20 Books of Summer 2015: Wrap-up


And just like that the summer is over (or very nearly). The reading portion of the 20 Books of Summer 2015 challenge hosted by Cathy746books went well; the reviewing portion… less so. You might have noticed. ūüėõ I read some good stuff though, so I can’t complain.

Read and Reviewed
1. The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier
2. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
3. A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh
4. Grendel, by John Gardner
5. Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
6. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
7. Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

Read, But Not Reviewed
8. Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser (SBIRIFY. We need to chat about this one.)
9. Drown, by Junot Diaz (somewhere between 4.0-4.5)*
10. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (4.0-4.5)*
11. The Ballad of the Sad Café, by Carson McCullers (4.5)*
12. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (3.0-3.5)*
13. White Noise, by Don DeLillo (4.0)*
14. The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris (3.5-4.0)*
*All subject to change when I finalize my reviews and think a little deeper.

Currently Reading:
15. The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
16. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

Untouched (more or less):
17. Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo
18. The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
19. The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx
20. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Books Not on My List, But Read Anyway…
1. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
2. Wool (Parts 1&2), by Hugh Howey
3. Moriarty, 
by Anthony Horowitz

I hope everyone is happy with their summer reading!

I’d planned to write a chunk of reviews this week, but I’m wrapping up my first week at the new job and keep dozing off early. Switching back to a 6:45am wake up isn’t easy! Speaking of this, how is it 11.45pm? ūüė¶

Night, All!

Review: Jurassic Park

jurassic park_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 7

In my early teens, I read Michael Crichton’s books over and over, but not Jurassic Park. Instead, I watched the movie 30 times and pounced¬†on the sequel as soon as I knew it existed.¬†Reading Crichton still feels nostalgic. I remember counting down to the release of his final books and being immersed in the possibility of time travel, nanobots, mind-reading spheres, dinosaurs‚Ķand all the rest he imagined.¬†Crichton had a unique gift for adding the right amount of science to his fiction. He often began with a contemporary world filled with¬†recognizable¬†characters before tweaking the science to build something fantastic.

Because of the title, and the back cover, and because darn near everyone saw the awesome film adaptation in 1993 (which has held up, btw), there’s not a lot of mystery around¬†Jurassic Park‘s basic plot:

From the back cover:
An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now, one of mankind’s most thrilling fantasies has come true. Creatures extinct for eons now roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery and all the world can visit them—for a price. Until something goes wrong….

The story is set before the park opens. Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler (who is a 24-year old grad student in the book)¬†are pulled away from their newly discovered raptor skeleton by John Hammond, their patron, to provide a consultation in Costa Rica. Once there, they’re acquainted with a mathematician obsessed by chaos theory (Ian Malcolm), Hammond’s grandkids (Tim and Lex), a host of Jurassic Park employees, and DINOSAURS. (Parts of this book make me regress to a 12-year-old. Sorry.) Unlike the movie, which enjoys making folks run, climb, and hide to avoid hungry, aggressive dinos, Crichton’s story is more technical. The book focusses on the implications of this awesome scientific leap and the danger of resurrecting dinosaurs; the movie,¬†in contrast, is devoted to the dinosaurs’ intense power and dedicates large chunks of screen time as a PSA that dinosaurs are cool and majestic.

Right from the start, it’s clear Crichton’s Jurassic Park is never going to open. When Alan and Ellie arrive and visit their guest¬†suite, they find a room still under construction with subtle clues that¬†something is awry. The lodge differs¬†from the plans Hammond shared with them in a key way:

“But did you notice anything about the rooms, Alan?”
“They changed the plans.”
“I think so, yes.” She moved around the room. “The windows are small,” she said. “And the glass is tempered, set in a steel frame. The doors are steel-clad. That shouldn’t be necessary. And did you see the fence when we came in?”
Grant nodded. The entire lodge was enclosed within a fence, with bars of inch-thick steel. The fence was gracefully landscaped and painted flat black to resemble wrought iron, but no cosmetic effort could disguise the thickness of the metal, or its twelve-foot height. “I don’t think the fence was in the plans, either,” Ellie said. “It looks to me like they’ve turned this place into a fortress.”
Grant looked at his watch. “We’ll be sure to ask why,” he said. (87)

That the resort side of the island¬†was redesigned for greater security tells you the park has learned something about its dinosaurs in the time between hatching the idea and hatching little velociraptors. When you add this to the ominous tone of the opening chapters which suggest small dinosaurs may have escaped and that a park worker has been grievously injured, there’s no point¬†at which the reader takes Jurassic Park’s safety measure and protocols seriously. It’s always a house of cards. And it’s wonderfully intense watching everything fall.

There’s still running from dinosaurs, as in the movie, but Crichton slips in more character development, more scientific questions, and more technical thrills. When I picked up this book, I expected to encounter a wordy screenplay. It never occurred to me that the story would be noticeably different, or that it wouldn’t¬†be as flashy or full of jump scares as the movie.¬†Maybe I was dismissive on some level because,¬†you know, dinosaurs, but the book never breaks into silliness or improbability. It’s gripping, authentic, and takes a stab at legit technological and moral questions.

Reading this book in 2015¬†(25 years after its writing) presents an interesting angle, but even though the book was written to speak lovingly of 90s tech, it doesn’t feel dated:

“First, InGen shipped three Cray XMPs to Costa Rica. InGen characterized it as a transfer within company divisions, and said they weren’t for resale. But OTT couldn’t imagine why the hell somebody’d need that power in Costa Rica.”
“Three Crays,” Grant said. “Is that a kind of computer?” (39)

Because I was alive and fascinated by computers in the 90s, I remember reading about these:

cray x-mp

Happily,¬†Crichton’s description doesn’t involve the size or give specific processing information¬†for the Crays.¬†There’s nothing in his writing to invite mental images of “slow” and bulky 90s tech. When explaining how long it takes to process DNA information, Crichton’s computers still sound impressive. Sure, they take a few minutes to process a chunk of DNA, but when you read this after reading about the incredible complexity of a DNA strand (even a fragment!)¬†your net impression is wonder at the complexity of life, not at the timing of an old computer. You would think a book that makes a plot point out of technological limitations would struggle to feel timeless. The tech alone should plant it firmly in a decade, but Crichton’s energy and focus on the creative, on the larger questions of bioengineering, and DINOSAURS, give the book an unexpected timeless quality. What skill!

(Let’s not talk about the screen caps towards the end! :P)

Overall: 4.8

Translation: Read it!! It’s a quick read—good for a weekend.

Review: Gilead

gilead_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 6

I have a policy against reviewing books I don’t finish, but I have a double commitment to comment on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I chose it as part of the summer challenge hosted by Cathy746books, and it’s a Pulitzer winner. So I’ll type a few paragraphs, throw in some quotes, and strike it off both lists.

Gilead is beautifully written, but with a soporific twist. This book has knocked me out in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The language is slow and drowsy, full of hemming/hawing, clarifications, and soft language. It’s a non-habit-forming sleep aid. So there’s that (worth a full .5 in the book’s final rating). It’s written¬†as a series of letters from the aging Reverend John Ames to his young son. As the Reverend is in his seventies, and his son is around seven, these letters are the primary way his son will remember him. In terms of father/son sentiment, the book is solid. It’s conversational and packed with paternal affection, but there’s so much to say and no good way to organize it:

Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you? I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at the college and at seminary.
And what else should I tell you? (9)

What else indeed? I waited for a cohesive image to appear from the range of anecdotes and musings, but kept nodding off. It’s a lame excuse, but I only have a few days left of vacation and this isn’t how I want to spend them. The life lessons and wisdom imparted by Reverend Ames read as trite instead of deep and hard won. There’s also an unpleasant pattern to a number of his stories which flattens them out even more:

Step One: Tell a story from youth that, on the surface, goes nowhere‚ÄĒfor example, a baseball game:

I was pretty excited. But nothing happened in that game, or so I thought then. No runs, no hits, no errors. In the fifth inning a thunderstorm that had been lying along the horizon the whole afternoon just sort of sauntered over and put a stop to it all. I remember the groan that went up from the crowd when the heavy rain began. I was only about ten years old, and I was relieved, but it was a terrible frustration to my grandfather. One more terrible frustration for the poor old devil. [list of people who referred to his grandfather in this way and a reassurance that his grandfather was a good preacher] (46)

Step Two: Get a little more ephemeral:

That day he had brought a little bag of licorice, which really did surprise me. Whenever he put his fingers into it, it¬†rattled with the trembling of his hand, and the sound was just like the sound of fire. I noticed this at the time, and it seemed natural to me. I also more or less assumed that the thunder and the lightning that day were Creation tipping its hat to him, as if to say, Glad to see you here in the stands, Reverend. Or maybe it said, Why, Reverend, what in this grieving world are you doing here at a sporting event. [hint at his grandfather’s interesting past and talk of his eventual move to Kansas] (46-47)

Step Three: Get straight-up philosophical, then get confused:

I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.¬†I can’t quite see the meaning of a statement so purely hypothetical as this, though I may simply lack the understanding. But it does remind me of that afternoon when nothing flew through the air, no one slid or drifted or tagged, when there was no waltz at all so to speak. It seems to me that the storm had put an end to it, as if it were a fire to be put out, an eruption into this world of an alarming kind of nullity. “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” It seems a little like that as I remember it, though it went on a good deal longer than half an hour. Null. That word has real power. My grandfather had nowhere to spend his courage, no way to feel it in himself. That was a great pity. (47)

Step Four: Admit to rambling, then double down:

As I write I am aware that my memory has made much of very little. There was that old man my grandfather sitting beside me in his ashy coat, trembling just because he did, sharing out the frugal pleasures of his licorice, maybe with Kansas somehow transforming itself from memory to intention in his mind that very afternoon. [further description of that day, of baseball in general, then a couple lines about his brief stint as a pitcher] (47-48)

I need to stop now. I’m getting sleepy…

A lot of people LOVE this book. They say that once you understand the basic story, you can pick it up and reread (savor?) key pieces to bask in the lyrical writing. But while the writing is lyrical, it’s weak. It’s chock full of filler words, “just,” “sort of,” “it seems to me,” which makes it flightier and more dreamy. I made it halfway and found little to grab hold of and get excited about. Oh, and it won the Pulitzer so it can’t be complete rubbish. Right?

Overall: 2.0 (I was going to give it a 1.5, but it gets points as a sleep aid, remember.)

Translation: Eh, go ahead and read it. It won the Pulitzer and there’s a string of satisfied readers on Amazon and across the Internet. It might just be me.


Review: Coraline

coraline_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 5

Desperate to make progress in the reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books, I grabbed a short one. Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, clocks in at 162 pages and a 90 minute reading time. Even if you’ve seen the movie, there are enough differences that the book is superior. Book-Coraline doesn’t rely on an irritating sidekick; she’s cleverer and self-reliant. There’s a cast of helpers behind her, but Coraline must sort out their cryptic help alone. The film, by making Coraline a supporting character in her own story, overlooks the fun and adventure of the original.

From the back cover:
When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), but full of fantastic turns and things seem marvelous. But there’s another mother there, and another father, and they want her to stay and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go. Coraline will have to fight with all her wits and courage if she is to save herself and return to her ordinary life.

I’m going to keep this review vague. The story is simple (predictable, in some ways), but contains precise turns and beautiful details. The less you know going in, the more enjoyable it is to read. Coraline’s life with her real parents isn’t unhappy, but it’s filled with the annoyances that populate the kid-leaves-home-to-appreciate-home genre: busy, inattentive parents; new house/neighborhood; having to finish dinner. This section is so pat that the reader is happy to meet the other mother quickly. Of course, she’s contrasted with Coraline’s actual family:

“Yes,” said the other mother. “It wasn’t the same here without you. But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family. Would you like some more chicken?”
It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principal. (29)

It’s the initial normalcy of this other world that’s intriguing. The other mother’s house is parallel to Coraline’s own and familiar, but new enough to offer places to explore and something to do. The other world breaks up her summer tedium and feels fresh and welcome, even as she greets it with suspicion. The best scenes are her interactions with the other mother. These exchanges allow endless avenues for the story because the other mother is so‚Ķ well, other. It’s tricky to get a read on the extent of her capabilities or MO. She’s everywhere in the tiny world that she created to ensnare Coraline and the setting illuminates her ability (or inability) to understand Coraline and offers hints to her character.

The detail that everyone grabs onto in this book is the button eyes of Coraline’s other family. It’s a great detail and shown to great effect in the film. I was lucky enough to hear Gaiman speak about this book a few years ago and someone asked about the button eyes. Gaiman described them as a spur of the moment, tiny decision that grew to a large thing within his fan base. You never know the detail that a readership will respond to. That’s part of the fun of writing. Here’s a great clip of Gaiman talking about the fear of buttons:

Don’t you want to read his book now?

Overall: 4.3 It’s a light, fun book that feels like it’s missing‚Ķsomething. The details are original, but the baseline story is something that has been done many, many times. Gaiman does it better than most (if not all), but it’s not the most satisfying thing he’s written.

Translation: Read it. What, you don’t have 90 minutes? Read it before bed; that’s the best time for it.