The Unpersuadables is sold as an exploration into groups of people who hold wacky beliefs, such as young-earth creationists, holocaust deniers, UFO en...moreThe Unpersuadables is sold as an exploration into groups of people who hold wacky beliefs, such as young-earth creationists, holocaust deniers, UFO enthusiasts, people convinced they are infected with parasites that excrete fibers through their skin, and those who believe homeopathy or meditation can cure cancer and diabetes. These exposes are as fascinating as you would expect, and Storr does an excellent job of conveying the real vigor with which the supporters of these ideas defend them, how completely they believe. He's seldom judgmental in his investigations, but he also challenges each group of believers with seemingly obvious holes in their worldview. Without exception, the faithful are able to dismiss logical objections with alacrity. For example, he asks David Irving, the most famous holocaust denier, how he can claim that Hitler didn't know about the extermination of the Jews taking place in his country. Typical of the believers in the book, Irving claims that even direct quotes from speeches about "exterminating" the Jews are actually misunderstandings due to mistranslation of German c. 1940, and that the words used, at the time, didn't then have the modern meaning historians ascribe them. After the interview, Storr demonstrates via an English-German dictionary from 1940 that Irving is incorrect.
But as interesting as this tour of outlandish belief systems is, where Unpersuadables really shines is in its philosophical and scientific investigation into the mechanism of belief in general. Storr genuinely wonders how people come to adopt such obviously falsifiable beliefs and to dismiss any contradictory information they consider. To be clear, everyone does this, and Storr defends this claim with many citations of scientific studies. Without exception, people form their basic beliefs about how the world works during childhood and adolescence, and this worldview is then cemented fully during early adulthood. By the age of 30 or so, most people believe that they, personally, have all the correct opinions about the world, and attempts to show them contradictory information are met with real hostility on a neurochemical level. The brain, having already formed a strong model of reality, will actively reject any evidence which it cannot easily assimilate into its existing framework of beliefs. When exposed to new ideas, people get a feeling about whether they are correct or not, based on their existing model of the world. This happens below the level of conscious thought, which then comes up with elaborate confabulations to explain the decision that the subconscious brain already made. This illusion of consciousness is so complete that we believe we formed our beliefs for the reasons we give to explain them; in reality, the reasons we give are arbitrary and reflect, in no real way, the unconscious reason we chose to accept or reject an idea. For example, in a poll, researchers asked people if they would support an uneducated but street-smart man or an inexperienced but formally educated woman for police chief. A supermajority of people said they would support the man, and when pressed to justify their decision, they explained that they thought street-smarts were more important for a police chief to have than formal education. When researchers asked a different group the same question with the premise reversed (a street-smart woman versus an educated man), people again chose the man, explaining that they felt it was more important for the chief to have a good education. In both cases, the unconscious minds of the experimental subjects decided that a man was better for a job as police chief, and their conscious minds invented a story using whatever information it had at hand to justify this decision. This applies to every decision we make -- there is no such thing as unemotional reasoning; all of it is ultimately decided by a part of the brain that can only communicate with us via emotional states, but we trick ourselves into believing our reasons are well-considered and rational.
Storr weaves the philosophy into the stories of the believers masterfully, and the pacing of the exploration of these groups and ideas is excellent. It does bog down a little toward the end, but on the whole I was completely fascinated throughout. I recommend this to anyone curious about why people believe what they believe -- indeed, why we believe anything at all.(less)
I've been putting off writing this review because I couldn't think of anything suitably laudatory to say about this novel, which lands solidly among t...moreI've been putting off writing this review because I couldn't think of anything suitably laudatory to say about this novel, which lands solidly among the very best I've ever read. Guess I take myself too seriously. Enough praise has been heaped on this bestseller that mine couldn't possibly register. But at the same time, I feel like I owe it to the novel to convey how deeply affecting and riveting it was. I feel certain the story and characters will stay vividly with me for a long, long time. And I feel vaguely guilty for throwing my life away reading genre trash when literary gems of this caliber have been hiding in plain sight, unexamined. It's a rare novel that can cause an avid genre reader to question his choices in fiction -- this is such a book.
I've written a half-dozen false starts of second paragraphs of this review, trying to convey (without spoiling anything) what makes this book so special. It's hard. I would say that the plot isn't really important, that the larger-than-life characters are what makes the novel resonate so strongly, but that wouldn't really be true. Unlike in a lot of first-person coming-of-age memoirs, things really happen in this book. Big, shocking, exciting, momentous events, not just a lot of wandering narrative about the protagonist's interior journey of discovery. But even the parts of the story that seem like lulls in the plot are inhabited by such bold characters that they are every bit as riveting as the major movements. It makes the book impossible to put down, and hard to stop thinking about when you're not reading it.
Seriously, stop what you're doing and read this.(less)
Vinge's follow-up to A Fire Upon the Deep is actually a prequel, taking place many millennia before the first book, entirel...moreThirteen out of five stars.
Vinge's follow-up to A Fire Upon the Deep is actually a prequel, taking place many millennia before the first book, entirely in the region referred to as "The Slowness" in that book, the region where faster-than light travel and computation aren't possible. Starship journeys that take centuries in cold sleep, between star systems with continually rising and falling human civilizations, form the backdrop for this story of adventure and discovery.
There are two principal aspects of this novel that I found to be so outstanding as to merit such an absurd rating and a place among my all-time favorite science fiction.
First, Vinge manages to portray an alien race of giant spiders as completely human and empathizable as the actual humans aboard the starships. Similarly to his portrayal of the race of dog aliens in A Fire Upon the Deep, the Spiders are at once totally Other and undeniably people. Vinge writes almost a third of the chapters of the novel from the perspective of the Spiders, and during these it's easy to forget that they're basically nightmarish monster creatures that would make any grown man cower in terror. But despite their gruesome appearance, super-human visual acuity and limb count, and sinister-looking means of locomotion, they are obviously gifted scientists, caring parents, and diplomatic statesmen. Vinge has a rare talent for giving the reader a believable taste of what it would be like to be a different species, and it's at least as effectively executed in this book as in the prior one in the series.
Second, the universe of the novel is an almost stunning departure from the magical wonderland of the Culture series and other post-scarcity narratives. In Vinge's version of the galaxy, far-future humans speak of the Failed Dreams that Dawn Age humans fantasized about but never achieved, basically the standard stable of Singularity technologies: nanotechnology, strong AI, indefinite life extension, etc. The result is a world with hard constraints on what is and is not possible, where any miraculous events cannot be explained away with "fields" or "artificial intelligence." It's very believably rendered as an extension of our current civilization. To give one small example, an important space-faring trade in the future is a Programmer Archaeologist, whose job it is to delve into the layers upon layers of ancient systems technology upon which the current generation of starship control programs run, to understand which of the thousands of years worth of tools might be useful in a given situation, how they can be used and modified to circumvent a crisis or achieve better efficiency. Yes, the starships of the future will run Unix, and you will need tools more powerful than grep to understand the bewildering layers of code that have been written between now and then.
I can't talk too much about the plot without spoiling delicious twists, so I'll just say that it's much more exciting than A Fire Upon the Deep, complex enough to keep you guessing, and easily driving enough to carry almost 800 pages with barely a hiccup.
I should also point out that you don't need to read A Fire Upon the Deep to enjoy this book; they're almost completely disjoint. In fact, if you're thinking about reading some Vinge, I would start here.(less)
Seems like everyone is reading these -- me because I wanted to watch the HBO series but then thought, I'll never read the book if I do that first. Thi...moreSeems like everyone is reading these -- me because I wanted to watch the HBO series but then thought, I'll never read the book if I do that first. This despite having several fantasy aficionados tell me, effectively, "It's a great series. You shouldn't read it." Apparently the series doesn't quite live up to people's very high hopes as it continues?
Regardless, this is a fantastic debut for the series. Game of Thrones is less "wizards and shit fantasy" than Arthurian legend, with a rich and believable world and political system that is fascinating to behold. Martin offers tantalizingly brief hints at supernatural elements in this world, but most of the plot is concerned with kingdom-stakes battles for the right of succession, fought on the battlefield among knights and in council rooms by Lords. The characters are well drawn and empathizable, with strong, varied personalities and character flaws, and although there does seem to be too damn many Lords to remember at times, for the most part the various sub-plots are so memorable that it's not difficult to follow along as Martin leaps from narrator to narrator.
I don't give a lot of pulp fiction five stars, but this is a story that sent little trills of feeling through my guts on a surprisingly regular basis. I became incredibly invested in the characters and their fates -- the danger to them feels real, and their victories well deserved. That's a rare enough ability in an author that Martin deserves very high marks.(less)
Something I've often wondered about post-scarcity societies, such as the United Federation of Planets and the Culture, is how people find meaning abse...moreSomething I've often wondered about post-scarcity societies, such as the United Federation of Planets and the Culture, is how people find meaning absent any material struggle in their lives. The protagonist of The Player of Games, Jernau Gurgeh, has always found meaning through playing games of strategy and skill against the other 10 trillion or so human-level intelligences in the Culture, and he's ranked the best general player. But by the end of the opening chapters, it's clear that something is deeply wrong in his life, that his diversions no longer fulfill him the way they once did. What, he starts to wonder, is the point? The Culture can supply him with his every desire, but everything feels so safe, so easy. The only real source of challenge or excitement in his life comes from competing against other top players, but he's so nearly peerless it's a rare thrill. So when the Culture's equivalent to the CIA, Special Circumstances, comes calling with an offer of a secret mission requiring his unique skills, he can't help but take the bait.
As Gurgeh learns, the Culture has been in contact with an interstellar empire of relative inferior technological advancement. Such empires are rare, because when a civilization advances enough to crack the light speed problem, such archaic forms of government are seldom kept around in light of the sudden abundance of resources. But this society, Azad, still exists as a hyper-stratified market-based economy with central political control. The reason it's still able to exist as an empire, Special Circumstances thinks, is a singularly complex game, also called Azad, which governs much of the Azad's political, religious, and social life. The game is thought to be a fair approximation of the society itself, so that skill in it translates directly to the rest of one's life. Therefore, the most highly skilled player becomes Emperor.
Gurgeh agrees to spend 5 or more years of his life traveling to Azad and playing in the tournament, for reasons that aren't made entirely clear to him. But the game itself, played with hundreds of pieces, cards and dice on a board filling a stadium, is so complex and seductive that he can't resist. He spends his outbound trip learning how to play the game, and arrives ready to compete.
As Gurgeh plays games and meets with the bigwigs and gutter punks of Azad, we learn more about his Culture, mostly through contrast with the empire. Concepts such as poverty, inter-personal dominance, and even ownership are so alien to Gurgeh that he doesn't even really know how to form an opinion on them, and his constant reactions to the vastly different structure of the alien civilization are very revealing -- not to mention thought-provoking, since the empire unsubtly resembles our own society much more than the Culture does.
Unlike Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games relies mostly on the strength of its often enigmatic, complex characters to carry it through, although the plot is both more coherent and much more exciting than the prequel. I didn't have very high hopes for the Culture series after reading the first book; this completely reversed my opinion.(less)
Although the fifth of the Vorkosigan books in the series's internal chronology, this is one of the later books that Bujold wrote. In filling in some m...moreAlthough the fifth of the Vorkosigan books in the series's internal chronology, this is one of the later books that Bujold wrote. In filling in some missing details in her fictional timeline, she brings to bear the collective weight of the story and characters as they exist elsewhere in the universe of the Vorkosigan Saga to present a fascinating answer to the question of the Cetagandans.
In other books in the series, the Cetagandan Empire is a rather faceless collection of baddies that exist as a foil to the goodness of Miles and his native Barrayar. In Cetagana, Bujold delves into the complexities of Cetagandan culture, packaging this inquiry in an incredibly compelling who-dunnit plot. Although it's not quite Dune in its realism and attention to detail, there are certainly echoes of Frank Herbert's work here. And unlike Dune and its sequels, Cetagana never dips down into the mundane or tedious, instead restricting its fictional space-anthropology to the breathing spaces in the fast-paced mystery plot.
This is probably my favorite Vorkosigan book yet.(less)
Unlike most of the Dark Tower fans that I've met, I was never a very enthusiastic endorser of Wizard and Glass, the fourth book in the series. Coming...moreUnlike most of the Dark Tower fans that I've met, I was never a very enthusiastic endorser of Wizard and Glass, the fourth book in the series. Coming off The Waste Lands, which has always been my favorite in the series, the last thing I wanted to do was slam the brakes on the present-day action to learn more about Roland's adolescence, however interesting that story-within-a-story might be. How then to explain my surprising ardor for this entry in the series, which is not only a story-within-a-story but a story-within-a-story-within-a-story? Maybe it's the fact that, like King himself, I had considered the Dark Tower saga to be concluded, and was pleasantly surprised to find these characters had more to say. Now that the story's over, and King is just filling in the cracks, I'm more than happy to sit a while and listen to a mostly unrelated story that takes place in that universe.
After a brief introduction with Roland's ka tet on their quest for the Tower, the group hunkers down to wait out a storm, and Roland tells them a story from his past. Like the story in Wizard and Glass, it's from his early adolescence, taking place shortly after he loses Susan Delgado and kills his mother. His gunslinger father sends him off on another quest, this time to stop a murderous beast terrorizing a local barony. That story itself is plenty interesting, and King falls into the dialect and customs of Mid World effortlessly, his story telling skills on full display. But the real meat, the titular fairy tale, is a story that the adolescent Roland tells to a young boy, and this doubly-nested story comprises the bulk of the text. It reminded me strongly of The Eyes of the Dragon, another of my favorite King novels -- if that story took place in Mid World, rather than some nameless kingdom.
I haven't read such an engaging and fascinating story in a long time. Highly recommended for any fans of the Tower.(less)
There's something about a rating system that makes me anxious in my appraisal of what I read, lest the relative merits of different books, boiled down...moreThere's something about a rating system that makes me anxious in my appraisal of what I read, lest the relative merits of different books, boiled down to a number of stars, somehow get mixed up and thereby demeaned. Absurdly, I agonized for a morning about whether The Marriage Plot was worthy of the five stars that I wanted to award it. My chief concern was that it isn't as good as Freedom, another five-star book about a love triangle. Is there room in those five stars to accommodate both these love stories? Ultimately, I decided that there has to be. The Marriage Plot is as worthy a novel as I've read in years, even if it falls the tiniest bit short when held next to Freedom.
Like Freedom, The Marriage Plot is driven by its powerful and relatable characters. Eugenides has a particular skill at weaving compelling personal histories for his protagonists, as with this snippet of Leonard's story:
A representative image of Leonard's freshman year would be of a guy lifting his head from an act of cunnilingus long enough to take a bong hit and give a correct answer in class.
This gem doesn't come until the back half of the book, after we've already met Leonard through the eyes of the two other principals in the triangle, Madeleine and Mitchell. This repeating kaleidoscopic viewpoint, the tension that arises between each character's idea of themselves and the others' perceptions, fosters genuinely touching sympathy with all three lovers.
Eugenides manages to surpass Freedom in one respect, in that The Marriage Plot is unapologetically a book about ideas: philosophy, spirituality, literature, culture. Each of the three protagonists are avid readers, and the books that they read, the books-within-the-book, underlie and reiterate their struggles to find love and meaning in their lives. That these struggles take place during such formative years of their adulthood, their years at Brown, gives them additional gravity. The characters' reading selections, and their thoughts on them, are as revealing as any scene of intimate dialogue. Madeleine on reading Derrida and other deconstructionists:
Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeleine wondered how Derrida expected her to get his meaning. Maybe he didn't. That was why he deployed so much arcane terminology, so many loop-de-looping clauses. That was why he said what he said in sentences it took a minute to identify the subjects of. (Could "the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality" really be a subject?)
These kind of passages struck a chord for me. Madeleine is attending school during the birth of semiotics and deconstructionism; by the time I got my own English literature degree, Cultural Studies had all but subsumed the English department.
Meanwhile, Mitchell feels guilty about his complicity in the patriarchy (another new-at-the-time academic pursuit), even while being outraged about its absurdity:
Mitchell had always assumed that his father's generation were the bad guys. Those old farts who'd never washed a dish or folded socks -- they were the real target of feminist rage. But that had been merely the first assault. Now in the eighties, arguments about the equitable division of household chores, or the inherent sexism of holding a door open for "a lady," were old arguments. The movement had become less pragmatic and more theoretical. Male oppression of women wasn't just a matter of certain deeds but of an entire way of seeing and thinking. College feminists made fun of skyscrapers, saying they were phallic symbols. They said the same thing about space rockets, even though, if you stopped to think about it, rockets were shaped the way they were not because of phallocentrism but because of aerodynamics. Would a vagina-shaped Apollo 11 have made it to the moon?
It was probably true that he objectified women. He thought about them all the time, didn't he? He looked at them a lot. And didn't all this thinking and looking involve their breasts and lips and legs? Female human beings were objects of the most intense interest and scrutiny on Mitchell's part. And yet he didn't think that a word like objectification covered the way these alluring -- but intelligent! -- creatures made him feel. What Mitchell felt was more like something from a Greek myth, like being transformed, by the sight of beauty, into a tree, rooted on the spot, forever, out of pure desire. You couldn't feel about an object they way Mitchell felt about girls.
Looking at the suspiciously low average rating for this book, I feel a sense of dread that many well-meaning readers have withheld one or more stars on the basis of passages like these, taking them as evidence that Eugenides doesn't understand deconstructionism or is an apologist for the patriarchy. I think I can say, being relatively well versed in these and other subjects the book touches upon, that to level such claims (and to punish by withholding stars) is missing the point completely -- the point being that Eugenides' characters' subjective grappling with such systems of thoughts are just that -- subjective -- and are meant to illuminate their own systems of thought, not Eugenides'. And it works. These philosophical tangents provide great insight into the minds of the protagonists, helping to establish an empathic link to the reader.
The Marriage Plot is a love story that makes you cheer on the underdog while sympathizing with the villain, all while provoking thoughts as to who deserves which fate and what it might mean if they get it. Maybe it was just the insomnia I was suffering the week I read this, but I blazed through these pages compulsively. The writing is often beautiful, if sometimes overwrought, and easy to follow once you adapt to the style.
This is going on the short list of non-sci-fi books that I try to get other people to read. You should read it.(less)
Cryptonomicon is a sprawling, ambitious text that juxtaposes the struggles of cryptologists in World War II with those of their modern day descendants...moreCryptonomicon is a sprawling, ambitious text that juxtaposes the struggles of cryptologists in World War II with those of their modern day descendants, who are involved in a cryptography-laced scheme to revolutionize the face of money and information. The two stories are interleaved in more or less alternating chapters, so that the book progresses from the lead up to the war until its end, and simultaneously from the conception of a high-tech business to its financial security.
I found the World War II chapters to be much more interesting and entertaining than their present-day counterparts, partly because Stephenson is working with such fascinating source material, and partly because the setting allows him to imagine all sorts of legendary, gutsy action that would feel out of place today. We get to meet Alan Turing and other notable mathematician-heroes of the era as they blaze trails into the fields of computation and cryptology, and also to step inside the mind of a Marine grunt, Bobby Shaftoe, who is exceptionally talented at "killing Japs." Lawrence Waterhouse, a borderline-autistic farmboy cum code-breaker, is the primary protagonist in the cryptology sections, and his bumbling victories and complete lack of social graces breathe life into what could otherwise be very dry subject matter. Meanwhile, Shaftoe doesn't understand the first thing about cryptology, only how to follow orders, and serves as an unknowing but almost absurdly competent pawn carrying out the dirty work that results from Waterhouse's intelligence. Although Stepehenson's account of the war is of course fictionalized, it's nevertheless a very good primer on the essential role that Allied code breakers played in bringing an end to the Third Reich.
In the modern-day chapters, we follow various descendants of the World War II heroes as they navigate the complexities of modern-day cryptography (4096-bit keys to be on the safe side), international finance, and minority-shareholder lawsuits. These sections are certainly worthwhile, but not nearly as exciting as the War itself.
As with every other Stephenson novel I have read, this one ends abruptly and not altogether satisfyingly, but by this point I've learned to forgive him that fault. I recommend this to any reader who can take the unwieldy length in stride.(less)
People often ask me: what if Suzanne Collins understood even the most basic premises of technology and the future of demographics and energy? What if...morePeople often ask me: what if Suzanne Collins understood even the most basic premises of technology and the future of demographics and energy? What if Collins had ever even heard of Ray Kurzweil or James Howard Kunstler? What if The Hunger Games wasn't written for lazy adult readers at a children's level, but instead was aimed at early millennials / late gen-xers (such as myself) eager to read a mature underdog story steeped in the culture of their adolescence?
No one has ever asked me this.
But if they did, I would probably respond that the result would closely resemble Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's first novel, a depressingly believable dystopian future that perfectly marries the technological utopia promised by The Singularity Is Near with the bleak wasteland predicted by The Long Emergency.
Giving this novel five stars is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, especially since I can't help comparing it to another piece of pulp I read this year, The Hunger Games, but I just can't help myself. I devoured this book with an appetite I can seldom summon for fiction, and loved every minute of it.
Ernest Cline has managed to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of internet culture and the way we increasingly live our lives online, extrapolating these trends into the future in a world where the Great Recession never ends and the energy crisis is in its third decade. The OASIS, an online simulated reality, has essentially subsumed the internet as we know it. Most of humanity logs on daily to escape their miserable existence, and it's in this virtual universe that most of the story takes place.
The setup for the plot is simple and compelling: James Halliday, the billionaire creator of the OASIS, dies, and decides to leave his entire vast fortune, as well as controlling stake in the OASIS, to the first person who can decipher and complete a series of cryptic challenges within the game world. Ready Player One is the story of one such contestant succeeding in this contest against all odds.
What I found especially interesting about the story and the contest is the way it's wrapped up in endless pop-culture references, much like the internet of today. The virtual worlds in the OASIS are largely inspired by various old-media intellectual property (which is going to make the movie version "interesting" to produce) -- it exactly mirrors the internet's addiction to endlessly remixing, recycling, and regurgitating past cultural artifacts. Halliday apparently wanted his heir to love all the same things he did from the 1980's, the decade during which he was a teenager, and so the community of contestants devote all their free time to learning about 80's TV, movies, books, and video games. True to Halliday's word, appreciation of retro culture is essential to success in his contest.
And there's the rub: your enjoyment of this novel is probably pretty closely correlated to how many of these references you can recognize and appreciate. The writing is competent, but falls short of literary greatness, and the characters, while empathetic, aren't exactly the most complex ever written. If you never played an Atari 2600, I'm tempted to say you just shouldn't bother. My own subjectivity is obviously in the way here -- I can't imagine what it would be like to not be the target demographic of the story, but I imagine it would be somewhat less enjoyable. To be fair, Cline does a good job explaining the more obscure references to the uninitiated, and a good many of them are pretty near universal. Still, I'm sure there are many people that will be put off, confused, or bored by this pervasive aspect of the novel.
If any of the above sounds intriguing, do yourself a favor and give this a read. If not, you can always wait for the film adaptation, now in the works.(less)
That's all I could think when about a quarter of the way through this fantastic book -- "he" being Iai...more"Those poor ponies. Why did he do that to them?"
That's all I could think when about a quarter of the way through this fantastic book -- "he" being Iain Banks. The ponies are actually a race of intelligent horse-like creatures with a pair of prehensile trunks, and Banks imagined an actual Hell for them to inhabit. I would call the horrors they endure there "indescribable," but Banks does an admirable job in describing them.
The basic idea is that once a civilization perfects virtual reality and brain-scanning technology, they usually go ahead and make their ancient religious beliefs real by building Heaven simulations for people's mind states to live in after they die. Some cultures go the extra step and also create Hell; the ponies belong to such a civilization. The setting of the book is a virtual (simulated) war over whether the Hells should be allowed to exist.
Banks touches on every speculative aspect involved in perfectly recording someone's mind state, such as whether an exact copy of yourself living in a simulated world is "really" you, if your body suffers death. Much of the action takes place inside various simulations (sometimes simulations of simulations), so there are plenty of opportunities for him to play with the various philosophical quandaries.
The characters are some of the best Banks has written, with ship Minds who refuse to behave, a furious protagonist out for revenge, and a villain it's incredibly fun to hate. There's also some fantastic supporting characters, especially an inept and hopelessly vain alien race called the GFCF. The plot seems spread a little thin at points, but for the most part moves at a good clip and never feels bogged down.
Overall, I really appreciate this book (and much of the rest of the Culture series) because the speculative element does such a fantastic job of dissecting human nature and institutions. I mean, really: the idea that alien races would punish their sinners with real (subjective) eternal torture is too human for comfort.(less)
I loved this book so much that it's difficult to translate my feelings for it into words without coming off as derivative or trite. In the few weeks s...moreI loved this book so much that it's difficult to translate my feelings for it into words without coming off as derivative or trite. In the few weeks since I finished it, sitting in the company cafeteria one Tuesday morning, I've been mulling over how I could express my praise for this masterpiece of fiction without limiting my praise to such non-transferable ephemerals as the emotions it kindled in me. After all, despite the bevy of reviewer-centric book reviews on goodreads and even in trade publications (check out the top goodreads review for this very novel), I strongly feel that a book review should be primarily about the book, and only tangentially about the person reviewing it -- not the other way around. So I'll try to limit myself to remarking that this book is deeply affecting, to the extent that upon finishing it I felt simultaneously uplifted and emptied out, like you do after a really hard cry. At one point midway through reading it, I remarked to Malen that it might be the best thing I'd ever read. And indeed, upon two weeks of further reflection, I still can't think of any other serious piece of literature that I can say is definitively better.
Like The Corrections, Freedom is the story of an American family struggling to be happy. But whereas the characters in The Corrections are all crippled by fatal character flaws, as glaring as neon signs in their narratives, the characters in Freedom suffer from more nuanced, workaday afflictions, little personal tragedies that subsume their entire lives.
First through the observations of her neighbors, and then through a long autobiographical section (suggested by her therapist), we meet Patty Berglund, a suburban mom obsessed with winning a game she doesn't really want to be playing. The novel is really about Patty -- the other three main characters are the men in her life who orbit her, their trajectories telling us more about the central pull of their focus than about the satellites themselves. There's husband Walter, the strident do-gooder constantly shit upon by a world that doesn't share his values, frustrated at every turn but unwilling to give in. There's his ne'er-do-well best friend Richard, a charismatic musician who can't seem to break free of the easy rewards of stardom. And finally there's Joey, Patty and Walter's son, a golden boy to whom working the system for its material rewards is as natural as walking but who despairs to find meaning and value in his life.
This quest for meaning, the struggle to live a life that's for something, is the universal theme that binds the narrative together and makes it so emphatically relatable. Many other reviews have bemoaned the overtness of two other themes, the problematic nature of personal liberty and the conflicts caused by competition, and I would agree that Franzen sometimes hammers them home a little forcefully. But I can forgive him this minor sin, buried as it is in such adroit writing and frankly masterful characterizations. It's a novel that gets to the heart of not only how we live, but why, and what it might mean, without ever explicitly saying as much. I really can't recommend it enough.(less)