Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Anthem" Review

Book 22 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

My first foray into Ayn Rand.  I don't think it will be my last.

This book was so short that I have the feeling my post about it will be too.  I loved the strong voice of the character, the (largely) believable world, and the yearning of the main character to find something else, something better, something unnamed.

Many of the successes were a little too easy.  Very convenient to have such timely discoveries, and a giant, protective forest where no one dares to hunt down the fugitives.  The concept of developing a sense of self out of a collective is very appealing, and that this book had ultimately a positive motivation, to illustrate the goodness in people, is so rare in this genre.  There is no doubt that this is dystopian literature, but the ending was so happy (even if I question whether it was earned) that I kept doubting myself about including it on this list.

I'm not converted to Objectivism...but we'll see.  There is so much more to read...

"Player Piano" Review

Book 21 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

Of all the books I've read for this challenge, "Player Piano" took me the longest.  Nearly 3 months.

I returned it to the library twice after several extensions, never finishing it, not until this morning.

The story did not even begin until around page 200 of the 295-page book.  Everything before that was backstory, setting the stage.

It's a great stage, at least.  The book is set in a future society which is divided into two groups: the professionals (engineers and managers), and the powerless lower classes.  Machines have taken over the world, taking jobs with them and leaving all those people whose work and skills can now be performed perfectly by technology, in the streets.

Our hero is Dr. Paul Proteus, manager of the Ilium Works plant, whose conscience troubles him about how much his position has interrupted and unfairly taken privileges from the disadvantaged poor.

It's a dystopia from a white-collar perspective, and it's interesting for that.

However, this book was published in 1952.  The technology is based on tapes (remember those?) and ginormous computing machines that take up lots and lots of space.  It is quite outdated.  I was jarred from the story every time someone untwisted a phone cord or filed a computer punch card.

The conclusion was such a departure from the rest of the story that I had a hard time believing it at first, but Vonnegut can write a freaking ending.  I am deeply impressed by anyone who can end a story in the manner he did.  Realistic, with just enough of both despair and hope to make it sting.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"I'll buy the peanuts and popcorn, we'll have us a ball..."

On recommendation, I picked up this book at the library:

It is almost entirely unlike anything I usually read.  It's non-fiction.  It's a true crime sort of book, about the serial killer H. H. Holmes and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the architects who planned and built the amazing structures and sights at the fair.

It was fascinating!  I had no idea about any part of the 1893 World's Fair, and this book provided a fantastic insight into how influential it was, how many things were started there that are still perpetuated.

I didn't care as much about the parallel plot regarding Holmes.  The details were vague and the twists were not very surprising.  Pretty much, if he met and married a young girl, which happened every 50 pages or so, things would take a predictably bad turn, fast.

I loved the history of the fair.  The author made the setting very real, and all the events that occurred during and bookended this time period (from the Great Chicago Fire to the Titanic) no longer seem like disconnected fables.

Some things I learned:
  • Chicago has always been a corrupt, seedy, and dangerous place with terrible weather.  In over 100 years, not much has changed.
  • Items introduced at or because of the World's Fair include the Ferris Wheel, Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, hamburgers, zippers, organized labor and the 8-hour workday, belly dancing, that tune you sing with the words "There's a place in France..."

The architecture alone, the White City, is remarkable.  The book I have has no pictures so I had to seek them out online, which I did after I finished reading the book.  All the descriptions are so well articulated that the pictures were merely supplementary, almost thoroughly unsurprising, except for the fact that the scale of the buildings, statuary, the Ferris wheel, is unbelievable.  It's hard to grasp.  The monumental task these planners set out for themselves--and, even more incredibly, actually achieved--is beyond belief.  What a sight it must have been.

Then I looked more closely at the book I had borrowed, my library's copy.

Do you see the text at the very top of the cover?  It's hard to see. 

The title page gives a better view:

Look up above the autograph (!) to the first line.

It's an advance reader's edition of the book.  Somehow it ended up in my local library.

This is fascinating to me, too.  I've never read an advance copy of any book, and I'm very curious to know if there are any major changes to the text.  That also explains the absence of pictures and all the typographic and grammatical errors (in this one, there was a lot of shifting around between Holmes', Holmes's, and even Holme's).

Thoroughly enjoyed this one, save the clumsy Holmes denouement.  It's all quite unsatisfying, and I don't need to look so closely at such horror.

Unapologetic hubris and ginormous buildings, on the other hand...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"The Resistance" Review

Book 20 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

Of all the things that a book titled "The Resistance" could be -- anything from brave and bolstering to slippery, or tense, or risky -- the very last thing you want it to be is insipid.

I really liked its predecessor, The Declaration. I thought the setup and the characters were compelling, though the sudden shootout ending was a bit strange. It should have been a red flag.

The characters are largely the same, but the game has completely changed. Our favorite Surpluses, Peter and Anna, have escaped from captivity and are attempting to live a normal life in a society where no babies are born and everyone lives forever. Peter gets caught up in the inner workings of the society and starts to lose sight of what he stood for in the first book...

Maybe because I listened to the audiobook of the first (narrated by a woman with a lovely British accent) and read the second, but something crucial was missing from this sequel. The characters were too simple and too capricious. The enemies were artlessly superficial villains. They practically twisted their thin mustaches and cackled.

There was a big plot point, which I won't discuss in detail, which was supposed to be revealed in a shocking manner and carry the book to its startling conclusion, only...

Without saying exactly what it was, let me just say that its impact presupposes a certain moral viewpoint that, if absent in the reader, makes the entire ending a bit lackluster.

It occurs to me that I've been spoiled by The Hunger Games, which is certainly far more edgy. I'm not prepared to give up on Malley's world entirely, not yet, but I think her strengths were highlighted in the realm of Surpluses. My favorite part of "The Resistance" dealt with the experiences of another Surplus. It wasn't a large portion of the book, and it wasn't very well developed, though it was the best written part.

Oh, the writing. Was the first book this trite and clumsy? I don't remember that it was. The sequel certainly is. My inner voice screamed and revised throughout, changing sentences, cutting unnecessary bits, rephrasing the clunky dialog. It reads like a first draft that cries quietly in its crib for an attentive editor.

This was officially my last book for the Dystopian Challenge, but it isn't the last one I will read for it. I can't go out on this note.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Holland Days

We got to spend time with Holland yesterday.

When she gets tired enough to take a nap at our house (which takes longer when monkeys are present), she doesn't nap alone.

It's a panoptic cousin event.

Yes, they were all really asleep. All wore yellow, to match the guest of honor.

(And yes, this was the only time I was able to use the camera. No flash.)

All three slept for approximately an hour and a half.

Emerald Pools

A week ago we woke up at 5 am and went to Zion to hike Emerald Pools.

Why so early? The trick to Southern Utah in the summer is to not be outdoors past 9 am, unless you're in the water. It gets too hot too fast. For us, it worked out perfectly.

Angela, at the beginning of the hike

And Elizabeth

Angela, with the half-smile she learned from...


Deer! It was a stag, on the hillside near the trail.

Angela on the rocks

Close up of Angela

Monkey see, monkey do

Hiking on the trail

Lower Emerald Pools. It's summer, so the water level is quite low.

Under the overhang

Catching a drop

Not exactly a waterfall

Water on the rocks

We decided to hike on towards Middle Emerald Pools.


Stopping to play in the sand

Hiking through the rock canyon

Crossing the small stream of Middle Emerald Pools

Sign at the cliff’s edge

Tadpoles! Turns out they aren't as jittery as you'd think, but the kids managed to frighten most of them away eventually.

More wildlife

Crossing the other arm of the pool

Hiking out


The Virgin River

I know it’s not supposed to be funny…

The kids took a few pictures too

Just as we were leaving, it was 9 am and starting to get really, really hot. There was a long line of cars waiting to get in to the park. I hope they had a good time, but they probably mostly thought, "Why does anyone come here in the summer? It's hotter than blazes!"

I was sure the kids would complain and not want to hike the whole way, but they were great. We had a great time. How can you not love Zion?

"In the Country of Last Things" Review

Book 19 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

Comparisons to "The Road" are inevitable, though I'm not entirely sure they're very illuminating.

"In the Country of Last Things" takes place in a post-apocalyptic city. There is a scant thread of government, but most people are without help or resources, food and supplies are scarce, and thievery and black markets prevail. It's a dangerous world, a lot like the one that the man and his boy set out to escape from in McCarthy's masterpiece.

But there are differences. The writing style here is a different kind of masterful. "Last Things" is written as a long journal entry or letter to an unnamed person, by the main character, Anna. She records how she maneuvered through the disasters, one horror after another.

It is bleak and dark. Almost too much for me.

At first, I couldn't read more than a few pages per day. I had to set it down, catch my breath and do something uplifting for a while, before I could go on.

That was true for the first 100 pages, which took me about a week to slog through. Since I love dark fiction, I think that's significant. The entire book is a slim 190 pages.

After the first hundred pages, I finished the rest in a single evening. It changed in character and I was hooked.

Initially, I wasn't certain how I felt about it, and I wondered why, since it bears so much similarity to "The Road," didn't I love it as much?

"The Road" was the only book I couldn't ever put down, even while driving (I tried to read while waiting at stoplights but they weren't long enough, and I eventually pulled over and finished the book on the side of the road). It was a good thing, ultimately: I couldn't have driven in the state that book left me in.

This one, though...I can't tell what the difference was. Maybe the first-person perspective put me too close to the brutality. Maybe there just wasn't as much hope.

From a dystopian perspective, this one definitely falls more towards the post-apoc genre, though the lawlessness and the new rules established in the wake of civilization's fall are a kind of government. It is full of panic and fear and unpredictability, which is a very different flavor of oppression.

Overall, I enjoyed it, it was very well-written (save for two or three scenes that felt tacked on and wholly unnecessary), and I would definitely recommend it to others who have a dystopian/post-apocalyptic bent. I doubt that anyone else would be able to endure it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Hunger" Review

Book 18 of 20 for the Dystopian Challenge

I have serious conflicts about these books.

This is the second book in the "Gone" series. When I finished "Gone" a few months ago, I wasn't sure if I would continue reading the series, but the second one was on my list and available (which is becoming more and more of a determining factor for what I read, since the dystopian challenge is perilously close to ending), so I overlooked my qualms and checked it out.

Like the first, I hated the cover. Also like the first, I couldn't put it down once I got into it about 30 pages.

With all the simultaneous storylines and the exploration of themes that deeply interest me (in this one, how do people handle difficulty and struggle? (might be my favorite theme ever)), I was a bit of a sucker for this monstrosity. It weighs in at 590 pages. It took me a couple of days to finish it.

However, also like the first one, it pulled me in with its humanity, and then turned on me. The last 100 pages or so are utterly...bizarre. So I'm reading along about how these kids are coping with their challenges inside the impenetrable dome and starving because food is running out, and...suddenly there are aliens wanting nuclear technology.

Alright, not exactly. I'm not spoiling anything, I promise. It's like a dream that turns into a fever dream that doesn't make sense at all but you're already invested in it so you leave your stressful history class one day to follow your demon guide into the tornado made of tomato soup and acid while riding a snarky pegasus that talks. The plot twists are It's a broad jump to follow the events as they unravel.

I loved the very end, though. The last page left me smiling. It's a little bleak, but for me and my dark tastes, it's quite satisfying. Two enthusiastic thumbs up for the gall to leave me hanging on that note.

Overall, I liked it better than the first. The youthful tone of the writing was not nearly as obnoxious -- not sure if it was toned down or I was used to it. I loved the character development and the sense that no one was protected, either from physical harm or emotional strain. There was a lot of brutality, but something about it rang true. It isn't senseless, not entirely; meaning, it makes sense to me, not that all that happens is justified. The stakes are high and the kids are more and more desperate.

The pacing is intense. And I'm left with many more unanswered questions.

Four more books in the series, though?? I am not sure I can sustain that much suspension of disbelief. How much weirder can it get? Judging from the leap of weirdness from the first installment to the second, there are simply no limits.