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2011 Book #7: Oryx and Crake

I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake . It's a dystopian, post-apocalyptic-type novel about one of the few men left on Earth. He calls himself Snowman, and the plot bounces back and forth between him and the man he used to be, before the catastrophe, Jimmy. This part is set in the near-future, where everything is genetically spliced together - food, animals, medicine, etc. Jimmy and Crake had been good friends since they were kids. Crake was really intelligent. They grew up, and Crake worked on what he claimed would cure all of the problems caused by humanity. Then Things Happen. Snowman survives with Crake's humanish creations, called Crakers, who think Crake is a god and Snowman is almost one. Then there's Oryx, who might or might not have been sold as a slave into the sex industry when she was a child and who is revered as a near-god, too.

I tend to like dystopian novels. I read Atwood's most famous novel, The Handmaid's Tale, when I was fifteen or so, and I liked it so much I even remember some of it. I've noted before that I rarely remember what books are about after a few years. I think 1984 was the first dystopian novel I ever read: my high school freshman English teacher assigned it, and I actually finished reading it. Another feat.

I bought Oryx and Crake in 2003 when it was first published. I tried reading it but lost interest after the first chapter or so. I don't know why: this time, I had a hard time putting it down. I ordered The Year of the Flood , the events of which are contemporaneous to Oryx and Crake, from Amazon, but I think I'll save that for later.

Oryx and Crake really sucked me in - moreso than most novels do. It's the usual dystopian warning of sorts, but it's not preachy. I'm not sure of a comparison - maybe a not-so-grim On the Beach. I really like Atwood's writing style: it's very easy to read, though I guess I'm comparing it to the two dialecty novels I just finished reading. I'm really looking forward to the sequel.

2011 Book #8: The Satanic Verses

Well, I finished it. I guess all it took was my public realization that I might not finish it to get me reading again. Note that I wrote that post yesterday and still had about halfway to go. I've done a good bit of reading over the past couple days.

The Satanic Verses is a long, hard read. Very long, very hard. My main problem with it is the plot is overly convoluted: I'm not quite sure about what exactly happened, and while I'd like to read it again to put it together, I know I won't. I won't be running back to Rushdie anytime soon, either. It's not really what I expected, kind of like One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn't. And the two novels have more in common: they're both examples of magical realism, though Marquez's novel is much more convincing. And, in general, better.

If you want a thorough rundown of the plot of The Satanic Verses, I'll direct you to Wikipedia because I couldn't do it without writing much more than the short blog post I've planned. Rushdie's novel consists of two-and-a-half storylines involving Bollywood actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, a plane crash, one turning into a goat, and one developing paranoid schizophrenia and possibly being, at some point, the Archangel Gabriel. And that's only one of the plotlines. It ends up really confusing.

It's not that it's a bad novel: it's just not as good as some people say it is. I have a feeling that a lot of people with strong opinions about it haven't read it. I can totally see why Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill Rushdie: The Satanic Verses is fabulously blasphemous.

In Rushdie's defense, the language is nice - even beautiful in some places. Here's my favorite part:

The landscape of his poetry was still the desert, the shifting dunes with the plumes of white sand blowing from their peaks. Soft mountains, uncompleted journeys, the impermanence of tents. How did one map a country that blew into a new form every day?

And that's about all I have to say about it. I didn't really like it, though I didn't hate it either. I might reread it someday and get more out of it: I have a feeling that if I did read it again, I'd like it more. Maybe an abridged version would suit me better, though.

2011 Book #9: The Hunger Games

Well, The Hunger Games is certainly a quick read. It's the first kids' book I've read in a while, and I liked it well enough. Suzanne Collins isn't an especially good writer - it's purely pop fiction like Dan Brown and all those other authors I usually can't bring myself to read. That said, I was entertained, which I guess, is the point of novels like this.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian novel set in an Oceania of the United States. There was a war between the capitol and thirteen districts after a rebellion, and the capitol won. Each year, to punish the districts, two kids between twelve and eighteen are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games. They're put into an arena and forced to survive in the wilderness as they kill each other off. The one who kills all the others wins. The two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, both from District 12, survive and fight and all that. It's violent and gory at times. It ends ambiguously, halfway making me want to pick up the trilogy's second book immediately to find out what happens.

But I won't because it's really not that good of a novel. And I hate novels that end with cliffhangers. I think that one reason I liked the Harry Potter series is that Rowling provides a relatively neat ending - except in the sixth book, and I remember being frustrated because the seventh was a year away. I think Philip Pullman tidies things up a bit more at the ends of the His Dark Materials books, too. And Ursula LeGuin with the Earthsea trilogy. The City of Ember series is a little better about it than The Hunger Games. I consider Lord of the Rings to be one giant novel, so the same standard doesn't apply. I like what Terry Pratchett does with his Discworld novels: each is on its own, but there are enough recurring characters and places that it's still a series. But that's neither here nor there.

I knew The Hunger Games wouldn't be particularly good early on. Or, at least, not particularly well-written. I tend to judge writing style by how authors describe their characters. If it's a crappy novel, it might go something like this:

I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did. As I drove to the remote crossroads community of Hotshot, my brother watched the sunset in silence. Jason was dressed in old clothes, and he had a plastic Wal-Mart bag containing a few things he might need - toothbrush, clean underwear. He hunched inside his bulky camo jacket, looking straight ahead. His face was tense with the need to control his fear and his excitement.

File:Dead as a Doornail.jpegIn case you're wondering, that's the opening paragraph of Charlaine Harris's Dead as a Doornail , one of the books in her Sookie Stackhouse novels and of True Blood fame. I got through maybe ten pages of it and decided I'd be incapable of reading it. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by like-minded friends, and we passed it around, reading random passages aloud. A good time was had by all.

Anyway, good authors tend to do things a little differently. Being a good English major, I should root around and find an example, but being lazy, I'm not going to. Think about Faulkner - or even Rowling: would you ever see a description like that? Of course not. I didn't have to wait long, though, for Collins to disappoint:

I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin; we even have the same grey eyes. But we're not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That's why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place.

Urgh. I will give Collins credit here: her writing gets a bit better as the novel progresses, and I can't think of another instance when I was that irritated. Descriptions like that make me think of bad romance novels - of which I've only read half of two because the writing is so horrid.

To sum things up: The Hunger Games isn't a terrible novel, though it's not that good, either. The plot is interesting, but the style is mediocre at best. I might pick up the others, or I might not. I'd put my money on the latter.

2011 Book #10: Popular Hits of the Showa Era

I really liked Popular Hits of the Showa Era. It's short and a very quick read, and that's exactly what I was looking for. It's also fast-paced and seemed more like a long short-story than a book. Murakami doesn't waste time with in-depth descriptions but still gives the reader enough information to enter the world of the book.

It's about two groups of six. One is six guys in their late twenties who are bored and numb in a very postmodern way. The other is a group of unmarried women in their late thirties called Oba-sans. They all enjoy karaoke, and the guys have made up a party ritual of sorts in which they determine who dresses up and sings through games of rock-paper-scissors, and whoever loses drives them to a secluded part of the beach where they videotape performances. The parties get progressively weirder and creepier. One day, one of them randomly (and violently) kills one of the Oba-sans. The Oba-sans figure out who he is and kill him (also violently). Then there's an all-out war between the two groups with increasingly sophisticated weapons. The last battle-of-sorts is really interesting, but I won't ruin the novel for you.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is really, really violent and gory. It's what I'd expect from Ryu Murakami after Coin Locker Babies, the only novel of his I've read. And I'm not sure I even finished it. Actually, that's not true. I read In the Miso Soup , but I don't remember anything about it. That was my introduction to him. Popular Hits is as light a read as a book about murder can be. I think, though, that I won't remember anything about it a year from now because it seems forgettable. Not that it's bad: it's just not that great, either. I gave it four stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the process of reading it, but I don't have much to say about it. It's certainly not a "deep" book, and I think I might have liked it so much because that's exactly the kind of book I needed to read.

2011 Book #11: Labyrinths

Borges makes my brain hurt. Labyrinths was a really difficult read. It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino, especially Invisible Cities. Evidently, Calvino was heavily influenced by Borges. Labyrinths is a collection of short stories, essays, and parables. I really enjoyed some of the short stories, but lots of the lost me because I don't remember enough about philosophy or what philosopher said what. At a certain point in several stories, I had to turn my brain off and go with it Tao-style. That said, I even liked some of those.

My favorite story is "The Immortal," which is about a man's journey to find The City of Immortals. He enters their city, which has been abandoned and is like a massive labyrinth. He discovers them after he leaves lying, waif-like outside its walls. They have stopped talking because there's nothing left to talk about, but he eventually gets one of them to start, and it turns out he's Homer. "The Immortal" is one of the longer stories, and after the plot extinguishes itself, it becomes more like a philosophical essay. I really enjoyed it. I also liked "The House of Asterion" and "The Library of Babel." I'd been told that "Emma Zunz" is best, and, while it's probably the most easily accessible in the collection, I found it unrewarding. Enough for the short stories.

I found the essays much easier to read and surprisingly interesting. Borges is a fan of Don Quixote, so he mentions it several times, and one of the essays is about it. "The Wall and the Books" is my favorite, but I've already written about that one. Many of the essays are about time and whether it exists or not. Five years ago, I'd have been excited about them, but I'm over it. I've read that kind of theory before. (If you want to read a novel about theories of time, read Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, which is fantastic.) I don't really have much to say about the essays because I kind of sped through them.

The parables are my favorite part of Labyrinths. They're very short, but they also made me think. Borges discusses the same ideas in the parables as he does in the rest of the book, but the parables are much more accessible, which is probably why I liked them so much. Here's the first one:

Inferno, 1, 32

From the twilight of day till the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the last years of the thirteenth century, would see some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who changed, a wall and perhaps a stone gutter filled with dry leaves. He did not know, could not know, that he longed for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing things to pieces and the wind carrying the scent of a deer, but something suffocated and rebelled within him and God spoke to him in a dream: "You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem." God, in the dream, illumined the animal's brutishness and the animal understood these reasons and accepted his destiny, but, when he awoke, there was in him only an obscure resignation, a valorous ignorance, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast. Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.

If you're going to read any of Labyrinths, check out the parables. They're beautiful and undeniably brilliant.

I'd never read any Borges until now. I'd heard his name associated with Calvino and Lightman, so I figured I'd probably like it. Labyrinths was a harder read than I'd expected, and I had a hard time getting through it, but it was immensely rewarding. Borges is like T.S. Eliot and Yeats in that he draws the whole of history into a very short form, and I can see how he's a poet at heart.

Borges was also a librarian.

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