Friday, July 27, 2012

Classic Fiction: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks to Half-Price Books and their seemingly bottomless selection of the classics, I was able to pick up Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, yet another frequently assigned book that I managed to miss the window on. It is also me first experience with anything by Vonnegut, and just like with Salinger and Orwell, I was surprised by what I found. 

The Situation: Billy Pilgrim is a World War II veteran who would survive being a prisoner of war and come back to the US to be an extremely successful optometrist with a wife, a son, and a daughter. Billy survived the raid on Dresden, Germany, which happened to be even an even worse incident than what happened to Hiroshima. But as I said, he survives, and is able to come back live a fairly normal life. 

The Problem: Billy Pilgrim time travels. So not only did he survive WWII, but he has survived it over and over again. He has also survived a plane crash that took the life of everyone on board except for himself and the co-pilot; he has survived a stay in the hospital after having something of a nervous breakdown after returning from the war; he has relived his wedding day; he has relived the birth of his children; he has even relived his abduction by aliens, over and over again. He even confesses to having experience his own death several times over. So it goes. Billy can never really tell when he is going to travel in time, nor can he tell if he is about to go forward or backwards, and how far. It of course causes hm some confusion, but also some to the people around him as he seems to either fall asleep or faint when it happens. And as he gets older, he becomes less guarded about who knows about both the time travel and the abduction, and that comes with its own set of problems. 

Genre, Themes, History: Of course, time travel as well as life and death are going to be big themes in this novel that is often labeled as anti-war. Other labels that have been applied to this book include science fiction, meta fiction, and dark comedy...which I totally get as there were parts where I would giggle to myself and then immediately feel kind of bad that I did (Flannery O'Connor anyone?). 

The slaughterhouse mentioned in the novel is a real building that Vonnegut himself was imprisoned in. And it is because of the meat locker in this building that both Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim are able to survive the bombing of Dresden. This bombing is the central event that seems to effect the rest of Billy's life, thus lending some legitimacy to the anti-war label. 

Also, this book comes with the very fun (depending on now you look at it) issue of having almost two, count them, two unreliable narrators. The original narrator was also in Dresden during WWII when the raid happened and it has effected his life immensely, so he decides to write a book about it and the story about Billy Pilgrim is what he comes up with. And while Billy is never actually a narrator in the story, it is hard to take his claims of time travel and abduction seriously as his so-called experiences appear to mirror incidents he read about or heard about somewhere else. 

My Verdict: Usually stories that have the narration jump from one time period to another usually get on my nerves about three chapters in, but I wasn't annoyed by the way Vonnegut told this story at all. However, and I'm not sure if it was some of the subject matter, or the character of Billy Pilgrim, or the fact that this was a book about part of WWII, but I did find myself getting bored some of the time. Overall, I would recommend it as one of those books everyone should read a least once. It is short and not at all dense or hard to follow. 

Favorite Moment: I can't really pick out a particular moment, but I did like Vonnegut's constant use of the phrase "So it goes," to mark a death. Any death...including dead in it had gone flat. 

Favorite Character: Kilgore Trout, the amazingly unsuccessful science fiction writer that Billy and maybe one other person on Earth actually appreciated. He makes only a brief appearance and is clearly a spiteful, bitter, manipulative and friendless old man. But for some reason he makes me smile. 

Recommended Reading: Only because I am struggling to think of something better to recommend, I will go ahead and suggest 1984 by George Orwell. The two book are written about 20 years apart, but the both deal with war and it's effects on the individual as well as the group.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Science Fiction: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This was my first attempt at a Terry Pratchett novel, and The Long Earth is also a collaboration with science fiction writer Stephen Baxter. Something I didn't realize when beginning this book, despite very clear evidence that things were headed in this direction, is that it will be the first in a series. So while this was my first Terry Pratchett book, it appears it will not be my last. 

The Situation: It is 2015 and Joshua Valiente, along with many other children in Madison, Wisconsin, assemble a strange device that has a potato at its core. The instructions for such a device were published on the Internet anonymously (of course), and scores of children proceeded to assemble the device, not even really knowing what it is, and use it. And thus, this day would forever be known as Step Day. Joshua assembled what would be called a "stepper," turned the nob to either East or West, and "stepped," along with scores of other children, to another world. Well, I guess that really isn't quite definitely wasn't the world we all know, but then again it was, but a different version. And Joshua, along with the rest of humanity, soon discovers that if you keep stepping, in either direction, you'll continue to encounter more versions, in a never-ending line. Not long after Joshua's successful trip to a different earth and back, Joshua makes his second trip. But something weird happens. Something doesn't go wrong necessarily, it is just that Joshua manages to step away without the help of his stepper box. 

The Problem: Naturally, once the adults realize what has happened and what endless possibilities there are when it comes to an infinite amount of earths to explore, people start exploring and colonizing these other worlds, finding new species of animals, starting their lives over, founding new societies, discovering new businesses, and even new ways of doing business. The possibilities are literally endless. But that isn't really the problem though - in my view, the real problem are people like Dr. Tilda Green, who insist on moving her family to one of the many settlements that are starting thousands of earths west, despite the fact the her son is unable to step, even with the aid of a stepper. That's right, she leaves her son on what will be known as Datum Earth, so she and the rest of her family can take advantage of starting over in one of the new settlements. Of course, those left behind become easy prey to jealousy, resentment, anger, bitterness, and with just the right amount of encouragement, blind rage. But even if there wasn't the issues of people being left behind, there is still the issue that people are stepping blindly, not realizing that they could be stepping into a world still in its ice age, or a world covered by endless water, or they could land in a part that is currently experiencing a forest fire. Not to mention the dangerous species of wildlife that very few people are prepared to encounter. Just as the possibilities are endless, so are the dangers. And Pratchett and Baxter have hit upon a story that has endless directions, and this first novel in the series has only hit the surface. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that explores the issue of colonization - something that is not at all new to the human race. Of course, there are also themes of discovery, fear of the unknown, anger at the misunderstood, greed, isolation, and even corporate takeover. Also, with the dividing line between the steppers (both natural and with the help of the stepper) and the "phobics" or this unable to step, it is easy to see a situation of Holocaust proportions starting to brew. Yeah, it is kind of scary. 

My Verdict: Science fiction isn't usually my thing, but I know Pratchett's novels are incredibly popular, so I gave it a try, and I am glad I did. As I mentioned before, I didn't quite realize I was entering in on a series, but I am okay with reading a few more books to see how this all shakes out. The premise is incredibly interesting as Pratchett and Baxter have hit upon something that literally has endless possibilities for directions it can go in. And I will go ahead and say the while the book does end on a cliffhanger, it isn't a terribly frustrating one that will leave readers fretting too much. 

Favorite Moment: Whenever Joshua, a mostly anti-social loner who is a natural stepper and prefers to travel alone, still speaks of the nuns who raised him at the orphanage with great admiration. And even though he is an adult now, he still finds himself behaving in ways he knows they would approve of, and acknowledges to himself when he does something they wouldn't like. 

Favorite Character: There wasn't anyone that really stood out to me, but I suppose I could go ahead and pick Joshua since he is the one I could relate to the most. While I didn't grow in an orphanage run by some seemingly awesome nuns, I do prefer to travel alone, hate being the center of attention, and if I found out I could naturally "step," I would do so often, mostly to just get people to leave me alone. 

Recommended Reading: Most of the books I think to recommend have something to do with time travel, and that isn't really what "stepping" is, although it came seem like it when the next version of earth has not quite developed to the point that our earth has. The process of stepping did remind me of the different levels of the Twilight in Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch series. So I guess I'll go with that. Although, as of yet, Pratchett and Baxter have not included any vampires or werewolves or shape shifters into the story. But you never know...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Nonfiction: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

I feel like that if I knew Steve Martin personally I would either be that person who would try way too hard to be his friend and would therefore annoy him to the point where he would want to stay away from me, or I would just be crazy jealous of now talented he is and be somewhat annoyed every time he discovered there was something else he was good at. Because aside from being one of the funniest people alive, as well as an actor, a musician, and a seemingly great person all around, turns out the guy can write too. I first discovered this when I read Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, and the book I am covering today, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, which is his memoir, only served to further prove what the first two books already showed us. 

Genre, Themes, History: As mentioned, this is a memoir, and of course, since it comes from the brilliant comedic mind of Steve Martin, it is incredibly funny. But it is also honest, and the comedic elements take the sting out of some of the more serious events in Martin's life. The book follows Martin from his humble beginning working in various theme parks; then follows him throughout his eventually successful and popular stand up career; leading to his days at Saturday Night Live; and eventually to where he is now, writing and starring in movies. Much like Tina Fey's book, Bossypants, Martin covers the difficulty of starting out as a comedian and just how exhausting those early days of traveling and performing and hoping to get callbacks for auditions can be. Also, because Steve Martin has been performing since the 60s, he has seen a lot of changes throughout history, and the book tells of his attempts to change his comedy and his act to fit an ever-changing audience. 

I think what struck me most about this book was Martin's ability to write, as one of my professors would call it, "economically," while still getting the point across. He is incredibly honest without being harsh or unnecessarily crass, and the humor that comes with it is anything but over the top. He simply tells his story in a way that only he could pull off. 

My Verdict: Even with everything that Martin has accomplished in his career, the paperback version is only 204 pages long and is an incredibly easy read, and yet I didn't feel like Martin skipped or left out anything. And rarely does a book, of any type, make me laugh out loud, but this one made it happen. Anyone who appreciates any of Martin's work will most likely appreciate this book. It is one of those books that I felt privileged to be able to enjoy. 

Favorite Moment: When speaking of John Frankenheimer, Martin mentions that the director once tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce his first wife, actress Victoria Tennant. And while Frankenheimer died just a few years ago, Martin assures the reader, "but it was not I who killed him." Ha! 

Recommended Reading: I would have to recommend Martin's The Pleasure of My Company. It is funny, but incredibly serious, and also a fairly short and easy read. Really, it is difficult to go wrong with anything Martin has written, including his most recent novel An Object of Beauty.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

I have finally gotten around to reading the latest novel by young adult fiction writer John Green, The Fault In Our Stars. I first began appreciating Green's writing when I read Paper Towns, and his most recent publication has more of the same wit and humor, while still treating the subject and characters with the seriousness they deserve and that many young adult readers (and their parents) would appreciate. Plus, it deals a lot with cancer...kind of hard to not be serious about that. 

The Situation: Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer. I get that really, this could go under the next section just as easily, but at the point in Hazel's life that the book deals with, it has taken over every part of her life. She can't go anywhere without Philip, her oxygen tank and cart, that helps her breath and keeps her alive. She attends a support group that she hates once a week, but it becomes slightly more bearable when Augustus Waters shows up: a friend of another support group member and a cancer survivor himself. Augustus is cute, funny, smart, clever, a great friend, and crazy about Hazel. Her mother pushes her to the support group so she doesn't become a recluse, so she can make friends. And it looks like it is finally working. And, I'm sorry, but his name is Augustus! How great is that? Fantastic name! But I digress... 

The Problem: Hazel Grace Lancaster still has terminal cancer. Even with a great new semi-crush/boyfriend thing going on, her lungs still can't function on their own; she still has episodes that land her in the ER where she, and everyone else, thinks she is going to die; her mother continues to hover over her while neglecting having a life of her own; and Hazel still has to be hooked up to a machine (different from Philip) that pumps medicine into her lungs during the night. She and Augustus talk about cancer perks, the side effects of cancer, the side effects of dying, and the literal heart of Jesus (you have to read the book to get the explanation to that one). Being a teenager is hard enough. Being a teenager with terminal cancer...that is something else entirely. 

Genre, Theme, History: This is a young adult novel and a romance, but a different type of romance. While being brutally honest about a life (and impending death) with cancer, Green still manages to give the reader a romance. Sure, it is between two teenagers, which always makes me more than a little cautious to take it seriously, but the fact that illness is always present and death is always very very close makes this different from what we usually get on TV or in other novels. They may be young, but the phrase "You have your whole life ahead of you," just doesn't apply here. And because of this, there are themes of fatalism, nihilism, and a little bit of defeatism, mostly coming from Hazel. But can we blame her? Honestly, I sometimes wanted to, but I have also never been face with certain death at 16. 

My Verdict: I am always nervous to begin reading a book that deals with such a sensitive subject matter such as terminal illness, but Green handles the subject well. The book is honest without being insensitive, and also without beating the reader over the head with the harsh reality of terminal illness. And while the idea may not be new, that doesn't matter. I still wanted to read Hazel's story, meet her family, attend her support group, and watch bad reality TV with her. It was worth the anxiety. 

Favorite Moment: When Hazel gets up from her chair, oxygen cart and all, and knocks the drink from the hand of a drunk, belligerent, washed-up writer. I think I like it because it proves, despite what she may think, that she hasn't given up yet. 

Favorite Character: Hazel's dad, Mr. Lancaster. He cries the most out of anyone else in the novel, and for some reason I just find the incredibly endearing. Also, unlike Hazel's mother, he doesn't hover around her, probably because he works a lot. But he still manages to be a dad and speak the truth to his daughter when she needs to hear it. 

Recommended Reading: Paper Towns, the first book I read by John Green. I may have actually like Paper Towns better than this one, but they are both worth looking into. Authors like Green are the reason the young adult genre has grown so much, and why some of the best books for adults to read these days are the ones that were written for their kids. Also, I recommend Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Good Country People." That may seem like a random choice, but in a few ways, Hazel reminded me of the ill-fated Joy/Hulga. And if that doesn't make you curious about this book, then I am not sure what would.