A List of Books I Read in 2016 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

 

THE WAY THIS WORKS is simple. I’ve listed all the books I read in 2016. Each has at least a brief review to give you a flavor of how I felt about it. If the book’s title and author are bold and in italics, that means I recommend checking it out. If not, I either didn’t like the book or wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For cases that are on the line between recommendation and non-recommendation, the review should say how I feel about the book.

nonfiction

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  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – (Thomas Piketty)
    • One of (if not THE) most anticipated books on economics in the past decade (or more), Piketty’s book breaks down and analyzes the current state of the global economy in relation to the trends of the previous two centuries. Written in a layman’s style, the work is still difficult to parse at times (though not overly technical). Piketty is challenging, accessible, and necessary. In my opinion, this is probably the most important book I read this year, and it should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss or think about capitalism and economics in the modern age (and perhaps especially in the age to come).

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  • Congo: The Epic History of a People – (David Van Reybrouck)
    • Exactly what the title suggests, Van Reybrouck’s book takes you through the history of Congo (from its arbitrary creation as a Belgian colony, through independence and authoritarianism, up to its current struggles). Written passionately from the standpoint of a Belgian whose father lived in Congo for five years just after independence, the book is an incredibly poignant picture of both the devastation that richer countries can wreak on poorer nations and of the fabled indomitable human spirit.

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  • The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring – (Paul Danahar)
    • Written by the former BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, this work is absolutely essential to understand the complex factors that led to the shakeup of the Arab world. Danahar is incisive and honest, and has a relatively evenhanded and consistent approach to the politics of the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Middle East and its constantly shifting factions and complex underpinnings, this book is indispensable.

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  • Hitch-22 – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Admittedly, I liked this book. But I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and I am not recommending it here because it misses what I think should be the point of a good autobiography. While it does give a glimpse into the mind of Hitchens, and while it is at times poignant and instructive and wildly interesting, I think it veers too much into the territory of overindulgence. That is, too often Hitchens seems caught up in his own mystique. Perhaps, though, this is an incorrect interpretation on my part. By no means is it a bad read.

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  • Mortality – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Now this is a far better work by Hitchens. Diagnosed with cancer and knowing of his impending death, Hitchens’ partially unfinished book is incredibly insightful and (I’m using that word again here) poignant. You sense that he is being more honest and open than with his earlier Hitch-22. His reflections on life are applicable, interesting, emotional, and lovely. If you have any interest in Hitchens, this is a must-read. You almost certainly will not finish the book with dry eyes.

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  • Free Will – (Sam Harris)
    • Harris’ booklet on the age-old debate between free will and determinism is not bad, but it fails to really reach any effective purpose. Though the writing is up to Harris’ standards, the arguments he puts forth are sometimes cloudy and inconsistent. My friend Cody has written a more in-depth review of the book here. Overall, this is a decent primer for people interested in the subject, but there are much better and more thorough books out there.

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  • On Inequality – (Harry G. Frankurt)
    • I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for some reason. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me decide why (other than that it was well-written, short enough to be accessible to the layman like myself, and provided me with a viewpoint very contrary to my own position [which I find important and yet all-too-often I neglect in my choice of books]). Frankfurt seems, honestly, to miss the point of the entire discussion and to settle instead on the semantic debate over whether or not “actual, pure equality among every person” is attainable—which is, of course, something that no one is even advocating.

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  • A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors – (Annie Liontas, ed.)
    • As are most collections, this is a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss essays by writers on the people (or sometimes things) who have come alongside them and improved their writing in some way. A significant amount of these are, in my opinion, abortive and unhelpful. But an equal amount are genuinely uplifting, challenging, or freeing in some way. Still, this work is probably only of interest to writers (or maybe artists in general).

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  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – (Steven Pinker)
    • Admittedly, Pinker’s book is the first style-guide-type writing book I’ve ever read. Still, I find it hard to believe that another will surpass its importance and influence on my writing life. Pinker doesn’t just give you arbitrary rules about writing. Instead he lays out why those rules exist, why they are sometimes okay to break, and how to judge those situations for yourself. An absolutely essential read for any writer.

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  • Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
    • This short booklet helped me through a rough and unproductive time. My basic takeaway is the mantra of the book: to paraphrase, your work is that work which no one else can do; you must do your work. Read it whenever you feel down about your art, or whenever you need that extra motivation.

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  • A Brief History of Time – (Stephen Hawking)
    • I debated over whether or not to recommend this one. It’s already so well-known and lauded, and it is (by nature of its accessibility) such an oversimplification of the subject matter. However, I could not bring myself to deny a recommendation to the seminal work of one of our planet’s smartest humans. Plus, it is actually very interesting.

the controversial books**

**I have separated these books by Gerald Posner because of the plagiarism and inaccurate sourcing controversies that have surrounded Posner in recent years. I read these two books before knowing that, and so this alters and colors my opinion of his work. I’ll give a brief review of each book, but the presence of such controversies means that I cannot in good conscience give a recommendation (which is a shame, because he was going to be one of the major recommendations in this list).

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  • God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican – (Gerald Posner)
    • This book about the moneyed interests within the Roman Catholic Church was so well-written, evenly-paced, and researched that it sparked within me a desire to read more nonfiction. If not for the controversy surrounding Posner, this would be my number two recommendation after Piketty’s book.

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  • Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi—U.S. Connection – (Gerald Posner)
    • A fascinating and deeply disturbing discussion on our nation’s questionable relationship with the Saudi royal family, with a dissection of the Kingdom’s entanglement with Wahhabism, Posner’s book is seemingly crucial to understanding modern global politics.

books of poetry

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  • 100 Best-Loved Poems – (Philip Smith, ed.)
    • A compilation of, well, best-loved poems from history, this book is a good way to get oneself into the swing of reading poetry.

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  • High Windows – (Philip Larkin)
    • Larkin was a poetic giant, and this work is one of his best. A master of turns of phrase, he is required reading for anyone who enjoys poetry.

fiction

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  • The Familiar, vol. 1-3 – (Mark Z. Danielewski)
  1. One Rainy Day in May
  2. Into the Forest
  3. Honeysuckle and Pain

    • Danielewski is one of the most experimental writers of our time, having written the wonderful House of Leaves and the (in my opinion) unreadable Only Revolutions. This series—a twenty-some volume work reportedly about Los Angeles—features a more straightforward narrative split between the viewpoints of different characters. Regardless of whether or not his constant experimentation suits you, Danielewski’s mastery of the written word is undeniable. The man can write better than almost anyone I’ve read. The Familiar is a testament to this fact, its prose weighty and complex and beautiful. Highly, highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys weird speculative fiction.

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  • The First Law, books 1-3 – (Joe Abercrombie)
  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings
    • Abercrombie is a new name to me, but his story is captivating. Though a bit slow to start, the character development and worldbuilding is very good. This series is not for the faint of heart, as the violence and despair of its world seeps out of every page. That said, the books have that page-turning quality that every writer seeks to employ. I look forward to reading more works by Abercrombie in the future.

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  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – (Philip K. Dick)
    • Moviegoers should recognize this as the basis for the film Blade Runner, and not much else needs to be said. Though his writing is often blasé, Dick is unquestionably a pioneer of modern science fiction, and the ideas expressed in his stories are examples of incredible worldbuilding and philosophical thinking.

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  • Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis – (Johnny Pearce)
    • Full disclosure: I know Pearce and read the book at his request. That said, this apocalyptic zombie story manages to ground the reader in real, visceral fears. Instead of the sometimes detached and lofty philosophical ideations of, say, a Philip K. Dick, Pearce deals with philosophy and religion within the context of zombie horror as experienced by normal, everyday people. There is something enjoyable about a horror novel that emphasizes the mundane—somehow this can have the strange effect of heightening the tension.

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  • Louder Than Words: 22 Authors Donate New Stories to Benefit Share Our Strength’s Fight Against Hunger, Homelessness, and Illiteracy – (William Shore, ed.)
    • This collection of short stories—which is as old as I am, coincidentally—contains both some real gems and some very mediocre works. I picked the collection up for a few bucks at a local used bookstore, and I don’t regret spending that money. But, frankly, the fact that original purchasers of the book bought it largely for charity, well, makes sense.

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  • The Wheel of Time series, books 5-6 – (Robert Jordan)
      • The Fires of Heaven
      • Lord of Chaos
    • I have a complicated relationship with the WoT series. Jordan’s pacing is too slow, his worldbuilding is often repetitive, and his characters are largely too similar to each other. However, the world itself is so fascinating, the “magic” element so well-designed, that I continue to push through the slow parts. (For reference, though, I’ve been stuck on book 7 since this summer, so…). I recommend it for fantasy aficionados willing to expend lots of grace and patience.

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  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – (Susanna Clarke)
    • This book defies categorization. Obviously it is fantasy, but it contains elements of both a narrative and a stuffy history textbook (at least, as stuffy as it can be while discussing the fascinating subject of English Magic). In parts wry humor and tragedy, the book is unbelievably well-written and well-designed. It took me two tries to get into it, but honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately fasten my nose to the page. Highly recommended.

graphic novels

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  • Locke and Key, vol. 1-5 – (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)
  1. Welcome to Lovecraft
  2. Head Games
  3. Crown of Shadows
  4. Keys to the Kingdom
  5. Clockworks
    • Illustrated by Rodriguez and written by Hill (Stephen King’s son), this story is wonderfully paced and beautifully whimsical even in its stark horror. All I will say re: plot is that it revolves around a family mansion and strange keys. I’ve yet to finish the series, as there is a sixth book I need to read, but each volume feels nearly perfectly resolved.

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  • SAGA, vol. 1-3 – (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • The writing of Vaughan and the artwork of Staples are perfectly wedded in this amazing sci-fi romp. Told from the perspective of a child about her parents, the story is surprisingly adult, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious, hugely insightful, and always interesting. I do not want to finish the series—I need to finish it. This highlights the main problem with graphic novels and comics—this series is not yet finished, and so I have to pace myself while not going insane with the wait.

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  • Through the Woods – (Emily Carroll)
    • This is a unique compilation of five stories written and illustrated by the author. In the desire to make you interested, I’ll say that Carroll’s story have some of the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the pacing of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. However, this is a bit of disservice. Carroll’s style is very much her own, and her stories revel in the horror of the unknown.

webcomics

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  • Darths and Droids – (The Comic Irregulars)
    • Inspired by Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings (which recast the Lord of the Rings series as if the characters were players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and which I still—to my shame—have yet to read), Darths and Droids does the same thing with the Star Wars series. The current series covers the original trilogy and the prequels, as the writers wish to wait awhile before working on the new sequel-trilogy. Anyway, if you read one webcomic in your life, this probably should be it.

Book Review: J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’

If I was only given one thing to say about ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ it’d be this: “Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t.” If that seems mixed up, convoluted, and indiscernible, then I have succeeded in describing my feelings about the book. Two days after finishing it and vowing to write a review, I’m still sitting here sort of at a loss on how to start this thing and explain exactly how it made me feel. But I think the best way is probably to go back to Rowling’s opus and describe the reasons why I think her writing style succeeded so very, very well in a work like Harry Potter. In this way, maybe I can figure out just what about her newest book I liked – and just why I think it ultimately fails to live up to the hype.

I could write theses on Harry Potter, and I am sure that that very thing has been done. But for your sake, readers, I’ll try to keep this brief. Rowling succeeded with her debut series for (more or less) three reasons: she is ridiculous at world-building, she is one of the best character writers I have ever read, and the genre of fantasy lends itself to these two attributes. Anyone who has read Harry Potter will tell you that, while you are reading the books, you feel like you’re in the world. Rowling’s world-building feels complete. She spends loads of time providing details whose sole purpose is to capture your imagination and create the sense that you could travel to England and visit Platform 9 ¾ , or roam around the English countryside until you found Hogwarts (I know, I know, it’s hidden by spells… but you get my point). The problem, as I have said in a previous piece about Neal Stephenson, is that when these expert world-builders apply their skill to the real world, the result is a book that tells me too much about stuff that I’m already too familiar with. In ‘The Casual Vacancy’ this problem, coupled with Rowling’s definitive writing style, leads to prose that feels too “flowery” (to quote my wife). It is as if Rowling tried to take the same approach to this novel that she took to the Harry Potter series, not realizing that what works for a children’s fantasy series will not necessarily work for an adult book about the suckiness of everyday people.

One thing that does work, though, is Rowling’s ability to write believable and relatable characters. Let me tell you something: I did not like the thematic elements of this novel. I didn’t like the arc of the story (SPOILER: absolutely nothing good happens in this story. It’s literally shit happens, shit happens, shit happens, the end. Which I found somehow lazy and lacking). And I didn’t like the writing style, for the most part. But I kept reading because of the characters. That’s how Rowling hooks you. Do you remember rooting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione? Do you remember being distraught when Dumbledore died? If so, then you know the power that Rowling has in getting you to buy into and root for certain characters. That quality of her writing is not lost in ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ You will find yourself reading on to find out what happens to characters you both genuinely care about and genuinely despise long after the story itself has lost you.

Even with the character development being as good as it is, it isn’t enough to outweigh the fact that the whole thing just feels like Rowling picked the wrong genre. When I originally started the novel, I hadn’t done a lot of research on exactly what kind of book it was. The cover seemed very noir-esque to me, and so I went into this thing thinking that it would end up being some kind of mystery. I liked that idea, because a mystery story would be a way for Rowling to showcase some of the things that made Harry Potter great (think Prisoner of Azkaban, and you’ll see that she can write a killer mystery) while still allowing Rowling to write a book with adult themes and a real-world setting. But it isn’t a mystery. It’s a straightforward novel about the politics of small-town life. If that sounds boring to you, you are not alone. Almost from the very first page, I was uninterested and unconcerned with the plot itself. Of course, the characters made me read on and sit on the edge of my seat regarding the next plot development, yada yada yada. But I didn’t care about the story all that much. Which is not good.

So I’m left with that weird one-liner from the opening paragraph: Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t. Because it seems like Rowling approached this book the same way she approached her first series, and the story of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ doesn’t lend itself to that approach. I understand that she wants to break free of children’s books and write stuff for adults (her original fans are almost all adults now, anyway). But please, Rowling, pick a genre that is suited to your strong suits as a writer. This one, as far as I’m concerned, missed the mark.

OVERALL SCORE: 6/10

Book Review: Dune Messiah

In light of the fact that last week’s review was so long, I’m going to keep this one relatively short. Dune Messiah, the second book in the Dune Chronicles, is in my opinion much more focused than its predecessor. As the title suggests, the plot of this novel centers on Paul Muad’Dib Atreides – the Kwisatz Haderach of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and newly crowned emperor. In the twelve years since Dune, Paul has become the focal point of a new religion. He is worshipped as the Mahdi of the Fremen, and he is the impetus for a great Jihad that spread through the entire Imperium. So, in a sense, Dune is about Paul (the Atreides ducal heir and boy of fifteen), and Dune Messiah is about Muad’Dib (the Fremen Mahdi, man-god, and Emperor of the Known Universe). As such, it allows Herbert ample space to provide his own thoughts on religion.

At one point in the novel, Muad’Dib is having a conversation with a Guild Navigator in which the latter points this out: “It seems to most observers, however, that you conspire to make a god of yourself. And one might ask if that is something any mortal can do… safely” (p. 126). Indeed, Paul Muad’Dib struggles throughout the entire novel to come to grips with the fact that he is now a religious symbol, a god worshipped on countless planets across the universe. What must it feel like to be such a figure, trapped by your own mythos and the religious ideals of billions of people? I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, but Muad’Dib’s response, when pressed by a friend, is: “There are problems in this universe for which there are no answers…. Nothing. Nothing can be done” (p.320).  And in an epigraph for one of the book’s sections, he is quoted as saying “I’ve had a bellyful of the god and priest business” (p. 183). Simply put, Herbert’s analysis of Messiah-ism is that being a mortal human, knowing full well your own limitations and humanity, and being thrust up as a Messiah or god would be really difficult to bear. As Paul does throughout the novel, such a figure would struggle constantly to keep his or her own personality and individuality separate from the mythos generated by worship.

The second big theme of this novel is Time. Muad’Dib is worshipped as a god almost exclusively because he possesses the power of prescience: he can seemingly see into the future. Herbert uses this power of Muad’Dib’s to expound upon his own theories of time and temporal existence. On page 181, Muad’Dib is told by his sister not to grieve someone’s death before that person actually dies. Since both of them can see into the future, this admonishment makes a sort of sense. But Paul’s response is this: “Tell me, little sister. What is before?” And even Muad’Dib’s enemies must struggle with temporal awareness, since trying to conspire against someone carries even greater risk when that person could have known all along that you were conspiring against him. One of the conspirators rather wisely points out that the Kwisatz Haderach is “a being filled by the spectacle of Time. It is a form of existence which cannot be threatened without enclosing yourself in the identical threat” (p. 189). As a Calvinist who struggles with the ideas of predestination, determinism, and moral responsibility, I was very interested in and captivated by Herbert’s take on the philosophy of time and free will.

I said I’d keep this one short, so I’ll go ahead and wrap it up. Herbert weaves a wonderful story of betrayal and Imperial politics around these philosophical ideas, and he does so without seeming too far out of reach for the average intellect. The man was quite possibly a genius, so keeping the story readable for someone like me is definitely a feat worthy of admiration (although the book was published in 1969 and so I wonder how much was genius and how much was just the drugs talking… not to besmirch Herbert’s legacy). Because of its limited scope and lack of the detail-richness that Dune had, this book scores lower. It was still enjoyable, but I felt that the writing was a little lacking. In any case, I’m sure Herbert struggled for a long time to match the masterpiece that was and is Dune. I’m not sure it can be done.

OVERALL SCORE: 7.5/10*

*Yes, I can give decimal scores. Who asked your opinion, anyway?

Book Review: Dune

Dune is a work of such staggering depth and complexity that it’s necessary for this review to have numerous sections focusing on different aspects of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. I won’t cover everything that is in this novel, but I will try to hit all the major points. Anyway, here we go:

I. The Politics

The book is set in the year 10,191 (though this year itself is delineated from an event called the Butlerian Jihad –which is an event that happens millennia from our time and which I will discuss later), and the universe is ruled from the Golden Lion Throne by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. This emperor has political power over the entire Known Universe, but obviously it would be ridiculous for him to try and govern each individual planet. So, there is a class system in place (called “faufreluches”) in which the patriarchs of Great Houses govern the planets on which they live. For example, the main character, Paul Atreides, is the son of Duke Leto Atreides and thus is heir to the ducal fiefdom. The Atreides start the novel out by ruling a planet called Caladan, but they end up wresting the government of another planet (Arrakis, or “Dune”) from their arch-rivals House Harkonnen.  In short, each planet is ruled by a planetary governor in the name of the Padishah Emperor – and each of these governors belongs to a certain Great House.

In order to protect themselves from absolute power by the Emperor, the Great Houses are all a part of a political group called the Landsraad. Note that this includes House Corrino, which is Shaddam IV’s House. Basically, this group serves as a way to make inter-House laws. For example, the Landsraad has banned the use of atomics against humans. Also, the Landsraad itself could combine its power to (theoretically) depose the Emperor. So the inter-galactic political system has its checks and balances.

One of the most important things to mention here, even though it is not technically a “political” power, is a company called CHOAM. This stands for Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles, and it is basically the economic arm of the Landsraad. It’s a universal development initiative in which the Emperor and other Houses of the Landsraad have stakes. Even in this unimaginably distant future, power is ultimately derived from wealth, and the CHOAM company is the source of that wealth. When a House gets in trouble or does particularly clever maneuvering, its CHOAM holdings can be revoked or expanded, respectively. This in turn keeps the Houses from becoming stagnant, in that they always must be on the lookout for ways to reap higher profits from CHOAM. This economic aspect of the novel is a little complicated, but an in-depth understanding of CHOAM is not really needed to enjoy the novel. All you really need to know is that the company is controlled by the Emperor and the Landsraad, and that it is the chief economic power.

II. The Miscellaneous Powers

Aside from the political system of Imperium and Landsraad, there are also a few ancient groups that wield a certain amount of power in the universe of Dune. The Bene Gesserit is a school of women that focusses on control of mental and physical faculties. This school was established after the Butlerian Jihad (which I will talk about shortly… quit rushing me). Ostensibly, the Bene Gesserit are women who have learned complete control over their bodies, and who have been trained in the way of observation of minutiae. For an example of this complete control, pregnant Bene Gesserit can reportedly ensure the sex of their babies. They are able to use a faculty called “the Voice” as well – which is a way of conforming the tones and undertones of their voices to manipulate others. However, the Bene Gesserit have been secretly perfecting a human breeding program involving many of the Great Houses over millennia, and this is their chief function. The goal of this breeding program is to produce what they call the “Kwisatz Haderach” – the man who will one day be born who will possess the faculties and abilities of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.

The second not-necessarily-political- power is the Spacing Guild. This group has a complete monopoly on inter-stellar space travel. Their Navigators have the ability to fold space so as to make almost infinitely long trips take a vastly shorter time. They are extraordinarily secretive about their process of space travel, and most people are not allowed in the presence of a Guild Navigator. It is reported that this is because the use of the spice (I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it) transforms their bodies into something not quite human anymore. Anyway, their monopoly on space travel makes the Guild a force to be reckoned with, as anyone who opposes them can have their shipping privileges revoked, and will thus end up stranded on their planet.

Okay, so THE SPICE. It is the all important element of the universe in Dune. It is called mélange, and it is the source of the Guild Navigator’s space-folding powers; it’s the source of the Bene Gesserit’s powers; and it’s the main source of economic stability. It is literally the most important product in the history of the universe. And it can be found on only one planet in the Imperium: Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). The import of this is that the Atreides have just been given governorship over Arrakis at the start of the novel, so basically they are in control of the production of the most important thing in the universe.

III. The Religious Aspects

Herbert was apparently very interested in religion. The amount of research this man must have done in order to envision the religious history of a future millennia upon millennia from our own present must have been just incredible. But basically, the fulcrum of all religious thought in the Imperium is something called the Butlerian Jihad. This was the war that occurred after man had created thinking machines and then had to destroy them. After this war, all the major religions of the universe banded together to create the Orange Catholic Bible – essentially a collection of the religious ideals that all religions had in common. The chief commandments are “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul” and “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” This O.C. Bible is accepted and used all over the Imperium.

When talking about religion on Arrakis, though, it is necessary to discuss the Fremen. These are the natives of Arrakis – the desert people. Descendants of the Zensunni Wanderers, they hold law and religion as the same thing, and much of their language and religious ideas are similar to Islam. They worship Shai-Hulud (the “Old Man of the Desert”), which is basically a deity that consists of all of the giant sandworms on Arrakis. This is difficult to explain unless you read the book, but somehow Herbert makes it very understandable. Anyway, the Fremen await their Mahdi (“Messiah”), their Lisan al-Gaib (“Voice from the Outer World”). Such legends are thought to be the work of the Missionaria Protectiva – the arm of the Bene Gesserit school that is charged with implanting such superstitions in order to create cultures amenable to the Bene Gesserit. In any case, the Fremen are supposed by Duke Leto Atreides to be the key to controlling Arrakis.

IV. The Ecology

Each planet in the Imperium has its own ecology, obviously. But I’ll just focus on Arrakis, since that is the main setting for the book. Arrakis is literally a giant desert. There are qanats, or small canals of water, but basically there is very little water on the planet. The Fremen survive by wearing stillsuits that replenish the body’s water and protect against the loss of water through things like breathing, sweating, and getting rid of waste. Yes, in these stillsuits you re-drink the water that your body releases. It is a necessity in the deep desert where the Fremen live.

In this desert, the main predator is the giant sandworm. These things are HUGE. They live mainly below the sand, and they are attracted to rhythmic vibrations. You know, like the sound of humans walking naturally. Therefore, when walking in the desert one has to adopt an odd arrhythmic walking pattern so as not to attract the gigantic deathworms. These animals are worshipped by the Fremen as Shai-Hulud, and it is noted that the sandworms always come to the spice mining facilities (which facilities must be promptly air-lifted out so as not to be eaten).

Speaking of spice mining, Arrakis’ only real importance to the Imperium is that it is the only known source of the spice mélange. Without the spice, the Guild can’t navigate and the Bene Gesserit can’t do their crazy mind-and-body stuff. Also, the spice has exceptional geriatric properties, extending one’s age for long after the natural life expectancy. However, the spice is very addictive and thus most of the universe (or at least, those rich enough to buy the spice) are now dependent on spice production. Despite its importance to the Imperium, little is known about its origins.

V. The Philosophy

I won’t go into too much detail here, but Herbert pumps his novel to the max with philosophical musings. He has a very specific view of time, and how free will and determinism interact. He seems to see time as lots of nexuses of decisions. Basically, I think Herbert was trying to imagine a universe where we could possess prescience but also have a sort of free will. It is interesting and difficult, but it helps the story along. There are also numerous musings about the interplay between politics and religion, and Herbert insists (probably rightly) that the key to ultimate power is to be both the center of politics and the center of religion. A deified dictator takes a while to depose – just look at North Korea. Or think back to the days of a Japanese Emperor. But probably central to Herbert’s philosophy is the dignity of humankind. He seems very concerned with morality and purity of soul, to the extent that he imagines a future in which all religions realize their common commandment is to not disfigure the soul. What I am trying to say is that Dune is not just science fiction: it is science fiction with a purpose.

VI. The Writing Style

Herbert writes in the third-person omniscient perspective.  He sort of jumps around between different characters’ viewpoints, even in a single scene. I like this a lot, and it really works for the story, but I’ve been finding it difficult to figure out exactly why. I think it’s because Herbert, by jumping around like this, is able to fully reveal and develop his world. It would not make sense for one character to tell us all about the universe – because which one of us could explain every aspect of the governments and economic systems just on our own planet? But by switching viewpoints between people involved in very different aspects of the universe, Herbert can show the reader the depth and complexity that his imagination has spawned. Anyway, the writing’s point of view works.

The style of the writing is also really interesting. Herbert writes with a certain amount of spirituality or philosophical authority. I sense that this is probably because the man did a lot of research for the novel, and thus he can write with knowledge and believability. But as I hinted at in the Philosophy section, Herbert’s writing is imbued with moral and ethical undertones throughout the entire novel. And he shows that he is a master of dialogue. The book is just simply well written. End of story.

Finally, Herbert includes a glossary in the back of his novel, which is an interesting and useful item to have, since many of the words and names used in the book are not familiar to us (after all, this is set ridiculously far into the future). But don’t let the fact that a glossary is necessary deter you from reading this book. It’s really easy to flip back and check the definition of a word like “Fremen” or “Shai-Hulud,” and if you can’t find the definition back there it probably means the term is not that important. This novel is perhaps unrivaled in its depth, but that should not scare the reader from the story. Herbert handles the complexity of an entire universe with amazing aplomb, all the while crafting a compelling story around the world he built.

OVERALL RATING: 9.9999/10*

*(there were some typos, so I can’t really give it a 10/10)

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part Two (A Game of Thrones)

*Author’s note: This is the second in a series of reviews on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

**Author’s second note: Some minor SPOILERS are in this review, so read with caution.

FIRST IMPRESSION

When I began reading A Game of Thrones, it was after hearing its praises sung by numerous individuals whose opinions on literature I trust to be similar to my own. What was funny was that the book was recommended from people in so many different areas in my life. One of my fellow Creative Writing classmates hailed Martin as being one of the best living fantasy authors (and yes, Kindle Store, these books are fantasy – not science fiction). Another individual, one of my coworkers, extolled the intensity and depth of the world that Martin wrote about. I heard the book’s title being discussed in hallways as I walked past, and there were rumors that HBO was starting a television series on Martin’s epic tale. So it seemed fated that I would end up reading the books.

When I did, I have to admit that the first novel – A Game of Thrones – didn’t grab me right away. As I said in the last review, the sex scenes seemed really over the top and kind of creepy in that old guy staring at a young girl kind of way. But, I had to admit that the world itself was very interesting. All the Houses of Westeros had their “words” (or family motto), colors, castles, etc. And Martin makes sure to delve into all of the history behind practically every character. This was really fun in a nerdy sort of way, yet I also felt that the story was moving too slowly for my taste. See, I had gone into the thing expecting a fast paced, battle-filled, gritty epic. And while parts of A Game of Thrones are like that, most of it is concerned with setting up the characters and the multitude of plots for the rest of the series. Once I realized this, I started to like it more. The title is apt, since Martin is primarily preoccupied with the complexity of Westerosi politics. And might I add that the depth to the political intrigue in this novel is reminiscent of our own world’s politics. There are plots within plots within plots.

By the end of my reading of A Game of Thrones, I was thoroughly interested in reading the next books, but part of me still hoped for a change of pace. I still feel that the first novel is mainly a setup for the remainder of the series, and because of this it is probably my least favorite of the books (though it vies for that spot with A Feast for Crows, the fourth book).

LOOKING BACK (note: SPOILERS)

The reason I have to qualify “least favorite” with “probably” is that I have realized there is so much more complexity in the first novel now that I’m almost finished with the fifth. Sure, the direwolf being killed by the stag in the beginning of the novel is not a very subtle example of foreshadowing. But when you look back and realize that the two people Arya spies discussing an overthrow of the Iron Throne are Varys and Magister Illyrio, and that they are plotting to reinstate Daenerys Targaryen in place of Robert, you start to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Martin is a master at planting tiny little details that you forget about in the midst of the overall plot, and then all of sudden making you realize that there was a purpose to it all along. Combine that with the fact that he does this with almost every detail in the series, and you begin to see why people rave about him.

This book also starts to setup the characters, and along with that the fact that Martin will kill any character he pleases at any given time. Take Daenerys’ storyline: Martin explores and builds the world of the Dothraki, giving pages and pages away to the development of Daenerys’ and Khal Drogo’s relationship, and the ends up just killing off the Khal and changing the course of the entire story line. This is tough to do as a writer. You tend to get really attached to the characters and the story, and changing it on a whim like that is sometimes heartbreaking.

Of course, everyone’s favorite dwarf also plays a big role in this book. Tyrion Lannister’s capture and trial by Catelyn Stark is was pushes the two houses to the brink of war, and thus is the impetus that leads into the next book. But Martin also cleverly uses Tyrion to show the vileness of his father Tywin and his sister Cersei. You can tell from the treatment of the characters which ones we are to consider the bad guys and which ones we’re supposed to root for. But as I said in the first review, no one is without serious flaws (even noble Ned Stark is foolish and naïve). Though I guess a few of them have no redeeming qualities (I’m looking at you, Cersei, Tywin, Joffrey, and Viserys).

Overall, I’d say it’s a good start to a great series. If you’re interested in reading this book, though, make sure you go into it understanding that the pace is sometimes slow because Martin is laying down the foundation for the rest of his novels. Give it time; let it grow on you. I’m sure you’ll end up liking it.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part One (An Overview)

The back of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons showcases, along with all the usual laudatory blurbs, a quote from Time that proclaims Martin to be the “American Tolkien.” There are some obvious parallels between the two authors. Tolkien spent much of his adult life working to elevate the genre of fantasy from the depths of childish stories in which it was drowning. In the same vein, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series adds a decidedly adult spin to stories about dragons and medieval clans. In this way, the two authors both have sought to craft out of the stuff of our childish fantasies stories for adults to enjoy.

However, I think calling Martin the “American Tolkien” does a disservice to both authors. It sets the reader up for disappointment, because the style and essence of Martin’s writing could not be more different from that of Tolkien. Also, both men had markedly different approaches to and reasons for writing. George R. R. Martin has said that his approach to writing is like a gardener – he weaves stories and plants the seeds of ideas within them, and then allows those ideas to develop. He sort of lets the story go where it will. For him, writing is about the characters and their development. And, admittedly, Martin is ridiculously good at having characters go through believable progressions. Despite all the fantastical elements that the reader just knows aren’t true (the dragons, the magic, the very world), it feels like you are reading about real people. As an aspiring author, I can tell you that this is almost unfathomably difficult to pull off.

Tolkien, though, had a much different approach (at least, from what I can tell). I’m not a Tolkien scholar by any means, but I did grow up amidst the Lord of the Rings movie hullabaloo – and I have read the Silmarillion. Slogging through the dense narrative of that book and watching hours of DVD Special Features on the languages Tolkien created have left me with a distinct feeling that Tolkien was out to create a mythology. He wasn’t really about the story itself, per se. Rather, it seems to me that his main goal was to craft languages, cultures, and religions – and to do this in a writing style that mimicked the feel of ancient texts. It was supposed to feel like the reader found a piece of writing detailing the histories of Middle Earth. One of my friends (who is, by the way, a huge fan of both authors) recently made the claim that if Tolkien were alive today no publisher would take him on as a client. This is entirely possible. His works, while brilliant and amazing and highly deserving of the heaps of praise they’ve earned over the years, do not make for great stories. DISCLAIMER: I have not yet completely read through the LOtR trilogy (though I have read the Hobbit and the aforementioned Silmarillion). Don’t get me wrong: the history in Tolkien’s work is rich, deep, enjoyable, interesting, etc. etc. ad nauseam. But the characters are simply talked about by the narrator – they are not experienced by the reader in the same way that Martin’s characters are.

While the above paragraph will probably draw harsh criticism from Tolkien fans, the point I am making is: the authors could not be more different. I said earlier that few (if any) publishers would want to take on the task of publishing Tolkien if he submitted his work today. Martin, however, has achieved every writer’s dream. His seven-book series consistently tops the best-seller lists and has been picked up by HBO for television adaption. Indeed, the show is in its second season already and is making the big bucks. Why is that, though? Why do we all love Martin’s work so much?

Apart from the reasons I’ve already mentioned regarding Martin’s dedication to character development and story, I think the series is so successful because he’s a genuinely good author. He writes about fantasy in a way that is somehow believable and enjoyable. We build attachments to his characters, we become engrossed in the plotlines (the many, many, many interwoven plotlines), and we fall in love with the numerous cultures and religions of Westeros and beyond. The man can world-build like nobody’s business, and he does it through dialogue and not just dry description. We also love them because it is surprisingly difficult to predict the next plot-point. Not only is there a vast number of narrative lines told from the perspectives of multiple characters, but Martin does not always adhere to conventions. Just because someone seems to be a main character, and just because Martin’s spent a few thousand-page books developing that character, there is no guarantee that Martin is not going to kill the person off on the next page. And this makes the story more believable – but more importantly, it makes it exciting.

But let’s be honest: these works are not going to please everyone. I’ve talked with numerous people who have tried to read the books and have left off, disgusted. Set in a time period that somewhat mimics our own medieval days, Martin’s story does not pull any punches. Women have virtually no rights, they are consistently (and with detail) mistreated both physically and sexually, and the men pretty much use the women for their own entertainment. On the one hand, this is an example of Martin’s “going where the story wills” – he doesn’t make a character’s speech easier on the ears just because it is offensive. There is a substantial claim that Martin is just being true to the time period. On the other hand, the sex scenes (which to me are too detailed and could use a bit of cutting-away) often read like the fantasies of a dirty old man. Regardless of intent, it is creepy to be reading something and at the same time realizing that what you are reading is a rape or sex scene imagined by an old man in a basement. And while I don’t want to commit the fallacy of equating the narrative with the author’s views, the way the scenes are handled constitutes, to me, an odd voyeurism that sometimes leaves me feeling icky.

Another reason I’ve heard people give in defense of their dislike of the series is that the world is so big that the story moves very slowly. If this is your opinion, you are entitled to it and it is likely that nothing I say will change your mind. The pacing is sometimes slow, but there is always something important going on. Characters are developing, plot “seeds” are being sown, the world is being painstakingly built, the plot lines are converging, etc. Sometimes there is very little action, but that is fine by me. Those of us who like the series tend to be the kind of readers who want to know all the ins and outs of the story – we want to understand the political motivations of one faction or another, we want to learn about all these intriguing and novel cultures, we want to have our emotions tugged and pulled, and we want to grow attached to characters. The going might be slow, but the reader is always doing at least one of those things.

Finally, something that attracts me to the story (if “attracts” is really the correct word) is based on my own theology. As a Calvinist, I believe in something called Total Depravity. Without getting into too much detail, this doctrine essentially says that man is depraved in all parts of his being and incapable of good apart from the working of God. Even though we may do good things, this doctrine says, we do them for wrong reasons – reasons that bespeak a profound ugliness within our nature. So one of the things I really appreciate about this series is that Martin captures that. I don’t know Martin’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t think he was trying to provide an examination of Calvinist doctrine when he began writing his novels. But what is great is that each character in this book has his or her own set of serious flaws. Whether it’s oathbreaking, sexual immorality, murder, pride, or even just being a colossal asshole, Martin’s characters are – to the person – depraved. And this makes for a better, more believable story than just “here are some bad guys and here are some good guys… the good guys win.”

I say all that to say this: Martin’s series is phenomenal, but it is not something akin to Tolkien. The two might both have tried to take fantasy into the realms of adult literature, and both might also have two middle names that start with R, but the comparison really must end there. If you go into the Song of Ice and Fire series thinking it to be the American version of what Tolkien did, you will be sorely disappointed. Not because Martin is a worse author, but because he has his own unique brand of genius.

COMING NEXT WEEK: PART TWO (ON A GAME OF THRONES)

Book Review: Anathem

“Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” So begins Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. If the quote seems strange, that’s because it’s spoken by a man who has been cloistered behind monastery-like walls for a decade.  The kicker: this man is a scientist-philosopher – not a religious devout. In the world of Arbre, where the novel is set, history has led to the “Avout” – the scientist-philosophers – being cloistered inside communes while the outside world (called the Saeculum) waxes and wanes. This has lasted for thousands of years, despite several “Sacks” (or infiltrations) of the communes. I don’t want to give too much away here, since discovering the world for yourself is one of the most rewarding things about this book, but the novel centers around and is told by one such Avout who happens to be living at a very important time. The novel’s synopsis calls the time one of “cataclysmic change,” and the story certainly fulfills on that promise.

As has been my habit, I will list the problems I have with this novel first.

Okay, now I’ll list the things I like.

In all seriousness, though, Stephenson’s novel is, to me, incredible. I have read it twice, and after this review I really want to read it again. Elsewhere, I have noted that Stephenson has a tendency to be really long-winded. His descriptions can sometimes tax the reader, and I have listened to several people list this as a problem with Anathem. I won’t deny it. Stephenson sometimes spends entire pages or even several pages listing the dimensions and functions of architecture. But for me, this wasn’t that big of a deal. First off, the novel is on another world – so it stands to reason that I need to know exactly how certain things function to be able to fully appreciate the author’s vision. For example, the cloistered communes are all centered around a gigantic clock. This clock, which is based off of the real-life Millennium Clocks being envisioned by the Long Now Foundation, serves both as a way of keeping time and as a mechanism for opening the Concent’s doors at the appropriate times. This is both important to the novel and really cool, so I both need and want to understand how it works. However, I understand that some people can get so bogged down by Stephenson’s descriptions that they lose interest. It happened to me with Reamde. I just thought that this story was intriguing and unique enough to warrant that much depth.

And trust me, there is depth here. Stephenson has created the history of an entire world, dating back thousands of years. Not only does this apply to the Avouts’ history, but also to the histories and theologies and technologies of the Saeculum. Several religions are also thrown into the mix. And, since the story is told through the eyes of one of these Avout, Stephenson also creates little lessons in science and philosophy called “calcas” that explain the way that the Avout understand the world. I have heard this novel hailed as an ode to science, philosophy, math, and technology, and I think that’s perhaps the best description that can be given for it. But be assured that Stephenson is really adept at handling all of this depth. Always, the story moves along. Always, the characters are developing and learning new things about themselves and the world around them. So for me, it works.

I will say as a sort of caveat that there is a significant section in which the characters are traveling that I personally thought went on a little too long. But other than that, I think this novel is as close to perfect that one can get when reading a work of speculative fiction.

The closest thing that I can compare Anathem to is Frank Herbert’s Dune (Stephenson even had to include a Dune-style glossary in the back to list certain words). I haven’t yet read all the Dune books, but the first one has a lot of the same feel that Anathem has. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Boston Globe has called Anathem “a daring feat of speculative fiction.” I would not disagree.

OVERALL SCORE: 9/10