Townhouse Books

Friday, September 21, 2007

World War Z by Max Brooks

Go read this right now! You'll never look at your house, government, or military the same way.

World War Z was presented to me as a "quick sci-fi read about when zombies take over". The book is much, much more. It's structured as an oral history, with short (1-4 pages) interviews of people from all over the world, describing the near take-over of the planet by zombies (infected with a virus that reanimates the dead). The story arcs from the first outbreak in China through the insidious spread of infection, botched government responses, and humanity's eventual breakdown into the Great Panic and subsequent retreat.

What struck me, repeatedly, was the truly spectacular world-building Brooks performs. When I say interviewees are from all over the world, I mean from Brazil to China to Cuba to Australia to Russia to India to Iran to... everywhere. Not only does Brooks trace the spread of this virus, but also the social and economic fallout particular to each area of the world. In other worlds, he illustrates, via his tapestry of interviewees, the vastly different experiences in each part of the world.

I'd be curious what someone with more of a military background than I thinks of the book. As the story goes on, you learn more and more about the successful (and unsuccessful!) planning and tactics employed by various countries around the world. You learn about the different strategies necessary for different environments. You learn about the effects of psychological stress on exhausted soldiers. And so on.

Also impressive is Brooks' development of different voices for each interviewee. His prose isn't flashy, but it's effective, and makes an effort to vary the vacabulary and pacing with each character. The structure is also impressive. While the book is a tad choppy at times (as a globe-spanning narrative might be), there is a general, unifying chronological thread. Events brought up in one interview are touched and sometimes even expanded upon in subsequent interviews.

So... whew! I really loved this book. Not sure why it's so compelling for me right now, but partially because I can just see events unfolding the way they do in the book. Because we, as a people, suck.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

And Then We Came to the End / Joshua Ferris

Fantastic. I got it from the library and now want to own my own copy. On the surface it's a story of an ad agency in the last throes of the 1990s Internet boom. But it perfectly captures the pettiness, drama, and greatness of office life (if you can believe that.) The author takes for granted that in our late-capitalist society, most of our personal time is actually spent at work, in a office, and probably in a cubicle. So while parts of the story play up the absurd in office interactions, other parts point out that our human drives for companionship, adventure, and love are still with us, just... in our crushing office jobs.

Stylistically the book is interesting, too. Almost all of it is in the present tense, and typically using "we" as the subject, rather than an individual person. Which sounds potentially annoying, but actually works beautifully.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Gate to Women's Country / Sheri S. Tepper

In short: a post-apocalypse society of women are trying to rebuild civilization. Tepper is a well-known feminist writer, and she does an interesting thought-experiment in this one. Where is the line, and when do feminist utopias go to far? What happens when feminists become prejudiced in their own right? She's also a good storyteller, so even if the philosophical side of the book isn't your cup of tea, it's worth a read as good speculative fiction.

I'd love to hear what other people think of this book. I first read it a good seven years ago and thought it was really quite interesting. The society is intricate and well-imagined, and the first 100 pages or so just toss you into it without heavy exposition. Which I like. There's a sense of discovery, of secrets being revealed throughout the book.

What I didn't get seven years ago and am getting now is the heavy-handedness of this book. Characters have a tendency of becoming mouthpieces for the author, although this effect is slightly mitigated by the fact that several characters are government / philosophical leaders and it's therefore not entirely out of character for them to wax sociological.

What also struck me the second time through was that the book was less even-handed than I'd remembered. Overall, the radical actions that Women's Country takes are presented as tragic but necessary. Rather than tragic and wrong. And the book's take on homosexuality is just offensive. But I'd love to hear other people's opinions. And if you enjoy this sort of post-post-post-society gender future thing, try Elisabeth Vonarburg's Silent City / Maerlande Chronicles, too.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Winkie / Clifford Chase


This is one of the most magical, melancholy, stirring books I've ever read. I'm actually so fond of it, I'm not real sure how good of an actual review I can give. But here goes.

Winkie is a small, stuffed bear. Winkie has consciousness, and a smart, thoughtful nature, and cannot communicate or even move. Part of Winkie's story is the pain and suffering he/she goes through at the hands of the children that love her. Or him. Part of Winkie's story is bearing witness to the incredible thoughtless ways we can hurt those that love us, including the incredible, thoughtless ways parents can hurt their children.

The other half of Winkie's story is his/her capture by U.S. agents and subsequent arrest as a terrorism suspect. For real. I'm not actually giving much away. But parts of Winkie's story take place in prison. The story is a definite satire on our current political climate, but I was most touched by the story's deeper looks at love and suffering.

I can also end with a warning: Winkie made me melancholy and broody for days. But in a good way.


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Monday, October 17, 2005

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?: Lorrie Moore

If anyone's talked to me recently, you've heard about this book. And then you've heard about it again the next day, and probably again when I saw you the week after. I've got Anagrams and, although it's a great piece, it brings me down. Like, a lot. For some reason, Frog Hospital doesn't.

A basic plot summary could go: a woman is in Paris with her husband, and reminisces about her youth while experiencing the slow dissolve of her marriage. But her youth...

The protaganist grew up in a small town near the Canadian border (Moore constructs a great sense of place) and had an incredibly close, obsessive frienship with another teenage girl. The book explores the intensity of teenage friendship, its dissolution, the protaganist's escape from her small-town past, and even her first introduction to romantic love. These are common themes (the teenage-girl intensity of the friendship is drawn particularly well) but Lorrie Moore is her own thing. People often talk about authors having a singular voice, but Moore really does. She is precisely her own thing.

I'm starting to gush. I can't do her justice, so I'll leave you with something from the book:

The frogs. Years later, I would read in the paper that frogs were disappearing from the earth, that even in the most pristine of places, scientists were looking and could not find them. It was a warning, said the article. A plague of no frogs. And I thought of those walks up the beach road I'd made any number of times in the sexual evening hum of summer, how called and lovely and desired you felt, how possible, even when you weren't at all. It was the frogs doing that.


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Friday, September 16, 2005

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation: Joseph J. Ellis

As it turns out, A People's History of the Supreme Court is becoming quite a long haul. But Founding Brothers is a fun and well-researched book, offering a great read plus historical accuracy. Fills my need for civics education without overwhelming me. The major premise of this book is that, although we see it as inevitable, the success of the American Revolution was by no means assured in the minds of its major players. The book gets into various arguments and personality clashes between Madison, Adams, Hamilton, Washington, and others, showing how this group of founders often had vastly different conceptions of what the Revolution really stood for. It's a deconstruction, to be sure, but done in a chatty style.

I have to admit, though, that the author's discussion of slavery made me uncomfortable. If anyone else has read it, let me know what you think -- I felt like he was being a little too understanding of the Constitutional Congress' inability to face the issue.

ETA: You know, like, author information.


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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Supremes: Essays on the Current Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States: Barbara Perry

Really, I was on a little Supreme Court side-trip before O'Connor stepped down! That said, I'm even more interested in the Court's workings now. I mean, if you're gonna take away my right to an abortion, I'd like to know a little more about you. Scalia.

This collection serves well as a brief and engaging introduction. The essays are short (the entire book is under 200 pages) and give a good mix between basic bio, scattered personality traits, and behavior on the bench. Some of the legal passages can be a bit dry, but again...the essays are short. The book isn't really intended to function as a scholarly exploration or history of the court, but it absolutely whetted my appetite for just that sort of thing (I'm going to start A People's History of the Supreme Court soon, I think.)

So if you want to dip a toe in, I'd recommend it. If you already know some basics but want a little more bio on the Justices, I'd recommend it. If you want a hard-core look at the legal ramifications of landmark might need more.


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Monday, July 25, 2005

Starfish: Peter Watts

Oh my my my. I read this one twice last weekend. It grabbed me from the first damn sentence. The basic narrative has to do with "rifters", people that live at the bottom of the ocean, and what type of psychological make-up one would need to survive, and even thrive, living in a artificial habitat on the ocean floor. It's set in the near future where countries have consolidated (example: "N'AmPac"), corporations have equal voice with government, and millions of refugees pack the coastline of the Pacific Rim.

Imagine my excitement upon finding out that this is only book one of a trilogy.


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Monday, July 18, 2005

Speak: Laurie Halse Anderson

I picked this up at random -- I needed something to read one night and the author's gotten excellent reviews. And holy crap her writing blew me away. It's young adult fiction with a message, and every once in a while I felt like the message was a little heavy. But it's a book dealing with big issues and a very lonely teenage protaganist who's in a lot of pain. So one might expect a little heavy-handedness sometimes.

I just can't say enough about the writing, though. Terribly evocative, and I mean terrible -- anyone who's ever had teenage moments of feeling like the outcast, or deep depression, might find it gut-wrenching. Probably even if you haven't, it's still gut wrenching. Reminded me of Jane Hamilton, too, in that even if the characters find the strength to struggle through adversity, it's not always pretty.


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Monday, June 20, 2005

Sunshine: Robin McKinley

I'm torn on how to feel about this book. McKinley's The Hero and the Crown was one of the defining books of my childhood. I still re-read it when I need some comfort. She's a subtle, wry, baroque writer. Occasionally slips into florid, in a good way. But her characters are complex, and sarcastic, and The Hero and the Crown is some of the best high fantasy -- best literature -- I've ever read.

That said...she's historically written high fantasy. Even Deerskin, a re-telling of a fable about abuse, manages to weave an atmosphere of helplessness despair without using extremely frank language. And I mean that in a good way.

This new one, Sunshine, is totally different. Several of the blurbs describe it as a good read for Buffy fans, and I'd agree, which is partially why I'm posting it here. It's engrossing and funny and told in the voice of a smart, dry-witted 19-year-old. But in a lot of ways, even though it's the most "adult" of her books in terms of language and sex, it doesn't quite seem as dense and layered as some of her "juvenile" literature.

I'd still call it heads and shoulders above your average fantasy read. But I'd also daresay that The Hero and the Crown, Deerskin, or The Door in the Hedge are better literature.

ETA: What a snotty way to end a review! I should say, "literature" as defined by my own personal tastes. Also read her retellings of Beauty and the Beast. And don't mistake this for a recommendation against reading Sunshine. It's just different than the books that first introduced me to her work. And how dare authors change, how dare they!


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Friday, May 13, 2005

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I'm just not sure if I really liked this book. I do need to re-read it, since I finished it in one of those hazy, late-night marathon reading sessions last night. So the latter fifth of the book is not as clear as the first part. But still...

First and foremost, I truly appreciate the fact that Our Protagonist is a punk librarian. And apparently pretty damn hot. But I didn't need to be hit over the head, again and again, with just how legit his musical tastes are. Strangely enough, this kind of attention to detail doesn't quite carry over into fully-realized characterization. I can picture the characters' clothes, where they go for dinner, what their houses look like...but I don't get a great sense of emotional depth. There's an illicit love affair somewhere in this novel, but it never has any real impact until a scene where the whole point of the scene is how very removed and emotionally dead one participant is.

I found some of the character's "turning points" interesting reading, but again, not incredibly compelling. Clare and Henry take a guy out to the woods, strip him, threaten him? Ho hum. Didn't see it coming, true, but it didn't seem to follow from anything either. Set, scene, over.

The book does bring up some interesting questions like the hoary "What is free will?" as well as some neat causality questions ("Who's fault is this anyway?") For example, if, when I meet you, I tell you we're destined to fall desperately in love, did I kinda just force it to happen? Better yet, what if I'm so convinced we're gonna fall in love because you visited me as a child and told me we would?

I came away from the book not really liking Henry or Clare. Henry's kind of a self-centered, sociopathic jerk. Clare's a little more interesting but, since she met this sociopath at such a young, impressionable age, unhealthily obsessed with waiting for him. I mean, girlfriend slept with, what, one other guy while Henry was plowing his way through the 1980s Chicago scene?

I really thought one Amazon reviewer put it quite well; I'll quote at length:
Ultimately I was left feeling that the titular Wife wasted pretty much her entire existence, waiting on the return of her time-traveling husband one way or another. I could almost believe that the point of the book was that, as others in the story insisted, Henry was indeed a destructive force who couldn't really care properly for anyone but himself. Perhaps she didn't actually exist except as a shadow of him which would explain why a Catholic schoolgirl raised in the suburbs on a spacious estate with a houseful of servants would express herself in a way indistinguishable from a city kid raised by his alcoholic (yet musically talented) father. You know he's smart, though, because he has a lot of books.

But wait! It sounds like I'm really trying to rip this book to shreds. I'm not. I totally enjoyed it. I'm hoping others read it. I just came to it with such high expectations, and parts of the book were so stunningly good, that the flaws seemed to sting that much more. I'm gonna use what Brian said on David Markson, the "actual process of reading is intensely pleasurable, although what passes as a story isn't as affecting."


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