Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Cat's Eye" by Margaret Atwood

To begin, a big "yay," as Cat's Eye marks my first post-required summer reading book. I've finished reading all the new books I'll be teaching this year (and school has started), so I can go back to reading novels of my choosing.

I'm a fan of Atwood's dystopians, but I'd never picked up Cat's Eye, which has been sitting on my shelf for years (must have bought it at a library sale or something). I was hesitant to read it now, but did so out of desperation, as the books I'd requested at the library hadn't come in yet and I had few other options. My reluctance came from the book's subject matter, which sounded dull. After reading I still appreciate Atwood as a writer, but I think my instincts about about what I'd think of the plot were right.

Cat's Eye is told from the point of view of Elaine, a 40-something painter who's returning to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her art. As Elaine meanders through Toronto, she thinks back to her childhood and particularly her complicated and, at times, abusive relationship with her friend Cordelia.

Now, to be fair, this summary has no appeal whatsoever to me, so perhaps I was doomed from the start to dislike the book. Nonetheless, there were a number of things that bothered me. First, there's the melancholy, foggy tone which seems to characterize "literary fiction" and seems almost cliche. More irksome for me was the characterization of Elaine, who is portrayed as graying and aged when I don't think most people think of your 40s as ancient. I can understand that perhaps Elaine simply feels old, but other people treat her as dowdy and gone too, with a young journalist even calling her "crotchety" in the title of an article. Really? What 40-year-old is "crotchety"? If the book hadn't said otherwise, I'd easily have assumed Elaine was in her 70s or 80s.

Cat's Eye does have some interesting things about female friendship. Cordelia is horrifically psychologically abusive to Elaine when they are children, but they later become best friends as high schoolers without acknowledging the past hurts. Decades later, Elaine is in some ways still chased by her history with Cordelia and unable to move past the injuries. Elaine comments on how much easier it is to forgive men than women, something I can relate to. I can look back on old boyfriends with some fondness and nostalgia, deserved or not, but hold old grudges against girlfriends with fervor.

Atwood is a great writer, but the tone, structure, and characters of Cat's Eye just weren't for me.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"The Natural" by Bernard Malamud

I'm not a fan of baseball; it's slow and full of statistics, and they play way too many games for me to care. Thus it's not surprising that The Natural is probably only the second baseball book I've read, and, like the first (YA historical novel The Last Days of Summer), I only did so because it's a book I'll be teaching. But, despite my attitude toward the sport, I'll admit that America's pastime is a perfect backdrop with which to explore the American dream and its connections to masculinity.

For me, The Natural is a somewhat odd book, following the late-career emergence of Roy Hobbs, a "natural" hitter and fielder. Hobbs' early career was derailed by a crazy lady with a penchant for shooting top athletes, and when Hobbs finally makes the major leagues in his mid-30s, playing for the Knights, he's determined that his moment of glory has finally come. But the novel isn't an underdog story, but instead a tale of a man's insatiable desire to finally be a star--and thus achieve happiness. Hobbs is a sympathetic character, but he's also grossly naive, believing that elusive satisfaction is available solely by becoming a baseball legend and acquiring Memo, a red-head who had dated the Knights' recently deceased star player.

There's beautiful description throughout of the way Hobbs looks at the world, which allows the reader to understand where Hobbs is coming from while also seeing how deluded he is.

The Natural isn't really my thing, but it provides an excellent character study and would undoubtedly be a big draw for baseball fans.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Amped" by Daniel H. Wilson

I thoroughly enjoyed Wilson's first novel, Robopocalypse, a fun and action-filled account of the war between man and robot. It wasn't particularly novel or thought-provoking, but, like a good summer blockbuster, I had a great time reading it. Wilson's most recent book, Amped, is more ambitious in the themes and issues it addresses, but unfortunately it's also less successful.

In the world of Amped, certain individuals have chosen to be implanted with neural devices. Some of these devices cure medical problems, like seizures, or improve brain function for mentally retarded children. Others enhance children with slight difficulties, such as the auto-focus implant, which can turn a distracted kid into an academic whiz. As the book begins, conflict is simmering between "amps" and "reggies" (people without the implant), who claim amps are being unfairly advantaged. The Supreme Court essentially rules that amps don't have legal rights, and a fierce anti-amp backlash emerges, led by Senator Joseph Vaughn of the Pure Human Citizens Council. Our protagonist, Owen, is a teacher with an implant to stave off seizures, but as he's forced on the run, he learns his father, a doctor, actually implanted him with secret military technology. Owen joins other amps living out West as war between amps and reggies brews.

Firstly, there's some interesting stuff here. There's the issue of technological enhancements and the ethical questions that come along with them. How much is too much? Is there a point where people are no longer human? Do we create two tiers of citizens if some people are amped and others aren't? There's also interesting legal questions, particularly around the Supreme Court's ruling (which, for example, says that because amps are mentally superior, "reggies" are essentially handicapped in any dealings with them, making contracts unfair). Then there are the social issues about the way we treat people who are different. But, none of these interesting questions take center stage in the novel.

Instead, we get Owen on the run, eventually getting to the amp colony of Eden. There he meets Lyle, another military amp, and Lucy, whom Owen falls in love with, most likely because she's the only female character in the book. Owen learns to use his amp powers, but even though they make him a hard-core bad-ass fighter, the scenes are pretty dull. Meanwhile the reggies go all nuts about amps and become hate-spewing villains immediately. As we finally start to reach the end, we go through a dozen or so "twists" to the point where none of the evil guys make any sense. Oh, and in the end, everything's fine, and the answer to "is there a limit to how we should use technology?" is apparently "no."

The pace drags throughout and Owen is uniformly boring. This is actually a rare case where a movie version might be better than the book, as the fight scenes could be ramped up and listening to Owen's rambling inner monologue could be eliminated.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was fine, but nothing special. I'd recommend Wilson's Robopocalypse instead.