Not since reading A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich have I read a novel that presents such horrors in such a matter of fact way which somehow reinfNot since reading A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich have I read a novel that presents such horrors in such a matter of fact way which somehow reinforces the the horrors that people are capable of enduring and while preserving their humanity and dignity. The impact is enormous I learned more about WWI from this novel than all the history books I've read thus far....more
If one reads the introductory essay or the postscript of the 10th Anniversary Edition one comes away with two impressions. The first is that Gaiman coIf one reads the introductory essay or the postscript of the 10th Anniversary Edition one comes away with two impressions. The first is that Gaiman consider’s American Gods to be first and foremost a book about America. The second is that Gaiman is a little bit embarrassed about the presumption that he, an Englishman, could write a book about America. In this reader’s opinion, Gaiman need not feel embarrassed as he successfully captures a piece of the American character in this epic novel about the coming war between newly ascendant gods (technology, media, etc) created in this country and down on their luck old world gods (Odin, Anubis, Anansi, etc) who were either brought to this continent in the minds of immigrants or are native to the Americas. In particular Gaiman successfully captures the sense of the scale and expanse of the United States as well as the fickleness of its culture.
The plot of the book is epic in scope yet personal in the telling. Almost the entire novel is told from the point of view of Shadow, an ex-con with no real ambition or self drive, who is released from prison a little early after his wife is killed in a car accident. On his way home to put her affairs in order he falls into the employ of a Mr. Wednesday, the american version of the norse god Odin and a consummate grifter. Through a series of events, some of which seem contrived to the point of becoming deus ex machina, Shadow becomes a central figure in an upcoming war between the gods of the old world and the new gods who were created here as a result of modern american consumer culture and are led by a mysterious Mr. World.
For me, the plot of the novel reads more like a really good graphic novel (of which Gaiman is a recognized master) than a traditional novel. Each chapter is an almost self contained unit and each seems to cover roughly the same sized chunk of the story. The plot moves along at a steady pace and is contrived to introduce as many characters as feasible, though this is not a bad thing as the characters are what makes the story interesting.
This novel has a lot of characters, most of which are gods. Unfortunately, because of this there is very little room for character development or depth. With the exception of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday, only the barest surface of any given character is scratched. Even Shadow, the protagonist of the novel, is mostly opaque and acts primarily as the person the events in the book happen to.
What I liked the most about Gaiman 's treatment of the gods he people's the book with is that he doesn't bother to label them. One can get a pretty clear picture about who they are and what they represent as a god from their behavior and appearance but Gaiman leaves it up to the reader to look up the likes of Anansi and Czernobog to discover from which world mythology the deity hails.
Gaiman' s writing style is a joy to read. He uses a modern idiom and a straightforward writing style which makes the book feel informal, another aspect which evokes graphic novels. He is spare with descriptions except when introducing a new character or an important place. When he does provide a description he does so almost like he is giving instructions to an illustrator. He also reserves most of his descriptions to actions and activity rather than the static. Even when describing a place, the focus is on things in motion.
Overall I enjoyed reading American Gods and recommend it to those interested in plot heavy novels and graphic novels. ...more
I always knew that On the Origin of the Species was an important book in the annals of scientific writing but I always assumed it was because it was tI always knew that On the Origin of the Species was an important book in the annals of scientific writing but I always assumed it was because it was the first to lay out a complete argument for evolution. I had no idea what a stunningly awesome (in the original meaning of inspiring awe) example of argumentation and reason the book truly is. Darwin not only comes up with a theory but he imagines every possible argument against it and counters each with facts, reason, and where warranted the weaknesses of his own arguments.
As I read through the book I could not help but remember that so much about what he reasoned must be true has been proven through fields of later science. I wonder how much stronger Darwin's already almost unassailable argument would have been had he met Gregor Mendel in his research. Many of the parts of his arguments where reliant on reason could have been even stronger had he had knowledge of genes and the laws of inheritance.
There are areas were Darwin was a little wrong. For instance, he asserted that evolution must take place very slowly but in the 20th and 21st century very fast evolution has been observed multiple times (e.g. antibiotic resistant bacteria). He also was much more pessimistic about how much would be preserved in the fossil record. He was convinced that we would likely never be able to identify truly intermediate forms but there are now relatively complete series of forms for multiple groups including horses and whales.
I believe everyone should read this book whether or not they are religiously fundamentalist or not. On the Origin of the Species is the best example of argumentation I've ever read and it is clear why it is among the top 100 books of all time on many lists....more
Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a relatively short but dense story full of dread and awe. The novella evoked similar feelings from meas 19th century gotConrad's Heart of Darkness is a relatively short but dense story full of dread and awe. The novella evoked similar feelings from meas 19th century gothic novels like The Italian by Radcliff and The Castle of Otranto by Walpole. There is even a little bit of otherworldliness to the story similar to H. P. Lovecraft stories, particularly in the character of Kurtz.
The novella is separated into three sections, each of which addresses a different form of darkness with each successive section becoming more terrifying (I'm using the old 19th century gothic sense of the word, see Ann Radcliffe's "On the Supernatural in Poetry" http://www.litgothic.com/Texts/radcli...). In the first section, the darkness addresses the mystery of the the unknown jungles of the Congo river basin. This darkness is more adventurous and even inviting. It is the type of darkness that has drawn explorers across time to discover new lands and peoples and fill in those blank spaces on the map. The second section addresses the darkness of African colonialization. In this section we get to see the horrible and dark actions of one group of people against a weaker. The final section is more personal and perhaps the darkest as it explores the individual's capacity for internal darkness.
With only a few paragraphs at the beginning and end of the novella, the entire book is narrated by Marlow and therefore takes on the speech patterns and idioms of an English river-boat captain. Consequently the writing style is a little hard to follow at times. One has to pay special attention as well as Marlow tends to jump forwards and backwards with no transition.
Heart of Darkness is a novella that will stick with me for quite some time to come. I anticipate it will be a book I read more than once in the coming years. If you enjoy 19th century gothic novels, Kafka, or Lovecraft I believe you will find much to like in this book....more
The Omnivore's Dilemma is the story of where our food comes from. The book is organized around four different meals, each of which comes from a differThe Omnivore's Dilemma is the story of where our food comes from. The book is organized around four different meals, each of which comes from a different type of food chain: industrial, industrial organic, "beyond organic," and hunter gatherer.
Over all, Pollan goes out of his way to present a fair and balanced story. He doesn't villainize the corporations nor is the book a call to arms like so many documentaries and other books of this sort do. Instead much of the book is a fairly even handed retelling about where our food comes from. Almost all of the strong opinions expressed in the book come from the people he interviews and they range across the board.
The first section/meal is the one that I'm sure for most people causes the most impact. It is the story of corn because the vast majority of the ingredients in processed foods come from corn. It is also what is fed to our meats and even farmed fish. Pollan discusses where corn came from, how it became such a popular crop, the government policies that subsidizes it to the point where corn processors buy a bushel for less than half what it took to grow it. The story of modern industrial farming and food is the story of corn. I was already familiar with much of what Pollan presented in the book but it had more impact on me this time to have everything presented in one place. Some of the key items I took away from this section include:
- The current farm policies of the US Government are decidedly anti-farmer and pro corn buyer (i.e. ADM, Cargill, Monsanto).
- Unless it is raw it either has corn in it or it was grown with corn (or soy).
- The actual cost of the cheap processed food we find at the store and at the fast food restaurants is actually much more expensive to produce with almost half of the cost being subsidized by tax payer's dollars in the form of farm subsidies.
- The amount of petroleum that goes into farming an acre of corn is staggering. The way we farm corn is really more of a way to turn petroleum energy into food as opposed to solar energy.
My only complaint about this section of the book is that soy is given little attention. Soy is in almost as many products as corn is and some of the hormones present in soy worry me a bit more than corn.
The second section discussed industrial organic. This is all the organic stuff you find in the regular grocery stores. The major take away from this section is that it is pretty much the same as industrial food only they substitute USDA approved chemicals in place of fertilizers, antibiotics, and pesticides. It is somewhat better but still not all that great.
The third section was the most most life changing for me as it really made me learn that there can be a better way to grow our food. This section discusses Polyface Farms, a farm that grows a lot of different things and is almost entirely based on grass. They take in almost nothing and produce more per acre than the most intense commercial farming. This section of the book has convinced me and my wife to find this sort of farm near us to obtain some of our food.
The final section covers the author's attempt to make a meal that was 100% hunted and gathered. For me the most interesting section was his discussion of the ethics of eating animals including the philosophy of animal rights groups like PETA. I was very happy to read that Pollan has come to the same conclusion as I have which is that those groups seem to focus on the individual animals suffering to the detriment of the species over all. Some go to such an extreme as thinking we have to do something about predation in nature. This last section was interesting but not as actually useful to me.
Over all I recommend this book to all readers....more
Unlike my usual modus operandi, I picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz knowing next to nothing about it. I was not even aware that this book was publishUnlike my usual modus operandi, I picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz knowing next to nothing about it. I was not even aware that this book was published more than 50 years ago. My expectation was that it was a relatively recent science fiction novel which would be a quick read with a good story and a fun plot. Overall, I was expecting something about as deep as Old Man’s War, not completely shallow but certainly not something I could compare to Candide by Voltaire or Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo. I was completely unprepared for the what I found.
First of all, despite winning a Hugo Award, A Canticle for Leibowitz is unlike any science fiction novel I have read. There is almost no technology in the novel until the last few chapters and where technology does exist, it is a mere prop. This novel is primarily focused on the human condition and bears more in common with McCarthy’s The Road (generally not categorized as science fiction) then fellow Hugo winner Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Another place where the novel differs from all science fiction I have read is its treatment of religion and faith. God and religion makes an appearance in many science fiction novels but it is usually vague, portrayed negatively (e.g. Stranger in a Strange Land’s Fosterites), cynically (e.g. Dune’s Missionaria Protectiva), made fun of (e.g. Cat’s Cradle’s Bokononism), or simply not part of the story (e.g. Old Man's War). A Canticle for Leibowitz not only portrays religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, in a positive light but actually makes it and theology a center theme in the novel and it is clear that God has a hand in the events and development of the story. It has some comparisons with C. S. Lewis's Narnia series in that respect, though Miller's treatment of how God is involved in the world is much more subtle and nuanced.
Prior to the events in A Canticle for Leibowitz world civilization is destroyed in the 20th century by a nuclear war which kills a majority of the populous. After the war, the survivors rise up and kill any vestige of the leadership, scientists, scholars, and eventually even the literate, plunging humanity back into a dark age of warring tribes and a medieval level of technology and learning. The only vestiges of learning to survive do so because of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a Roman Catholic monastic order founded by a Jewish electrical engineer who converted to Catholicism after the war and was subsequently martyred and beatified. The purpose of the order is to preserve as many books, texts, and artifacts from the 20th century as possible in the hope that one day culture will once again be ready to advance in learning and technology. Against this apocalyptic backdrop, Miller takes us on a three part journey across almost two thousand years centered around the abbey of the monks of Leibowitz in the Utah desert.
“Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man) The first part of the novel takes place 600 years after the war. Literacy is gone and much of the populace would destroy a book and kill the person carrying it on sight. Ignorance and superstition permeate the world, including the world of the monks. During Lenten fast in the desert, one of the novitiates of the order, Frances, encounters an old wanderer who points him to a stone he needs to complete his shelter against wolves only to uncover a treasure trove of artifacts from the 20th century, including some potentially from from Leibowitz himself. Without revealing spoilers, the chapter explores monastic life from Frances’ point of view.
“Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light) Six-hundred years later, the kingdom of Texarkana and the monks are in the early stages of a Renaissance and Texarkana is on the cusp of empire. A scientist and scholar from Texarkana comes to the abbey to study the carefully preserved memorabilia the monks have preserved for more than a thousand years. The Wander makes another appearance, this time as a hermit and a foil for the abbot to have debate on some philosophical and theological ideas in the desert.
“Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done) Another six-hundred years passed and civilization has recovered and exceeded the technology of the lost 20th century. However, the world is once again about to make the same mistakes.
The abbey, the continuation of the order, the Wanderer, and the fact that despite changes in society the human condition and experience remains largely the same are what hold these three sections of the novel together. The major themes of the cyclical nature of history and the interactions between the religious and non-religious worlds also tie the three sections together.
Of all of the characters, the Wanderer is one of the more interesting. Without saying so, Miller makes it clear that this character is the same person in all three sections of the novel yet no clear explanation for this is given. In the first part of the book he is identified by the monks (who did not actually see him) to be Leibowitz himself. Yet in the second section Miller drops strong hints that this Wanderer is actually the Wandering Jew of Christian legend. In the third section he is merely present, though his presence speaks volumes. Is this character the Wandering Jew? Was Leibowitz himself the Wandering Jew? This character more than anything else in the novel makes we want to go and study more to perhaps bring forth new understanding of this book.
With this character and the rest, Miller manages to pull off a rare feat. Almost every character in the novel feels fully realized. Without resorting to excessive back stories or descriptions, Miller manages to drop hints and symbols which helps the reader to build the back story for the characters themselves and consequently the characters felt more rounded even if they appear on only a few pages. This feeling was enhanced by some of the big universal issues that the characters encounter.
The big universal ideas and symbolism in this novel is too extensive to list without spoilers, not to mention that some of the symbolism flew over my head, particularly in the closing chapters. I suspect a better understanding of Roman Catholic theology might make some of the symbols more clear. A few of the big ideas and issues include the nature of the soul verses the body, the difference between man and animal, the morality of euthanasia and abortion, suffering, conflicts between church and state, the assumed conflict between science and religion (and how the conflicts are not always as great as the scientists believe), God’s hand in the development of humanity, and more. And even when these heavy ideas are addressed, I never had the feeling that I was being preached to. While the point of view is decidedly Roman Catholic in nature, the debates and explanations were provided more as an illustration for the motivations and experiences of the characters then as an argument with the reader.
I have almost nothing bad to say about this novel. The writing is good. The characters are well developed. The content is deep. The only nits I have is that some of the symbology is inscrutable, though that only makes me want to read more about it and translations of some of the Latin and Hebrew, even if only in the appendix, would have saved me a good deal of time looking things up.
I highly recommend this book to fans and non-fans of science fiction alike....more
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Even more so than Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle exhibits Vonnegut's biting writing style aThis is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Even more so than Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle exhibits Vonnegut's biting writing style and wonderfully odd ways of telling a story. The entire novel can be taken as a cynical review of humanity and its absurdity. Cat's Cradle has to be the best treatment of the end of the world I've yet read, ranking up there with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in humor but with a great deal more cynicism.
If you enjoyed the movie Doctor Strangelove you will enjoy this novel. I highly recommend it for all readers....more