Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
Brilliant. I very much enjoyed Steyngart's Absurdistan, which satirized the former Soviet Union, but his writing reaches a whole new level here. This is a book about the near future America seems to be headed for, a country that's become a bankrupt, corporate-controlled police state on the verge of collapse, while mainstream Americans lead lives of vapid indifference, aggressively obsessed with youth, beauty, media profiles, and their rankings on a facebook-like service that publicly rates citizens on everything from their credit score to their "f***ability" (this is not a book for the prudish). It's very pointed satire, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but often depressing because it's just close enough to reality.
Steyngart does a marvelous job with his two main characters: there's Lennie, a shlumpy, trod-upon 39 year old who works as a salesman at a life extension company, has a set of hilariously-rendered Russian immigrant parents who spend their day watching "Fox Liberty Ultra", hangs out with self-righteous hipster friends, and clings to his antiquated hobby of collecting old books in a post-literate era. He falls obsessively in love with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman who personifies much about Generation iPhone, with her short attention span, text message vocabulary, constant online shopping (for brands with names like "Juicy P***y"), and lifelong immersion in a culture of looks and casual sex, and who struggles with her own old-country parents (including a mom whose advice-filled, English-challenged emails are quite funny). Their relationship captures, in a rich way, so much about the America we're living in. Steyngart doesn't take the easy path of simply mocking his self-absorbed characters (flawed though they are), but gives them them earnest voices, making them people we empathize with as the artificial bubbles of their worlds burst. Perhaps, in part, because it could soon happen to us.
Funny, depressing, sweet, and frightening all at once.
Gone Girl is 2012's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that gritty suspense thriller that everyone and their mother was reading. For the first half, it sucked me in with well-drawn characters, a setup that has its fingers on the pulse of the times, and a delicious sense of Hitchcockian misdirection.
The two narrators are Nick and Amy, a thirty-something pair of would-be yuppies whose magazine careers and New York City lives were derailed by the Great Recession. They have now downsized their dreams to the Midwest, characterized as the home of corn chip casseroles, bland earnestness, and shopping at Walmart. There, Nick took care of his ailing parents and opened a bar with the last of Amy's trust fund money. And, there, their marriage fell apart.
Starting from page one, we get Nick's side of things: a perpetually unsatisfied wife and a life that seems to be going nowhere. Then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving behind signs of a struggle and a trail of clues in the form of an anniversary scavenger hunt. Nick blinks and stumbles his way through the ensuing police investigation, and there's the sense that he's not telling us everything.
Interspersed with Nick's narrative are journal entries from Amy, painting a picture of a fairytale marriage that sours after a husband stops trying. And there's just a hint of control freak insecurity, perhaps triggered in part by being the inspiration for the goody-two-shoes protagonist of a series of saccharine children's books written by Amy's own parents over the decades, the source of her small family fortune.
It doesn't take long before the reader gets the sense that Nick, while somewhat evasive and not exactly the husband of the year, is falling into a trap. Clues in the investigation and public opinion are going against him.
Then comes a twist, and we learn that a few things about Nick and Amy’s marriage have been misrepresented. Here, the novel began to get unbelievable for me, though the suspense remained enjoyable. Would Nick be arrested? How would his sleazeball lawyer, his media appearances, his oddball sister, Amy's wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend, a deranged father, and a couple of desperate types in a short-term housing park play into the plot? As Nick's defenses steadily crumble around him, against a far craftier opponent, Flynn keeps us guessing, even rooting for a guy who was initially hard to like.
When the story reaches its endgame, it escalates into pure absurdity, a sort of screw-turning, Stephen King-like nightmare scenario (think of him in suspense mode, not monster mode). Somewhere, a few psychologists are doing face palms. But, if you're willing to shut off your brain, it's fun, in a deliciously dark way.
All in all, this novel showed a lot of promise for roughly the first half. Flynn obviously *reads*, and has a sense of craft. I loved the unreliable narrators and the ambiguity. Unfortunately, though, once the game is revealed, the novel morphs steadily into airport bookstore territory. This isn't necessarily bad, but I'd hoped for a bit more psychological complexity. Oh well.
The two audiobook narrators are good. Kirby Heyborne, who performs Nick's parts, ranges from bemused calm to barely suppressed anger. Julia Whelan, who takes Amy's, has a girlish chipperness that works well.
I've already written a review of the Winds of War, the first half of this marathon two-part historical drama. War and Remembrance picks up right where that one left off, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Now, the US is fully in the Second World War, and Victor, Warren, and Byron all see action in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Byron's Jewish wife, Natalie, is trapped in fascist Italy, where a series of misjudgements and bureaucratic tangles have blocked the escape of her and her uncle. And there are a few other dramas, involving characters we'd met before, such as Leslie Slote and Pamela Tudsbury.
As in the previous book, Wouk masterfully illustrates how the war unfolded and how it looked to the Allies, with the much-pounded British grasping the full urgency of the situation while America was only beginning to get into gear. His overview of the politics and fighting takes into account the bumbling mistakes made by both sides, and the many opportunities the Axis powers had to achieve some devastating victories, on top of those they'd already had over the dithering Allies. If Wouk's narrative is to be believed, the fate of nations can turn on a single faulty report from a scout plane or a lucky accident of timing.
Compared to the first book, there are more scenes of battle and combat, which are well-written. There’s a subplot concerning the development of the atomic bomb, involving Rhoda’s lover, Palmer Kirby. We can see the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union on the horizon. There’s more from the fictional German general, Armin von Ruhn, whose cerebral apologism for fascism becomes ever more disquieting, considering that his views don’t seem all that far off from those held by present-day right-wing groups, though his analysis of the war remains compelling. And there’s a subplot that exposes the horrors of the Holocaust, through both the eyes of a Jewish character interned in Auschwitz and the chillingly mechanical viewpoint of the camp’s commandant.
If the plot turns are a little more soap opera-like, with the main characters getting into drawn-out dramas and crossing paths strangely often, they’re still absorbing. Through the storyline involving Natalie, her uncle, Aaron, and her friend Leslie, it becomes easy to see how Holocaust denial paralyzed much of the civilized world, which wanted to believe that the terrible stories were mostly just propaganda by people with an agenda (I couldn’t help but think of climate change deniers). The two Jews, as they struggle to find an out, get ever more inexorably trapped in the Nazi web, ending up in the sham showcase ghetto of Theresienstadt, and these desperate scenes are gripping.
Both this novel and the Winds of War should really be thought of as one long work, though not everyone will want to power straight through both of them in sequence, as I did. As before, my compliments to Kevin Pariseau for his spoken performance. When I at last reached the final page, while biking along a lake in Massachusetts, I felt that I’d completed a real journey across eight profoundly world-changing years of history. Through the sheer scale, vision, energy, investment in storytelling, and deeper truth-seeking of his drama, Wouk has left a work for the ages.
At over 100 hours, this audiobook and its sequel are a commitment, a 20th century War and Peace. Over 2000 pages, Herman Wouk spins both a family saga and a sort of “bearing witness” document, a detailed history of World War Two that leaves no one excused for humanity’s greatest calamity (so far) and the many acts of blindness on both sides that allowed it to unfold as it did
The fictional narrative centers around an American naval family headed by one Victor “Pug” Henry, a stolid, unpretentious career officer of classic mold. Yearning for a battleship command, Victor is instead sent to be the US’s naval attache in 1939 Berlin, at a time well before most Americans had any desire to get embroiled in another European mess. Because of his thorough reports, Victor finds himself coming to the attention of FDR, who makes him a high-powered informal go-between. Meanwhile, Victor’s two sons have their own stories -- one training as a Navy pilot, while the other “finds himself” in Italy, where he gets involved with a Jewish author and his lovely, headstrong niece. These two, trapped in Europe, become significant viewpoint characters in their own right. Others enter the narrative, too, including Victor’s wife, who is beginning to chafe at the sacrifices of being a Navy wife, and his daughter, who takes a job at a NYC radio station. While most of the action happens behind the lines, we do get a few tastes of the shooting war.
Wouk’s style is a bit nostalgic, but the characters are well-written and credible. For all the contrivances in the plot -- such as Victor managing to meet Hitler, FDR, Churchill, *and* Stalin -- Wouk makes us believe that such path-crossings were plausible. Maybe one family wasn’t in so many places, but history did have plenty of small actors who played such roles. In any case, the small details of the characters’ thoughts and actions give events a full, living color. Sometimes Wouk pulls the camera back and explains in a clear, compelling way what was happening on the broader stage, which was a counterpoint that appealed to me, since the protagonists seldom have all the facts themselves. It’s to his credit that almost nothing feels irrelevant -- personalities and family lives seem to dovetail neatly into greater events and vice-versa.
No, Herman Wouk isn’t Tolstoy, but he’s certainly a writer with a strong grasp of the forces of history, gentle insight into human behavior, the ability to connect small-scale events with large ones, and a storyteller’s gift for putting it all in familiar terms, through the eyes of some memorable characters.
What pleased me most about this book, though, and a big reason for my enthusiastic recommendation, is its absence of simplistic rah-rah patriotism. Instead, Wouk soberly examines the causes of the war and the dangers of nationalism and ideology. He also notes the hypocrisies of British and American imperialism, and the self-absorbed apathy of both countries in the face of fascism’s self-image of surety. One of the most fascinating features of the novel is the inclusion of the memoirs of a German general, translated decades after the war by Pug himself. There’s a creepy familiarity to his critiques of the “decadent” West, and one begins to remember that evil is often rationalized away, sometime quite convincingly, by those who worship strength and power. This mattered at the time the author was writing, around the height of the Vietnam War, and it matters now.
Ultimately, this novel and its sequel are a rich mix of intimate and broad-scale human themes, 20th century history, and wistful nostalgia for a time when the American middle class family embodied all that was hopeful. Audiobook narrator Kevin Pariseau rises to the occasion, with some impressive imitations of certain famous figures, a range of accents, and a narration voice that has both friendliness and gravity. Put the sequel on standby, because you’ll want to know what happens next.
This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.
For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.
At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.
I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?
Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.
The first in this series, Altered Carbon, was all the rage a few years back. It was a gritty, hard-boiled detective story set in the 25th century, complete with pithy first person narration by sardonic tough guy male protagonist. The universe is a little reminiscent of the one in the movie Blade Runner, with powerful corporations that run everything and crime syndicates and rebel groups in the shadows. The most notable technological feature of this reality is the ability to back human consciousness up on a "cortical stack" implant, allowing people to "resleeve" in a new body if the old one gets excessively damaged. The implications of this made for some interesting twists, both in terms of plot and human themes.
In this novel, a loose sequel to Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has put aside the detective work and is back to his former trade of soldiering. He's serving as a mercenary on behalf of a corporate power battling rebel fanatics on a planet whose civilian populace is receiving the brunt of the misery and suffering. He's feeling about ready to jump ship on his contract when a pilot points Kovacs to a xenoarchaeologist in a prison camp, who knows something about a gateway leading to an ancient, derelict alien starship -- the find of the century. Can he put together a team to stake legal claim?
As with many sequels to hot first novels, the dazzle factor of the author’s style and universe has worn off a little, and this reader notices the formula a little more. For those who liked the grit, hard-boiled cynicism, manga-like universe, over-the-top sex scenes, and action movie machismo of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels brings more of that, but the characters and plot are more familiar and forgettable. While the part surrounding the entering of the long-dead ghost ship, the high point of the book, has a cool eeriness similar to the opening of the movie Alien and its own horror to deliver about the fate of a superior civilization, the story leading up this point isn’t hugely riveting. Yes, the sequences about locating a corporate backer (without being screwed over by the same), recruiting a squad of soldiers from the colorful personalities found in a pile of discarded cortical stacks, battling nanobots, and discovering what became of a previous expedition to the alien ship, were a pleasant audio distraction while I was doing yard work, a lot of other science fiction novels could have done as much. The war going on in the background had potential to be interesting, but wasn’t fleshed out much -- I suspect it will come more into play in the next book.
All in all, this is a recommendation for those who loved Altered Carbon and want to go further into the Takeshi Kovacs universe, but other readers could probably take it or leave it. Audiobook reader Todd McLaren has a square-jawed voice that suits the hard-boiled nature of Morgan's prose well and keeps it from coming across as too self-serious, but his sultry-voiced women can be a little irritating. Particularly the "sassy black girl" voice.
I can’t remember the history of the Islamic world rating more than a few pages in my high school AP World History textbook. And those pages were about the things that related directly to the story of Europe and the Americas, kthxbye. Oh, and oil.
This book is an excellent corrective for the distorted, limited picture most Americans have of the Islamic sphere, revealing it as a complex and fascinating parallel universe that had developed largely apart from Europe. This culture rose to great heights while most Europeans still lived in ignorant medieval squalor, became fragmented by Mongol invasion and the politics of empire in successive centuries, and was finally encroached upon by the modern West in the 19th and 20th centuries, an encounter that it’s still in turmoil from.
Tamim Ansary, an author and lecturer, turns a millenium plus into an informal, engaging narrative, as a good professor would. There’s even some humor (“pointing his cannons at Parliament and blowing it up was just the shah’s way of showing that he some objections to the new agreement”). Good historical narrative doesn’t judge the past from a modern perspective, but illuminates it as a complex set of relationships that evolved over time. There are many terms here that I’d heard before and had a vague sense of the meaning of -- Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Assassin, caliphate, 12th Imam, vizier, harem, Mamluk, janissary, Safavid, Ottoman, Great Game, Raj -- but Ansary puts them all into their place.
Thus, it became easier for me to understand how Islam is often (without irony) called a “religion of peace”, while also having a warrior aspect. During and following the prophet Muhammad's life, the faithful saw themselves as creating a new vision for society, founded on peace, justice, self-discipline, religious tolerance, and egalitarian brotherhood (even sisterhood) for the once fractious people of the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. Muslims saw God’s favor as being demonstrated by their success at liberating the oppressed inhabitants of neighboring lands and God’s disfavor as being shown through military loss -- which was to have far-reaching implications.
Ansary also helped me see how Islam’s source ideas played out in attempts to codify them into a framework for daily life. Elaborate bodies of law developed and scholars saw a unity of reason and divine revelation, bringing about advances in science and mathematics, and re-introducing classical Greek logic to the world. Of course, these noble goals did not prevent the usual conflicts between higher thinking and human nature from taking root -- politics, greed, war, dynastic feuding, cultural chauvinism, overly conservative thinking -- and so Islam fragmented into different visions. Mystics, enlightened progressives, and traditionalists all found footholds in different parts the greater empires. Interesting stuff.
The latter chapters, which deal with the Muslim world’s encounter with the West, are the most revealing. I’d never fully considered how the Protestant Reformation opened the door for a culture of individualism and mercantilism, but it did, and soon European traders and bankers were making inroads into stratified empires in Asia Minor, Persia, and India, making deals that that decadent rulers couldn’t refuse and securing more and more privilege for themselves. Never underestimate the corrosive power of loans! While Muslim intellectuals and secularists came to see the future as lying in the kind of democratic, constitutional governments that the west had (as Turkey is today), a combination of cynical Western imperialism and rising fundamentalism among large, impoverished lower classes that saw their elites as selling out on God’s instructions (with no pope-like figure to intermediate), poisoned this dream in many places. Obviously, terrorism can’t be justified under any system that claims respect for the innocent, but the resentment and sense of a stolen destiny that boiled over into extremism (enabled by oil money) makes more sense to me now.
For people who enjoy history and know that there are different ways of telling it, depending on who’s in the “center” of a narrative and who comes crashing in from outside during Act Three, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Afterparty was a pleasant discovery for me, comparable to recent Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but less geeked-out than the former and a little snarkier than the latter.
The initial setting is a near-future Toronto. A former neuroscientist named Lyda is in a mental hospital, in the wake of a series of breakdowns. It’s about a decade after her biotech startup discovered, while trying to cure schizophrenia, a drug that enables users to experience God. Well, in a manner of speaking. More specifically, Lyda and her colleagues overdosed on the drug and each now experiences a very convincing hallucination of a heavenly spirit companion. In Lyda's case, it's a moralizing winged angel named Doctor Gloria. In more controlled doses, the drug, nicknamed Numinous, makes people feel that they're in the presence of the divine.
It’s not the only mind-altering custom drug in this future. There's now a whole subculture of print-it-at-home drug manufacture, to say nothing of what more serious organizations do with the tech. Some products have amusingly harmless effects, but some alter consciousness in disturbing ways, such as one that removes one character’s natural empathy and turns him into a temporary sociopath.
When a peculiarly troubled teenage patient shows up in the clinic, it dawns on Lyda that Numinous, which her and her colleagues swore to keep secret, is now on the street, being distributed by a strange new “church”. So, Lyda must check herself out of the hospital, evade monitoring systems, get across the border, and track down her former colleagues in the US. Her only allies are a sweetly unaware young man who thinks his consciousness resides in the aquarium toy hanging from his neck, and a crafty American ex-intelligence officer whose own mind has been scrambled by too much "focus" drug over her career. And a cat. And, of course, the amusingly huffy Doctor G, who remains invisible to everyone but Lyda.
This is definitely a smart book, asking meaningful philosophical questions about the nature of being and the implications of messing with our brains/minds. Or of messing with other people's. It's also a witty one, with cleverly written scenes, oddball characters, and a lot of snarky quips from Lyda. For example, when a drug dealer sells a seemingly effective gay-for-a-day "product" to some straight dudebros at a college frat party, she retorts, "product? Don't you mean placebo?" (Well, it made me laugh.)
The story, once it gets going, is interesting. There's also a backstory that emerges, concerning the tragic events that took place at Little Sprout (the startup) ten years ago, what became of Lyda's wife and fellow scientist, who took too much Numinous, how Lyda ended up in the mental hospital, and what happened to her daughter, who she had to give up for adoption. While Gregory doesn’t posit a drastically altered future, I also enjoyed the creative, incidental little ideas that he drops in here and there, such as a plausible successor to smart phones. Like the plot of a good thriller, all the pieces come together in the end, but with some room for taking the characters and setup further, should he choose to.
If there are a few believability issues and the ending is a little predictable, it’s a thriller with a brain and an eye on an approaching bend in the road ahead. And the core questions -- if there is a better us inside ourselves, should we try to access it by tampering with ourselves? Or should we not? Is “divine experience” more about the divine, or the experience? -- are ones that Gregory keeps hovering in our peripheral vision throughout the book, but admirably never tries to answer for us.
Last Dragon falls into a space somewhere between straightforward genre fantasy and literary fiction, which is probably why not too many readers have noticed it. The bones of the plot have a lot in common with the former: there’s a teenage girl, destined to become an Empress (which we know because she’s writing an epistolary from her older years), who leaves her nomadic people to seek blood justice against her grandfather, who has murdered her family and most of the rest of her village, then fled. Along with her slightly-older uncle, who is now technically the village shaman, she travels over the mountains and enters the more civilized, darker-skinned country to the south.
As we might expect, the young Zhan will find companions on the road who have their own histories and purposes, learn about the wider world, discover that the truth is more complex than the one she began with, and get sucked into a war that comes back to her people. Not everyone’s stories, when fully revealed, will be quite as they seem. Several of the main characters have an ambiguous quality to them.
Unlike a lot of fantasy, which tends to proceed in a linear way, Zhan’s tale is expressed in semi-ordered, dreamlike fragments, concentrating less on genre tropes, and more on how humans reveal themselves in their interactions. There are betrayals and surprises that will emerge, some of which seem to be a product of the older Zhan’s unreliable memory. There’s a definite Gene Wolfe flavor -- if The Book of the New Sun spoke to you, this probably will, too (and if you hated The Shadow of the Torturer, you’re not the audience for this book). The format can be a little confusing, but there were enough contextual hints for me to mostly keep track of the plot.
But, man, McDermott can write. I loved the sparse, delicate beauty of the prose, and the haunting imagery that fills the book. Camp fires made from an intoxicating weed that grows in the mountains. A language that considers a bird to be any creature that sings. Ancient dragons that onced imparted their preternatural wisdom to a nation, an order of paladin who sacrificed their own lives to maintain the great creatures, and black-skinned soldiers from the south, who brought an end to this order (and many others) with their musketry. Ants that crawl in the masonry of a great city, and come to play their own disquieting role. An old warrior, from a place where different tribes modify their bodies to pay homage to different animals, telling a blend of personal and tall tales from childhood, which include a moment where a storm drops fish from the sky on a column of captives. There’s an ambiguity and bleakness to the main story, which ends unhappily for most in it, but it’s told in such a lovely way, including Cori Samuels’s English-accented audio narration.
Not everyone will like this book. If you prefer novels to have a clear plot resolution, with all the characters’ motives fully revealed, you should probably look elsewhere. However, if you accept that books can be puzzles, with meanings that are hinted at through allegorical imagery and invocation of themes, Last Dragon is worthy of your time. While the novel sometimes loses itself in its own dreamlike gauziness and structural experimentation, and perhaps a few of the author’s ideas and characters could have been developed a little more, it’s an impressive first novel.
This is one of those books I had to read for class in high school, but which was somewhat wasted on me at the time. I didn’t know enough about history and adult psychology to really appreciate Doctorow’s portrait of the roiling, chaotic, ever unsatisfied nature of turn-of-the-20th century America, with its class struggles, expanding immigrant population, media celebrities and their sordid scandals, racism, squalor, and energetic search for something better.
This is a novel where the author’s technique shines as much as his story or characters. Assuming an omniscient, godlike point of view that seems to pay homage to John Dos Passo’s America Trilogy, Doctorow swoops above the day, taking in the events of the newspaper headlines, then zooming down into dining rooms, meeting halls, and bedrooms, for a closer look into his characters lives, then diving into their thoughts and emotions, before flying away again. This approach creates a sense of urgency and burgeoning unrest, not surprising in a novel written soon after the late 1960s.
The story blends history with the lives of a fictional middle-class white family in a New York City suburb, who are named only as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and The Boy. The bourgeois Father owns a business that sells patriotic supplies, and joins Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, which seems to mark an apex of Father’s life. Younger Brother is a troubled young man who obsesses over an equally troubled young starlet, the real Evelyn Nesbit, and loses himself in designing fireworks, then in radicalism. When Mother takes in a young, unwed black women and her infant, the family becomes involved with a successful, cultured black pianist named Coalhouse Walker, who refuses to back down from his demands for redress after his car is vandalized by a racist fire chief. Things escalate, and the Family finds itself connected to a righteous terrorist, who acts out a fantasy that many blacks at the time probably had.
This central plot, though absorbing, is only an eye of the storm for the rest of the book. Doctorow spends as much time with other figures, fictional or historical, whose energies intersect and rise into the same sublime madness. An immigrant Jew living in the slums of New Yorks, who struggles after a better life for his daughter and is pulled towards a new industry. Anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman, who gives a scathing critique of capitalist society and its moral hypocrisies. Plutocrat J.P. Morgan, who searches for higher purpose, now that he’s achieved the pinnacle of success and found it wanting, and fellow capitalist Henry Ford, who gives a folksy comeuppance. Escapist artist Harry Houdini, who pushes back against his own inner emptiness with ever more dangerous and unreal stunts.
This is a brilliant book, swirling with color and energy, but also wit and insight into the psyche of America at a significant moment. There’s a strong whiff of counterculture and the kind of creative, what-if reimagining of hidden moments of history that I enjoyed in Doctorow’s Civil War novel The March. Readers who dislike the cinematic, somewhat fanciful staging of such scenes, or prefer a more conventional, grounded plot might not enjoy this book, but I’d recommend Ragtime to anyone who wants to better understand the US, or this time period in particular.
Doctorow, who obviously isn’t a trained voice actor, narrates his own audiobook. The recording isn’t of great quality, being a little muffled in places and making him sound like he has a cold. Still, I appreciated knowing that all the verbal emphasis in the reading was just as the author intended.
This is a fun little anthology. All the pieces here revolve around the same premise: the idea that there's a machine that can predict a person's death from a blood sample, spitting out its answer on a small card. The machine sometimes words its oracular messages in an ambiguous or poetic way, but it's never wrong. If it predicts that you'll die by drowning, moving to the desert won't save you -- you'll just die in the shower or by choking on a drink. Perhaps, like Oedipus, you might even suffer the paradoxical fate of being doomed by your attempt to escape fate.
Naturally, there are a number of logical, philosophical, and moral implications that can arise from the premise, and the various authors get pretty creative in exploring them. How would you act if you knew your death? What if your friends or family knew? What if your government knew? A few pieces are set in the present day, but the genres of most of the others run the gamut from sci-fi to dystopian to fantasy to zombie horror to time travel to Sherlock Holmes. There's even a choose-your-own-adventure. The most interesting ones, for my money, tend to weave in some other issue.
The tone of the stories ranges a lot as well. Some are witty, some are serious, some dark, some absurd, some poignant, some melancholy, and some cryptic. Some feature better writing than others, but there was a good deal of talent and imagination on display. Similarly, the various audiobook readers range from competent-but-unremarkable to skilled. I particularly enjoyed the voices done by the guy who narrated the story told from the point of view of an orc.
In sum, a collection I could recommend to any adult who enjoys creative short fiction (I say "adult" because of some profanity and a few grown-up topics). I would note that this is the followup to any earlier anthology, called Machine of Death. I haven't read that one, but the grapevine (well, the Internet) says that this is the more inventive of the two.
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