"A reader lives 1000 lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."
- George R. R. Martin

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Annihilation: A Novel (Southern Reach Trilogy)

Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach Trilogy books by Jeff VanderMeer, is as bizarre an experience as I've had with a book.  To begin with, it really is an experience, rather than a story.  VanderMeer's language is thick and luscious, drawing you in like a moth to the flame.  I found myself reading, and re-reading sentences, just to taste them again.  His words have texture.  I experienced this book, I did not just read it.

Annihilation centers around the 12th expedition into Area X.  Our protagonist is known only as The Biologist, and she is accompanied by The Psychologist, The Surveyor, The Anthropologist,  and The Linguist.  They are sent into Area X to explore and discover ... whatever there is to be explored and discovered.  From base camp they can see the landscape, which features two distinguishing landmarks: the lighthouse, and the tower (that somehow goes down).  The explorations of these landmarks, full of the odd and creepy and the sometimes scary, are the basic story/plot of this experience, though we spend a lot of time in The Biologists past, via flashbacks and memory sequences.

About halfway through Annihilation, I realized that I had no idea what was going on.  I went back to skim a few paragraphs, trying to determine whether I had become so caught up in the language that I wasn't paying attention to the actual words, but it soon became evident that this story didn't really have a lot of story.  Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of interesting things that happen throughout the book, but there are not a lot of explanations to go along with them. Now, this is the first book in a series (the following two books will both be published in 2014), so how the story may play itself out in the subsequent volumes, only VanderMeer knows, but at the end of this experience I was left with little understanding of what had just happened.  I had become familiar with the inner workings of The Biologist and how she sees the world around her, but at this point the world around her has no anchor: is it a dream world, an alternate reality, another planet, something happening on our own planet?  VanderMeer has crafted this adventure in such a way that the reader does not know how the expedition arrived at Area X (nor do the members of the expedition), nor how the members of previous expeditions get back home.  There is much talk of "the border" throughout this book, but Area X seems to have none.  

All in all, it was a pleasant experience, the language was nice and juicy and the imagery crisp and imaginative.  There are no answers in this, the first of the series.  Having read it, I wish that I would have waited until all three books had been published (the third book is scheduled to hit the shelves in September, 2014), if only to be able to jump right into the next one to search for answers, or reasons, or at the very least, an explanation.

If you are a fan of language and laughter, and don't mind being a little lost in the plot for a while, I would recommend My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leynor.  Hilarity ensues.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Art Forger

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro casts it backdrop on the biggest unsolved art heist in American history: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston where a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and five Degas were cut from their frames and lost into the night on March 18th, 1990.  Our heroine, Claire Roth, is a present-day reproductions artist, specializing in Degas' work.  The action of the novel bounces from Isabella's experiences, Claire's troubled past, and the heist, and combines them all in a most rewarding tale.

Claire Roth was a graduate student when she fell in love with her professor Isaac, a well known artist in his own right.  Through a series of events, we discover that something happened concerning Isaac that rendered Claire "The Great Pretender" and ostracized her from the art community.  Trying to hold onto the hope of resurrecting her career, she takes a job at Reproductions.com, an online company that pays her to copy great works of art for resale.  Her specialty is Degas.

When Isaac's former art dealer, Aiden Markel, reappears in her life offering her an opportunity, one that will surely help her pay the bills and possibly get her own show, she is intrigued to say the least.  He needs her to agree to "copy" a painting, without knowing what the painting is or where it came from.  Her curiosity piqued, she agrees.  The painting, it turns out, is Degas' After the Bath (a fictional painting), that was stolen in the Gardner heist. Aiden wants her to "copy" the Degas so that he can sell the copy to an investor overseas, and return the original to the Gardner - give the people back the masterpiece.  Throughout what transpires we learn the process Claire uses to recreate After the Bath, what really happened between Claire and Isaac, why Claire is an outcast, Isabella's great secret, and more.  We are thrown into the art world on all sides, from the artists' struggles and process, to the inner workings of galleries and museums, the definitions of "copy" and "forgery" and why there is a difference (it is much more complex than I knew), to the collector's world, art appreciation, and more.

This book does for art what The Eight does for chess - a total immersion into an unknown (to me) subject that leaves me hungering for more.  After reading The Art Forger, I spent a lot of time on the magical Internet, researching the actual Gardner Heist, Degas, art techniques, etc. and I find myself yearning for a day at MOMA, to experience the art through this new lens of discovery.  I am even half-tempted to pick up a brush and paint something of my own (though that would be for my exploration, not for public consumption) just to experience the process of painting. 

The plot was a bit predictable, though there are some aspects that took me by surprise, but its predictability does not take away from the enjoyment.  Yes, we can guess where everyone will end up, and even the final reveal, but the journey to these places is engaging enough to go along for the ride. 

All-in-all, this was a really fun read.

If you are interested in the Garder Heist, check out this article from Mentalfloss.com: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53527/biggest-unsolved-art-heist%E2%80%94and-detective-who-came-close-cracking-it

If you are interested in chess (and even if you're not), check out The Eight, by Katherine Neville (there is a sequel as well, thought it's not as good as the original). 

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Forever War

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is not a book that I would have chosen on my own.  I have heard of Haldeman but never read him prior to this book, which was written just a few years after I was born.  It was given to me for my birthday, and I am so glad that it was.

The first thing I noticed was the quote on the cover stating that it "is the best science fiction war book ever written" (William Gibson). Now, I love science fiction, and I love the stories of war, so this book seemed right up my alley.  I jumped right in, expecting to be tossed into a fantastic new world and experience a new techno-war and all that extra-crispy, sci-fi fun.  What I found were several forwards and introductions giving me a little background on the author and the "where" from which this story was written. 

Joe Haldeman was in the service during the Viet Nam war.  He was stationed in Viet Nam and participated in the battles and everyday experiences that our men and women went through in that jungle on the other side of the globe.  He wrote this book a few years after returning home, and the Viet Nam experience echoes throughout the telling of The Forever War.  Joe Haldeman is a man who was sent off to war in an alien land, facing a people with unknown weapons and capabilities, only to return home to find the world completely changed while he was gone, much like his comrades-in-arms experienced.  In The Forever War, William Mandella is a man who was "drafted" into the army and sent off to an alien planet, facing an enemy with unknown weapons, capabilities, and structure, only to return home to find the world completely changed while he was away (granted this world changed due to relativistic physics, rather than simply politics, but the correlation is acute).

It isn't the physics, or the science fiction aspects of The Forever War that really drew me in, although they are extremely fascinating throughout the book, but rather the political and social changes that occur in the almost two centuries, Earth time, that this book covers.  Our protagonist, William Mandella, grew up on Earth in the years that followed Viet Nam, so that war is definitely a part of his cultural upbringing.  The year is 2007 (far into the future considering the publication date), and the Army drafts the world's best thinkers and smartest people and sends them into space to war with the Taurans.  Due to relativistic physics, as Mandella travels the world he knew disappears.

The cultural changes that are discussed throughout the story, both on Earth and within the Army itself, set the stage for Mandella as he traverses space and time.  Women and men fight right alongside each other, and are encouraged to bunk together and release their sexual urges together.  There is a throwaway line in the book that struck a chord with me, stating that women were required by law to be compliant and willing for their counterpart's sexual urges.  It doesn't mention the men, though.  As the population of Earth begins to reach dangerous levels, the governments begin to encourage homosexual relationships as the best means of population control!  The job market, and how people support themselves, go through some fascinating changes.  Currency is converted from dollars, yen, etc. to Kalories, which dictate how much food you are allowed each month.  And many, many more, each one more thought provoking and fascinating than the last.

Through Mandella's journey you can really see the plight of the Viet Nam veteran spelled out in rather blatant metaphors: he sees the most atrocious things, doesn't understand the purpose of the war he is fighting, kills and watches his friends kill, only to return to his world completely unable to comprehend it, to communicate with it, to exist in it. And through it all, he remains our hero, finding love, respect, self-definition, and understanding. 

Like all things, this book comes full circle, and reflects the human experience in really fascinating ways.  The science throughout The Forever War does not feel dated at all, even though the book is almost 40 years old, and sparks some interesting theories. 

The Forever War made me think, it made me feel (oh the feels!), it made me reflect, and it made me remember.  The story is still relevant, and probably will remain so long into the future. 

I highly recommend The Forever War whether or not you like science fiction, war stories, space, or physics.

This one will stay with me for a long, long time.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dr. Sleep

Danny Torrence is back, and the shine along with him!

Stephen King picks up the story of The Shining with the life of Danny, the boy who shines.  (If you have not read "The Shining," stop what you are doing and read it.  Right now! We'll wait).

Along with It and The Stand, The Shining is one of Stephen King's most beloved books, one of those stories that sticks with you over time.  One of the biggest questions left after the events at The Overlook Hotel is, "Whatever happened to Danny?" 

In Dr. Sleep, King returns to the world of Danny and his shine, walking the reader through the aftermath of The Overlook, and of Danny's father. 

Stephen King, more than most others, has a particular way of bringing the audience into the mind of his characters, allowing us to know them as they know themselves. His style is familiar, and some of his devices have been used before, but they are as effective as always in this sequel. 

After the Overlook Hotel's demise, Danny and his mother move to Florida with Dick Halloran for a while, who continues to help Danny manage his extraordinary abilities.  Some chilling events unfold as Danny, Wendy and Dick recover, but this section of the story is fairly brief.

We then jump ahead: Danny, it seems, has fallen into his father's footsteps and leads a life ruled by alcohol.  Wandering from town to town, and drink to drink, Danny is adrift.  The alcohol seems to dull the shine, which is just fine with him, but it dulls his life as well.  Eventually he finds himself in a small New Hampshire town, rock bottom a familiar feeling, when help arrives and brings Danny to AA.  Now the story really gets going.

We first meet Abra as a baby, who's special abilities may even outpace Danny's.  As she grows up and her abilities strengthen, and as Danny finally finds a life worth living, the odd connections between the two grow stronger.  Throughout the story we jump back and forth between the stories of Danny and Abra, and the goings on of the True Knot, an imortal (?) tribe who survive by sucking "steam" from areas where a  disaster has occurred.  They can also get steam from children with special abilities: children like Abra.

Dr. Sleep offers many chills, several thrills, and even a few tears as Danny and Abra, along with their families and friends, fight for their lives and their shine.  The story of the Overlook Hotel didn't end with The Shining after all, and Danny's story is worth reading. 

If you love Stephen King, especially "classic" Stephen King, I would highly recommend Dr. Sleep.  If you have not read much of Stephen King, then run out and read The Shining followed immediately by Dr. Sleep, It, and The Stand.  Then throw in some Carrie, Dead Zone, The Eye Of the Dragon, and Christine.  Now you can move on to his short stories, which are often better than his novels: The Long Walk, The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption... 

Basically, read Stephen King. A lot.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Zealot by Reza Aslan

The origins of the world's religions have always been fascinating to me, but none more so than the origins of Christianity.  I read about the history of Jesus and the other key players in the Bible as often as I can, and have found a lot of insight into the issues of today because of it.  One of my secret wishes is to learn ancient Greek and to read the Bible in its original form, just to be able to compare for myself the original with today's Bible. Being that I will not be able to do that anytime soon, I settle for reading books by those that can.

I came across Zealot on Facebook, actually, in a roundabout kind of way.  Someone had posted a link to the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, which was a total train wreck and should have been highly embarrassing for those involved at Fox.  Mr. Aslan spoke with authority and integrity, and thus attracted me to his book.  Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, scholar of religions, and a Muslim - which I thought would add a very interesting perspective to his history of Jesus of Nazareth.

Reza Aslan does a wonderful job creating the context and culture of the historical Jesus, painting an excellent picture of the world in which he lived.  Leaning heavily on the records left by Rome, the political, religions, and cultural atmosphere of Jerusalem and it's surrounding areas during Jesus' life become living landscapes in the mind of the reader.  For this reason alone, I would recommend this book.

At the start of Zealot, Mr. Aslan brings up the notion that pseudepigrapha (religious or scholarly writings falsely attributed to biblical characters) were quite commonplace and considered more of a tribute to the character represented than an actual forgery.  This has been the stance of many biblical scholars that I have read over the years, but recently I came across a logical and compelling counter-argument for this theory.  Bart D. Ehrman's Forged argues that forgery in antiquity was taken just as seriously as forgery is today, and given his evidence, I tend to agree. Reading Mr. Aslan's easy dismissal of forgery as "perfectly acceptable" back-in-the-day immediately had my skeptic's view on high alert. I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and continued the journey.

Mr. Aslan takes us on a cultural adventure wherein he discusses the seeming multitude of "prophets" and "messiahs" that roamed the countryside before, during, and after the time of Jesus, many of whom suffered the same fate as Jesus, ultimately dying on the cross or by stoning.  This plays a major role in the political and religious atmosphere at the time of Jesus' ministry, and affected how both the Roman and Jewish leaders responded to him.  Religious zealots of the time were considered a threat to Rome, and treated as though on par with traitors - the penalty for which was death. Rome and it's representatives held the Jews to very strict law during this period, ruling with an iron fist, and the people responded with threats of rebellion.  A stunning atmosphere to imagine a pacifist carpenter preaching peace to be ensconced in.

At first, there seems to be some contradictions concerning crucifixion and its prevalence during this period.  In one section, Mr. Aslan speaks of how widespread and common crucifixion actually was back then, while in another he discusses the fact that crucifixion was reserved "solely for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry" (p. 464, iPad version).  If crucifixions were only utilized for the "most extreme" crimes, but were also common and widespread, it leaves the reader with the image of a politically extreme climate where bandits and zealots popped up every-which-where. Keeping in mind that the Jews were an occupied nation, and that Rome was not the most forgiving of masters, this theory goes a long way toward demonstrating the atmosphere that Jesus and his ministry were facing.

The ideas put forth by Reza Aslan are interesting and, for the most part, fresh (or an old idea from a fresh perspective) and genuinely thought provoking.  All-in-all, I would recommend Zealot for readers of all interest levels and religions.  The historicity of Jesus and his impact on today's culture all over the world, are often in contradiction.  Books like Zealot go a long way in opening up the conversation about who Jesus actually was, and what impact he meant to have versus what impact he actually has.

If you are interested in reading more books along these lines I would also recommend the following:

Forged by Bart D. Ehrman - concerning forgery in antiquity and how culture responded to it.

The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible by Bruce M. Metzger, Robert C. Dentan and Walter Harrelson - three of the men on the translation committee for the NRSV Bible.

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman - possibly my favorite book on this subject, so far.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Humans

For Christmas this year, my new boss gave me a wonderful gift - The Humans by Matt Haig. 

I had heard the title bandied about on various lists, but I had no inclination as to its plot or author.  Having read the dust jacket, I was excited to dive in, and I was not disappointed. This lovely story explores what it is to be human, what it is to love and be loved, and how difficult it is to do all those things at once.

The basic premise is that an alien visitor assumes the form of one Professor Andrew Martin, proceeds to experience life through this guise, and comes to certain understandings about the human condition.  But there is nothing basic about this book.

Professor Andrew Martin, the real Professor Andrew Martin, is a mathematics genius who deals mostly with prime numbers.  He has, in fact, discovered a proof for the Reimann Hypothesis, one of the most important unresolved problems in math, the proof of which has endangered not only our planet, but all others as well.  In order to prevent the destruction of the Universe, The Hosts remove the real Professor Martin and place the narrator in his place.  This narrator (who never gives us a name other than Professor Andrew Martin) has no inclination as to what it means to be a human, only that he must destroy all evidence of the proof be it in a computer or in a human.  Coming from a place where everyone is immortal and has infinite knowledge, his experiences as a human are both hilarious and poignant. The story he tells is intended for The Hosts, in order to explain his decisions and actions as the Professor, but serves as a mirror for the reader instead.

Experiencing things that we take for granted every day, such as clothes and food, and how "cow" becomes "beef" once it's cooked, sent me into fits of laughter.  His simple observations about everyday moments and simple conversations actually gave me pause as I experienced them myself.  But it is his dealings with his wife and son that left the biggest impressions.

The real Professor was, apparently, a bit of an ass - which can only be surmised by the reactions of his wife, son, and best friend to the different Professor that the narrator has become.  As our narrator explores his relationships with these people, both as a human and as the alien sent to destroy the information they may or may not hold, the natures of humanity and love are explored and ultimately experienced in ways unexpected by both the narrator and the reader.  Often funny, extremely self-aware, Matt Haig has created a stunning work of beautiful imperfections that will make you laugh, sigh, and may even bring you to tears.

I highly recommend The Humans.  No one that opens this book will be the same person when they close it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Books that I love - Part 3

This will round out my "favorite books" posts.  While there are many books that I love, and many categories of favorites, these lists (Parts 1-3) are the ones that move me over and over again!

Often times while reading a book I become attached to the characters and feel as though I'm traveling the pages with friends.  None more so than with "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe".  When this book and I parted ways at the end of the reading, I cried as it is a very moving story.  I found myself crying again about a week later because I missed the people so!  They were as real to me as my family, and I had known them on a very personal level, thanks to the writing and wit of Fannie Flagg.  I know that the film is one of the best "chick flicks" of our time, but the book is so much more!  We follow these people and their lives feeling every slur and heartbreak right along with them.  The book centers around friendship, race, love and cooking and it will take you along for a very satisfying ride.

"Woman: An Intimate Geography" takes you on a tour of the female covering such subjects as organs, orgasm, exercise and the mysterious properties of breast milk.  Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Angier tackles questions of "female nature" and challenges the Darwinian-based gender stereotypes.  I read this book from cover to cover, often highlighting and dog-earing pages as I went.  It is a journey of discovery answering questions I never would have asked and showing me a new way to look at myself, and women!  A must read for all females (especially those headed out into the world for the first time) it is an education you will love!

I have a very broad and active imagination, and any book that allows me to exercise and explore it always gets 5 stars from me!  Maurice Sendak is a 5 star author/illustrator.  Best known for "Where the Wild Things Are," Sendak never shies away from subjects that may offend, rather basking in them and showing children that there are hardships, but always hope.  "We Are All In the Dumps, With Jack and Guy" is just such an offering.  Centering around the homeless, and touching on the subjects of AIDS, loneliness and vulnerability, Maurice Sendak takes us on a journey where the words are not the main storyteller, rather the pictures and images you create along the way.  I come back to these images over and over as I reach for hope in my everyday life, and am reminded that so long as there is hope, there is help.

Until next time, I wish you good reading!