Fairly interesting, even for someone who doesn’t like history very much. I’ll read it, but unless it really focuses in on a particular story, it kind of just slips past me and I end up reading with a glazed look on my face, not really taking anything in. Diamond explores the ways in which weaponry, germs/epidemic illnesses, and tool development have shaped the fates of various cultures. Guns, Germs & Steel is sort of a rebuttal to The Bell Curve type of thinking - that different races & cultures succeed and thrive based on innate intelligence and ability. The examples Diamond uses are usually fairly interesting, but it ends up feeling a bit glossed over, which is probably inevitable when you are dealing with the history of the entire world.
Archive for February, 2009
The Blind Assassin is quite a bit more ambitious than the other Atwood books I have read (The Handmaid’s Tale and The Edible Woman, both of which I highly recommend). The Blind Assassin starts with the death of Laura, the main character Iris’ sister after the end of WWII; then features a newspaper clipping of the results of the inquest following her death; then starts in on a novel-within-a-novel, about two lovers who meet in secret and write a science fiction story-within-that-novel over the course of their meetings. The novel was written by Laura, and published after her death.
Atwood switches back and forth between long sections of Iris’ life, told in flashback as she nears death, and sections of Laura’s book about the lovers’ meetings. The meetings are interrupted by more newspaper clippings; about the war, marriages, births and deaths involving the characters. It’s a complex structure, and it took quite sometime for the novel to hold my interest. It seemed to just get going in one story, and then switch. Then I would be bored for most of the other story. Eventually, it sucked me in, and I was torn between reading quickly through the pages to know more about the character, and slowing down to savor the small details that Atwood uses so well and enjoy her innovative turns of phrase. The stories all intertwine and illuminate each other at the end.
I was also struck by how similar Iris is to Offred, the main character in The Handmaid’s Tale, although their worlds are so different. Iris feels completely constrained by her family, just as Offred was constrained by society. Iris doesn’t understand Laura’s wildness and unconventionality, but loves her anyway, just as Offred sees her friend Moira as taking unnecessary risks rather than simply trying to do something, anything, that she has decided for herself. The Blind Assassin is certainly forthright about the constraints placed on Iris, Laura, and other women of the time, but it is not Atwood’s main concern; Atwood deals with issues of class, political ideology, loyalty, aging & death, and perhaps most importantly, the ways that we construct our version of the world based on what is easiest, rather than what is true. Atwood balances all of these threads - both thematic and narrative - and doesn’t misstep once.
Charlaine Harris’ eight book (so far) series is set in a small town in Louisiana, where the ridiculously named Sookie Stackhouse has lived all her life. She was orphaned at a young age, and is a bit of an outcast in the town due to what she calls her ‘disability’ - telepathy. It is the kind of telepathy where she hears the thoughts of other people unless she actively shields her brain from the mental activity of others; it is exhausting to her, and scary to many of those around her. The first book in the series is Dead Until Dark.
One day, a vampire wanders into the bar. His mind is a total blank - she can’t read it if she tries. Oh yeah, so, vampires have come out into the open, after a Japanese company perfected synthetic blood to be used in hospitals - but that can also serve vampires nutritional needs, so they don’t have to feed on humans. Don’t fight the premise, just go with it. It’s silly, yes, but the books get even sillier as they go along - and I enjoyed them immensely, even when it gets into the world of were-panthers, fairies, and vampire politics. OK, I admit I don’t really like the vampire politics; hearing about vampire marriage ceremonies or the tensions between werewolves and other shapeshifters is about as boring as I imagine Star Wars fans found the political manueverings in the prequels (not that I know - my knowledge of Star Wars comes entirely from episodes of ‘The Simpsons.’)
Sookie is a strange heroine, and Harris deals with her strangeness well in the first few books. Eventually, it seems that every attractive supernatural man comes sniffing around her door - by the fifth book, she has ties to two vampires, a were-tiger, a werewolf, and a never fully explored but never completely off the table attraction to her shape-shifting boss. Harris wisely gets rid of some of these suitors, but to have not two, but five men who are head-over-heels for Sookie despite her rejections, and keep on coming back for more rejection, is a bit ridiculous.
Although the romantic entanglements are a bit too much, both in quantity and in romance novel description, Harris does have a way of keeping the tension going in her books. Most of the books have an overall narrative, with various dangers and problems presented; the exception to this is the most recent work, From Dead to Worse, which doesn’t have any overall story - just a series of different stories, continuing from Sookie’s relationships with various supernatural groups from past novels, but not really coming together as a whole. Other than that book, there seems to be one central mystery or conflict that spurs the books on, whether it is Sookie’s brother going missing, a mysterious assassin, or the slow-burning menace of the Fellowship of the Sun - a violent and virulent anti-vampire group.
Basically, there are all sorts of shenanigans, but it’s generally fun, even if sometimes it veers into the ‘Harry Potter’ school of breathlessly explaining the solution to the mystery and resolving everything in the last 20 pages (but it’s not as bad as Harry Potter in that regard). Also, I don’t need to hear so many descriptions of sex, how attractive Sookie is, or her outfits - I get it! Dudes like her! So, even though I have laid out a series of criticisms, the books are fun and quick enough to overcome these flaws, and be pleasantly addictive.
Another lovely romp by Wodehouse. Really, anything I write cannot do it justice, so please, just go read some Wodehouse. I cannot quite explain how the plots, characters, and writing combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience - just read it for yourself.
Amsterdam is centered around two men, old friends, who make a pact with each other. The novel opens at the funeral of Molly, who was the lover of both men at different times in her life. Vernon is the editor of a London newspaper; Clive is one of the most respected composers in Britain. Becauseof the circumstances surrounding Molly’s death (a gradual loss of physical and mental faculties, a husband who kept visitors away from her) and their deep conviction that Molly would have found such an existence undignified and ended things far before her death from natural causes, the two men agree that each will kill the other if they fall into similar circumstances.
That’s the set up, and you can guess the general direction it heads in. The book is barely 200 pages long, but does not feel slight or underdeveloped. McEwan is able to give the reader a complete idea of a character with one interaction - for example, in a single interaction between Clive and an admirer, McEwan establishes him as the kind of insufferable music elitist that I knew in college (that we all probably knew), when Clive worries that the fact that a teenager has played some of his piano musics means it is too ‘common’ to be good.
The novel is supposed to be a sort of morality play, but seems forced at times. When Clive ignores a woman being possibly assaulted because he needs to get a key musical passage down on paper, I didn’t feel any of the tension that McEwan was probably aiming for; it just seemed like a plot point that needed to be covered. Vernon’s moral decisions play out more subtly, as he has to choose whether or not to publish photos of Julian, a conservative governmenta official in drag. Clive advises him not to, as there is nothing wrong with cross-dressing; Vernon sees it as wrong not in and of itself, but because of how Julian presents himself in public.
The last 50 pages show the impact of Clive and Vernon’s choices, and deal with the pact that the two have made. I could see the ending from a mile away, and instead of seeming clever and poignant, it seems cheap and unearned. I’m interested in reading more of McEwan’s writing, because the style is so natural - but hopefully his other novels will have stories that seem less forced.
Naked was Sedaris’ second book of short stories, after Barrel Fever. Naked was published while he was gaining fame as a contributor to NPR, but before Me Talk Pretty One Day would make him a dorm-wide known name for college & post-college NPR lovin’ liberals.
I read Naked after I had read some of his later works (Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Curdory and Denim), and it is decidedly different from those works. The mix of comedy and drama tips more heavily towards drama, and a few of the stories reach the 50 page mark. The stories are loosely arranged chronologically, from a grade-school aged David who finds his mom crying because she is pregnant again, to a present day David who goes to a nudist resort despite his aversion to being naked. Other than being slightly more serious, it’s pretty typical Sedaris - crazy family, colorful characters, and improbable adventures.
I would write more, but I’m trying to catch my reviews up to my books read!