Mar 31, 2015

SEVENEVES, by Neal Stephenson (May 2015)

Yes, Neal Stephenson's penchant for unpronounceable names once again rears its head. For this one, think "Seven Eves," which also gives you a nice hint about the book's subject matter. So get this: the moon explodes. Don't freak out, this literally happens in the first sentence of this 860-page science fiction epic. Not only does the moon explode, but its untimely demise ushers in a 5,000 year period of an uninhabitable Earth. What ever is the human race to do?? The solutions fall into three categories: deep water, deep underground, and - the option we follow in the book - space. The International Space Station, already home to a few Russian and American astronauts and scientists, becomes the ark upon which the survival of humanity is thrown. With every resource put into getting people and supplies into orbit, a few thousand people are saved along with a vast genetic storehouse.

Most of the book is a painstakingly detailed description of the time from Day Zero, when the moon explodes, to the time several years after that when only eight women remain of the human race, seven of whom are capable of bearing children. Hence the title. The book reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series. It's hard sci fi, not for consumption by people who care little for the scientific realities and possibilities inherent in the genre. Though I love hard sci fi for its believability and realism, this was a little too much exposition for my taste. Particularly in the last section, which takes place 5,000 years after Day Zero, there is too much description of the technology and not enough focus on the story. I can see it becoming a slog for many except the most dedicated sci fi readers. That being said, I found Stephenson's ideas of this future space-based technology, as well as the genetic evolution of humanity, totally fascinating, if a bit long-winded in parts.

Again, I come up against the issue of successful authors being given too much leeway, for it seems that editors are loathe to mess with a winning formula. The result is very long books, a la "The Luminaries" and "The Goldfinch," in a culture that increasingly values succinctness. People will buy this book because it's by Neal Stephenson; many will like it, but many will find it too long and slow to bother with, and that's sad. He really is a wonderful writer, and it really is a great book...I just wish there were slightly less of it.

Mar 14, 2015

Kid Moses, by Mark Thornton (October 2015)

Big things sometimes come in very small packages. Mark Thornton's "Kid Moses" is a fascinating, moving, damning look at childhood poverty and homelessness in modern Africa. In a slim 120 page novel, we follow a few years in the life of pre-adolescent Moses, who lives on the streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Through him we meet kind strangers and evil strangers, other homeless streetkids, even some hunter-gatherers who live as their ancestors must have hundreds of years ago. It is a bleak look at how society has forgotten these children, and also how even the kindness of a few people is not enough to drag their lives back on track (if they ever were). Thornton's writing is beautiful, spare and haunting. For a first-time novelist, he seems adept at putting us in someone else's shoes. And the story he has to tell needs to be heard. As a bookseller, I will do my best to project it.

Mar 8, 2015

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

I dare you to find me a book that is more rage-inducing than Michelle Alexander's incredibly intelligent damnation of the United States criminal justice system. Even though after reading it I still hesitate to buy into her claim that the War on Drugs and the criminal code was created specifically to contain black and brown Americans in a racial undercaste, there is no doubt in my mind that that is exactly how the system is being used today. The mere fact that young white men are more likely to break drug laws but young African American men are incarcerated at several times the rate of white men proves that our system is not, in fact, colorblind at all.

The most infuriating chapter in Alexander's book shows how the Supreme Court, the designated last-ditch defender of minority rights, has actively made it nearly impossible to challenge these unfair practices. And while Alexander's assertion that colorblindness is actually harming race relations in America is not new to me - I have long argued that denying the existence of race does more harm than forcing ourselves to be aware of our conscious and unconscious biases - the extent of the damage this willful ignorance has caused is atrocious. There is no reason why young black men should be routinely searched while walking down the street in their neighborhoods, when it has been proven time and again that young white men are more likely to be using and dealing drugs. There is no reason why people convicted of first-time offenses involving crack cocaine should receive nearly twenty times the minimum prison sentence as people who are caught with powder cocaine. There is no reason why police departments all over the country should receive military gear from the army, nor any reason why they should be allowed to stop black motorists at alarmingly higher rates than whites with the express intention of searching their person and vehicle for drugs. Alexander's claim that our criminal justice system has created a new Jim Crow is very bold, but her meticulously researched and very well-written book proves that the American government and people are guilty of a grave injustice towards our black and brown neighbors. We need a mindset change, a system change, a government change, a priority change. All of us or none.