Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Year in Review

Well, this makes five years blogging! Hard to believe I've been doing it that long. I suppose the "success" comes from the very low pressure--if few are reading, you're not beholden to anyone but yourself! And that's mostly the way I like it.

Clearly my reading took a big hit this year, though I've been dropping in numbers the last few years. I read about half as many books this year as last year and about a third as many as I read in 2010 at my peak. Again, the same reasons get in the way. I'm teaching, working out, and now assistant directing the drama program at my school. That "sacred" reading time I used to have after school and before dinner is now entirely erased. And, like last year, I've had a harder time getting excited about what I read. So much of it leaves me feeling "meh." Nonetheless, here we go:

My top 10 books read in 2013:
1. Tenth of December by George Saunders
2. Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss
3. The Dinner by Herman Koch
4. Zealot by Reza Aslan
5. Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
6. The Long Walk by Stephen King
7. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
8. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra
10. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Total books read: 39
Total books reviewed: 37
I wasn't going to embarrass myself by reviewing the first two 50 Shades books. I made it about halfway through the third before getting really bored.

Fiction read: 30
Nonfiction read: 9
If nothing else, I tend to stay very consistent in nonfiction making up about 25% of my reading each year.

Adult read: 36
Young adult read: 3
Little drawing me to YA anymore.

Female authors: 17
Male authors: 22
I always start out pretty well here, and then somehow the ladies start losing out by the end of the year.

Years published:
- 2013: 14
- 2012: 20
- 2011: 1
- 2000-2010:  2
- 1990-1999: 0
- 1900-1989:  2
- 1800-1899: 0

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 37
- Total purchased: 1
- Total already owned: 1

Happy new year and best wishes for 2014!

"The Long Earth" by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Like all good sci-fi, The Long Earth begins with a compelling premise. One day, in the near-ish future, a design for a device simple enough for kids to put together appears on the internet. Soon, thousands of people have built the device and immediately "step" into a parallel Earth. In the time that follows, people discover an infinite number of parallel Earths going in two directions from what is now called "Datum Earth." There are oddities of course--most people experience severe nausea from stepping, and though the stepper takes whatever he or she is touching along for the step, no iron can be passed between worlds. Each of the parallel worlds retains the same underlying geography--if you step from New York, you step into the New York of the parallel word--but none of the parallel worlds have people or modern development. Instead, each world appears to represent a "potential" world that our physical world could have evolved into a some point in its history.

What I liked most about this premise was that it allows for a lot of exploration into how such technology would affect our current world. Early on, many people begin to settle the parallel Earths, but it's mostly the middle class--the rich have too much to lose in leaving Datum Earth, and the poor have insufficient resources to make such a trip feasible. It's also noted early on that a small portion of the population is unable to step, creating hostilities. I thought both of these issues were interesting, but unfortunately they make up a small portion of the novel.

I also thought the psychology of why people would leave Datum Earth was interesting. At first, I thought there's no way I'd leave the modern conveniences--not just cell phones and the Internet but toilets and modern medicine--to start over in a new world. But, the more I read, the more I could see the appeal of leaving behind the burdening details and concerns of the modern world (buying insurance, investing in retirement properly, paying taxes, etc.) and focusing just on subsistence and survival. Such an idea certainly excessively romanticizes "pioneer" living, but I could understand the desire for such a life.

But, again, a lot of those issues are pushed aside to focus instead on the story of Joshua, a bit of a hero stepper who can step naturally and without getting sick, and Lobsang, the first artificial intelligence to be recognized as a person by the courts. Lobsang hires Joshua to travel with him millions of Earths beyond Datum Earth. Unfortunately, their story--traveling through world after world--and their relationship--Joshua getting accustomed to Lobsang's quirks--are pretty dull. Neither person is especially exciting as a character, and I found myself more engaged when the story strayed to other people or places.

I still liked the book and will read the sequel. There's enough interesting worldbuilding and lots of potential exciting storylines to bring me back, even though I hope Pratchett and Baxter find a new way to use Joshua and Lobsang in the future.

A side note: My husband went into The Long Earth expecting the humor and absurdity associated with Pratchett. He kept laughing--trying too hard I think--at things that weren't especially funny, and he had a hard time believing me when I said it's not a funny book. It's not--there's some humor, but it's fairly serious sci-fi. That's not a criticism in and of itself, just something to be aware of.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a fiction novel (very) vaguely in the guise of a self-help book, is written entirely in the second person. This means we never learn the name of the protagonist ("you") nor his love interest, "the pretty girl." The point of view conceit had me concerned at first because I hadn't liked how it was used in Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, done entirely in the "we." I felt it erased individual characters, making the book less affecting.

However, the same is not true in Filthy Rich, since the reader remains in the world of the protagonist, his feelings and desires becoming fully-fleshed, even if he's not given a name. The novel follows the protagonist from his youth in poverty to his success as an entrepreneur, to his eventual old age. For anyone who's read books about Asia (it reminded me particularly of India, though I don't think that's the setting), a lot of the themes are familiar: poverty, corruption, bribery, and violence. Yet because the novel follows such a lengthy portion of the protagonist's life, the stories feel somewhat new.

The novel is slim and easy reading, and though it isn't my favorite of the novels that deal with similar themes, it's a worthy enough read.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink

The first half of Five Days at Memorial is one of the most compelling reads I've read all year. Fink recounts five days at New Orleans' Memorial Hospital immediately following Hurricane Katrina, detailing the events that ultimately led, on the last day, to several doctors and nurses administering lethal doses of drugs to a number of the hospital's sickest unevacuated patients.

Fink does an excellent job of putting the reader in the hospital staff's shoes as they fight mounting panic and uncertainty of rescue. Though rescue helicopters began to arrive early, they arrived without a central coordinated effort, making future return trips always uncertain. And the staff received no relief in caring for its many patients or in the simple yet backbreaking work of carrying patients up the stairs in order to be evacuated. If Hurricane Katrina revealed anything, it revealed a complete lack of disaster preparedness, from the individual hospital level all the way to the federal government.

Of course, why Five Days at Memorial has been made into a book is because of the staff's decision to euthanize a select number of patients whom they deemed would be unable to be evacuated from the hospital. For that reason, the second--and much drier--section of the book concerns the investigation into what happened and the later attempts at prosecution. I don't blame Fink, but there's just no way to make recounting interviews especially interesting, even if the subject matter is.

Though the book is written from a third-person objective point of view, it's clear that Fink ultimately believes that the doctors acted inappropriately and should be subject to criminal punishment. Yet, despite Fink's bias, I just couldn't agree (and neither could many others--none of the doctors and nurses were ever prosecuted). We expect individuals to be superhumanly heroic in times of disaster, but, even though they performed extraordinary services to the patients, the doctors and nurses are, ultimately, human. They were under stress, concerned for their lives, and had little outside support. They did not act maliciously or negligently--they did what they legitimately believed had to be done at the time. And, perhaps equally important, what is to be gained by prosecuting the staff? You deprive their patients of their services. You deprive their families of the presence. And you make them a jailed burden on the tax payers. What does that achieve? The doctors and nurses are unlikely to act similarly again, and the idea "justice" for the deceased families seems somewhat hollow. Their loved ones were very sick, and even if they had been evacuated, many or most probably would have died. After all, even after evacuation, the majority--sick and healthy--were left uncared for for days on roadsides or in the airport.

That's not to say that there were no poor judgments. That's made especially clear in the case of Emmett Everett, an obese man who was chosen for final evacuations because of his weight and other health conditions. He too was euthanized despite being conscious and alert the final morning. His case, more than any of the others, caused me to reconsider the doctors' actions.

Despite Fink's clear point of view, the book is excellently researched and compelling. Though the content should provide much for discussion, perhaps its most important contribution can be its emphasis on the need for clearly defined emergency procedures. When the insane occurs, people perform best with structure, order, and a sense of purpose.