Day 1149: J

Cover for JJ is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I almost didn’t finish it. About one third of the way in, I considered giving it up. Jacobson spent almost half the book hinting around about the underlying secrets of the novel, during which time nothing much seemed to be happening. Finally, I decided to read some reviews to see if they would make me decide to finish it, and they were intriguing enough for me to continue.

This novel is set in a dystopian future, but this dystopia is not quite what we might expect. An event, referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED seems to color all of society. History is not studied, and reading books is not encouraged. Everything seems too politically correct, with nothing being outlawed but many things—like rock music and most forms of art—eliminated by general consensus. Because this event was precipitated by social media, no one uses computers anymore, and the only phones are landlines that cannot call long distance, called utility phones. Oh, and everyone has a Jewish last name through a program named Call Me Ishmael.

Ailinn Solomons meets Kevern Cohen, and they begin dating. They both feel like outsiders in their coastal village even though Kevern was born there. He is a paranoid person who checks his locks and the position of his rug several times before he leaves his home. Ailinn is an orphan who is new to town.

Ailinn is vaguely aware of being nudged in Kevern’s direction by her housemate, Esme Nussbaum. And Kevern’s paranoia isn’t unfounded as someone is keeping an eye on him, Professor Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky, a colleague of the Benign Arts deparment of Bethesda Academy.

Something is clearly going on, but Jacobson is evasive about it for most of the novel. Zermansky knows about part of it and his diary entries, at first unidentified, punctuate the narrative as do those of another unidentified character. Zermansky’s interjections are more annoying than revelatory, written in an ironic but elliptical style, and we don’t see the point of them for some time.

My main criticism of this novel is that it takes so long to be understandable. In the meantime, we are treated to an uninteresting romance between two characters we don’t care about. It’s not that they’re one-dimensional, they’re no dimensional. For this is a novel about ideas, not people.

The reviews promise a shocking conclusion and stunning deep secrets. Certainly something nasty is going on, but by the time I learned what it is, I didn’t care. There are enough hints along the way that the conclusion is not all that surprising. I’ve seen this novel compared to Never Let Me Go, but that novel made you care about the characters before it sprung its big reveal, and then it stayed with the characters afterward. This novel puts all its eggs into the basket of the big surprise ending, which isn’t that much of a surprise by the time you get to it.

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Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 784: The Heart Goes Last

Cover for The Heart Goes LastStan and Charmaine are living in their car. They used to live a comfortable middle-class life, but the downturn was worst in the Northeast and both of them lost their jobs and then their home. There has been a breakdown in society. The streets are dangerous and normal services are defunct.

Charmaine has been earning a bit as a waitress in a bar, and Stan has been looking for work. He is even forced to go to his shady brother Colin for help when it has always been the other way around. Colin offers him a job, but Stan decides to wait a while, knowing that the job is likely to be illegal.

On the TV at the bar, Charmain sees an ad for the Positron Project, which offers employment and housing. When Stan and Charmain attend an introductory session, they’re not told very much except that if they return, they will not be allowed to leave. They must be ready to commit to the project.

Stan and Charmaine decide to give up their freedom for stability, even though Colin warns them not to go there. When they commit to the project, they find that the whole community is built around a prison. To create enough work around the prison, the staff must alternate one month inside the prison as inmates, one month out, sharing their house with another couple that is in when they are out.

This situation doesn’t seem to disturb them, and they continue on for a year. Then Charmaine becomes romantically involved with their male alternate, who calls himself Max. This relationship eventually leads to discoveries about the true nature of the project.

link to NetgalleyThe Heart Goes Last allows Atwood full rein of her acerbic sense of humor and biting satire. It is reminiscent of the darker excesses of the Maddaddam trilogy but without any very sympathetic characters. Instead, it gets progressively more absurd as it continues. Its references to the current political climate are obvious. Although I found this novel entertaining, I did not enjoy it as much as I have some of Atwood’s other novels.

Note: Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses has written this fascinating post comparing this novel to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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Day 613: Brave New World

Cover for Brave New WorldIt has been many years since I first read Brave New World, and I didn’t remember very much at all of this acid dystopian novel. It takes a bitter, satiric look into the future from 1931, and like the best of futuristic novels, is somewhat prophetic.

Bernard Marx is an unusual misfit in a society structured around the contentment of its people, or contentment as is rigidly defined there. Family units no longer exist. Society is strictly tiered. Everyone is artificially born, and the lower castes are cloned in multiples. Each caste is conditioned chemically and psychologically from before birth to be content with its lot, the mental and physical abilities of the lower castes chemically limited.

Everything is designed around productivity and consumption. People spend their leisure hours in pursuit of pleasure and get their daily dose of the drug soma. The arts are obsolete, supplanted by a very limited science.

At first it seems as though the discontented Bernard will be the hero of this novel, but there actually is none. He likes Lenina Crowne but is afraid to approach her for fear of being rejected. Lenina is a bit attracted to Bernard and is getting flak from her friends for being too exclusive of late, for there is no concept of faithfulness in this society: “everyone belongs to everyone.” So, she agrees to go with Bernard on a trip to New Mexico to view the savages—remnants of society, apparently American natives, who have not been civilized and live within a barbed wire reservation.

Lenina is too conventional a girl to enjoy this trip, horrified by the dirt and squalor of life that is not antiseptic. But Bernard, who has heard his boss’s story of a lost girlfriend in New Mexico years ago, is intrigued to find this woman, Linda, and her son John, actually born of his parent. John is an outcast of his culture, because he is the son of a woman considered a whore for behavior her own culture believes is normal. He has educated himself from Shakespeare’s complete works. Bernard gets permission to bring Linda and John back to London, setting in train unforeseen consequences.

Huxley apparently firmly believed that future societies would be controlled by drugs and psychological conditioning. It is his interest in cloning and the power of propaganda that strikes more modern readers. I’m willing to bet he paid attention to the then-current theories of eugenics that were particularly popular in England and Germany. His choice of Henry Ford as a godlike image for that society is telling not only for Ford’s invention of the assembly lines, clearly a model for Huxley’s vision of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, but also for Ford’s own interest in eugenics.

I couldn’t help comparing Huxley’s vision of sexual freedom with that of Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, a book I really hated. There are other similarities too, John the Savage almost standing in for Heinlein’s alien-born Messiah, only finally shunning what he views as an immoral society rather than trying to start a religion. I think Huxley’s ideas are much more insightful, though.

That being said, I enjoyed this re-read only moderately. I appreciate Huxley’s deadpan humor, but a late section of the book, where Mustafa Mond explains his choices in life, is a bit too much like a sort of reverse didacticism, by which I mean that Huxley is not trying to make us agree with him, but trying to show us what is wrong with Mond’s ideas (or maybe I’m wrong—I believe Huxley thought that such controls over society were inevitable). In any case, any kind of didacticism in a novel is a good thing to avoid. Still, reading this novel after such a long time was an interesting experience.

Day 607: The Bone Clocks

Cover for The Bone ClocksBefore I get started on my review of The Bone Clocks, my friend Ariel of One Little Library has put together a survey on reader’s interests. If you would like to participate, please do.

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Best Book of the Week!
David Mitchell’s most recent book is another fascinating novel that reminds me a bit of his Cloud Atlas. It explores themes of temporality, life after death, and the human soul and ends in a near-future dystopian vision. Unlike Cloud Atlas, though, The Bone Clocks takes place completely within the course of one woman’s life.

The novel begins in 1984. Fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes has had a fight with her mom after staying out late with her 24-year-old boyfriend Vince. Determined to leave school and move in with Vince, she packs her things and goes, but not before being spotted by her seven-year-old brother Jacko.

She marches over to Vince’s, only to find him in bed with her best friend. Devastated, she flees her home town of Gravesend, not knowing where to go. Later that day, she meets Ed Brubeck, a boy from her school, who helps her find shelter for the night in a church. Taking the idea from a story he tells her, she decides to travel to a nearby island where he worked the summer before picking strawberries.

Holly heard voices when she was a child, and she called them the Radio People. But after her mother became worried about her, a Dr. Marinus stopped them simply by touching her forehead. Since then, her life has been perfectly normal.

But that afternoon several odd things happen. First, she thinks she sees Jacko go into a pedestrian tunnel ahead of her, but when she gets there, she can’t find him. Then a couple pick her up hitch-hiking and take her to their home for a meal. There some events occur that make it clear to readers that some kind of supernatural war is going on involving her. But Holly remembers nothing of this.

Holly goes on to work at the strawberry farm. But the second day, Ed arrives to tell her that Jacko has disappeared.

The narration continues in stories told by other characters, but Holly appears in all of them. In one, Hugo Lamb is a college student who seems to be genial and caring but is actually a sociopath who tries to lure his more wealthy friends into deals he will profit by and steals rare stamps from a senile old man. He meets Holly on a skiing trip in Switzerland and honestly falls in love with her. But fate and a mysterious group called the Anchorites have other plans for him.

We follow Holly through her life as she marries Ed, writes a book called The Radio People, and gets old. At each encounter, inexplicable things happen until Holly is pulled into a battle between the Anchorites and the Horologists.

David Mitchell is a master storyteller. Although I do not consider The Bone Clocks a masterpiece, as I do Cloud Atlas, it is almost as rewarding—at times comic, at times suspenseful. Mitchell likes to tease us, too, by repeating characters from book to book. In this case, Dr. Marinus also appears in his wonderful historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Time spent with Mitchell is well spent.

Day 596: Aurorarama

Cover for AuroraramaThe city of New Venice floats on the ice in the Arctic Circle in this steampunkish work of fantasy fiction. The city is a supposed near-utopia, not a utopia because it is ruled by the corrupt Council of Seven and their sinister police force, the Gentlemen of the Night. The residents of the city dress in Victorian clothing and go on about their business, which is most often the pursuit of pleasure (and their idea of pleasure, basically sex and drugs, also doesn’t fit into my idea of a utopia). A black airship hangs over the city, but no one seems concerned about it.

The novel has two main characters, friends. Brentford Orsini is an aristocrat, an administrator of the city gardens, and a friend to the frightening Scavengers. He is concerned about the behavior of the Council of Seven, particularly in its mistreatment of the Inuit, and has anonymously published a subversive pamphlet called “A Blast on a Barren Land.” Gabriel d’Allier is more of a bohemian, concerned with his own pleasure. He is a reluctant professor at the city college who is being pushed out by the machinations of a colleague and his accusations of impropriety with students. He also soon finds himself receiving the unwelcome attentions of the Gentlemen of the Night, who think he knows who wrote the pamphlet.

Brentford receives a visit from a ghost in his dreams, Helen, a former lover, who tells him to make a trip to the North Pole. He heads out the morning after his disappointing wedding. Gabriel, who has ruined Brentford’s wedding and is in despair about his own love affair, sets out on his own intending to freeze to death outside the city’s controlled Air Architecture.

At this point, the novel, which is imaginative and well written in a style that is faintly Victorian (and has, as you can see, a beautiful cover—yes, I got it for its cover), becomes one of the silliest books I have ever read. It is almost hallucinogenic at times, like a combination of watching a side show and taking too many drugs. I can imagine it developing some kind of cult following, but I found it exceedingly ridiculous.

At one point when the book describes Snowdrift and Reliance, a book being read by one of the characters, I felt the description could have been self-referential, just substituting Victorian for Elizabethan:

Part melodrama, part Elizabethan tragedy, Snowdrift and Reliance has little to recommend it to the reader’s benevolence, the bewildering intricacies of its plot being further shrouded by unfathomable esoteric symbolism, not to mention an amphigoric style whose only coherent trait is its consistent lack of taste.

Day 593: Maddaddam

Cover for MaddaddamBest Book of the Week!
Maddaddam is the final book in Margaret Atwood’s funny, cruel, and profound Maddaddam trilogy. At the beginning of the novel, all of the remnants of the Gardeners cult and the Maddaddam hackers have teamed up to try to survive the horrendous conditions post-Waterless Flood together. Ren and Toby, the main characters of The Year of the Flood, have managed to rescue Amanda from the vicious Painballers. They have also found Jimmy and the Crakers, from Oryx and Crake. The two groups of survivors are worried about the two remaining Painballers and incursions from the pigoons on their garden. They are also searching for Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners.

This novel again returns to the time of the other two, providing a look at events from the point of view of Zeb. Zeb has been a mysterious presence in both books, returning periodically to the Gardeners and going off again. Toby is so happy to see him after the long isolation following the Waterless Flood that she uncharacteristically bursts into tears. The story moves forward as Zeb, now Toby’s lover, tells her about his life with his brother Adam.

The novel is humorously punctuated with the stories Toby is telling to the Crakers. As Snowman-the-Jimmy is sick for the first part of the novel, Toby reluctantly takes up his role as the interpreter of the Crakers’ origins. She also befriends a young Craker boy named Blackbeard.

Maddaddam is touching and exciting, building to a battle between the surviving decent humans and the Painballers, with one side making an unlikely alliance with the clever pigoons, pigs with human DNA that were created during the manic gene-splicing days of the large drug companies. The aftermath of the battle is touchingly related by Blackbeard.

This trilogy is a profound one, about the evils of greed and rampant corruption, the perils of climate change, and the madness of one man who felt that the only solution was to wipe humans from the face of the earth and replace them with a gentler species. The third book is also about a group who understood where everything was going and did their best to save some of the people.

This series is great.