Review: Contact by Carl Sagan

1191620Blurb:

In December, 1999, a multinational team journeys out to the stars, to the most awesome encounter in human history. Who or what is out there? In Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained the universe. In Contact, he predicts its future and our own.

Review:

Contact is not only one of the most religious science fiction books I’ve ever read but also one of the most religious books I’ve ever read, period. In Carl Sagan’s only work of fiction, the story is a mere backbone, a structure upon which Sagan can explore what he truly wants to explore, that is, the deepest questions of our existence.

What is our purpose here?
Can humans live without institutionalized religion?
What are the dangers of extraterrestrial contact?
How did we come to exist?
Can science and religion be reconciled?

Some questions remain unanswered, but Sagan provides fascinating solutions to some. He suggests that the Universe should be our religion. And even though I disagree with some of his conclusions, I appreciate such a philosophical investigation into these questions.

Even better, the story and the characters behind these questions are fantastic. Sagan includes actual scientific explanations for the events, meaning you actually learn a bit about astronomy and physics while reading. His characters are among the most realistic I’ve ever seen. I have no doubt many of them were based on his own colleagues because only true people could inspire such realism. The protagonist, Ellie Arroway, is so impressive. She’s a wonderfully feminist character written by a man in 1985. As she struggles in the aftermath of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence, my love for her grew denser than a black hole and more infinite than a transcendental number. The plot itself is captivating, because it’s easily one of the best novel premises ever: what happens when humans realize they’re not alone?

We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.

Reading Contact I mostly felt joyous. Because I’m sitting here, right now. The most miraculous of miracles. I hear birds, I see the sun. Tonight I will see Venus, the Moon, and the stars. I don’t know why I’m here. When we marvel at these things, when nature evokes the numinous, let’s not fight about why or how or who. Because who cares? We exist.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

10644930Blurb:

If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?

Jake Epping 35 teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and cries reading the brain-damaged janitor’s story of childhood Halloween massacre by their drunken father. On his deathbed, pal Al divulges a secret portal to 1958 in his diner back pantry, and enlists Jake to prevent the 11/22/1963 Dallas assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Under the alias George Amberson, our hero joins the cigarette-hazed full-flavored world of Elvis rock n roll, Negro discrimination, and freeway gas guzzlers without seat belts. Will Jake lurk in impoverished immigrant slums beside troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald, or share small-town friendliness with beautiful high school librarian Sadie Dunhill, the love of his life?

 

Review:

I am a person who struggles to accept when she is wrong, yet I am so happy to be wrong about Stephen King. After toiling through King’s The Stand, I was prepared to dismiss him. In The Stand King never stretched his storytelling skills. Everything escalated to the climax as one would expect and everything fell from the climax as one would expect. Ho-hum.

But in 11/22/63, I had moments of pity for Stephen King, since he wrote himself into character dilemmas and plot conundrums that defied conventional resolution. Nothing unrolled as expected in this book. So I pitied him. I pitied King because I knew he must have passed days and weeks struggling to extract himself from these self-created authorial quagmires. At the same time I admired him because he had actually done it: he had taken chances; he had pushed the story to uncomfortable places, places where a 10¢ resolution and a bit of deus ex machina wouldn’t suffice.

The novel is a true behemoth with over 800 pages dedicated to multiple genres. And although every genre element adds to the book, its greatest weakness is how it is simultaneously so many things. Sometimes King didn’t seem to know what the book wanted to be. Was it a simple time travel tale? a straight thriller? a revisionist piece of historical fiction? a small town love story? It is all of these things, but occasionally he lingers too long on one element, leading to some duller parts, especially around the middle. Yet it comes together splendidly in the end in the spectacular final 200 pages. By that point, the intrigue is staged, the characters are fully endeared to the reader and to each other, and King’s daringly bold plot strands have knotted into an unsolvable mess.

In the final chapters, every other page or so punches you in the heart. While the time travel bits keep you turning the pages—from the outset, you know that changing the past can only go poorly; the question is how it will go poorly—it is the character relationships that endure. For all of the bluster surrounding Stephen King as contemporary literature’s most famous horror writer, 11/22/63 is achingly romantic. It is gentle tale, which means it is King at his harshest.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

3483Blurb: Marisha Pessl?s mesmerizing debut has critics raving and heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of this cracking good read is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway school, she finds some, a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel with visual aids drawn by the author that has won over readers of all ages.

Review:

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a Rubik’s Cube of a story created by Puzzlemaster Marisha Pessl. You receive all the information needed to solve the puzzle throughout your reading, but it’s not until the end, when each side of the cube is perfectly constructed, that you see the Blinding Truth. 

The sides of Pessl’s Cube aren’t basic colors. Instead of fashioning rows and columns of nine small blue squares on one side, nine yellow squares on another, nine red, nine green, nine orange, nine white, you twist and turn to find the sides of the cube are assembled of quotations from literary texts.

Side 1: The Secret History (Tartt 1992)

Side 2: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Doyle 1892)

Side 3: Metamorphoses (Ovid 8)

Side 4: Whereabouts (Swithin 1917); a travelogue by British essayist Horace Lloyd Swithin, a fictional man

Side 5: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (Bugliosi 1974)

Side 6: Das Kapital (Marx 1867)

Solving this puzzle requires immense esoteric knowledge, knowledge that the average reader will not have. Enter Blue van Meer, 16 years old and smarter than you’ll ever be. She’s a lovely protagonist because she gets to the core of what these Secret History-esque stories are all about: belonging. There’s an outsider who infiltrates an established group and finds oneself. There’s a line in Special Topics where Blue says she once felt like a smudge but after joining the Bluebloods feels like a straight black line. 

I get so happy when a character becomes a defined, concrete line. But Pessl illuminates the dark side of this belonging too. By belonging, we lose ourselves. By belonging, we open ourselves to hurt. People no longer own themselves when they place themselves subject to a group. As soon as you attach your lifestory to another’s, you lose control and suffer the consequences.

But what’s most incredible about Special Topics is its discussion of these deeper themes accompanied by a thrilling story. Nothing is what it seems. For many readers, I expect the first half might be difficult to get through. The story builds to a moment that has already been spoiled in the introduction and the narration is wacky. Blue has an extraordinary cultural lexicon to mine, so her writing is packed with fake references, real but very obscure references, multiple parenthetical asides in a single sentence, Concepts Written With Capitalized Letters To Endow Them With Greater Significance, and questionable metaphors (example A: “I was forgotten like Line 2 on a Corporate Headquarters Switchboard;” example B: “a wound that squirts blood like a grape Capri Sun”). 

The writing is frenetic and dense, but to a questionable Pesslesque metaphor of my own, I found the prose like Chipmunkified music. You know, those songs that have been upped–both pitched up and sped up–to mimic the voices of speaking tree-dwelling rodents. When I hear a normal song destroyed like that, I first think, “How awful!” But somewhere between the second chorus and the bridge, I start to think, “Maybe the song is better like this.” So it goes with the writing. It’s gimmicky and snappy and amazing and awful all at once but after a while, it sinks into your brain and it’s intoxicating, absolutely perfect for what’s being said. 

So give in to the music and start trying to solve the puzzle (you won’t). But after reading, don’t be surprised if you feel like this:

Very few people realize, there’s no point chasing after answers to life’s important questions. They all have fickle, highly whimsical minds of their own. Nevertheless. If you’re patient, if you don’t rush them, when they’re ready, they’ll smash into you. And don’t be surprised if afterwards you’re speechless and there are cartoon tweety birds chirping around your head.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Katherine by Anya Seton

33609Blurb: This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

Review: Here’s the thing about historical fiction: we already know what happened.

So the wiles of plot are nullified. There’s no reason to wonder how everything will turn out when Wikipedia exists.

Okay, then how about the writing? We may know what happens but the author can sprinkle the story with good prose and keen insights to keep us reading.

Unfortunately, most historical fiction authors try to echo the language spoken in days of yore. A good tactic, certainly, but one that is rarely successful. The balance of modern language with antiquated cadences is finicky. Too often you read sentences like this: “Yes, Sir Hugh, I’m quite alone and helpless. Have you come to ravish me?”

If the plot is useless and the writing questionable, is there any other reason to read historical fiction?

Yes! For a storyteller’s touch. A fiction writer can skim facts if it makes for a better story. A historian cannot. Yet in Katherine Anya Seton writes her fiction much like nonfiction. She is a slave to the facts, reporting in minute detail the manueverings of various Western European nobles and the birth of every new royal descendant. She should have focused solely on the romance between Katherine and John of Gaunt because it is truly an epic tale. It spans decades and plague outbreaks and political strife. It produces four bastard children–and I love bastard children! Their offspring cause the War of the Roses and basically every royal house in Western Europe has some relation to Katherine or John Lancaster. But for every bastard child, for every clandestine dalliance in a secluded castle, there are pages of overly detailed description and simplistic writing.

What a shame. True stories are rarely packaged like fiction. The story of these two medieval lovers was made for our consumption, but Seton made it rotten.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

15790857Blurb: Bernadette Fox has vanished.

When her daughter Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette, a fiercely intelligent shut-in, throws herself into preparations for the trip. But worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Ms. Fox is on the brink of a meltdown. And after a school fundraiser goes disastrously awry at her hands, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces.

Which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together an elaborate web of emails, invoices, and school memos that reveals a secret past Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where’d You Go Bernadette is an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are, and the power of a daughter’s love for her mother.

Review:My younger cousin used to have a game called Story Cubes. It was a set of dice with various images on each side. You rolled them, collected six images, and then constructed a narrative that referenced each image. With only 20 seconds to weave a bee, a skyscraper, a cauldron, a train crash, a door, and an eye into a comprehensive story, the tales were always zany.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette seems inspired by an adult supersize set of Story Cubes. Semple throws together a trip to Antarctica, environmental architecture, expensive prep school helicopter parents, Microsoft company dynamics, Seattle stereotypes, and family dysfunction, adds a pinch of (attempted) humor, and expects a decent story to emerge. But none ever does. It’s simply scattered.

Adding to the book’s scattered feeling is the way it’s constructed. Bernadette disappears and her daughter Bee recounts the events leading up to the event. But Bee doesn’t tell a straight narrative. Instead she reconstructs Bernadette’s life using emails, newspaper articles, police records, and handwritten notes. It jumps from character to character, from plotline to plotline, so I never found my place in the text. Reading this novel was like crossing the Drake Passage during especially stormy weather: I was violently thrown back and forth until I just wanted it to end.

Bernadette is a humor novel. My writing professor says that comedic writing is all about exaggeration. You must take a funny element and stretch it to its limits. These characters are certainly exaggerated, but I don’t think Semple pushed them far enough. She redeems a previously awful character and at the end, she tries to make her main characters sympathetic. It can’t be both ways. They must be either horrible, extreme caricatures or fully realized characters—never both. I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette to laugh, but it only made me cringe.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

13449693Blurb:

“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”
It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

Review:

Here’s the situation surrounding my reading of The Raven Boys: it was a gloomy weekend in March. I was alone at school, abandoned by my friends. My computer was kaput, having fallen victim to a glass of water and my klutziness. I had two long days, 48 hours, staring me down, separating me from a glorious spring break.

In such dire conditions, one always turns to escapist YA. And thus, I began The Raven Boys, only to spend most of the the book wishing I’d opted to stare at my white wall for the next 48 hours instead.

Very very little happened. I suppose I should have expected as much in a planned four-part series. But there was so much exposition, so much introduction to the characters, down to the minutiae of their actions and personalities. There is actually a scene where the author describes how each character felt after consuming a pizza. I was bored. During a weekend when the simplest of pleasures would have entertained me, I could find nothing diverting about The Raven Boys. It’s even worse since the book promises so much—forbidden love, a lost King, murder, psychic magic—and delivers so little.

My only consolation was the writing. I didn’t always appreciate Stiefvater’s florous style, especially since I think her emphasis on detailed description made the plot falter, but it led to some gorgeous passages. I’m probably done with The Raven Boys tetralogy (unless some horrible circumstances trap me alone, with nothing to do, for 72 hours) but I am willing to try The Scorpio Races. As a standalone novel—someone call the nearest taxonomist! we’ve found an extinct species in the YA ecosystem!—it will hopefully deliver the excellent prose in a tightly plotted package.

2 out of 5 stars