Review: The Restoration Game

The Restoration Game
The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately—a lot, like binging. 22 books this month alone. I don’t know if I’m addicted, feeding some beast, just bored, curious about something, or avoiding something else. The point, though, is that I’m almost where I’ll read any-old-thing. Once that happens, if it does, I won’t bother with the library, as my own home has plenty of books in it to last me the rest of the year, or until this habit dies off (isn’t there a World of Warcraft patch coming out soon?).

But until I reach the critical-mass of any-old-thing, I’m trying to keep up my momentum by sampling the genres. I was in the mood for sci-fi, so I browsed the shelves at my local bookstore, and found The Restoration Game. The cover looked intriguing, the opening page looked compelling, and so I took it. Started reading it yesterday afternoon.

The Restoration Game is not sci-fi.

But then, I mean, I don’t know what else it is. A spy novel, more or less, a thriller, a political thriller maybe. There’s the first few pages, which are very sci-fi, and the last few. And a speculation on page 136, and the big “reveal” on page 211. But that hardly makes up for the fact that 97 percent of this book is not sci-fi.

I mean, it’s a fine story, I guess. Gets really bogged down in the history and politics of the former and present Soviet states, especially Georgia and South Ossettia. I have no education in this area whatsoever, and reading those portions was more or less impenetrable. That’s all backdrop for a story about this girl who comes from a lineage of spooks and who is recruited to do some spooking of her own for nefarious, mysterious reasons.

But it’s just so unsatisfying. The “big reveal” is handled almost flippantly. The main character takes it all in stride, comes up with an on-the-spot and shrug-worthy idea to exploit what she finds, and the end result is, well, nothing. Life goes on.

I wanted to read a sci-fi novel, not a novel that had a sci-fi book-ends placed on it and was tweaked in a few places to make the book-ends fit. Who knows, maybe this is a whole sub-genre of sci-fi that I’m not aware of. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the philosophy that comes with a sci-fi novel, lots of manifesto-filling commentary on the world’s political systems. But I expected… well, I guess it’s my own fault, I wanted something stupid and fun.

You know, to keep up my momentum, which is born on a compulsion the root of which I don’t really understand right now.

View all my reviews

Review: The Trouble with Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament

The Trouble with Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament
The Trouble with Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d like to think that my reading Sapolsky would have been inevitable. My dad read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and much later a friend of mine read A Primate’s Memoir. Last week, another friend shared an All Things Considered broadcast about testosterone, which reminded of this collection of Sapolsky’s essays. I’ve read it before, but I have this idea that as we live our lives we change, as readers, so I wanted to give it another read.

Sapolsky is an endocrinologist, and if we can stretch the term, something of a behavior scientist. The thing about learning is, I think we all like to do it, one way or another. So I’m being careful when I say: it’s not that Sapolsky makes science interesting, it’s that he writes so well, we have access to how interesting science is. And that’s saying something. Too often science-writing wallows in thick boring sentences, or almost dissipates in pop-styled bubbles. Sapolsky writes beautifully, and so we can be the curious explorers that we naturally are.

So far I haven’t said anything about this book specifically, as opposed to any of Sapolsky’s books fit for laymen (all of which I’ve read). I guess I want people to read everything. But, for what it’s worth, this collection of essays is as good as any to start with. He touches on many subjects, offering up questions and showing how science is trying to answer those questions, and the pitfalls waiting for jumping to conclusions too soon.

You could go into this book looking for answers about how your mind works or why your body does the things it does, and you might learn a thing or two. But if we read for the sheer pleasure of reading, The Trouble With Testosterone is as good as any work of fiction.

View all my reviews

Review: The Man in My Basement

The Man in My Basement
The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(The following is less a review and more of an essay).

Which came first, civilization or inequality? At the risk of sounding like a pundit, I’d like humbly suggest that the conservative point of view is: civilization requires inequality. There needs to be a class system, a hierarchy which creates a scaffold on which civilization is maintained. And because this is intrinsically unfair, all kinds of (irrational) justifications are used to maintain these hierarchies, and the most pervasive of this is race.

It’s not a point of view I agree with, by the way, but it does bolster, for me, something I saw recently: “The system isn’t broken; it was built this way.” But who are the custodians of this system? It can’t be the idealists who rule from the top, and certainly can’t be the workers who slave at the bottom. Then who?

It’s the evil men who know this is how things works, and know that they must do bad things to good people to keep worse things from happening to everyone. However, the real problem is, these are human beings too, and unless they find sadistic glee in their work, they, too, will be overcome with existential angst.

Is there an out via self-punishment? That’s what we explore in The Man in My Basement. Can a man punish himself for the evil he must perpetrate? On the one hand, to do so he must become Christ-like. But how can someone who robs, rapes, and murders be even remotely Christ-like? And, as Camus points out in Sisyphus, once a person has accepted his punishment, it is no longer punishment—how can one willfully punish oneself without accepting it?

The only way, then, to truly punish oneself is submit to the very chaos that so-called civilization is supposed to protect us from. The Man in My Basement allows himself to be locked up, then goads his jailor for the purpose of giving up all control. And it works.

Except that the crime for which the man is punishing himself is not the robbery, rape, and murder of his fellow humans—no, his crime was the moment of compassion he displayed, which had the potential of destroying the systems that keep civilization erect. That moment of compassion, that succumbing to angst, was the real crime, which, if allowed to go unpunished, would have rendered all the other sacrifices pointless.

This is what I got out of reading Walter Mosley’s book. The Man in My Basement emancipates the main character not by freeing him from the history of slavery, but by freeing him from the purposelessness of his existence. By giving him a duty, as jailor, making him a willfull participant in the very civilization that required slavery in the first place, he allows him to accept his place, and by accepting it, he is no longer punished for his existence.

And I am still struggling with the irony of “making him a willful participant”

View all my reviews

Review: The Quarry

The Quarry
The Quarry by Iain Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kit has Asperger’s, we’re led to believe, and outright told at one point, but it comes across merely as a device for narration, not an actual useful character description. Kit’s being called “somewhere between a genius and an utter” only allows for a kind of commentary on commentary—a character who gets to say why he says the things he says— using words and phrases that do not contribute to a conversation, but just keep it flowing. The end result is a first-person narrator who comes across as a third-person narrator.

Well, so what, right? Here’s a novel called <The Quarry, about a weekend in the last few months of man dying of cancer, surrounded by visiting friends, old mates from their college dates. A crumbling house on the edge of a gigantic hole, a lot of booze, and a search for a missing tape with “embarrassing.” contents. Have you got enough symbols to play with yet?

I just got the feeling, reading this, that Banks throws out all these ham-handed symbols just so the reader could grapple onto them, leaving him free to explore, without agenda, a deeper, less cut-and-dried story. What it means to be faced with one’s own mortality, fallibility, the inconsequence of existence. It’s not merely that the universe is hostile and indifferent, it’s that the universe is shitty and at the same time pointless.

And the only way to narrate this exploration (not discovery) is via a matter-of-fact voice. But a third-person narration makes the author himself susceptible to being judged as having a moral point of view, so make the narrator a first person, someone who experiences and is effected by the action, and who, being autistic, does not judge.

I’ve only ever read one other book by Banks, ages ago, so I am probably completely off the mark here. But I’ll say this: 300+ pages, set mostly in one house over the course of a weekend, where, more or less, nothing really happens, and I do not regret reading it.

View all my reviews

Review: You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself
You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here’s a short little book, divided into 48 bite-sized chapters. Each chapter details a different heuristic, fallacy or effect we keep in our brains, in order to deal with a great big complicated chaotic indifferent world, filled with illogical creatures. Those illogical creatures are, of course, other human beings.

This is pop science at its best, given you tastes of intriguing ideas and understandings, with lots of examples and descriptions of experiments. If you want to read more, a healthy bibliography at the back will guide you to the quoted journals, studies, and books themselves.

The whole thing reads sort of like a collection of blog entries, which is not a complaint, It has the heft and pace of a bathroom book—something to a read a few chapters from a bit at a time. Some of the chapters overlap, and there are points where I wasn’t sure what the distinction between two similar aspects where—a heuristic was simply repackaged as an effect here and there. But hey, ya gotta fill pages. Reddit liked the book, and so did Lifehacker.

There’s website you can go to that has excerpts and podcasts linked to the book, and McRaney has a sequel out, called You Are Now Less Dumb. So if you liked The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronso, or Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, or even the Freakonomics books, add You Are Not So Smart to your to-read list.

View all my reviews

Review: A Swell-Looking Babe

A Swell-Looking Babe
A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Picked this up in a used book store for a few bucks. Didn’t recognize the title, although I was hunting down Thompson tomes. I haven’t memorized his works list yet, but I knew a few to look for. This one, A Swell-Looking Babe, never gets a mention. Now I know why.

I shouldn’t compare one book to another, but I do it all the time anyway. And I’m no keen scholar Thomson scholar, yet, but this one seemed a bit meager. I mean, Thompson’s got this reputation for a real crackling suspense writer, and the other stuff I’ve read so far lives up to that. But not Swell. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot better than other books I’ve forced my way through. But it’s not up to Thompson snuff, in my opinion.

The plot is complicated, and gets a bit confusing in places with Thompson’s thin prose style. There’s some characters in there that don’t come across as very consistent. There’s some situations that have this kind of forced tension and I’m not sure where the tension is supposed to have come from.

I feel like a fella who’s sitting down to a four star meal and starts complaining about how it’s only three stars. Three is still pretty damned good. Three will fill you up and if all you ever ate was threes, you’d be dining fine. But if you were expecting four…

Then again, if a body’s going to read everything by a writer, a body has to read everything. The man wrote a couple dozen novels, and I guess they can’t all be cracker jacks. So my advice—if you’re just getting into Thompson, don’t start here. But if you’re plowing through all his stuff, plow through this one too.

View all my reviews

Review: An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England

An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New England
An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England by Brock Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This started out as a solid three-star book, worked its way up to four via cleverness, and then got bogged down in a bit of tedium and down to three again. But I’m nostalgic for that cleverness, so call it three point five, rounded up to four. I’m going to justify this by saying that I’m looking forward to reading Brock Clarke’s other books, which is praise enough.

An Arsonist’s Guide is silly, but it’s such a subtle silliness that you kind of have to pay attention. It pops up here and there, an almost hidden taste of absurdity. This casts the main character as something of a fool, allowing the reader to doubt the veracity of his passions at almost every turn. He’s a self-proclaimed “bumbler,” a man prone to “accidents,” and while you take those accidents at face value at first, you start to wonder about them towards the end.

And it’s that end where I got a bit frustrated, as I say, with tedium. I wanted some kind of resolution, if not revelation. New characters keep showing up, each as stand-out exquisite as the next, and I don’t know whether to cast them as environmental or willful. When we finally do get a few histories revealed, my reaction was “really” and the same time as “how would that even work.”

I guess the point is that if readers’ willfully suspend disbelief, so do people in real-life, with the expectation that their own life will tell a story. It’s easy to tell lies to people who want to hear a narrative, not the cold, inconvenient truth. Or something.

But I liked it. The Arsonist’s Guide felt to me like what A Confederacy of Dunces would be if set in New England suburbs with a much humbler Ignatius J. Reilly. Brock Clarke has been compared to John Irving, and this character to Irving’s Garp (which I have not read) so I guess that says something for those of you who like that sort of thing.

View all my reviews

Review: The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So here’s one of the first, if not the very first, man-on-the-run stories. Here’s a spy novel before there were spy novels. And not even archetypal James-Bond type stuff. I’m talking about what the spy-genre has become lately—less international intrigue, subtle politics and craft, and more thriller-style run-and gun. I guess the genre’s returning to its roots, although I have no idea if Fleming and Ludlum drew much from Buchan.

I grabbed a copy of The 39 Steps after seeing the new hard-back re-issues in a book store, although I got mine for 99 cents on my e-reader. A fun read, and not without a little depth. It starts off with a guy who’s too bored for his own good, what James Bond might have been if he’d skipped military service and got ahold of Catcher in the Rye instead. But all of that’s just ironic prelude to the inevitable fun: murder, a wild chase through Scottish country side, disguises, ciphers, daring-do, doubt, triumph.. and then world war one.

Oh well. Buchan doesn’t bother giving us the party line on why or how the war started, blending a few made-up motivations with a touch of actual history to lend itself authenticity. But history’s not the point, nor is patriotism for that matter, or any kind of morality. This is just an adventure, one that a bored middle-class type can get into for a few hours. Nothing more.

Nor does it need to be more. And this was a nearly harsh lesson for me, since, right in the thick of things, my e-reader went all wonky. Right at the climax, whenever I turned to the next chapter, the book would turn itself off. I managed to download a version to my desktop, and realized that the page numbers were misleading me—I was, in fact, at the end of the novel (the rest was glossary and biography). No denouement to speak of, no anticlimax, which was a bit anticlimactic.

A tight little novel, readable in an afternoon. Then you can go back to your boring life.

View all my reviews

Review: Getting Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence

Getting Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence
Getting Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence by Jill Emerson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Always been a sucker for hard-boiled fiction, especially the old pulps. Well, I say old, but I don’t think they’re old yet. Jim Thompson’s old, but I’m only just getting into Thompson. Ross H. Spencer’s old. Is Stephen King old? He’s got a title in the Hard Case Crime library, and so does Lawrence Block.

Seems there’s this old pulp revival thing going on, and it’s not enough to make a buck dusting off the oldies, we got guys writing new oldies too. Guys writing new oldies using their old pseudonyms. Or something.

I guess Block wrote lesbian crime fiction under the name Jill Emerson ages ago, and for this new old stuff he’s written a new book with that old name. I never read any of that old Jill Emerson stuff, so I can’t tell you if this is more of the same.

But I have read all of the John Keller novels, and I can assure you Getting Off, this novel, is more of that same. Same straight forward tone, same matter-of-fact attitude towards murder. But now there’s sex. And there’s long cheesy parts, which I guess is the way they did it back then. Almost cartoonish, nearly a parody.

There’s a meager plot and an attempt at a morality, but the ending is too long and drawn out and there’s enough coincidences tossed in to make it all too convenient and just a tad tiresome. I guess I can give that sort of thing a pass when I’m indulging in some old pulp. But when it’s new-old, it doesn’t feel authentic. Just played out.

View all my reviews

Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some of you are going to absolutely love this book. I didn’t, but then, that’s just me. Read my other reviews, the things I’m in to, you can probably figure you why this one wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. I read it mostly because the title was intriguing, a book club I’m in had read it before I joined, and it was immediately available at the library.

The story’s not bad, and the writing is consistent. It’s languid, not quit torpid, (although to me it was). Sensuous, sensual, whatever. Although most of the imagery is, by force, black-and-white, Morgenstern paints a vivid picture.

However, I might not have read the book if I had known how dreamy it was going to be. It’s call The Night Circus, but the circus itself , in the novel, is called The Circus of Dreams. I can’t stand reading about dreams. Not just that they’re pointless, cop-outs used by writers who can’t be bothered to stick to their own rules. Dreams are weird, grounded in nothing substantial or meaningful, completely alien—and therefore boring—to anyone except the original dreamer. Or, they’re written about in a way so utterly unrealistic. No one knows why or how we dream, so how can any writer hope to relate dreams in a way that does anything except remind the reader she’s immersed in artifice?

That said, the dreaminess of the Night Circus is not all that bad. Morgenstern offers up a cozy atmosphere, the kind that the “curl up around a good book” type of reader will enjoy getting lost in. There were times when I was counting pages as I read, but others times when I was surprised how much I’d gotten through.

So, while I should give this book two stars, I’m going to add one more out of respect for what Morgenstern has managed to construct—a fantasy, an illusion held together as much by the reader’s willing complicity as by tricks of light and word choice. Just like the circus itself.

View all my reviews