March 24, 2007

Book 22: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin

All right, I'm being a little slack here, but school is getting kind of crazy for me right now and I haven't had much of a chance to relax, let alone indulge myself in book reviews. I did manage to get through this book before things got really weird, and I'm glad I did. The novel definitely has a lot to offer its readers who are willing to look beyond its sci-fi/fantasy facade and delve deeper into its literary merit. To those who say that science fiction cannot have literary merit, I posit this book, which is sci-fi to the max but is a work of utmost subtlety and deft storytelling.

Though the novel is riddled with confusing moments and references to a foreign world, it usually recovers from its missteps quickly and returns to the point at hand. Occasionally Le Guin will toss in a planet name or two, or an alternate name for a character, and will throw the reader off for a couple of pages. While this is annoying at best, it does not seriously hinder a first-time read of the book and I imagine it would be almost unnoticeable on a second perusal. Le Guin's storytelling chops shine through and these slight distractions can be chalked up to her complete immersion in the fictional world she has created.

And boy, can Ursula K. Le Guin create an alternate world. Gethen is a foreign planet not so foreign from our own, a cold wasteland that nonetheless posseses a considerable human(oid) population. The environment, in fact, almost adds itself to the list of compelling characters in the book, forcing the actual characters to adapt and creating a world where war is simply inconvenient due to the necessity of, well, warmth. When it comes to alternative world creation, there are no immediately visible holes in Le Guin's plan: Gethen is consistent and is close enough to Earth (the novel's Terra) to be relevant to readers. Gethenians may be out in the far-flung reaches of outer space, but they have their border squabbles and competing governmental systems just as we do. This is all to say nothing of the characters, who are compelling and who implore us to reach beyond our limited horizons and see what is really in front of us. Gethenians are born without consistent physical gender, which works fine for them but presents quite the challenge to visiting envoy Genly Ai, who is seen as a pervert for his perpetual paternal inclination. Ignoring my alliterative whimsy, this matter provides an excellent lens through which to view Le Guin's main topic throughout the book.

That is to say, the novel, though entirely enjoyable as a straightforward story, has much to say about the way that humans far and wide tend to view the world in front of their eyes. The novel is a story of projection and the problems that come along with making too many assumptions, both about other people and even about the environments we inhabit. Philosophical notes, such as the parable that illustrates the folly of having the right answer to the wrong question, gain new meaning when viewed through the scope of their implications for the study of projection- we want to experience that which we believe will be useful to us and we want to avoid that which we deem to be difficult or harmful. Le Guin's narrative challenges the reader to rise above these expectations and take a try at looking beyond the surface.

The prose itself flows beautifully and the alternating narrative perspectives only illuminate the story, though occasionally providing an unnecessary little jolt of confusion and disorientation. Le Guin's writing itself is hard to criticize, and aside from aforementioned lapses the novel holds together quite well, offering logical progressions and only relevant information (even the seemingly unrelated stories come to have meaning upon reflection). This is not a novel to be taken lightly, though if it was it would probably provide an enjoyable escapist read. I, however, ask more of my literature and this book delivers on both philosophical and narrative grounds. Any singular aspect of this book makes it worth reading, from its elaborate setting to its interesting premise of a neutrally gendered species (and the attendant implications and its hidden, but vibrant, love story.

Grade: A-

March 21, 2007

Book 21: Her Privates We

Her Privates We
Frederic Manning

As this is yet another book about World War I, you'd think I'd be getting sick of them. Manning, however, manages to make the conflict moving in a completely different way than any of the other authors I have thus far encountered. Manning's novel, unlike many stories of the war, focuses on characterization within the scope of everyday events, but unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, there is no rush to have Private Bourne experience all of the intricacies of the conflict. The novel, while lacking outright plot, still engages the reader and creates a believable world of war. Manning's prose, while a bit cumbersome, is worth every ounce of effort it asks- the numerous asides to the audience detract little from the plot of the book but provoke deep thought and contemplation without pretence. The book, in fact, is marked by a lack of pretence, and is challenging while inherently simple. Therein lies its beauty.

At its heart, Her Privates We is the experience of a private during the Battle of the Somme, though the only hints of conflict come at the polar ends of the book. Despite the lack of rock-'em-sock-'em action, the book is perhaps the most accurate view of war I have seen portrayed in literature. The soldiers do not wax unbelievably eloquent for the benefit of the reader (that is left to the narrator) and they seem to embody the heart of the British army. In fact, I often recalled parts of George Coppard's memoir while reading this book, which adheres to fact and stays true to the language of the common soldier. Manning portrays the attitudes of soldiers towards authority with subtle grace and through the eyes of his characters, rather than through a blunt sledgehammer. The language may be harsh and off-putting at first, but it becomes a vital part of the landscape of the novel, woven intricately with visual characterizations and creating a viable experience of the war for the reader.

Manning's intent, more than any other author, is simply to show what happened during the war. He does this without contrivance and through elegant prose unmatched by most literature. The book is heavy and is no light read, but it delivers emotion in full force. Focusing on characterization rather than shock and awe, Manning's novel gets to the heart of the common soldier in a way that other books- and even memoirs- cannot. Her Privates We is a truly moving portrait of men at war.

Grade: A

March 18, 2007

Book 20: Ubik

Philip K. Dick

It seems like it's been a while, but here I am with a new read. I kind of wish that I had read Vonnegut more recently than I have, because I have a feeling that Dick's work is similar, at least in pace and rate of confusion. Dick's narrative is often muddled and twisted, but he delivers it all quite accessibly and creates enough solidity to leave the reader a wisp of sanity to cling onto. The book transcends the limits of time and space and presents a (then) futuristic look at the moral dilemmas we face with technological advancements. The book also creates an interesting corollary to technology-based espionage by empowering select groups of humans with psychological, and counter-psychological, powers.

At first I was afraid that this book would whisk me around aimlessly from one point of view to the next, and that I would never be able to gain a foothold. Being a die-hard fan of Catch-22, I should have known better. Though it takes a chapter or two to get a sense of what is going on, the chaos is part of Dick's style and in fact presents interesting commentary on reality and the ways in which we should and should not try to manipulate it. Dick's characters themselves do not know what is going on and jump to the same logical conclusions as the reader, prodded by events and experiencing just as much mental anguish over the mix-ups as those of us experiencing the book on this side of the paper.

Dick's ability to confuse his characters and his readers but still retain interest is remarkable. The twists and turns of the text to not deter the reader but instead press the reader effortlessly ahead as the mysteries of the book are partially revealed. Despite the fact that I am still trying to piece together in my own mind just what exactly happened in the book (particularly regarding the powers of Pat), I fully enjoy the challenge rather than being annoyed. Ubik does not approach its readers with a sense of pretension or glorified imagination. Its salient science fiction elements are woven effortlessly and, while exceeding imagination, are understandable enough to create a plausible alternate reality that faces much the same problems of our own. Ubik is a delightful jaunt into a scientific fantasyland, and I have every expectation that its second and third reads will be just as interesting as the first.

Grade: A

March 12, 2007

Book 19: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller, Jr.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think this is due to the fact that my reading thereof was necessarily rushed and somewhat hectic and distracted. I believe that, given the time to fully appreciate this book, my opinions concerning it would be much more fair. My reading is as it is, however, and while I appreciate the depth and the power of this book, I found much of the plot overcrowded with unnecessary and underexplained characters. Miller is definitely trying to present a complex and nuanced critique of human actions, but his scope is a little too far-reaching at times in the text, confusing the reader and muddling his point behind the confusion of the reader.

The text itself is worthy of its ambition, and though it overshoots its target a bit, its criticism does resonate and strikes hard. Miller almost presents a scientific historical hypothesis in the book, and it reads like an evolving proof of the cyclical nature of history. Indeed, the entire plot of the book reads as a rehashing of the two centuries since Christ, made especially poignant due to the religious nature of the shifting protagonists. Indeed, an abbey is the central character in the book, and it plays its part dutifully to the end. The three novellas that comprise the overarching story arc all fit perfectly into place in their respective benchmark eras in the history of the abbey, and Miller intertwines the stories enough to create a cohesive narrative, though it must be unraveled.

The book's main weaknesses are its overuse of Latin and the initial confusion of each novella. To tackle the latter first, Miller is on to a good idea- he begins each mini-story right in the middle of the action, wasting no time in base recapitulation. Unfortuately, this makes the novellas inaccessible until they are well underway, creating ample reason for a second reading but creating a colossal annoyance upon the first. I'm sure that Miller could have been more careful when creating his characters, and as each world is at a schism from the one preceeding it, a little introduction is crucial for complete understanding. Along with this possible overestimation of the reader (or my particular deficiency, perhaps) comes the superfluous Latin phrases scattered throughout the text. They are definitely inserted for flavor, which works somewhat because of the book's focus on Catholicism but ultimately distracts from general understanding. The book quotes blocks of Latin at will, and to the uneducated reader this becomes annoying, condescending, and distracting.

The book is very good, but it seems almost too aware of this fact at times. It's kind of like meta-gaming, as it feels that parts, especially the excessive Latin quotations, are written just to add to the mystique of the author's aptitude. The book itself has some important and subtle observations about human nature and the tendency we have to invent ever more capable ways of destroying ourselves. Miller also deserves praise for his spot-on imitation of today's presidential administration. Written in 1959 and no doubt with the stewing Cold War in mind, the book accurately portrays the state of fear that has dominated American politics for the past several years. Miller's book, though cumbersome, holds valuable insight and definitely deserves to be read by the thinkers among us.

Grade: B+

March 7, 2007

Book 18: Germans Into Nazis

Germans Into Nazis
Peter Fritzsche

I tried not to dismiss this book immediately upon arrival, and, to be fair, its second half far outshines its first. Unfortunately, however, that is only because the second half of the book is mildly coherent and proves that Fritzsche understands that it is usually not to one's advantage to undermine one's own argument whilst searching for it. The summary at the end of the book actually confused me, as well- it would have been nice for Fritzsche to actually make the argument he strings together at the end of the book somewhere before, oh, say, the book's last ten pages. Maybe if the two main halves of the book were connected in some meaningful way, instead of jumping from the end of World War I to 1933 and attempting to prove correlation.

The main problem with the book is its lack of organization, which trumps its unbearable dullness for the win. Fritzsche is on to a good idea by describing representative pictures, but they are used as jumping points from which to go backwards, confusing even informed readers. The first half of the book successfully makes a point, only to completely reverse it a paragraph later. Acknowledging flaws in your argument generally makes your work seem stronger, but Fritzsche just looks like a buffoon trying to string everything together haphazardly. The book makes several useful points, but its frenetic frenzy makes any arguments lurking beneath the surface impossible to find and dissect. Fritzsche takes one of the most interesting and important questions of the twentieth century and bores me (of all people) with it. Boo hiss.

Grade: D

March 4, 2007

Book 17: Childhood's End

Childhood's End
Arthur C. Clarke

Yet again, my science fiction class scores with a winner. At first, I was skeptical of this book, which seemed to be just another dystopia, with its restrictions on liberty and patented revolutionary (spurred, of course, by a female). Now, I have nothing wrong with dystopian literature- indeed, 1984 is one of my favorite works- but it is a genre that could stand some serious innovation. Clarke provides an excellent science fiction twist in this book, giving it unique inertia by posing the perpetual question of necessity. Liberty is sacrificed, but there are continual hints that the occupying force may not be so cruel as one is inclined to imagine.

Clarke's narrative takes place over two or three generations of human life, in which humanity is transformed beyond recognition. Alien overlords have subtly dominated human life, but only a few religious fringe groups seek to alter the situation. Problems inherent in occupation are consistently posed throughout the text, engaging the reader and masking the fact that the book isn't tied to a particular set of characters until its midsection. Though Clarke's book is not as disembodied as The Martian Chronicles, it does rely on a series of interrelated vignettes to showcase the fate of humanity, echoing Bradbury's technique but adapting it to create something new and entirely fitting to the premise. Clarke's characters lie somewhere between full development and replicable stock personalities. While this may dismay those of us who are drawn to elaborate characterizations, Clarke is supremely efficient, providing details when necessary and creating a believable fictional world that is fully fleshed out despite some gaps in the specific timeline.

Clarke pays obvious homage to many great writers and thinkers along his path, with paraphrased quotations delightfully sprinkled throughout the text and a direct link to Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. Childhood's End pays fitting homage to generations of human thought within its own textual play on human legacy and piques the imagination. There is much philosophy to be unpacked in this novel, which is a great read that goes just beyond the surface of common dystopian vision to present a new problem for humanity to solve.

Grade: A

March 3, 2007

Book 16: The Living Unknown Soldier

The Living Unknown Soldier
Jean-Yves Le Naour

This book certainly has the ambitious scope common to many historical works; it sets out to describe the condition of postwar France following the greatest catastrophe the country had seen since its revolution (we're talking the Great War here). Its goal, to see the tragedy of France's lost generation through the lens of an unidentified soldier, does come across eventually, but not until after the reader is reluctantly dragged through a bog of muddled facts and names that seem to pose no relevance. Though Le Naour throws in the cursory connectors to the main story arc, that of France's most famous unidentified soldier, they fail to resonate and instead create an overlying sense of boredom. Le Naour only highlights this by throwing in citations on nearly every sentence and in grammatically unpalatable places.

Le Naour has traced an interesting thread of plot, and his observations about France and its grieving process are spot-on. I, however, am a fan of subtlety. This book perfectly illustrates my preference: the parts of the book that focus on beating the reader over the head with facts and tangents instead lose the reader and create contempt where pity is the appropriate emotion. The work excels, however, when it illuminates the status of the country through the lens of the story of so-called Anthelme Mangin. Le Naour's ability to showcase the absolute raw emotions of loss in such a devestating situation come through quite clearly, if only he'd have some confidence in his ability to write and thus influence the reader's understanding.

The first half of the book is regrettably incoherent and rambling, but when Le Naour picks up the story of the poor unknown soldier he creates an affecting narrative that shines light on one of war's forgotten consequences: the plight of the missing, not to mention of the insane. The second half does not shine so brightly as to blind the reader to the weaknesses of the first, but it does redeem the book as an interesting account of grief and the thorough impact of the Great War on those left behind with no semblance of closure.

Grade: B-