Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Ghostwritten" by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten is a collection of short stories loosely bound together, somewhat like Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, though Mitchell's stories are even less explicitly related. The nine narrators and settings vary widely, from a Japanese cult member responsible for a terrorist gas attack to a solitary owner of a tea shack on Holy Mountain to a late night radio host in New York City, among others.

Individually, the stories are interesting, though they vary in style and comprehensibility. For example, the stories about the cult member or the Japanese teenager in love are straightforward and successfully capture each narrator's vioice. The more fantastical stories, like those about he the haunted businessman or about the traveling non-corporeal entity, are more muddled and, for me, less enjoyable. Nonetheless, each story is clearly distinguished from the others, and I enjoyed the variety of locales, from rural Ireland to isolated China.

I prefer the short story collections I read to have thematic commonalities, as Lahiri is so skilled at doing in her works. Though I've no doubt there are connections between Mitchell's stories since they are so subtely weaved together throughout, the stories are just too outwardly separated for me to put the pieces together. I have little sense or feeling for the book as a whole.

Mitchell is a talented writer and his stories read beautifully, but there's a sense of incompleteness to Ghostwritten (in fact, several stories end abruptly with no semblance of resolution or ending) that I can't shake.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Deadline" by Mira Grant

I was of two minds about Grant's first book in this series, Feed. On the one hand, I love zombie books, and there was some cool worldbuilding. On the other hand, the characters were often annoying and cliche, the exposition was slow, and there was excessive self-righteousness about the world of blogging. Deadline suffers from all the same flaws, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Deadline picks up a few months after the end of Feed. Shaun has taken control of After the End Times, the news site he ran with his sister, Georgia. Georgia died from a zombie infection at the end of the last book, but she's not gone. Shaun still talks with her, inside his head (he'll punch you if you comment about it, though--something he mentions about two dozen times). When a CDC researcher who faked her own death shows up at their offices, they begin to investigate a giant conspiracy designed to cover up truths about Kellis-Amberlee, the virus responsible for zombies.

Initially I was annoyed at having Shaun as a narrator. He has a tough-guy, "I don't care what anyone else says demeanor" that comes out a bit forced. However, I discovered I didn't mind him as much as I did in Feed, perhaps because he's talking to Georgia less, and the most groan-worthy moments were usually a part of their conversations. The additional characters--Becks (an Irwin), Maggie (head of the fictionals), Alaric--are welcome, though they're not given much personality as they mostly just do whatever Shawn says.

The initial conspiracy reveal is kinda neat. It's a nuanced problem, as you can understand the CDC's desire to keep the information quiet for public safety and Shaun's desire to have free knowledge. However, this subtlety is quickly done away with as the CDC becomes a cartoonish villain (the main guy even does the "let me explain everything to you before I kill you" spiel, just as in Feed). This is disappointing, as the characters then spend much of the book on the run from the CDC only to decide to infiltrate the CDC again and confront a researcher--cause, uh, that'll solve everything. Most of the rest of the novel is the crew sitting around, waiting for stuff to happen and not doing anything about what they know. Furthermore, like in Feed, Deadline is more about living in a world with zombies than about zombies themselves. The walking dead only make brief appearances, in fact, in the beginning and end of the novel.

Grant has learned some from the book before, as the enormously tedious descriptions of blood tests are significantly reduced. However, there's still a lot of repetition, like characters "raising their eyebrows" whenever Shaun talks to Georgia in his head or Shaun's incessant descriptions of drinking Diet Coke because Georgia wants one. Characters are stunned into silence or incredulous, over and over again.

I listened to both Feed and Deadline on audiobook, but this time I listened while cleaning and packing up my house. I found the book more enjoyable this way (last time I listened in a car ride) since I wasn't as focused on the book and could more easily gloss over the annoying parts.

I've come down pretty critically, but, in the end, I listened to the entirety of both books and had a pretty good time doing so. There's some really stupid parts and there's plenty that doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's not a bad ride.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe sounds like science-fiction, but the novel is only nominally so. Despite its title and a lot of over-my-head techno-philosophizing, How to Live is really a story about a father and a son and the memories, regrets, and disappointments that haunt us.

The novel's narrator is Charles Yu, a time-machine repair man who has been living out of time in his closet-sized machine for years. On a landing for repair, he confronts his future self emerging from his time machine and, on reflex, shoots him. In panic, Charles returns to his time machine where he finds a book that he has yet to write: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. While reading/writing the book, Charles revisits memories of himself and his father, who created time machines but has been missing for years.

The summary above makes it sound like a lot more happens than actually occurs. There's little action, as much of the novel centers around Charles' inner monologue. Thus, for me, the novel went a bit slowly, and Charles rambled and ruminated too much for me to feel especially connected to him.

Nonetheless, the most appealing part of How to Live is its posit that there's not so much difference between the past and the present, between experiencing and remembering. In this world, time travel is less a physical journey through time and space (a la Doctor Who) and more a journey into re-experiencing past memories. Time travelers can't travel anywhere, just their own past, and they can't change anything. Instead, time traveling is a more physical manifestation of something all us do already: constantly remember past moments, most especially the bad. Who hasn't run-through a negative moment in his or her head over and over again, hoping for a new outcome but knowing that it will never turn out differently? Time travel lets people become masochists, yet, not surprisingly, everyone does it anyway.

As someone who has to actively set-up strategies to avoid dwelling on past errors (I think about my cats or the book I'm currently reading), I could definitely empathize, and I think most readers can. Nonetheless, How to Live is not a quick or plot-based novel, and it won't appeal to all readers, or those specifically looking for science-fiction.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater

I'm fascinated by various aspects of psychology, despite my ambivalence to some of its uses. I decided to read Opening Skinner's Box at the recommendation of a blog reader (thanks Ulises!). In the book, Slater explores ten famous (or infamous) behavioral experiments in psychology, describing the experiments and experimenters and the lasting impact of their findings.

Slater has chosen her experiments well, though that does mean a reader with any basic psychology background will be familiar with much of what she talks about. For example, I have a decent understanding of the work of Skinner (Skinner's "box"), Milgram (obedience experiment), and Harlow (monkeys), and I was disappointed that her chapters on them offered little new or little that couldn't be gleaned from any other source. I was more interested when it came to territory that was new to me, such as Alexander's experiments with addition or Loftus' experiments in memory.

Prior to starting Skinner's Box, I read some Amazon reviews, where I found many highly critical comments of Slater, her methods, and her conclusions. Undoubtedly these colored my reading some (coincidentally, I think she even discussed an experiment about preconceived notions), but I couldn't help disliking Slater throughout the book. Though I normally enjoy an author inserting his or her personal life and insights, I grew tired easily of Slater's meanderings. She spends a lot of time drawing vague conclusions from each experiment, often making tangential connections to her husband or child. Slater tries to work in detailed description, but she usually ends up prefacing it with "I imagine" or "we can imagine," which means she really has no idea what happened. She's also weirdly prejudiced. Though she seems to give most experimenters the benefit of the doubt, she's surprisingly hostile to Loftus' work on repressed memory. Though Loftus does seem to be a bit of a kook (though Slater's bizarre enough herself--she surreptitiously takes a bite of a ten-year-old piece of chocolate Skinner had bitten and which Skinner's daughter has preserved in Skinner's office; she tries her husband's illegal pain medication to see if she can become addicted), I was on Loftus' side, believing that repressed memories are largely imaginary. And, when I asked my psychologist husband what he thought of repressed memories, he firmly said, "They don't exist." It's surprising, then, that Slater portrays Loftus as on the fringe and presents those who support the existence of repressed memories as the norm.

Opening Skinner's Box does provide an easy-to-understand overview of some of psychology's most famous behavioral experiments, and if you don't mind the author's style, it could be a good book for those interested in such work. She offers little new insight into the experiments, though, and the time spent on her own philosophy can drag down the reading (I was skimming much of it by the end). For a more fun look into one aspect of psychology, I recommend Ronson's The Psychopath Test.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone made many best YA of 2011 lists, so my husband I chose to listen to it on our annual car ride into the Midwest for Christmas.

The book has a great setting and an interesting premise. Karou is an art student living in Prague, but she has a secret: she runs errands collecting human and animal teeth for her "family" of monster-like creatures called chimaera. The head of this family is Brimstone, also called the Wishmonger, as he deals in wishes. On one errand, Karou is unexpectedly confronted by an angel, who attempts to kill her. Though she escapes, she's shocked when he finds her soon after--but he only wants to talk. As Karou and Akiva, the angel, spend more time together, they uncover their hidden history and learn more about the war between the chimaera and the angels.

In the beginning, I was game for the novel. Prague's a fun setting, and I enjoyed reading about Karou's double life. I especially liked Karou's best friend Zuzana, who's spunky and utterly devoted. There's great build up for discoveries about Karou's origin and foreshadowing for a good fight.

But then Akiva enters. And OMG, did you know he is beautiful? Because the author seems to forget we know. Beautiful. Beautiful! Moving on--oh, wait, I need to talk again about how beautiful he is. Okay, I appreciate that characters can be attractive and should be described as such, but there's really a point where it becomes overkill. And, guess what? He's not only beautiful. He's also pained. Tortured. Smoldering. The utterly romantic stalker (barf). Take Edward Cullen, make him warm and give him wings, and you get Akiva. Like Edward, Akiva is utterly without personality in his own right, and because of that, I felt no heat in his and Karou's relationship--just a lot of eye-rolling.

Then, Taylor takes a break from describing how tingly Karou and Akiva are around one another for an extended and awkwardly placed flashback, during which all the mysteries' truths are revealed in a fairly literal reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet. The novel quickly concludes after, which felt anti-climatic, and ends on an utterly depressing note. Yay.

Considering all the praise the novel received, I was especially disappointed to see a run-of-the-mill romance with a stock male lead. Karou is more interesting initially, but she gets insanely boring by the time we get to the flashback. Taylor gets high marks from me for her world building, so it's a shame she populated it with such trite characters and relationships. Maybe the novel would have been better in print, where the repetition and annoying parts could be skimmed over, but it became almost unendurable at points in the audiobook.

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson's Snow Crash takes place in a world where corporate entities have largely replaced governments and the most intelligent and/or wealthy spend much of their time as avatars in the MMO virtual reality Metaverse. It's fairly standard stuff nowadays, so I was a little surprised when Stephenson spent time explaining what an avatar is or how the Metaverse operates--I mean, we all know that stuff. And then I finished the book and realized it was published in 1992. It was written twenty years ago, and yet I would have pegged it as no more than several years old.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash does have a classic geeky feel to it, primarily because of its tone and style. The novel opens with the reader meeting Hiro Protagonist, ultimate bad-ass with a sleek car and samurai swords on his back; he's the Deliverator--a pizza delivery man for the Mafia franchise, where the slogan "thirty minutes or less" isn't just a guarantee, it's a death threat to its employees. When a delivery goes wrong, Hiro is forced to rely on fifteen-year-old Y.T. to help him. She's a Kourier who delivers packages by skating the roads at high speed, "pooning" cars for a ride. Through most of the book, Hiro's on the hunt for the origin of Snow Crash, a technological and biological virus being transmitted in Reality and the Metaverse.

Hiro and Y.T. are largely defined by their bad-ass-ness, and much time is spent on their advanced gear (cars, motorcycles, boards, computers), their weapons, and their awesomeness. It makes the book a lot of fun, like a grunge James Bond or perhaps more like a technology-oriented Quentin Tarantino movie, but it does make Hiro and Y.T. a little less believable as characters. Their relationship is never really developed; it just exists. And I didn't buy Y.T. as a teenager, and I especially didn't buy her romantic interest in the (sort of) villain Raven.

Juxtaposed with the bad-assery is religious myth and the nature and the evolution of human communication (somewhat interesting coming after Embassytown, which addresses language as well). Snow Crash connects religion and viruses (biological and computer), not in a metaphorical "religion is destructive" kind of way, but in literal terms of transmission and infection. Going back to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and Sumerian gods, the whole thing got a bit muddled for my tastes, but it's broken up with plenty of sword fighting, daring escapes, and chases.

I imagine the book's target audience is younger men, but it's fun for anyone who wants a cheeky sci-fi adventure.