Monday, January 30, 2006

5. Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

Take a Girl Like You pictureLucky Jim is one of my favorite books. I've tried to read a few other of Kingsley Amis's books, The Green Man, Stanley and the Women, The Girls and none of them even came close to the acerbic wit, careening narrative trajectory and total satisfaction of Lucky Jim. I found Take a Girl Like You for 50 cents at the local thrift store. It had a neat cover so I picked it up.

It was okay, but sadly I'll have to put it in the same category as the other non-Lucky Jim Amis books. It is very similar in themes and tomes, taking place in a small college town, showing small social conflicts, often with subtle class and generational differences. The story is about a girl from a northern town who arrives in this suburb of London (thus a small step up in sophistication). She is very attractive and immediately becomes a center of interest. Fortunately, she is also quite sensible, despite her naïveté. The book's perspective jumps, without any apparent structure, between her point of view and the guy she ends up dating. We are never sure if he is really sincere or just wants to get laid as the central conflict revolves around the protagonist wanting to keep her virginity.

There are some funny moments and some funny critical passages. But I didn't really care too much about the main characters and when I did start being concerned with the heroine's passage, he would jump away. The sexual mores of this period, the late '50s also seem really bizarre and I had trouble understanding the characters' behaviours. They are all very loose sexually, constantly making out with other people, even when they are already definitely a couple. They get mad about some things and completely blasé about others. Maybe Amis was trying to be critical of this behaviour, but it didn't come across with any of the quiet ferocity of Somerset Maugham. The whole thing just left me kind of non-plussed and beginning to wonder about Amis reputation.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

4. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Fall of Hyperion pictureStop reading now. Put down your book this moment. It's a terrible habit and can only get worse, leading to not just any reading but reading genre books like Sci Fi and you all know where that leads, sitting in a movie theatre before the movie starts, overweight, popcorn and sno-caps in lap, open sci-fi paperback in hand.

It took me a while to get through the follow-up to Hyperion. The two are really a single book that probably got cut in half for practical purposes. I enjoyed the first one, but didn't love it. I read the second mainly to find out what happens. I kind of slogged through the first three-quarters of this one, feeling that I've read (and played in) too much alternate reality in too short a time and it was all getting kind of mixed up in my head. But the last quarter of this book pulled everything together and really rocked. I was lacking confidence and feeling doubtful of the excessive appearance of twentieth-century religious concepts and Keats the poet. But what you learn in the ending solidifies everything, gives a reason for all the disparate elements and makes a very cool story and concept.

What's really amazing about this book is that ultimately, one of its stronger themes is the relationship between man and machine. It is realized in a way far more profound than (and coming 10 years before) the Matrix series. I'm realizing that this theme of humans and machines as two different but fundamentally connected meta-species is much more extant in today's sci-fi than I had thought. I'm sure it's old hat to hardcore fans. But I think there are some fundamental and powerful philosophies being explored about our relatioships to the machines that (currently) serve us. The Hyperion books deserve to be a significant contributor to those ideas.

If you've got the time and want to get into a really amazingly constructed future and an even more complex and cool plotline about the future of humanity, I strongly recommend that you read Hyperion and the Fall of Hyperion. Unfortunately, as I lamented in the opening paragraph, there is a follow-up series, called Endymion, to the Hyperion books and though you don't need to read them to get a complete and satisfying conclusion from the the first two, once you do finish the Fall of Hyperion, you, like me, will probably want to keep going. Aargh! Stop reading!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

3. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

[Bike is broken, more time on métro; reading time way up, podcast consumption down.]

Motherless Brooklyn pictureMy SO discovered this book through her cultural raking and took it out from the library. She found it pretty enjoyable and renewed the loan so I could read it. In between that time, both my brother-in-law and my sister recommended it. So it has good pedigree, and now that I've read it I have pass their recommendations off to you.

I loved the first half of this book. What I was so psyched about is that somehow (probably because he's already published several books) Lethem seems to have snuck a genre book past the gauntlet of agents, editors, publishers and critics in the form of a hipster novel. I thought this book was going to be some personal exploration or some garbage like that has covers and titles like this one did. Instead, it's a straight-up detective novel, with a unique protagonist and a rich and deep look at a hidden and shrinking part of criminal Brooklyn.

The catch in this story that I guess made it acceptable enough to the literary world to merit it glowing reviews and awards is that the narrator has Tourrette's syndrome. This element of the book is fun and interesting. You're always cringing for the hero when he's trying to express himself, always wondering how the person will react to him. It goes deeper than that, blending the complex state of his mind with the symmetries and interweavings of the mystery. I have no idea how accurate a portrayal of someone with Tourette's this is, or if such a state of mind can ever be truly understood, but this book gave me the sense of what it must be look to be unable to control oneself.

The Brooklyn that Lethem describes is alluring, compelling. It's the last dying embers of the mafia gangster fantasy that we know of today only through movies. When the book stays in this area, it is fun reading indeed. As the mystery plays itself out, the book is still really good, but we are driven forward more by wanting to figure out what happened than the magic that fills the first half. By the end, Motherless Brooklyn is a competent mystery with great characters. But I strongly recommend that you all read it. I'd love to discuss this with you on the forums so I won't say anything more here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

2. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Journey pictureI wish I could say I had read this in french, but then I would probably be posting this in the middle of the summer. The translation is a bit stilted and kept me a bit distant from the material and I can just tell that in french it's probably even more ferocious. My dad recommended it to me. I guess it had a strong impact on him when he was a young man. It's basically the life of a poor but educated french guy in the early twentieth century. The story takes him through the horror and disillusionment of the first world war, to work in french colonial Africa then as a doctor in poor, suburban Paris and finally as an assistant to the administrator of an insane asylum.

It's one of these books where the plot isn't all that important. From the introduction, this book caused quite a stir when it was published in France before the second world war. You can see why. He just tears apart everything that the french consider sacred and important. It starts with the war, which he sees as basically thousands of mindless maniacs desperate for killing each other or being killed, but he goes on. And he has the most hilarious language, really classic french stuff where he waxes for pages on about sex or the rich and then makes a quick comment about the quality of the wine he had access to at that point.

Here is a good example:
Speaking of families, I know a chemist on the Avenue de Saint-Ouen who had a marvellous sign in his window, a lovely advertisement: One bottle (price three francs) will purge the whole family Isn't that great! They all belch!... and shit together, family-wise. They hate one another's guts, the essence of home life, but no one complains because after all it's cheaper than living in a hotel.

There is a lot of that kind of stuff. Very dark and entertaining. There is a lot of truth in it, but I'm not sure if 400 pages of that, and a lot of meandering is so effective. Perhaps for the time, the intensity of such an angry message, obviated other editorial concerns. I found myself getting distracted at certain points. I will admit that I am a slave to the narrative and a babe nursing at the teat of resolution. I get distracted easily. Still, I wish more people were writing with this kind of anger and conviction about the situation we live in today. Hmmm...

Friday, January 06, 2006

1. Maelstrom by Peter Watts

Maelstrom pictureNow that the furor caused by my year-and summary is over, I'll start the 2006 50 books challenge with book #1, Maelstrom by Peter Watts. The second in the series that started with Starfish (and one of my favorite books last year), Maelstrom follows the path of Lenie Clark, abuse victim and mutate-amphibian, as she escapes from the deepsea station she and the other sociopaths were manning and makes her way on to land. Because she is carrying an RNA strand that will genetically rewrite life on earth out of existence, she is chased by those same powers that created her. At the same time, she becomes, through the proliferation of her myth on Maelstrom (the data network that evolved from today's internet), a symbol of rebellion against the powers, for all the victims of the world (and in this dystopia, there are many).

I was really looking forward to this book and though I'm not dissapointed, it didn't take me to the same level as Starfish. I was hoping for lots of description of the world on land because I loved the hints Watts had given in the first book. He is obviously an environmentalist (and he really is a marine biologist) and has projected a dark future based on that. Everything is about energy and evolution. Quebec is a major worldpower (and grown quite scary), the internet is like a jungle on steroids where viruses and security evolve against each other constantly. Unfortunately, most of the book takes place in the minds of the key players. The story is tense and exciting and the development is cool, but you only get glimpses of the world. And a lot of the key players are involved virtually, either trolling through Maelstrom or interacting with the real world through remote bots. Either way, they are actually in their apartments most of the time. The whole west coast is separated from the interior by giant walls and is teeming with refugees who are kept alive by unmanned food-producing units. Their protein is filled with mood-controlling drugs so they just end up sitting on the beach and surviving. That portrayal is cool and scary and it went into some depth of setting. But there was very little time in the cities, in the enclaves of the rich and powerful and other locations that would have grounded the story in the constructed reality.

It is also structured in to tons of short chapters, each chapter is broken into groups of paragraphs that are separated by triples spaces. But these triple spaces don't often separate anything in the narrative. They just act as little suspense devices, a dramatic pause. For example, there will be a dialogue between two people. Something will be revealed. Then there is the pause. Then the dialogue continues. It's constant throughout the book. I think the idea is to make the whole thing kind of episodic and it allows the narrative to jump all over the place, but I found it kind of distracting, expecting a change of perspective between triple-spaces and often there wasn't one.

I'm definitely still really enjoying this series and I'm going to read the next two. The concept of the data network evolving the same way life does (but way, way faster) is great. You can almost see little stirrings of that today. Watts pushes his ideas out there and he's definitely a critic of the man, which is what I demand of great science fiction.