May 21, 2017

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

A tad heavy-handed and positively laden with tropes, The Invisible Library is still a fun little fantasy romp sure to push all the right buttons for many readers. Irene, our imperfect heroine, is an agent of the Library, an entity that stands apart from normal time and space. Librarians collect books from across the alternate worlds, and there are many, many alternate worlds, each with its own blend of science and magic. When she's saddled with a student and sent on a rather opaque mission to a quarantined alternate, things go awry. Fast.

The story manages to be both original and highly derivative at the same time. Certain aspects we've seen again and again from fantasy writers, but there's enough new material to make the book enjoyable. I'd be surprised if anyone who isn't a bookworm could really get into it, if only because the premise of the Library, a main character in and of itself, is to simply save and love books. There are about a bajillion literature references, of course, making it practically nonsensical to anyone who doesn't read much or at least have a pretty good knowledge of Western literature. The writing is nicely descriptive and there's certainly a lot of action to keep things moving along. But readers with a lot of fantasy books under their belt will probably be more exasperated than thrilled with the theatrics. We've read this story, over and over; there's just not enough originality to lift it above the quotidian. Readers who aren't generally drawn to fantasy might find this a little more interesting; it certainly appeals due to its average length when stacked up against behemoths like The Wheel of Time or The Song of Ice and Fire. I'd recommend this to the rather specific subset of reader who loves books but doesn't read widely in fantasy; most others will want to look elsewhere.

May 13, 2017

Family, Genus, Species; by Kevin Allardice

There's a lot packed into this very slim book's pages, and I was extremely impressed by all of it. Vee, our heroine, is at her nephew's birthday party in the Berkeley hills. Though her relationship with her sister is strained, she adores little Charlie and can't wait until he sees the magnificent dinosaur model she brought him. It starts out funny and sort of sweet, and then shit starts hitting the fan, and then abruptly escalates.

The layers in this novella are many, but the one I found most captivating is the theme of self-narration. We are all the protagonist in our own story; to others, we are bit characters, sidekicks, nemeses, and so forth, but never the main character. And since no one can read another's mind or truly step into their shoes, we tell ourselves stories about each of these other players in our lives. An example: Vee and her boyfriend ended their first date at her sister's Christmas party, drunkenly getting it on in a back room. During the act, someone walks in on them; Vee goes limp but her boyfriend keeps going; the door quickly closes again. To Vee, this is a split second of the day she met the man she later fell in love with. To the person who walked in on them, it looked an awful lot like rape. A rape that person then proceeded to ignore, which ate at him enough so that he felt the need to approach Vee at the birthday party and tell her what he saw and insist that he's a good guy because he's telling her that right now. To that man, Vee and this possible rape he witnessed is a story in his own life, not hers, one that he can refer to to illuminate something he feels is in his character, to make him feel better about himself.

I was especially impressed with Allardice's commentary on the fat woman as a sexual being. Vee is fat, and knows this well. She's used to men fetishizing her body while ignoring the person inside it, and aware that women who fall outside the very narrow spectrum of socially acceptable beauty are expected to be grateful for sexual attention. From these men's perspectives, too, her experience holds no value on its own, and to insist otherwise would be to violate their sense of self.

All this runs underneath a pretty brutal satire of white hipsters in the Bay Area, who cultivate their urban farms with honest intent but leave the people with whom they share their city to flounder, be marginalized, murdered. And then of course the book is quite funny in parts, proving again how multifaceted this novella is. I look forward to reading more from Kevin Allardice.

May 9, 2017

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus is Professor Harari's follow-up to the blockbuster (at least by sociology's standards) Sapiens. Instead of "A Brief History of Humankind," this is "A Brief History of Tomorrow," Harari's vision of where our present might lead us, based on our past thus far. His prediction: having done away with plague, famine, and war (more or less), humans will now look to attain immortality, bliss, and divinity. We are not, Harari proves, all that far off from any of these goals.

While life expectancy and general health keep improving, the possible lifespan of a human being has not changed at all. Though few and far between, ancient Egyptians and even Mesopotamians were quite capable of living into their eighties, just as we are now. But simple good health won't be enough anymore, at least not for humanity's ultra-rich elite. Why settle for winkles when you can have smooth skin? Indeed, why settle for any less than perfect body part or organ if you could heal or replace them and remain twenty-five until some unnatural death visits you? We already replace joints and hearts with those of other animals' or artificial copies, it's not such a leap forward for the wealthy to keep replacing parts as long as they can.

Bliss is arguably the easiest attained of these new goals. We're already doing it: drugs. I'm sorry, medication. Our burgeoning knowledge of chemistry and physiology allows us to medicate all sorts of mental ills; even carefully applied electricity can work wonders on the brain's neural activity. Why should anyone be miserable when they can just swallow a little pill and feel good again? Why should we tolerate the occasional accidents caused by tired truck drivers or plane pilots when we can create lasting focus and wakefulness with a cap that sends weak electrical pulses through the brain?

Divinity...this dream is a little less attainable. Omniscience might be a better word to describe what Harari is talking about. The speed with which humanity learns new things seems to be increasing at an exponential rate. In his example of the internet, he reminds us that twenty years ago it was nearly unheard of and poorly understood. Now the whole world runs online, most jobs and people depend on it in some way or another, and many of us are irrevocably attached to it. Similarly with biology, we barely understand our own bodies but our knowledge is growing every single day. For at least an elite class, cursed with extremely long lives and the ability to medicate themselves into any mental state they wish, the realm of knowledge will be the last real playground.

Harari's writing is, as in his first book, highly engaging. He's utterly brilliant, but speaks to the layman with great ease: "If modernity has a motto, it is 'shit happens.'" (pg. 200) His explanation of group dynamics is fascinating, particularly in his descriptions of how democracy works and the delusions people feed themselves to justify suffering in the name of nationalism (pg. 302). Did you know that sick people tend to vote more conservatively? Seriously. It's on page 339.

My one hang up about this book is something Harari says early on but then seems to work off the opposite assumption for the rest of the book. He notes that in the age of steam, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, people thought of the human body and mind in terms of steam, because that was the dominant technology of the day. Hence Freud's theories on pent up sexual frustrations finally boiling to a head at some random moment. Similarly, we talk of our bodies and minds in the language of computers - we act the way our genes program us to, we have different systems that have separate functions but report to the motherboard of our brain. It's the technology du jour, so that's the way we see things. But then Harari goes on for the entire rest of the book to talk about the mind as a set of algorithms, and goes on at great length about this fact plus reminds us of it frequently. Didn't he just say that we shouldn't fall into the trap of describing ourselves in terms of our technology because it's just a metaphor and might not be how things actually work? Or is he saying that this time, we're right and we really are just incredibly complex computers? I wish he would have explained this contradiction more thoroughly. Still, it's another superb read and I recommend anyone interested in the future of humanity (everyone, yes?) to pick it up.

Apr 26, 2017

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

This is a great idea. A fantastic idea, a really, truly, interesting and cool idea. Too bad the writing sucks.

Extrapolating the next leap forward of social development, Wilson gives us the Affinities: 22 types of people, grouped by some intangible biomechanical features. Not every person qualifies for an Affinity; about half of humanity falls into one of these groupings, with five being the largest. Members of the groups feel an...affinity...for each other. A deep, instant understanding that allows for incredible collaboration and cooperation, and mutual trust that leads to fulfilling, meaningful relationships, often to the exclusion of others, i.e. the families they were born into. These groups start to become much more than simple social clubs, and when things get political, relations between the Affinities get hairy.

Unfortunately, Wilson doesn't do the idea justice. Perhaps it's the first person narrator, but the story is told so flatly that I just couldn't get invested. The plot pulled me through and I read it quickly, but Adam isn't a particularly likable character and the twists are pretty predictable. Adam is merely a reporter, with hardly any strong emotion to speak of. He's annoyed at his strict, racist Republican dad, feels bad for the girl he was supposed to marry but didn't, pities people who don't have an Affinity, loves the pretty girl but not enough to stand up for her against the asshole father. It's lazy storytelling, letting the idea free and simply recording the logical next steps rather than molding it into an original, surprising tale that teaches us about human nature. Or something. Anything. I could see this being a fun TV show on TNT Tuesday nights, Prime Time! But it's only a mediocre book.

Apr 21, 2017

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

It took me far too long to pick up this companion novel to Atkinson's wonderful Life After Life, which I read years ago. That innovative novel followed the many iterations of protagonist Ursula's life, as she dies and is reborn as the same person over and over again. Teddy, the main character of A God in Ruins, is her younger brother, a bomber pilot who perishes in World War II. The unique nature of the previous book allowed Atkinson to write of Teddy's life as if he had survived the war, which only half of those pilots did. It's her way of humanizing the vast numbers of the dead, showing us how many lives just one life affects and now if that's not heartbreaking enough for you, multiply that by several million. It's a powerful message.

I'm a well-known Anglophile and am partial to Atkinson's very British, albeit contemporary, writing. Dry humor lies beneath every page, even in the darkest of moments. My one complaint would be that the characters other than Teddy come off as more caricatures than real people. His daughter is absolutely atrocious, even given some leeway because her mother died very young. It's hard to believe any normal person with a loving parent could be quite so horrible, and we seem to have to endure her just so we can witness her epiphany and reversal at the very end. I loved the way we skipped through time, though not the fact that Atkinson tends to draw our attention to it - "But that was yet to come, the future, and we are in the present, now." It's a bit much; perhaps she felt it necessary to keep the reader grounded as the time jumps occur quite often. Neither criticism detracts from the beauty of the whole, a really wonderful story about a horrible thing that had a lot of consequences, sometimes even good ones. The two books are a playful, powerful pair, and I'm so glad to have read them.

Apr 12, 2017

Textbook, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Beloved children's (and more) author Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away recently of cancer, about six months after the hardcover release of this book. It's interactive stream of consciousness, with a built-in texting feature that links to a website, www.textbookamykr.com. I know I should have, but I couldn't bear to text the phone number, knowing Rosenthal has passed. Is someone still monitoring it? Are stories and pictures and rainbows still added to the website?

The book can be read in a quick hour; it's mostly empty space with a little bit of text per page and the occasional picture. Anecdotes, challenges, memories - each new page brings something unexpected. This is the author's attempt to universalize our humanity, to point to an uncomfortable or subconscious event and say, "hey, I do this too, I'm normal, you're normal, we're all totally weird and totally normal in being weird." It's sweet, but not saccharine, relate-able yet extraordinary in its ability to disarm. It makes one wonder why we always tend to lose too soon talents such as this; but then, Rosenthal would probably protest, maybe it's just because we know their names. We lose people all the time, famous or not, and there is no greater or lesser tragedy in any of these deaths. Goodbye, Amy.

Apr 11, 2017

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

The stresses of moving house prevented me from reading this fantastic Iranian farcical novel as quickly as I would have liked, though it provided a welcome respite from the anxieties of the last two weeks. Our first person narrator is a teenage boy, hopelessly in love with his cousin, daughter of the fearsome yet ridiculous personage referred to as Dear Uncle Napoleon due to his obsession with Napoleon and hatred of the British. This is a doomed love; Layli is more or less promised to their other cousin Puri, a sycophantic young man the two lovers despise. Each relative represents an aspect of Persian culture in hyperbolic fashion: the auntie obsessed with death and funerals, the doctor who stubbornly sticks to an obviously incorrect diagnosis just because it's different from the other doctor's opinion, the devoted servant who feeds his master's fantasies of being a war hero, the lecherous uncle who cannot help but meddle in the affairs of others in order to make a joke of them. These caricatures interact in uproarious, hilarious fashion, as tense situations go from bad to worse with more than one participant stirring the pot into a violent froth.

Published in 1973 then later banned by the Islamic Republic for its politically subversive overtones, My Uncle Napoleon takes aim at the tendency of even intellectual Iranians to blame the British for every ill and misfortune. Underneath this is the more personal tragedy faced by lovers unable to break out of the strictures of marital customs. As a work of Iranian literature, it shines a much-needed light on the culture of Iran before the revolution, and its highly comical nature makes it a joyful, fun read. This is a must for any reader looking to expand their non-Western repetoire.