Archive for July, 2010

The Accidental Time Machine

July 30, 2010 - 1:48 pm No Comments

Having mentioned this book in my last post, I thought it might be a good idea to actually, you know, talk about it a little more.  What a wild thought.

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Joe Haldeman’s observantly funny style, as I mentioned in the previous post, remains true in The Accidental Time Machine, despite having been written in 2007, nearly 40 years after The Forever War.  It’s the tale of a graduate student at MIT whose calibration machine, meant only to release a proton at particular intervals, seems to be able to travel through time.  First, it disappears for less than a second, then a slightly longer flash, then a few minutes, a few days, and then, he decides to go with it.  Hijinks ensue.

My favorite parts of the novel were not, however, the hijinks, at least, not on the whole.  It was the views at so many different distopian futures.  In one, our hero Matt Fuller travels to MIT nearly a thousand years in the future, and finds it having reverted to a beat-down, wild-westian religions waste land where MIT is now the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, and technology on the whole is considered evil, except when considered in context of God and his greater plan.  Here Matt meets a young woman, a nun of sorts who is herself a graduate assistant (which now means something more akin to servant and is a position that only women are lowly enough to hold).  He takes her farther into the future to escape the religious hell and eventually winds up in New Mexico with a woman called La, a sort of projection who is the spirit, or more, the collective consciousness and sometimes god, of  Los Angeles: LA.  But La’s intentions are not pure (are they ever?) and Matt soon discovers through a series of questionably Christian visions of Jesus (despite that Matt is a non-practicing Jew) that La wants the time machine for herself.

Don’t worry.  It all makes sense.

This is much more a quick read than The Forever War; its simplicity, however, is not in the details but in the viewpoint.  The novel starts (pretty much) in the here and now, so Matt’s thoughts are all very understood by someone else coming from the same mindset: you and I.  There’s very much less back-story and more descriptions.  It’s a lighter read in that the story is shockingly linear and for most of the tale there is one character.  There are no losses stylistically, though: given the less-involved plot, Joe Haldeman uses the space to add little tie-ins to everything.  Off-the-cuff comments and characters come full circle and sometimes even become the point of the thing.  The last few pages are a karmic reprieve like no other, a glorious bow on top of the package you wouldn’t even known was missing if it wasn’t there because the stuff inside the box was so good anyway.

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I’ve also just finished My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr which I first discovered on The Book Project.  I won’t go into it
too much since the book itself is so short, but its the story of a young girl, Ellen, trying to understand the relationship between her brother, Link, and his best friend, James.  Are they gay?  Does it matter?  And what is gay, anyway?  It’s a very sweet, understanding story about family, friends, and the relationships we share with them.  It’s also a pretty accurate, unbiased view of the teenage mind.  Give it a read if you like young adult lit or LGBT literature at all.  It’s short and sweet.

As you may also have noticed, I’ve change the theme.  The skinny column was getting on my nerves.

So? Have you read any good books yet this summer?  Let me know about it in the comments!

Sci-fi, time machines, and THE FUTURE.

July 27, 2010 - 7:09 am 1 Comment

Thanks to a certain @fetfet50, I picked up two Joe Haldeman books (The Forever War and The Accidental Time Machine) at the library.  Having a disproportionate love for anything sci or fi, I was pretty certain I would enjoy them.

Boy was I wrong.

I consumed them.  I wanted to marry them.  I’m not sure how I went my entire sci-fi lovin’ life without hearing of Joe Haldeman.  But I am disgustingly glad I finally have.

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I read The Forever War first, it being the oldest between the two books by nearly 40 years.  At its loosest, it’s an allegory for  Vietnam, Haldeman having served there, and the connections are pretty obvious, most distinctly in the horrible preparation of the troops through no fault of their own, the use of mind-altering drugs by the troops (though in Haldeman’s version, this is officially sanctioned, at least for most drugs), and the backwards un-reason for the war in the first place.  But from there, the book takes an entirely original twist on… well… everything.

Fighting an enemy called the Taurans about which little to nothing is actually known (indeed, no one even knows what Taurans look like until their first mano – a – mano combat, many years after the start of the war), the soldiers are flung through space and time by way of collapsars (now an actual, scientific term for super-massive black holes with incredible rates of rotational speed; in the book, something closer to a black hole – which, lest we forget, were not even actually considered legitimate theory in the 1970s, oh how time flies: super-massive black holes are now that which hold every galaxy together and dark matter keeps us spinning  – and which the author simply describes as a collapsed star with a high enough gravity and density to warp time).  This poses no problem for the soldiers until they return to earth, first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of years in the future while they themselves have aged only months or years, and every time they return, they find their home planet to be in worse, or at least weirder, shape.  In an ironic twist, after about a thousand years, heterosexuality is considered abnormal and unnatural, natural breeding is considered flawed and gross, and straight people have to be ‘cured.’  But, failing that, the heterosexual are looked on as mere abnormalities, curiosities, and no one is worse for wear – not anymore, anyway.  Not only did that make me giggle, Haldeman actually gave a compelling argument for it, and accurately (or as accurately as can be presumed) gave an account of the feelings of those soldiers, straight soldiers, returning from a mostly-heterosexual time period into this gay new world with as little hate as possible.  Indeed, this was a huge change for them, since sex between male and female soldiers was encouraged in the past as a means of stress relief and considered wholly normal if not necessary for the morale of the troops.  In short, the concept of sexual orientation as well as emotions and perceptions of people jumping thousands of years in a few month’s time felt incredibly genuine while still being sensitive toward tough issues, which was even more impressive to me given that the book was written in 1974.  (In the words of the Ninth Doctor, “Relax. He’s a 51st century guy. He’s just a bit more flexible when it comes to dancing.”  Oh Captain Jack.)

That being said, for as forward-thinking as the book is when it comes to people, it’s incredibly backwards when it comes to technology, which clearly is no fault of its own.  It was 1974; personal computers were nearly unheard of, and here these soldiers are, between the years 2000 and 3500, roughly, and one is complaining that you could only fit something like 15,000 pages worth of information on a memory stick the size of your thumb and that’s why battle plans are inaccurate, et al.  Now, of course, it’s only 2010, but we can fit the entire Library of Congress and then some on a flash drive the size of a toenail.  As I said, it’s no flaw of the book’s, but it does make you squint for a moment and think to yourself, “Wait, no.”

I won’t go into the battle technology too much but I have to mention my favorite piece of equipment, the statis field, a sort of forcefield where everything – light, lasers, everything – is canceled out, and the soldiers on both sides are reduced to fighting with weaponry with no internal moving parts: bo staves, swords, bows and arrows.  I can’t say why, but a bunch of people in space suits taking out long-limbed aliens in life support bubbles with arrows totally made this book for me.

Technology, war, emotions aside, this book, and Joe Haldeman’s writing style on the whole, is incredibly funny.  There are parts where you snicker, parts where you giggle, and parts where you laugh so hard you start to cry.  This is true of both The Forever War and The Accidental Time Machine.  It’s not even so much that jokes are made; it’s a truth in advertising sort of humor, a pointing out of obvious inconsistencies, and weird, universal quirks in people, regardless of time or place or species.  The style is also completely comprehensible and enjoyable whether you have trouble with basic math or a degree in physics or, like me, are somewhere in between.

Check back soon for my review of The Accidental Time Machine, A History of Violence, and possibly The Eyre Affair, which despite the fact that all I remember about Charlotte Bronte from my 6th grade report was that her coffin was only 12 inches wide, I am enjoying immensely.  Hopefully it will not take me a month to post like this one did.  Blogger fail.

I have a policy.

July 8, 2010 - 11:30 am No Comments

If I’m reading a book, which are at about a standard of 300 pages, give or take, and I find myself about one-third of the way through with no real emotion or curiosity for the rest, I put it down.  I let it go.  It may sound fickle, but there are So Many Books and So Little Time.  Obviously, I’ll give consideration if a book is 700 pages long, and if it’s less than 200 I’ll probably finish it at any rate, having only lost between 1-3 hours on it.

I am (was) reading two books, and feel nothing for them.

The first one is, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, The Black Death by John Hatcher.  As I mentioned before, it’s very dry, and distant, with very little character development.  Now, it’s a history, mostly, and I really like reading flat-out history texts, so I didn’t think that would bother me terribly.

But here’s the thing. The full title of the novel is The Black Death: A Personal History. There’s a five(ish) page preface which is pretty much just Hatcher ranting about how this isn’t just a flat-out history text, and that he wanted to get a story involved.  That there had been enough histories written.

Mr. John Hatcher, you have failed.  I’m sorry.  I’m over 100 pages in, and the facts are great, and the details of how this one tiny English village related to the rest of the world is just splendid, but everyone knows all of that already.  I am over 100 pages in and I. do. not. care. who. lives. or. dies.  And when there are actual, real characters involved, you sort of have to care.

In sum, it’s not a novel.  It’s a strong history, a weak story, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of the characters involved.  So I quit.

The second book on my I Don’t Give a Damn list is An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England by Brock Clarke.

I wanted to like this.  I wanted to like this soooo bad.  The title is clever, and it is not a metaphor.  The author’s name is Brock Clarke.  Brock fucking Clarke.  That’s up there with Chuck Norris.  The narrative is clever, it’s witty, it’s a really great picture of a washed-up guy who made some mistakes and is turning his life around, it’s a really fresh look at the idiosyncrasies of suburbian life.

But I’ve read this book before.  It was called A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore, except Arsonist’s Guide lacks all of the fantasy, and… well, okay, the death thing.  But mostly the fantasy.  And the readability.

It tries way too hard.  It feels like it’s going for the joke.  There is so much crammed into one long, whining paragraph that it’s more funny if you skip half of it.  It wants to feel incidental and hap-hazard and it kind of does but not in the good way.  It just feels sad, and you’re constantly embarrassed for this guy, not in a “NO DON’T GO IN THERE” way or a “YOU DIDN’T JUST SAY THAT” way, but a “OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE YES I’VE HEARD THIS BEFORE NO I PROMISE I GET IT PLEASE STOP” way.

It’s on the nose, and the whole point was to be tongue-in-cheek, which is a completely different part of the human face.

So I quit.

Next time! Brisingr by Christopher Paolini!  Would have done it this  time!  But it really didn’t fit the theme of the post!  Because I like it!

People of the Book and The Black Death

July 4, 2010 - 12:48 am No Comments

As promised, I did finally finish Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, and let me tell you, it’s just as amazing as my previous post, written at about the 2/3 read mark, would lead you to believe.  In an effort not to repeat myself, I’m actually going to skip reiterating the plot points and make mention of a few other things that really stood out to me.

First of all, this book is absolutely brimming with strong female characters.  For all of the pain and torment most of them have suffered, the female protagonists seem to be the strongest, most noble characters one could hope to come across in such a text.  They are not perfect by any means, and often they allow themselves to be weak, but that’s what makes them strong, in the end.

Second of all, the book is inspiring.  The sheer coming together of religions for a common cause, even though (or perhaps more because) it was completely a non-issue to those involved in the rescue of the book, the displays honesty, of respect, and of understanding are really an inspiration.  Even if all of the characters are fictional, the journey the book took, the number of times it had to be saved, is fact.  It really happened.  So whether or not the events went down exactly as Ms. Brooks speculated or not is only half of the story.

Third, it’s simply amazingly well-written. It switches easily, un-jarringly between main character Hanna Heath’s first-person slang-laden Australian internal dialogue to other POVs, sometimes third person, sometimes first.  It doesn’t interrupt the story at all, and actually serves to enhance it.  Point of view is something I’m really sensitive toward in books, so the fact that this didn’t throw me off or even bother me at all is a tribute to its fluidity.  In addition, Hanna’s internal narrative, when situations allow it to be, is absolutely hilarious, drawing away (but not discounting) some of the darkness from more heavy sections before and after her internal monologue.

I have to be honest: I picked up this book because the cover had glitter on it (oh don’t even pretend you’ve never done the same thing) and it ended up being one of my favorite books of 2010 so far.

The book I’m working on right now is John Hatcher’s The Black Death (you know, for lighter, summer reading material).

I’m about a 1/3 of the way in and I want to avoid saying anything which might change in the remaining two-hundred pages (but come on, it’s the goddamn plague; we know how it’s gonna end) but what I have to say is this: this book is so. incredibly. dry.  It’s an historical narrative, but it is very historical and very little narrative.  There is a non-fiction, italicized insert at the beginning of every chapter, and to be honest, with the way the actually prose is written, it feels kind of redundant.  It’s good for explanation, but I feel like if the narrative is this flat, the disclaimers could have some how been worked into the body of the story itself.

That being said, it’s not a bad writing style, it just feels like its doing itself a disservice by having blatantly un-story segments followed by the story, which is written in almost the same voice.  The content is heady and dark enough, pressing enough, to carry the story by itself, but I almost feel like it shouldn’t have to.

Finally, a note on the blog: I failed to mention this in the previous post, but I’ve instituted the use of categories; they can now be found in the sidebar.  So if you’re looking for something specific, you won’t have to fumble through all of my posts about food to get to a particular book review.

Stay tuned: next time I’ll be talking about An Arsonists’ Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England and, if I can just man-up and finish it, the third and final installment in Christopher Paolini’s Inheretance Trilogy, Brisingr.

Hope my Canadian friends had a great Canada Day, and I hope my American friends find an excuse to blow something up later today (they always do…).


July 1, 2010 - 6:36 pm 4 Comments

Meta subject is meta.

As you may have noticed, this site now has a new layout!  Now, I really really like it, and if I use pictures as headers instead of trying to smoosh the text around it with alignment, even using book covers doesn’t look so bad (see: two posts down).  But I’m wondering, is it too narrow?  I’ve always been opposed to really narrow layouts; it kind of makes the reading seem chunky (does that makes sense?).  So let me know: what do you think?  Too narrow?  Is that orange too bright (actually, kiss off about the orange, I like it). Let me know in the comments.

If, alas and alack, the layout doesn’t work, fear not; I collected many more yesterday and can easily switch it out.  I just wanted something a little more summer-y and this was the only one I could find (well, okay, the only one I could find that didn’t FUCK UP MY ENTIRE SITE’S FORMATTING).

Also, I finished People of the Book today, so blog on that probably tomorrow.  Had to put Anansi Boys and History of Violence down for a little while since I have a whole group of books which must return to library land in 14 days which have not yet been read.

All for now; enjoy this gorgeous summer day (if you’re somewhere that it’s gorgeous, and also summer).