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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Books I Read: November - December 2012


Room by Emma Donoghue

Oh my god. This might be the best book I ever read. Certainly the best book I read this quarter, and maybe the best all year. From the moment I saw its description, I was too intrigued.

Room takes place in just that: a room. The entire novel revolves around a woman locked in this 12x12 space that she never leaves.  Just that alone had me hooked -- what happened?  Was there an apocalypse?  Is this a survival story?  How do you write an entire book that takes place in one room? Much less a book that keeps getting onto "best of the year" lists.

How do you keep that intriguing? How do you keep it from being claustrophobic torture porn? Answer: you make it from the POV of a five-year-old boy. Everything is fascinating to a five-year-old. (As the parent of one, I can attest to this.)  And this boy has lived all of his life in "room". Every inch, every crack.  Can you imagine what would happen if he ever got outside of it? Would it be like Tarzan? Would he just freak out? Would he need to be fostered?

Somehow, even though the walls never change, you are never bored. The novel is intense, psychological, full of horror and despair and optimism. I had to re-read the middle-of-the-book climax because I was too afraid of what was going to happen, so I was speed-reading to find out. I never do that. Only once I found out, I had to go back and re-read it.

Sometimes I just had to stop reading altogether because it got too intense. Some of that probably comes from being a parent myself, and part of it from my own life. In college, I rarely left my dorm room. That year I spent without a roommate was one of the best of my life. I've often thought I might be happy if I could just live in a single room with just the computer and a bed, etc. But then, there's a difference when you get to choice versus no-choice, no matter what the contents of a room are.

Definitely read this book.



Fatherhood by Bill Cosby


It's a short book. Most of its material is from "Bill Cosby: Himself" which I've practically memorized. And reading it in narrative form tells you how good of a comic Bill Cosby was. But mostly that he was a performer, not really a narrative writer. If you already know his material, it's highly skimmable.

The mediocrity gets compounded by the fact that it's remarkably out of date. At the time, it had a lot of forward-thinking ideas about the presence of the father in a child's life. It's nice to know that the things he was fighting for in 1986 are common  today. But it remains a book  written in 1986. And there's no way around it. Stick to the albums.


I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This book was on my "to read" list for quite a long time. So long, in fact, that I forgot why I put it up there in first place. I think it had something to do with "Looking for Alaska", but I'm not sure. My point is that I went into it with no expectations, besides a silly title.

And after reading it, I'm still not sure what I thought of it. I felt like I needed to read the book twice, because it's one of THOSE books with the twist ending like "The Usual Suspects" or "The Sixth Sense". So a second read lets you see all the signs and understand what was really going on. The good thing is that it's short, so it's easy to do. That or you can just read the cliff notes.

It's also an old book with some archaic elements. For instance, the witness protection program was a new innovative thing.  It wasn't even named yet.  And the other anachronisms, especially the way mental health is treated, seem downright barbaric now. It feels like watching those racist Bugs Bunny cartoons as actual entertainment, rather than a historical reprimand.

If you need to complete a collection of some kind, then go ahead and read it. It's not horrible. But I didn't feel more fulfilled by adding it to my library.


Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

As I read this book, I didn't think it would be useful. Then I got to the second half, and it got a lot better.

The first discusses a lot of standards that orange-green belt writers should already know. Like "showing vs. telling" and point of view. If you've read the good writing books like "On Writing", "Characters and Viewpoint", and "Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction", then you know those basics.

However, some of the later tips do come in handy for reaching that blue belt, like proportion, unsophisticated prose, and the writing exercises. You'd be amazed how often you write something, know in the back of your head that it's stupid, but still fail to fully recognize it. That's why I still check out the writing books from time to time, even though I now see that "On Writing", the first and basically my bible, has screwed me up somewhat.

It's certainly better than "Bird by Bird".


Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley

This is... not terribly great prose. It reminds me of when I wrote "Mortal Kombat", my first fan fiction. And actually the first thing I ever wrote. This is not a compliment.

The structure is all over the place. Characters get introduced, then forgotten about. There's about a thousand stories happening at once. In a book like "The Stand", each character was introduced slowly. Here there's no slow development. It feels like they're thrown in when they need to be. There's no quest, no viewpoint character, no antagonist. This really feels like badly fan fiction, written solely to make money. I think the author literally read the BioShock Wiki, all the dialogue and audio diaries, and simply wrote a story in a way to include all those bits.

The thing is there are more than a hundred diaries in Bioshock alone. And the author tries to include every one. It's character soup -- a hundred stories, plotlines upon plotlines, crossing over characters. There's simply too much here to make a novel, unless you're making "Les Miserables" or "War and Peace".

There's no interlocking, no crossover. The "Finding the Sea Slug" event is written basically word-for-word. No attempt to incorporate or connect events or make story flow non-linearly or give some flesh to people that otherwise only exist in snippets of spoken dialogue.

No attempt to innovate or enhance the storyline like good fan fiction should do. I was hoping for some explanation why everyone's walking around carrying giant tape recorders, or why society didn't immediately collapse when people discovered they could have psychic powers.  It brings nothing new to the table.

The thing about Bioshock is that it's up to you, the player, to connect the storylines. And the more I read this book, the more I felt I could do better (that is, if I could handle the historical aspect). The culture is great, but the characters and story are practically plagiarized. The people who didn't play Bioshock won't understand anything and the people who did would be better off playing the game again.


The Giver by Lois Lowry

Like "Remember the Stars", this kept catching my eye on those wire swivel racks in my elementary school library. But I never wanted to check it out -- what nine-year-old boy wants to read a book about an old man and "giving"? Plus a stupid, pretentious award? No thank you.

And again, like "Remember the Stars", I finally got around to reading it now. The result? Well, it has good points and bad points. It's easy to read, but the story doesn't start until almost at the halfway point. Before that it's all world-building. Once you get into the "giving" that the complications start setting in. And they are good complications.

But that ending... Oh, that ending. I hate, hate, HATE ambiguous endings. That stupid "was it a dream or wasn't it?" that belongs in art films and stories with no plot. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, The Matrix, The Black Hole, Inception, Half-Life. There's only two reasons to do that: the writer doesn't know how to end it and gives up or the writer wants to fuck with expectations -- to create arguments and analyses. In either case, it's disrespectful to the reader. Do I truly believe Lois Lowry set out to do that? It's not outside the realm of possibility.

But I'll say this. That ending soured me on reading any further books in the "Giver" series, and any books by Lowry herself even. Think about that, authors. A carefully, crafted exciting ending isn't as necessary as you think. The fun is in the journey, not the destination. But that journey does need to conclude.

(Bonus note: while searching through the archives, I found this gem.)


The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This is really good. Much better than I expected for a space opera novel in the seventies. It deserves all the accolades it got. Still extremely readable, extremely entertaining. It's like reading proto-Scalzi. The best thing about it is, like Halo, it delivers what it promises and doesn't add anything unnecessary. No stupid romances, no bureaucratic filler. It doesn't bore you with constant space battles, idle thinking, or meaningless conversations that go on too long. It gets the battles right, it makes the science entertaining and understandable. I feel smarter for reading this book.

One thing I wasn't sure about was the themes of sexuality. In the beginning, soldiers are expected (even required) to have sex with each other about every night (the army is now co-ed). As time goes on, the world's polarity swings away from natural breeding towards heterosexuality becoming the deviant behavior. I find this twist delightfully ironic, but does it really have a place in an allegory about war?

Maybe it's just me -- I've never been in a war -- but including this sort of thing seems extraneous. I don't get the associations of war or of evolution losing its sexual identity. It reminds me of when every future story thought we'd be taking our dinner in pill form by now. If anything, I think sexuality would end up becoming more extreme, more carnal. As mankind's brain reaches higher planes, the body will need to satisfy its natural instincts harder. That's why we have all this weird stuff today like furries, futanari, and porno that would make a sailor blush.

But that hardly ruins the book. I highly recommend this one.
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