July 16, 2011
Author: Philip K. Dick
Website: Amazon Page
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the book on which the well-known movie Blade Runner was based. Blade Runner was produced with an alternate ending: one which left the reader feeling warm and fuzzy instead of depressed. Thankfully, Philip Dick’s novel does not break from the descent into madness of its protagonist which perfectly mirrors the downward progression of Dick’s meticulously constructed gray and radioactive society. Blade Runner was a wonderful movie, but the android-hunter given to the viewers was too much a beacon in a dull world. The main character of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Rick Deckard, is a city employee who rediscovers the hopeless world he lives in, and in doing so creates the novel’s tension and deceit as he struggles with the moral quandary inherent in killing robots that are indistinguishable from himself both physically and emotionally.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is depressing, sad, grim, and hopefully not foreshadowing; but Dick takes the reader through a created Earth which, while terrifying, deals with persecution, war, depression, and health in a fresh and unconventional way. Machines which regulate moods, a societal standard of owning an animal (whether it be real or electric), and a culture based on emigrating to space colonies combine to build an environment perfect for analyzing these complex issues. But in the end, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is just a remarkable and well-written book which everyone should read.
July 14, 2011
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Website: Amazon Page
The Tipping Point is, like Blink, another collection of Malcolm Gladwell’s anecdotes. But unlike Blink, The Tipping Point felt cohesive. Gladwell entrancingly maneuvered interviews with successful salesman, reports on current academic research, and stories from individuals convicted of a wide range of crimes into a themed tale of three types of people: connectors, maven, and salesmen, and how they change the world. From financial planners who can sell anything to people who have spent their lives connecting their friends to each other, Gladwell examines relationships and connectedness.
But The Tipping Point is more than just interesting; although it was published in 2000, its investigation of society remains relevant today. In the chapter I found the most interesting, Gladwell reports on a study which claimed that every person has a circle of at most 150 people with whom they interact and share emotions. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, this statistic becomes even more interesting in the examination of circles of online friends. And sure enough, a quick Google search revealed that a researcher by the name of Robin Dunbar (the number 150 in the social context is referred to as Dunbar’s numbers) has found evidence of similar results on Facebook. That is, people with hundreds of ‘friends’ only actually interact with about 150 of them. The Tipping Point felt much more relevant than Blink because the internet takes up more and more of my time and I feel like I am getting less and less from it; yet I cannot help but wonder if the same effect that is described in The Tipping Point applies to people’s consumption of books, news articles, and general information. After reading this book, I formed the perhaps not-that-startling thought that maybe my consumption of information on the internet does not necessarily translate into knowledge.
July 13, 2011
Author: A. E. Van Vogt
Website: Amazon Page
I have not picked up a science fiction novel in a while, so The Silkie, with its 1969 used-book and yellow-paged feel was a perfect choice. Van Vogt is perhaps best known for Slan: a wonderful classic of the 1940s focusing on racism, genetic mutations, and mob mentality. Similarly, The Silkie explores the relations between humans and a shape-changing race (or alien form of life), whose origins underlie much of the tension between the two societal groups. But even though its message is purposeful, Van Vogt superbly applies his message to the more fun (and sometimes pointless) fighting sequences in The Silkie which occur with stupendous regularity.
What differentiates Van Vogt from similar science fiction mainstays like Heinlein is how Van Vogt manages to make the plot and not his characters the anchor of his story. Although not necessarily a good thing, the reader is drawn to the broader story about the silkies and the humans as well as the tale of a government which brings them together. Van Vogt’s main character becomes, without a wink or a nudge, the most powerful being in the universe; but the reader does not care because he is more interested in reflecting on The Most Powerful Being in the Universe’s interaction with aliens who are almost as powerful as he is and who happen to create and collapse galaxies by manipulating the molecular structure of the things around them. The Silkie, in the span of 250 pages, takes a simple character and deifies him, but I kept rooting for him because the deification is done with such elegance as our favorite alien (or human) wanders through the universe destroying things.
July 12, 2011
Author: James E. Campbell
Website: Amazon Page
In light of the recent debates and hullabaloo over the republican presidential primaries and the 2010 midterm elections, I decided to pick up The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. And although the book was, as expected, pretty dry, it was extremely thorough in its approach to analyzing the affect that a president has on his party’s chances in the next midterm and presidential elections. Without going into too much summary, Campbell proposes a revised theory of “surge and decline”: an idea which made perfect sense to me after following the 2010 midterm elections. It revolves around the notion that the two types of elections (presidential and midterm) each have their own socioeconomically and politically unique voting groups whose median viewpoint about issues changes in predictable ways from the presidential election to the following midterm election. What I found most fascinating was the idea that people’s probability of regretting their vote for president could be modeled quite accurately and that the model implied that if a president won by a large amount, the added buffer of voters whose votes he received who do not normally vote for his party would be more prone to regret; and consequentially be more likely to vote against his party in the midterm election.
This book, unlike the others I have read in the past month, did not have a plot, characters, or a friendly narrator to guide me through the tension of unproved propositions and narrowly stated conclusions. Or to put it another way, it is an academic book which I probably should not have read in one day. But because I approached it as I would a novel, I will hesitantly admit that although dry, The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections was extremely interesting, quite persuasive, and well worth reading in advance of what is bound to be an interesting year of politicking.
July 11, 2011
Authors: Ian McEwan
Website: Wikipedia Page
Atonement is set in World War II Britain, and the war is the dividing line between two very different sections of the book. The first half of Atonement is a description of a family made up of brooding adults and a group of children. It focuses almost entirely on the younger group’s machinations (a word which, with its ominous underpinnings describes the children’s thoughts and plots perfectly). The next half of the novel describes the result of the innocent narrative in the first section which quickly became tragic. To say anything else would give away Atonement’s twist, but the story pivots on the contrast between the two halves of the novel; and McEwan excels at highlighting that contrast while connecting the two time-disconnected sections through character development.
After reading McEwan’s Amsterdam a few days ago, I decided to pick up Atonement, and I somewhat understand why Amsterdam won the Booker Prize and Atonement did not. Both books were full of McEwan’s wonderful, dreamy, and thorough description, but while Amsterdam was concise and its characters memorable, Atonement’s characters felt slightly fake, and the changes they go through in the transition from the first section to the second felt too perfect. Amsterdam was subtle even though its high-reaching tale of incriminating photographs, politics, and newspapers was not at all understated, but many scenes in Atonement felt destined to happen, and the ending was not all that surprising.
July 10, 2011
Authors: Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe
Website: Amazon Page
I have no idea what to call A Walking Tour of the Shambles; it is a part fantastical, part guide, part to-do list, and supremely inventive story created by two very good authors: Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe. Both are better known for their fantasy and science fiction, but they decided to collaborate on this book (by mail!) and the result is wonderful. The entire adventure takes place in a three block area of The Shambles: a shadowy area in Chicago near enough to the Sears Tower that an observer can see the tower from The Shambles, but The Shambles cannot be seen from the tower. Gaiman and Wolfe’s animated word choice and marvelous use of parenthetical remarks (because although parentheses are most often used by authors to explain a previous occurrence, Gaiman and Wolfe use them to introduce new phrases, words, and objects on the reader’s tour) help the reader experience the marvels of co-created ghostly blocks which are haunted by the omnipresent International Brotherhood of Meatworkers. The authors’ inspired creation of words includes the wonderful portmanteau swandolier (because what else would describe the person who directs a swanboat?) and adds to the interesting and mainly second-person experience which the reader undergoes as he feels his way through this alternate Chicago.
As a student in Chicago, A Walking Tour of the Shambles just made me more excited to explore the various downtown neighborhoods and try to find—although they probably do not exist—the detailed houses, streets, statues, and people which this guide does such a good job of exploring.
July 9, 2011
Author: Haruki Murakami
Website: Wikipedia page
After the Quake is a collection of six of Murakami’s short stories which take place following the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Murakami’s stories are powerful because none of them center on the earthquake; instead, in each story one of the characters refers to it as if it took place in the distant past or foreshadows a future earthquake in Tokyo. The earthquake affects each story without becoming the focal point, yet since the earthquake is the only connection between the stories, it emphasizes to the reader the earthquake’s tragedy and destruction without seeming overdone. This collection was remarkably fresh when compared to Murakami’s full-length novels because none of the short stories have a chance to reach the monotonal form of Hear the Wind Sing or the repetition in Norwegian Wood. After the Quake reminded me most of Murakami’s series of tangents in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which ranged from wartime flashbacks to spontaneous discussions of wells. It is these tangents and the blending of magic with Murakami’s thoughts about the Kobe Earthquake which make After the Quake crisp and informative while remaining unconventional.
I picked up this book because I loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart, and as the first collection of Murakami’s short stories which I have had a chance to read, I am once again awed by his sometimes hilarious and other times poignant use of magical realism. No other author, with the possible exception of Neil Gaiman, mixes the magical with the real so well. And while Gaiman can rely on the fantasy genre to support much of his magic, Murakami has the added challenge of adding magical and spiritual moments to a book which has so many of the characteristics of historical fiction. Life-size frogs and wizened fortune-tellers enter the world of Japan and Thailand as characters struggle with the Kobe Earthquake and their life’s troubles. It is this confluence of real and unreal which gives After the Quake the spark which is so hard for most other authors to create.
July 7, 2011
Authors: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Website: Amazon Page
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes place in the aftermath of World War II; and the novel is comprised entirely of letters sent to and from a set of family members, friends, and strangers who eventually become friends. The story centers on Juliet (a young writer who has recently published a well-received collection of newspaper columns) and her search for a new subject for a book. As Juliet pursues an idea, the reader is slowly shown each character’s backstory and introduced to the people with whom Juliet interacts.
Although the subject matter of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, as befits its title, inventive, it was a fun book to read because of Shaffer and Barrows’ use of the letters to convey emotion in interesting ways. Just as dialogue in a non-epistolary novel usually proceeds from one scene to the next as the reader would expect, so too do Shaffer and Barrows’ letters. And as the novel’s series of letters hesitantly make their way from a writing desk to their recipient, emotions are delayed, outcomes are changed, and plots are foiled because of the nature of slow long-distance communication. It was slightly agonizing in this more accelerated age of email to constantly wait as characters interacted with one another by mail; but as someone who can’t remember the last time it took anyone more than a few hours to respond to any form of communication, reading this book was probably a good experience.
Shaffer and Barrows manage to convey such a wide range of tone in their hundreds of painstakingly created dispatches that the letters actually seem to be a collection from an archive. And I think it is the ability to make a cohesive story out of an archived collection which gives this book its charm and freshness.
July 6, 2011
Author: Ian McEwan
Website: Wikipedia Page
Amsterdam reminded me of Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, which I recently saw and surprisingly enjoyed even though Malick’s characters were the best-acted miserable group of people I had ever seen in a movie. Similarly, Ian McEwan flits from one complex and miserable character to another as he explores the relationships between acquaintances (mainly distant) brought together by a character’s life and her eventual death. The (arguably) protagonist of Amsterdam, Molly, dies before the novel begins; and it is McEwan’s skill at revealing her characteristics through other people’s thoughts which make her the protagonist and which makes Amsterdam a novel about misery, change, and the effect of a death on a group of friends and acquaintances. From a newspaper editor to a politician to a famous composer, McEwan implies that Molly’s satellites were uninterested in each other until her death and funeral; this separation introduces the reader to those same satellites’ suddenly strengthened, very intense, and ultimately divisive connections.
Amsterdam’s literary heft comes from McEwan’s ability to suddenly alter the narrator’s point of view without affecting the plot; but the novel’s interesting plot and complex character development come from his creation of a moment in each chapter when the reader is sympathetic to each character as well as a similar moment when the reader finds each one despicable. None of the people in Amsterdam are likable, whether they are self-described geniuses, arrogant politicians, boring writers, or jealous widows. And this lack of likability allows Amsterdam to be about the events and relationships and not the people. At no point in this novel was I rooting for a character (although each one had his emotional moments). And the way Molly haunts the reader grants McEwan the right to unsentimentally explore death and how it brings people closer together with harmful consequences.
July 5, 2011
Author: John Allen Paulos
Website: Amazon Page
A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market is a set of financial, philosophical, statistical, and mathematical anecdotes which relate to Paulos’s life as a WorldCom addict. The narrative of Paulos’s trading of WorldCom stocks (whose downward spiral and eventually bankruptcy occurred at the same time as Enron’s collapse) allow him to show the reader a regret-tinged series of interesting mathematical facts through the lens of personal experience. And this downward spiral is the only connective strand which succeeds in holding these short chapters together. From Benford’s law to derivative trading, Paulos is a great explainer; and although some of the mathematical facts are entirely understandable to readers with a smidgen of mathematical background (like compound interest), Paulos manages to reexplain and retell what could be simple summary through clever stories and difficult riddles.
A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market is an interesting grouping of stories, but it does succumb to a small yet incessant amount of preachiness as Paulos’s side remarks about shady accounting and jabs at executives of certain financial institutions left me with the feeling that Paulos does not like corporate executives. In addition, the only point to the book besides for those side remarks and the interesting anecdotes seemed to be that Paulos is proud that the reader bought his book so that he can end up with a positive balance statement when it comes to his WorldCom woes.