February 25, 2007

Book 15: The Children of Men

The Children of Men
P.D. James

This book is difficult to assess, partially because its premise alone is so intriguing that any treatment at all would have potential. The plot is a bit different than I would have expected, but James is able to master her dystopia by combining description with plot and first- and third-person narration. The book is a multifaceted work that doesn't get lost despite its shifting focus, built on an original premise and ending with both hope and despair, a conclusion that is at once too abrupt and yet utterly satisfying.

James excels in characterization, which is surprising considering how little of the plot is actually spent in action sequences. More of the book consists of its main character, professor Theo Falon, reminiscing and theorizing. At first I was skeptical, but as the omniscient narration kicked in and the plot started moving, I could better appreciate the interwoven forms of narration. They interlock perfectly to describe the state of mind that comes into play when the world is faced with the end of humanity, which becomes the focal point of the book. Being a dystopian work, this is probably to be suspected- after all, how many of them have diaries in some form?

The plot itself is also interesting. James does have some elements of general disillusionment but the book doesn't function as a straight satire of human nature and tyranny. Rather, it is more of an exploration into the human mind and its reaction to destruction. The desire for comfort and security, and the fact that most people would really prefer that to democracy, is eerily reminiscent of American placidity in recent years. Lest you get the impression that this is an English response to Bushism, check the copyright- the book was written in 1992, at the dawn of democracy across the former Soviet Union. James touches on many universal truths in this book without becoming excessively dogmatic. There are passages that run the risk, but Theo's continuing indifference and gruff attitude towards reform make him realistic in a fashion often lacking in dystopian fiction.

James has constructed an interesting future, a future without a future. Her predictions regarding human reactions seem spot-on, though there are the usual twistings of truth and turns of convenience that are evident in all fictions. The book starts to get a little too obviously weighty in parts, but it usually rights itself. The end is carefully ambiguous and deliberately so, making the reading of the book a personal experience more than a set retelling of fictional experiences. For a quick but deep read, this book has a lot to offer.

Grade: A

February 23, 2007

Book 14: The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man
H.G. Wells

I had to read this book in installments, and it truly is a shame. This book ties into itself incredibly well and its greatest strength is its vivid imagery. The book reads like a movie running through the reader's brain, which is particularly interesting given that its subject is an invisible man. Wells scores once again with his science fiction that seeks to wow his audience but which also provides interesting social commentary that is relevant and intriguing a century later.

At its core, the novel is the story of a man gone crazy at the thought of his own power. At first he is mysterious, and it is only towards the end of the novel that Griffin's true madness is revealed. Wells does a great job of creating an ambiguous narrative that does not force conclusions until it is sufficiently demonstrated that the man is indeed crazy. The only thing left to true ambiguity in the book is the cause of the madness- is Griffin mad because of the effects of his experiments or is he simply a power-hungry egoist, bent on destruction all along? Either way, he is compelling and it is sad when he eventually succumbs to his own evil desires.

Another quite interesting aspect of the narrative is its point of view. The narrator is first-person but occasionally exhibits omniscience. This makes the story accessible and lends to its aura of mystery. Had the story been told by an omniscent Wells, the plot would not have moved so deftly nor would it have stirred the senses so well. The fact that the narrator does not know the whole story makes the events seem more believable and puts the reader into his own position.

The most remarkable thing about Wells is his ability to be spot-on through the ages. Despite its age, The Invisible Man is still a compelling story. Tweak a few aspects of setting and language, and the story could take place today. The potential for expansion in the imagination of the reader is limitless. Wells's portrayal of a man driven mad by the scope of his own power and newfound ability is one we would be wise to look to today, as science crosses ever receding frontiers and threatens to make monsters and control-freaks of us all.

Grade: A

February 21, 2007

Book 13: Little Man, What Now?

Little Man, What Now?
Hans Fallada

Some books are character-driven narratives, where plot takes a backseat to development. There are also works that concentrate on intricate plots, whose characters are more of the stock variety but which nonetheless captivate the reader. Others are philosophical tales or satires, meant to provoke the intellect. Little Man, What Now? doesn't fall into any of these categories, but somehow it managed to retain my interest. This book is more like a moving portrait, a series of snapshots of life in Weimar Germany, focusing on the lives of a newly married couple. The characters themselves aren't horribly interesting (Bunny can test the nerves at times and Pinneberg is a wimp), but their circumstances are captivating.

Fallada published this book in 1933, just before the Nazis came to power. The book, however, is neither propaganda nor a slamming accusation. It is blunt realism at its strongest. Pinneberg's political wavering captures the essence of the era- he realizes that most down-and-out white-collar workers like himself have turned to the Nazi party, but he feels drawn to communism at the same time. What is perhaps most interesting about the novel is that the reader knows what is coming, but it isn't at all evident in the book. The plot focuses on the economics of Weimar Germany and their dire effects, making the mechanics of Nazification in Germany much more understandable. The novel is, however, without an axe to grind.

Fallada's book isn't particularly captivating on its own; it deserves careful consideration and contextualization but can yield excellent results. It isn't too terribly time-consuming, and it provides perhaps unique insight into the times. Little Man, What Now? may not be intricate or particularly well-constructed, but it is nonetheless valuable for those interested in Weimar Germany and its implications for the rise of Nazism.

Grade: B+

February 18, 2007

Book 12: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury

At first, I thought I was really going to enjoy this book. Then I thought it was going to be more disembodied, a la Star Maker. Then I got into a quieter environment and realized that I love this book. The main reason for my consternation was the fact that the stories in this book are all loosely affiliated through a common theme, and I wasn't sure that the vignettes would ever come together to create a single theme. By the end of the book, however, I realized that Bradbury has done good work in establishing a realistic sampling of events regarding the human adoption of Mars. The book is somewhere between a short story collection and a history of the planet, but it finds its place quite well.

The book uses sly wit and ironic humor to great effect. Bradbury is truly a gifted writer, perfectly exposing the flaws of censorship and projection in general. The second story of the book seems to be a normal family scene...until we find out that the people involved are actually Martians. Bradbury does a fantastic job at catching the intricacies and absurdities of human behavior, and the lack of a strict narrative allows him to freely place all kinds of exhibits on display for the reader's perusal.

Some chapters may seem unrelated, but taken as a whole, the stories all reflect on the fundamental desire of humans to remake new lands according to ideal imagery. The Martian ability to morph into human-desired forms and the numerous appearances of deceptively human robots only underscore this point. The prose itself is rich and fulfilling. Several of the stories can stand alone as excellent short stories, and seem to have been published as such, but only by reading the entire book can one gain full appreciation of Bradbury's vision and the power of the book.

Bradbury has created a vision of the future that ties in multiple aspects of human nature. By chronicling the events on Mars in such a manner, Bradbury creates multiple narratives within a single story that presents a greater view of the whole than other techniques could. The stories offer bite-sized glimpses into the importanta stages of Martian development and yet offer the reader enough fodder to satisfy the desire for a complete story. Bradbury writes top-notch science fiction good for anyone looking for either fantastic tales of colonization or subtle, ironic critiques on the human form.

Grade: A

February 14, 2007

Book 11: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway

What an apt choice for Valentine's Day, eh? I've read this book once before (it was last summer), and I feel just as ambivalent now as I did then, although I feel much less affected by the ending. I think that a lot of the power of this book is taken away on a second reading. Sure, I may have noticed more details, but knowing that the punch in the gut was coming took away any suspense and any real emotion. The reader is left not with a sense of hoplessness, but a sense of inevitability and a lack of fulfillment.

The book seems confused: it is torn between a love story and a war story, two narratives that seem to have hardly anything to do with one another. Perhaps that is the point; it is hard to imagine such a whirlwind love affair in the middle of a war, though it is the war itself that makes it so urgent. The battle scenes are well-described, but lack any overriding sense of emotion. The love scenes show a surplus of emotion, making up for a lack of believability or decent dialogue. The reader has to work hard to remain in touch with the story, and the stoicism of the narrator doesn't help much. Frederic Henry remains two-dimensional throughout the text, though he is the narrator, and Catherine is just annoying. There are hardly any characters to care about, and thus no truly compelling narrative.

The book seems to be an unfortunate juxtaposition of two entirely separate stories, neither of which manage to draw the reader in or make the reader care. Though the book has its high points in certain chapters, and the first time reading the ending is a memorable experience, the overall work just cannot hang together. It is, of course, entirely possible that I am missing some crucial piece of the puzzle, but when all is said and done the story is just the story- it has had no real effect on me the second time around. It is good to have read Hemingway, but I do not think I will revisit this book often.

Grade: B

February 11, 2007

Book 10: Star Maker

Star Maker
Olaf Stapledon

I have no idea what to do with this book, and it is posing a serious challenge to my inner grading system. The book is good, there's no doubt about that, but it wasn't very engaging. It is making me incredibly torn, because my experience of the book after reading it has been much greater than it was whilst reading. In this, the book is somewhat similar to A Farewell to Arms (which is conveniently coming up). If nothing else, Star Maker is intriguing: its premise promises a tour of the galactic whole, and whatever may lie beyond. At its simplest level, the book is a tour of speculative existence, ranging from the almost human to the great power that creates the cosmos.

It may be hard to see how a work of such scope could be so...boring. The worlds Stapledon describes are imagined in vivid detail, and the relevance to human affairs (both in 1937 and today) is clear enough to provide clear allegories while avoiding that much-hated preachiness. The problem is that the narrator almost doesn't exist. All we know about the man traveling through the universe(s) is that he is an Englishman who lives on a hill. The book only has one named character, a somewhat important figure who nonetheless lacks significant characterization. The focus of the book is on its descriptions of worlds and their social systems, not on creating an interesting narrative that binds the reader to the work. I consider myself an efficient reader, but I struggled through the book. It constantly gave me the feeling that there is much to unpack, but such an effort seemed to me too daunting: I like my stories with characters and plot.

Despite this (almost debilitating) limitation, it is clear that Stapledon has much to tell us about cooperation and human relations. By examining how other worlds and races have developed successfully and by looking at the reasons for their demise, Stapledon reveals a philosophy of coexistence that is compelling and educational. I believe that there is much to learn from this book, if one can only get through it. The mechanism of travel is in and of itself worth looking at; by accessing and amassing consciousnesses, those individuals involved gradually build up a critical mass not unlike a computer network (think Last.fm or other sites that create recommendations).

This insight and others convince me that Stapledon has a lot to say in this book. Unfortunately, these conclusions and insights do not function within a gripping narrative. The book reads more like a philosophical treatise, which may have thrown me off a bit. I'd hate to be unfair; I did not enjoy slogging through the endless descriptions but at the same time I have gone back over certain parts and discovered incredible things. I say that this is a good book to have and come back to, maybe to read in installments after the first time. There is a lot to digest, but I believe that it is worth the effort.

Grade: B

February 5, 2007

Book 9: War with the Newts

War with the Newts
Karel Capek

I am eternally grateful to my science fiction class for exposing me to this book. I can't imagine that I lived in a world without it. Well, okay, maybe that's saying to much, but War with the Newts is a satirical masterpiece. It is the perfect mixture of poignant political commentary and outright absurd humor. Capek takes on imperialism and the human fondness for pride and egocentric views of the world, leaving no country untouched (not even his own Czechoslovakia) and even offering a disturbingly correct view of Nazi politics. This book, simply put, is a masterpiece. Every fan of Vonnegut should read this book, as should anyone fed up with capitalism and imperialist America-centric politics of the world today.

Capek's satire is so deft and so accurate because his premise is at once inherently silly and blatantly metaphorical. Readers can laugh at the absurdity of a humanoid newt species taking over the world, but Capek's analysis makes that ending not only laughable but frighteningly realistic. The strongest narrative thread illustrates how the imperialists (that is to say, the humans) have put this fate upon themselves, a fact most brilliantly illuminated in the book's final chapter, in which Capek debates with himself over how to end the book. The development of the newts is so brilliantly constructed that the reader can see the ending a mile away, though it still retains a force akin to a slap in the face. The reader is amazed that things turn out as they do, but not surprised. The ending is perfect.

The only thing that is possibly missing from the narrative is a more in-depth discussion of newtonian (pun initially not intended, then reinstated) development. It seems to me like the newts take significant leaps rather quickly, but as Capek was clearly not aiming for strict realism, this can be forgiven. His analysis does include quite a bit of "documentation", providing in itself a wonderful satire of research that the history major in me rejoices at. The important thing about the newts is that they do evolve, and the book is certainly not lacking in the evolutionary history of the newts. Their origin and development loosely parallel that of colonized peoples, which creates an interesting dilemma for the reader: who are we supposed to root for? This confusion is yet another example of Capek's abilities with biting satire; we want to root for ourselves, but Capek forces us to realize that we really don't deserve the support or respect.

Capek is surely one of the greatest satirists of the 20th century. His take on imperialism and the absolute greed of capitalism makes its point without being dogmatic (a la The Jungle). The socialist in me adores this book, as does the anarchist, the skeptic, the Democrat, the history major, the evolutionary theorist, the comic...this book appeals to everyone somehow. There is something in each of us within War with the Newts. May Capek never fade into obscurity, and may the generations to follow read his work, laugh, and learn.

Grade: A

February 3, 2007

Book 8: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque

Here we are again, me and Remarque. Interestingly enough, this is my fifth reading of the book overall (at least), my third in college, and my second for this professor. By this point, you'd think that I'd be fully sick of the thing, but instead I find it more intruiging and more moving every time I pick it up. Here is a book where one can find something new every time it is read, a book that can affect you in a profound way by different means depending on the context in which you experience it. Both accessible and deeply artistic, it is close to being a perfect book.

The first thing that I thought about while reading this time around was the depiction of the war and its realism. Having just come off of a couple of memoirs, I think the comparison is useful and interesting. Remarque doesn't focus on scenes of battle; rather, he evokes emotion by portraying the soldiers as men. The soldiers are no heroes; the main characters are an upstart group of teenagers who volunteered at the behest of their rigorously patriotic headmaster. Paul, the narrator, relates the tragedy of the war not through graphic depictions (though they play their part rather well as they occur), but by showing us the war through the eyes of a kid. As his classmate Leer dies, Paul's lament is simply, "What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician at school?" This is far more provoking than any amount of gore. Remarque shows us the war as it was lived and experienced, not as history books pare it down to battles and trench warfare. The novel, being as focused on life beyond the trenches and soldier-to-soldier relationships, is a very interesting talking point regarding the reliability of the novel as a form to unearth human truths about the past.

At a more literary level, perhaps, one of the other most striking things about this book is the constant mish-mash of life and death. The two are often coupled in shocking ways. In a battle scene, for example, Paul describes how the caskets of the dead blocked bullets and shrapnel, allowing the soldiers to survive. This is perhaps the most graphically illustrated amalgamation of life and death, but the comparisons are everywhere. The most moving passage of the book (in my opinion) is one that has Paul questioning his place in the civilian war. He is only twenty, but he knows nothing of life but death and destruction. If Remarque was looking to condemn the destructive results of war on the living, on the survivors, there is hardly a more effective way he could have done it.

The pain of Remarque's novel is its humanity. It is so moving because we can see ourselves in Paul and can watch the steady degeneration of his faith in humanity. We can see ourselves coming to pieces in the trenches, and we have no answers for Paul's questions about life and his future. Remarque understood something about the war and about the defeat of Germany that was incredibly acute and prescient. There is a reson that this book stands as the greatest war novel of all time, and I would urge anyone interested in the moral ramifications and effects of war on the human psyche to read this book. Anyone looking for moving commentary on the human condition should read this book.

Grade: A