A List of Books I Read in 2018 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year and in 2016. The list includes all the books I read in 2018 and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this.

nonfiction

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  • The Universe in a Nutshell — (Stephen Hawking)
    • Engaging and interesting as always, Hawking unveils the inner workings of the universe on a level that even plebs like you and I can understand. With his passing in March of 2018, it just feels right to put him at the top of the list.

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  • To Lose the Madness: Field Notes on Trauma, Loss and Radical Authenticity — (L.M. Browning)
    • L.M. Browning published this little (and I mean little) book in the wake of devastating trauma and loss in her personal life. She has a lot of important things to say to someone in the same position, but much of it feels more like therapy on behalf of the author. That’s totally fine, but I don’t know that I would recommend reading it unless you are seeking a kindred spirit in your own personal grief.

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  • Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People — (Joan Roughgarden)
    • Easily my BOOK OF THE YEAR, this vitally important work was written by a transgender biologist who provides a clear, evidence-laden discussion of how gender operates in society and the animal kingdom. Not only is the book crucial for understanding gender and sexuality in the modern era, but it is unbelievably interesting. The animal kingdom is so incredibly diverse, and so are human cultures throughout history. Anyway, I did a whole powerpoint on this book for a friend’s party, so I could go on and on. Read it!

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  • God and the State — Mikhail Bakunin
    • The father of anarcho-syndicalism/libertarian-socialism, Bakunin can be thought of as the chief ideological opponent to the more government-oriented versions of “the Left.” This work lays out his philosophical and moral framework, and it is probably only interesting to those of us who are on the Left and feel like we should familiarize ourselves with foundational texts.

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  • Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice — (Rudolf Rocker)
    • I struggled with whether or not to make this one a recommendation. It is stuffy, has more of a history-feel than actual theory, and is surely only going to be read by Leftists. A primer on anarcho-syndicalism (which I have been told is the thing that most appropriately describes my personal political views), this book by Rocker goes through the timeline of the ideology as well as its notable implementations (primarily in Spain circa WWII).

bookofyear

  • The Book of the Year 2017 — (No Such Thing As a Fish Podcast Members)
    • More of a coffee table book, The Book of the Year 2017 was given to me on Christmas last year and I finished it… just after Christmas in 2018. The podcast on which it is based is a trivia podcast by the researchers behind hit British TV show QI (Quite Interesting), and the book reads with the same comedic/informative vibe. It’s fun, but at the end of the day it is only a coffee table book.

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  • Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down: The Official Behind-the-Scenes Companion — (Gina McIntyre)
    • Maybe I’m just recommending this because I got it for my wife for Christmas and then ended up devouring it before she read it. Or maybe because, even though I wasn’t all that into Stranger Things, this book still held my attention and captivated me with its look at design and writing choices. A little too self-congratulatory, the book nevertheless is a decent look at the strange story of this first major Netflix “blockbuster.” Also, sic on the double colons in the title.

fiction

mystery

  • theMystery.doc — (Matthew McIntosh)
    • I had high hopes when I saw this colossal monstrosity of a book. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to immerse myself in extra-long and experimental books, so theMystery.doc seemed right up my alley. Instead, I ended up with no clue what this book was trying to be. There’s a strange narrative in there of a man who wakes up one day and has no memory, and then learns that he is apparently an author working on the next big American novel. But it doesn’t connect in any discernible way to the random images, poems, or bits of dialogue that make up half the book’s pages. Just… strange and ultimately abortive.

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  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said — (Philip K. Dick)
    • The wiki on this book classifies it as “paranoid fiction,” and I’ve never heard a better term for a PKD book. Flow My Tears is vintage Philip K. Dick, featuring a dystopian police state in which a genetically engineered TV star wakes up one day and realizes that there is no evidence that he has ever existed. No one remembers him, his long-running show apparently never aired, and he is stuck as a nameless man in an oppressive society. Poignant, harrowing, sad, and prophetic, this book should be on the shelves of sci-fi nerds worldwide.

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  • Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier — (Mark Frost)
    • It seems I read a lot of books about films and shows this year. This one was a fascinating summarization of the events of David Lynch’s famous show Twin Peaks. I’d recommend it for anyone who enjoys the show and wants to test out their own theories.

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  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. — Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
    • A 2017 Christmas gift, this book was one of the first I read in 2018. It is a phenomenal collaboration between Galland and Stephenson. While I have not read Galland’s work before, and though I am an avid Stephenson fan, it is clear to me that Galland elevated his work to a new height. The story is about a covert government agency that is seeking to advance the interests of the United States through… magic. For those of you who are wary of Stephenson and his infamous difficulty with endings, you may take some solace knowing that I thought this one ends particularly well. It actually seemed like a logical and coherent conclusion.

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  • Ham on Rye — Charles Bukowski
    • My first Bukowski, this book is apparently autobiographical in nature. It is a study in growing up in the era of the Great Depression, and it is easy to see (if Bukowski’s own childhood was anything like that depicted in the book) why he ended up with the views and vices he had. This grim view of normal, everyday life represents somewhat of a departure from my usual fare, but it delivered tremendously.

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  • Universal Harvester — John Darnielle
    • Written by Darnielle of The Mountain Goats fame, this second novel of his follows a clerk in a small town video rental store (remember those?). When a few complaints are lodged that some of the tapes have unexplained footage spliced into them, the hunt for the culprit is on. Darnielle weaves haunting imagery throughout the novel, and he has no right to be as good at prose as he is. It is obvious that his background in music greatly influences his writing. With the exception of VanderMeer (elsewhere on this list), I rarely have read writing that sings quite like this does.

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  • The Emissary — Yoko Tawada
    • This astonishing novelette follows a young boy and his grandfather in Japan after a devastating tragedy has forced the nation to close its borders, isolate itself from the rest of the world, and tend to its children. The result of the tragedy is that kids are born with incredibly weak bones and terrible health problems, while the elderly seem to be immortal. Weird and absurd, the book won the 2018 National Book Award, and I cannot disagree. Tawada shows her mastery of imagery and description.

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  • Rendezvous with Rama — Arthur C. Clarke
    • Rendezvous with Rama is the story of a mysterious spaceship that comes into the solar system, apparently lifeless and with no discernible purpose. It is the story of the crew that visits the ship and slowly explores the mysteries inside. While it may be sacrilegious not to recommend an Arthur C. Clarke book, and while I did enjoy Rendezvous with Rama, the book ultimately is more about the quest than the answers and often comes off too cold and disinterested in what would be the most astounding moment in all of human history. I’m by no means trashing it, but it was not my favorite Clarke of the year.

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  • Childhood’s End — (Arthur C. Clarke)
    • Speaking of favorite Clarke of the year: here it is. Scratch that. This may be one of my favorite science fiction books of all time. The book is set in the future, when mysterious beings called Overlords visit earth and begin to shepherd the human race… but for what purpose? Wildly imaginative, expertly paced, and believably written, this book is a testament to why Clarke is often called The Prophet of the Space Age.

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  • It — (Stephen King)
    • My first foray into Stephen King in a long time, and my first of his novels, It was a stupendous surprise to me. Frankly, the quality of this novel made me upset at my college professors, who used to scoff at King as if commercial success meant he was a lower-tier author. The man can write his ass off. These characters are fleshed out to an incredible degree, the pacing is (mostly) perfect, and the tension builds to terrifying crescendoes. If you haven’t read this classic, you absolutely should. Though Evolution’s Rainbow claimed my BOOK OF THE YEAR, It probably claims my NOVEL OF THE YEAR designation.

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  • ‘Salem’s Lot — (Stephen King)
    • This was my Year of King, basically. I enjoyed this novel and King’s ability to craft interesting, real-seeming characters in an exceedingly creepy environment. Not as good as It, but still worth a read. If you like vampire books, that is.

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  • Pet Sematary — (Stephen King)
    • This was one of the more disturbing books I’ve read. As a father, I was exceptionally moved by this harrowing story of a man who learns of a secret burial ground that brings the buried back from the dead. Once again, King builds characters that we care about. That’s the secret to his success. There are plenty of horror writers with similar technical ability, but King is able to create characters that feel like real people. This means we get attached to them and share in their inevitable distress.

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  • Lord of Chaos: the Wheel of Time, Book 6 — (Robert Jordan)
    • I will finish this series, dammit. After stalling out for over a year, I returned to the unbelievably complex world of the Wheel of Time. I won’t spoil anything here, but it suffices to say that Lord of Chaos is aptly named. It’s a chaotic narrative with many moving parts and many important developments in the story of The Dragon Reborn.

familiarredwood

  • The Familiar, Vol. 5: Redwood — (Mark Z. Danielewski)
    • One of my favorite experimental authors, MZD continues his epic tale of a young girl named Xanther and her special cat. The only bad thing I can say about this series is that I was looking forward to reading Vol. 6 this year when I learned that the promised 27-book cycle has been put on hiatus. Perhaps it was inevitable with a series this long, but it was still a crushing blow and I hope Danielewski is able to get back to it soon.

finaldescent

  • The Monstrumologist, Book 4: The Final Descent — (Rick Yancey)
    • My wife introduced me to the Monstrumologist series a few years ago, and it is one of the best series out there. The books are framed as collected excerpts from an old man’s diary, gathered together by author Rick Yancey after the man (whose past is unknown) passed away at a nursing home. The notes reveal that the man was an apprentice to a Monstrumologist many, many years ago and was learning to study the monsters that exist all around us. A fascinating story coupled with beautiful and skillful writing, this series comes highly recommended. If you don’t trust my judgment, trust my wife’s!

mbfe

  • My Best Friend’s Exorcism — (Grady Hendrix)
    • My Best Friend’s Exorcism is an ode to ’80s horror films in book form. The story of a young girl whose friend, she believes, becomes possessed by a demon, the book clips along at such a good pace that I finished it in a day. Normally an ’80s love-letter would feel heavy-handed, and some of my friends said that they felt this way about MBFE, but I felt that the references to pop culture were organic and made in a way that made sense within the framework of the story. Check it out if you’re in the mood for quirky, teenage-drama horror with real emotional vibrancy.

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  • The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) — (Jeff VanderMeer)
    • The books on which the film Annihilation was roughly based, the Southern Reach trilogy tells the story of the mysterious Area X. 30 years ago, an undisclosed “event” warped the landscape there, and no amount of research teams has been able to figure out what is going on. We begin the story with “the biologist,” who enters Area X as part of the latest expedition. Jeff VanderMeer may be, frankly, the best author I read this year. His writing is absolutely astounding, almost prose poetry in some ways. Beautiful, cold, stark, the language tinkles across the page like shiny bits of broken glass, and it kept me reading at a record pace. Highly, highly, highly recommend this trilogy.

pen33

  • Pen 33 — (Roslund and Hellström)
    • Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. It is a crime novel from Sweden’s top crime novelist duo that centers around the most taboo crime in all of human society: child rape. The writers do not shy away from the details, and there is plenty of tragedy to go around in this book. At its core, the book is about society’s trust in the justice system and its willingness to abide by laws even when situations are not cut-and-dry. If you can stomach the gory details, I suggest checking this one out. It was the last book I read in 2018, so maybe this isn’t saying much, but I’m still thinking about it.

graphic novels

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  • SAGA, vol. 6 and 7 — (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • I’ve written about this series in both of the previous Books I Read lists, so I’ll spare you. It’s a brilliant story with stunning artwork and should be a must-read for comics aficionados.

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  • The INCAL — (Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius)
    • I recommend this one to fans of Jodo and Moebius, but not to others. While Moebius is a genius and Jodo has incredibly complex and interesting ideas, Jodo’s actual writing leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion. I still loved the graphic novel, which is about a futuristic society spanning galaxies and took many ideas from Jodorowsky’s failed bid to direct a film based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, but the story seems thrown together in some ways.

Alright, that’s it. That’s all the books I read this year… I think. It’s a bit of a slow down from last year, but I plan on getting back into the swing of things in 2019. I’d love to hear about the books you read this year as well, so let me know!

 

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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

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

Book Review: House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves is a work that defies explanation. It’s honestly difficult to even call this thing a “novel” in any literal sense. It elicits feeling and emotion so well, and its author’s word choice and usage are so perfect, that it often feels more like poetry. There is even a section in one of the appendices dedicated to poems written by one of the characters. And Danielewski plays around with color and text layout enough to qualify as artwork – not to mention the fact that the appendices also have things like collages and comic strips to supplement the main text. There is so much going on in MZD’s work that I tend to qualify the term “novel” with “experimental” whenever I recommend it to one of my friends, and then kind of grimace when they look at me like I’m some beret-wearing hipster. And if it’s this difficult to even pin down what the thing is, it’s going to be infinitely more difficult to review it.

the narrative lines

Let’s start with the narrative. While the book was written by Danielewski, it is meant to be read in a meta-fiction-ish sort of way. The final product, the reader is to believe, is a compilation by “the Editors” of various fragments written by one “Johnny Truant” – a wayward tattoo artist struggling with his life. However, many of these fragments were themselves compiled by Johnny after their original author (an old man named Zampanó) died. I will call these latter fragments Z-fragments, and the others J-fragments to designate the respective “authors.”

The Z-fragments tell the fictional (within the world of the novel) story of a photographer who moves into a new house only to discover that the house is slightly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The rest of the narrative in these fragments consists of this man becoming obsessed with the mathematical impossibility of his new home. To explore this impossibility he sets up cameras around his house and makes a documentary called “The Navidson Record,” and the narrative is told as a kind of academic examination of this documentary. Thus, the Z-fragments compose a long essay written by Zampanó about a documentary that doesn’t even really exist in the world of the novel. Sound confusing? It’s really not that difficult to grasp when you read it, but Danielewski’s intertwining of narratives is not yet finished.

The second set of fragments – the J-fragments – is written by Johnny Truant and tells the story of his coming across the Z-fragments and trying to compile them. Haunting and sort of surreal, these notes of Truant’s show his descent into madness as he tries to understand why an old blind man would spend his life as a recluse just to write an academic paper on a video which doesn’t exist. I don’t want to give too much away here, but basically the bulk of the text is comprised of the Z-fragments, with Truant adding his footnotes here and there.

On top of all this, there are appendices that have been added by  “the Editors” that are supposed to tell you more about the characters in the novel. So there are about three narrative lines going on at any one time.

the themes and the style

I’m trying to keep this review as short as possible, so bear with me as I talk about a scant few of the major themes of this novel. I’ll just hit the ones that seem to me to be the big ones. Perhaps the two major themes are mental illness and fear of the unknown. And to get these two across to the reader, Danielewski structures the novel in such a way that the actual layout of the text makes you feel isolated and confused. But this is not to say that the layout is bad. I was never really confused about the story itself while I was reading it. Rather, you can basically see the narrative dissolving and becoming difficult to navigate as Johnny Truant himself falls apart.

Other themes that Danielewski plays with include academia, fiction itself, movies and entertainment, addiction, depression, sexuality, and family life. I think the best way to sum up this work and its themes is to say that it is one of the few books I’ve read that made me feel it was about the proverbial “human condition.” It’s complicated and it’s convoluted, but so is reality. Part of the art of this thing – and why I hold this novel in such high regard – is that it is crafted so that the weirdness of it works. When the narrative is supposed to be about a labyrinth, the text itself is designed to make you flip back and forth between pages and even turn the book around on its side. Thus, the author meshes content and form into one thing, and achieves art.

the author

I am by no means an expert on all things Danielewski, but I have done some research on the man. And by research I mean I looked at his Wikipedia page. His sister is a musician, and she has written a song or two about the narrative of House of Leaves. Let me just say that this kind of interdisciplinary, cross-genre collaboration is, to me, beautiful and cool. One of the proponents of experimental fiction, Danielewski’s oeuvre is the very definition of avant-garde.

I’ve tried to read Danielewski’s other book (Only Revolutions), and I can’t say that my love of House of Leaves  was transmitted. I think one of the main things I like about House of Leaves is that it is artsy and experimental and weird and confusing – but there is still a story there. Danielewski’s other novel seems to go too far into the fragmented reality of postmodernism to really be able to tell you a story, and therefore seems like an art exercise more than a novel. So I’m not sure if I would recommend him as an author so much as I would simply recommend House of Leaves.

the verdict

Ultimately, I think House of Leaves achieves something that few other works have done before: it captures the philosophy of an era, it blends content with form, and it accurately depicts some of our worst fears as humans. While some have derided it for being too overdone, it still manages to tell an invigorating story and keep the reader’s attention. It did for me, and I hope it does for you in the event that you decide to read it. It isn’t an easy read, but it is incredibly rewarding.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10