December 31, 2007

2007 Year in Review

Here are the 66 books I've read this year:

Michael Alexander Beowulf
Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
Neil D. Isaacs Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front
H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds
Isaac Asimov I, Robot
Pat Barker Regeneration
Wolfgang Benz A Concise History of the Third Reich
Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles
Marion Zimmer Bradley The Mists of Avalon
Bill Bryson A Short History of Nearly Everything
Italo Calvino Cosmicomics
Karel --apek War with the Newts
J.L. Carr A Month in the Country
Arthur C. Clarke Childhood's End
George Coppard With a Machine Gun to Cambrai
Phillip K. Dick Ubik
Laura Esquivel Like Water for Chocolate
Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides
Hans Fallada Little Man, What Now?
Susan Faludi Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
Peter Fritzsche Germans Into Nazis
Rupert Gethin The Foundations of Buddhism
Mark Haddon The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
E.T.A. Hoffmann Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann
Michael Howard The First World War
Washington Irving The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle
P.D. James The Children of Men
Norton Juster The Phantom Tollbooth
Laurie R. King The Art of Detection
Ruth Kluger Still Alive
Ursula K. Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness
Jean-Yves Le Naour The Living Unknown Soldier
Stanislaw Lem The Futurological Congress
Vicki Mackenzie Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom
Gregory Maguire Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
Frederic Manning Her Privates We
Ian McEwan Atonement
Ian McEwan Saturday
Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz
Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind
Alice Munro Open Secrets
Joyce Carol Oates I Am No One You Know
Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time
Alain Robbe-Grillet The Erasers
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
William Shakespeare Henry IV, Part One
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene: Book One
Ellyn Spragins What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self
Olaf Stapledon Star Maker
Patrick Süskind Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Justin Taylor The Apocalypse Reader
J.R.R. Tolkien The Tolkien Reader
H.G. Wells The Invisible Man
H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau
H.G. Wells The Time Machine
Yevgeny Zamyatin We

Some of the best were The Martian Chronicles, The Mists of Avalon, Cosmicomics, War with the Newts, and The Phantom Tollbooth. A few were disappointing, but considering that I basically discovered science fiction this year, I'm very excited for the future.

December 28, 2007

Book 66: Saturday

Ian McEwan

I had read about this book as an intricate study of the spectacular and mundane events that can be contained within a single day's time; unfortunately, I was also expecting a superb companion to Atonement, McEwan's masterpiece and literary meditation. While Saturday does have its merits and definitely displays a fascinating array of fine prose, it fails to live up to McEwan's other work and drags its feet far too much in the mundane to truly captivate readers. The premise itself is at once simple and complex; McEwan has carefully chosen his protagonist and draws him with astonishing clarity. Because the book possesses an extremely unsteady characterization-to-plot ratio, readers know Henry Perowne thoroughly before he actually does anything and, consequently, can guess at much of the plot and much of his revelations. It is here where the book begins to go slightly awry.

Perowne may be incessantly drawn out, with his thoughts exposed page in and page out, but he isn't particularly sympathetic. He is kind of a jerk, actually, and takes advantage of bourgeois medical training, compromising an already compromised man. Though he (rightfully) has doubts, his so-called concessions are slight and are condescending. Throughout the book, Henry (and McEwan) tries to mask the fact that he isn't particularly interesting, nor particularly kind or caring. Sure, he is an excellent family man, but he lacks basic sympathy. While he is not particularly vile and it is interesting to be exposed to a normal character, the depth with which Henry is presented isn't justified by Henry. He simply isn't that interesting, and the long, unnecessarily drawn out passages in which he gets lost in his daydreams are particularly uninspiring. Instead of presenting an interesting character study on the modern British everyman, McEwan settles for an absolute dullard, proving perhaps that life is boring and mundane but making for an uninteresting novel.

The plot, while contrived, is intriguing and comes in just in time to rescue the reader. I do not give up on books and I was damn determined to finish this one today, but I was lost in the quagmire and was about ready to give up when the climax came, about fifty pages too early. Instead of building suspence up to a palpable crescendo, McEwan introduces a twisting, terrifying plot element only to completely abandon it until it sneaks up on the reader again, after a midsection of utter malaise.

It isn't that McEwan is a bad, or even boring, writer. Atonement too had its long passages of reflection and suffered from a lack of concrete plot. What sets Saturday apart is its concentration on a subject that does not warrant the scope of a novel. Maybe the book does accurately detail a spectacular day in a mundane life; even when extraordinary things happen, they usually occupy only an hour or two at a time, at most. The problem is that McEwan's insights and daydreams, while vividly imagined in stunningly crafed prose, cannot alone sustain the book's 290 pages. McEwan is undoubtedly gifted, and enough of his talent shines through to make me want to read his other books, but, in the end, Saturday succeeds mostly as an argument for exaggeration and hyperbole in literature. As a meditation on the mundane, it is excellent, but that doesn't make it a particularly thrilling read.

Grade: B

December 24, 2007

Book 65: Woman on the Edge of Time

Woman on the Edge of Time
Marge Piercy

If I were pressed to describe Piercy as an author in only one word, few contenders would come even remotely close to "unapologetic". Woman on the Edge of Time is a pointed satirical utopian criticism of modern America. Written in the 1970s, what makes the book even more biting is the fact that little seems to have improved for those stuck in the same plight as Connie. Indeed, for some of the poor and some with mental disorders, society's inevitable need and desire to control everything has probably worsened things. The fact that Piercy can draw such fierce attention to these issues within the context of a highly readable (if not entirely enjoyable) novel without always being overly preachy is quite the accomplishment. The book has its moments when the feminist itch overwhelms the plot, but such steadfastness is appreciated within the all-or-nothing framework of the book. Connie is playing for the highest stakes, and Piercy makes it clear that her fight transcends her personal struggle and must be taken up by society.

The book itself is quite an interesting construction. Beginning in hard-set, grim reality, the first chapters will no doubt scare some readers with their bluntness and excessive violence. While this may be a drawback, the novel's grittiness is necessary for it to pull off its theme; Piercy holds nothing back at any point and crafts a strong novel with strong situations for her readers to react to. Piercy does this for a very distinct reason: when Connie begins time-traveling to the peaceful and completely communal Mattapoisett, the contrast between dirty modernity and utopian vision becomes even more pronounced and effective. Though it is uncertain whether Connie is indeed hallucinating or traveling to the future, the book seamlessly weaves visions of the future in with Connie's hospitalized present in various hospital wards. Mattapoisett is at first disorienting, but the quick jumps between times fit the novel thematically and contribute to an overall sense of potential achievability.

Piercy is a bit headstrong in her criticisms, and many times the reader screams, "Okay, I get it!" The book definitely does not revel in subtlety, but the alternate future(s) it creates have stunning vitality and are imagined with such force that they seem to be staring us down as we read the book. Piercy plays for all the marbles and, for the most part, wins, though her visions are a bit too utopian to ever seem a feasible future reality. The book's violent urgency thus acts as both an asset and defect; while it gives the story and Connie power, a little more restraint may have made the book more powerful and less of a rant. There are passages that seem more fit for DailyKos than for my fantastic literature class, but the book definitely has merit and its fire drives it along.

Connie herself is also vividly imagined and, crazy or not, immediately draws and demands the sympathy of the reader. She is the only aspect of the book that is faithfully exaggerated. Though she is a very strong and unique character, she is consistent and leaps off of the page into hard reality. By the book's end, we feel as though we know Connie far better than the doctors or other patients of the hospital wards. Sympathy for Connie's plight holds the book together during its flirtations with over-eagerness, and the novel hangs together through her consistency and the reader's resultant empathy.

Because of this vivid portrayal of a realistic woman, the book's final chapter (a detailed and "scientific" rundown of Connie's treatment, as seen by her doctors) really hits home and asks for change more than the most overt feminist calls to action. As the book closes, we see Connie as the doctors do and are forced to ask ourselves whether she is, in fact crazy. Doubting her, of course, opens the can of worms about mental illness and the way we treat women, ethnic minorities, and the poor in this country. Piercy seems at last to realize the virtue of subtlety and, in these final two or three pages, nails the message completely. Woman on the Edge of Time may be a very blunt object hitting you directly over the head with its radical ideology, but Marge Piercy carefully constructs a narrative that embodies the very need for her utopian vision, persuading the reader through careful fiction that there is merit in Mattapoisett.

Grade: A

December 12, 2007

Book 64: Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Reading this book makes the movie make so much more sense! What at first seems to be nonsense and and unnecessary grandiose parade of circus-like events turns out to be a strong dose of realism and intense emotions in the original literary incarnation. Esquivel looks at life in a surprsingly new light: through food. Though my own family is connected through food in many ways, never had it occured to me that a novel could be told through recipes and their impact on the main characters. Esquivel has tapped into something very fundamental to human relations and excels in establishing and exploring the important impact that food and recipes have on lives. Forever tortured by her mother, Tita's only escape is the kitchen, and the fact that her story is told via food not only makes sense but is the cement that holds the otherwise overly-dramatic novel together.

Esquivel's decision to separate the book by months of the year, each with an accompanying recipe, does not make much sense and can distract from the story at large. Had she let the recipes do the talking, or aligned the chapters and the plot better (the first chapter, January, takes place in December), the book would have been much stronger and much more coherent. The recipes that are included are brilliantly intertwined with events in the book, with instructions coming between bouts of plot without disrupting the flow of the book. Like Water for Chocolate is definitely a structural achievement: easy to read and forcing the reader to reconsider a traditional form (the recipe book), this book takes thematic and structural integration to the next level.

Where Esquivel trips up a bit is in the plot. While the magical realism connected to food is appreciated and in fact enhances the book, other supernatural events seem tacky and distract from the overall theme of the novel. The appearances of the ghosts in the text could be presented more spiritually than realistically and still accomplish their intended function as reminders of years past. What the book does not do, however, is compromise for the mere sake of a happy ending. Tita's continual despair does take a toll on the reader, but is mitigated by the fact that she is perpetually weak and whiny, as is her lover. The book's dearth of positive characters takes a toll after a while and makes the reading experience quite depressing and somewhat grating; there is only one likable main character and they get completely screwed over. Esquivel offers what is perhaps a truer vision of life and circumstances, but it doesn't hurt to have sympathetic characters once in a while.

Like Water for Chocolate operates on two different levels. The writing is simple and clear, with a realistic storyline that digresses in one or two too many places to really resonate with the reader. The overall plot itself is not necessarily thematic, but the novel's deeper intention of revealing the importance of food to familial ties and human relations shines. It is here that the magical realism really comes through and does a great job of elucidating and providing theme. Esquivel taps into the deepest recesses of human nature and succeeds in presenting an argument for the importance of food, using fantastic elements in a carefully balanced manner. It is just unfortunate that the novel reaches a bit beyond Esquivel's abilities and tries to be universal on more than one level. The book is definitely worth reading (and I want to try some of its recipes), but don't be surprised if there are moments of frustration at Esquivel's excessive symbolism and complications.

Grade: B

November 27, 2007

Book 63: Henry IV, Part One

Henry IV, Part One
William Shakespeare

Ah, Shakespeare. We all knew I would get around to the Bard eventually, didn't we? Henry IV, Part One is a good example of why and how Shakespeare has achieved his mighty reputation. The play is enjoyable enough but displays a sense of epic self-consciousness that still resonates and, at times, clogs the narrative. As for the story itself, it is important to England's history and the preservation of its memory, but actual plot elements are few and far between. The very vague connection between Falstaff's scenes in various taverns (complete with lol-heavy slapstick fat jokes) and the important parts of the play is slightly annoying, as Falstaff comes across as unnecessary. Shakespeare does utilize a rather hilarious web of entanglement for his thieves, and his comic wit is sharp when dealing with Prince Hal's and Falstaff's role-playing, but this second story just doesn't seem to have a place in the grand histories of kings and rebellions.

Shakespeare definitely has a flair for the dramatic (ahem), but, as usual, this gets to be a little too much at times, as eloquent speech overwhelms the reader and clouds any sense of what is actually happening. I believe that Shakespeare is well-suited to his form, and that such diversions may work out well on the stage, but on paper alone they are less than fully satisfying. What Shakespeare has done, however, is created an interesting and vibrant picture of what could have been just another rebellion in the olde days of yore. His language is excessively elegent, but part of the play's difficulty lies in the fact that there is a huge gap between Shakespeare's English and our own. Henry IV, Part One seems remarkably modern at times, and as for the haughty language, we are dealing with kings of a bygone era. Henry IV, Part One isn't necessarily a book suitable for a trip to the beach or a vacation time-killer, but it is certainly interesting for the glimpses it offers us of the eras of its setting and composition.

Grade: B+

November 24, 2007

Book 62: Cosmicomics

Italo Calvino

Finally, a collection of short stories that is entirely cohesive and where one can help boost understanding of the others. Not quite a collection of disparate stories and not quite a composite novel, Cosmicomics masters the short story and sets an impeccable gold standard for collections of short fiction. The stories of Cosmicomics are not only linked together by a common narrator or by recurring themes (such as lost love), but by unquantifiable characteristics that, taken together, provide a view of the macro- and microcosms of the universe unparalleled by science or, almost certainly, by any work of fiction. Calvino seeks not to define the universe, but to make scientific facts come alive in the adventures and lives of vividly defined existential beings. In doing so, he brilliantly weaves together the vast infinity of space and the minute emotional twinges we humans feel.

Taking on the entire universe and grappling with such concepts as galactic recession and the Big Bang is no small feat, but Calvino suceeds in every conceivable manner. His narrator, Qfwfq, is vividly imagined and consistent even though he exists outside of space and time. At different points he is human, dinosaur, interstellar being, and microscopic atom; though he changes within stories, he is always himself somehow. Instead of creating a cop-out character who could be anything the author needs at a given moment, Calvino works with the fabric of the universe and makes believable a constant in the broadest sense of the term. Qfwfq's consistent resemblance to humanity throughout (and perhaps despite) his many forms brings the universe down to our level and makes the scientific facts preceding each story come alive. We are reassured that humanity has fundamental characteristics that permeate the entirety of time, making our short stay on Earth relevant and part of the vast plan of the cosmos.

Cosmicomics is far from a haughty sermon on human relevance and the insignificance of individual lives. Calvino takes the largest of distances and times and humanizes them with unparalleled skill and literary dexterity. The stories in this book are all gripping and all achieve exactly what they mean to. Some are a bit stronger than others, but all are miles ahead of their time. While drawing inspiration from the cutting edge of science, Calvino manages some astonishing predictions and observations that cut right into the computer age. His imagination of a world of relativity, comprised entirely of signs and marks of one's existence, comes thirty years before the Internet and forty before Second Life, which is all but described in "A Sign in Space". Despite Calvino's use of the science of the Sixties, the book is fresh and modern even decades after its publication.

Calvino masters both scope and depth in Cosmicomics, taking on everything with a distinctly human perspective and making science relevant and within the grasp of any ordinary reader. I also imagine that these stories would be well-received in the scientific community, adding an interesting and often humorous perspective on the often dry annals of science. Cosmicomics takes the mind-boggling and brings it down to size without losing any of its grand expanse. The stories each imagine a distinctly human universe that is comforting and familiar, insisting that we are important and part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. Even more astounding is that this is managed without a hint of pride, but rather with only the phenomenal reach of Italo Calvino's vivid imagination.

Grade: A

November 20, 2007

Book 61: The Apocalypse Reader

The Apocalypse Reader
Edited by Justin Taylor

The premise of apocalypse promises to create interesting, if not always excellent, stories, and this collection offers up quite a few worth the time. Taken together, however, the collection feels patchy in parts and has stories that vary from excellent to bizarre and annoyingly postmodern. While I understand Taylor's insistence on collecting stories that focus not only on the Apocalypse as we commonly think of it but also on minor apocalypses such as the loss of a child , I think that his collection suffers from a lack of coherency because of the variance of apocalypse in the stories. If they were grouped more thematically, it may have been easier to track the point of the more indecipherable stories, but the collection is as it stands and can become a bit confusing.

The stories themselves vary incredibly in their quality. There are some by new authors that are stunning and weave in new and fresh methods with stunning success. There are others, however, that seem to relish their art to the point where there really is no story and nothing to grasp onto. I cannot get a firm grasp on Taylor's criteria for inclusion; the stories are so wildly inconsistent that the book is really only useful for finding the gems, a feat that can be easily accomplished within the span of a library loan. Taylor has put together an interesting attempt, but ultimately the collection fails to hold together and captivate the reader the way apocalyptic literature should.

Grade: B

November 18, 2007

Book 60: The Faerie Queene, Book 1

The Faerie Queene, Book 1
Edmund Spenser

I am not an academic. I enjoy old literature and consider myself to have a fleeting but passable familiarization with Middle English as a language. I can more or less comfortably read Chaucer and, with some well-placed glosses and footnotes, can fully understand Shakespeare. Where I falter, however, is with Spenser's deliberately overworked poetry. Over-archaized verse that flaunts its superior morality while commiting hypocrisy at every turn, The Faerie Queene is not to be read by those outside of the know. In fact, even those studying it for a conceivable purpose would probably do better with more interesting and feasible works from the era. If this is England's national epic, I'll go to France or Germany- at least I can understand them in translation. Spenser's work is impossible to enjoy and can only be understood with the help of a personal tutor, extensive footnotes, and a doctorate-level understanding of Greek mythology and the history of England.

I hesitate to be so cruel toward Spenser, but I cannot imagine he was much easier to read in his own day. In fact, because we have the benefit of context and scholarship, it may be easier to read Spenser now. Spenser's use of Spenserian (oho!) verse does not propel the story forward or give it the gravity he intends; rather, it creates a forced metrical feel and an utterly painful rhyme scheme that screw up the syntax to a point where it is impossible to discern what is going on at any point in the story. Characters will start dialogues without being properly introduced, point of view will shift dramatically, and names change left and right without explanation. This story requires a map.

In itself, the tale is mainly flawed by its complexity. If Spenser spent more time creating interesting literature and less trying to fluff himself and his image I'm sure he would have created a worthwhile allegory. When the story is focused on itself and not on obscure Greek name-dropping it gets quite interesting. The caveat, of course, is the fact that the virtue of Holinesse can belong to both Catholics and Protestants throughout the story (it is supposed to settle on the latter) and that magic is either evil (Catholic) or good (Protestant) on Spenser's whim. He won't win over any converts with his hole-ridden plot, but he gives it a good whack anyway. Spenser does go a bit overboard by naming characters directly after each vice and virtue encountered, but this fits right in with his grandiose stylization and merely reinforces the reader's notion that Spenser is a man utterly full of himself.

The main fault of The Faerie Queene is that its author doesn't trust its message to speak for itself. Instead, Spenser employs far too much grandstanding for far too little actual substance. He undermines any argument he may have in the process and makes himself look silly instead of academic and/or intelligent. Reading this book is an excruciatingly bad experience that I would recommend avoiding if at all possible. I want to be well-read in English literature, but I don't like having my time blatantly wasted and, indeed, stolen by a hoard of academics who are willing to pry Spenser apart. There is no joy in Faery Lond for the common reader.

Grade: C

November 13, 2007

Book 59: The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth
Norman Juster

Call it children's literature, call it silly, call it what you want: this book is simply amazing, hands down. The Phantom Tollbooth may have primarily children in mind, and it is an excellent story for them, make no mistake, but any linguistically-minded adult can (and should) have a field day with this book. Packed cover to cover with clever puns and jokes that constantly poke fun at the silliness of idiomatic English. Sure, this book may be advertised for children, but it almost takes a full-blown English major to fully understand and appreciate Juster's neverending wit and powerful insights.

One of the reasons the book succeeds so brilliantly is that its main character, Milo, is stuck in the kind of malaise we all encounter at some point; all he wants to do is whatever, and he is able to discover the power of language to define and change the world around him. The book is didactic, but not overpowering in its morality, and its deepest levels of direction are only carefully pried apart deliberately. The book is far from a lesson in morality and instead attempts (successfully, I think) to immerse the reader in the magical world of words and numbers, the world of knowledge that continually opens doors and creates new paths in the midst of utmost boredom.

The book's way with words is nothing short of amazing. Every other sentence is a pun, but these are not the groan-inducing jokes you'd expect. The puns in this book all serve a purpose and all have mulitple levels of meaning that enhance both the text and our everyday language. We learn, as Milo does, that the power of language is the power to connect to unknown depths in our own minds. Norton Juster has created a hilarious romp through a world of seeming contradictions and dream-like creatures of fantasy and readers of all ages should be able to delight and revel in the joys of taking things literally. The Phantom Tollbooth is one exciting linguistic revelation after another that should prod serious thinking and pure enjoyment. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Grade: A

November 8, 2007

Book 58: The Tolkien Reader

The Tolkien Reader
J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien is an author known for the depth of his imagination and his skill in bringing the small details of a foreign world into crisp, clear focus for readers across generations. The Tolkien Reader certainly does not disappoint on these counts; its shorter selections are every bit as imaginative as his epic work and, in the case of the last section, help to refine our idea of Middle Earth even further. The selections in this book are carefully chosen and represent Tolkien at his very finest in his different literary guises. The first selection, a retelling of the Battle of Maldon, is expertly rendered and fully captures the style of the epic stories of its era. Not only does this section of the book include the well-rendered play that fits in perfectly with the historical canon of the genre. The essays that accompany this short fiction are intriguing and will be useful to anyone studying Old English literature. Tolkien's depth as a scholar is brilliantly displayed here, but there is more to be had.

The second section of Tolkien's writings consists of a binary work combining an essay "On Fairy-Stories" and the short story "Leaf: By Niggle." Tolkien here displays his excellent ability as a critic and, more importantly, a literary theorist, explaining some of the uses and forms of fairy-stories and fantastic literature in general. Not only does Tolkien theorize, however; the short story that follows is an excellent representation of all that is extolled in the essay as Niggle's tale and art transcend their scope and become, in a sense, real. Combining these two as "Tree and Leaf" shows the great care Tolkien takes in creating and upholding his theories; if we take the theory outlined in the essay as the sturdy trunk of the tree, "Leaf: By Niggle" is a perfectly crafted leaf branching off of the theory and into literary greatness. The story itself is at once funny and profound, and it is exceptionally interesting to see Tolkien succeed so greatly outside of the realm of Middle-Earth.

Yet other realms of Tolkien's multiple gifts are revealed in the story "Farmer Giles of Ham" and poetry collection "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil." The former is a delightful story that reads like a fairy tale for adults. A slightly ironic and dry sense of humor is required, and a knowledge of the forms of children's stories is helpful. Within the bounds of this more traditional form, Tolkien undermines some traditional fairy tales while coyly alluding to others ("The Brave Little Tailor"). The hero is far from heroic but, in his displays of practical wit and general sense of responsibility, Farmer Giles manages to overthrow a dangerous dragon and become king. Embedded in this delightful tale is a critique of certain strains of older European literature, as well as several nice potshots at the unassailable dominance of Latin in Old Europe. Tolkien's affinity for languages is clear but does not overwhelm the story, which succeeds marvelously on both the level of sheer delight and sharp satire.

"The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" may be the least remarkable stand-alone section of The Tolkien Reader, but it is fantastic nonetheless, particularly when viewed in light of its preface. This is a collection of poems ostensibly from Middle-Earth, each of whose origins are described carefully and which seem, especially in light of the more historically-minded portions of the book, to spring out of actual happenings rather than any imaginary world. It is here where art becomes truth as the poems interact with their own world and yet make sense to our own. Why shouldn't the Hobbits have a legend of a man in the moon, after all? The poems themselves are carefully constructed and display a remarkable ability in rhythm and rhyme. Taken together they add a layer of depth to Middle-Earth that can be enjoyed by seasoned travelers or newcomers.

Therein lies the beauty of Tolkien's writing, embodied exceptionally well in this collection. The thread that holds the book together is Tolkien's ability to work on numerous levels concurrently, building on his knowledge of old literature to create relevant and interesting modern stories, which can then add unto themselves a layer of subtle satire that does not overpower but rather enriches their magic. These stories may be deemed fantastic, but they and their worlds are as real to us as our own as Tolkien meticulously builds their histories and character, particularly with the inclusion of prefaces and introductions. The Tolkien Reader is an excellent introduction to the many facets of this ever-talented writer, and makes a solid argument for the prominence of fantastic narratives in the world of high literature.

Grade: A

November 1, 2007

Book 57: The Erasers

The Erasers
Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is a strange book. While I expected to be thoroughly confused and maddened by the looks of the disjointed prologue, I had to give the book a shot and, on retrospect, it deserves admiration. The Erasers is a daunting venture into relative reality, a particularly strange choice for a mystery story but one which works incredibly well. The traditional mystery's questions of what happened and how the pieces fit together are elaborated upon and taken to a whole new level of relative uncertainty in this book, which mixes tense and narrative perspective so often the reader is as confused as the starring befuddled detective Wallas.

The premise of the book is simple and gripping enough, but its satirical overtones take over soon enough to keep the reader from being too emotionally invested, and thus disappointed when the mystery takes on new literary territories. Rather than focusing on its plot, which is muddled, the book functions a bit like Kubrick's classic "Dr. Strangelove": by its end, the book itself has become much more important than its own events. This effect, of course, comes about only because of spectacularly careful and artful construction, which may be frustrating for the hard-boiled mystery reader but which should dazzle and delight literary critics and those looking for something new and different.

The Erasers, while a detective story, manages to transcend genre with its satirical depiction of the entirely inept Wallas and its greater artistic endeavours. Robbe-Grillet has constructed a book that forces the reader to ask the purpose of books and the usefulness of language. Other questions, such as narrative reliability and the usefulness or cliched boredom of certain stock characters. On reflection, The Erasers seems to be as much about literature as about mystery or even itself. That is not to say, however, that the book is dry and without fun. It is often funny and, though an intellectual challenge at times, well worth the effort. The punch at the end is absolutely hilarious and somehow comes across not as contrived but as brilliant, adding to the satire but wrapping up the plot realistically, given the characteristics of Wallas and his general bungling.

The Erasers defies and defines literary conventions and weaves a carefully constructed critique through its interesting and confusing plot. Wallas and the reader are together confounded at every turn, and only the reader is trusted with the true circumstances of the plot. This book can be frustrated when first explored, but a little reflection and a second read will reveal a wealth of treasures that make it well worth sifting through the confusion and confounding maze of the narrative.

Grade: A

October 24, 2007

Book 56: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated by Neil D. Isaacs

At first I was berating myself for not finishing a book in so long, but considering that it was only a ten-day lapse, I don't think I did too badly after all. This book is really more of a novella, but books can come in all shapes and sizes and Sir Gawain is particularly valuable to us as a relic of the Middle English period and an important marker of the cultural context of that time. What is perhaps most valuable and surprising about this book is its deviance from modern traditional visions of the Arthurian legend. Most everyone will know the legend behind this story, but in the modern era we tend to include the Round Table, that great marker of equality. The Middle English version is likely much closer to the actual events as it depicts a fairly typical high table and even a strict heirarchy within that table. This is especially valuable because it allows us to consider why we have retroactively introduced the Round Table. Little discrepencies such as this make me want to dig up some literature about the development of the Arthur legends, so stay tuned for that.

But back to Gawain. The book itself isn't too heavy on action per se, consciously leaving out a lot of dragon fighting and (presumably) maiden rescuing in lieu of long descriptions of Gawain's shield and its pentangle. Even here, however, we have an interesting lens through which to view medieval religion and notions of chivalry; the long descriptions do not hinder the reading of the text but instead enrich its historical perspective. The plot itself is sufficiently entertaining, if not groundbreaking, and contains a nice twist at the end which would be surprising if the story were not so grounded in the canon of English language folk literature. Some of the poetry of the original Middle English (which was presented side-by-side with this particular translation) is naturally lost, but some of its basic tendencies remain, the most prominent of which is the interaction between the last four lines of each stanza and the lines that precede them.

Overall, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is quite an entertaining and quick read, particularly for those interested in its historical context or the broader developments of Arthurian literature in English. Its plot developments happen often enough to engage the modern reader and the moral quandaries it poses regarding hospitality, courtesy, and honor still resonate somewhat today, though in ways the author couldn't have imagined. The story itself is strong enough to hold up over time and takes on new meaning because of its setting, only strengthening its claims to respectability. This classic tale of one of Arthur's most beloved knights is well worth the time.

Grade: A

October 14, 2007

Book 55: The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau
H.G. Wells

Written in a time before DNA and genetic engineering were the least bit fathomable, Wells definitely hit the spot regarding the next big ethical dilemma facing scientists in the wake of evolution. Where could the human race go next, and how exactly did humans emerge from animals in the first place? Wells indirectly tackles these issues and more basic scientific ethical questions with gusto, presenting the unrepetant mad scientist and the not-so-innocent outside observer with narrative flair that adds significant characterization but retains enough stock qualities to make metaphorical sense.

Wells juxtaposes the increasing humanity of Moreau's creations and the decreasing humanity of the scientist and Prendick, the accidental narrator, to create an interesting montage of the book's central dilemma and the question of humanity. Dr. Moreau's lack of mercy is paralleled by the monsters he creates, but only as they descend back into their primal selves, mostly after his disappearance. Wells seems to suggest that humans are just as capable of violent and selfish qualities as the animals we typically associate them with, but does so in an underhanded manner that requires thought and rumination on behalf of the reader, who is also forced to question those forms of being that may exist above humanity. The book is certainly not without its criticisms of and comparisons with God, which are extra potent given the plot's relationship to colonialism and its attendant idea of the heirarchy of the great chain of being.

Wells moves his prose along well, occasionally drifting into lulls and bits of unnecessary inaction, but the book reads quickly and has a certain depth surprising for a novel so short. The novel not only translates well in its own context of the expanding English colonial empire and the ramifications of evolutionary theory and the rise of science, but its warnings resonate with modern audiences facing a fair less painful method of creating animal crossbreeds. This book is intended to provoke discussion as much as it is a simple narrative, and though the narrative has its own strengths and weaknesses, the problems it presents are relevant and deserve fictional and intellectual treatment. Wells has laid the groundwork for a great conversation on the ethics of science.

Grade: A-

October 5, 2007

Book 54: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Lewis Carroll

There is a reason that this book has become revered in the canon of classic children's literature, and as one might expect this has a lot to do with Alice's timeless appeal to adults. Carroll is an absolute master of English and though the books lack a coherent plot, the thematic rules of Wonderland create a powerful commentary on the importance of proper language and the sheer fun that can come from manipulating English. On a most basic level, Wonderland is a world where things make much more sense than in our own, where the denizens assume that one says what one means, exactly, and that words should mean what they say. It is no wonder that the (ironically) unimaginative Alice cannot function in this world, and that she learns her lessons far too late.

Alice is ever pretentious and all-knowing, which strangely doesn't fly in her fantasy world. Instead of being in charge, she is thrust into a world whose oddly logical wackiness cannot be reconciled with her prim and proper manners and desire to become an adult. In trying to make sense of the world, she is losing the rich fantasy she is imagining. Of course, by the time Alice has matured enough to appreciate the fleeting fancies of her youth, she makes a fool out of herself. The narrator makes no bones about this, and his slight contempt for Alice makes for hilarity that transcends condescension.

Lest his book be all fancy, Carroll is not to be outdone in his critiques of children's literature, the school system, and the judiciary. Alice's constant necessity to recite poetry, which always comes out hilariously incorrect, is a commentary on the usefulness (or uselessness) of rote memorization in education, a practice common in Carroll's time. The Duchess's constant moralizing asks a very valid question, pondering whether or not literature can exist for its own sake, simply to enchant and simply to entertain. The ridiculous trials in Wonderland make an excellent case for Bill of Rights protections (both English and American) and even resonate into our own time, when far too many are presumed guilty rather than innocent.

Carroll's talent may lie mainly in wordplay and the joys of language, which are both more than amply supplied in the Alice books, but much of the wisdom of the books lies in their more adult themes, which are hidden in plain sight and which may not pass sharp young readers completely by. It would be truly fabulous to read this book with those in the younger set, as their views on Wonderland would be refreshing and would lend a new view to the books. Here, then, is the true power of Alice and her magical world: Wonderland can enchant readers of all ages with its underlying humor and its continuous hints of deeper meaning hidden amongst deft strokes of the pen. Those who complain about the lack of coherent plot (ahem, present company included) are simply missing the point and the joy of a world where anything can happen so long as it is the truth.

Grade: A

September 24, 2007

Book 53: Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann

Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann
E.T.A. Hoffmann

Wow. If you think Edgar Allen Poe is weird, you should check out the works of Hoffmann, one of Poe's inspirations and a clear contender for strangest Romantic writer of them all. Despite their obvious age and setting in Hoffmann's Germany circa 1810, the stories are realistic and the settings vibrant enough to enchant the modern reader. It certainly doesn't hurt that the settings themselves are muddled and prone to rapid, disorienting changes. Amazingly enough, the dizziness that we feel alongside Hoffmann's vivid characters is not overwhelming but rather helps to build suspense and prod the reader on. It is hard to put down this book in the middle of one of these twisted tales, and while they can tend towards predictability, there are plenty of surprises to even the most cynical seasoned reader.

Hoffmann approaches the world with a certain enchanting level of unfamiliarity, using familiar faces and places but twisting them ever so slightly to create wholly unfamiliar worlds. The twists and turns of reality are shocking and unsettling, yet they retain a certain enchanting ability. Hoffmann's characters absolutely leap off of the page, and though we may never be sure which ones actually exist or who may be sane or schizophrenic, we are drawn to them as they possess a certain magnetic hold over us. Hoffmann takes his readers on a journey into insanity which may not be so crazy after all. The continually disorienting roller coasters of plots are intriguing rather than frustrating and have a certain fresh feeling even in this era of overwhelming postmodernism.

In this collection, Hoffmann tackles love, music, and mistaken identities with gusto and in brilliantly unique ways. His unique blend of fantasy and reality challenges the reader to follow along and provides many equally appealing interpretations at the end, inviting intellectual discussion but not frustrating the reader. The tales are at once wrapped up nicely and frayed with loose ends, and they are surprisingly all the better for it. Hoffmann's few flaws are relatively minor and exist in the basic writing of the stories rather than being thematic. Hoffmann has a tendency to interrupt a perfectly gripping narrative with a condescending address to the "gentle reader," which is annoying and comes off as overly smug pride. This, however, may be attributed to conventions of his era; being no expert I can only speak regarding my personal experience with the work. Hoffmann also suffers from surprising predictability: though his plots are tangled and twisted, his mysteries are fairly predictable and nearly always end up just as happily as one would wish. The means of getting to the end are unique and compelling, but the endings can seem contrived. This, however, is only a problem in a couple of stories and does not diminish the power of the collection as a whole.

Upon hearing my description of "The Golden Pot," a dear friend asked me if Hoffmann had invented LSD. Some of his stories suggest a certain pharmaceutical habit atypical of his era and highlight his peculiar talent and foresight. Hoffmann's work with illusion and outright hallucination recalls the postmodern as often as it evokes its (then-) contemporary setting, enchanting the modern reader and coming off with amazing success. But for a few basic literary flaws, Hoffmann's work shines among the most imaginative and well-crafted short fiction. His ability to create distinct worlds and characters within the span of fifty pages or less is nearly unparalleled, and his prose is clear where the plot is not, allowing confusion and assurance to intersect in interesting and utterly unique ways. For those interested in a truly different vision of the fantastic and the realm of imagination, Hoffmann's short fiction is an absolute must.

Grade: A-

September 16, 2007

Book 52: Beowulf

Translated by Michael Ash

Okay, so this is supposed to be a book a week, not one every two weeks. I'll get on that, I promise, but what with school starting and everything it's hard to get some good reading in. Beowulf isn't necessarily good reading per se, but it is reading nonetheless and it is worth looking into once or twice. I get the feeling that the epic poem has a lot more than meets the eye, but I can't help but get distracted while reading it. The plot unfolds in little spurts interrupted by generally unnecessary backstory that unfortunately confuses the modern reader, who lacks sufficient context for many of its diversions. It is hard to piece together the actual plot until after the events unfold and there is a party and recollections afterward. That said, the recollections themselves only re-hash the slight bits of action and are themselves tedious after a while.

Taken as indicative of its own context, Beowulf can tell the modern reader a lot about the people who composed and retold it, considering it important enough to commit to parchment. The epic adventures of the great warrior, when they can be found in the overlong text, are simplistic but sufficiently gripping to rouse a hearty campfire-side cheer for mighty Beowulf. The epic is a breezy read good for those who either would like a side order of easy-to-digest culture or those who wish to probe its seams endlessly for clues to a past world. Most readers in the middle, however, will enjoy the exploits but come away frustrated with the lack of drive and relevance. Beowulf is a solidly middle-of-the-line text in terms of pure pleasure reading.

Grade: B

September 2, 2007

Book 51: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
Jeffrey Eugenides

I'm quite liking these books that get better and better as you let them simmer for a while in your mind acquiring new meanings and gaining significance. They often have abrupt or otherwise shocking endings that draw you in as you are slowly escaping from the narrative world. The ending of The Virgin Suicides is far from shocking; you know from the title, let alone the first page, exactly what the book is about, but the book itself still manages to surprise and enchant. That a book whose plot is clearly exposed from the outset can enchant so deeply is a testament to Eugenides's great talents as a writer. The book is a meditation on memory rather than the exposition of its events. Narrated spectacularly from the first-person plural, no small feat considering that this strange narrative voice is consistent and only tired in a few long stretches, The Virgin Suicides is the story of the collective memory that creates a society, that knits people together and keeps them connected through time. The book's final allusions to Detroit's spectacular decline are an obvious echo of the suicides that link together the neighborhood boys who are painfully forced to take part in them from afar.

The reader has to be careful to enter this book with few expectations. I, for one, expected a gripping play-by-play account of each girl's turn towards suicide, which is definitely not what the book is about. The plot moves at a lolling pace, somewhat out of time and always with an eye towards the results, which endure to the present day. This was initially disappointing but becomes increasingly relevant the more one thinks about the book's construction and themes. The little details that create the suburban neighborhood and that flesh out members of the collective narration are subtle pieces of childhood that invoke a certain nostalgia particular to Christmas and Halloween movies. Amongst the neighborhood boys we have the jock, the brain, the rich kid, and all of the normal boys who admire them; unlike most modern coming-of-age fare, they all must band together to form a collective subconscious and try to piece together the full meaning of the tragedies of their childhood.

It goes without saying that the sentimental overtones of The Virgin Suicides only heighten the power of the novel. If Eugenides waxes poetic now and then, or becomes overly nostalgic, it is only in the guise of modern-day adults who create the cliches in the first place. Eugenides isn't repeating the cliches but subtly pointing to the reasons they exist and their power despite their popularity. The slice of life shades of suburbia combine with the torture of eternal guilt and the sad necessity of watching someone slowly waste away. The collective attitude of the men seems realistic and appropriate despite the fact that they so blatantly contradict the general trend of society to make its men strong and burly. These men have been tormented since early high school with a special knowledge and an intimate connection to a type of tragedy particular to their supposedly sheltered surroundings. The normal blends with the completely alien and forms a fully believable picture. Even the eccentricities that help create the suicides can seem like reasonable, if not rational, reactions to straining events.

The book, simply put, flows. It feels as though we are in the room with these men, as though being their wives, brothers, or other confidants we are hearing their story directly. Far from being contrived, the narrative voice is fresh and makes the story resonate in a way that first person narration couldn't. Eugenides probes suburban tragedy and the greater decline of America with a deft pen and graceful, moving flourishes. The book is a tragedy but is still compelling and still calls to be re-read for full appreciation of its literary riches. Elegiac and poignant, The Virgin Suicides is quite the antidote to the feel-good coming-of-age story, a slice of harsh sunlight in our own shaded suburban sub-reality.

Grade: A

August 30, 2007

Book 50: Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom

Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom
Vicki Mackenzie

I'm not sure what the exact format of this book is. It seems like it should be a book of essays by various Westerners on what they find in Buddhism, but it's also a collection of interviews. The segments read like essays until held up to intense scrutiny, which reveals sudden changes of subject that still weave into the central narrative quite easily. No matter; Mackenzie has put together an interesting compilation that illustrates the particular appeal of Buddhism to certain particular individuals who, taken together, help explain why Buddhism is such an appealing choice for life philosophy in the West these days.

Because each person's story is unique, one would expect the book to hang loosely together and feel disjointed. This is not at all the case. I think that the central Buddhist principles of clear mindedness, kindness, and meditation create a flow of energy that passes through one story to the next. Though the basic story is quite similar throughout the individual stories, the message is consistent and clear: Buddhism offers peace and a chance to interact happily with one's surroundings. There were only a few times when an annoying bias and pushiness could be detected, and these were in a couple of Mackenzie's own introductions, which hit rather heavily on her belief that reincarnation is fundamental to Buddhism (one interviewee claims that it isn't necessary for a Buddhist outlook). The force behind her immature defense is startling, but thankfully it passes quickly and the reader can get on with the stories themselves.

Like other collections I've read, the real meat is in the stories themselves, not the fluffy commentaries that add cheap aesthetics to the stories where they themselves extol the virtue of simplicity. The book, however, mostly accomplishes its purpose. The stories do answer the question "Why Buddhism?", but often in a roundabout way that shifts focus from "why" to "how". Often, the explanation is merely, "It felt right," which is charming but which doesn't really satisfy the inquiring mind. Also slightly distressing is the focus on extraordinary people who have done great things with Buddhism, often becoming monks or nuns and running Buddhist centers. There isn't much about the lay practicioner in this book, which would perhaps be more helpful to Mackenzie's target audience. The book is, however, a good read for beginners in Buddhism who want a taste of what a Buddhist life in the West can be like, but I would hesitate to hold it up as an end-all, be-all description of why Buddhism is appealing. The real allure of this text is its commentary on Buddhism and Buddhist practice as they are and how they work, not why they are here. And that in itself gets to the heart of Buddhism.

Grade: A-

August 25, 2007

Book 49: The Foundations of Buddhism

The Foundations of Buddhism
Rupert Gethin

I was looking for a book to give me a general outline of Buddhism and its many forms, and this was the most promising prospect I could find. Overall, it disappointed me a bit, but I think that it is a valuable resource for the beginner nonetheless. Gethin sets out to provide a fairly comprehensive view of those things that unite the disparate forms of Buddhism throughout the world. He gets to the heart of the religion by retracing the story of Siddhartha Gautama and the works of his followers, both ancient and recent. At times, Gethin strays into academic parlance and goes name-dropping despite the book's focus on being readable to the casual reader, but this is only distracting and doesn't affect the rest of the text too horribly in and of itself.

This name-dropping is, however, a symptom of Gethin's underlying self-awareness as an academic. Gethin seems to forget that his target audience is entirely new to Buddhism and is probably Western anyway. The text is riddled, understandably, with very foreign terms that are poorly explained and keep showing up. Gethin doesn't do a good job of defining the difficult concepts in the first place, and when they keep showing up it is easy for the reader to get completely lost. It seemed to me that Gethin added a lot of terms and texts that were unnecessary to his purpose in explaining the general basis of Buddhism. My confusion about necessity only highlights Gethin's lack of focus; if these are the foundations of Buddhism, shouldn't Gethin's interest be in explaining them as clearly as possible?

Some sections make a lot of sense and are extremely helpful. The parts of the book dealing with basic Buddhist philosophy are readable and make sense. Gethin does a good job here of explaining the logic behind the beliefs, the chain of reasoning that leads to suffering as the ultimate cause of rebirth and desire as the ultimate cause of suffering. The tables Gethin provides in these sections actually help the reader see the categorizations of Buddism, and the reader leaves with a good idea of the fundamental ideas of the religion. Less instructive, however, are Gethin's sections on Buddhist cosmology and the types of Buddhism. Gethin devotes an entire chapter to the Mahayana without fully explaining what it is and how it differs from Theravada Buddhism (if it even does).

This book's chapters on the life of the Buddha and the general philosophies of Buddhism are excellent and are good for those seeking a general explanation of Buddhism. The other chapters of this book are sadly muddled and don't appear to do much good to the casual reader unfamiliar with Buddhism and curious about the different branches of it. Gethin occasionally strays into territory a bit too advanced for his puported introductory purposes and doesn't clear up the differences between types of Buddhism. This book is incredibly hit and miss and is useful but not indispensable for those looking for a quick introduction to Buddhism.

Grade: B

August 13, 2007

Book 48: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides

This review is a little late because I finished the book while I was away in Wisconsin, but the book definitely lingers in my memory and I am extremely glad that I read it. At first, I was a little worried that the shifting focus between Cal's present life and the history of his grandparents (and, later, parents) would blur the story and make it seem irrelevant. This is before I realized that the family history is the point of the story- Cal is tracing his own history as we see it outlined before us. Cal's story is one of discovery, and the discovery of his history is just as important as his discovery of himself. More importantly, the immigrant-success story of his family shows the perfect American Dream...with one minor problem.

Cal is intersex or, rather, a hermaphrodite. Raised as a girl, Cal is now living as a man and is one of the most interesting and unique narrators I have come across. Cal rarely feels sorry for himself and doesn't tell his story with any motive to blame his family for passing along the recessive gene that creates him. Often, we get so wrapped up in the general history of the Stephanides family that we forget for a moment where it is inevitably leading, though Cal quickly inserts himself often enough to keep the story on track. The story is compelling even though its secrets are spilled incredibly early, and there is always enough momentum propelling the story forward. With the reader knowing the result, Eugenides provides the backstory, the creation myth of Cal in an interesting, genealogical fashion.

The writing in Middlesex does more than enough to amplify the story and the power of the book. Eugenides is incredibly talented and has a power with words that is seldom matched. Though it occasionally seems that Cal is trying too hard, the artsy twists and turns of the prose still work to delight and surprise. The description of birth that Cal gives is not only hilarious, but brilliantly articulated and revealing. The artistic tendencies of the prose accomplish the main work of the novel, to allow the reader to experience life in a completely new and foreign way. For those of us who can never experience life as both a genetic male and genetic female, Cal's description of life is enlightening without being condescending, interesting without being implausible.

This book is simply phenomenal, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Eugenides combines a compelling story with the Great American Myth and still provides enough twists to keep the reader hooked. The prose is beautiful and moving, well-suited to the epic nature of the book. I will be utterly shocked if Middlesex isn't handed down as a classic work of our generation. Middlesex is a superb retelling of the American experience and speaks volumes about gender issues and the way that we see ourselves without being condescending or preachy at all. It requires enough work on behalf of the reader to be enjoyable but never allows itself to stray into artful prose for its own sake. This book is the complete package and should not be overlooked by any discerning reader of modern literature.

Grade: A

July 31, 2007

Book 47: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon

And now for something completely different. This novel is quite interesting and is incredibly original. First of all, from the blurb on the back I was expecting a sympathetic third-person narrative about a poor autistic man who gets caught up in something way beyond his grasp. This is an entirely false description of the book and does a terrible disservice to Haddon and to his many talents as a writer. Christopher's story is told in spot-on first person narration that does as much to characterize him as any airy, lengthy passage of prose. The book is straightforward, but it is also immensely complex. The whole work does as much in static characterization as it does in moving the plot forward, but far from being a detraction, this fact is what makes this book so special.

Haddon takes on an immense challenge in trying to represent the viewpoint of an autistic teenager, but succeeds in spades. The voice of Christopher feels honest and is never condescending. He is undaunted by the comments of people around him, by the sarcasm he cannot penetrate, but in Christopher's confusion Haddon shows us our own bouts of silliness. Yes, idioms give our language a richness and bouyant air of lightness that I (for one) would not want to do without, but they are inherently rather odd when you think about them. Plenty of non-autistic people have enough trouble understanding sarcasm, too. What is most remarkable about Christopher, then, is that he is completely and totally normal. He does not think of himself as handicapped (or even as "special needs"), but actually sees his way of doing things as superior to others' methods. His supreme love of the logical makes the world make sense not only to him, but to us as well. Christopher is able to see through the tangled webs we weave and get at fundamental truths that teach us more about ourselves at times than about him.

Haddon does not condescend to his readers for one second as he deftly pulls them into Christopher's mind. His portrayal of autism is not only sympathetic but is quite easily related to. The reader never knows more than Christopher and can follow his train of thought through numerous digressions back to the main plot. Here is one book, then, where the digressions of the author absolutely enhance the text. That they are mostly unrelated to the plot, and that the plot moves alternately like molasses and a rocket, only makes the book much more interesting and real than it would be otherwise. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is as much about its protagonist as it is about its plot, and that is absolutely okay. This is not to say that the plot is contrived or boring; it has some of the classic characteristics of a mystery novel, including ambiguous clues and a story far beyond the crime at hand, and surprises the reader as much as the narrator.

This story transcends its plot and becomes a novel of triumph rather than a simple murder mystery. Remarkably, it achieves this without resorting to high pretenses or lecturing its readers. Haddon guides his readers carefully through uncharted territory and reveals a mind not so different from that which we consider "normal". Indeed, by the end of the book it is hard to consider ourselves normal, as what Christopher takes for granted has become the new metric of normalcy. Everyone should read this book, if only to become a little bit more open-minded about the world around us and the people we see fit to exclude. I learned as much about myself from this novel as I did about autism, and I like it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a wonderful way to temporarily try on another's shoes.

Grade: A

July 29, 2007

Book 46: Backlash

Susan Faludi

Here is the first non-fiction book I have read in quite a while. I have strayed a bit from the genre as it is usually dull and self-important. I initially held this opinion of Backlash as well, but I warmed up a bit to its mechanical prose after the first mind-bogglingly terrible chapter and managed to digest its arguments and positions with only mild skepticism. Faludi's main contention in the book is that the 1980s had been a decade of a widespread, multifaceted backlash against women and the feminism of the 1970s. Her introduction makes her thesis quite clear, and though it is a bit militant at times, it is consistent throughout the book. Unfortunately, this claim is somewhat untenable and makes for rather inciting reading at times; it seems as though Faludi is suggesting a conspiracy of men determined to scale back women's rights, and I don't believe her evidence quite supports this contention. The stories she does provide, however, are often touching and do help her make her case that strides in women's rights are followed by periods of turn-back-the-clock conservatism.

If you can pass through the first statistics-laden chapter without losing interest or consciousness, the book becomes quite interesting. Faludi effectively sprinkles in anecdotal evidence with figures that contradict those of the establishment. She is unabashadly unafraid of conflict and is willing to castigate public figures far and wide. While this somewhat militant technique works brilliantly in the vast majority of cases, it is too often employed in unsubstantiated claims that come off as whiny and unsophisticated. If Faludi would stick to specific cases and the stories of people she personally interviewed, omitting her snide remarks about President Reagan (however backlash he may have been- Faludi attacks him far too often without ever expanding on the theme) would have greatly strengthened her credibility. Her pen, however, probes deeply and delightfully when she is able to turn backlash leaders into the feminists whom they despise. Faludi doesn't even need to spin these cases to make them resonate, and her sly humor is well-employed when pointing out how various anti-feminist female icons have traded their careers in for time with their family- and how anti-feminist men often find themselves at home sharing in household chores.

Ultimately, the book's biggest flaws are its vehemence and its dullness. I have come to expect more lively and autobiographical accounts from feminist literature, even serious statistical feminist literature, but this book lacked that. Perhaps I was unfair, but the fact remains that I viewed this book as more of a burden than a pleasure to read, which of course detracts from its effectiveness. What is particularly good about the book is that it still feels relevant fifteen years after its publication. It is a book about the 1980s, and though I itched to know how some of the trends Faludi described managed to pan out in the 90s, the book doesn't feel dated any more than it is naturally by the fact that it is about a single decade. Backlash is an interesting and complex account of anti-feminist and, arguably, anti-female sentiments during the 80s and it covers its decade comprehensively. The only major topics really untouched in the book are music and lesbianism, both of which I would have liked to see out of personal bias.

The exclusion of these two domains, however, is acceptable and the only real reason they seem missing to me is probably a personal wish to see them covered. The book is incredibly comprehensive and does travel from the news media to entertainment to fashion to scholarship and even to the federal government. Faludi is nothing if not scathing, and if this makes the book burdensome at times, it at least makes the book more than the drab statistical analylsis suggested by the first chapter. Though I had my moments with this book, by the end it had made a deep imprint on me and its final chapter almost moved me to tears. Faludi has put together a book that passes at least a skeptical glance and that can inspire fire in readers despite its literary flaws and occasional over-excitement. Backlash is a useful book for understanding anti-feminist currents of the 1980s and is a good enough book for those interested in the topic.

Grade: B

July 21, 2007

Book 45: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling

I'm breathless. J.K. Rowling has penned a thrilling climax to her series, even if it lolls a bit in the middle, and mixes the unexpected with the unheard-of to create a moving finale that is a tribute to her perseverance and the immense complexity of the world she has created. I was most pleasantly surprised both when things turned out to be exactly as I predicted and when they were entirely distinct. It would take a very keen reader to collect all the clues before reading this final installment, but at the same time there is sufficient cause to recall old facts, cast aside, that suddenly become relevant. All of the major questions are answered satisfactorily, and the final end comes as it should without compromising Rowling's values or the power of her writing.

As a book in and of itself, it takes a really long time to pick up. The beginning is only mildly exciting, and though there is a most touching scene with the Dursleys the book takes a long time to get where it needs to go. The middle could be greatly trimmed and not suffer too much- readers accustomed to the quick pace of clue hunting and gradual unraveling of mysteries will be frustrated. There is, however, a great reward at the end of the journey, and readers who stick it out can easily forgive. The last third or so of the book contains all of the smash-bang action we could possibly hope for, with magical surprises and non-magical daring overflowing. The book rises to a thrusting, pulsing climax which involves pieces of magic as yet unseen. Or perhaps the answers have been in front of us now along.

Grade: A

July 20, 2007

Book 44: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling

As Rowling's brilliant series draws to a close, perhaps it is to be supposed that the mysteries will become fewer, the action less suspenseful, the outcomes more predictable. Such is absolute tripe when it comes to this superb author and this superbly crafted work of fiction. Just as the reader thinks it is all coming to a close, we learn the true secrets of Lord Voldemort's longevity and of his descent into evil. Half-Blood Prince only further underlines the incredible amounts of thought and passion that goes into Harry Potter- the backstory is intricate and elaborate and the book forges a connection with things mentioned in passing in Chamber of Secrets, book two. Years after Harry sees things and assumes things, he learns the reasons behind them. Rowling is a master of suspense and plot and always keeps her readers guessing to the very end. The book again hurtles to its climax, but gives a feeling that the real story of Harry and Voldemort is just beginning.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of Half-Blood Prince is Rowling's ability to insert ambiguity into almost everything. Long have we revered Albus Dumbledore, but here we learn that he may sometimes be mistaken, in more ways than one. Magic that is paraded triumphantly at a joke shop becomes deadly when placed in the hands of evil, as can an adversary unwittingly aid his enemy. Magic is neither good nor evil in the Harry Potter series, and Rowling refreshingly refrains from black-and-white depictions of wrongdoing. Characters we want to trust turn bad and those we have grown to loathe have a few surprises of their own in store. Never has Harry been this enchanting and exciting, and it remains only to see how his marvelously spun story will conclude.

Grade: A

July 19, 2007

Book 43: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

If the plot started to thicken at the end of Goblet of Fire, here we see a full-blown cement mixture. The book is long, yes, but on re-reading I agree with Rowling, who challenged naysayers to point out the part of the book they would extract. Everything in the book seems necessary, aside from an outburst or two of the very-adolescent Harry. Even these, however, contribute to characterization and help create a marked contrast in the next book of the series. The fourth book is the pivot between Harry's innocent years and his true quest to fully defeat Lord Voldemort, and Order of the Phoenix provides good rising action, which exponentially increases throughout the book to send it from a fever pitch through a series of calming tones to a dramatic crescendo.

Rowling only continues to prove her intricate knowledge of her fictional world as she guides the reader through the mysteries of Harry's fate. There are clues scattered throughout the book about Harry's ultimate mission and fate, and the last two hundred pages successfully set the stage for the full-blown war of the last two volumes. Though the book is less exciting reading on consecutive passes, its connection to the rest of the series rings true and makes it quite important in the greater scheme of things. While we're still in the dark about many of the secrets of the final installment of Harry's story, Order of the Phoenix provides much fodder for theories and deep philosophical quandaries regarding the futures of certain characters. We have long known that the fate of the wizarding world rests on Harry's shoulders, and in Order of the Phoenix we, along with Harry, finally know why. It's worth trooping through the book to get to its information; the Prophecy within is crucial to the years ahead.

Grade: A

July 15, 2007

Book 42: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling

Well, what can I say? This book maintains the momentum set up by the first three installations of the ever-enchanting series and ratchets up the speed a notch towards the end. Being the fourth book in a seven-book series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire succeeds as a carefully crafted pivot for the action. The book begins with the promise of an adventure outside of Hogwarts but within the magical realm, but things quickly begin to go sour and the reader knows along with Harry that darker doings are afoot. Though Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book in the series to overtly show signs of future connections, this book is where things really begin to get sticky, with its final chapters clearly outlining the continuation (and end) of the series.

The book itself builds beautifully on the traditions Rowling has built up through the series. The reader is entirely immersed in the magical world she has created. The feeling of plausibility is only heightened by Rowling's continued references to our own world- the parallel world knows about us and their musings about Muggles are a continuing source of humor. One of the most clever devices within the books, however, is Rowling's usage of metrics from within her own books. Harry isn't described as being "as happy as a kid in a candy store," no, his happiness is compared to his ability to conjure a particular brand of protective spell. In this way, the world of Harry wraps itself around the reader and allows the plot to fully develop and surround the reader. The ending of this book perfectly foreshadows the next in the series, and though the tension is clearly building it ends satisfactorily in and of itself. Like the forthcoming books, however, the tense ending creates the mystifying air of anticipation that accompanies each of the later books and which really links the series together as a whole.

Grade: A

July 12, 2007

Book 41: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling

After a brief hiatus, I have indeed returned with the third Harry Potter book under my belt. Much like the first two, I find it singularly enchanting and always delighting, though parts get a bit tedious on a re-read. This book is yet another turning point in the series, as more attention is paid to Harry's specific backstory and the reasons why he is the wizard with the ability to defeat Voldemort, or at least the guts to try. This book is incredibly important as the series progresses, and establishes connections that will become central in the next few books. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban looks ahead like the first two Harry Potter books didn't, and there are a few well-phrased clues that a well-seasoned reader of the later books will regret overlooking the first time around.

This volume only cements the boy wizard's power in the minds of his devoted readers, who can eagerly accompany him across the grounds of Hogwarts and really beyond them for the first time. Familiar pastimes like Quidditch games and the comic relief of the Weasley twins relieve the pressure of the enormous plot, which can get a bit mind-boggling on a first read. Certain chapters near the end require a couple of read-throughs to thoroughly get their point across, but the book definitely accomplishes its task of continuing to inch Harry closer to his destiny. I think that it is also worth mentioning that I, as a time travel buff and armchair time travel philosopher, think that Rowling has put together some of the tightest time-travel writing I have ever seen. She did it right and I am forever grateful. This book is the final book of the Potter series that can really be construed as happy or innocent, and it is very pleasant to end the peaceful years of Harry's time at Hogwarts with this book. The approaching war is but a dull, scattered sense of fear and Harry can bask in the joy of discovery before the mysteries start to take a troubling toll.

Grade: A

July 9, 2007

Book 40: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling

Here we are at book two of J.K. Rowling's magical series, and yet we have only scratched the surface of Harry Potter's mysteries. This book picks up right where its predecessor left off, with Harry at the dreaded Dursleys' eagerly awaiting another enchanting trip to the castle on a hill and the alternate life afforded him at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The forces of evil, however, are only beginning to gather as a striking streak of freak murder attempts rocks the school and reminds the world of witchcraft that Lord Voldemort, epitome of all evil villains, is still alive and well; if not in presence, then in spirit.

In this second glimpse into the alternate universe hiding just beyond our own, Rowling does not fail to enchant and mystify just as adeptly as she did in Sorcerer's Stone. We continue to learn more about the wizarding world and are never more confused than Harry, whose own ignorance makes our learning possible and, in a literary sense, allows droll explanations by characters to remain in context. Rowling's wonderful powers of description do not fail her as she opens our eyes to all new pieces of the Potter puzzle, and within each description and each subtle detail there is a piece of a clue regarding future events. It is truly amazing to go all the way back to this book after being up to speed on Half-Blood Prince, knowing full well the significance of certain items and events, significance that seemed heavy at the time but not so weighty as it is now. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets shows the stirrings of greater things and colossal events that will begin to shape the future of the wizarding world. This is the point where the series begins to pick up extrinsic steam propelling it beyond any individual book and into the enchanting universe of mystery and magic Rowling has created for us.

Grade: A

July 8, 2007

Book 39: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
J.K. Rowling

I have this crazy ambition to read all of these books before book seven comes out on the 21st and I decided to begin at the beginning. It's very odd and very exhillirating to re-read the book that started it all. The familiarity of the book does make it quite difficult to evaluate on any sort of objective basis, and I think that I will abandon my usual efforts and simply heap my own critical praise onto this much-beloved book.

First things first: Rowling starts things off with a bang. Even a cursory glance at the first chapter title ("The Boy Who Lived") indicates that there are weighty matters at hand. The subject matter is dark enough to be interesting to mature readers but Rowling is clever enough to prevent things from becoming too awfully frightening. Reading the book, it is easy to forget that the world of Harry Potter exists only in Rowling's imagination and, therefore, ours. Her immaculate power of description radiates throughout the book, making everything believable and leaving nothing out. The book is riddled with clues regarding not only the end of Sorcerer's Stone but also the grand conclusion of the series. Rowling's world may not be as complex as Middle Earth, but it is as well thought out as Tolkien's universe and contains a similar power to entrance and delight.

The plot may be slightly predictable, but this might also be the fact that I've read the entire series thus far about two or three times (and this particular book in two languages). What emerges in the plot is an intricately woven conflict between good and evil with a few sharp surprises whose repercussions linger throughout the rest of the series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone may be a basic story of good versus evil, but in the hallways of Hogwarts it is not always so simple to distinguish the two. This elegant and brilliantly thorough narrative is a delightful kick-off to a complex and captivating series, leaving plenty of questions to the tomes ahead but prodding the reader forward instead of leaving too many frustrating blank spaces. I'm so glad I decided to read all of the books again; this book makes for a wonderful afternoon.

Grade: A

July 7, 2007

Book 38: I Am No One You Know

I Am No One You Know
Joyce Carol Oates

Callie recently asked me, "How do you evaluate a collection of short stories?" Seeing as I'm not a true literary critic (being hopelessly amateur in my endeavors here), I don't know if my answer was correct in any high literary sense, but my general idea is to try to get a picture of the collection as a whole. This works particularly well when the collection has been written by a single author, rather than being compiled. This particular collection of short stories constitutes a heavy tome of psychological studies that focus on the unexpected, hidden lives of people we think we know or think we are. Each of the main characters in this book could be someone you meet on the way to work, the barista in Starbucks or the high-powered lawyer who helps you sift through your parents' will. "The Girl with the Blackened Eye" has never told anyone of her harrowing ideal; even her husband isn't privy to that particularly gruesome week of her history. Yet here she is, laying it out for us and committing her emotional trauma in ink for a general audience. Her believability only underscores the thrilling power of each and every one of these stories.

Often, the reader is confused as to who may be right or wrong when a certain moral quandary comes up; we are left to figure it out along with the narrators and characters themselves. This is surprisingly genuine and touching- the stories may seem to end abruptly, but perhaps that is because their leading men and ladies don't know where they're heading, either. Every story is satisfying and deserves a moment of deep thought. Oates consistently invokes psychological and moral ambiguity within her stories and they somehow resist the urge to become weighty morality plays. Each tale, each life has its own set of problems and solutions, and each invites the reader to examine complex situations from uneasy angles. On the surface, it seems natural that a suburban divorcee should shy away from a convict, but when even she doubts her racial neutrality we are not automatically inclined to support her. We may initially balk at the idea of student-teacher love, but here is a case that defies expectations and encourages the reader to at least entertain possibilities beyond the initial negative reaction.

Oates poses constant challenges to her reader, but challenges at just the right level of difficulty. No situation is cut and dry; Oates gives us plenty of chances to doubt the veracity of the narrators and to argue along silently as they doubt themselves. Neither are the moral issues presented abstract and therefore meaningless. The stories are entirely tangible and readable, and this is what the collection in its entirety hinges on. "I am your son," one narrator says to an Alzheimer's-ridden man, "I am no one you know." Rather than being no one we know, Oates's characters could be anyone we know, from a passing glance to the intimacy of, well, intimacy. In this book the reader finds issues never expected to be met head-on, but which silently nag nonetheless. The reader is silently encouraged to look beyond the facade and realize that these narrators are, in fact, people we know, if we only bothered to look.

Grade: A

July 4, 2007

Book 37: Atonement

Ian McEwan

I feel like I'm not up to the task of reviewing this book. I finished it yesterday and I'm still digesting it. This is a book not to be taken lightly, and it has as much to say about the writing of literature as it does about its story. This initially frustrated me, and I kept silently urging McEwan to press forward with the plot already. The central conflict in the book isn't even introduced until the first section is mostly past, and while the writing is always brilliant and evocative, the plot is constantly bogged down by incessant detail. What is most interesting, however, is the fact that this minor oversight, if we can call it that, doesn't matter at all by the end of the book and in fact enhances its rhetorical power. This book is much more than the story it contains; it is really a speculative treatise on the art and power of writing.

I should have seen it coming. It's right there on page 35, in a quote I mentally siphoned off: the writer of novels has the power to communicate as if telepathically with their reader. The ink is a direct medium between the two individuals, and the author's vision is realized on the page, becoming a kind of truth. What happens, however, when the truth of the fictional world is muddled by a fictional author? Atonement not only begs the question inside its fictional world but transcends that world to bring the issue directly to its readers. McEwan and his vision hang over the novel, standing aside bemused as it smacks the reader minutes after putting it down. Atonement is a powerfully written book about the terrible power of words, and their limitations. The book forces us to ask ourselves how atonement can be reached, and if our feeble gasps of apology can ever be enough. It is a self-conscious work, but McEwan's lingering smirks only add to the charm of the book.

This has been purposefully vague and probably mostly unhelpful, but I cannot encourage you enough to read this book. The novel gets exponentially better with every minute that passes since the pages are set aside and the ideas left to simmer. The words themselves are evocative and elegant, paying excellent tribute to a time of grace that has disappeared behind the commercial value of the estates of the rich and powerful. The book contains some of the most painful war writing I've ever encountered, with vivid imagery that never ceases to shock or utterly stun. Atonement is a perfect book for a reading group. I feel that it is so hard to do justice to its genius alone here, speaking to and not with my own readers. If you're feeling at all contemplative about the nature and value of literature or even the power of art in general, Atonement will nudge you in interesting directions you hadn't considered before.

Grade: A

July 1, 2007

Book 36: What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self
Edited by Ellyn Spragins

This book is a cute little volume that I spotted one day outside of the Dawn Treader. It looked like it might hold some interest for me in my current quest of self-improvement, and I decided to pick it up. I'm not exactly disappointed that I did, but I'm definitely glad that I bought the book used and not new. The premise is intriguing enough: what would you say in a letter to your younger self, given the chance? The women writing in this book represent a cross-section of successful high society, from singers to newscasters to CEOs, reminding us all that even the best among us stumble. I find this top-down approach a tad condescending, but the book has bigger issues than that.

The problem with the letters in this book is that they are often too specific to a certain writer's situation to be useful to the populace at large. By the end of the book, the themes become repetitive, though through no fault of the writers themselves. The prose that introduces each letter also becomes tired and trite. Instead of generally acquainting the reader with the writer, the preludes descend into lists of accomplishments and oversimplifications that are really unnecessary. The letters themselves are usually fairly short, and while some have nice bits here and there, they are too introspective to really resonate to an audience at large. I believe that a project like this could be useful if done correctly, but this particular attempt settles for cliche and isn't particularly useful for the discerning reader.

Grade: B-

June 29, 2007

Book 35: I, Robot

I, Robot
Isaac Asimov

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really, really liked it. The story was incredibly absorbing and the metaphors were significantly complex and poignant to strike me by pleasant surprise. Asimov knows how to construct a parallel future to our own and the book is chock full of subtle commentary that lets us know exactly how, in the robot-ruled future, we are truly at fault. It is no accident that the last story in the book is called "The Evitable Conflict". But where the plot itself soars to success, the prose itself is base and, at times, dreadful. I, Robot is never actually painful to read, but nonetheless there were moments where I had to groan out loud at the unbelievable characters and extraordinarily bad dialogue.

Asimov is, no doubt, a great writer. He is, however, much more concentrated when it comes to developing plot and creating (and resolving) conflict. Specific aspects of the writing seem to give way under the importance (or perhaps just the sheer brilliance) of these more focused elements. There is often overly-descriptive dialogue. Two robot field testers are not going to need to tell each other the explicit history of robotics on Earth and the development of certain prototypes. Sure, we can assume that these remarks are sarcastic, but the characters an d their relationships aren't well enough established by the time they begin to engage in this sarcastic expose. Likewise, the very form of the book also detracts a bit from its power to engage the reader. The idea of a young reporter talking to an old robotic scientist about the history of robotics is excellent, and telling the story in vignettes is, I believe, the proper form for the book. This young journalist, however, is as ignorant as the reader about his own world. The italicized passages where he interacts with the interviewee give away too much of the stories to come; when we know that certain characters are going to survive or that certain developments will or will not take hold in society, the stories themselves become less thrilling and merely fulfill expectations rather than shock. Asimov doesn't need the overarching story arc to make his point.

With all of that being a bit harsh, I must return to the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Sure, the dialogue occasionally got to me and the interludes took me out of the story, but the stories and the general history of society are so compelling in themselves that I could forgive the imperfect writing. Asimov's strengths are not only his best attributes, but also outstrip others by miles. I absolutely cannot believe that this book was published in 1950. Aside from the dates (much of the story takes place in the 1990s- yikes!), I, Robot doesn't seem at all dated. This book could have been written today, and with the same power. It works both because robots per se haven't taken over society and because computers have. The view of a robotic society may be partial to the 1950s, but the idea of a society governed by artificial intelligences greater than itself is not a fantasy in this Internet Age. Have you ever won a game of chess against a computer? I didn't think so. Asimov is right on target with his assumptions that human-created technology will eventually overtake human capabilities. The robots (our computers) have the best of human reasoning and infallible logic- in spades.

Asimov's book is a critique of our need to create ever-increasing convenience. He also nails religion and reactionaries down pat. His insights on faith are, for once, non-polarizing and tolerant. Where it looks like Asimov is going to criticize religious faith (giving it, after all, to robots), that faith ends up helping everyone and makes logical sense. The Society for Humanity, a radical anti-robot society, is simply hungering for a simpler past that wasn't so simple for those living in it. I, Robot takes the trend of Americans to want it "faster and faster and now, dammit!" and extrapolates it to its fullest potential. He asks us where we're going but doesn't make it clear that artificial overlords are the worst thing for humanity after all. His humans are disenfranchised but are better off than ever. Asimov's commentary is intelligent and nuanced and transcends the book to apply directly to current life here in 2007. The book may be lacking in the points of fine literature, but it is a most thought-provoking piece that should not be ignored.

Grade: B+