Friday, 27 June 2008

Review: "Earth Abides" by George R. Stewart

As you may have guessed in reading previous posts, I have a particular affection for apocalyptic literature. "Earth Abides" is a great apocalyptic tale, in which hints of "The Stand" and countless later works are apparent.

The book follows a survivor of a great plague through his life as a young man until his death as a very old man. Through the course of his life, he learns to let go of the memory of the civilization that was, and to accept the civilization that has come to be among the survivors. Along the way come questions about the relationship of the individual and the state and many other observations about custom, law, superstition, and our relationship with the natural world.

This is an earnest book, without the cynicism of work like "Cat's Cradle". It tackles the material directly, and seems to be honestly considering at each point what it would be like to rebuild some vestige of society in the wake of the nearly total extinction of the human species.

At times the situations and tone of the book seem dated, but this is still a book well worth reading.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

My boss (and friend) John Smith loaned my a paperback copy of "One Hundred Years of Solititude". It took me longer than most books, but I gradually made my way through.

This is a great book in every sense. It is a book full of characters and imagery, full of every aspect of life; love, ambition, intellect, sex, war, death; all are explored in their turn.

The "magic realism" or "fantastic realism" of the work is one of its appeals. Confronted with the literal description of ghosts and magic carpets, a pragmatic reader like myself thinks about ghosts as a synonym for memories of the dead, and about the power of suggestion to lend credibility to the impossible.

Anyway, a fantastic book and highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Review: "Flight" by Sherman Alexie

Having just finished "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (also by Sherman Alexie), I dove right in to "Flight" with some relish.

It was a bit uncanny, in that "Flight", like "Diary", is another coming of age story. "Zits", the main character in flight, has fallen through the cracks, has no family, no friends, and even before his sixteenth birthday is on a downward spiral towards prison or the grave, to become yet another Lee Boyd Malvo, Seung-Hui Cho, or William Morva.

His descent is miraculously halted, and somehow he is ultimately able to reach out and rejoin the world. The narrative device used (which I won't spoil) is a variation on the same type of forced reflection that transforms Scrooge, George Bailey, or Sam Beckett (the character from "Quantum Leap", not the playwright).

What I particularly like about Alexie's variation on the theme is that it allows him to construct a range of vignettes, presenting characters of different races, classes, ages (as in old or young) and ages (as in past or present). In each of these vignettes, Zits learns that although he has the potential for violence, he also still cares about the victims of violence, betrayal, abandonment.

This is a work about the power of empathy to broaden us and help us remember our involvement with the rest of the world. We may be sad and isolated, but we are all human. It's also a more adult work, steeped as it is in the violence of the modern world.

I might not recommend this to younger readers who enjoyed "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", but I would recommend it to nearly everyone else.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

"Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges

My good friend Antranig and I had a conversation on the train back from London the other day in which we discussed Borges. I mentioned his story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", which was one of the few I didn't care for as a younger reader (I first read the story in my senior year of high school).

In fairness to Antranig, who quite enjoyed the story, and to the author, who is still one of my favourites, I decided to reread the story. However complex the material, a Borges story is typically amazingly concise (usually less than ten pages of even the smallest paperback). So, even with multiple rereadings, there's always time for a Borges story. One of the things I love about his stories is that they can be read and reread in a matter of moments and hold up to hours or even days of reflection. "Tlon" is no exception.

I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who intends to read the story (see the link below), so I'll just say that this story reminds me of the concept of "kipple" as presented in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Philip Dick. If you haven't read either, clear your schedule and get started. Today.

The best version I've found online has a side-by-side comparison of the English translation and the original Spanish:,_Uqbar,_Orbis_Tertius.html

I won't get into the whole debate about copyright laws, but I almost get goosebumps when I find something this great that's out there online in full text for everyone to enjoy.


Review: " The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

I've read quite a bit of Sherman Alexie's work previously. I've particularly enjoyed his short story collections, "Ten Little Indians" and "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" are great, full of humor, pain, and wisdom.

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" is a novel (with excellent illustrations) targeted at younger audiences. As with the outstanding "Summerland" by Michael Chabon, "Diary" is a coming of age story. The main character (Arnold Spirit) is a young man straddling two worlds, the Indian world of his upbringing and family life, and the white world of his new high school. He feels compelled to take advantage of the possibilities for growth his new school offers, but feels as though his success is an insult to everyone who has stayed on the reservation. His thoughts about reservation life, poverty, alcoholism and life in general are well observed and distilled down to their essence.

It's a great work, and a very quick and fun read. I'm nibbling at the edges of another of the author's works ("Flight") at the moment, expect a review shortly.