Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
In my mind, Kurt Vonnegut is the writerly equivalent to an eccentric, sarcastic, but kindly old uncle, the one you can always count on to take the stuffing out of your more puffed-up, less agile-minded relatives at family Christmas parties, while giving you a sly wink. In an important way, he was a voice for America in the 1950s and 60s, both a counterpoint to and a commenter on "mainstream" attitudes. He could do zaniness, anger, sorrow, and gentleness equally well.
This collection is a fine intro to what made the man great. A few stories fall a little flat, and a few feel dated, but most still resonate in one way or another. In style, they range from memoir to science fiction to allegory to absurd satire to"straight" fiction, which make them interesting as a prismatic breakdown of the eccentric, eclectic voice Vonnegut uses in his longer works. My own favorite story was a poignant piece about a half-black German orphan who encounters a unit of black American GIs in post-WWII Europe, and the friendship he forms with a particular soldier.
In this short book, Pooh, The Uncarved Block, illustrates the wisdom of Taoist teachings. While other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood cling to faulty knowledge or pursue goals of little value, the simple, humble Pooh goes with the flow and finds contentment. Rather than pompously search his mind for answers, like Owl, or try to seize control of the situation, like Rabbit, or fail to account for his limitations, like Tigger, Pooh just exists in the moment he’s in and lets the answers come to him. Thus, he exemplifies the concept of pu, living life open to experience, while not being burdened by unnecessary abstractions or desires.
Benjamin Hoff writes in whimsical way, imagining himself having conversations with Pooh, Piglet, and others as he works on his manuscript, Pooh characteristically preferring to talk about things that are of direct interest to Pooh, such as honey. Hoff seems to assume that the reader remembers more of the plot points and humor of A.A. Milne’s classic children’s stories than I actually did, but I was able to get by well enough.
All in all, it’s a short but instructive introduction to Taoist thinking. Hoff quotes philosopher Laozi, who might sum it up best himself: “to attain knowledge, add something every day. To attain wisdom, subtract something every day.” Does all the clutter we fill our minds with help us? Or get in the way of experiencing what’s real? Always a worthwhile question.
Audiobook narrator Simon Vance does a decent job, but I wish he’d given a little more character to the voices.
This 1990 novel by GGK, which still seems to have a big following, is melancholy, emotional, shades-of-gray fantasy. The story takes place on a peninsula vaguely reminiscent of medieval Italy, which was invaded by forces from two different large empires about 20 years before. Both of these armies, each led by a powerful sorcerer, took the peninsula by conquering one fractious province at a time.
However, one province, named Tigana, put up a ferocious resistance and managed to kill the son of one of the sorcerers. To punish its inhabitants, the grief-stricken Brandin laid waste to the region, and cast a spell to make its very name impossible to remember. Except to anyone who happened to be born there before the invasion. Those people must endure the pain of watching their homeland's identity fade from the world's memory. As Kay mentions in the afterward, events in the real world inspired him in this theme.
The plot, of course, revolves around a conspiracy to remove the two tyrants, but the reader sees both sides of the struggle. The sorcerer Brandin, though guilty of terrible crimes, is a sympathetic character that we come to know through the point of view of his concubine, who entered his court years before to assassinate him, but now loves him. This complexity comes to play a pivotal role in the story’s outcome. On the rebel side, the various characters struggle with their own inner torments, and must do things that go against their hearts, such as engineering outbreaks of violence or enslaving a wandering wizard against his will.
The strength and weakness of Kay as a writer lies in his desire to make every moment beautiful and meaningful. At times, this works, but at other times, the story feels overly melodramatic, laboring over its “we’re all human and feel pain” themes long after the point comes across. Yes, we need to shed tears, love, laugh, and talk about our feelings -- I get it, Mr. Kay. His prose can get a bit purple as well; look for lots of “he felt a quivering in his heart” and “the coldness in her eyes was like the deep blue of a mountain stream”.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the novel. The fine world-building and the interesting characters of the first quarter drew me in. It felt like Kay was striving for a balance between fantasy traditions and a more mature take on them. The ending came together beautifully, as well.
However, I didn’t find this book as sophisticated as many of its fans seem to. The middle section was unnecessarily drawn-out, filled with tangential subplots, and heavier on uninspired fantasy cliches than the rest. Oddly, Kay doesn’t really address the issue that the rebel leader is yet another monarch himself, a guy who talks about freedom, but presumably intends to preserve his hereditary throne once he gets it back.
All in all, I’d still happily recommend Tigana to anyone interested in fantasy that aspires to parallels with the real world, but I must call attention to its flaws. Simon Vance, the audiobook reader, gives his usual classy performance.
I'd never read anything by Jeff VanderMeer before, but I found this tight, haunting science fiction novel to be an enjoyable mix of Lovecraftian horror and Roadside Picnic-like paranoia, revolving around an alien environment that calls into question reality-as-we-understand-it. The initial setup is intriguingly sparse and mysterious; all we know at first is that some vaguely-described government body named the Southern Reach has been sending research teams into a abandoned region called Area X, in which things turned weird years ago. Most of these expeditions, as one would expect, have come to bad ends, but a 12th, composed entirely of women, is on its way in.
Why things are as they are -- or even what time, place, and world we're in -- isn't explained at first. Instead, VanderMeer provides us with a pinhole view into an enigma, metering out information (and tension) in the form of journal entries written by the 12th expedition's biologist. She, as we learn, hasn't been told everything known to the Southern Reach, and may not be a wholly reliable narrator herself. As the team explores a strange, unmapped structure that communicates portentous, Biblical-sounding messages through fungal writing, its members -- known only by titles such as the Psychologist, the Linguist, or the Surveyor -- begin to vanish, die, or turn on each other. And things are out there in the dark. Things alien, but not altogether so.
As the situation unravels, the biologist's detached, protocol-driven observations give way to more personal reflections and memories. We find out that her semi-estranged husband was a member of the 11th expedition and wasn't quite himself when he returned, and that the biologist had her own reasons for volunteering.
VanderMeer's tight, crafted writing contributes much to the book's cinematic, shifting, just-out-of-focus feel, as does audiobook narrator Carolyn McCormick’s well-controlled reading (I’d thought she’d overacted a little in The Hunger Games, but she’s great here). The biologist, who seems more comfortable viewing the world through a magnifying glass than a wide-angle lens, tries to hold back from impossible conclusions, yet appears to circle around them. Her oddly clinical response to events only heightens the disquieting atmosphere of the story, as her mental viewscreen jumps between familiar, intimate observations of the natural world, weird, incongruous imagery, and her own doubts about why she's there and what's real. As in the best science fiction, the answers seem to be there in a fragmentary way, but elusively. I think this is an effect Lovecraft aspired to, but lacked the prose gifts to really pull off.
Altogether, a strong entry in mind-bending speculative fiction, echoing past works of note (Christopher Priest's The Islanders and Peter Watts' Blindsight also come to mind), but showcasing VanderMeer as a fresh and capable voice unto himself. The spores, it seems, have infected me, and I'm looking forward to the next entry in this trilogy.
I'm not normally a reader of self-help books, but this one was a freebie from audible. I wouldn't say that it's particularly geared towards "nerds". Really, the author's main audience seems to be young men who want more romance and/or sex in their lives, but have self-esteem issues that confound them when it comes to relationships.
Which, quite frankly, was me in my 20s. Viewed in that light, the advice here is a little crassly written, but wrapped around a solid core of time-tested self-help principles.
Stop making excuses
Don't be afraid to open up to others about your weaknesses
Stop judging yourself by other people's values; yours are what matter
Accept responsibility for your actions and admit your mistakes
Be a diverse person; don’t put all your emotional eggs in one basket
The 24-year-old me had growing to do in all these departments, so I can't disagree with the value of such insights, though people who really need to improve their self-confidence might do better with a meatier book on the topic (or, for that matter, with professional therapy). For everyone else, if you don't mind the dudebro presentation, this one's a quick read and might provide a helpful booster shot of tough love.
What if you could go back in time and relive the prime years of your life, with all your memories and knowledge about the world to come intact? For Jeff Winston, a reporter stuck in a lifeless marriage, this classic fantasy comes true when he dies of a heart attack at age 43 in 1988 and awakens in 1963, a college freshman again. Once he gets his bearings, he does what many might do in the same situation: he gets filthy rich making sure bets and lives an entirely different life. Then, at age 43, he dies again, and the cycle restarts. Over the next several quarter-century sequences, Jeff tries different paths, such as marrying his college sweetheart, the sex and drug craze of the late 60’s, and living alone on a farm. Yet, each time through, it gets harder for him to know what choices are meaningful in a world that will just reset itself.
It probably wouldn't have occurred to me to read this novel if it hadn't been on sale at audible, given how dated it sounded. But, I'm glad I did. I found Replay to be an intelligent but accessible read, and the datedness wasn't an issue. If you're an American over age 25, the cultural and historical references are long-lived enough that you'll get most of them. Grimwood uses his premise cleverly. In some lives, Jeff tries to get to the bottom of his predicament, only to have things go awry because of some issue he hadn't considered. Other times, he simply tries to live, exploring different versions of relationships with people he had known before. I won't spoil the major twist that happens around the midway point of the novel, but it adds another dimension to his experiences, creating new hope, but also new pain.
As the novel progresses, Grimwood turns up the dramatic tension by having each new reincarnation go back less far into the past than the previous one did. What will happen when Jeff’s "rebirth" date catches up with his death date? What can he accomplish with the briefer and briefer time windows he has? I wouldn't call the writing complex, but the questions behind the story are poignant ones. What gives this kind of life meaning? Or any life? Can we ever achieve our full potential in any one branch? Is there some true core to each of us amid all the possibilities of what might have been? Could we love the same people again, if we met them as strangers? Or as lovers who had disappointed us? Or both?
I won't give away the bittersweet conclusion, in which Jeff's cycle finally reaches its end, but it’s a thoughtful meditation on the necessary balance between control and acceptance. Ironically, there's an epilogue in which another character makes the jump from the mid-2010s to 1988. How abstractly in the future our time must have seemed to Mr. Grimwood when he wrote the novel!
In sum, this is a book I could easily recommend to most adult readers. It’s not difficult, and the basic human themes still hold up well. Audio narrator William Dufris doesn’t have a wide range, but I found his voice pleasant.
I enjoyed Ian McDonald's Turkish-flavored sci-fi novel, The Dervish House, and was pleased to see this foray into Young Adult sci-fi come out in audio form. After 14-year-old Everett Singh's Punjabi-British quantum physicist dad is kidnapped, Everett receives a file containing what his father had discovered: a map of parallel universes dubbed the Infundibulum (I wish more authors would come up with such fun-to-say words). Currently, there are only ten that can be reached (or can reach each other), since connection requires the same technology on the other side, but the elder Singh's discovery may change that, and someone sinister wants the map. So, Everett must use his own capable intellect to escape into another plane, where a coal-driven world called E3 and a steampunky version of London await him.
The format here is good-old-fashioned juvenile adventure (compared to McDonald's more sophisticated adult books), but if you or a young family member enjoy those, there's plenty to recommend Planesrunner. It features female and non-white primary characters without making a big deal of it. There's a healthy sense of humor (I had a laugh at the website where kids share the pathetic behaviors of recently-divorced parents) and an awareness of things young people are interested in, from Facebook to Doctor Who. While none of McDonald's ideas are particularly original (steampunk and airships have been done to death by now), he combines them in an intelligent, creative way, and young readers won't notice the borrowings. The supporting characters, such the feisty, alterna-Cockney girl, Sen, and her strong-willed airship captain guardian, Anastasia Sixsmyth, who join Everett on his adventure in E3, are a lot of fun, though this book really only introduces them for the future.
The storytelling isn’t without a few stumbles, though. My main issue is that Everett's abilities stretch the limits of believability. A 14-year-old prodigy who does normal preteen stuff, but can also think in more than three dimensions and solve quantum field equations? That might have been pushing the "it's okay to be a nerd" message into implausibility. There’s a bit of filler as well, such as an airship battle in the second half that seems unnecessary to the main plot (and is the sort of thing handled more excitingly in Scott Westerfeld's steampunk adventure, Leviathan)
But, not huge flaws. The many-worlds concept is interesting, and there are intriguing hints at where the series might go in the future. I’m sure I would have thoroughly enjoyed Planesrunner at age 14. Speaking of, there wasn't anything that I'd consider inappropriate for young people, just some cheeky humor, some non-lethal fighting, and one or two minor swear words. However, the science references might go over the heads of pre-adolescent kids.
Audible narrator Tom Lawrence does a solid job, switching over to a credible American (and other) accents as the dialogue calls for. A good B/B+ YA novel.
I've previously read accounts written by German soldiers who fought in WWII, but this was one of the more interesting and personal ones. As reconstructed from his diary and interviews, we learn that Siegfried Knappe was an unusually capable and dedicated soldier who managed to rise through the ranks, starting as a humble private in the pre-war years, and ending up as a general staff officer who was present at Hitler's bunker before the end. Along the way, he experienced different aspects of German military life in that era, from being a teenager in a labor/indoctrination camp (sort of a pre-boot camp to get young adults used to regimentation), to being a proud young officer in infantry school, to carrying out his duties in an artillery regiment during the invasions of France and Russia, to watching things turn dire for Germany as Hitler's insane decisions doom the army in Russia and allow the massive Soviet military to smash its way to Berlin. A grim epilogue follows as he endures several years languishing in a Soviet POW camp, albeit one of the less bad ones.
As with most of the other German accounts I've read, Knappe pleads ignorance about the extent of Nazi lies and atrocities (i.e. he knew of concentration camps, but not their murderous function), and expresses remorse for his role in enabling what initially seemed like a just war to most Germans, but crossed the line into a war of aggression and conquest. Chillingly, he observes, "would I have spend much time thinking about this if we'd won the war? Probably not." He doesn't spend a lot of time on self-recrimination, though, and talks more about the horrors of life under Communism (which seems understandable, given his POW experiences).
Readers looking for combat stories won't find more than a few here, but there were plenty of other details that interested me. I'm often curious about the technical details of how things work, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sections describing how German soldiers were trained and organized, which go against the popular stereotype of mindless stormtroopers. Sadly, although the officers were instilled with a strong sense of professionalism, it seems that many were so intent on restoring the national prestige shattered after WWI and avoiding a redo of the trenches, that it didn't dawn on them that they were being used by crazy people. At least, not until their lives were about to be thrown away. And I could easily relate to the emotional parts of the story, to Knappe's anguish at losing friends and his brother, and at knowing that he might never see his family again.
Also interesting were his perceptions of Russia, both while on campaign and as a prisoner. Like the US, the USSR seemed to see the Cold War on the horizon. Inside his camp, the Russians used all kinds of Orwellian methods to break and indoctrinate high value prisoners, and some did cave in and become tools for the Soviet Union, as perverse ambitions or deep-rooted shame came to the surface. What little he has to say about the US and Britain is favorable, though I wonder if he was pandering to his audience a bit.
All in all, a humanizing and fairly sincere portrait of the other side. It's impressive that Knappe even survived to tell his tale, but he obviously had a lot of good luck. 60 million didn't.
Audible note: this isn’t one of the better narrated works here. The reader just rattles off the text in front of him. Didn’t bother me much, though.
On the surface, Umberto Eco's classic, The Name of the Rose, is a whodunit mystery set in a monastery in 14th century Italy. A perspicacious monk named William of Baskerville (an obvious nod) and his young assistant, Adso, who narrates the story as a much older man, arrive at the monastery, the scene of mysterious murders. Given that delegations from the Pope and Emperor, whose theologies have schismed, are about to arrive for a conference, and the air is already tense, William must get the root of the foul deeds. And, so, he puts to use his well-honed powers of observation and deduction in pursuit of ultimate causes. For, soon, an inquisitor will be arriving and things will get uncomfortable.
However, it's the turbulent 14th century, and ultimate causes may not be so clear, given the differing schools of thought on the nature of good and evil, sin and salvation, power and poverty, or reason versus superstition that embroil Christendom. At its core, TNTR is a philosophical and somewhat challenging book. Eco isn't afraid to pause the action and throw ideas at the reader, or look backwards in time and trace the evolution of different heretical Christian orders. Though these elements are a little confusing at first, if the reader is patient, it becomes clear that many of the themes are timeless and familiar.
This book is really a meditation on symbols and their meaning, the way ideas in our minds seek but never quite grasp the underlying reality, thus creating new ones. When does heresy stray from orthodoxy and become heresy, and what does each really mean? When does commitment to poverty become an act of violent revolution? What defines the line between sexuality that is good and sexuality that is a sin? How long do names, memories, and ideas hold onto an essence of something, when that thing is gone? When does reason lead us to answers, and when do our efforts to see through illusion create their own illusions? Is God simply the ultimate symbol, and what fearsome truth do we uncover in trying to peer beyond the veil?
To me, these rich questions (which will probably bore the heck out of readers who have no interest in philosophy or medieval theology) made for a moving read. Gradually, the riddles of the story build: a library filled with secrets, a close-mouthed gatekeeper, a labyrinth (see wikipedia for a map), a mysterious book, a prophetic figure, and trysts and twists in the dark of night. The murders, as they take place, point to the signs of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. And, indeed, the story does build to a kind of apocalypse, filled with symbolism that I found quite brilliant, even as it calls into question all symbols. I won't hint at what Eco places behind the final seals, but to me, the best endings are the ones that both meet your expectations and surprise you, and I think he pulled that off.
If you're looking for an accessible thriller similar to the Da Vinci Code, don't bother. This novel is for people who want to fully engage their brains, and don't mind a bit of rereading to make sense of the pieces. Fans of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which has a lot of parallels, or of David Mitchell, might want to check this book out. It’s a little more “literary” than the works of both those authors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been an influence on them.
To audible listeners, I should let you know that the various problems with the download and recording described by others seem to have been cleaned up. There was some faint background noise in part 3, but nothing that bothered me.
To me, there's potential for fun when an author known for behemoth, idea-dense nerd-porn epics decides to slum in a genre beneath his usual level. And, in fact, I found *most* of Reamde, Neal Stephenson's take on a globe-hopping techno-thriller, to be a lot of fun.
The plot here, in usual Stephensonian fashion, is over-the-top, but meticulously constructed from the minutiae of the author's wide-ranging interests, from computer games to economics to guns to organized crime to hackers to midwestern family dynamics to semi-secret national security organizations to the politics of 19th century Canadian mining barons. Thus, we get a story in which a computer virus, created by Chinese gold farmers who play a World of Warcraft-like game called T'Rain, and spread through that game, ends up encrypting the data of a renegade Russian mobster. This turns out to be bad news for Zula, a young developer of T'Rain and niece of Richard Forthrast, its fabulously wealthy CEO and overlord. The Russians "invite" Zula and her sketchy boyfriend to help them solve their problem, paying the hacker's ransom within the game and getting the decryption key. However, unanticipated game world complications make this impossible, and the situation quickly escalates into the real world and across the Pacific...
I don't have space to even begin to explain the elaborate plot that follows, or how a smart, urbane black jihadist named Abdullah Jones, his merry band of terrorists, the British spy agency MI6, or a group of Northern Idaho survivalist nuts enter the picture. Suffice to say, the combinatorial result is about as unlikely as the summary of any airport bookstore thriller, but the parts are smarter, more interesting, and often funnier. Stephenson seems to have put a lot of thought and research into how different areas of expertise might actually come into play in the real world, from running a covert spy operation to utilizing loopholes in flight control protocols to sneak a plane across international borders.
As a former game developer, I particularly enjoyed his conception of T'Rain, its design, its game world dynamics, and its oddball developers, including an Aspergian programmer whose obsession with realistic geology drives the terrain engine, and two hilariously egotistical fantasy writers. Even if the ideas behind the game were about a decade out-of-date, I liked the way T'Rain’s gears meshed into the story, bringing the cantankerous Richard into the plot. It isn't inconceivable that a too-cleverly-designed multimillion dollar virtual economy could come to create unintended waves in the real world -- and vice-versa.
Now, on to the weaknesses. First, if you’re looking for complex characters, a staggering exploration of ideas, or hard-hitting commentary on the state of the world, you probably won’t be impressed. There’s a lot of action and getting from place to place, things NS can do well, if not necessarily the reason one reads him. The main protagonists all seem to derive from the same two basic geek templates, cutely headstrong and resourceful for the girls, and rugged lone wolf for the boys, with a bit much stereotype for the Chinese characters. Somehow, they're all able to make the right decisions under pressure, like players cooly plotting out their next move in a strategy board game -- that is, when the author doesn’t cheat and hand them some spectacularly good luck.
The big weakness, though, is a surprisingly lame ending. If I’d only been permitted to read the first eighty-five percent, I’d have happily given this book four stars, but then, NS just seems to lose interest and wrap things up at the next convenient stopping point. I’m disappointed that all the possibilities that went into the setup were pretty much just dropped by the wayside in an uninspired action movie finale. Jones, who started as an intriguing character, exits the stage as a cardboard villain. What was the point? "Jihadists are bad" -- yeah, thanks.
Alas, because I did really enjoy most of the novel and had high hopes that Stephenson would wrap it up in a more meaningful, complex way than he did. My advice: stop listening when the story gets to Idaho, and consider your appetite whet for one of his other books. Speaking of “listening”, audiobook narrator M. Hillgartner does a good enough job when strictly narrating, but several of his accents are terrible.
In The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson mines the same Nordic/British myths and folklore that Tolkien did, and tells a rousing, tragic adventure. An infant is born to a Viking warrior and his Christianized family, but a proud and haughty elf lord takes the child and leaves a changeling in his place. Thus, Skafloc grows up among the elves and learns their ways, while the half-troll-half-elf Valgard is raised as human, but becomes a savage, unruly warrior.
The plot isn’t too complex: the two warriors, who have a close physical resemblance, take opposite sides in a troll-elf war, and battle each other using magic, trickery, and might. However, a tragic twist comes into play, thanks to Skafloc’s ignorance of his origins and some intervention by Norse gods.
This isn't up with The Lord of the Rings in terms of depth of world-building, but it’s got a fiercer, darker spirit. Look for homage to all the traditional elements of Northern European myth: old gods who do not allow mortals to renege on a promise; aloof, immortal, fleet-footed elves, who dwell in ethereal castles and “know friendship but not love”; seductive maidens who aren’t what they appear; and big, ferocious trolls (who call to mind the roided-out orcs in Peter Jackson’s LOTR films). Though the description never gets too explicit (this novel was written in the 1950s), there’s plenty of larger-than-life action, treachery, black magic, ale-quaffing, bawdiness, and skull splitting. The Hobbit, this isn’t.
Fans of epic warrior sagas or the kind of blood-soaked faerie tales that are no longer considered suitable fare for children will eat this one up. Anderson's writing is faithful to the lusty descriptions of old epics like Beowulf, but not as dusty-sounding. You can practically hear the war horns blowing and the swords ringing. Audiobook narrator Bronson Pinchot might overact a bit here and there, but that's in keeping with the tale’s energy.
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