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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Artemis: Silly Sciencey Fun...But Mostly Silly

There's just no way Andy Weir could've been as good as he was in his debut, The Martian. That novel is the most fun I've had with a book in a long, long time. So even though the hype for his follow-up was feverish, you just had to know Artemis wasn't going to be quite as good. And, sadly, it's not. But if you liked Weir's schtick in the The Martian — wisecracking smart ass is also brilliant MacGyver-like sciencey schemer — you'll probably find enough fun here to keep turning the pages

The story, which takes place on the moon, is about Jazz, a spunky woman who makes ends meet by smuggling contraband to rich guys on the moon's first permanent colony, Artemis. One of those guys proposes a big pay day for her if she can sabotage some of a big company's big moon rock harvesters. Of course, things go awry, and Jazz uncovers a plot that goes much deeper than simple corporate espionage and malfeasance.

Weir ranges from legit hilarious to silly and Beavis-ish (which I love!) to just dumb. Part of the silliness in this book is that I'm not sure he's exactly comfortable writing a woman character. Jazz seems less like a woman and more like a geeky dude's ideal robot woman. She talks and thinks like a nerdy virginal dude in his goofy dorky fantasies would hope women think and talk like (but don’t actually ever). Sometimes it's funny, often it's not.

And then the science and "did you know?" stuff ranges from genuinely fascinating to “Huh. Cool story, bro” to WAY-too-in-the-weeds. There's one scene in particular near the end, that, unless you want to know a bunch about pressure valves and the metallurgy of welding, is INTERMINABLE. And that's too bad because that's supposed to be mid-rush-to-the-end of the novel. It's slows it down considerably.

Even so, I was still mostly entertained. It’s an inventive story that probably feels smarter than it actually is. Certainly a step back from The Martian, but how could anyone be that good twice in a row?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Origin: The Dan Brown Plot Machine Takes On Creation, the Singularity

Where do we come from? Where are we going? When we wrestle with humanity's toughest, deepest, most profound questions, of course we look no further than Dan Brown for guidance and wisdom. Right?

I kid. We look to Dan Brown to distract us for a few hours with a highly improbable though somehow entertaining plot, which includes more than a little unintentionally hilarious "dramatic" writing, and even still a few things that make you go "hmmm..."

In Origin, the Dan Brown Plot Machine's new Robert Langdon vehicle, we meet Edmond Kirsch, a brilliant computer scientist and futurist — think Elon Musk crossed with Steve Jobs, with a pinch of Richard Branson — who has made a stunning discovery which will not only destroy every notion of organized religion, but also will change everything we thought we knew about everything! Where do we come from? Where are we going? ..... And where is the bathroom?

But wait! Before Kirsch can reveal his scientific discovery, he's summarily assassinated mid-presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in Spain. Langdon and the comely museum director, Ambra Vidal, now must find Kirsch's cell phone password to launch his presentation in his stead. LUCKILY, as Kirsch was working with Vidal to prepare his presentation, he let slip that his password is a 47-character line of poetry that includes a prophecy.

So Langdon has a starting point for his treasure hunt. And helping them along the way is Winston, Kirsch's incredibly advanced AI who talks with an urbane British accident (because of course it does) and periodically nudges them along when they hit a roadblock.

But look out! An evil (or is he?) former Spanish naval officer named Admiral Àvila chases them across Spain, trying to kill them. Àvila has been taken in by a right-wing Catholic sect called the Palmarians, a group who hates the new "liberal" advances of the Catholic Church, and so has installed their own pope, and have endeavored to halt any sort of scientific progress.

Will Langdon find the password in time? Will he destroy religion with Kirsch's discovery? And where is that damn bathroom? 

Look, I know it's easy to make fun of Dan Brown — his faux-profound italicized thoughts are so often laughably cheesy, you can't take him too seriously. And he really treats his readers like idiots — he tells us about half a dozen times about Langdon's "eidetic memory." WE GET IT DAN. To enjoy this novel, you really do have to wade through a lot of stupid to get to the good part. But I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed the last 100 pages here. Even if the framework is nothing new — borrowed ideas Brown packages for his own purposes in improbably silly plot — many of the "fun facts" about architecture, art, religion, science, etc., are still interesting to read about. And there's a genuinely surprising plot twist at the end.

So it's worth trudging through a lot of the dumb. And it's worth pointing out just how dumb that dumb is sometimes. Brown doesn't really seem to have any grasp of technology at all— or he assumes his readers don't (which is more likely). He often has his characters talking about "computer tablets" (as opposed to just tablets) which I realize is a minor complaint, but it's not like we're going to confuse an iPad with the Ten Commandments. And he has one of his characters unlock a locked iPhone with a technique that is laughably stupid — and of course, doesn't really work That that was the point I almost threw the book across the room and quit.

But I soldiered through. While this still doesn't approach the level of The Da Vinci Code — and Origin borrows most from Brown's biggest hit, even referencing it a few times (which he never does in his other books. Like Langdon has his memory erased before each book. So, thank you, Dan for this, at least) — it's still better than Brown's last last two (pretty terrible) novels, Inferno and The Lost Symbol. If you're a fan of Dan Brown's schtick, you'll probably moderately enjoy this. If nothing else, it's often good for an unintentionally meant laugh.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere: Privilege, Parenting in the Suburbs

There is a TON going on in Celeste Ng's terrific new novel, Little Fires Everywhere — but for this novel, it's a strength, not a weakness. A huge cast of characters create all sorts of problems for each others, sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes just unthinkingly. It makes for a thrilling, fast-paced, drama-infused novel about everything from privilege to teen pregnancy to long-held family secrets.

Set in 1998 in the quiet carefully planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland where Ng herself lived as a kid), the story is about a clash between two families that couldn't be more different. Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl live in a rental house owned by the Richardsons, an upper-class family with four high-school aged kids, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.

Much like the community she lives in,  Mrs. Richardson has rigorously ordered her entire life — college, marriage, steady job (she's a journalist for the local newspaper), and children. Mia, on other hand is a fly-by-the-seat of her pants avant-garde photographer. She and Pearl have criss-crossed the country, moving on whenever Mia's well of inspiration dries up. But now, Mia has decided to settle down for a bit and let Pearl be a kid, make some friends, form some connections. And it works: Pearl becomes fast friends with the Richardson kids, and idealizes their steady normal life, while they in turn think her mobility is fascinating.

The novel literally starts a fire — specifically, the Richardson's house, but we don't know why. It's just suspected that the youngest daughter Izzy finally lost her mind, lighting "little fires everywhere" throughout the house. Then we back up and get to know the families and their interactions. But the novel really gets going after about 100 pages when friends of the Richardsons — the McCulloughs — have adopted an Asian daughter abandoned at a fire station a year ago. The birth mother, a woman named Bebe — who happens to be a friend of Mia's from the Chinese restaurant at which she works — wants the child back. Bebe had left her daughter at the fire station during a bout of anxiety and depression (she'd moved to across the country with a boyfriend, who promptly leaves her penniless and friendless when he finds out she's pregnant). Now that she's better, she's been trying desperately to find her daughter, and when Mia makes the connection between Mrs. Richardson's friend's adopted daughter and Bebe's lost daughter, Bebe desperately tries to reclaim her. The ensuing legal battle divides the community, and the two families.

Part of the point of the novel is about how easy it is to cover up or not be penalized for mistakes when you're wealthy and white. That parachute, however, does not exist without money and privilege. As well, the novel shows how money and privilege can sometimes erode empathy. There are several moments that illustrate this, but one in particular: Bebe is given once-a-week visitation rights of her daughter until the case is decided, and Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that Bebe can't let her know more than a day ahead of time when she'll come. Bebe's work schedule is erratic, and this job is only way she can make ends meet. Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that she's inconvenienced, not trying to understand what it must be like for Bebe.

This is a fascinating, complex, but briskly written novel. It's hard to put down, frankly. Ng effortlessly plugs you directly into her story and her characters. I actually liked Little Fires Everywhere better than Ng's terrific debut, Everything I Never Told You. You've probably seen Little Fires Everywhere just about, well, everywhere. Ng was even on Seth Meyers recently! The novel is worth the hype — highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Heart's Invisible Furies: An Absolute Masterpiece

John Boyne's new novel (out today!) The Heart's Invisible Furies is an absolute masterpiece. It's the story of a life, an Irishman named Cyril Avery, born in Dublin in 1945. But that single simple sentence belies the power, intensity, humor, emotion, and pure reading pleasure of this 600-page piece of fiction. It's a novel about guilt and redemption, about fate and free will, about love and loyalty, about secrets and betrayal, and simply about living a life in your own skin. It's absolutely brilliant — honestly, one of the best things I've read in a long time, at least since A Little Life, to which this novel shares some similarities.

It's also a good read for fans of stories as wide-ranging as Forrest Gump to The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany. Indeed, Boyne's dedication is simply, "For John Irving" — which, frankly, is what initially drew me to this novel. The first two sections of the novel are an unmistakeable tribute to Irving — both in style and substance. The first describes the circumstances of Cyril's birth — his mother is a 16-year-old unwed Catholic in rural Ireland. Her pregnancy causes her to be shamed in front of her entire church, and then banished from her town and family. She moves to Dublin to make it on her own. The second section describes Cyril's childhood as a seven-year-old boy living with adoptive parents Charles (about to go to jail for tax evasion) and Maude (a novelist who hates popularity) in Dublin.

From there, Boyne tells Cyril's life story in seven-year increments. I don't know what else to tell you about this novel to pique your interest if you're not already intrigued. But one of the things I loved about this book is how surprisingly funny it is. I can't emphasize this enough: It's consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Frequently, there are several-page strings of dialogue, which is almost always annoying when other writers try this. Here, they're simply fantastic and fully display Cyril's sarcastic, dry sense of humor. I chuckled on just about every page.

But this novel is massively heart-breaking as well. This isn't a spoiler: Cyril is gay, and the first half of the novel is about him trying to come to terms with this fact of himself—how impossible it is to be himself in mid-century Catholic Ireland, and how he keeps that secret from those closest to him.

The novel follows Cyril from Ireland to Amsterdam to New York in the 1980s (devastating sections on the AIDS crisis) and then back to Dublin for Cyril's twilight years. From the very beginning, we know at some point he and his birth mother reconnect (the whole novel is Cyril's first-person account, and Cyril tells us he's narrating from before he was born based on the story his mother told him later). This creates such glorious tension throughout the novel because there are several instances in which fate puts Cyril and his birth mother in each other's paths. And the conversations they have before they know who each other is are some of the funniest, even as they ooze with tension and drama.

This is the best novel I've read in a long time — it has definite "new classic" potential. Every once in a while, you really should find a book that reminds you why you love reading so much — and for me, this was that book. It's all I can do right now as I write this not to pick it up and start it all over again.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Home Fire: Mesmerizing and Intense

Kamila Shamsie's new novel Home Fire (it's out today!) is one of the more mesmerizing, intense novels I've read in a long time. It's about a London family — daughter Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz — whose mother died awhile ago and whose father abandoned them and died after being captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was held at the infamous Bagram prison (where he was likely tortured), and was being transported to Guantanamo Bay when he died mysteriously.  Isma and her siblings don't know what happened to him, or even where his body is, and no one in London — least of all their ambitious-at-the-cost-of-integrity Member of Parliament, Karamat Lone — will help them.

The novel begins as Isma is traveling to America to go to graduate school — Parvaiz and Aneeka are 19 years old now (she is 28) and she feels like having basically raised the twins herself, she can finally set out on her own path. In Amherst, she randomly runs into Lone's son, Eamonn. They form a tenuous bond, and when Eamonn (a sort of drifter not dissimilar to Donnie Jr or Eric Trump) returns to London, he meets the rest of Isma's family including Isma's beautiful younger sister Aneeka. Meanwhile, the other twin Parvaiz has been recruited by a man who knew his father during the jihad. Parvaiz becomes enamored of the notion of the Islamic State and whisks himself away to Raqqa to join ISIS.

The novel spends one section on the specific story of each of these five characters (Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka, Karamat), giving the novel as a whole more nuance than may otherwise have been possible. In fact, one of the themes of the novel is simply the importance of nuance. Too often, politicians like Karamat Lone try explicitly with rhetoric and policy to score cheap points by appealing to the lowest common denominator —by scaring their constituents with the notion of "other," not taking into account nuance. Basic humanity (along with any shred of their decency and integrity) is often the victim. And that's the case here, too. 

Home Fire is also a story about family loyalty, even in the most terrible circumstances. When a family member betrays his country, still, isn't his family entitled to learn about what happened to him? If a twin brother realizes the enormity of a mistake, shouldn't he, with an appropriate punishment, still be afforded basic human dignity? Shamsie deals with these touchy subjects gracefully and lucidly. 

Indeed, this is one of the more beautifully written novels I've read in a long time. But it reads at the pace almost of a thriller — an seemingly impossible trick I still have no idea Shamsie pulled off. I forgot to breathe from time to time, especially on the last page, which...just...wow.

This is definitely a favorite of the year. I loved it for its urgency and how current it feels. Highly recommended! 

(Side note: Apparently, and I didn't know this until finishing the novel, this story is a modern retelling of the Sophocles play, Antigone. But you don't need to know anything about that play to enjoy this — I didn't. I'm sure it helps if you do, but it's definitely not necessary.)