Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
Having read the highly self-referential A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius a few months ago, I had no idea what to expect from Eggers in a novel about a Sudanese refugee. I couldn't imagine how the same writing style would work on that topic.
But Eggers plays it straight this time and simply tells a story. And it's a beautiful, moving story told with thoughtfulness, compassion, and a sense of humor. The narrative of the central character, Valentino, doesn't fail to convey the horrors of the Sudan conflict, but neither does it beat the reader over the head with tragedy. Valentino's calm voice instead makes East Africa (and the American experience of an African immigrant) real, impressing the reader with the fact that the Sudanese are as colorful, complex, and rich in their lives as anyone else. The fact that Valentino's both remarkably aware and astonishingly naive as a character makes him a fascinating witness to this turbulent history.
A wonderful book.
As far as the audio aspect of the novel goes, the reader did a great job with Valentino's accents and mannerisms, as well as those of Afro-American characters. The voices he does for some of the side characters were a little too cutesy for my liking, but it didn't drag down the overall listening experience.
Among the current crop of hot science fiction writers, Paolo Bacigalupi is one of my favorites. To me, he's the latest to grab the grimy wheel of the "broken-down future" subgenre and steer it towards nightmares extrapolated from humanity's current dysfunctions. You know, destruction of the natural environment. Running out of fossil fuels. Carelessly gene-modified organisms run amok. Marginalization and exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful. Agribusiness conglomerates that control humanity's food supply, plant viruses having killed all natural foodstuffs.
Readers unfamiliar with Bacigalupi might want to start with one of his novels, but if you're hungry for more, the pieces here are an interesting chronicle of a writer developing his ideas. Two, in fact, are set in the world of The Windup Girl, and give extra dimension to characters and issues in that book. The rest seem to take place in other future timelines (except for one set in the present day), but contain ideas that clearly influenced the direction of his novels. To me, it's always fun to read short stories that are preliminary sketches for an author's long-form work.
Though there could have been more variety to the settings, most of the pieces here are quite good, showcasing Bacigalupi's talent for description, world-building, and taut storytelling. What makes him worth reading, IMO, isn't so much that the science of his stories is totally plausible, but that they start with a few grains of truth about human nature and use the science fiction setting to craft nuanced moral parables. One of my favorite stories here is set in a post-apocalypse world, and turns the battle of wills between a young scholar and his grandfather into a smart commentary on the endless struggle between the forces of civilization and knowledge, and those of tradition and group identity. Another takes place in an all-too-plausible near future, in which small farmers of central California find themselves losing a water rights battle against the government and the water-hungry big cities. And there's the title story, which takes place in a vaguely Idiocracy-ish New York City, where people rely on sophisticated machines built long ago by now-defunct companies, but no longer understand the principles behind their repair (I liked that the ape-like "trogs" in that world aren't really explained, but the reader still gets a sense of how they came to exist).
Be warned, there's a lot of bleakness here (illuminated by a few slender rays of hope), so this may not be the collection you'll want to dive into after a funeral or a bad breakup. But it's bracing stuff, demonstrating the power of short science fiction to suck readers into another world, then gut-punch our minds. As always, audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis, with his languid, sardonic tone, is a fine choice for Bacigalupi's writing style. The other readers do pretty good jobs as well.
As explained at length in his opening chapters, Keegan, a professor at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy (in 1976, when this book was published), felt that the understanding of war propagated by those who studied it was often overly academic and abstract, or too focused on the actions of “great men”. Left out was the experience of combat for the average soldier, which, although represented in novels, movies, memoirs, and paintings (with lots of artistic license), wasn’t really examined in a systematic way.
The opening expository, unfortunately, is a little dull, spending a lot more pages harping on the above themes more than I found necessary, but things pick up once Keegan actually gets to his main focus. At the core of this book are three important battles for the British: the 15th century Battle of Agincourt, the 19th century Battle of Waterloo, and the WWI Battle of the Somme. Through these clashes, examined in order, Keegan traces the evolution of warfare over the centuries.
This is definitely a work with the student in mind, drawing on quantifiable metrics like how many men stood in a line, how wide the lines were, how many shots (or arrows) were fired per minute and what their range was, and how often men employing different types of weapons actually engaged each other on the field (and what the outcome usually was). Keegan also paints a pretty good picture of the average fighting man in each era, covering his education, his motives, his cultural attitudes, his sense of ethics, and the distinctions between officers and regular soldiers. There are some pretty interesting lessons, such as the fact that running away often had a worse survival outcome than standing to face fire, that medieval infantry lines didn’t usually charge forward and crash into each other a la Braveheart (yes, a few teensy inaccuracies in that movie), that the strict drills of the musket era were necessary to keep men from shooting their own comrades, and that World War One helped break down class divisions in Britain, as officers came to empathize with their less refined men.
Keegan conveys the confusion and lack of big picture information that a man looking at a trench wall or the back of another soldier would have had, and their effect. And a good sense of the horror and carnage comes through in descriptions of the wounds inflicted by different kinds of weapons, or of the dicey chances of surviving a battlefield surrender. The final chapters, which consider the future of warfare, argue that modern weapons have made the prospect of full-scale battles so lethal to the ground soldier that no rational government is likely to engage in them. History since 1976 seems to have borne this out (so far), though briefly-stated minor points about insurgencies and about the risks of moral detachment from killing turned out to be more prophetic.
If you’re enough of a history buff that you don’t mind the dry, academic style or the datedness, this is a good read. I appreciated the British perspective as well -- when you’re a country that’s had a huge chunk of your youth wiped out in one battle (the Somme), it seems, you tend to view war through a different lens than certain countries whose citizens have been known to confuse it with Rambo movies.
This book is a lot of fun. Weir seems to have done a ridiculous amount of research into how a manned NASA Mars mission would probably work, and turns this knowledge into a suspenseful adventure with a likable protagonist and a healthy dose of humor. The story begins, in classic castaway fashion, from the journal entries of an astronaut named Mark Watney, who’s stranded on Mars after an emergency forces the rest of his fellow astronauts, who think him dead, to abort the mission and depart.
Now alone with his expedition’s equipment, including rovers, space suits, a habitat, and some botany experiments (but no radio), Watney must improvise ways to stay alive and contact Earth. A lot of science and engineering geekery soon follows, but Weir does such a good job of explaining it, using Watney’s informal voice and snarky, quip-ready “engineer” humor (the opening f-bomb sets the tone), that I don’t think it will be too hard for the average reader to understand. Being an engineer myself, I could easily relate to how this guy’s mind worked, as he took apart different systems and put them to use in ways they weren’t quite meant to be used, yet did so in a careful, controlled manner. I had one of many smiles at the part where he contemplates international law and decides that one of his actions makes him a pirate. A SPACE PIRATE! Yep, engineer.
I don’t think it’s much a reveal to say that the narrative eventually expands to include people back on Earth. If you recall the movie Apollo 13, a lot of similar action follows, as NASA and other organizations put their best minds to work on the problem of how to save Watney. I won't spoil the series of mishaps, setbacks, and narrow escapes that follow as he hangs on for a rescue attempt, but suffice to say that Weir makes good use of his setting and contrives some creative but plausible solutions. The supporting characters could have been developed a little more, but their banter is entertaining. Weir is clearly a fan of NASA, but isn't above poking fun at bureaucracy, PR machines, and the various personalities that inhabit the organization.
I hope someone sees fit to make a movie, because all the right ingredients are here. There’s a crowd-pleasing survival story and a likable hero. There’s a long-shot plan and a big-screen-ready nail-biter of a climax. And it's a heckuva a lot more believable than other Mars-themed stuff that Hollywood has given us (I'm looking at you, Red Planet). But, if there’s never a film, audiobook narrator RC Bray is the next best thing, with a boyish voice that's a perfect fit for Watney, and different affectations for his various quips.
Though John dos Passos hasn’t retained the fame of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, his America trilogy still feels like a landmark work of the Jazz Age, a sprawling, panoramic documentary of the US of the early 20th century. Like his contemporaries, Dos Passos writes in a common, everyday vernacular, with an eye and ear for realism, but also mixes in more experimental, modernist passages, such as streams of newspaper headlines and song lyrics, short biopics of various public figures, and the impressionistic, Joyce-ian “camera eye” sequences, which seem to recall scenes from the author’s own mind. Though this flipping-through-the-radio technique has been much-copied, it still feels innovative, especially in audio format. Reader David Drummond, I would add, does a commendable job with a wide range of voices and deliveries -- including the singing.
The main narrative follows several different characters as they make their way through their lives between the turn of the century and World War One. As fiction goes, it’s wandering, nearly plotless stuff, but I found the window into another time fascinating. Along the way, we get an immersion course in cultural attitudes, historical events, people’s daily concerns, and the not-unfamiliar tensions between different layers of society. Then there are all the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, impressions, and emotions of the time -- the raw, intimate, illuminating human stuff that a present-day writer looking back couldn’t hope to replicate.
Yes, some of the themes are dated -- for example, there are no significant non-white characters, and the idea of people having sex (*gasp*) *before* marriage was no doubt more edgy in the ‘30s. Dos Passos seems intent on a soul-baring of his generation through his characters, who are caught between grand ambitions and selfish desires, seemingly unable to make any decisions of lasting consequence. They desert their families and their employers in search of some unknown better thing, and are buffeted about by the indifferent forces of history. Members of the Millennial Generation should read this novel and stop letting older people lecture them with phony-baloney mythology about how everyone had their s--- together back in the day, and America was just honest, happy, patriotic, and swell. It’s a lie.
In fact -- and maybe it’s because I don’t read enough old fiction -- I was taken aback by how many aspects of the world of this novel seem not to have changed much in a hundred years. The way society was divided between the haves and the have-nots -- and the way half of the latter group was sure it would soon be in the ranks of the former, and resented the other half. The same media-fed anti-socialism paranoia. The same naive, flag-waving patriotism around the big war, and the same undercurrent of cynicism that it might have all just been a big scam. The desire for a comfortable, white-picket-fence life versus the fear of selling out. Constant worry about how to pay the bills. Otherness of foreigners. Dating (apparently, the phrase “let’s just be friends” goes way back). Loneliness. Desire. Groping in the dark.
Obviously, a novel of this era and style won’t appeal to all readers, but for those who can embrace its unblinking camera reel view of life, it’s brilliant and definitive. The final chapters generate a palpable atmosphere of anger and unrest, as the US enters the Great War, and the anti-war and pro-war factions square off in New York City, yelling the usual cliches at each other as riot police march in. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
This is classic adventure on the high seas, and C.S. Forester’s crisp, spray-tossed depiction of the Napoleonic-era British navy seems hard to beat as a standard-setter. Our hero here is the gawky, 17-year-old midshipman Horatio Hornblower, whose intelligence, persistence, and daring, if not social confidence, mark him for future greatness (of course, there are many more novels in the series). Being young, he makes mistakes, but he learns valor, honor, compassion, and a few lessons about human nature. Through his eyes, we see how 19th century military life works (or doesn’t) in the empire that ruled the waves; the varied assignments, routines, and hardships of the British navy; and a little about the rest of the world at that time.
This particular book, my introduction to the series, isn’t really a novel, but is divided into a series of separate episodes. In each mini-adventure, Mr. Hornblower encounters some aspect of naval duty, ranging from capturing enemy vessels, to going ashore and supporting land forces, to warding off the deadly attacks of fire ships. He faces some challenge, rises to to the occasion, and manages to save the day, if not always perfectly. The opening chapter, in which he contrives a daring, ingenious solution to a shipboard bully, is riveting. By the midpoint of the book, though, the formula becomes a little repetitive, and few of the other characters persist beyond an episode or undergo much development. Perhaps there’s more complexity to other books in the series.
Still, there’s enough variety to the scenarios themselves, and I enjoyed myself. The history feels well-researched and authentic, albeit in a PG-rated way, and the writing is brisk, full of sensory details, and a little humorous. Christian Rodska’s dramatic audiobook narration more than does it justice. I would also add that, as a science fiction fan, I can see the influence Forester had on that genre. A bold captain? A complex ship and a multi-talented crew? A few salty characters? An enemy empire to keep an eye on? Hello, Star Trek.
Every so often, the fantasy genre produces a new crop of writers who boldly break out of the walled garden of its tired conventions, and change the rules of what “can” be done. While it’s perhaps a little early to tag Zachary Jernigan as such an author, he shows promise akin to earlier freethinkers of fantasy. The universe here, which has the feeling of being set in some unimaginably distant, decadent future, seems to owe a debt to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, but the gritty, street-level, anti-traditional mythos of the world resembles China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, too. Since these works are already favorites of mine, it wasn’t hard to jump in.
Jernigan is his own guy, though, and tells a story that’s confident, imaginative, baroque, violent, and erotic. As we learn in the prologue, the world of Jeroun has a god, who dwells in an assembly of orbiting metal spheres called the Needle, and can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not to destroy his human creations (apparently, one goes a little mad as a god). On the planet below, cults that reject or embrace Adrash’s dominion battle in ritualized street fights. Elsewhere, a community of mages seeks to ascend into space and meet Adrash personally -- a risky idea at best.
The story is divided into two main threads. One follows a trio of warriors on their way to a sort of world championship religious battle tournament: a monk in living armor, a down-on-her-luck pit fighter haunted by a (literal) ghost, and a robot-like being known as a constructed man, whose former master continues to make unwelcome visits to his mind via some sort of magical data link. The other storyline deals with two astronaut-mages, who have diverging ambitions in the works. The characters are well-developed, with distinct, complementary personalities and histories. The ambitiously strange world might have been a little too much to take in in one pass, though; I had to reread a few chapters before the geography, politics, history, religion, and ethnography of Jeroun made sense to me and I could focus on the story. (Writers: take note of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, those pre-chapter lexicon snippets are handy cues.) Some readers might find all the sexuality a bit over-the-top -- it didn’t bother me, but its rawness wasn't really to my taste, either.
However, not huge issues. Jernigan’s confident, unadorned prose takes command of the reader’s mental viewscreen, mixing delicate sensory details (the smell of pine, the flavors of herbed bread), macabre images (corpses of an elder race still strewn about after some ancient apocalypse, now harvested for magical substance), and far-out, superhero comic-like sequences such as mages battling in space, or a robot walking along the bottom of a lake, engaged in dialog with a hallucination while giant fish pass by. Cool stuff. Surprisingly for a left-field debut, audiobook narrator John FitzGibbon is excellent, with a “stage presence” and a range of voices that suit the novel quite well.
Clearly, No Return is meant to establish a world and its characters for future books, so I'll have to withhold full judgment until I see how the story develops, but it's certainly an impressive start. Can Jernigan can keep it all together in future installments, and not let the high-flown cosmic stuff overwhelm the intimate personal tales he’s set up? I look forward to finding out. Definitely a book and a writer worthy of your attention.
I’m a sucker for unreliable narrators, so the structure of this book grabbed my interest right away. A man named Changez is having a conversation at a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan with someone who might be a CIA agent. Or, maybe not -- we only hear Changez’s side of the conversation, and it becomes less and less clear, given his overly solicitous tone, that it really is a conversation. What’s going on here?
However, Changez proceeds to confess his life story, telling the phantom agent (and the reader) how he won a scholarship to Princeton as a young man, graduated near the top of his class, met a girl, and went to work at an elite global consulting firm, the kind that gets hired to “trim the fat” from struggling companies. Then September 11 happens, and Changez finds himself feeling less and less in love with America, and more and more like an outsider, alienated its by its imperial power structures, including his own employer, and the self-righteousness and xenophobia that the attacks bring to the surface in Americans. More and more, he finds himself identifying with the country he came from, however numerous its problems. It’s a story that's not hard to imagine happening, and Satya Bhabha’s fine audiobook reading makes the voice ring true.
Unfortunately, the narrative and its indictments are weakened by the addition of a transparently allegorical romantic relationship between Changez and a depressive girl named Erica (hmm, what does that rhyme with?), who still pines for an idealized past with a now-dead former boyfriend. Poetic, sure, but Hamid doesn't logically connect this experience with breakdown and disappointed love to anything that's symptomatic of the US or Pakistan in particular. It was hard for me not to suppose that if things had worked out with Erica, Changez probably would have overcome his angst towards the US and stayed. Is that really the point? Also, the word "fundamentalist" in the title is a bit misleading, since religious fundamentalism doesn't figure much into this novel. It's really just a play on the word "fundamentals", which is used in a different context.
But, even with the flaws in execution, I enjoyed the concept of the book, the sincerity of its voice, and the ambiguity of its framing and conclusion. Hamid spins evocative moments out of just a few simple details, doing more with four and a half hours (of audiobook time) than some writers do with fifteen. When the protagonist recounts his exasperation at cynical US policy during the frightening 2001 military confrontation between India and Pakistan, I had to admit, to my shame, that I had only the vaguest memory that this event even took place. I can probably tell you more about what Playstation games were popular that year. So, maybe he has a point about our indifference towards the rest of the world here in the US? In sum, while not as penetrating as it could have been, the Reluctant Fundamentalist still got me to think and is a good example of fiction’s increasingly international voice.
I wouldn't call this 1981 novel the deepest book out there, but it's fun pleasure reading that mixes science fiction and fantasy in a creative way, and doesn’t feel too dated. The pitch is that people who are misfits in the safe, civilized world of the 22nd century have the option of going through a one-way time portal to six million years in the Earth's past (the scientist who invented the portal never discovered how to make it go to another time or place). In classic form, Julian May introduces a cast of ten or so main characters who come from different walks of life, but all have reasons for choosing "exile". There's a retired paleontologist, a nun/doctor seeking spiritual peace, a self-centered starship captain, an incorrigible sociopath, a teenage athlete with an unusual talent, a roughneck driller with fantasies of being a Viking warrior... and several more. After a few introductory chapters in which we get to know these individuals separately (a fine example of interesting but economical setup), they arrive at the portal in time to make the jump to together.
As it turns out, though, the Earth of the past is already occupied by out-of-towners, in this case two related groups of aliens that bear a strong resemblance to mythical beings from humanity's prehistory. Upon arrival, the travelers find themselves sorted into different categories, depending on their skills and latent "metaphysic" abilities (telepathy, telekinesis, hypnosis, etc.). The aliens have a society that everyone is free to join, provided, of course, that humans cooperate with the aliens' goals. For those less than perfectly willing, there are mind-control collars called “torcs” -- or being hunted by prehistoric animals if one tries to escape. Naturally, many of our protagonists select "none of the above".
I wouldn’t say that the characters are particularly original or deeply written, but May is imaginative, and her background as a science and biography writer is in evidence. The middle portion of the novel is a little slow and somewhat confusing, as she sets up the world of Pleistocene, giving us a lot of characters and cultural details to keep track of, but things pick up in the last third, which builds to an action-packed finale. This is one of those series where, if you’re going to bother at all, you might as well assume that you’re going to read the second book. It’s odd that Blackstone hasn’t done audio productions of any further entries so far.
Speaking of, I didn’t mind the voice of audiobook narrator Bernadette Dunne, but I found her reading a little sloppy. Characters start off with accents and lose them, or have ones that aren’t quite right for their background. At one point, she mispronounces the word “Polish” (as in nationality) as “polish” (as in floor). How did that get by?
Did did the Indians that interacted with the Massachusetts pilgrims have a more civilized society than history books give them credit for? Was the “pristine wilderness” that explorers are said to have found in North and South America actually land that had been cultivated by previous inhabitants, who planted fruit trees in abundance? Did humans reach North America far earlier than had been supposed? In 1491, Charles Mann, a science journalist, explores the evidence that the traditional classroom picture we have of America's first peoples as primitive, history-less savages that roamed in small groups through untouched wilderness might be wrong, or at least incomplete.
The questions are intriguing. Did the Americas have complex trade networks and huge populations that lived in "beehive-like towns", which were wiped out by European disease before Europeans themselves arrived? Were Mesoamericans responsible for major agricultural innovations like corn, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes? Did the Spanish really conquer South America's empires by technological superiority, or did they get a big assist from the fractured politics of the Indian world, cultural confusion, and disease? Was the codified libertarian-style democracy practiced by Indians in what became the eastern US a big inspiration for the founding fathers? (Note that Mann uses “Indian” because he found it to be the prefered term with which modern indigenous people refer to themselves.)
Being a journalist, not an academic, Mann keeps his style informal and doesn’t hold back his enthusiasm for the subject matter. Mostly, this approach kept my interest, though, at times, he forgets himself and reaches for conclusions that seem a little unjustified. For example, he takes a snippet of an exchange between Peruvian and Spanish priests, and reads into it a nuanced dialogue that didn’t seem evident to me in the the words actually spoken. Elsewhere, he compares an ancient city in the Yucatan to “a combination of the Vatican and Disneyworld”. Um, maybe a little too much presentism there?
Still, it’s clear enough that the theories discussed are evolving and less controversial than they used to be. Towards explaining the uncertainty, Mann provides a sense of the problematic interaction of politics and anthropology. If Indians had populous societies that modified their environment, some argue, modern people can't really be faulted for doing the same. On the other hand, goes the response, if Indians lived in harmony with nature, their example should be paid attention to. Some tribal groups in the US worry that archaeology is being used to minimize their heritage and equivocate away the past misdeeds of whites, while some archaeologists fret that political correctness is interfering with the search for facts.
Overall, I found the book interesting, and it made me appreciate the magnitude of what past peoples have contributed to our current world, and all that was lost with the death and marginalization of so many cultures. What further lessons, ideas, and ways of thinking might a world that developed out of contact with Asia, Europe, and Africa have brought to us? We’ll never totally know.
I can see why Neil Gaiman felt that Fritz Leiber deserved to have some of his work brought to the attention of 21st century readers in audio form. This book is a delight, a mix of classic swords-and-sorcery adventure, sardonic, dark fairytale, and imaginative world creation, with a little tales-of-ribaldry kinkyness thrown in. While it's fifth in a series, I don’t see any reason you can’t start here. The hairy barbarian Fafhrd and the small, quick-witted Gray Mouser are two instantly familiar roguish heroes, no introduction required beyond the first chapter, and Lieber quickly pulled me into their world with his deliciously visual, textured descriptions and playful, literate command of language. Fans of Jack Vance will find his style familiar, though it’s less absurdist.
The story here has Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser low on cash, and compelled to take a commission guarding a grain barge for the amusingly decadent ruler of the impressive, seedy city of Lankhmar. Once out to sea, they learn that their convoy is also carrying a not particularly innocent maiden and her collection of preternaturally intelligent rats. Soon, things go amiss, and our heroes find themselves headed, by separate routes, back to Lankhmar, which is now having some serious rat problems. Any not just any rats, but ones that seem to be more and more humanlike, and to be coming from somewhere under the city. I won’t spoil what happens next, but before all is said and done, there will be duels, ill-advised romances, spying in magical disguise, battles, grotesque sorcerers, strange creatures, otherworldly travelers, and a few mildly naughty scenes.
IMO, this is fantasy that’s a happy medium between the grimness of Howard / ponderousness of Tolkien and the silliness of Vance, pulpy but actually creative. It’s not hard to to see the influence Leiber had on more modern writers in the genre, from Terry Pratchett to David Eddings to China Mieville (particularly the weird romance) to Neil Gaiman himself. Audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis does a fine job as usual, his calm, arch style a great fit for Leiber’s writing (though his scene switches are a little abrupt).
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