Beneath the veneer of intrepid adventure and scientific analysis that covers space exploration programs, there is a huge amount of logistics, testing,Beneath the veneer of intrepid adventure and scientific analysis that covers space exploration programs, there is a huge amount of logistics, testing, and unforeseen consequences that at times can be unbearably funny. Author Mary Roach tackles this aspect of space exploration with gusto, asking questions about hygiene, sex, motion sickness, animal test pilots, and so on. There's a lot that maybe you've thought about but maybe not too carefully, and even more that you've probably never considered.
Roach is an informative and very funny writer with a friendly, easygoing style and a commendable lack of squeamishness about topics that might be embarrassing either to others or to herself. She is a humorist first and foremost, and she involves herself in the story, freely (very freely) discussing her own experiences testing out facilities and equipment for spacemen and amusing authorial situations like when people decide to start dodging her emails. On several occasions I had the highly enjoyable experience of being That Guy sitting in an otherwise quiet subway car laughing to himself out loud.
Despite its title, most of the book is not actually about Mars specifically but about space in general. Good stuff, and I recommend it universally. ...more
The story of a few years in the life of Thomas Cromwell, a major historical figure in 16th century England who served as counselor and right-hand manThe story of a few years in the life of Thomas Cromwell, a major historical figure in 16th century England who served as counselor and right-hand man first to Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, and later to King Henry VIII himself. The book is not driven by a singly specific story or event, but carves out some interesting years in English history and imagines them through Cromwell's eyes. The period covered includes Anne Boleyn's rise to the throne, the Act of Supremacy, and the rise and fall of Thomas More.
What author Hilary Mantel does best is to immerse and saturate the reader in a vivid depiction of the intrigues of the Tudor court. Cromwell is portrayed as an immensely capable, clever, and thoughtful man who manages to get involved with pretty much everyone's business (in fact one mild complaint I have is that he appears at times to be a nearly infallible superman). He has the confidence of the royal inner circle but as someone of common background does not lose touch with merchants, artisans, and ordinary folk. Mantel uses him to let the reader peer into both courtly life and the lives of the English people. She really soaks you in historical details and color and personality, and it is a delight to let it all wash over you. She also lends depth to her characters rather than casting them as strictly heroes or villains: Henry and Wolsey are both sometimes likable and sometimes irritating, More is sanctimonious and cruel but honest and principled to the end, Anne I would have to say is a bit one-dimensionally Machiavellian but is foiled by her kinder sister Mary.
The details and the intrigues are everything, and to some degree I found this detracted from the book in the end. Aside from the thematic touchstone of Britain as an "occult" place of monsters and legends, to which Mantel refers from time to time, there is little that draws the book into a forceful conclusion, point, or idea. If the raw history weren't so enjoyable to read, I might have found this to be a serious problem; as it stands, it's more of a blemish, leaving me feeling that I was dropped off at an arbitrary point at the book's end. One other problem, this one stylistic and more of a nuisance than a real flaw, is that Mantel is sometimes maddeningly vague with her pronouns and the way she writes out conversation, making it hard to figure out who said or did what.
I'd recommend Wolf Hall to anyone, especially to history buffs. ...more
When I was 12 years old, this book was soooo awesome. I read it again many years later to see if that were still the case, and the answer is, "sort ofWhen I was 12 years old, this book was soooo awesome. I read it again many years later to see if that were still the case, and the answer is, "sort of, not really."
Dune is rather consciously epic, telling the story of the fall and rise of a house of nobles against the backdrop of a richly depicted desert world. Its strengths lie in its attentively detailed world creation. Author Frank Herbert gives us, fully constructed, the planet Arrakis, with its own ecology and its own natives whose lives and culture are wholly centered around the planet's lack of water. Above Arrakis in space, he imagines a delicate geopolitical balance between intergalactic sovereignties and organizations. If you like sci-fi that gets you lost in a new universe, Dune (and maybe, just maybe, the rest of the series) is for you.
The plot is generally good and exciting, though sometimes a bit logically inconsistent and also a bit "deus ex machina." This particularly comes up in the second half of the book - once Paul is amongst the Fremen the book gets a little lost in religious mysticism and it seems like a) new "rules" just appear out of nowhere, especially everything regarding the "Water of Life" b) Paul just suddenly and magically becomes overwhelmingly powerful. And it does not make sense that the Guild, supposedly one of the most powerful organizations in the galaxy, would not be more protective of the spice. If we gloss over these issues and all the religious segments (which are really not very good) we do get a rather thundering tale of the House of Atreides, reminiscent of the legends of Greek mythology.
The writing unfortunately is the worst part - it is at its best when being descriptive (see the quality of Appendix I, about Pardot Kynes). At other times, particularly during dialogue, it tends to to be rather childish. The "strong" characters tend to speak in dull aphorisms, I suppose this somehow shows how wise and powerful they are; the "weak" ones react with exaggerated mannerisms and crumble before the strong when the two ever conflict. ...more
A travel book in which author Eliza Griswold visits sites of modern Christianity-Islam conflicts. The first half covers Africa (Nigeria, Sudan, SomaliA travel book in which author Eliza Griswold visits sites of modern Christianity-Islam conflicts. The first half covers Africa (Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia) and the second half covers Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines). Griswold visits some places of very intense conflict and fierce religious beliefs, and consequently her stories are almost inevitably interesting. However the book did not succeed in going any further than simply presenting stories; there was no theme or idea to take away other than to open one's eyes to these parts of the world.
I liked the Africa half of the book better. Here the divide of the tenth parallel corresponds to geographic changes across which people came to lead different ways of life, including different religions. In Nigeria and Sudan this separation leads to some great concrete examinations between how Christianity and Islam coexist. In particular see the discussion of the relationship of Western evangelicalism and Christianity in these parts of the world (the Canaanland megachurch, Franklin Graham's hospital). The tenth parallel theme becomes more strained in Asia; Malaysia and Indonesia are both south of the tenth, so the line doesn't meaningfully divide those countries. Here you get some interesting stories (the Burnhams and their captors, Ibnu Ahmad's odd career trajectory) but I didn't feel that the stories added up to a coherent whole - just stories after stories.
I'd still recommend this for anyone not already familiar with these parts of the world; the countries discussed in this book cover about 8% of the world's population and include some of its most destitute, and I think wealthy Westerners really should be aware of just how tough and broken things are out there. But after finishing this I'm left looking for more material on these places that is written just a bit better. ...more
As someone who is interested in learning a bit more about the history of English football/soccer (I started following it in 2008, and so am a bit of aAs someone who is interested in learning a bit more about the history of English football/soccer (I started following it in 2008, and so am a bit of a johnny-come-lately), I found this book readable if bland. I will warn you now that if you do not have this sort of prior interest, I find it highly unlikely that you will remotely enjoy this at all. For me it sits on the border between one and two stars, but I reserve single stars for books towards which I have genuine antipathy, and this one was at least a little amusing and entertaining for someone already interested in the sport.
The story (fictional, but based heavily on real-life events) is told in two alternating halves that cover the tempestuous 44-day tenure of Brian Clough as Leeds manager and Clough's previous appointment at Derby County, with the latter story converging to the beginning of the first story as the book ends. The former is totally uninteresting, with no character development and no plot advancement other than to depict the catty behavior of Leeds players and coaches towards Clough. The latter is a little better, but still somewhat static - Clough is Clough, Peter Taylor is Peter Taylor, the players are the players, really the only character that shows any change is Sam Longson, and his change seems abrupt and clumsily written.
The writing style is marked by repetition, repetition, repetition. This and that. This and that. This and that. And lots of Clough drowning in a morass of self-pity and fear and doubt, fear and doubt, fear and doubt. On the bright side, that makes it a fast read - the sentences on average can be processed quite speedily. Not exactly high praise, I know. Even reading this concurrently with the start of a new Premiership season couldn't get me excited. I'll be looking for other, better soccer books. ...more
A personal account of the author Mehta's return to Bombay/Mumbai, the city of his youth, and its sprawling culture. He follows and interviews people fA personal account of the author Mehta's return to Bombay/Mumbai, the city of his youth, and its sprawling culture. He follows and interviews people from many walks of life: cops and gangsters, bar dancers, actors, hoi polloi, and weaves in anecdotes from his own life into a sort of tribute and love letter to the city and its powerfully urban way of life.
For me the book started off excellently and went on more or less a straight-line decline to merely decent by the end. When Mehta jumps from character to character quickly, his writing becomes almost textured with richness, like looking at a tapestry with so many details that you get lost in it all. The sections describing the politicians, cops, and gangsters are like this. In contrast, when he focuses at length on one person things are not as good, such as a blandly readable 30-page passage at the end about a convert to Jain asceticism. The chapter on Monalisa is a great example of this, as there are parts where Mehta jumps around between Monalisa and the other people in her life, which I found enjoyable, and there are parts where he sets his attentions only on her, which while still good were less so.
Be warned that there are lots of words in Indian languages; if you are not already familiar with them you may find you need to read this with the Internet at hand. (I always wondered why authors who use so many foreign words in English-language books don't include a glossary.) ...more
I'll let the afterword explain this book, as it does quite well (and I don't think this quote is a spoiler): "This has been a novel about some peopleI'll let the afterword explain this book, as it does quite well (and I don't think this quote is a spoiler): "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing [dangerously] in the street... There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were."
This succinctly explains my main problem with the book, which is that it simply is; things happen, but not always into any kind of narrative purpose; characters do one thing, and then do the next, and converse about one topic or the other. Sometimes those things do reach out and grab your attention, and sometimes the characters' conversation is thoughtful or funny. ("If I had known it was harmless I would have killed it myself.") Sometimes there's a signature PKD mind-bending idea along his usual themes of the divide between perception and reality. But sometimes the things are aimless and dull and boring. The whole thing is hit and miss, and the hits make the reading enjoyable, but you need a critical mass of hits to string a book like this into a single big hit, and sadly there aren't enough to go around. There is a plot running beneath this, but I just didn't find it nearly as compelling as the kind of stuff you find in PKD's other books, like Ubik or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
Now based on what he says in the afterword, PKD might argue that that is the point. After all, he does disparage moralizing as "bourgeois." I think this is muddling the issue at hand. I don't ask for a moral, or a lesson, or even a "point" - but what I do want is to have my mind moved around, to read and then to ponder or imagine new ideas, concepts, observations, thinking something that I hadn't thought before or being induced to see something in a new light. Sometimes this requires more than simply describing. PKD dedicated this book to friends in real life that he saw as children playing in the street and getting run over. And he has prepared them an elegy in the form of this book and he goes to the funeral and reads it out loud and it just says that they were born, they played, they were struck by cars, and they died. Perhaps that is what happened, but can't you tell me more? More than the sequence of events, more than random stories and anecdotes that yield no insight into their humanity. Say something. ...more
Richard Feynman, in addition to being one of the most important physicists of the 20th century, was also a colorful guy, intellectually curious, admirRichard Feynman, in addition to being one of the most important physicists of the 20th century, was also a colorful guy, intellectually curious, admirably forthright, and cheerfully dorky. This book is a collection of his reminiscences, in chronological order, covering the span of his life from his youth to his older years.
Feynman serves as a humorous narrator to his own anecdotes, although with some tendency to ramble. His unquenchable interest in learning and teaching, his willingness to keep an open and prejudice-free mind, and his fondness for being a sort of honest prankster lead him into a lot of funny situations. A very enjoyable read, mostly great stories with a few lesser ones that Feynman still gets you through with a few laughs and winks. ...more
Reading Cloud Atlas was like eating a delicious literary dessert. The book is segmented creatively into a handful of short stories and different narraReading Cloud Atlas was like eating a delicious literary dessert. The book is segmented creatively into a handful of short stories and different narrators that refer to one another and have a few common threads running throughout. The stories individually are decent and readable at worst and excellent at best. I liked the "later" ones better; the Zachry story was just superb, and the Sonmi-451 story was also very good. Mitchell is a skillful and often very humorous writer with a knack for producing punchy little turns of speech, and he does a good job of really getting into the heads of his different narrators and varying the tones and personalities of his stories.
Like a dessert, the one drawback of the book is that it wasn't enough to constitute a meal on its own. The stories are entertaining but they don't always make you think too deeply, and I found the themes that bind the stories to be a bit forced and a tad shallow. This means that I might not put this book on an all-time literary canon, but it wouldn't stop me from enthusiastically recommending it for the great readability and talented writing. Not everything you eat has to be nutritious, and not everything you read has to be classically great. ...more
What a great book - I loved Borges and I loved this book for the same reasons. It is composed of 44 short stories, of only about 5 pages in length onWhat a great book - I loved Borges and I loved this book for the same reasons. It is composed of 44 short stories, of only about 5 pages in length on average, where author Zachary Mason alters and re-imagines "variations" on Greek mythology (mostly but not entirely from the Odyssey). For example: Achilles as a golem controlled by Odysseus. The adventure with Polyphemos retold sympathetically from his perspective. Athena offering to be Odysseus's paramour. Mason purports them to be Homer's apocrypha, alternate versions scrubbed from the official text by the passage of time and surviving only in fragments.
This is Mason's debut; before becoming a writer (and perhaps he still keeps his day job, I do not know) he was a computer scientist, and it shows. The stories are cerebral, with appearances of recursion and infinity, the boundaries of knowledge, unreliability of information and a blurring of the line between "fiction" and "non-fiction," the constant undercurrent of the book's structure itself which asks you to ask yourself what the "real" myths were. To quote the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
A less charitable critic might call it derivative of Borges, but I think Mason's themes are distinct enough, and in any case I eat this stuff up, derivative or not. I love having to think hard about a book, having it play with my mind, having the traces linger in my mind like the mental edifices of a difficult mathematical exercise. A weak story here and there but for the most part strong and thoughtful, stylistically efficient, no wastage. Five stars. ...more
There are famous math problems that are easy to explain but difficult to solve, such as the four-color map problem or Goldbach's Conjecture; the RiemaThere are famous math problems that are easy to explain but difficult to solve, such as the four-color map problem or Goldbach's Conjecture; the Riemann Hypothesis is unfortunately not such a problem. Prime Obsession is author John Derbyshire's attempt to explain the RH in simple terms and to illustrate its place and importance in the history of mathematics. It's not an easy task, and I think what Derbyshire has written is suited for a relatively narrow audience of people: those who took some analysis or at least calculus in school but who didn't go on to enough pure maths to have already learned about the RH.
I fall under this category. The book did succeed in explaining the RH to me. But I do not think it imparted an adequate appreciation of why it is such an important problem. Some of the other results in the book, such as Euler's theorem (the "Golden Key") or the existence of Littlewood inversions, seemed to me to be more interesting or elegant. In particular, I do not know except in brief passing reference what mathematics would depend on the RH, and I do not know what the ramifications of a disproof would be. Towards the end Derbyshire goes very quickly through newer, complicated physics-based advances regarding the RH, leaving little possibility for deep understanding; I would have gotten rid of this section in favor of deeper coverage of the RH's consequences, even if this meant that we wouldn't be covering math newer than the 1930s.
Nevertheless I generally enjoyed the book. But then again I fall in the narrow audience mentioned above. If you are more mathematically advanced than I am, you may find this book entertaining but too basic. If you are less so, you may not even understand the RH properly at all, which is supposed to be the main purpose of the book. Rather than communicating the intuition and big picture, Derbyshire sometimes takes more of a procedural, step-by-step approach which he "babies" a bit to help along laypeople. This does help get the casual reader from point A to point B but is not going to leave a framework of true understanding in the reader's mind.
The odd chapters are more strictly mathematical and the even chapters are more historical. The history chapters for the most part can be digested and enjoyed by anyone, so even for relative math-phobes, half of this book will be pretty readable. Derbyshire does a very good job here of depicting the real people behind the theorems, not only with regard to their personalities but how their lives fit into the greater context of world history. I found the discussion of the great mathematicians' patrons to be particularly good. ...more
King Leopold's Ghost covers a historical atrocity not well covered in the Western history books, the colonization and exploitation of the Congo by BelKing Leopold's Ghost covers a historical atrocity not well covered in the Western history books, the colonization and exploitation of the Congo by Belgium around the turn of the 20th century. It offers a very clear and readable account that is consistently engrossing and easy to follow even for those with little or no prior knowledge about the Congo.
The book's greatest forte is that there is little wasted writing: most of the historical detail is "value-added," either in strengthening arguments, descriptions and imagery, or at least in simple entertainment value (some of Leopold's family history comes to mind). The book's structure is driven biographically, presenting the Congo story through the personal histories of Leopold, Morel, Sheppard, Stanley, and others. The author Adam Hochschild does well in wringing the color out the often-colorful personalities involved while jumping smoothly from thread to thread as the events in one person's life lead us to the events in another's.
The one thing preventing me from giving this book a fifth star is Hochschild's annoying tendency to intermittently insert little biases and interpretations through his choices of phrasing. For example: imagining someone's emotions, reading too much into a single quote, reading into a person's physical appearance and projecting this onto their personality (Casement, Stanley). It's not a big problem, but it is irritating enough that I do consider it a real knock on an otherwise excellent piece of journalism. ...more
A fun book that bears a number of resemblances to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite movies. It asks a very simple and age-oldA fun book that bears a number of resemblances to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite movies. It asks a very simple and age-old question that we've all asked ourselves at some point: if you could do it all over again what would you do differently? And after you've answered: are you so sure about that?
A story like this has much potential to be clichéd, but I think author Ken Grimwood handles it quite well, keeping the characters realistic and human and picking out touching episodes in the protagonist's life without becoming sappy. I particularly enjoyed his use of the "skew," which had the interesting effect of entangling the characters deeper in the past as the story goes on and gave a sense of urgency and sadness to the proceedings. Can't really explain more as I don't intend to offer any spoilers in my reviews.
The only real flaw is the book's occasional descent into somewhat silly New Age-ish crap. All of the asides into Starsea and dolphins and Mount Shasta are very clunky, especially because they are written as if they are supposed to be deep and moving. Overlook these and enjoy the remainder.
(also, Sidney Bechet died in 1959... outside the window of Jeff's replay)...more
This book is set in the gritty grimy world of New Crobuzon. In case you forgot that it was gritty and grimy, author China Miéville periodically pepperThis book is set in the gritty grimy world of New Crobuzon. In case you forgot that it was gritty and grimy, author China Miéville periodically peppers you with phrases like "...the flickering, baleful shadows overhead disappeared. In this tiny desolate patch of the city, the pall of nightmare energy seemed to lift for a few hours," or "Isaac vividly rememebered the sense of being awash in filth; of being sullied at the most profound level; the nauseating, disorienting sickness..." These aren't examples I flagged out specially while reading; you can pretty much open the book to a random page and find this sort of thing, which is what I did. It goes on for 600-odd pages.
In between all of these dark atmospheric invocations, there's a pretty bad plot. The best thing I can say about it is that from time to time the action sequences are exciting. Otherwise it's kind of a confused jumble of events without a whole lot in the way of good ideas. New characters and monsters frequently appear in the story with little purpose, sometimes not even to advance the plot as they merely generate a cul-de-sac in the storyline - they only serve to give the author more grimy gritty gruesomeness to describe. Somewhere along the way, Miéville seems to have forgotten that he was writing a novel, not a Dungeons and Dragons handbook.
A lot of the main characters are completely one-dimensional, with relatively cardboard personalities and emotions. There are a few long, painful passages where nothing substantial of interest at all happens, first when Isaac is describing crisis to Yagharek and later when people are pulling cable through the streets of New Crobuzon.
If you like gritty grimy gruesome without any literary substance, I suppose you could take a gander at this book. Otherwise stay away. ...more
Really interesting subject matter pulls the book along through some repetitive and bland writing. The Gnostic Gospels is an exploration of the major tReally interesting subject matter pulls the book along through some repetitive and bland writing. The Gnostic Gospels is an exploration of the major themes in the apocryphal "gnostic" books of the Bible, a set of books that were controversially debated and ultimately excluded from canon during Christianity's first few hundred years. The gnostic books emphasize a more spiritual, abstract Christ and de-emphasizes the role of a formal church in favor of private, individual communion with God.
The chapter "God the Father/God the Mother" is great, covering contrasting views of God as a patriarch versus a both-sexed deity, and the "One God, One Bishop" discussion of the division of the God of the Old Testament into two sub-gods and the inclusion of other deities was also very good. It is fascinating to think that these might have made it into Christianity if those formative years had turned out differently.
The book's main flaw is the repetitive writing, sometimes hammering at what I would consider to be relatively minor points again and again, and at times it felt like a high school essay in its dry argument-evidence-conclusion structure instead of a skillful flow. I also wish that the author had included a reproduction of the raw text from the gnostic books to allow the reader to read and see the themes for himself. ...more
Astonishingly poor, particularly when considering that Lovecraft is regarded as a cornerstone of the horror genre. His stories are repetitive and predAstonishingly poor, particularly when considering that Lovecraft is regarded as a cornerstone of the horror genre. His stories are repetitive and predictable, and his authorial style is marked by florid, baroque word choice that borders on the laughable. (Of all the words in the English language to get sick of, I never thought "eldritch" would be on my list.) I will grant that Lovecraft has some flair for stirring up gruesome and macabre imagery, but I found his talents in that respect to be frequently obscured by the terrible quality of his writing.
This book is a collection of 18 short stories, although the latter two-thirds of the book is composed of the five longest stories. These five are generally more readable than the others, the best of them being "The Whisperer in Darkness." Of the shorter short stories, "The Rats in the Walls" is the only one I can recommend. The bad ones of this lot are reaaaaally bad, reading like literary regurgitation from a story-generating machine.
The stories are footnoted in extensive detail by editor S.T. Joshi - it is too bad that his industry was not devoted to a better author. ...more
A pretty awesome behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Baltimore homicide department in 1988, written by a journalist who embedded himself in oneA pretty awesome behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Baltimore homicide department in 1988, written by a journalist who embedded himself in one of its divisions for that entire year. It was the antecedent of two major TV shows, "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire," and it's easy to see, upon reading it, why network executives thought it would be great television material. Body after body hits the streets, detectives are summoned, they try to piece things together with a combination of careful observation and street smarts, and sometimes succeed and sometimes don't.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to a documentarian (literary, cinematic, or otherwise) is that one almost forget that he's there, becoming so engrossed in the subject and allowing one's self to be guided along quietly along. Though Simon is present at most of the scenes that play out in this book, he mostly keeps himself in the background, allowing the personalities of the detectives, the suspects, the witnesses to properly hold center stage.
And the subject matter is so fascinating by itself that there's little need to invent artificial embellishments (on occasion Simon does this, my only complaint with the book, but only to mild extent). It's got standard cop-show stuff, mystery, grittiness, politics, media. But it's really put over the top by many little observations along the way: the necessity of shaking off cases that turn up no new leads, the small tricks of the trade employed at crime scenes and interrogation rooms, the tendency to view capturing criminals as a game to be won or a puzzle to be solved and not in any larger, moralized context. An excellent and thrilling read. ...more
Ray Bradbury is a brilliant writer of short stories; if you haven't read any of his yet, I highly recommend you go find one of his collections or scouRay Bradbury is a brilliant writer of short stories; if you haven't read any of his yet, I highly recommend you go find one of his collections or scour the Internet and read "The Veldt" or "Here There Be Tygers" or some of those in The Martian Chronicles. He has a great talent for packing a large amount of meaning into a small amount of space, like a poet working in the medium of prose.
Fahrenheit 451, long enough to qualify as a novel, is a good read overall and certainly has its moments, but doesn't quite pack as much of a punch... almost as if a high-quality short story was stretched and attenuated to fit its extended format. It is built around a great core idea: illustrate the dangers of censorship through a society that both explicitly burns books and implicitly allows them to rot out of culture, devaluing education and thought and rendering its people dependent on television, cheap thrills, and sedatives. I think it is probably one of the earlier books to drill this idea down, and even though it has been revisited in many other books and movies since, Bradbury treats it
The plot leaves a bit to be desired. When the plot is rolling it is exciting, but there are gaps where nothing happens that are filled with meandering narration and stacks of similes. These run the gamut from evocative imagery to mere page-filler. There's generally too much tell and not enough show, and the writing can veer towards being dangerously preachy. One character disappears abruptly, and another is removed as he threatens to become the most interesting one in the book.
In these senses I would not consider Fahrenheit 451 a particularly well-written book, but its solid core idea covers such sins, particularly because it continues to be relevant in some fresh new ways. At the time of its writing, the question readers might ask was, is society heading towards such a intellectually empty, "blanc-mange" (to borrow a phrase from Bradbury's postscript) dead end? Bradbury, here in the 50s, foresees many contemporary criticisms of society with some prescience. But I think the more relevant question now is, given the meteoric rise of informational technology, could a world like the one in this book ever happen? More specifically, does the nearly indestructible nature of information in the Internet age ensure that books have become fireproof? Or does the massive volume of such information effectively burn valuable ideas in the signal-to-noise? ...more
Watch out for spoilers if you are deciding whether to read this book or not. The back cover practically gives away the ending, and a few online resourWatch out for spoilers if you are deciding whether to read this book or not. The back cover practically gives away the ending, and a few online resources (such as Amazon) are even worse, spelling things out in detail.
In any case, this is the life story of a man named Tod Friendly, as seen in reverse from his death onwards and narrated by a voice inside his head that is independently conscious and is unaware of the life Tod will end up having led. It's an interesting device, and because it does turn out that Tod harbors some big guilty secrets from earlier on in his life, it is a neat way to illustrate the mental review and action of his conscience (more on this below). After a major incident in your life, you may be inclined to "rewind the tape" and think about what happened and whether you made the right decisions and how it might have turned out otherwise. Because Tod's secrets are whole-life sized, we end up rewinding his whole life.
But I don't think author Martin Amis exercises this concept to nearly its full potential. The first half of the book is a mixture of suspense regarding Tod's secret and depictions of things happening in reverse (surgeons carefully wounding patients, love letters emerging from the trash, etc.) that are mildly interesting and poignant but do get a bit old. I was a bit annoyed by the narrator's continued naiveté regarding the way events move in reverse. He establishes his understanding that he is seeing things backwards but often narrates as if he doesn't understand what is really going on in normal, forward time.
OK, so perhaps that is deliberate because the narrator is serving as a sort of conscience or apologist. To make any sense or defense of the things Tod has done and has seen others do, our narrator must sometimes be naive, sometimes unwilling to understand or face every truth. The truth is so terrible as to defy reason going forward - how could we allow things like this to ever happen? - so maybe he has to put his chrono-blinders on and think only backwards.
I could buy that argument, but then the book has to present some sort of greater understanding from seeing time backwards instead of forwards. Tod's secret is a horror going forwards in time; if it is nothing more than a horror going backwards in time as well, then the entire premise of the book is intellectually bankrupt. I wish we could have seen more specifically how Tod's personality and behavior later in his life were influenced by his past; perhaps a few incidents in which the reader could more fully understand Tod's actions once he or she understood Tod's past. Maybe Amis tries to play the suspense angle too much, trying to be mysterious about the ending, resulting in a book that is almost two-thirds literary scaffolding for what is an admittedly very good final third. Lots of potential here, but it's only partially realized. ...more
Watership Down is a book for children. If you are a child then you should read it; you'll have fun. If you are an adult then you can still read it butWatership Down is a book for children. If you are a child then you should read it; you'll have fun. If you are an adult then you can still read it but be aware that it is a book for children and not one that carries additional depth of meaning or poignancy if you read it when you're older.
It is an adventure story about rabbits who leave their warren to found a new one, all the while dodging predators, making other animal friends, and battling a rival warren of aggressively militant rabbits. There aren't any subtleties, hidden meanings, or purposes other than to simply tell a rollicking adventure story. Some people might find this refreshing, I guess. It is fun to a point.
The imagery of the book depends heavily on plant names. There are countless references to a wild variety of flora whose meaning was largely lost on me, a city dweller. ...more