Friday, August 20, 2010

What book did I just finish? It's a mystery.

It appears that I'm not very good at this here "blogging" thing. No posts since June? and only 10 over 8 months? Blah! Given that I reserve my blogs for book reviews so the existence of a blog is predicated on my finishing a book; and for a while that didn't happen because I kept picking up super boring books. But I've actually finished a couple of books in the last month or so and not reviewed them at all. Now what were they?

The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

This is another one of those instances where somebody recommends I read something and I end up enjoying it very much (see The Shadow of the Wind). This recommendation took some convincing, not because I was hesitant about Chandler (I had not even heard of him previously) but because I was hesitant about the source of the recommendation. We have quite different tastes in literature, though apparently there is some crossover.

Some background on Chandler for those who don't know of him. He, along with Dashiell Hammett, perfected the genre of Noir fiction or hardboiled private detective stories. You've heard of film noir? The Maltese Falcon? Good. So now you know what we're dealing with here. Hopefully.

I'm actually hesitant about providing plot summaries; first because I'm talking about two separate novels, and second because they are so dang intricate that it's hard to know what details to include and what not to include without ruining the mystery. Well, I'll be brief and vague (two things I'm quite good at).

Our main character is Philip Marlowe, a tough private detective who is obviously not in it for the money, because there isn't any. Sometimes he's actually hired for a case, sometimes he just starts investigating out of sheer curiosity, sometimes he's literally pulled into a case against his will. Regardless of the situation Marlowe remains cool and collected, almost detached. Chandler achieves this attitude by telling the story from Marlowe's point of view and through a superb use of understatement.

Seriously, you should go find some Chandler novels and read them. If nothing else read them for Chandler's beautiful prose style. After reading his first novel he immediately catapulted into the ranks of Charles Dickens and Douglas Adams as my favorite stylists, and I actually detect some Chandlerian influence in Adams' Dirk Gently novels. Anyways, go read some. Now!

Oh and sorry for the terrible pun in the title.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A nice typical science fiction story

Sundiver by David Brin

After some disappointments interspersed with some extreme mind-stretchers it was quite a relief to actually read a very typical science fiction novel. I was hesitant since I had just finished The Postman and was rather annoyed with Brin's writing style. However, Sundiver is quite a bit different. Fewer jumps in continuity, less sexist dialogue between male and female characters, more intrigue.

Sundiver is the first novel set in the "Uplift" universe. Humans have made contact with extraterrestrials and have discovered that the social structure of the galactic races is based on who assisted which race in evolving into sentient beings. The humans are uniquely out of place as they appear to have evolved on their own. In fact, the only reason they are accepted into the extremely conservative society of the universe is because humans have assisted dolphins and chimpanzees evolve into sentient beings. This is the background of the story.

Our troubled-past main character, Jacob Demwa, is recruited to assist in a risky expedition to the sun. The expedition has already been running for some time but Demwa and a couple others are brought in because of the strange phenomena occurring. It turns out there are some fairly distinctly sentient lifeforms living in the chromosphere of the sun. The Galactic library, which contains every piece of recorded knowledge from every single race that has ever existed, has no record of these beings. Intriguing, yes? So is the fact that somebody is apparently out to cover up this fact and sabotage the whole program. That's where Demwa comes in. I guess he's an investigator or something. Who knows, he doesn't really have any special skills or knowledge that the reader knows of, so really any character could have done what he did.

Other than Demwa's rather uninteresting character, the story is quite good. The first part of the book is, unfortunately, much better than the last. The only reason this is bad is because you reach a very nice and tidy conclusion only to find out you were wrong, but instead of repeating the same formula that got him to that point Brin decides to try something different and adds in some boring romance between Demwa and the captain and drags out the final conflict over several chapters. Or maybe it just seemed like several chapters. Either way, it's a strike against the style in my opinion.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Did I seriously just read a modern novel and enjoy it?

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Translated by Lucia Graves

A better question might be Did I seriously just post two blogs in a row? Okay, maybe that's not a better question. Back to the book.

The setting is Barcelona in post-civil war Spain. I'm already in way above my head. Coming into this book I knew next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War and despite Mrs. Lungwitz's best efforts in 3rd grade, next to nothing about Barcelona or even Spain. It's still an enjoyable book to read.

Daniel is a young boy who lives with his father, a used bookseller. At the beginning of the story Daniel discovers a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax and immediately falls in love with it. He wants to read more of Carax's novels so he begins searching. Despite his access to a knowledgeable network of booksellers, Daniel fails to find any more novels; in fact, many people haven't even heard of Carax. Thus begins the mystery.

Daniel sets out to find more details on Carax's life, his works, and what ultimately happened to him. This includes questions like: Why did Carax leave Barcelona without a trace in the '20s? What happened to Carax after he returned in the '40s? Who is burning all available copies of Carax's novels? Why is Nuria Monfort lying about how much she knows? Why is the police inspector obsessed with Daniel's findings? Who is posing as a mysterious character from Carax's novel?

This mystery is what drives the novel and I must say, drives it very well. In the midst of his searching Daniel continues to live his life but soon notices eerie parallels between his life and Julian Carax's. Parallels with ultimately disastrous ends. Dun dun dun!

Okay, seriously, this is a good book. Very well written/translated. As with any mystery though, you can't give away too many details. If you've read anything about this book you might notice that I didn't mention anything about The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Every review I've read makes a big deal out of this first chapter. It is a cool concept but honestly as far as plot development, very minor. In fact, it almost seems like the author took a completely different route than the Cemetery chapter foreshadowed, so in my mind it is not really worth mentioning.

How many postal puns can I fit into this review?

The Postman by David Brin

The answer to the title question is: a lot. For the sake of retaining readers I will refrain from making too many.

So The Postman is about this guy named Gordon who is struggling to survive in post-apocalyptic America. Apparently this is something that is quite difficult to do. We first find Gordon struggling in the mountains of Oregon fighting off a group of bandits. Well, maybe fighting off isn't a good term, perhaps running away from? Yes that works much better. As you can see Gordon is not your typical heroic character. He is an ordinary guy just trying to survive and hoping to find somewhere in the United States where some form of order remains intact instead of the isolated settlements struggling to survive and the roving bands of pillagers that are so common back east.

In his flight from the bandits Gordon discovers an abandoned postal jeep. One thing leads to another and Gordon finds himself posing as a Postal Inspector for the Restored United States Government; all of which he totally made up himself in order to not be killed by some paranoid villagers. Soon Gordon is traveling from town to town bringing letters and setting up post offices all the time struggling with the knowledge of the facade and his longing to find somebody who is restoring order.

Do you see where this is going? Yeah, so did I about 4 chapters in. Gordon on the other hand doesn't figure out that he is that order-restoring somebody until the end of the book. Actually, not even then. He's kind of an idiot, really.

Basically, in my opinion, The Postman fails to deliver (okay, sorry, but honestly Brin used a postal pun in a horribly inappropriate situation so really, this isn't as bad). It seemed like the whole driving force of the book would be Gordon's realization that even though he was lying to all these citizens about a restored government, he was helping to create one himself through the hope that he was providing. Unfortunately, that doesn't sink in. Instead there's some action sequences, fighting, romance, strangely misplaced chauvinism, and more self-doubting than you can handle with a 10-gallon bucket. Through it all Gordon spreads hope and reopens communication lines creating a small pocket of civilization in Oregon without ever realizing the impact he is having.

Only one line on the second to last page even hints at this getting through to Gordon. I'd quote it but I already returned the book to the library. It was something about people believing in their myths so much that they eventually make them true. It was the best line in the book, which, from a stylistic viewpoint, wouldn't have taken much.

I've started reading another Brin novel since I finished this one otherwise I would dismiss him as a scientist posing rather poorly as a writer. Now that I have some more perspective though I think The Postman just wasn't his best stuff, despite the various awards it won. Honestly, I don't understand that aspect.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This is the way to read Ayn Rand

Anthem by Ayn Rand

So I had heard of Ayn Rand before and I had heard that her novels were very philosophical and perhaps life-changing? I was hesitant to say the least. Then I saw the length of her two most famous novels. I decided that perhaps Ayn Rand wasn't for me. Then I read a summary of some of her philosophies. That confirmed it.

And yet when I came across this particular book I took a second glance at it and was curious enough to read the dust jacket. It sounded interesting enough and happened to be short enough (less than 90 pages) so I decided to read it that day.

The setting is your typical dystopia. An indeterminate future time where individuality is not only suppressed, it is downright illegal. To enhance this idea the entire novel is written in first-person plural. The main character refers to himself as "we" and to other characters as "they". The main character is torn between his scientific curiosity and the ingrained idea that individuality is a sin. The two come to a head when he discovers an ancient tunnel from the "before times" that no one is allowed to talk about.

This story has all your typical dystopian traits. Future world, individual thinker against a group mindset, love as an expression of individuality. The thing that bugs me is that Rand's anti-individualist future resembles the dark ages. Rejecting science is apparently the way to get everyone thinking the same way? Whatever. Also, how the heck does this guy survive once he breaks free of the repressive society? He'll have to learn to hunt, to fashion weapons, to grow food...none of which he has any training in or knowledge of. He was friggin' street sweeper after all. He can sweep and pick up litter, but plowing and knowing when to sow? I remain unconvinced that he survived his rediscovery of individualism.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Science fiction without science

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This is a straight-up love story about a man and a woman (Henry and Claire) who just happen to first meet each other at different points in their lives. This is because Henry has a genetic mutation that causes him to time travel. So Claire ends up first meeting Henry when she is about 6 and Henry is time traveling from his mid-30s. Henry first meets Claire when she chances to visit the library that he works at, while he's not time traveling. Are you confused yet? The rest of the story describes how Henry and Claire attempt to maintain their relationship through not only the uncertainties of regular life but the added complications of Henry's time traveling, which happens involuntarily and with little advance warning.

If you are easily confused by time travel and causality paradoxes then you probably shouldn't read this book. Although the author provides useful dates, ages of the leading characters in the current scene, and indicates which narrator is speaking it might be easier to follow along if you create your own timeline of the two characters' lives.

The reason I call this science fiction without the science is because there is no science. Well, okay, maybe a tiny, minuscule, vague hint at science in one chapter when Henry visits the geneticist. That's it. Henry's time travel has nothing to do with levers, gears, complex chemical reactions, etc. It just happens. The only common denominator is Henry's stress level, which is consistently very high, especially for someone who works in a library. Maybe if he didn't time travel so much he'd have less stress...but wait, that's what causes him to time travel...oh noes!

So yeah, there's a few paradoxes that crop up because Henry invariably visits times and places and people that he knows in the past or will know in the future. Henry states that actions in the past or the future have already happened bringing up loads of questions about free will. In my mind it doesn't necessarily negate free will, people remain free to choose their actions, Henry just happens to already know their choice. The paradox then comes when he shares his future knowledge with people. You're left with a situation where that person made a particular choice because of what Henry told them but what Henry told them was based on the fact that they had already made that particular choice. Okay, now you're confused.

In summary, Niffenegger wrote about 150 more pages than was really necessary. She wrote excellent foreshadowing but because of Henry's statement of causality early on, the last part of the book becomes fairly predictable. I wouldn't classify this as science fiction as other people have but nevertheless it is a pretty good story.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Utopian novels are for optimists

Looking Backward, 2000-1887

So I read this classic utopian novel by Edward Bellamy because it's considered a classic and I tend to enjoy stories set in the future. Silly me for thinking this book would contain a story. Basically, Bellamy used a tiny fragment of a plot idea as an excuse to publish a treatise on how to fix the societal ills of the 19th century.

An upper class socialite of 19th century Boston falls into a hypnotic trance and sleeps for 123 years at which point a 21st century doctor discovers and revives him. Our hero is then taken on a tour and introduced to all the ways in which the future society had fixed all the problems of the past, without strife or fighting as a matter of fact.

This is where Bellamy's imagination runs rampant. Seriously? You're telling me that the owners of large corporations would voluntarily step down just because they recognized that it was for the greater good? People are naturally self-centered and as nice as his ideas sound, Bellamy does not appear to realize that the problems he was trying to fix were caused by selfishness and greed which cannot be wiped out without opposition.

And this is why I've decided not to read anymore utopian novels. I'm too much of a pessimist when it comes to human nature and thus I don't believe that all of the societal repairs found in utopian novels are realistically possible. In order to implement some of these ideas there would need to be force, and where there is force there is resistance. Then you're getting into dystopian civilizations like those of 1984 or A Brave New World, and for some reason the worlds described in those and similar stories seem much more real and much more possible to me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

12 Monkeys, or Bruce Willis' naked butt.

12 Monkeys directed by Terry Gilliam

Okay, so Bruce's butt does not play that prominent of a role in this movie but it was featured in about 5 more scenes than I tend to prefer. If you do the math that may end up as a negative number but I feel that this accurately portrays my feelings about seeing pasty white Bruce Willis butts on my television screen.

Enough about butts. There also happened to be a movie going on. So this starts out in one of your post-apocalyptic futures where everybody bemoans the way life used to be. Why do so many stories contain this element? Perhaps it is a jab at current society, telling us to stop complaining and enjoy the life that we have. Anyways, so Willis' character, James Cole, is sent back in time to procure a pure sample of a virus that will eventually wipe out humanity. He doesn't need to prevent the plague, it seems to be accepted as an inevitable fact, he just needs to find the virus before it mutates beyond control so that the future scientists can create a cure.

This film explores some interesting ideas, some common to time travel stories and others not so common but inherently tied into time travel. One unique idea, at least an idea that I hadn't encountered much, is the effect of time travel on a person's mental functioning. When first sent back in time Cole is arrested and placed in a mental institution because everything that he says sounds crazy. Matched against the disturbingly realistic insanity portrayed by Brad Pitt, Cole and even the audience start to doubt the validity of this whole traveling from the future story. At one point Cole is even convinced that he's imagining the future that he thinks he's from and admits that he's just plain crazy.

Another idea is the question of causality. Just about every time travel story out there treats this in a different way. Probably because causality can only be studied in the past. Gilliam (or the writers) take causality and really try to blow the viewer's mind attempting to understand the movie in a standard, linear-time point of view. Let me just say this...they succeed. I spent the rest of the night trying to wrap my head around the causes and effects presented in this movie and I started to get dizzy. And this is the kind of movie that I enjoy for some reason.

Anyways, if you watch this movie, make sure that you're holding onto something secure, or that you're wearing a hat because we don't want you crashing or your brains exploding everywhere and making a mess.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another film from the 50s

North by Northwest directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

So being a Hitchcock film, this is a very famous picture and well-known scenes have been parodied in many different media. I'm a big fan of parodies but what makes a parody funny is recognizing the original material. So to that end, I decided to watch this film.

The great thing about North by Northwest is that it is genuinely a good movie. It's not one of those films that you should watch just so you can understood jokes referencing it (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey). North by Northwest has an intriguing plot, snappy dialogue, and non-annoying characters. It also has your typical obviously-fake inside-a-car scenes, but given the filming technology of the time we'll let that slide.

So basically, Cary Grant stars as New York City advertising agent, Roger Thornhill. This is starting to sound extremely boring. Luckily he's mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan, kidnapped to a country chateau and subsequently liquored up and placed in a stolen car rolling towards some ocean cliffs. Luckily, Thornhill sees his peril, corrects the car and subsequently proves that you can drink and drive.

After being arrested and held in jail overnight the police begin investigating and this is where the plot becomes intriguing. Thornhill can't find anything to corroborate his story; even his own mother doesn't believe him, which doesn't seem to surprise him. He must be a terrible advertising agent because his kidnappers don't believe he's not Kaplan and the police don't believe he's not a drunken liar. Thornhill wants to find out who the real Kaplan is and in his investigation he is framed for murder and chased onto a train where he makes numerous (and thinly veiled) sexual innuendos with Eva Marie Saint on the way to Chicago.

If I were to remake this movie the only thing I would change would be a scene early on in the movie. In it, an unintroduced group of people are discussing Thornhill's actions around a table. Basically, this scene explains too much, while isn't necessarily bad but in this case it takes away a lot of the intrigue from the rest of the movie. The plot is still good but without that scene, the audience would be much more engrossed in the mystery and all the more surprised as facts are revealed.

Monday, March 8, 2010

12 Angry Men (or holy crap 1957 was a long time ago!)

12 Angry Men directed by Sidney Lumet

Anytime that anyone has mentioned this movie to me it has been in the context of praise. After finally watching it for myself, I see what they mean. It is quite the compelling story.

Strangely enough, the first thing I noticed was the stark contrast in eras. Sure it was only made back in 1957; that wasn't that long ago right? My parents were both alive at that time. They had television and cars and baseball. It wasn't that different, right?

I think the 60s changed the landscape of American culture more drastically than those of us from younger generations fully realized. Think about it. Back then segregation was still an accepted way of life. The USSR was not only still a country but also a legitimate superpower. Humans had not been in outer space. Routine dress for men was a suit, tie, and hat. New York still had 3 baseball teams.

But there they are, 12 men representing the common people of the day and one of the first things I noticed is that they're all dressed the same. Under their suit coats (which all but one had a dark color) they all wore a white shirt and tie.

Now, I digress. I was going to talk about 12 Angry Men, or should I say 11 angry men because honestly, Henry Fonda's character never really seems to get angry. Nearly the entire movie is shot inside one room as a jury deliberates their verdict. In the preliminary vote Fonda is the only one who votes not guilty. The rest of the movie is spent in argument and discussion as the various characters reason their way through the evidence and their own opinions. I'm not sure how else to describe it. It's really just one of those movie you have to watch.

Fonda's character exemplifies the lesson that I took from this movie. He's even-tempered and doesn't rush to judgment. He's seen the evidence of the trial, he knows that the law states "beyond a reasonable doubt" and he has doubts. He's open-minded, yet unconvinced. I like to think that I could be described in the same way. Perhaps that explains why I liked the movie? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to discuss it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hiatus and Sherlock Holmes

Okay, so a lot has happened in the last 7 months, mainly not on this blog. Although I did have 3 months off of work a while back seemingly providing plenty of time to watch movies, read books, and blog about them I obviously failed to do so. The major reason is that it is much easier to play SimCity while holding a baby than it is to type. However, I did fit some reading around diapers, naps, and feedings: Dickens (I think Dombey and Son) and Conan Doyle. Of course, the Conan Doyle would be the Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He did write other stories (e.g. The Lost World) but is best known for his eccentric, genius detective.

Surprisingly enough this was my first time reading any of the Sherlock Holmes stories and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Conan Doyle’s style is not always the strongest, perhaps because after a while he was only writing Holmes stories because of the popularity and demand from the public. As with any tale of mystery the strongest stories are the most intriguing and least guessable. Being removed by nearly a century or more and in an age where popular TV shows have run the gamut of Perry Mason, Matlock, Colombo, NCIS, and the various CSIs I was quite surprised at how many mysteries I was unable to guess before Holmes and Watson figured it all out. I can only imagine the impact that the Holmes stories had on the audiences of the late Victorian era.

Sometimes it seems that Holmes just happens to be privy to obscure knowledge that is coincidentally needed in that particular mystery or that is assertions are almost absurdly accurate without actually being based on known facts. Usually it does turn out that Holmes was aware of details that were conveniently withheld from the reader (though not nearly to the extent of the mystery series of 90s television). Often the details are presented but are obscure or disconnected enough to not lead to an easily identified solution. Quite the feat for any time period.