Sep 25, 2013

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

Despite its tongue-in-cheek title and happy, bright orange cover, this is not an easy read. Emotionally. Philosophically. I struggled to maintain interest for bits of the book, because it's incredibly (perhaps excessively) introspective. Not much of anything happens. The crazy universe and time travel aside, this is a book about a son trying to find, and understand, his father. There are a lot of feelings, so many feelings, and though I hate to admit it, I need more plot to pull me through. It's too stream of consciousness, too existential, for me to enjoy it as fiction. This is purely personal taste, though, and I can at least say that I love the idea behind the novel, and am impressed with Yu's mental acrobatics in successfully executing what I can well guess was a rather amorphous concept. I just think this wasn't the book for me.

Sep 19, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

I was prepared to slog my way through this classic, performing a type of penance for the prize of being able to say I've read "The Grapes of Wrath." Boy, was I taken off-guard. This is a heart-breaking, incredible work of literature, and once I got into Steinbeck's unique cadence, the pages flew by. Chronicling the migration of an Oklahoma family to California in search of work after their land has fallen to bank repossession in the mid-1930s, "The Grapes of Wrath" was an attempt - and a very strong one - to open naive eyes to the unbelievable hardships of Depression-era Americans. Suffering chronic malnutrition, frequent stillbirths and deaths, and constant humiliation at the hands of their fellow man, these migrants, who sought only to make a living for themselves and their families, were instead subject to the cruelest vicissitudes of capitalism. Steinbeck's writing takes a bit to get used to; he is fond of repetition, particularly with color words. But once you are used to it, the ebb and flow of the sentences, particularly the dialogue, pulls you through, chapter after chapter. The format is interesting, as well: the chapters alternate between the story of the Joad family and much shorter, almost prose poetry sections that refer to the greater situation, before delving back down into the Joad family's particular troubles. And the ending...the ending is especially powerful. This is not a book I will soon forget.

Sep 5, 2013

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson is truly one hell of a writer. I fell in love with his historical fiction trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, first. Then I learned he was most well known for his science fiction, and devoured Anathem and Cryptonomicon, and recently thoroughly enjoyed REAMDE. Snow Crash, written in the mid-1990s, was his big entrance onto the authorial stage, and it's a doozy. I really love sci fi that thrusts you into a world that's similar enough to our own to be familiar, but different enough to cause some serious disorientation. America of Stephenson's imagining is a jumbled mix of businesses and pseudo-governments; the lingo is completely changed and so is the culture. Our protagonists, Hiro and Y.T., are very likable, relate-able even though their milieu is so novel. Stephenson flexes his mighty plot muscles, spanning a new reality from the very beginnings of written human history into an alternate present. Even in made up sci fi slang, Stephenson's writing is phenomenal. There are sentences that take your breath away, sections you want to read over and over, characters so poignant in their reality it makes your eyes water. He's good, he is, and I can't get enough. Worth noting, as well, is that the modern usage of the word "avatar" was created by Stephenson for this book. He acknowledges in a short afterword that a Japanese company had independently started using avatar in the same way some years before Stephenson, but it was this book that placed it into the modern consciousness. So he's kind of a big deal.