Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
When it comes to war, America's self-image is that we're always winners. And that we're never monsters. And that each death will be justified by the achievement of some greater end goal. Such are the ideals that carry the confident men of the Ranger 2-16 Battalion, part of the 2007 troop surge, into Rustamiyah, Iraq, a violent, difficult-to-comprehend hellhole of a place that quickly begins to undercut simple truths.
To me, so much about the official decision-making behind Iraq is captured by a memory towards the end of the book. A Liberian soldier (visiting an army school in the US) expresses faith in the protective power of a sacred talisman that has carried him through many battles, then swings a knife at his own arm to prove it. The knife cuts through skin and flesh, and the man's eyes fill with astonished panic at the sight of reality's imposition on belief.
Perhaps this is war's first casualty. If so, The Good Soldiers brings that truth to readers at a visceral level, putting us in the boots of soldiers sent to make up for official misjudgment and getting us to experience things as they do. The story centers around the battalion’s leader, the ever gung-ho Lieutenant Colonel Kauzlarich, but includes about a dozen of his men in its focus. We hear the initial earnest belief of young officers that their strength and generosity will carry the day, destroying a vicious enemy and winning over the rest of the population of Iraq. We experience the shock and horror of IED attacks, the weird out-of-body unreality of watching friends and enemies die in firefights. The way those moments refuse to stop ricocheting through memory. The frustration and anger of dealing with a population that seems indifferent to America's helping hand -- and the vast disconnect between Iraqis' personal concerns and US policy assumptions. There's staring out the window and wondering if you'll have any warning of the one that kills you -- and what your last thoughts before that moment will be. The fatigue, disillusionment, resignation, burnout, and despair that come with reliving that moment over and over, with few visible signs of improvement. The alienating, dreary normalcy of returning to the States after the intensity of war (little about that experience seems to have changed since Hemingway's short story about a returned WW1 vet). The fearful, lonely life of Iraqi contractors, distrusted by American soldiers and in constant danger from their own people.
Finkel's writing is very good and gives the book more impact than most in the category. Though embedded as a journalist with the 2-16, he leaves himself entirely out of the text, and builds a narrative from interview snippets, reports, lists of details, and moments that carry layered emotions. At its best, the writing takes on a simple stream-of-consciousness feel not unlike Tim O'Brien's famous The Things They Carried. Officially apolitical, he offers no big-picture analysis, but juxtaposes different moments, images, and words in a way that challenge easy idealism. An optimistic platitude from President George W. Bush is followed with the image of an infantryman killing a dog lapping up a pool of human blood. Colonel Kauzlarich's avuncular sentiments while bestowing a medal on a dismembered 19 year old lying in a hospital bed ring hollow next to the young man's blank stare, and the obvious fact he will never again live anything approaching a normal life. There is the visual of a soldier's charred remains being removed from a bomb-wrecked Humvee, where he may or may not have died before the flames engulfed him. There's a tortured human corpse haunting the sewage tank of a building chosen as an operations base like a plot element from the novel Catch-22, because no one wants to be the one to remove it.
These are gut-wrenching images that hurt and anger to think about, and there are others like them. It's all the stuff implicit in countless Reuters articles about IEDs and counterinsurgency operations. All the stuff that Americans, for or against the occupation of Iraq, have formed various abstract opinions about, but are seldom made to contemplate in terms of their horrific costs to real human beings, who can't be blamed for signing up to be what all countries expect from their soldiers. For this reason, I consider The Good Soldiers and other books like it necessary reading for all Americans, regardless of your politics.
For me, the takeaway lesson came in the last chapter, as waves of insurgents swarm out of Sadr City, attacking government sites and threatening the 2-16. To Colonel Kauzlarich, it's validation, proof that the insurgency is growing desperate. To some of his men, it's one more demonstration of the irredeemable f-ed-up-ness of Iraq. But no one really knows. The battle, like the book, ends without obvious conclusion, the 2-16 shipped home again, and no one seems any better tuned-in to what's going on in the minds of Iraqis or why. And therein lies the tragedy of goodness alone: it's not understanding. Was the war worth it? We simply don’t know, and it’s out of our hands now. Meanwhile, our own crumbling democracy awaits our salvation.
Gateway is a book I’ve read several times since I was a kid, and an old favorite. At eleven, I was more interested in the science fiction aspects (somehow, most of the sex and drug use went over my head), but with repeated readings, I’ve come to appreciate the human elements of the story a lot more.
To be fair, the setup is one of the coolest in science fiction. Humanity has discovered an ancient alien space station near Venus, called Gateway, which is filled with small starships. Nobody knows what happened to the Heechee or why they abandoned their base, but many of the ships are in working order and will travel by autopilot to other star systems and the planets orbiting them.
Too bad there's a catch. Not all of the ships still work perfectly after half a million years, and some of the destinations are lethal. A once temperate star might have supernova-d since the time of Heechee civilization. Nobody has a clue how Heechee technology works. So, the Gateway Corporation recruits "prospectors" willing to risk a fairly high chance of death to take images of different parts of the galaxy and bring back artifacts that the Corporation might study.
People volunteer for this mission because life on an overcrowded Earth has become pretty miserable for most, with quality medical care available only to the wealthy few (sound familiar?). One such volunteer is Robinette Broadhead, a former miner of oil shale (now used for growing foodstuffs -- yum), who wins the lottery.
Bob, as he’s called, is a pretty flawed character, a self-centered, sex-chasing man who’s also somewhat of a coward. But he’s easy to relate to, not really being a bad guy at heart, and his fear is understandable, given the horrible deaths that await many prospectors. His story unfolds in two parts, one of which follows his life and relationships from Earth to Gateway and beyond, and the other of which has the older and now fantastically rich Mr. Broadhead in sessions with an AI psychiatrist, trying to get to the root of a deep trauma that both threads will eventually converge on. (And it is a pretty terrible one.)
Some readers aren’t fans of the sessions between Robinette and the computer psychiatrist, Sigfrid von Shrink, but I loved their relationship and think it’s integral to the story, in a subtle way. I found it fun watching Bob try to trick Sigfrid, only to find that the machine’s programming was nearly always a step ahead of him.
This book isn’t really about the Heechee (see further entries in the series to learn more about them), but about the dirty, messy tension of human desires, fears, and guilt in a place that stands between life and death, known and unknown. Gateway’s a moving examination of the psychology of our existence, of how we, from the personal level up to the species level, neither want to place our hopes on a frightening gamble on the unknown, nor on the ugly, suffering-filled known, but sometimes must make a choice and face what comes.
Still a classic.
In the early 90s, Sudhir Venkatesh, an Indian-American graduate student with a certain naive bravado, decided to walk into one of Chicago's most notorious projects, a place where even ambulances wouldn’t go, and interview people who lived there, asking the sort of daft survey questions that only academics can dream up. Quickly, he was corralled by gang members and escorted to their leader, a man named (well, pseudonymed) JT. Though the gang members laughed at Venkatesh's naivete, JT was intrigued by his research, and permitted him a safe entree into the world of the projects.
That world is pretty fascinating. Though violence, drug abuse, and squalor abound, Venkatesh paints a picture of a strangely well-organized community, with its own leadership hierarchy, rules, underground economy, and politics. Without much in the way of police involvement and social services, the Black Kings gang fills the vacuum, becoming a sort of law enforcement body, community organizer (to the point of initiating voter registration drives), and resolver of disputes. As well a tax collector and, lest we forget, a peddler of a socially corrosive drug.
It was also quite interesting to learn of how businesslike the gang's internal operations were. JT, a guy with some college education, comes across as surprisingly pragmatic, intent on protecting his reputation, but preferring to avoid gang wars and the chaos caused by small criminals, both of which cost him customers and attract police attention. Sometimes, the BK’s meetings seem so businesslike, I wouldn't have been surprised if there had been powerpoint slides. The leaders rationalize their morally problematic trade with a perverse pride in themselves as a community institution and the belief that they’re only making addicts of people who have no self-control anyway.
Another fascinating figure is fierce building president Ms. Bailey, who puts the dilemma of the urban poor in blunt but Socratically eloquent terms. "If your family was starving," she asks, "and someone offered you a chance to make some money, would you stay in school?" She acts as a devoted community advocate, securing goods and services for those in need, often from the BKs, but is a bit of a tyrant in her methods, and seems to get a small piece of the action herself.
The easy cliches fall by the wayside pretty quickly. Everyone's interests are tied up in some way with everyone else's. Project residents tolerate the gangs (if grudgingly) because they're the only real order there is. As do, to some degree, the police. The gangs carry out a certain amount of PR because they're dependent on the goodwill of the other residents. Most people aspire to something better than what they have, but often, the only two options for getting ahead (for young men, anyway) are joining a gang and rising up within the ranks or getting out of the projects altogether. The latter, of course, is easier said than done. The bad choices being made become much more understandable in light of the few choices available.
If there’s a weakness here, it's that everything is filtered through the author’s subjective perspective. I wouldn't have minded a wider picture -- he never does get around to interviewing Chicago's bureaucrats, as Ms. Bailey suggests. I also would have liked to see his narrative build towards a firmer set of conclusions, rather than just dropping away when his graduate work comes to an end. What happened to all these people in the ten plus years that went by before he wrote and published this book?
Not huge complaints, though. It’s a very compelling read. The audiobook narrator isn’t bad but his choice of accent for JT is a little odd. The guy ends up sounding like a 1940s Hollywood gangster.
Filaria is similar in concept to Hugh Howey’s Wool, but predates that book by a couple of years and didn’t make the same splash. Like Wool, it’s set in an immense installation where people have been living for generations, stratified into different social classes, and have mostly forgotten the reasons why. Where Howey’s book (which I liked a lot) was escapist entertainment focused on the workings of the Silo and the mysteries surrounding it, Brent Hayward goes for more lyrical territory, imagining a world where the machinery and social order have been steadily breaking down.
Here, the four main characters, who have lived their lives in different parts of the great structure, have only myths and rumors about what takes place in other locales. In a waste-treatment area, a drug-addled teenager who lost his hair and teeth to his toxic environment (like everyone else there), searches for a missing ex-girlfriend who may have gone to a higher level. In a more prosperous zone, an orchard keeper’s daughter befriends a computer system whose avatar is the reanimated corpse of a dead boy and who manufactures moths and other insects for her enjoyment. The most poignant story, though, concerns an old man who has spent all of his life as an elevator operator/technician, and, on his one hundredth birthday, decides to finally leave his post and ride a car up to the world above. Soon all four protagonists are caught in the shakeup created by unseen events near “the top”.
What I liked about this book is the way Hayward doesn’t spell everything out, but lets us make connections for ourselves. Though the denizens of Filaria have a sort of Cargo Cult mentality towards the various robots and manufactured beings that operate throughout the structure, we can guess at their original purpose. The main POV characters don’t interact with each other, but secondary characters make their way between threads, allowing us to perceive the answers to several mysteries. I enjoyed the looseness of the narrative and the ambivalent ending.
What didn’t like so much was the world’s inconsistency. Sometimes, the characters behave as I would expect them to, as members of cultures that have evolved their own unique customs and perspectives over generations in a strange place. Other times, their level of sophistication seems out of place for their experience, and they employ too-familiar 21st century vocabulary and attitudes. The background seems inconsistent as well -- sometimes Filaria comes across as a fairly organized place, like a city; other times, it just seems like a jumble of zones with only machines in charge. Suspension-of-disbelief issues kept me from fully embracing this story.
Still, the concept was interesting and there were several beautifully-written scenes. Not a book I’d recommend highly, but not a bad one, either.
This is George RR Martin’s earliest novel, and I daresay it anticipates A Game of Thrones in a few ways. The notable difference is that it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. Regardless of genre, though, Martin has always had a talent for imaginative world-building, for conveying a sense of universes that are very old, full of history, and home to many other stories besides the immediate one.
The setting here is cool and gothic, a rogue planet named Worlorn which had a brief heyday as a sort of exhibition world for the neighboring star systems, which terraformed it and built showcase cities on it as it passed by a cluster of stars called Fat Satan and the Hellcrown (great names). Now winter is coming forever, as the mostly abandoned Worlorn heads back into deep space.
The story concerns a man named Dirk, who receives an object of significance in the space mail from an ex-girlfriend he’s still sorta pining for. Gwen is on Worlorn, studying the unique ecology. When he gets there, he discovers that she’s sorta married to a man named Jaantony from a planet called Kavalaan. And to Jaantony’s bondsman as well. Gwen cares for her primary mate, but isn’t totally happy with her life. As it turns out, Kavalar society has a feudal past, very unfeminist values, a strong code of honor, and complex social rules left from its dark history. An offshoot colony has come to Worlorn in (seemingly futile) hopes of keeping its culture alive against the forces of modernization. Of course, Dirk’s arrival upsets the already uneasy relationship between three people, and he soon runs afoul of an even-more-traditional group of Kavalar, which has a very xenophobic view of outsiders. Such civilization-versus-barbarian themes will be familiar to AGoT fans, and Martin handles them intelligently, finding particular sympathy for Jaantony, who’s trying to walk the line between his people’s code and a more tolerant, up-to-date interpretation of it. The middle portion of the novel, with its chase scenes in a giant, computer-run building, is fairly suspenseful. Dirk isn’t a warrior, so he has to make realistic choices to survive against people who are.
That said, there are some frustrations. There’s a pervading feeling of melancholy, ambiguity, and tragedy, as is true in a lot of Martin’s early writing (which I like), but it feels too ambiguous at times. Dirk and Gwen aren't really fleshed out beyond being somewhat whiny modern everypeople stuck in a backwards world, and I found their relationship history vague. Jaantony was a more compelling character. It’s also a bit of a shame that we don’t see a little more of the larger universe -- the bits and pieces we do get are interesting.
Still, it’s a fairly impressive, mature first novel for a young author, and worth investigating if you’re a GRRM fan. His huge short fiction and novella anthology, Dreamsongs, offers a somewhat richer tour of his non-AGoT work, but if you get through that, this is a worthy next stop. Kudos to Iain Glen (Ser Jorah Mormont on the AGoT TV series) for the fine audiobook reading. 3.5 stars.
A better title for this book might be "How Humans Misunderstand Randomness". If you want to feel nervous about an upcoming performance review at work or day in court, Mlodinow can help you do so. Here, he shows how non-intuitive statistics and probability can be, and how people biased by their natural desire to attribute definite causes to events tend to discount the winds of chance. Consider how "brilliant" CEOs are often hired for enormous salaries, then fired a few years later when the company doesn't make the profits expected. But how much control does a typical CEO really have over all the factors that determine a company's near-term success? And consider how obvious the "clues" to Japan's WWII attack on Pearl Harbor looked in hindsight, but how they actually wouldn't have jumped out to analysts among all the other "noise" in the intelligence network. (These themes might be familiar to those who've read Nassim Taleb's book on unpredictability, The Black Swan.)
On the other hand, when we *do* think about randomness, we often have incorrect expectations about its properties. Gamblers don't always realize that it's not unlikely for a roulette wheel to favor a certain color over many spins, even when the roulette wheel is behaving correctly. Or, think about some of the mistakes the legal system has made. An example is the couple in 1960s Los Angeles who were convicted of an attack on the basis of witness testimony that reported two people with similar appearances and a similar car. The prosecution cited the one-in-a-million odds that the criminals could be anyone else. Yet, they made a few critical mistakes: the variables weren't independent and Los Angeles is a city of multiple millions: the real odds were closer to two-in-three. Yikes.
The Drunkard's Walk includes, along the way, a compelling history of the science of chance, covering figures such as Pascal, Bayes, Laplace, Brown (of Brownian Motion fame), and Einstein. Though I've studied probability and statistics before, as part of my college coursework, I find them to be fun subjects, and enjoyed the refresher (if not so much the reminders that our legal system is flawed). A bit of a nerdy book, but perfectly engaging.
I hadn't read anything by Christopher Priest before (though I liked the film The Prestige). I really enjoyed The Islanders, which is an elegant, enigmatic work of imagination and literary creation. The book is set in an world not too unlike our own in terms of culture and technology, but on a planet where much of the land takes the form of a giant archipelago. A few powerful states exist on a single continent in the north, and engage in wars there and elsewhere, but most of the planet's inhabitants live and go about their familiar lives on the myriad, more-or-less-independent islands. Well, "familiar" except for the fantastically lethal insects, the temporal anomalies that make mapping the islands very difficult, and the weird psychic phenomena that occur in certain places.
The "story" here is presented in a cryptic manner, with the initial narrator purporting to be writing the introduction to a travel guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago. From the start, there are reliability issues: he claims never to have left his home island and that the whole task is pointless anyway, since the temporal vortices and the confusion of place names make mapping nigh impossible. Also, what we later learn about this character makes it seem rather unlikely that he could have put his name to any of what follows.
Such are the puzzles and incongruities that fill this intriguing, sometimes frustrating book. The chapters that follow sometimes adhere to the "gazetteer" format, describing the geographic and historical features of different islands, but others dispense with that, giving us vignettes about certain select inhabitants or even first person narratives by those people.
Gradually, we get pieces of several underlying stories, each of which raises its own mysteries and insinuates a sense of their being linked somehow to the mysteries of other stories. A famous mime is murdered, but the person convicted might not have been the one truly responsible. A reclusive writer might have something to do with the crime -- and is the social activist who has an affair with him quite what she claims to be? Meanwhile, a rogue installation artist drills tunnels through islands, turning them into gigantic wind instruments (look for a hilarious email exchange when another guerrilla artist suggests a creative partnership). A young woman pines for her lover, who has been drafted by one of the warring militaries (which seem to have presences throughout the archipelago, in spite of how often the gazetteer emphasizes its neutrality) and is stationed incommunicado on an island that doesn’t officially exist. Elsewhere, a young man falls for a friend who is investigating ancient, mysterious towers, but an encounter with a ghost changes their relationship. Some characters have a long chapter devoted to them, others, such as a philandering painter, reappear in different contexts throughout the book.
If there are straightforward answers to the puzzles, they remain oblique to me, even after a second reading, but if you're familiar with writers like Murakami or Borges, you'll know that straightforward answers aren't always the point. Here, the ambiguity seems deliberate, an invitation to readers to fill in the blanks with their own interpretations.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this sort of game playing, and found a few threads to be a little too open-ended (what was going on with the drones?) Still, Priest writes with such self-assurance and grasp of meaningful human detail, that the complex, shifting topography of the Dream Archipelago, however imperfectly mapped, is well worth exploring.
In sum, an enjoyable introduction to Priest for me, though possibly not the best one for everyone. I look forward to reading more of his work.
This novel's been mentioned on a few "best of 2013" lists and I think it well deserves the honor. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra explores the emotional complexities of life in a war-plagued place, as the upheaval of conflict and death reshape the ties of family, friends, neighbors, and tradition. The setting is Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, a period that included two nasty wars between Russian government forces and Chechen separatists. Because of the ties of the rebels to Islamic extremism, I believe, the US media never took much interest in the strife, much less its impact on the lives of regular people.
It's those lives that Marra focuses on. The narrative begins in 2004, with a man named Akhmed watching Russian soldiers abduct his neighbor, who has already lost all his fingers to a previous interrogation by state security. Left behind is the neighbor's young daughter, who has escaped into the woods with a mysterious blue suitcase. Akhmed takes the girl to the only safe place he knows, the hospital in town. There, he meets Sonja, a cynical, exhausted ethnic Russian surgeon who spends her days amputating limbs shredded by landmines and is the last competent medical professional around. I say "competent" because Akhmed is himself a doctor, but one who, to his own shame, finished in the bottom tenth of his class and excels more at his true passion, painting. He's unable to help even his own wife, who's bedridden with a wasting disease.
Such are the contradictions at the hearts of the characters, who are gradually revealed through a non-linear narrative that travels back and forth through time to unpeel the layers of their backstories, connections, and secrets. We also come to know Khassan, a WWII veteran who has spent the past few decades of his life writing a history of the Chechen people (and rewriting it, each time official guidelines change); Khassan's son, Ramzan, who turned informer for the Russians and hasn't been spoken to since by the father he provides for; and Sonya's sister, Natasha, who remained behind to endure her own horrors after Sonya went to medical school in Britain.
There's both absurdity and fragile beauty in the story's small details. Akhmed is committed to painting portraits of the disappeared, which he leaves around town -- though he adds a long nostril hair to one vain woman's face, because she died still owing him money. There's some confusion between a former US president and the mascot of McDonalds, leading to the great line "I may be an idiot, but I would never eat a hamburger cooked by a clown". Two people in a truck argue over which dead radio station has the most pleasing static. An imam imprisoned in a landfill pit gives funerals for his fellow prisoners the moment after they ascend a long ladder heavenward, disappearing from view into the hands of their executioners.
At the core of this book are the human entanglements that extend before and after wartime, but are complicated by its chaos, with people's faults and virtues both magnified. Actions motivated by pride, guilt, trauma, resentment, and shame become difficult to distinguish from those motivated by love. Even Ramzan, the informer, becomes sympathetic, when later chapters uncover a costly act of courage in his past, and whose sins, as an old proverb goes, are tied up with the sins of the father. Marra occasionally interrupts the narrative to give us little vignettes about incidental characters, a technique that's slightly distracting, but adds to a pervading sense that nothing happens in isolation from everything else. Our connections often seem to be subjective constellations, but that doesn't stop them from being. I admired his unusual choice to project a few threads decades into the future, a reminder that life will go on, with its cargo of good and terrible memories.
A beautiful, bleak, affecting work of literary fiction, and one that got me a little teary-eyed at the end. My recommendation has some caveats: the scenes of brutality might be a little tough for some readers, and the sometimes confusing web of links between characters and events requires careful attention. I also can't comment on how true-to-life the novel's details are, having been written by an American whose knowledge of place can only be secondary, but whatever blemishes might be in the brush strokes, the overall picture reaches towards a universal statement. 4.5 stars.
I didn't find Colette Whitaker to be a remarkable audio reader, but nothing about her performance bothered me, either.
I read some Charles Dickens during my school days, but I’m not sure that really counts. When one has a 16-year-old’s limited experience of the world, it’s hard to understand what’s so great about the “great” literature our teachers make us read. Approaching David Copperfield as an adult, though, I’m much more able to perceive Dickens’s gifts as an observer of the world, a social critic, a humorist, and a storyteller.
This novel was, of course, originally serialized entertainment, meant to have the same effect on audiences as Mad Men or Downton Abbey do now -- i.e. readers would get hooked and eagerly await the next installment. Being from Victorian times, the content is a lot tamer than what we’re used to on Netflix, but there’s some serious drama, as well as observations of human nature that are as astute as ever.
This tale follows the coming-of-age of young David Copperfield, who endures the loss of his parents, a cold stepfather, a poorly-run boarding school, and the workhouse, but gets by with a little help from friends, such as the generous family servant, Peggotty, his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood, and the ever-grandiose, ever-indebted Mr. Micawber. As he comes up in the world, David falls in love (with varying degrees of good judgment), finds employment, faces some schemers with bad intentions, and becomes a writer.
Dickens’s cast of quirky characters is written with imagination and flourish, with such colorfully distinct mannerisms and proclivities that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter denizens feel like cheap imitations. It was impossible for me not to enjoy the absurdly melodramatic and irresponsible Micawber, the opinionated Ms. Trotwood, or the addled-brained Mr. Dick, who has trouble keeping Charles the First (died 1649) out of his personal memoirs. The villains are vividly drawn and memorable, as well, such as the obsequious, creepy Uriah Heep, or the affable, manipulative golden boy, James Steerforth, the template for a character that’s seems to have appeared in every prep school story since.
Also notable are Dickens's liberal views (for the time) of society. The trials of the destitute and downcast are examined, with most of the good-hearted, honest characters coming from the working class, while the colder, more duplicitous ones are those that grasp at wealth, power, and social standing. Dickens makes no secret of his feelings on the ineffectiveness of tyrannical schoolteachers, or towards those that seduce young women and leave them to unjustly face the slut-shaming mindset of Victorian society.
Dickens also gets his share of bashing from modern readers, and I don’t totally disagree. Yes, he can be long-winded and maudlin, and tends to lead his readers by the hand towards how he wants them to feel. For me, the book lost steam in the second half, after it became obvious where the different threads in the story were headed, and the charm of the caricatures that are the supporting characters began to wear off. And David himself becomes a bit grating, having little to do in the latter part of the novel besides receive adoration from others, be in love, and write novels -- it felt transparently self-serving on the part of the author.
Still, I can't find too much fault with this novel for being what it was, a work of popular entertainment. The writing is so immersive that I have little doubt its scenes and characters will leave an impression on my memory for years to come. Dickens's droll sense of humor and his attention to the world around him are still a pleasure. For a trip back into mid-19th century England, it may be difficult to do better.
Lastly, I have to commend audiobook voice actor Simon Vance for nailing the narration. From Mr. Peggotty’s salty accent to Uriah Heep’s groveling, he really brings out the characters.
While no one can replace Carl Sagan, Tyson might be the nearest thing the 2010s have to him, a friendly advocate of the sciences who knows how to explain abstract topics in everyday language without dumbing them down or dissipating their inherent wonder. I enjoyed his series on NOVA, so I decided to pick up this book after I noticed it on sale at audible.
No regrets. If you want an introduction or a refresher course on the basics of astronomy and astrophysics, this series of essays on various topics should fill in the gaps nicely. Tyson covers topics such as the mechanics of the solar system, the formation of the Earth and planets, the Big Bang and the origins of the universe, and the essential concepts of 20th century physics (quantum theory, relativity, subatomic particles, forces, string theory). Much of the ground Tyson treads will be familiar to those who watched Dr. Sagan's classic Cosmos series in the early 1980s, but a lot of discoveries have been made since then, so the update is worthwhile. Like Sagan, Tyson makes no bones about the fact that he sees science, not religion/superstition/mysticism, as the only reliable tool for understanding how the universe actually works. As he points out, no religious text has yet proved useful for predicting physical phenomena -- in fact, The Bible significantly misstates the value of Pi. (However, he's much less obnoxious about it than Dawkins.)
Tyson also spends some time nitpicking on the scientific errors in several Hollywood blockbusters. Yes, he's that guy -- the one that you stopped inviting to Doctor Who night.
If I have a complaint about this book, it's that its provenance as a collection of articles is pretty obvious. Things that were stated as assumptions or background information in one chapter will be repeated again a few chapters later. The editor could have done a better job integrating everything. And it's probably not a book I'd recommend to more knowledgeable readers; most of the information here, though presented in an appealing, accessible way, is basic.
The cover blurb bills this an over-the-top, edgy satire, which is what I look for from Chuck P. However, the actual novel is more of a juvenile farce, as though the author went on a South Park binge, then wrote it.
It starts off promisingly, narrated in ludicrously mangled English by an insane caricature of an agent from some imaginary North Korea-like country. The agent, who refers to himself as “Operative Me”, has somehow been placed as an exchange student with a cardboard caricature of an American family (known as “Cow Father”, “Chicken Mother”, “Pig-dog Brother”, and “Cat Sister”). His mission, like his fellow agents’, is to wreak havoc on American capitalist devils with an insidious science fair project and to “impregnate fertile American ova with Operative Me seed utilizing bam-bam-quick pumping rabbit maneuver.” Yes. And, yes, that’s how he talks -- listen to a clip of the audiobook.
Being a Palahniuk book, it contains a few trenchant observations, such as when the protagonist notes that American high schools seem to be good for little more than brain-wasting fluff classes and useless mating rituals, with social failure being the main incentive for actual knowledge pursuit. Mostly, though, the clumsy, unbelievable plot is just an excuse for bad English humor (featuring phrases and grammar no one would ever use), foreigner-misunderstanding-something-obvious humor, rape humor, vibrator humor, boob humor, dogs-as-food humor, and predictable shots at dumb American teenagers, evangelical Christians, and Wal-Mart. "Satire" is rather generous.
Still, Operative Me’s voice often made me laugh. He addresses an old lady at church (“religious propaganda distribution outlet”) with titles like “venerated living skeleton” and “revered still-animated corpse”. Taking a page from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, he ticks off a well-informed listing of America’s national blemishes during a model UN debate, then lists insane suggestions about how to atone for these misdeeds, such as “offering beloved children to serve as sexual chattel slaves to noble third worlders”.
I probably would have loved a book like this as a teenager, but there’s not enough brilliant craziness to really get it off the ground for the adult me. Mostly, it’s just puerile. If you’re a fan of the author and/or are a young male, consider checking it out from the library. Otherwise, don’t bother. 2.5 stars.
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