January 29, 2007

Book 7: We

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Usually when I'm reading a book for class, I try to write up the review before I get to a lecture. This way, I can be sure I'm recording my own distinct impressions. Unfortunately, due to a large confluence of papers, here I am a couple of days later. With We, though, I think it might be good, as I'm liking this novel more and more as I gain distance from my reading of it. The book isn't terribly strong on plot or imagery, but it has food for thought. In spades.

The story is a traditional dystopian tale, where we are exposed to a radically altered world of the future. In We, the main change that has been made to society is utter devotion to mathematics, which culminates in worship of F.W. Taylor and his theories of scientific management. Life has been co-opted and the denizens live in glass houses under the watchful eye of the (aptly named) Benefactor. What I found most intriguing about this premise, however, is the fact that repression seems to be more internal than external. Sure, the government is ready and willing to squash revolts, but D-503 (the main character) is just as ready to submit to optimal mathematical efficiency as the next guy. There has been a fundamental shift in what it means to be human, as humans desire to be more like machines.

If we understand this, the novel and its schizophrenic plot become more accessible. For one thing, its form becomes more clear and easier to decipher. On a first read, the rambling prose and constant ellipses only confuse and muddle the already ethereal plot. This clears up during further reflection, as it reveals the quickly shifting state of the narrator. D-503's world is absolutely imploding around him; that he can write at all about the worst catastrophes to befall the world is in itself a gift. The increasing shakiness of the text also precisely parallels D-503's descent into insanity. The more I think about this, the more I'm reminded of how I felt after reading A Farewell to Arms. That book is coming up on the docket, so we'll see how a second read can affect a book so outside of itself.

Back to We. Zamyatin has created a fascinating dystopia that speaks volumes about his own time and even ours, as our lives become increasingly dominated by technology. Unfortunately, the power of the dystopian image is often overshadowed by the screwball plot, which is all over the place and hard to follow, even if it is consistent with the narrator's character. I would like to give this book some space and come back to it later, as I believe it is a rich work chock full of interesting tidbits. It's a whirlwind, but for those interested in dystopian literature (and the book was a direct influence on 1984 and Brave New World), it's definitely worth a shot.

Grade: B

January 27, 2007

Book 6: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

This is the first book that I've repeated since starting up this little blog venture, and it's interesting to have it come from an English class rather than my own personal enjoyment. I'm afraid that going through lectures about the book has tainted my opinion of it, so to speak, but I still think that it's pretty good. I am kind of torn, however, about the narrator's lack of connection with the world. On the one hand, I believe that it strengthens the ability of the book to connect with readers across the plane of time. Replace the dog-cart with an automobile and some of the armaments and you've got yourself a modern thriller. This timeless quality, however, is mitigated by the fact that the narrator is detached and almost inhuman in the way he describes the death and destruction around him.

The book is engaging, but is entirely plot-driven. Wells has accomplished a strange feat in creating a very readable, entertaining book without a gripping or even interesting main character. The unnamed narrator is simply Everyman, a middle class gentleman scientist who views the world around him almost as an experiment rather than a living, breathing set of interactions. I would have liked to seen a more personal account of the Martian invasion of Earth, but perhaps such a direction wouldn't have left the book so interesting to us today; I suppose I'll have to leave that as an unknown.

One thing that became more clear to me on my second reading of the book, and which was not really influenced by my English class, was the allegorical nature of the book. Knowing what was ahead plot-wise, I was able to better distinguish the elements of the story that directly correlate to British imperialism and class impressions, which are what hold the story together. What makes Wells so compelling is his ability to create a sort of sympathy for the devil, only to make the reader realize that he or she has been had. We feel for the Brits as they face extinction, but at the same time we know that they are simply getting a taste of their own medicine. Again, this is where the detached narrator comes in handy, as his ability to reflect noncommitally on events reveals the social critique in accessible layers.

Overall, I still think that this book is a compelling read and a must for anyone interested in literature about alien invasions or satires of colonialism. Wells may have a detached and boring narrator, but he uses him to gain an advantage in this book and further make his point. After all, an emotionless British gentleman is just the sort who would approve of imperialism, and is just the sort to recognize the parallels between his world and Wells's greater construction of social critique.

Grade: A-

January 21, 2007

Book 5: With a Machine Gun to Cambrai

With a Machine Gun to Cambrai
George Coppard

Though I read a photocopy of this book, it is a book in its entirety and I believe it counts. The text itself is an account of a British enlisted man's experiences during World War I. What I found most interesting is that it comes so late after the war (the writer is probably about seventy years old and fifty years past the experience) and yet is without a general agenda. The only traces of such are in Coppard's occasional descriptions of officers' treatment and his words about veterans' treatment after the affair.

The work itself is very upfront and punctual. Coppard seems to simply describe things as they are, and the most startling thing about the narrative is probably its lack of overt emotion. Coppard describes the passing of friends with a wave of the hand, probably due to years of separation but still a considerable shock in the wake of highly emotional memoirs. Coppard's war is, however, very accessible and a good picture of what life was like for the ordinary Tommy in the trenches. Coppard has his brief glimpses of the higher lifestyle when he serves as an officer's assistant but always remains true to his proletarian roots. I highly appreciated Coppard's little nods to officers' false superiority, seeing an honest viewpoint from the bottom regarding this strange war in which the higher classes rarely suffered.

Coppard has written an enlightening account of the war experience that is valuable as an insight into social norms of the period as well as to life in the trenches. Experience and distance free Coppard from pursuing a political track and keeps his account accessible and feeling honest. This book is worth seeking out as a simple and short account of trench warfare during World War I.

Grade: A

January 20, 2007

Book 4: The Time Machine

The Time Machine
H.G. Wells

It's been a while, but I expect my pace to be picking up soon, and anyway I'm already ahead on average. This book is a classic and is surprisingly short, though it appears to drag in parts. If the book has one major flaw, it's that it seems to have a rather startling absence of plot, or at least excitement therein. Wells's idea of the evolutionary future of man is quite intriguing, as is his implicit commentary on present society, but his attempts to create an interesting plot fall flat. Surely the narrator is on an extraordinary journey, but I for one couldn't get sucked into the plot or even the character. I believe that Wells allows his societal criticism to dominate rather than letting the plot speak for itself; I myself derived the implications of capitalism versus communism well before the narrator took it in hand to do so. Wells's own setting outside of the main narrative has potential for a debate amongst the hearers of the extraordinary tale regarding the implications of evolution. The retreat into the arms of the narrator is disappointing and leaves the reader feeling disjointed and fully outside of the story.

That said, though, I do believe that the book has great value (and as social criticism to boot). The theory that capitalism will ultimately lead to fruitless frivolity is illustrated perfectly by the dilapidated creatures of the Wellsian future, though they themselves are communistic in nature. What I found most interesting throughout the novella was the implicit irony in this assertion. The Eloi are the evolutionary future of capitalists but have no culture and do in fact live as communists. Wells restrains himself from presenting either utopian or dystopian dreams and instead creates a sort of ironic utopia that seems surprisingly plausible in some of its respects.

Some of the book's plot points seem awfully contrived, such as a visit to a museum that simply cannot exist 800,000 years into the future. These points detract from the experience of the book as an immersive journey into the future, but help to present it instead as social commentary. Having just read More's Utopia, it's easier for me to see how this kind of structure can work; however, Wells seems to somewhat uncomfortably straddle the middle ground between strict philosophy and freeform fiction. I would recommend this book as an interesting take on the scientific future of our society but would shy away those looking for true escapist science fiction.

Grade: B

January 8, 2007

Book 3: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley

I don't know if I would classify this as science fiction, but I suppose that the fundamental elements of the genre are there. And, considering that it was written in 1818 or so, I think it's fair enough to say that it is at the very least an interesting inquiry into the results of playing God. What I found most interesting about the book is that its focus is really quite philosophical, regardless of what Hollywood has done to Dr. Frankenstein (his monster, by the way, goes nameless). Instead of focusing on the horror of the monster, the book really focuses on the creator's tragic demise, his one fatal mistake that ended up distancing him from human relations long enough to allow him to become a monster in creating one.

Frankenstein's monster ultimately draws more compassion than the man in the story; by the end, it is the human who has been unreasonable and the monster who has been sorely mistreated. Frankenstein himself admits that his creation's desperate plea for a companion is warranted, and that his actions in destroying Frankenstein's life are at least understandable. Here Shelley puts the reader in a peculiar position: who is the villain in the story? Surely Frankenstein's monster is physically appalling, and perhaps takes revenge a bit too far, but doesn't the good doctor also do so himself?

Frankenstein is not merely a horror story. Indeed, it is hardly frightening at all, except perhaps in the reader's own imagined vision of the man sewed together from corpses. The book instead invites the reader to examine the limits of science and the morality of certain scientific initiatives, as well as the question of what makes a human a human. The fact that both protagonists are evil and good makes the book's implications linger on after the last page is turned and invites discussion and contemplation on the very nature of human existence. On the eve of human cloning it is perhaps not unwise to consult this book as to the effects of creation on the creator.

Grade: A

January 7, 2007

Book 2: The First World War

The First World War
Michael Howard

And the second book I read this year is a non-fiction work, a trend that may not hold this year like it did last year. I should break down the numbers on fiction vs. non-fiction, but we're here to discuss Mr. Howard at present. I look at this book on two levels. The first is the most basic: Howard is attempting to provide the unknowledgable reader with a brief outline of the events of the Great War, you know, the other world war. On this account, the book is engaging and quite interesting. Howard sketches out the basic framework of 1914 from which the war emerged and proceeds to explain major battles and turning points quite succinctly and with a keen eye for what most casual readers will understand. Howard rarely gets caught up in clumsy foreign terminology, and when he does, it is usually explained.

The other level of this book is the editorial level, which is unfortunately unavoidable when constructing a history. Though Howard doesn't approach the book with a distinct scholarly thesis in mind, he does have a British bias that should be more carefully avoided in a volume so intended for the uneducated masses as this one purports to be. Firstly, Howard doesn't fully acknowledge the fact that scholarly opinion regarding the outbreak of the war, and subsequent blame, is quite split. He passes a cursory glance at the fact that there is a controversy, but he is nonetheless quite content in blaming Germany for the outbreak of war. I find this to be more than a little suspect, and I would have at least preferred a bit of explanation. I feel that the book wouldn't have suffered too horribly if a little more attention had been paid to the debate.

Similarly, Howard's book constantly berates Germany, often to the point of being humorous. Howard is quick to point out that German troops burned Belgian cities, but his feeble attempt to disguise his bias ("British propoganda said...") seems more silly than scholarly. Howard points out that the Germans began the use of poison gas, but paints the British decision to use it in retaliation as mere defense, not arguing with the moral dilemmas facing a power using such an admittedly horrible killing device. My favorite contradiction of this variety was Howard's treatment of airplanes. Though the Germans are barbaric for first utilizing airplanes in the war, the British are heroes for inventing strategic bombing. Blame goes all around, and Howard just can't seem to get his head around that, to the detriment of his credibility.

His most laughable offense is his proposed defense of the Treaty of Versailles, which he says (not argues, mind you) was justified and has "stood the test of time." I don't know which history books he's smoking, but everything I've read on the treaty pretty much paints it as a disaster. Howard defends the creation of Yugoslavia which, by copyright in 2002, has turned into a cauldron of ethnic hatred and strife, perhaps related to the attempt to unify distinct peoples, to say nothing of the British "unification" of Iraq which probably has something to do with the current sectarian violence there. But I digress. Howard actually blames Germans for blaming the Treaty of Versailles (and its unpayable reparation scheme, which Howard himself directly alludes to) for their economic woes in the coming decades, as if it were wholly irrelevant that Germany was made the stool pigeon for the universally war-hungry European powers of 1914.

Howard's book, while being a good general introduction to the actual mechanics of the war America has forgotten, is thus still caught up in Allied propaganda. I can recommend it if looked upon skeptically, but Howard's main accomplishment here is to show that history is indeed written by the victors, a lesson his brilliant Treaty of Versailles taught the world by 1945.

Grade: B

January 6, 2007

Book 1: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
Gregory Maguire

Well, it has taken me about a week to get through book 1, but with my two literature-based classes I imagine the pace will very quickly pick up. I am, however, quite pleased with this first fully optional reading of the year. I have been intrigued by Maguire's work for some time, and I happened to pick up this volume on a whim during a sale at Border's. I'm glad I did; the book manages to retell a classic fairy tale in a completely original manner while being an interesting glimpse into the lives of small-town Dutch families in the 1600s. Maguire manages to blend fairy-tale elements with hard reality to create something that is new and exciting.

The main criticism I have of the book is that the prologue seems to be kind of unrelated to the book, and that the book itself takes a while to get into. When I first began it about a week ago, I was unsure whether I'd like it or not. After reflection, the epilogue is mostly unnecessary, only interesting when it considers the fates of the characters. Maguire's strength is in storytelling, not in moralizing. I sensed this early, but I gave the book a shot anyway. I quickly found myself roped in, waiting eagerly to see how the pieces of this historical novel would fit the fairy tale of Cinderella and, of course, her ugly stepsisters.

The creation of an original and plausible story based on a fanciful folk tale is Maguire's strength in this book, as his characters fit their roles in Cinderella legend but also in their own lives. It is never a given how the story will fit into our preconceptions, but after it does it all makes sense. Maguire definitely has the ability to prevent his familiar subject matter from becoming stagnant or predictable, right up until the climactic ball. Maguire has resisted the temptation to merely retell the legend and has instead created a plausible realistic basis for legend, with real people and their real faults. Iris, an ugly stepsister, is in fact kind and thoughtful, hardly the monster we come to expect. Clara, Cinderella in the making, is often harsh and snobbish, a recluse who submits herself to the fire willingly, though to the glee of her decidedly evil stepmother. The stepmother herself is only slightly exaggerated and is nonetheless completely believable as a ruthless woman bent only on her own desire to rise in the ranks of the world.

Maguire is a skilled novelist, quite capable of taking readers' expectations and fulfilling them in a way they cannot foresee but thoroughly enjoy. Confessions has left me hungry for more of Maguire's work, and if he can just restrain himself from confusing oversimplification and overt explanation of his symbolism, I imagine his other works will be as good, if not better, than this one.

Grade: A-