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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Books I Read: July - August 2014


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I would love to see this as a documentary. The book itself gets a little long. But it's comprehensive, that's for sure. Like a Beethoven symphony, it covers all the possible ideas.

Now for those people who think this book will help with their introversion, well... the best thing the author does is tell you that your introversion is normal. You are not abnormal, you just have a different way of thinking. There are strengths and faults to introversion, just as there are strengths and faults to extroversion. The problem is that some time after WWII, society got in its head that a forceful personality was more desirable than someone who got things done with integrity and character. That's not to say it has no good advice -- it does. And it wraps up with a great summary.  Plus the anecdotes it uses are spot-on, plus the data points are valuable and easy to understand.

I would say, or at least I wish, that this book was read by extroverts, especially bosses and managers, so that they can better understand their employees and why they might not be thriving in an environment full of open spaces and pods and wasteful small talk.


Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

Imagine the writing of Hunter S. Thompson with the art of R. Crumb in a setting from Neuromancer. It's rich with societal satire and world-building. The art is so beautiful I wish the artist had filled in the background with more detail so I could read them. I can't believe he poured in this much world into the art.  It's a tragedy I only spend a few seconds reading the words and moving onto the next panel.

And the writing is great. It's a blend of different genres -- mystery, empathy, horror, science fiction. Despite the fact that the protagonist is a creatively-swearing, chain-smoking, opinionated loudmouth, you can't help but root for him because he gets the job done. Despite being so resentful of the state of the earth, he cares about keeping people in power, setting society on a proper course, and keeping the truth at front and center. And the story does all this with a healthy sense of tongue-in-cheek. If Transmetropolitan was a meal, it would be the entire menu of a fancy restaurant.  Appetizers, soup, dessert, and all.

My one regret is that I keep confusing Warren Ellis with Frank Miller. It's the double L's.


Landline by Rainbow Rowell

This isn't the best Rainbow Rowell I've read. It poses an intriguing question, but the way the story renders isn't very intense. The stakes aren't very high, because there's really only one conflict taking place. One plate in the air. There's not a rival trying to take her husband or the wife undergoing depression or a mental mother. It's really about being caught between career and family. It's a classic question, an important question, but the journey taken doesn't include too many obstacles or rising action.

I wanted to know more about her job. She's a TV writer, trying to get four episodes of a cherished sitcom written in a hurry. In order to do so, she has to skip Christmas with her family in Nebraska, to the chagrin of the SAHD. Through it all, she examines her relationship, how she and he got there, why they fell in love, and realizes that, while she hasn't made it all about her, she's made it none about him. The book doesn't end with any conclusions or wrapping the loose ends (which is another facet of my rating), just a promise to try to make things better.


Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Angsty, mysterious, dogged -- all the things I like in a YA novel. Our female protagonist is dealing with the death of a friend, delivering pizzas, living with her SAH father, and the onset of graduation. But all these details are methodically revealed throughout the novel through frequent flashbacks, scene changes, and memories.

The style of this book takes some bold risks, doing lots of things they say not to do. 97% of the novel is the main protagonist, but there are scenes from the antagonist girl, the dead boy, even an inanimate building. (And I get yelled at for one head-hopping scene in my novel.) The scenes aren't extraneous, but they do jar one.

But that's the thing. This is a novel for the short attention span. Scenes are short, change time and setting often, to the point where you start to forget what the main timeline is and where we left the protagonist. And it's not like a mystery novel where someone investigates clues. They're just doled out methodically in a sort of flashback history that led to the downfall of these teenagers.

But my favorite aspect is that the novel raises questions, which is what good books do. The title refers to what happens when one chooses to turn a blind eye to events.  The "first they came for the Jews, but I said nothing..." problem.  The book appeals to the "jaded person in a shitty high school situation" plot, which I'm a sucker for.


Trouble by Non Pratt

Not the best first act -- it takes a long time to get to the primary conflict of the novel.  The main character spends her time snogging, smoking, and drinking in the park after school. They gossip about who likes who, who kissed who, but it's all among her incestuous group of friends. So her difficulty is no surprise. The other main character is just blah. It's not a super-serious book, and yet it misses any plot twists or character-changing events. It all seems to be one middling line, not very up-and-down.

I guess I'm disappointed because it's not the novel I thought it would be. I'm not saying I wanted "16 and Pregnant", but it reminds me too much of The Casual Vacancy. Maybe this is the way English novels are written, in a soap opera-y style where no one is very likable.

It's also very British. I wished I had gotten it as an eBook so I could look up some of the terms and slang being used. I'd probably still bring it to a desert island with me, but it'd be at the bottom of the pile.


Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Why is it every time I read a "classic" book, I end up regretting it. Yeah, it's got a lot of material, a lot of questions and issues to analyze, but in the end, the trip just isn't worth it. I've gotten more out of the shorter trips that used this one as inspiration. The book barely focuses on the main character, the man from Mars. It leaves out crucial pieces of backstory, like how he grew up on Mars with the actual frickin' Martians.  No, no one seems to care that there's actual extraterrestrial life.  We just care about the night nurse with Florence Nightingale syndrome and a journalist who's not good at his job.

At least not compared to Jubal Harshaw.  Hoo, boy, they should have a novel about him.  He's like a proto-Spider Jerusalem. Sharp talking, indulgent, and crushing any enemies with the law they hide behind. I loved watching him give idiots the business, hammering them down with clever legalese. And he takes a large part of the first half, so that I thought it was going to be a legal thriller, like Fuzzy Nation.

And like most reviewers said, the second half is a total tonal shift. No more Jubal Harshaw. No more trying to stay hidden.  No more learning about two different cultures. It becomes satirical and touchy-feely. The first scene of the second half is that Valentine Michael Smith and his girl are trying to learn about human culture... by being in a carnival sideshow.

And this eventually leads to Smith gaining followers of his "god is everywhere, love everyone" Martian philosophy, which turns into a religion, and into a cult, and so on. No more legal thriller. There's a lot of "explanations" which are just the author giving strawman arguments with himself. In fact, there was a lot of that in Starship Troopers too -- essays disguised as fiction. Except this time it's not about cool militarism and civics, it's about free love. Damn hippies.





One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal by Alice Domurat Dreger

The book has an axe to grind, that is true, but the subject matter is grotesquely interesting. The (lengthy) introduction promises it's going to be more of an examination of all freaks, but it really focuses on conjoined twins. Through a historical study on subjects like Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, disastrous attempts at separating twins, plus accounts from existing paired humans, Dreger is trying to say that we shouldn't try to fix what isn't broken. All these people say that they wouldn't separate if they had the choice. The medical industry sees pathology where the "freaks" find normalcy.

It makes some very good points and I agree with the author. Except there's one part where it really loses me. Where, if it was cut, it would have improved my rating/review. She tries to compare pregnancy to having a conjoined twin. She uses lines like "this entity is dependent on the other for food and oxygen supply. Eventually, through societal pressure and the dominant's personal desires for independence, she decides to make the separation." This, I feel, is deceitful, manipulating the reader through withholding information.

I don't think anyone can deny that pregnancy is a natural part of life, with the end goal being TO SEPARATE and become an independent entity, capable of making more offspring.  Conjoined twins, while it may be natural, isn't the typical end state, and doesn't behoove propagation of the species. The fact that it often results in biological and reproductive problems for both parties emphasizes this fact. This attempt at melodramatic appeal, by saying that reproduction is just as normal as conjoinment, is misrepresentation to prove a point.

But if you can get past that fact, it's one of the better non-fiction books I've read. If you've got to do some kind of high school research project you could do worse than this source.
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