perfect way to re-enter a story I was already familiar with. Narrator Simon Prebble does an excellent job with the male and female voices and keeps the pace moving appropriately.

I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities when I first read it as a highschooler, and it was no less enjoyable this time around.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson

This seems to be the time for challenges to the world of psychiatry among my reading. There was Sybil Exposed last month, and now Ronson's The Psychopath Test. The latter is less clearly focused than the former, but it's a lot more fun. Ronson's new book explores the diagnosis of psychopaths and some of the problems surrounding it. He also interviews and researches some diagnosed and potential psychopaths in hopes of learning more about them. 

Unlike most nonfiction books which have a clear central premise, The Psychopath Test is much more loosely organized. The book begins with Ronson's interest in the somewhat vogue idea that many of our great leaders are psychopaths (or have other personality disorders), and that illness helped them achieve their greatness. Nonetheless, the book doesn't stay on this train of thought, exploring everything from Scientology's anti-psychiatry crusade, to conspiracy theorists, to the creation of the DSM (the APA's diagnostic manual). Reading the book is, at times, like following Ronson's stream of conscious association; everything doesn't always seem relevant (for example, he spends time criticizing the DSM, but "psychopathy" is not even a disorder listed), but it's so interesting that it doesn't matter.

One train of thought that initially sets Ronson off is his skepticism at the legitimacy of some of the APA disorders. This idea ran throughout Sybil Exposed, though Ronson's book stays more neutral than Sybil. I was drawn in because it's something I feel myself, even though I'm married to a psychologist, perhaps because I teach at a public school in which learning disabilities are excessively over-diagnosed for students by parents looking for excuses and rationales for medication rather than the truth. Ronson's not out to "expose" the APA or challenge its work, but his research does raise questions about the manner in which disorders are created and diagnoses made, as well as psychiatry's close relationship with pharmaceutical companies. As Ronson says near the end of the book, "There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting overlabeled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it."

Ronson is a personal writer whose use of his own story creates intimacy with the reader. He's comically self-referential (as when he continually reflects about whether he's displaying psychopathic tendencies) and approaches his material much like his reader would.

I don't know if The Psychopath Test would be best for someone researching psychopathy, and it probably annoys some psychiatrists, but I found it fascinating and a lot of fun while also providing some insight into the problems facing the psychiatry field today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Across the Universe" by Beth Revis

Though I'd had this book on my radar for awhile, it was Revis' savvy marketing technique that finally drew me in--she convinced her publisher to include the names of every one of her early Facebook fans in the acknowledgements of the paperback version of the novel. And, since I was one of those fans, I couldn't resist buying the novel. Smart Revis, very smart.

I've not been very interested in YA this year, but I liked the premise of Across the Universe. Amy is cryogenically frozen, along with her parents, for a 300-year voyage in the spaceship Godspeed to a new planet Earth is hoping to colonize. However, she's woken up fifty years early and finds herself among the inhabitants of Godspeed, including its leader-in-training, Elder. With Elder, Amy tries to determine who's waking up individuals early and what secrets Eldest, the current leader, is keeping from his people. It's a neat premise, even if its execution didn't fully live up to it.

The setting and situation allow for a lot of questions to be explored. How would you maintain peace and happiness among people confined to such a small area of life? How would you maintain a population while avoiding overpopulation or genetic problems due to incest? I enjoyed exploring Revis' answers to these questions, even though their complexity is dampened by the stereotypical evil of Eldest. Early in the novel, he instructs Elder that one of the primary causes of discord is "difference," and since we all grew up with children's books about puppies and rabbits getting along, we know he's bad. By the time we learn he thinks Hitler was a good leader (Really? You don't think we got it?) and that another cause of discord is "independent thought" ("Evil, evil!" us independence-lovin' Americans shout), there's not a lot of hope for nuance.

Elder's lack of questioning about his history (e.g. he knows about classic American leaders like Abraham Lincoln but he doesn't wonder how many Eldests there have been or how long ago the Plague was) and the overly simplistic explanations for technology are also somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, despite my issues with the world's construction, there are some good things. Revis has created an interesting mystery in a claustrophobic environment. The pace moves quickly, alternating between Amy and Elder, so the novel never feels boring. Not all the questions are addressed satisfactorily, but enough are answered to wrap up the book and leave an appealing opening for its sequel.

Across the Universe wasn't the novel to break my YA slump, but it was a quick and largely enjoyable read, so long as I didn't think about it too much afterwards.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)" by Mindy Kaling

Fair or not, Kaling's book is bound to be compared to Tina Fey's Bossypants. In fact, I'm going to compare them. It's hard not to--both women are television comedy writers and actors for popular quirky shows that appear on the same night on NBC, and their books address similar topics (childhood, the entertainment business) through a similar structure. In the end, I enjoyed Fey's book more, though that's not to say Kaling's work is not enjoyable.

Kaling had a reassuringly "good" and average upbringing (nice to be reminded that celebrities tend to start as "one of us"), though her stories of post-college life are funnier. She describes trying to make it in New York (I especially enjoyed her description of her audition for the musical Bollywood Nights) and her recognition with the creation of the play Matt and Ben, which landed her the Office job. She spends a lot of time on her female friendships, relationships which are so close as to have made me a bit jealous.

Kaling and Fey are both willing to make fun of themselves, which I think is essential for any kind of celebrity writer. Nevertheless, you come away from Fey's book thinking, "Damn, that woman is scary competent." On the other hand, I found myself periodically thinking "Wow, Kaling's so lucky to have stumbled onto this Office gig" and then having to correct myself. Obviously Kaling is an intelligent and talented writer who earned her place, but she's so self-deprecating that you begin to doubt it. I think this is a shame.

Kaling is on one of my favorite television shows, and she has written some of its best episodes, but for me, the book only elicited the occasional chuckle. Kaling felt more like a very open friend than a professional comedian (though she'd probably denounce that title), though even so the book left me a bit cold. Nevertheless, the book is slim and a quick read, so I wouldn't discourage anyone from trying it.

P.S. Something I learned from Is Everyone and Bossypants (and everything I've ever seen her in): Amy Poehler is awesome. Where's your book, Amy?

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff

Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra sets out to dispel some of the myths that have surrounded the famous queen for ages, particularly those portraying her as nothing more than a seductress, a femme fatale who led Julius Caesar astray and destroyed Mark Antony. In A Life, Schiff instead posits Cleopatra as an intelligent strategist focused on maintaining her rule and independent kingdom.

There are a lot of great details throughout the book that make it a fascinating read for anyone interested in the classical world. Cleopatra was part of the Ptolemy dynasty that had ruled Egypt for years, yet they were Greek. The family had a nasty habit of killing each other off in order to gain the throne (and you thought the characters in A Game of Thrones were bad), something Cleopatra gamely participated in as well. So fabulous was Cleopatra's wealth that she gave away horses and couches to Roman dinner guests.

It's Cleopatra's relationships with the Roman leaders Caesar and Antony that have given her the most notoriety. These relationships take up much of the book, though the men come more to life than Cleopatra. In the end, it's difficult to know how exactly Cleopatra felt about the relationships. On the one hand, Egypt needed Rome as an ally, so a relationship with the men makes political sense. On the other hand, Cleopatra had children by both men and famously commits suicide after Antony's death (though, significantly, she does so after being conquered and imprisoned). Did she love them? Did they love her? These questions cannot be fully answered.

Though Schiff's research is exhaustive, in the end, the reader learns more about the context surrounding Cleopatra than the queen herself. This may be largely because history is written by the winners--in this case, the Romans--so the information we have on her is from a biased and critical Roman-centered point of view. Schiff does a nice job of trying to parse through the sources, determining each author's agenda, but it also means she's left with little in the way of fact. Most everything about Cleopatra herself is boiled down to "probably's." It was frustrating to know so much about Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra's wealth, Alexandria's status in the Mediterranean, and the status of women and so little about the the woman herself.

The book does not begin chronologically, and so I found it confusing at first because it would jump back and forth in time. Once it became traditionally chronological, I had an easier time. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Robin Miles. Miles has a pleasant neutral voice, but she's not particularly engaging, and I wished for a bit more spunk. I did fall asleep at intervals during the book, but I'll attribute that more to my tiredness than a failure of Schiff's work.

Cleopatra: A Life is a comprehensive look at an interesting and important period in history and the intersection of two very different cultures. Although at times a tad dry or repetitive, Schiff does much to raise Cleopatra beyond the Hollywood image of her and into her own right as a powerful and intelligent leader of a nation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"The Kingdom of Gods" by N.K. Jemisin

Though I had read some negative and middling reviews online, I enjoyed the last book in Jemisin's trilogy, The Kingdom of the Gods, no less than its predecessors The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. Whereas the second book takes place in the same world as the first but with almost completely new characters, the third book picks up characters from the first and second, giving it a greater sense of familiarity. In this novel, the protagonist is Sieh, the trickster boy godling who played an important role in Yeine's life in the first novel. Sieh becomes involved with two Arameri children, Shahar and Dekarta, and inexplicably begins to become mortal. Though this theme is repeated from Broken Kingdoms, in which the god Itempas lived life as a mortal man, Sieh's transformation and relationships with others are significantly different, and his story feels different too.

The tagline on the cover of this book is "Gods and mortals. Power and love. Death and revenge. She will destroy them all," which doesn't make a lot of sense. The only "she" it could possibly refer to is Shahar, which overstates her importance. This is a book foremost about Sieh, which makes it the first of Jemisin's books to be narrated by a man and by a god. Sieh lives in an interesting world--though he's powerful as an ancient godling, he also is not part of the three gods (Yeine, Nahadoth, and Itempas) and thus feels loneliness, made even more acute by his character as a youthful childish boy. Other reviewers have found him dislikable, but I didn't find him so; he's not perfect, but that's in keeping with who he is. I also enjoyed his relationships with Shahar and Dekarta, even though the intensity of his relationship with Deka comes rather suddenly.

The gods are somewhat more human in this book than in others, likely because we see them through a godling's eyes. Both Nahadoth and Itempas are less standoffish and more caring, though they perhaps lose some of their mystisticism because of it. The gods also play a more direct role in human affairs, which is somewhat of a shame, since mortals did so much on their own in the previous two books.

The climax did seem to come a bit suddenly, and the "surprise" of the villain was a bit contrived. Nonetheless, in the end, I found Kingdom of Gods a satisfying conclusion to a series I've greatly enjoyed.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"River of Smoke" by Amitav Ghosh

When I first began River of Smoke, primarily about the opium trade in China by foreign merchants, I was a little doubtful. I'd absolutely loved Sea of Poppies, the precursor to River of Smoke in the Ibis trilogy, and had even named it one of my top ten books of 2009. But now, years later, I couldn't really remember why I liked the first book, and I almost felt reluctant in picking up this historical epic. However, I soon began noticing how immersed I was in the story and how quickly the pages flew by--in short, River of Smoke is as utterly engrossing as the previous novel.

This is truly something to commend Ghosh on, for in River of Smoke he has less sympathetic characters than in Sea of Poppies. Where that novel features poor lovers on the run and burgeoning young romance, River of Smoke's main protagonist is Bahram, an Indian opium trader, and its story focuses primarily on Bahram and the American and British traders pushing against China's decision to prohibit the sale of opium. Their cause is without merit and is presented so in the novel, yet the reader is still completely drawn in.

Interestingly, the novel has almost no female characters as women are not permitted in Canton, the primary city of foreign trade. Away from the influences of their traditional society (and women), the men live a different way of life. Male friendships are deep, and the men even dance together at functions! Although there's some teasing from others, it's normal for some men take other men as "Friends" and pursue long term relationships. Furthermore, men of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities mix and socialize together in a way that never would have been possible in England or the U.S.

Of course, when push comes to shove and Chinese officials begin cracking down on the traders, this world also starts crumbling. Homophobic epithets are thrown at those who sympathize with the Chinese objectives, and Bahram recognizes that he'd quickly be sacrificed for an American or British man. It's at this point that Bahram becomes particularly sympathetic. Overall, he is a good man succeeding in a way very few Indian men could at this point, a time in which their country was controlled by the British. He has succeeded in being respected among his fellow merchants, yet that's not enough to ensure him protection in the end.

I was worried that having forgotten much of Sea of Poppies would be a detriment, but River of Smoke is more a companion novel than a sequel. Though some characters reappear from the previous story, this novel is a wholly separate story, not a continuation, and it would not be necessary to read Sea of Poppies to read River of Smoke.

Ghosh is a talented storyteller. The entire world of the novel is rich in detail, and the use of local language and terms adds authenticity. He writes about a fascinating (and utterly shameful for the American and British) period in history, but it's his characters that bring the novel to life.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

The first Murakami book I read, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, was frustratingly obtuse and enticingly enigmatic. It was that combination of reality and the weird, of wanting to throw the book at the wall and immediately pick it up again, that ultimately made it memorable. Blind Willow is a collection of short stories, and I wondered how Murakami's style would do in a novel, so I chose Kafka on the Shore.

Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly as intrigued by this book as I was with my first Murakami foray. There are still weird elements: a 15-year-old boy, who sometimes speaks to himself in a second personality named "the boy called Crow," goes on the run; an elderly man named Nakata speaks of himself in the third person and speaks to cats. There's an unexplained consciousness-losing of a bunch of students, Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, leeches falling from the sky, and a trans-man librarian. But, sustained over an entire novel where character development, not just oddity, must play a role, Murakami's writing seemed to lose something.

Kafka, the protagonist, is likeable enough, though there's far too much about his penis (always referred to as c*ck in the book, a term which I only associate with porn and found really jarring--don't know whether I can attribute that to Murakami or the English translator). In fact, the sex in the book, as a whole, is weird in an off-putting way. Oshima, the librarian, is also likeable, though like every character in the book, he is far too giving and caring without explanation. Kafka and Oshima particularly spend far too much time philosophizing and talking about how life is a metaphor.

Nakata is someone you want to root for, but his speech style becomes repetitive and aggravating, as does the "geez whiz, I just better follow you!" attitude of his sidekick, Hoshino.

I liked the novel better in the beginning as we slowly learn about the students on the hill and Nakata gets sucked into the events that happen. But by the end, so much muddying had happened that I lost a sense of connection to the book as a whole. I'm still not sure how it all fits together, but not in an enjoyable way, like with Blind Willow.

Kafka on the Shore was a disappointment, but I'd certainly like to try Murakami's fiction again, especially since I've been reading a lot about him recently with the publication of his most recent book, 1Q84.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Sybil Exposed" by Debbie Nathan

In perhaps my freshman year of high school I choose to read the best-selling nonfiction book Sybil, about a woman with sixteen distinct personalities that were formed in childhood because of a horrifically abusive mother. I read it for some course, though I can't remember which specifically, and looking back, I know I was definitely not prepared for it. Perhaps some fourteen-year-olds can handle graphic depictions of sexual and physical violence, but I most certainly could not, and for that reason, the haunting book has long stayed with me.

Nevertheless, I hadn't thought about Sybil for years until I saw a review of Sybil Exposed in The New York Times. In the book, author Debbie Nathan explores the lives of those involved in creating Sybil: Shirley [aka Sybil] a troubled young woman; Dr. Connie Wilbur, her ambitious psychiatrist; and Flora Schreiber, the author of the book. In doing so, Nathan challenges nearly all of Sybil, including Wilbur's diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (MPD) and Shirley's accounts of parental abuse, exposing Wilbur and Schreiber as being more concerned with their own agendas than the truth.

It's clear from the beginning of the book how grossly negligent Wilbur was as a doctor, even giving her leeway for there being different ethical standards for doctors and psychiatrists than today. In treatment, Shirley often spent hours daily under the haze of the drug Pentothal while Wilbur prodded and encouraged her to reveal ever-worsening abuse. Though Shirley came to Wilbur as a sick woman in need of help (it's revealed at the end of the book that Shirley most likely suffered from anemia), Wilbur undoubtedly did significantly more harm than good as she guided the life of Shirley over decades.

The author Schreiber is no less guilty, as she willingly and blindly ignored gaping errors in Shirley and Wilbur's stories in order to publish and promote her book.

The publication of Sybil made multiple personality disorder a fad, though fortunately its recognition has become more strictly guided recently. Nonetheless, for years, individuals with severe mental illnesses went under various drugs in order to discover "repressed" memories of abuse, all in the name of MPD. The popularization of such a disease helped lead to abuse panics nationwide and fostered a continuing popular obsession with stories of sadistic abuse, something I find abhorrent (e.g. the book A Child Called It, done in the same vein [though, as far as I know, true], was popular a few years ago, despite being a complete piece of trash).

On the whole, Nathan comes down pretty hard against multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). This seems warranted to me, but it's clear from reading reviews of the book on Amazon that there's significant ongoing controversy about the disorder's recognition. Most of the reviews had rated the book a one or a five, with nearly all the ones coming from psychologists or psychiatrists defending DID as a legitimate disorder.

In the book's introduction, Nathan attempts to situate the women's actions in the context of the pre-feminist movement and the book's popularity in the nascent women's liberation. However, though it's clear that Wilbur worked hard to become a doctor in a man's world and that Sybil helped many American women of the time express their own conflicting feelings about needing to be multiple things at once (e.g. a professional and a mother), Sybil Exposed doesn't explore those issues very deeply. Instead, it's a fairly straightforward account of the women's lives.

Sybil Exposed is a nice reality check for anyone who was ever moved by Sybil, and because it's so short and easy to read, it can be digested quickly. Nathan appears to have done her research, but in the end, there's nothing particularly interesting about her conclusions or analysis. The vague lesson than "we should never accept easy answers or quick explanations," which appears on the last page, doesn't really say much about a case that captivated so many and destroyed at least one woman's life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone is a unique book that I think I would have enjoyed even more if it wasn't nearly so long. Even so, it has a lot that makes it a worthwhile and engaging. The novel takes place largely in Ethiopia, following the expats working at Missing Hospital. There the reader meets Sister Mary Praise, an Indian nun who works as a surgery assistant to Thomas Stone, a skilled British surgeon. When Sister Mary dies in (an unknown to everyone else) childbirth, the Indian gynecologist Hema and the Indian physician Ghosh become her twins' parents. The story then is told primarily from the point of view of the twin Marion a he grows up in Missing and becomes a surgeon himself.

Ethiopia is a fascinating setting for the book, as it challenges and reinforces notions of African poverty.  Missing lacks many of the medical advancements available in the United States, but it also has skilled and dedicated doctors who do much to improve the lives of those around them. It's also interesting to see the growth of the twins, Marion and Shiva, native Ethiopians of Indian and British parents. They are a part of and separate from their country of birth, especially because their position as the children of Hema and Ghosh allows them privileges others don't receive. Cutting for Stone is also situated at an interesting period historically, as the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie is challenged.

It's clear from the novel that Verghese is himself a doctor. His passion for his profession is evident in his exact detail of surgeries (not for the squeamish!) and also his emphasis on compassion in medicine. Verghese's own upbringing mirrors Marion's in many ways, and that authenticity of detail in the locations and in the challenges of being a foreign a medical student was a great strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel that same believability in the characters. I wanted to like the characters more than I was able to, particularly because I felt Verghese strives too hard to make them "literary." Marion's life-long obsession with an early love is tiresome and culminates in a highly problematic rape scene that's not depicted as rape. Shiva's standoffish "not like others" personality feels forced. In the real world he might be labeled as autistic, but in the novel, he comes across as mysteriously (and unrealistically) otherworldly.

Part of the problem may be the length of the novel. The paperback comes in at nearly 700 pages, but because I read it on a Kindle, I really had no idea that it was a long book until I finished. Instead, the story simply felt interminable, and while I read, I tended to attribute my inability to make much headway to failures in the story itself, rather than the length.

Cutting for Stone came to me highly recommended, and it's undoubtedly an interesting novel, though I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped to be.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss

Though I'd had The Name of the Wind on my radar for awhile, I ended up starting the novel mostly by happenstance. I wanted to try checking out an e-book from the library on my Kindle, and The Name of the Wind was immediately available.

Rothfuss' novel is a traditional fantasy that's largely successful, though it's not without its flaws. Taking place in a typical medieval setting, The Name of the Wind follows Kvothe, a young and talented traveling performer who is exposed to magic (called "sympathy") as a boy and later travels to the university to study. It's easiest for me to discuss by breaking down some of the story's strengths and weaknesses:

1. Over-reliance on fantasy tropes: I'm certainly well aware that it would be difficult to create a wholly new fantasy series. But when you add up an intrepid young man, a wise teacher who teaches the protagonist magic, a family tragedy, the rough and tumble life of a street orphan, and a rich and snobby rival at school, it's hard not to see the story as cliche. Nevertheless, I could have handled most of the tropes, even the "so talented he's way above everyone else in everything his does" protagonist, if it wasn't for Kvothe's rivalry with fellow student Ambrose. I found the Draco/Harry conflict tiresome, and this was even worse.
2. Unfeeling romance: Most fantasies have some kind of romance, but for it to work, the reader has to believe the feelings and desperately want the lovers to end up together. Nonetheless, I just didn't buy the relationship between Kvothe and Denna. I couldn't understand his feelings for her, and I felt no spark when they were together. And, though I can stand some idiocy when it comes to relationships, Kvothe's absolute insistence on being a moron and thinking Denna doesn't have feelings for him was irksome to no end.
3. Age unbelievability: Kvothe is supposed to be fifteen, but he always felt older. Some of that may be because he's surrounded by older characters (since he was so smart and admitted to the university way before anyone else--see complaint #1), but I just couldn't see a teenager of that age acting similarly.

1. Story format: The reader is first introduced to Kvothe as a slightly older man, past all the adventures he is famous for. When a writer comes to town, Kvothe tells his story, and the novel switches to first person as the reader learns of Kvothe's life. This format provided a nice view of who Kvothe is--we know he's renowned yet currently in isolation, and the happiness he does experience as a youth is shadowed by the knowledge of what will become of him. My one complaint in this area, though, is how the structure was used to introduce the romance. At one point, Kvothe stops in his story, going through a long spiel to the writer about how difficult it is to describe the woman, how she will soon be entering the story and it's so overwhelming. But then, when he reveals who the woman is, the reader realizes the woman had already been introduced (to both the reader and Kvothe) earlier in the book! There was no reason to create tension for a character that had already been introduced, and it felt like a cheap narrative trick.
2. Unique form of magic: All fantasy worlds have some kind of magic, and the "sympathy" in Kvothe's world was certainly interesting. The magic relies on the relationships between objects and the transference of power between.
3. Kvothe: Okay, I liked the protagonist. He's stubborn and cocky and often stupid, but he's also brave and righteous, and you have to like him for that.

Whew. In the end, I did enjoy The Name of the Wind, despite a slow patch in the middle where Kvothe mostly obsessed about how he had no money. There are some interesting secondary characters as well, particularly Master Elodin and Bast, whom I'd love to hear more about. And, if I could excise Ambrose from the story, I'd eagerly pick up the sequel (and, who knows, maybe I'll pick up the sequel anyway). In the end, I'd rate it similarly to other fantasy beginnings like Wizard's First Rule and A Game of Thrones, though it's much less dark than those two.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips

The Tragedy of Arthur is a unique novel, and if nothing else, I have to give Phillips credit for having the guts to write it. For not only is the book a (fictional) story of (a fictional) Arthur Phillips, his con-artist dad, and a never-before-seen-in-the-modern-world Shakespeare play, the novel also includes the entirety of the "newly discovered" Shakespeare play itself. And, boy, does it take some balls to write and publish your own Shakespeare play, particularly since that play is lauded and authenticated as "true Shakespeare" within the story (framed as the play's introduction).

But, to back up a few steps. The majority of the novel is the "introduction," written by (fictional) Phillips about how the play Arthur came to be discovered and published. The story is really an account of Phillips' fractured relationship with his father, who spent most of Phillips' life in jail for counterfeiting and other scams. Phillips' father gave him Arthur on his near-deathbed, and Phillips spends much time trying to decide if the play is genuine or a last trick of his father's.

This set up has a lot of interesting possibilities, including Phillips' relationship with the Bard himself--a person so admired by his father and sister that Phillips couldn't help but dislike him. Nonetheless, I just couldn't get in to the story. Phillips spends most of the introduction self-flagellating, bemoaning his mistakes and whimpering about what a terrible son/brother/husband/father he was and is. For this reason, I found Phillips immensely dislikable, even though I didn't think his crimes and errors were nearly as terrible as he--and especially his sister--found them to be. The story dragged, even though it's relatively short.

I did enjoy some of the insight into the cult of adoration that surrounds Shakespeare, having mixed feelings about him myself. I disliked Shakespeare in high school and college, but I've come to appreciate him much more now that I teach Romeo and Juliet. I know the play so well now that I really love it, but it took a lot of time to get me there. I don't pick up a random Shakespeare play and immediately feel enthralled (though an absolutely amazing performance of Othello I saw a few years back did have me convinced). I could identify with Phillips' anger at the deification of Shakespeare and our complete willingness to excuse and explain away any potential errors or weaknesses in the plays as actually signs of Shakespeare's genius. There has to be a happy middle ground between recognizing his talent and influence and being realistic about his creations.

Nonetheless the "woe is me {mope}{mope}{mope}" of the introduction was so infuriating that I really didn't want to read the play itself, The Tragedy of Arthur, which appears at the end of the book. However, I surprisingly enjoyed the faux-Shakespeare--both the characterization and dialogue. I'm not enough of an expert to say how skilled (the author) Phillips is at imitating Shakespeare, but he doesn't seem to do a bad job.

Kudos to Phillips for a unique and daring novel--I just wish the story hadn't been such a drag.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"The Death Cure" by James Dashner

I had been looking forward to reading The Death Cure. Though Dashner's previous books in the series, The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials, weren't especially memorable, they were a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the mix of mystery, adventure, and dystopian elements, and the fast-paced cliffhanger style helped make the books especially engaging. Unfortunately, The Death Cure did not live up to my expectations.

In a series built on unanswered questions, it can be difficult to wrap-up the storyline in an effective way. Going in, the reader knows Thomas and the other Gladers must learn the truth about WICKED and determine their role in protecting the earth from the disease called the Flare. Nevertheless, Dashner just didn't seem to know where he was going. First, unlike previous novels, it felt like little was happening, and when something did, it was almost always centered around guns, fistfights, and bravado-laced hostage taking. The inordinate amount of fighting and death seemed out of place, like it should have belonged in a mass market crime thriller. Hundreds of (mostly unnamed) people die, but there's really no empathy.

Thomas' relationship with and conflicting feelings about Theresa were at the center of the previous novels, but Theresa is almost completely forgotten here. There's no character development on her part, and it's never clear what her motivations are. Thomas mostly ignores her, and I was surprised to see so little resolution between them.

The book seemed like it was trying to raise ethical questions by setting up the conflict between WICKED, which is willing to sacrifice human subjects at any cost in order to find a cure to for the Flare, and the Right Arm, a resistance movement focused on survival rather than a cure. The question of whether it's morally permissible to sacrifice a few to potentially save many is an important and challenging issue. However, Thomas and his friends' insistence on the evil of WICKED, combined with the cartoonish nastiness of WICKED's leader, distorted any moralistic exploration.

I found myself bored through much of the novel, and the ending was a cop-out that avoided answering the hard questions. It was a disappointing end to a promising series.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the first young adult book I've read since August, though I requested it from the library quickly based on the praise I had heard for its quirky story. However, the story itself is not too unusual, at least to fans of fantasy with a gothic twist. Jacob grew up hearing fantastic stories from his grandfather about an island filled with children with special abilities. Though he devoured the stories as a child, as he grew older, Jacob believed in them less and less until his grandfather is killed in a bizarre tragedy. Hoping to learn more about his grandfather's history, Jacob seeks out the island and discovers Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a sanctuary for X-Men-like children that remains in a time loop of one day during World War II.

What sets Miss Peregrine apart is its use of odd vintage photographs, which appear periodically throughout the book (i.e., as Jacob examines the photo, it appears in the novel). Though the photos are interesting and certainly creepy, they also have the unintended effect of making the novel feel like a creative writing exercise. I could just imagine an instructor saying, "Here are five random photos; now make a cohesive story from them!" Even though writers are free to get their inspiration from anywhere, such inspiration is usually less apparent. Seeing the photos made me think, "Okay, so here's how Riggs choose to work this photo in." Fair or not, I couldn't help seeing the story as forced and inauthentic because of it.

This sense of inauthenticity also extended to the characters. I just couldn't quite buy Jacob's teenage angst, and he often seemed much younger or much older than he's supposed to be. I also didn't connect to his relationship with Emma, which happened far too quickly.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is not a bad story, and it would be great for a younger audience with a lower reading level. However, it didn't bring me in.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

I'm not quite sure why I waited so long to read The Poisonwood Bible except I think I had it mixed up with Prodigal Summer, which I own and started a few times but never got in to. Nonetheless, I'm happy I finally gave the book a try, especially in the well-done audio version I listened to, which is narrated by Dean Robertson in a convincing southern accent.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family, who travel to the Congo as Christian missionaries in the 1960s. The wife, Orleanna, and the four children, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, are led with maniacal religious fervor by the father, Nathan. The story is told from the sisters' alternating viewpoints as they struggle to adjust to life in Africa.

The voice of each sister is especially well-done and reinforced by small shifts in tone from the audio narrator. Ruth May, the youngest, is naive and enthusiastic. Leah and Adah are twins, but Adah was born with some kind of deformity that results in a limp. Adah is silent yet sarcastic and irreverent; Leah is devoted to her father, which makes his fall from grace in her eyes all the more painful. Rachel is vain and flighty. Kingsolver is especially talented at making each girl, and their parents, fully realized characters. It quickly becomes clear that although Nathan is the reason they all travel to the Congo, he is mostly absent from their lives.

The first half of the book explores the family's first year or so in the Congo. The family's interactions with and lack of understanding of the people Nathan is there to convert take center stage. The second half of the book takes place over several decades as the family members go their separate ways and live out their adulthood. Because this part of the novel is spread out over such a long period, some of the intimacy of character that so defined the first half is lost.

Poisonwood Bible takes place over a turbulent time in the history of the Congo as the country transitions from Belgian rule to various forms of independence. Like another book I read this summer, White Woman on a Green Bicycle, Poisonwood Bible explores these changes through the eyes of white individuals living in the country.  Though, like in White Woman, this means the native Congolese voices are largely absent, the technique does expose the stereotypes and prejudices of non-citizens and particularly white Americans.

For me, it was the detail and nuance of the sisters' daily lives in a world that first appears strange, but then became familiar, that drew me in and kept me hooked.

Friday, October 14, 2011

"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is a novel that's built on the reader's (and characters') constant immersion in a dream-like world, where every event has the tinge of a fairy tale and every encounter bursts in intensity and emotion. It's a book completely dependent on mood, and there's some danger in that; if the reader doesn't buy in, there's no book. However, fortunately for readers, Morgenstern's Night Circus is a success.

It's a hard book to describe effectively. There are two protagonists, Celia and Marco, and they're not quite magicians, but they are able to manipulate the world around them. As children they're bound by their teachers to a mysterious competition with each other, though it's a competition with hazy rules and no timeline. The setting of this competition is the Night Circus, a fantastic event that shows up and leaves unannounced. As Celia and Marco work to create even more staggering illusions for the circus, they must fight between their feelings for each other and their obligation to the game.

The world of The Night Circus is rich in several accounts. First, there's the description of the circus itself, a completely black and white exhibition with untold wonders in every tent. Morgenstern's world is so vivid that the reader can't help but envy the characters' ability to visit it. Secondly, there's the richly drawn characters and the electricity between Celia and Marco. They're not together particularly often, but when they are, the reader can't help but feel their attraction. It's one of the more compelling romances I've read in awhile.

At times the book can be overly cryptic, and the twins Poppet and Widget were intriguing characters whom I would have liked to see more of. I'm not sure if the ending quite worked, but it's mostly satisfying.

Nonetheless, I felt like I entered a new world whenever I picked up the book, and I was disappointed when I suddenly noticed I was nearly finished.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Eye in the Sky" by Philip K. Dick

I know the name Philip K. Dick solely from him being the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which I haven't read), the book on which Blade Runner (which I haven't seen) is based.  Looking at the inside cover of the book I did read, Eye in the Sky, I was amazed to see just how prolific a science-fiction writer Dick was. Eye in the Sky, published in 1957, is one of his earlier works.

The novel has a simple premise that's light on the science-fiction and heavier on a dramatic plot. When a group of people are injured while observing a science experiment, they all fall (mostly) unconscious and begin entering, in succession, the subconscious "dream" worlds of each other. The protagonist is Hamilton, an electronics expert who has recently been fired because his wife, Marsha, is suspected to be a Communist.

It's a decent, though not thrilling, set-up, but Dick doesn't seem quite sure of his concept. There's no consistency in the type of dream worlds the characters enter. For example, the world Mr. Silvester, a religious fanatic, is a weird mix of pseudo-Christianity and pseudo-Islam; it's hard to see where that would fit in his psyche. Mrs. Pritchet's "world" is clearly her dream fantasy: she can remove anything she finds unpleasant at will. However, Miss Reiss' world isn't her fantasy, but rather a gross manifestation of her paranoia and fears. From a sci-fi perspective, I found that lack of consistent world building irritating.

Nonetheless, there's some fun to be had in the transition between odd worlds and in the group's (somewhat) clever ways of knocking out the person who is controlling the world in order to progress to another individual's mind. This might have been enough to make for a diverting read had it not been for the main character, Hamilton.

Hamilton's a privileged self-righteous blow-hard who looks down upon everyone else, but it seems Dick wants the reader to admire his behavior. The reader never even gets to see Hamilton's dream world because he's so "in touch" with reality. Yet take his behavior: When Bill Laws, a black physicist (relegated to the position of tour guide in the real world), finds some comfort in Mrs. Pritchet's world (a world in which he commands his own company), Hamilton has nothing but scorn. When Marsha supports Mrs. Pritchet in removing a prostitute that Hamilton is trying to have sex with from the world, Hamilton is furious, and it's Marsha who has to apologize! Marsha's anger should have been directed Hamilton, not the prostitute, but that doesn't excuse Hamilton's behavior. See how he sneers at his wife when she tries to make up:
     "I love you, Jack [Hamilton]," Marsha quavered wretchedly.
     "And I'm in a hurry," he answered. "Okay?"
     She nodded. "Okay. Good luck."
     "Thanks." As he moved toward the picnic site, he said to her, "I'm glad you've forgiven me about Silky [the prostitute]."
     "Have you forgiven me?"
     "No," he said stonily. "But maybe I will when I see her again."
     "I hope you do," Marsha said pitifully.
     "Just keep your fingers crossed." (168)

Hamilton's attitude toward his wife is bad throughout. He's condescending and easily assumes the worst of her (in this novel, that she's a communist). Marsha is characterized rather pathetically (reading "quavered wretchedly" as a description of her speech makes me wince), but that dosen't make Hamilton's attitude okay. Hamilton's supposed to be the hero, but I couldn't stand him.

The best part of the novel is its fierce anti-Communist stance, which just comes off as funny. It allows for awesome lines like, "You all believe it. You think I'm -- a Communist" (214). I've read some reviews that said the book is a critique of McCarthyism, and I suppose there is some criticism of unfounded Communist paranoia, but the novel clearly supports the idea that Communists = pure evil. In the end, Eye in the Sky is probably better suited as evidence of '50s attitudes than great science-fiction.