September 30, 2009

Book 52: Little Brother

Little Brother
Cory Doctorow

With a title that so blatantly riffs on Orwell's masterpiece of paranoid dystopian literature, I knew I would like this book, not to mention the fact that it was up for a Hugo and has received praise across the board. Billed as YA but appropriate for any skeptical and thinking reader, Little Brother is a chilling version of a society not too far removed from our own that rapidly sees the glorious technology of the Information Age turned against it by a careless Department of Homeland Security on the march to remove suspected terrorism; their solution, of course, is to treat everyone like a terrorist. Doctorow can be incredibly heavy-handed at times, but what Little Brother lacks in subtlety it has in philosophy and heart- Doctorow goes to no lengths whatsoever to hide his views and this prominent display is uncompromising, powerful, and absolute. Doctorow perhaps misses an opportunity to show the power of dissent and critical thinking by including it in his book, but his resort to absolutes in his future of absolutes is an interesting and compelling choice when viewed in the context of the book's atmosphere. Also interesting is this book as a clear arifact of the Bush era; while it's obvious that intrusive technology is not going away and while it's as obvious now as it was in 1793 that privacy is a pivotal concern for a free society, the president and his advisors are definitely approximations of Bush & Co. and the attitude of America directly following the 9/11 attacks. That we can recognize the novel as a relic of this era also says something about the current tone in America.

Getting back to the content itself, Doctorow has created a compelling future with direct links to technologies being invented and refined now; once readers recognize that "arphid" is simply a linguistic shortcut for RFID, the future of Little Brother seems a whole lot closer. The book's main character, Marcus, is a steadfast 17-year-old who grew up with technology and the Internet and who illustrates the ways that tech-savvy can be used for good, evil, and good thwarting evil. The technology described in the book is compelling and understandable for a relatively unfamiliar reader; adults a bit older than me may have trouble following, but teenagers and twentysomethings should be able to key into the novel's mentality easily and fully. The plot is fast-moving and action-packed, with some tough scenes of torture and tender scenes of a teenager's first mind-blowing love affair. The book's only contruction fault other than it's heavy-handed tone is its deus-ex-machina-style conclusion, which is thrilling and convenient and, sadly, seems a bit optimistic (which just says more about the depth of this vision of San Francisco and perhaps my own sensibilities). Though Marcus is, in many ways, extraordinary, he grapples with the philosophical ambiguity inherent in taking on the DHS and also provides a view of life in the new future from the viewpoint of a largely normal teenager; though Marcus is a gifted hacker, he recognizes and taps in to the potential of his generation to create real change. Little Brother is, in this way and coupled with its afterword essays, a rallying call to the kids of the Bush years and a tangible reminder that relinquishing freedom for security ultimately gets one neither.

Grade: A-

September 23, 2009

Book 51: The Library at Night

The Library at Night
Alberto Manguel

I don't get much spare time to read these days, since school has started in full force, and it's strange that I decided to read this book about, of all things, libraries. What Manguel has done in The Library at Night, however, is unique and offers fresh perspectives on libraries and the different functions they can have. The Library at Night is a kind of history of libraries mixed with philosophical ruminations about what libraries are and what they mean to individual users and to humanity at large. Manguel has taken a look at libraries from a variety of viewpoints, addressing their historical aspects as well as their embodiment of the human condition; as pretentious and academic as that sounds, however, there is a lot of thought and sincere love behind this volume that shines throughout. Beginning with an examination of "The Library as Myth" and the ideas that have created and maintained libraries throughout human history and moves through his categories in a distinct and meaninful order. There is no mistake that The Library as Power" follows "The Library as Space" and "The Library as Order"; all of these chapters examine libraries in human contexts and taken together can form a kind of argument about the myriad uses of libraries across and throughout human history. Also interesting is the direct juxtaposition of "The Library as Survival" with "The Library as Oblivion", each of which examines the power of libraries to preserve history and serve as a reminder as to what is lost; not coincidentally, these are followed by a fun look at imaginary libraries, which combine aspects of both survival and oblivion in their peculiar half-existences.

It is refreshing that Manguel resists the urge to make a hard and fast argument and instead allows his topics to mingle freely with one another, just as in "The Library as Order" and "The Library as Chance", which are not coupled directly but which provide interesting contexts to their own surroundings: this is exactly the kind of chance that Manguel describes in these chapters and, surely, they would acquire a different meaning read in the opposite order or with more space between them. This is not to say, however, that The Library at Night succumbs completely to a darkened, chaotic principle: it is obvious that its chapters, though standing enough alone to be interesting quick reads in and of themselves, should be taken together to construct a narrative of the life of libraries. It is no accident either that the book ends with "The Library As Identity" and "The Library As Home", arguably two of the most important themes the book touches upon and themes that will resonate deeply with readers who presumably care enough about the function of libraries to pick up this book in the first place. Manguel's soft and fluid prose guides the reader through a theoretical history of libraries through examples that exemplify the theme of a particular chapter; these are wonderfully balanced between the obvious (Alexandria as "Myth", national libraries as "Identity") and obscure (Aby Warburg as "Mind").

The Library at Night has, at its heart, a love of the library both as an idea and as an institution, extoling the virtues of all kinds of libraries, however small or large. Vanished libraries exist alongside the vast national libraries of Europe; Alexandria appears next to the recently looted Iraq National Library and State Archives and the vanished Jewish volumes from the Holocaust. Manugel mentions his own library a few more times than necessary, but he always relates his personal experience to the theme at hand and his rare vanity is eclipsed by his transparent devotion to his subject matter. With flowery writing that accomplishes precisely its point, Alberto Manguel adds an air of mystique to the concept of the library in many of its incarnations. The Library at Night is sure to please library enthusiasts amateur and professional, those steeped in library history and theory and those who simply go to their closest local repository for the latest Dan Brown. The Library at Night is a loving testament to the idea of the book and should be added to libraries large and small thorughout the world.

Grade: A

September 15, 2009

Book 50: Microserfs

Douglas Coupland

It's been a while since I've read a Coupland book, and I think that it's good to get them in reasonably spread out doses; while his sense of time and place is absolutely impeccable, his books can feel a bit repetitive and listless. This, I think, makes Microserfs a perfect read for this, my first full week of classes in graduate school. There is a general sense of listlessness amongst Dan (the narrator of this computer-based journal) and his comrades, but Dan has a fundamental sense of what is important, expounding on complex and important philosophical ideas in between describing hilarious anecdotes regarding his work at Microsoft and, later, a friend's start-up in Silicon Valley. Coupland's indisputable strength is his ability to firmly situate his characters in their era and have them become both representative and starkly individual; these are not hasty stereotyped sketches though each character showcases a different facet of 20somethings in an era not quite out of Windows 3.x. Coupland uses his characters to define different aspects of the newly forming dot-com bubble and increasingly wired Internet age, not only on a group of young coders but through the eyes of Dan's parents as well, both of whom seek meaning and relevance in an increasingly digital world. Coupland's gifts are displayed in dazzling technicolor in Microserfs, which is by turns funny and poignant, but which never tries too hard at either and which ends up doubly successful at both. The book isn't too plot-heavy, but it is engaging and will keep readers laughing and thinking as they, too, ponder life in a new, dawning age.

Grade: A

September 8, 2009

Book 49: The End of Mr. Y

The End of Mr. Y
Scarlett Thomas

There is so much to say about this book, but it's quite hard to get at its essence and properly review it without giving too much away, I think. The End of Mr. Y is an incredibly philosophical novel that can beat you over the head with its own cleverness at times, but which ends up being quite satisfying in both the philosophical quandaries and the story it presents. Thomas is easygoing with her difficult science concepts and if her narrator Ariel is a bit stuck-up at times, it only fits her character and isn't grating or annoying to the reader. Ariel is quite a compelling woman, flawed enough to make the story seem genuine but not so much as to turn the reader off completely; sure, she plays fast and loose with vile language, but this style of writing fits the character and allows for an interesting juxtaposition with some very heavy science material. The science in this book does require readers to think, but is presented lightly enough to be accessible and in quantities that fit the plot of the book and allow a critical reader to keep up with a little mental jogging. The book is not perfect, of course, and some plot elements seem unneccesary and/or undeveloped, while others take up far too much room in repetition. The book does brilliantly conceive of different ways to view reality and evokes its images beautifully while probing the mind of a unique and compelling heroine. The End of Mr. Y is not a book for those who simply wish to sit back and absorb a book; the intricacies revealed by Ariel's trips to the mysterious and wonderful Troposphere raise questions about the nature of science, language, religion, and reality itself. To say more would diminish the power of this book and the sense of wonder one has when embarking on its journey for the first time. The End of Mr. Y is an interesting commentary on science, literature, and the nature of reality that will reward enterprising readers and that only rarely sacrifices its story for its philosophical purposes.

Grade: A-

September 6, 2009

Book 48: The Best American Mystery Stories 2006

The Best American Mystery Stories 2006
Edited by Scott Turow

2006 brings (brought?) yet another full plate of intriguing mystery stories in this annual anthology, which is quickly becoming a favorite quick read of mine. This year comes complete with some standouts and though their stars shine quite brightly, a couple of the stories herein don't quite live up to the promise of the book or the mediocre offerings from other years. Several stories, however, were wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed, no doubt ranking among the top stories of the year regardles of genre. Joyce Carol Oates's "So Help Me God" double-dipped with The Best American Short Stories this year, and it's obvious why with her evocative tale of small-town life, the kind of story that starts out slow but changes you in a way that you don't realize until you've finished the last line. Likewise, Karen Bender's "Theft" is appealing to the litfic crowd with its take on how Alzheimer's affects the career of a lifetime swindler. "Peacekeeper," Alan Heathcock's offering, is a bit slow and doesn't quite connect its strands fully, but its atypical chronological sampling and tale of tragedy and natural disaster should also appeal to a wider readership.

There are, of course, many stories that are simply fun; these are the stories I love, the ones that ask us to sympathize with society's devils as they prey on people just like us. It's also refreshing to realize the humor that the mystery genre can offer, both slapstick and a little darker. Laura Lippman is quickly becoming an annual favorite with me, and "The Crack Cocaine Diet" is absolutely hilarious throughout, though tragic in its way. Her ease of voice and despicable characters can't help but please and her plot moves along at a zippy place along with her zippy language. "Improvisation," a final story from Ed McBain, has at its heart a far darker kind of humor, but I couldn't help but love its evisceration of acting hopefuls through quick twists and turns of plot that are never unnecessary and always keep the reader happily on one's toes. "McHenry's Gift", by Mike Maclean, and Sue Pike's "A Temporary Crown" each exemplify in their way the delight of the mystery genre and its clean conclusions. Each has an ending perfectly suited to the story as each leaves the imprint of a smile; stories like these are simply a joy to read. Also appealing and exemplary are the stories that grab you immediately and drag you in their conclusions to strange and distant places: "Born Bad" by Jeffery Deaver is a weak example, William Harrison's "Texas Heat" a bit better, and Andrew Klavan's "Her Lord and Master" the best of the lot; each has a lovely twist that showcases the strengths of the plotty nature of the crime story.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 is a wide-ranging collection of mysteries that show the vast variety within the genre, of voice and subject matter and everything in between. There are straight-up comedy routines (with a hint of cynicism; these are, after all, crime stories), litfic-type "moment of revelation" stories, stories that exploit experimental and novel narrative techniques, nostalgia-heavy trips to the great crimes of the past, and not a single traditional detective story. As a fan of the traditional Sherlock Holmes model, however, I found that I didn't miss the presence of similar characters in this book; instead, The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 celebrates the diversity of the mystery genre, a diversity that should please even the pickiest reader. What's so compelling about these stories is the way in which readers can relate to the criminals, the way that we root for the bad guy protagonist of "Ringing the Changes" despite the fact that he is a very seedy character and the kind of guy we detest in CSI or Law & Order. I think literary crime stories have a kind of freedom in which we can be on either side of the law or in which the sides don't even necessarily exist. The Best American Mystery Stories 2006 is worth a look for its authors' willingness to probe the depths to which we will sink, to reveal surprising facts and mysteries about human nature not quite possible without seeing the darkest faces of humanity.

Grade: A