20 Books of Summer 2017: Wrap Up

A new personal best!

Summers pass faster now than when I was a kid. By the time I hit Publish on this post, I’ll be mulling next year’s list and it’ll be June again soon.

But before I bid farewell to this year’s list, I need to break out the champagne.

I read 16 books!
I reviewed 9 books!
A new personal best!!

I went off-list a little in the middle, but still made a sizeable dent in the original list from my sign-up post. The links below lead to my reviews. Happy Summer, Everyone!

Original Reading List

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Postponed

 

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.6

 

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Postponed

 

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.5

 

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.8

 

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Read, not yet reviewed…

 

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Read, not yet reviewed…

 

Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier

Read, not yet reviewed…

 

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.7

 

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.4

 

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Postponed

 

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.4

 

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Postponed

 

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.0

 

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

Read, not yet reviewed…

 

She by H. Rider Haggard

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 4.5

 

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Read, not yet reviewed…

 

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Postponed

 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Postponed

 

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Postponed

 

As always, a few queue jumpers…

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Read and reviewed!
Rating: 1.5

 

The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri

Read, not yet reviewed…

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Read, not yet reviewed…

Review: Sleep Donation

Note: A draft went up yesterday instead of the actual review. Many apologies!

20 Books of Summer: Book 9

Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation has all the same problems as Swamplandia! but with a fraction of the page count. Don’t spend your time on this book. Its premise may entice you and the first quarter may draw you in, but the rest is mess of plot holes and weak characters. There’s no closure either, so there isn’t a prize for reaching the last page. This review is a mini So Bad, I Read It For You post and contains lots of spoilers. I would have done a full write up, but I didn’t want to reread Sleep Donation to pull quotes. Summary from Goodreads:

A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to insomniacs. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers, the Corps’ reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious “Donor Y.”

Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.

Sleep Donation has a strong beginning. Russell writes about fatal insomnia in a terrifying way. Usually, creepy books make me worry I won’t sleep well, but Sleep Donation made me worry I might never sleep again. Russell has long passages detailing the staring eyes of people desperate for rest. The main character, Trish, shares the tragic story of her younger sister’s death again and again to convince people to donate a portion of their sleep. Sleep transfusions are the only hope for the afflicted:

During the early trials of the sleep donation procedure, Gould’s team made an astonishing finding. For roughly a third of patients, full recovery from the orexin-disorder is possible after a single ten-hour transfusion. (Loc 241)

Though it takes a small number of transfusions per patient to cure them, the National Sleep Bank is always running low. As many as 250,000 people are on wait lists for transfusions and no one knows the cause of the disorder. Russell throws in some poetic and well-written theories:

According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our twenty-four-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices. We Americans are sitting in an electric chair that we engineered. What becomes of our circadian rhythms, the “old, glad harmonies” that leapt through us like the vascular thrust of water through leaves of grass? Bummer news, Walt: that song’s done. (Loc 179)

When the book begins, Trish is camped outside the Harkonnen’s house, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Harkonnen to sign the consent forms that will allow her to draw their child’s sleep. Their daughter, “Baby A,” is a universal donor. Her sleep is free of impurities (nightmares, etc.), but no matter how much she donates, it’s never enough. Whenever the Harkonnens’ worry about possible aftereffects on their daughter’s health, Trish trots out the story of her sister’s death with a lamentation that a single transfusion would have saved her.

Trish’s inner narration hints at a cost to Baby A’s frequent donations, but the risks of donating are never articulated. Instead, there’s a lot of ominous handwringing about what might happen to Baby A. At first, I thought passages like the one below were overwrought foreshadowing, but they’re really teasers for questions the novella leaves unanswered. What happens to Baby A in the end? No idea. However, Trish believes:

…Baby A’s life would have been far better off, I’m certain, if I’d never found her. (Loc 407)

But WHY?

The story takes an ominous turn when Donor Y makes a donation contaminated with a horrific nightmare. It’s such an awful dream that the people infected with it go to extremes to stay awake. Insomniacs at death’s door start refusing transfusions because they’re so frightened of catching Donor Y’s infectious nightmare. What now? It’s one thing for people to choose death over sleep when they know what the nightmare entails, but the people who choose death over the possibility of a bad dream seem a little nutty. Details of the nightmare are kept secret because no one wants the idea getting out and spreading faster (somehow, no one posts it on the Internet). If you’re curious about the nightmare, Russell provides no description of it—nothing could live up to the hype, anyway—but Trish admits the people willing to die rather than have a nightmare are making an unexpected choice:

People are confused by the new taxonomy of insomnia: Wait, these twenty insomniacs make a full recovery in Cuba, they have one bad dream, and they give up on sleep for good? So they are infected with a nightmare; what in God’s name could be so frightening that death seems preferable to sleeping? What are they seeing, at night? (Loc 624)

Through all this, Trish continues to recruit people for donations. The way she whips out her sister’s death, channels her grief, and converts her listeners is mentioned again and again, but it’s strangely hollow. No one responds to her story with one of their own. Given the scale of the crisis, why do so few people have their own tales of loss? Why do they need to hear about Dori before they decide to donate? Isn’t the nature of sweeping pandemics that everyone knows someone affected, if only through gossip in their circle—“A friend of my friend knows someone who died…” Why is Trish’s story so isolating? No matter, though, because it’s an effective story and Trish tells it just right.

Whenever the Harkonnens start waffling on whether or not their daughter’s sleep should be drawn, Trish lays Dori’s story on Mrs. Harkonnen again and it works for a little while. Soon the Harkonnens are fed up with Trish’s relentless begging:

“She thinks that one day you will stop asking.” [said Mr. Harkonen]
“But we will! When the neuroscientists figure out a way to synthesize what she produces naturally…” (Loc 1185)

So that’s the goal: to synthesize Baby A’s pure sleep. Slumber Corps will syphon a little sleep from Baby A’s donations to research/recreate it while parceling out the rest as cures. This is what any reasonable person would assume, right? Even if you haven’t read this book, you know that 1) Baby A can’t cure the insomnia single-handedly because she’ll never produce enough sleep to meet demand, 2) synthesized sleep is the answer, and 3) Slumber Corps can’t synthesize Baby A’s sleep without examining it to see what makes it so special (Baby A is the only universal donor).

With all this in mind, it might shock you as much as it shocked me that the PROBLEM, the HORROR that emerges near Sleep Donation’s climax is when Trish learns Slumber Corps gave some of Baby A’s sleep to a lab in Japan for them to synthesize:

“Their team approached me. They’ll clone her sleep before we manage it, I guarantee it. They are working to make an artificial injection right this second.”
“All that money—”
“Went right back into our organization. Nothing traceable to us, or to the Harkonnen baby. Anonymous donations,” he says smoothly, and I don’t know whether to believe him. (Loc 993)

Well, selling sleep could become a slippery slope. Maybe Trish is right to be worried. How much is being sold?

“Only a portion of her donations has gone overseas. The rest, as you know better than anybody, we’ve distributed in this country.”
I’m grinding down so hard my jaw is pulsing. An artificial injectable. How much money does he stand to gain, I wonder, if the Japanese team succeeds. (Loc 1001)

But money isn’t Trish’s main concern:

“Look: I took the Harkonnen gift, and I multiplied it. Can you imagine what it will make possible if they synthesize her sleep? In the grand scheme, the benefits that accrue to every living person will be extraordinary.”
My head has been shaking no, I realize, possibly since this conversation began.
“But I’ve been telling her parents that her draws go straight to the National Sleep Bank. That we need every drop of her sleep to save lives—” (Loc 1006)

I don’t think Trish and I are reading the same book… Trish has been telling the Harkonnens that the goal is to synthesize their daughter’s sleep. I know this because she tells them that synthesis is the goal more than once. She calls it “the dream”:

“How far away are we from… from synthesis?” Mrs. Harkonen wants to know.
“Oh, goodness. That’s the dream, isn’t it.” (Loc 1491)

This is the point when I gave up on Sleep Donation. Baby A’s sleep is a finite resource, and who knows how long she will be able to donate? So why not take a few drops and multiply them into a cure? And it’s not like this is my personal solution to this ethical quagmire; it’s also Trish’s perspective. Or, it was, until it was more dramatic for her to be against synthesis. This premise raises real ethical concerns—there’s such demand for Baby A’s sleep that the few drops siphoned away could be the difference between life and death for some people. What a waste that Sleep Donation leaves this completely unexplored in favor of Trish’s objections of “but I promised!” when she has been stringing along the Harkonnens already. What will happen if Baby A’s sleep develops a fault or the family learns the donations harmed her in some way and withdraws consent? Sleep Donation takes place some time in the near future. Perhaps “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is no longer a saying.

So there’s not really a conflict here, just a narrator who would spurn a cure if someone made a buck from it or if she looked foolish. Notice that Trish isn’t concerned that the wrong hands might monopolize the cure and sell single doses for tens of thousands. If she was fighting for accessibility and transparency, she’d have a case. As it stands though, why is she so opposed to some money flowing back to her company? Does she think their donation vans grow on trees? That billboards and TV networks advertise sleep donation from the goodness of their hearts?

Is Trish really going to track down a news crew and say, “Baby A can’t provide enough sleep so there’s an international effort to synthesize her sleep so that we can cure everyone! Those MONSTERS!” Maybe if she had done this, the novella might have had an ending instead of just trailing off. A silly ending is still an ending.

I was willing to forgive this lame plot turn because Trish’s thinking is less clear in the last quarter of the book. I thought maybe she was becoming an unreliable narrator and I had a front row seat to the negative effects of too much sleep donation (Trish donates the same amount of sleep as Baby A, per the Harkonnen’s request). But just as I began to consider this a valid (albeit dark) theory, I reached the last page.

So the premise is great, the execution is rubbish, but how is the writing? Well, it’s hard to judge. Some passages are brilliant and moving because Russell has an expansive vocabulary and endless ways to describe insomnia and the wide, staring eyes of the sleep-deprived. Her continuous harping isn’t repetitive so much as immersive—I was genuinely frightened by this sleep disorder. But some of Russell’s more inventive descriptions kicked me out of the book. Consider:

Genevieve murmurs something, softer than orange juice sucked through a straw… (Loc 855)

Genevieve is one of many terrified insomniacs waiting for sedation. She’s desperate and pulls at her skin throughout this scene. Given her sad predicament, it’s sufficient to say she “murmurs.” Clarifying that this murmur is “softer than orange juice sucked through a straw” is one of the stranger bits of writing I’ve seen lately. Russell is straining so hard to be unique she might pull something. As I read this, I jumped out of the story and wondered whether this orange juice was low- or high-pulp. I imagine the amount of pulp would affect the way it sounds being sucked through a straw. (“Some pulp” is delicious, by the way.) Given the intensity of the scene, though, an evaluation of orange juice consistencies should have been the last thing on my mind. There are many passages like this.

Overall: 1.5 This score wouldn’t be so low if the first quarter of the novella hadn’t been so promising. But Trish is incompetent in a bad-story way, not a this-is-a-story-about-an-incompetent-person way. In summary, Sleep Donation has a strong premise/opening, garbled middle, and nonsensical ending. What other book is like this? Oh, right: Russell’s Swamplandia! When I dislike two books by the same author for the same reason, I suspect I would be happier not reading any of their other books. Alas, I have one more book by Russell on my TBR. Third time’s the charm?

Translation: Don’t read it. And, if you read all the spoilers in this review, you don’t have to. You’re welcome!

 

11 to go!

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  2. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  5. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  6. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  7. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  8. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  12. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
  8. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

Review: Roverandom

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 8

First things first: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Roverandom is wholly independent from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you’re looking for an expansion on wizarding lore, pick up The Silmarillion. If you’re looking for a story about a dog cursed by a cranky old wizard, then pick up Roverandom. Overall, it’s very tame and maintains the soothing, bedtime-story tone established at the beginning:

Once upon a time there was a little dog, and his name was Rover. He was very small, and very young, or he would have known better; and he was very happy playing in the garden in the sunshine with a yellow ball, or he would never have done what he did.

Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man: some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do. This one was a wizard, the one that now walked into the story. He came wandering up the garden-path in a ragged old coat, with an old pipe in his mouth, and an old green hat on his head. If Rover had not been so busy barking at the ball, he might have noticed the blue feather stuck in the back of the green hat, and then he would have suspected that the man was a wizard, as any other sensible little dog would; but he never saw the feather at all.

When the old man stooped down and picked up the ball—he was thinking of turning it into an orange, or even a bone or a piece of meat for Rover—Rover growled, and said:

“Put it down!” Without ever a “please”. (3)

As punishment for his rudeness, poor Rover is turned into a toy and sent to a toy shop. Remember your manners, kids! (And dogs!) Because he’s a realistic-looking toy, Rover is quickly bought and given to a child he calls “little boy Two.” Rover can only move when unobserved and he slips from little boy Two’s pocket at the beach. As the tide rises, Rover encounters another wizard, Psamathos, who takes pity on him. He restores Rover’s range of movement, but Rover remains toy-sized. Until full-sized again, Rover can’t go home or he might be eaten by the cat, Tinker.

So what else can little Rover do but go on grand adventures to the moon and under the sea? My edition has a long introduction which explains this story was written for Tolkien’s son, Michael, after his toy dog was lost at the beach. If this is true, then Roverandom‘s original audience was a 5-year-old (ish) boy and it reads as such. This isn’t a bad thing, though, if what you’re looking for is a bedtime story. Roverandom is filled to the brim with small, beautiful details. It has a narrow scope, but it’s as imaginative as anything else Tolkien has written. It has a limited cast of characters, but both wizards and the Man-in-the-Moon are quirky and memorable.

The best way to sum up the free-wheeling nature of Rover’s adventure is to quote the Man-in-the-Moon’s rules:

“Now fly off and amuse yourself. Don’t worry the moonbeams, and don’t kill my white rabbits, and come home when you are hungry! The window on the roof is usually open. Good-bye!” (26)

Rover’s adventures on the moon are a delight, but the conceit wears thin about the time Rover’s swimming through an underwater city. This is a weird thing to say as an adult, but as the third act stretched on, I was a bit sorry my edition didn’t have fewer words and more pictures. My copy has five illustrations by J.R.R. Tolkien printed on glossy paper that really perk up the book. Every so often, I consider razoring out a couple and hanging them over my desk.

Overall: 4.0 It’s fun, but it feels unfocussed and meandering towards the end (even if the end is sweet and heartwarming).

Translation: Read it before bed with a hot, decaffeinated drink.

12 to go!

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  2. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  5. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  6. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  7. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  8. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  12. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein

Review: The Punch Escrow

2o Books of Summer: Book 7

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein is another fun discovery via NetGalley. Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport—a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan: Departure… Arrival… Delight!

Joel Byram, our smartass protagonist, is an everyday twenty-fifth century [sic] guy. He spends his days training artificial intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980s new wave—an extremely obscure genre[—]and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. Joel is pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems—until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting.

Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.

Even though I picked up The Punch Escrow for the teleportation mishaps, my favorite parts of the book were in the details: Joel’s day-job as a “salter” and the various types of AI. Salting:

Every choice [computers] came to could only be based on data and algorithms that had been preprogrammed into them. That’s not to say computers couldn’t get new ideas, but every new idea they got could only come from remixing old ideas, or external input from other computers, or through human input—which is where I came in.

We salters spent our days coming up with arbitrary puzzles that AI engines couldn’t grok. Every time a salter’s gambit was not anticipated by an app, that app got smarter by adding the unanticipated random logic set to its decision algorithm, and the salter got paid. Essentially, I made my living by being a smartass to apps. (Loc 229)

The sassy, back-talking computer is a staple of sci-fi (especially sci-fi that tries to be funny), but it feels more gimmicky than real. The Punch Escrow takes a cleverer approach by showing Joel outsmart apps to teach them nuances of language such as double entendres and humor. Seeing various types of AI (rooms, vehicles, personal assistants) analyze Joel’s requests and wordplay is satisfying. Each responds in its own way according to its programming and function. There is more thought and care in these scenes than I expected from the outset. From the blurb, I worried the book would verge on silly/slapdash as Joel ran around cracking one-liners. Instead, the salting scenes occur naturally as Joel struggles to return to his wife.

Self-described “smartass” characters can either be fun or prompt much eye-rolling. Smartassery is something that must be conveyed through a character’s dialogue and actions; as soon as a first-person narrator describes him/herself as smart, witty, or clever they aren’t. Joel’s braggy nature brings him close to this line, but he became more self-aware just as he approached my last nerve. Once there’s a second Joel running around (“Joel²”), Joel evaluates some of his own personality traits the way an outsider might and draws the same conclusions as the reader. In these self-aware moments, he reminisces about his wife. Given that Joel’s internal monologue carries the book (and there are two of him), other characters drift to the background. Joel’s musings on Sylvia keep her around and develop her character despite her limited screentime. Joel’s overall goal is to find her, and this isn’t a compelling quest unless the reader invests in their relationship.

Some of the early reviews play up the “hard sci-fi” angle, and while The Punch Escrow certainly qualifies as such, it’s not as technical as you might think. Complicated explanations are filtered through Joel’s no-nonsense style, and his analogies make the connections between the science and plot simple to follow. Klein strikes a good balance: there’s enough science to legitimize the story, but not so much that Joel stoops to lecturing. There are philosophical and ethical dilemmas sprinkled throughout, too. Alas, my anti-spoilers policy…

But wait, there’s a tiny nitpick about Joel’s musical tastes:

I’m not a fan of the 1980s nostalgia in futuristic books. It makes sense, intellectually, because there are plenty of people who listen to centuries-old music. There’s a push-pull created when using the 1980s, though. It’s nice to hum along with the character, but 1980s music prompts images of giant boom boxes and bright clothing which clash against sleek, futuristic worlds. I’m not sure why the 1980s stand out in this way; if a character listens to Mozart, I don’t imagine them in a powdered wig. I suspect my knee-jerk revulsion to 1980s tunes in sci-fi is because of Ready Player One and its lists, lists, and more lists of 1980s cultural references. (Btw, I’m timing a SBIRIFY post to coincide with Ready Player One‘s release…) At least Joel limits his 1980s love to a few songs.

Overall: 4.4  There is one minor issue that might be a plot hole, but I’ve got my fingers crossed it’ll be handled in the other books (a sequel and prequel). (If not, you’ll hear about it then.) The climax is a bit formulaic, but it’ll play well if The Punch Escrow is made into a movie. Quick note on formatting: I’d recommend a print copy over an ebook due to the number/length of the footnotes. Personally, I find it easier to flip around a paper copy than an ebook.

Translation: Read it.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Inkshares Geek & Sundry (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

 

13 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  9. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  10. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  12. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  13. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead