I have a neverending list of books to read. Some have been recommended to me, others I’m just curious about. Here are quick impressions of some recent reads.
Forever Peace, by Joe Haldeman
I was pretty excited about the concept of this one. “A science-fiction novel about remote-controlled warfare published in 1997? How prescient!” I squealed, drawing glares from the librarians. I already liked Haldeman for his plainspoken yet imaginative The Forever War – a wistful Vietnam memoir dressed as a time-traveling alien-battling space adventure, so Forever Peace seemed like a good bet
I gave Peace a chance, and it did not deliver the goods. However, it wasn’t a total waste. There is a measure of wartime action detailing the frightening capabilities of the remote-controlled “soldierboys” that are ostensibly the moral hazard at the book’s center. The sheer impunity of their kinetic actions conjure up the unforgiving brutality of asymmetric war. Balancing this is an exploration of the psychological ramifications of such actions on the controllers. Haldeman sets up an interesting conceit in which the platoon of 10 soldierboy operators must work in a state of total empathy using “jacks” installed on the backs of their heads (BEFORE The Matrix – how prescient!).
However, these war themes are mostly pushed aside in the back half of the book for a save-the-world-from-doomsday scenario involving a big science project and a religious cult. It feels like a forced march through the stakes-raising and cliff-hanging motions of a trad science-fiction adventure plot. There are secret agents, powerful mole generals, sexy assassins, mind melds, and so forth. The characters just aren’t very deeply characterized, and the narration bounces pointlessly between first-person and third person. There are some neat world-building details, but they are mostly irrelevant. By the end of the book, I was just waiting for our heroes to save the world so I could go read something else.
Forever Peace went on to win the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1998.
Not highly recommended
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
I saw the movie version of A Scanner Darkly in theaters, but didn’t really know what was going on. As it turns out, the movie was faithful – the book just doesn’t make any sense!
But not making sense is A Scanner Darkly’s greatest strength. Following the drug addled lives of a number of California no-accounts, Scanner is a fascinating and often saddening look into the strange and pointless lives of the drug addicted and mentally ill. The story revolves around “Substance D” or “Death”, a highly addictive drug that eventually causes something resembling paranoid schizophrenia in its users. The main character, Bob Arctor, narcs anonymously for an anti-drug police unit (using the identity-hiding scramble suit, another brilliant Philip K. Dick invention). He is also a heavy user of Substance D. When Arctor is assigned to perform surveillance on himself, hijinks ensue – and by hijinks I mean total identity dissociation!
The richest vein in the book is seeing where all the time goes. Watching these addicts pass their days with tedious errands, abandoned projects, empty philosophizing and hopeless daydreaming is spellbinding in a bleak way. One of the characters, Charles Freck, is already losing it when the story begins, fighting a hopeless war with the “aphids” that have invaded his every waking moment. The motor-mouthed, pseudo-intellectual, know-it-all, manipulative sociopathic sleazebag James Barris is a character for the ages.
Apparently the book was based on Dick’s own experiences. There is a long and painful afterword that names the many, many friends Dick lost to drug addiction. I’m not usually a partisan of the “write what you know” orthodoxy, but it’s clear that Dick’s being there adds something very special to the novel. There are some science fiction elements, but mostly Dick is writing from the heart – a long and strange group eulogy – and the result has much more impact than many of his purely speculative works.
Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon
Gravity’s Rainbow changed the way I think about fiction. Still feeling the glow from that book, I decided to take on another of Pynchon’s gargantuan tales. Mason & Dixon builds a sprawling saga around Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the men who charted the Mason-Dixon Line – and fired the first shots of the American Civil War.
The usual zany Pynchon hallmarks are there. Silly songs, talking dogs, giant golems, geometry lessons and of course, supernatural forces poised ever just above the quotidian lives of the characters. In short, the whimsical, spiritual, technical and historical intertwine. There is also a good deal of humor in the prose and dialogue. I keep thinking back with a smile to the line about “Horses a-clop on the cobblestones.” There are also many instances of wig powder motes hanging in the air. To top it off Mason & Dixon is written in old timey 18th century style, down to weird punctuation and archaic words. Pynchon just doesn’t cut any corners when he’s telling a story.
However, the sad truth is that there’s just not that much adventure to be had. There is a horrific naval battle, and some enjoyable monkeyshines in South Africa and St. Helena, but for the most part, Mason and Dixon just sally back and forth in the American east-southeast, drawing geological boundaries according to astrological science. I wanted them to keep going west, but they turned back every time. The wackier elements of the story are welcome distractions, but don’t amount to much. The backdrop of place and time is exceptional in its detail, but without some hero’s quest running through it, it feels regretfully underused.
The characters are drawn exceedingly well, and are embellished and illuminated in a way that traditional history or biopics could never do. Mason and Dixon – interesting fellows on their own – watch Benjamin Franklin perform a scientific magic show, smoke hemp with George Washington (while Martha attends to their munchies), meet a talking dog named Fang, and encounter an automaton duck.
Afterward, it was fun to see which characters really existed and which did not. It was interesting to find out about strange historical occurrences like the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Missing Eleven Days of 1752.
Mason & Dixon is a long but fun read that captures the spirit of a time and creates some very interesting characters. However, there’s no central mystery, no German V2 Rocket, no villain to vanquish or revolution to navigate (the American Revolution occurred some years after the line was finished). Without a center for the characters to revolve around (the line itself just isn’t interesting enough), there is not enough drama to make one forget the length and density of the book.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
Browsing the books at the airport can be a depressing experience. Once, I stopped into one of the book, magazine & convenience stores that line the terminal. I can’t remember why I went in, but do I remember three of the books I saw. They were:
I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and Other Musings by Ron Burgundy
Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander by Phil Robertson
It just didn’t seem fair, or appropriate for these books to be on the same display matrix. I suppose airport fiction is its own subgenre, with its own rules. A well-established, brightly packaged menagerie of the sacred and the profane.
And it is from that genre that “DJ” Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns seems to originate. Indeed it appears as though Mr. Hosseini picked up a book entitled How to write fiction that will sell at the airport and followed all the directions exactingly. It’s an uncontroversial page-turner by a mannerly international man who offers a glimpse of voyeurism/tourism into a troubled country whose fate has become inextricably tied up with the United States’. Every chapter seems to end with a disaster/cliffhanger, and the stakes are continually raised by everything going wrong in both the lives of the characters and the history of Afghanistan. What’s not to like? One imagines doughy US travelers carting copies out of the terminal bookstore by the armful.
I’d love to say that the prose is incisive or stark or any of those other aspects minimalists strive for, but really it’s just workmanlike at best. There are a lot of cultural and visual details that slip by unseized – missed opportunities for what could have been a few well-deserved moments of rhapsody.
Still, despite the unspectacular writing, things get very heavy in the last third of the book (no doubt a condition of the formula, but an effective one). Hosseini writes unsparingly about the domestic and public abuse and repression women suffer in Afghanistan through his two main characters, Mariam and Laila. The relative helplessness of these woman characters feels not like a judgment on them, but a firm indictment of a backwards and paternalistic society. Hosseini guides the plot to a heartbreaking, bittersweet conclusion that is satisfying in its balanced approach.
When I was buying this book from the library bookstore, the women at checkout were talking about Hosseini. They said that “The first one is the best”, and that each book after got worse. “But that’s the first one right? The Kite Runner?” one of them asked, looking at the book I held. “No, I think this is the second one.” I said, feeling a mild sense of regret.
So with the caveat that The Kite Runner is probably better, I still give Suns a Moderate Recommendation – three boarding passes out of five.
Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
When it comes to books about the Spanish Civil War, the elephant in the room is For Whom the Bell Tolls, written by legendary American author James Hetfield. I didn’t even know about Homage to Catalonia until I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf.
Orwell’s account of his own time as a soldier in the war primarily dispels concepts: the bloodlust of war; the romance of armed struggle; the unified purpose of the people; the grand promise of socialism. Homage is mostly a collection of foibles and miseries. Orwell complains bitterly, and often hilariously, about the poor living conditions for soldiers, the lack of fungible rifles, the long distances between trenches at the front, and the general lack of battle he experienced. Despite all his fame and recognition as a prophet against all powerful government and endless war, Orwell is quite open to fighting. He writes without irony about wanting to get out on the front and kill some fascists.
While the early part of the book is a thoughtful look at the absurdities of war, the later part is a saddening look at the accompanying political absurdities, and their human cost. The maneuverings of the various anti-Franco factions leads to the betrayal of the faction that Orwell fought for at the front. What follows is street-fighting and a crackdown in Barcelona, which leads to the unfair imprisonment of many a valiant partisan. Orwell tries to handle the persecution with his usual slightly removed fatalism, but the injustice is often too much for him to bear quietly.
Orwell’s perspective is measured, yet unpredictable. He’s thoughtful without overthinking, and knows how to handle many levels of truth at once. At the same time he is often gung-ho and fearless, taking many risks out of boredom. It’s interesting to see some of the events that shaped Orwell as a person leading up to his opus and swan song – 1984.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick
Sci-fi yarn about a famous variety-show host whose identity completely vanishes one day. He goes from big celebrity to non-existent schmuck instantly. He also happens to live in a dystopian police state where proper identification means everything. What a coincidence! Dick does a good job establishing the central character – Jason Taverner – who has certain expectations as a celebrity, but is not a completely spoiled elitist monster. Flow My Tears is fun, pulpy reading, but the “explanation” of the central events makes so little sense that it seems like an eject button from the story.
Not Particularly Recommended, unless you are a Dick completist.
The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, by Neil Strauss
I was hesitant to pick this one up because I feared that people – starting immediately with the female librarians – would judge me. I had seen The Pickup Artist on VH1 very fleetingly and – as a shy man who struggles to approach and converse with women – was completely spellbound. After some waffling I decided to check out the book.
The Game is a hilarious read, especially at the beginning. Strauss, AKA Style, is very likeable at first, in his pupal stage as a thoughtful but sexually unsuccessful writer. His revelations at the beginning really hit home – including his realization that (to paraphrase) his “friends and parents had failed him” to interact socially and that despite his success with writing, he was only “half a man” due to his ineptitude with women.
I realized too that I am half a man, or less, since I don’t even have a successful writing career. Reading about Style’s rise to prominence felt good in the same way that most superhero origin stories do. We see him access his powers and learn to use them, with a few hilarious and endearing mishaps along the way.
However the pathos evaporates later in the book, when Style becomes more manipulative and ambivalent toward the personal worth of the women he so easily seduces. There is the long and banal saga of “Project Hollywood” which involves Style and Mystery renting a mansion and attempting to create some sort of lifestyle-centric mecca for pickup artists. The whole venture goes wrong very slowly, the grinding failure thankfully broken up by funny celebrity stories about Courtney Love, Tom Cruise and Britney Spears.
In the end, I didn’t get as much out of the book as I hoped. The methods Style generally uses are routine based, and more or less scripted. That sort of MO doesn’t seem natural to me. I also had the larger realization that in moving to a new town, I needed to learn how to talk to everyone and make new friends, not just how to run pedantic routines on women in the hopes of picking them up.
So the Game is a fun read. I’d Highly Recommend it for anyone who is shy and awkward around the people they want to talk to and possibly romance. There is a lot of interesting lite-psychology in the book that will force the shy person to confront the irrationalities of their social fears.