Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Girl in Landscape

by Jonathan Lethem

I guess this is speculative fiction, since it isn't cataloged as science fiction. Future, space travel, extrasolar colonization, aliens... but somehow not sci-fi. The story doesn't have to be set on another planet, it could easily be re-worked as a western or in any kind of frontier/colonization situation. Except for that one thing, which I can't really tell you about.

In my experience, a lot of sci-fi and fantasy books are coming-of-age stories, whether it's a character growing up or a civilization maturing (or declining). There's a convergence in the liminal aspects of both the transformation narrative and the imaginative effort of writing or reading without reference to conventional reality. Girl in Landscape inhabits the same territory.

It's a fairly breezy read that I think would appeal to teens (the protagonist is a psychologically mature 13-year-old girl), but there's a barely contained complexity that keeps a multitude of themes and potential conclusions afloat. (I'm trying to think of an expressive image, but all I can come up with is a pillowcase full of kittens.) The ending is kind of abrupt, but I suppose it has to be, since it's also the collapse of all those possibilities into a single eventuality.

I don't want to get into the plot too much, but here's the set up: abandoned by both parents (one dead, one abdicated), Pella Marsh moves with her father and younger brothers to a very small human settlement on a planet whose inhabitants are strange remnants of a once-great culture that left their home and took to the stars; transplanted into this environment, she faces the tyranny and the disappointment of adults, while becoming one herself.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Architecture of Happiness

by Alain de Botton

This is, without a doubt, a Top 10 book. It's one of those books that make me want to be the author, or at least be smart enough and creative enough to write this book. It helps that I'm a total geek for architecture, but this book is very accessible for non-geeks too.

Architecture has elements of art and science, the proportion varying over time and place (and space), and that's kind of what this book is about: the many different ways, successfully and not so successfully, that architecture combines aesthetics and practicality, philosophy and physics, engineering and emotion — and, ultimately, the many different ways architecture reflects and shapes ourselves and our world, and our perceptions of ourselves and our world.

But that makes it sound terribly academic, or like a pompous art gallery artist's statement, or some dilettante spazzing about jazz, or some hideous combination of all three. And I swear it's not like that! It's so much more beautiful and subtle and grounded in everyday experience. Reading it is like meditating (but way less boring).

Last thing I want to say is, don't expect to read the whole thing through in large chunks. Each chapter is further broken down into a series of vignettes (for lack of a better word), which adds to the meditative quality and makes it an ideal bedtime or toilet book. I'm not necessarily recommending you read just one wee section at a time, but giving yourself some time to absorb and marinate smaller amounts will definitely enhance the experience of reading this book.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jesus Freaks: a true story of murder and madness on the evangelical edge

by Don Lattin

After I read this book, which I think was back in fall of 2007, I made a blog entry with just the title and author, thinking I'd get around to finishing it in a few days. Yeah, right. So here I am a year and a half later finally getting around to it. Knowing there's some kind of subtitle, I just did a quick keyword search, only to find that there are not one, not two, but three other books called Jesus Freaks. Subtitle indeed.

In this case, the word "freaks" refers not only to the fact that these people are really into Jesus, but also to the fact that the organization (sometimes known as Children of God, or Family of God) grew out of the hippies for Jesus movement dating back to the free-love, anti-war '60s counter culture — in other words, they're freaks because they're hippies, as in "freaking out the straights, man." (And that's "straights" as in straitlaced non-hippies, probably but not necessarily heterosexuals.)

So, the Family of God is basically a cult, complete with tyrannical leader, shady finances, questionable "religious" practices, brainwashing, the whole nine. Some female followers reportedly engaged in "fishing for Jesus," which was having sex for money or to convert, and there was something sort of like polygamy going on, for the leader at least. There also have been allegations of child molestation and/or incest. (The family of River and Joaquin Phoenix was apparently involved in the cult at one point; a friend told me she read in an interview that River Phoenix said he'd lost his virginity at age 4 with an adult woman.)

What about the murder, then? A boy who was born into the cult and raised as if he were going to inherit leadership of the cult (and at times treated like or portrayed as the new messiah) becomes disillusioned as a teenager and leaves the cult, but can't escape it's influence and winds up murdering the leader's second (third?) "wife" and then kills himself not long after. He may have been hoping to kill more people, but it's hard to tell for sure. Either way, it's a rather anti-climactic ending, for him at least.

Ultimately, it was an OK book, a little bit of a guilty, voyeuristic pleasure. Not quite tabloid levels of sensationalism, but definitely meant to be shocking. It seems well-researched enough, and there isn't any apparent reason to question the author's motivation, but it somehow falls just shy of proper journalism. I had a couple of friends at the time who were reading a lot of I-escaped-a-Mormon-cult books, and I recommended this to them. I've never read an Ann Rule book (she's the queen of true crime, if you didn't know), but I imagine they're a lot like this.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories

by Annie Proulx

When the movie Brokeback Mountain came out back in 2005, I remember hearing from somewhere that the original short story is quite different from the movie. Ever since, I'd been curious about it.

(For the record, I didn't like the movie that much the first time I saw it. I was just kinda "meh." I watched it again on DVD, cuz I have several friends who really-really-really liked it. After watching it a second time, I realize that part of the reason I didn't like it is that it's hard to understand what the characters are saying. Ennis especially is a mumbler, but Jack too. And I think the sound quality in general is just kinda poor. I did, however, like the movie more upon second watching — at home with the sound turned way up — and in fact it made me cry.)

So, fast-forward to late last week. I finally got around to reading the book. "Brokeback Mountain" happens to be the last story in the collection, and I wanted to read some of the others for the sake of context too. I didn't really like the first one... second one was better. Not bad, necessarily, but not my cup of tea. I got through most of the book, and warmed up a little to the western milieu, but finally decided to skip the last two before "Brokeback Mountain."

Turns out it's exactly like the movie — or vice versa, I suppose. There are several lines of dialogue in the movie exactly as they are in the book. And again it made me cry.

I wish I could remember how/where I got the impression that the story was supposed to be different from the movie. Makes me wonder if there wasn't some of kind of conservative smear campaign to convince people the movie was pro-gay Hollywood propaganda because stuff like that wouldn't/doesn't happen in the "real" wild west.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Countess Below Stairs

by Eva Ibbotson

I don't know if I've made any snide remarks about romance novels here in this blog, but I'm pretty sure I haven't fully and openly mocked them — at least, I hope I haven't, because I have a confession to make...

When I was in middle school, I used to sneak into my sister's room so I could borrow her Sweet Valley High books. I've read almost all of the Princess Diaries books (and there's a lot of them). I've read (and enjoyed) Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging (and two of its sequels); Meagan Meade's Guide to the McGowan Boys (and wished it had a sequel); I Capture the Castle (even though, or perhaps because I'd already seen the movie); and I especially loved Victoria and the Rogue, from the Avon True Teen Romance series. Romantic comedies are well-represented in my Netflix queue. (I've also read quite a few Victorian novels — Austen, various Brontes, Hardy, Eliot — many of which involve romance, but they have history on their side and aren't as embarrassing.)

So imagine my (sort of secret, barely concealed) joy when I came upon this book, in which a young Russian countess flees the revolution and, having been forced to abandon all her wealth and possessions, finds work as a lowly chambermaid on an English estate... I shouldn't have to add that, of course, the estate's dashing young master returns from abroad and discovers a stunningly beautiful and shockingly well-educated young woman has joined his staff.... (Now that I've written staff I really must let you finish the thought yourself.)

Actually, everyone is quite chaste, moonlit skinny-dipping (and accidental skinny-watching) notwithstanding. All in all I really liked this book, for what it is. It isn't spectacular in any way, but it's a very good example of the genre, and, to it's credit, the plot owes more to the likes of Austen than to the more modern Harlequin formula.

Monday, April 13, 2009


by Karin Lowachee

The first book in this sort-of-series is Warchild, which I wrote about here. It's not exactly a series, because the stories aren't sequential; instead they're the same basic story told from the points of view of three different characters (another echo of Orson Scott Card's "Enderverse"). I don't know why I didn't just check the publication dates, but I somehow managed to read them out of order. It didn't really matter for these two, but reading either of these before Warchild would have ruined that book's ending, so I'm glad I at least got that part right.

These books are definitely of the military sci-fi subgenre, but there's also the heavy focus on character and emotion typical of the soft/social sci-fi subgenre. Each of the main characters experiences physical and psychological trauma, and ultimately finds the inner strength to endure, first, and then to free themselves from their pasts. The way the protagonists evolve sort of reminded me of some of Octavia Butler's heroines, too.

All three characters are young men, ranging in age from 14 to 20 during the main action of the books, with some flashbacks or introductory parts about their earlier childhoods. (At my library, they're classified as young adult books, but I've seen them catalogued as regular SF on other libraries' websites.) Partly as a function of their ages, and also because of a major plot element — war, piracy, kidnapping, forced prostitution — sexual themes arise. It's mostly innuendo of the gay-vague and gay-chicken* variety; only Cagebird has actual gay characters and actual sex happening, which is slightly more explicit than a romance novel but far from the language of erotica.

*Not to be confused with the older gay slang "chicken," referring to a very young gay boy/man usually in the context of a relationship with an older gay man, "gay chicken" is when (supposedly) straight guys say and/or do "gay" things to each other, turning up the intensity and pushing boundaries until one of them "chickens" out. It's related to frat-boy/athlete/military sexual bravado and gay-baiting, and it depends on the paradox that the more secure you are in your masculinity, the farther you can push the gay boundary. In these books, there's also an implied feeling that there's much less social stigma attached to being gay and that gender and sexuality categories are... not exactly fluid, but maybe more mix-and-match.

Final analysis: the action and intrigue of Ender's Game or a Heinliein book, with the added attraction of teen angst and sexiness. I loved this series, and I'd recommend it to teens and adults alike. I'm very sad that my library no longer has Warchild and is down to one copy each of Burndive and Cagebird. I'm even considering putting them in my Top 10.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Altruism Equation: seven scientists search for the origins of goodness

by Lee Alan Dugatkin

I enjoy science books, and one of my particular science interests is evolution; I'm also a cynic, and I don't really believe in (philosophical or pure) altruism. Evolutionary biology has catalogued plenty of examples of behavior that appears altruistic, at least when one considers animals as individuals, but the altruism often vanishes when the behavior is framed in social or genetic terms. I pretty much take it for granted, but not everyone — scientists included — agrees with the major tenets of Richard Dawkins' argument in his book The Selfish Gene.

All that is just a long way of saying I was very interested to read this book, which explores the historical and contemporary scientific discourse on altruistic, or apparently altruistic behavior. The approach taken is to examine the lives and studies of seven researchers, with the intention, I presume, to make the scientific story more compelling by adding more of a plot (so-called literary nonfiction being all the rage the last couple of years). Unfortunately, it doesn't quite make the grade. It's quite dry and, well, science-y. OK for the academically inclined, or those actually doing school work, but not so great for the dabbler.

And since we're on the subject, I did once upon a time read some of The Selfish Gene. I was supposed to read it over the summer between high school and college, because my college had stuck me in its honors program, and they were making all the honors students read the book and attend a lecture/Q&A with Dawkins himself. Looking back, I squandered the opportunity, but back then my scientific interests hadn't matured — plus, what kind of hopeless nerd wants to read a science book the summer after graduating high school?! I remembering feeling as if I mostly understood most of what I read in the book, but I didn't really have the context to understand why the ideas were controversial or paradigm-changing. (Shortest possible version: genes want to reproduce themselves, and every other biological apparatus — from viral coats to eukaryotic cells, to simple multicellular organisms, all the way to complex organisms such as humans and bees and sequoias — has evolved in order to further that goal of reproducing genes, rather than reproducing the organism itself; in other words, people don't really have babies to make more people, they have babies because the genes inside people make more genes by making people want to have babies.) Also, as I said in my review of another Dawkins book (here), he's not the greatest writer.

Blue Pills: a positive love story

by Frederick Peeters

As much as this book is deserving of a dignified review, I won't be able to go on until I say this: "Peter" and "Peters" are funny enough, but the extra E in this author's name is just icing on the cake!

Now. Ahem. This is another straggler, one I read a long time ago and I'm just now catching up. It's probably one of, if not the first proper Graphic Novels — emphasis on the "novel" — I ever read. It's a comics memoir about the author's relationship with an HIV-positive partner. The description I initially read did not specify genders, so I suppose I must have been thinking or hoping it was about gay guys. Turns out he dated an HIV-positive woman, who had a son who also is poz.

It's a good book, but I don't remember being amazed by it or anything. It's certainly interesting — especially if you've ever been in, or have the potential to be in a sero-discordant couple — and it's not a huge time commitment either. Would definitely add something to a sex-ed lesson about HIV/AIDS, and I don't recall anything that would make it inappropriate for teens.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

On Truth
On Bullshit

by Harry G. Frankfurt

These two tiny books are precious gems of practical philosophy. They're basically extended ruminations on the natures of their subjects — truth and bullshit, respectively — with an eye to how an understanding of either can be useful in navigating our lives, making judgments and decisions, negotiating relationships, analyzing and evaluating knowledge about how things are in the world*.

What good is truth? Why care about it? How do useful instances of truth (known facts) differ from the abstract idea of truth? How does bullshit (obfuscation and/or meaningless jibber-jabber) differ from an outright lie? What do they have in common? How does all this affect our quest for the reliable information we need to get through day-to-day life?

The author is a professor emeritus at Princeton University. I kind of want to buy these books, partly because they're so tiny and cute, but also because they're the kind of books you can re-read at different points in life and learn new things every time.

*I say "how things are in the world" instead of lower-case "reality" to avoid confusion with Reality, which can be made subject to hair-splitting, ennervating, and/or fatuous metaphysical speculations. I'm just talking about the reliable, easily agreed upon physical world.

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman


I'd really like to just leave it at that, but duty (hee-hee) compels me to let you know that this book just won the Newberry, pretty much the ultimate award for children's literature. Personally, I think it should be a young adult book, first of all; second, if not for Gaiman's already creepy oeuvre, I'd accuse the author of trying to cash in on the trendiness of all things occult by cramming as many stock spectres as possible into one book. It's not that it's bad, it's just... maybe the problem is that I went to see the movie Coraline in the middle of reading this book, and I was reminded how much more original Coraline is. Also, it should be noted that recent Newberry winners have been books that adults think have literary merit but that aren't necessarily popular with kids, and this, apparently, is what they've come up with in reaction to that criticism.