Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dog Soldiers (by Robert Stone)

This novel, which won the National Book Award the year I was born, is about 1960s counterculture and about a drug deal gone bad. It goes from Vietnam to California, from a porn theater in San Francisco to a hippie commune in the mountains. The theme of the novel is pretty much "the sixties are over."

I wish the main characters were a shade more sympathetic--Converse is just right, I think, but Marge and Hicks are kind of horrible assholes from the get-go. I don't want them to be sympathetic, I just want Hicks to be a little less rapey and Marge to be a little less hardened. I don't know why. I guess because then there would be more of a sense of progress (or regress) from the beginning of the novel to the end.

Anyway, I can't really say this "captures" the 60s because I was, you know, not alive. But it captures a sense of cultural decay, the idea that the "counterculture" is architecting its own destruction. And it's mostly suspenseful and plot-driven--a good read.

"If he had been just a bit less timid in Vietnam, he thought, he might be honorably dead -- like those heroes who went everywhere on motorbikes and died of their own young energy and joie de vivre. Now it would be necessary to face death here -- where things were funnier -- and death would be as peculiar and stupid as everything else. (p. 121)


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ready Player One (by Ernest Cline)

This was my birthday book--I decided to take a break from the Time list and read something that would be purely fun, and wow was this a perfect choice. It's a novel set in the near future, when the consumption of fossil fuels has basically driven the world to chaos, and people escape reality into the OASIS, a totally immersive virtual reality that has basically replaced the Internet. But the founder of the OASIS has died, and left his fortune (bazillions of dollars) to whomever can solve a giant puzzle, basically made up of Gen X pop culture references and RPGs and classic arcade games. There are also cute shoutouts to the likes of Wil Wheaton (who incidentally reads the audiobook, which I am totally going to also listen to at some point) and John Scalzi.

This totally hit the sweet spot of my nerdiness and nostalgia, and was a complete page-turner to boot. I think it's being marketed as lit fic, but it's really YA fic. (The protagonist is in high school.) I think if people have the expectation of a slightly over-the-top YA novel as opposed to something with more depth like Snow Crash, they won't be disappointed. Because it does have some problems: some deus ex machinae, some fairly implausible coincidences, etc. (I'm not sure how I feel about the Japanese teenagers being portrayed as samurai, but the book does do a couple of interesting things with gender and race.)

Anyway, I finished it at lightning speed and really enjoyed it. If you're a Gen X nerd and you don't mind YA, give it a shot.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Military Philosophers: Book Nine of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

These books are each divided into quarters, and at the end of the first quarter I put a note in my Kindle: "boooooring." Yep. This one was boring. I wrote about Volume Eight after I'd started this one, and basically all my complaints are articulated there. You'd think the war volumes would be exciting, but I'm more excited to get back to the post-war years and see how things have changed.

Still some amazing writing, though. Such as this, when Nick runs into an old lover at the end of the book:

Like so many things that have actually taken place, the incident was now wholly unbelievable. How could this chic South American lady have shared with me embraces passionate and polymorphous as those depicted on the tapestry of Luxuria that we had discussed together? Had she really used those words, those very unexpected expressions, she was accustomed to cry out at the moment of achievement? Once I had thought life unthinkable without her. How could that have been, when she was now only just short of a perfect stranger?

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Friday, March 09, 2012

The Soldier’s Art: Book Eight of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

Reading the second volume about WWII, and now 20% of the way into the third one, I'm thinking some of this could have been condensed. Yet another new cast of characters is introduced, and yet the most enjoyable parts are those featuring old friends like Molly Jeavons, Widmerpool, or Stringham.

I love the sense of the toll war is taking and the fact that Powell isn't afraid to kill off some characters, but I the roman a clef aspects of this series mean that the narrator is actually not involved in any actual, exciting war. Powell is able to weave the war into the fabric of ordinary (or ordinary-ish life) in a way that seems new, but Nick is just a bureaucrat, who has yet to be involved in anything resembling an actual battle. I suppose this is a take on the wartime experience that is just as valid as the tales of heroism and battlefield exploits--honestly, I think it's just volume nine, which so far is just boring boring boring pointless bureaucracy and literally nothing but, that's seeping into this review.

"We paid the bill, went out into Regent Street. In the utter blackness, the tarts, strange luminous forms of nocturnal animal life, flickered the bulbs of their electric torches. From time to time one of them would play the light against her own face in self-advertisement, giving the effect of candles illuminating a holy picture in the shadows of a church."

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Truth about Forever (by Sarah Dessen)

I'd been curious about Dessen ever since she dominated the top 100 YA novels list, and I picked up the book that's widely considered her best, The Truth About Forever, at my beloved Powell's in Portland.

I think my expectations were too high. I didn't fall in love with it the way I fall in love with John Green's books. I found it difficult to lose myself in it. While I did enjoy the narrator (mostly), a lot of the minor characters felt forced and unbelievable. (Wes has one flaw and is basically perfection incarnate, Monica only says three words over and over again, etc.) I didn't mind that the narrator was flawed, but she seemed so weak. I guess that was her flaw, but I kind of wanted to shake her by the shoulders a lot.

I read this as a YA writer (or "writer," I know I am no Sarah Dessen) and could really see the work--the writing felt effortful. I was also amused at the awkward dialogue tags, which is something my writing group has dinged me for! It's the trick where you split up a thought, like so:

"You are not going to believe," she said, "what just went down out there."
"But," Delia said carefully, "You didn't, right?"
"He said," she said, "that his stupid asshole son..."

Yes, not only does it say "He said, she said" (where is the editor) but these examples ARE ALL ON THE SAME PAGE OF THE BOOK.

Anyway, I guess I don't get the Dessen infatuation. Everything felt contrived, in a weird way. I didn't love it.


Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Power and the Glory (by Graham Greene)

Beautifully written, highly symbolic, extremely grim. This is the story of a "whisky priest" in Mexico, at a time when Catholicism is illegal. If he's caught, he will be shot. And there's a lieutenant chasing him, and a bunch of other characters whose lives intersect with his.

This book reminded me a little bit of Flannery O'Conner, who explores Catholicism in her work in a similar way--through very flawed characters and without any simplistic answers. The ideas here are interesting, if you like thinking about religion. In a way it's a story of redemption, but a very anti-heroic type of redemption. I really enjoyed the Sparknotes on this book; they enhanced my understanding of the text, even when I didn't quite agree with all of their conclusions. (Here's one quote: "Many things are abandoned in this novel, and the words 'abandoned' or 'abandonment' crop up repeatedly... It is an important motif, because it implicitly raises the most important question, whether human beings have been abandoned by God and left to the cruelty of nature and each other.")

Ultimately, even though the world of the book is rather horrible and Bad Things Happen to Animals and Children, I appreciated it for its symbolic qualities and some beautiful writing. I also love the trope of the lawman who is pursuing someone out of this misguided sense of justice... the lieutenant and the whisky priest are basically Javert and Jean Valjean, without the catchy music.

"It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy--a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew." (p. 25)