Monday, April 30, 2007

"CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella" by George Saunders

In a review of another work (which is still outstanding on my requests list from the TPL), George Saunders was mentioned as writing short stories about work, which apparently not many other people do. I was immediately curious, because a lot of the notes that are stuffed in my "short stories to be written" folder are about work, so I was wondering what the competition was. Were the stories I was contemplating already written? Was there any point?

If this volume is representative of George Saunders' work, then I think I can write my stories in peace. These aren't what I would write at all. And that's a good thing, for both him and for me. there would be little more depressing than reading something that got published that I would have written, like literally (wishing I had written something is completely different). The stories are manic and a little bit futuristic. Theme parks feature big.

I preferred the six short stories to the novella. I read the first three stories quickly, but then I got stuck on "The 400-pound CEO". I found the character intensely depressing, at the same time that I quite enjoyed certain turns of a phrase. The last conversation the main character has with his father I found wonderful, and the climax of his "moment of very big mistake" (I won't say what it was, because that would ruin the story) made me laugh out loud (while I was sitting in a room full of people, no less). "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz" had a wonderful ending but ultimately left me confused and unsatisfied. Maybe after I got to the end I should have gone back to the beginning and started again, but the book has gone back to the library, so it's too late now.

The novella, "Bounty", had too many characters that talked too much, and they all seemed to talk with the same voice. However, unlike some of the other stories, at least the ending was upbeat (though it also seemed sudden and contrived). The whole story seemed too long. I hope George's other books are full of just short things; I don't think the long form suits his style.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"The Patron Saint of Plagues" by Barth Anderson

After a couple of searches, I figured I must have read a review of this book on the "How the World Works" blog on Interesting, because Andrew Leonard mentioned it there on April 10, 2006 -- so close to a year ago. I got it out of the library two weeks ago, and I didn't have a long wait on interlibrary loan, so I might have requested it two weeks before that. The interesting thing is that it stuck in my mind so long that I wanted to read it. I don't remember what triggered me to request it after all that time.

It was really good. I can't comment on the science, but it seemed ripe with so many details -- about the economics of farming, and translation between Spanish and English, and religion, and viruses and immunology and planting transmitter/receivers inside people's brains, and it seemed so fully realized to me. I think it's set in 2061 (that year was mentioned once, though fairly early on; we were discussing when it took place, and Ed's guess was 75 years in the future) mostly in Mexico City, though the introduction takes place in Wisconsin. the one mention of Canada that I noticed was to "The Holy Republic of Quebec".

I told one of my more vocally anti-American colleagues about it, and he was totally unimpressed. This annoyed me inordinately, but perhaps I annoyed him by saying "I read a book you'd like, because you're Anti-American" in my typically well-carrying voice in our cube farm. He worked in the states for a while, and sometimes I wonder if he wasn't forced to leave by immigration officials, he has such a passionate hate-on for the US. But that's beside the point.

In this imagined future, Mexico has risen to be a first-world nation, while the US is struggling economically because its agriculture system has been compromised by a series of rampant plant diseases. Mexico and the US are having a war over Texas, and there's a communications embargo. Much of the US population has returned to farming co-ops (quops) in order to survive. So, when our hero Strake is asked to go help with an outbreak that might be Dengue fever, it's not exactly an easy journey. Once Strake gets to mexico, he has to work within a maze of politics and mistrust, both from Mexicans and people from other countries who he thought were allies or friends to solve the problem. I won't go into the who and the why, but you do find out, which always makes it satisfying for me.

There were just a couple of stylistic annoyances. The main character rarely uses the verb "to be" which I think makes him talk like a Klingon. The first time it came up, I thought the book was horribly copyedited, but then a few pages later it was explained. I had a hard time keeping track of the Mexican government officials -- maybe one of those fantasy novel character lists would have helped me (I read it much more quickly than I read most books, so it wasn't like when I spent two months reading War and Peace and had to keep a glossary of characters as a bookmark because I couldn't remember from week to week who was who). I'd like to think it wasn't racism or anti-hispanic-ness that caused me to have trouble with that.

However, those minor quibbles aside, I really liked this book. (So did Ed. When I brought it home, he read it first.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

March Book Reviews (not much more timely)

“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

To sum it up, I would say: too much Terry, not enough Neil. The plot was entertaining enough, I guess, but I got tired of the sense of humour after a while.

"The Dialectic of Sex" by Shulamith Firestone

I read this one because I Blame the Patriarchy was doing a readalong. Apparently I am not a participator, because I know they discussed at least the first chapter and I never said anything, but I also hate not knowing what people are talking about, so I read the book anyway. It was far more entertaining than the title and cover made it seem. My favourite chapter was the one titled "Down with Childhood", which asked, among other things, what an adult is, except a larger child with more life experience. Though the book was published in 1970 when Shulamith was about 25, and then she spent a good part of the next 30 years in and out of mental hospitals. My guess is she suffers from Bipolar disorder, though it's not fair to diagnose people from their writing.

She has a good sense of humour, and at 224 pages, it certainly didn't kill me to read.
I hate the fact that I often choose what book to read based on its size.

"Light" by M. John Harrison

This book was sent to me via interlibrary loan after I went looking for any book by M. John Harrison. And, I wanted to read a book by him because I followed a link from to Hal Duncan's web site where he wrote two exceptionally long posts about what's wrong with fantasy, and used Harrison as an example of where SF can work. Most of the Harrison books in the Toronto library system seemed to be "for the exclusive use of the Merrill Collection" which bugs me, as when am I ever going to be near enough to the Merrill Collection with nothing to do for a day than enjoy an entire book, even if it is only 218 pages? It smacks of book hoarding to me, and I hate hoarding in other people (I make an exception for myself, of course).

Reminds me of Joan Vinge's "Snow Queen" and "Summer Queen", I couldn't tell you why; surprisingly good for a science fiction novel about quantum physics. Actually, maybe I could tell you why -- because that's probably the last real hard SF I read, and I read it three or four years ago.

I have a nasty habit when I'm reading fiction--when I've read 50 or 60 pages, I usually flip to the back and read a little bit of the ending. I'm not trying to ruin it for myself, I'm just curious as to where it's going and maybe a bit impatient. With "Light", I wish I had read a little more of the ending. That's probably because I don't read that much science fiction, and I forgot that so much of it is "ambitious" and winds up with the main characters leading to the salvation of humanity or something like that. I wish I had known where it was all going, because then I might have been more tolerant of the ending when I got there. The scene at the end with the Shrander seemed totally a letdown to me. There were also a couple of spots where I felt like the author had gotten bored and just decided to wrap things up in a paragraph. Sure, I feel that way sometimes, too, but that's what the second draft is for (fleshing those paragraphs out).

It had some quirks I found jarring: "Here's what happened:" statements at the start of long stretches of exposition. But it had fabulous moments as well. Around 70 pages in there was an explanation of space travel that said that once they got out there, it was incredible they hadn't done it before, because apparently everything worked. Every wacko theory could propel you through space, even theories that cancelled each other out.