Saturday, October 08, 2011

[Books] Book Look: Summer Reading Round Up

Book Look: Summer Reading Round Up: I have actually pre-ordered two books from Amazon, both coming in October, so now is as good a time to catch up with some quick reviews of my summer reads:

I'm Gone, by Jean Echenoz -- This is a lightweight comic novel about an aging, womanizing art dealer who gets involved in a convoluted pursuit of antiquities. It doubles as a murder mystery and lad lit. It is also one of the best-selling and most beloved examples of recent French Literature, which is very surprising to me. It is not remotely deep or epic, just wistful. It's a fun read, but it's really fluffy entertainment. Perhaps it's lost something in the translation. Should you read it? Sure. It'd be a great beach read. (And as you would expect of a decent comic novel, it's out of print.)

It's All Greek to Me, by Charlotte Higgins -- This book was fun. It's an irreverent and good humored overview of Classic Greek arts and culture, and its influence to this day. A topic that's generally presented as dour and academic turns into something light and enjoyable but still informative. Not remotely comprehensive, but great for kibitzing. Should you read it? I can't imagine why not. How often do you get to do something fun and be smarter for it?

Playback, by Raymond Chandler -- Nothing better than a hard-boiled mystery and double shot of bourbon to take you out of the world for a while. Playback has all the hallmarks: a murder, a mysterious client, a redheaded femme fatale. The last, and generally thought to be the weakest of Chandler's novels, many people think it was mailed in, but I saw it as stripped down, laser focused Chandler. There is nothing but Marlowe and the mystery, no other points to be made. Not a superfluous word. It's Chandler with nothing more to prove. It's a fitting close to Marlowe the character and Chandler's career. Should you read it? If you like classic hard-boilers, yes.

Driving Like Crazy, by P.J. O'Rourke -- Good Ol' P.J. Few writers are as consistently funny and insightful while maintaining a perfect middle-of-the-road humanity. P.J. has a personal and professional relationship with cars over the years, starting with his family business in Ohio. In this book he revisits all the car oriented pieces he's written over the years, along with delightful reflective commentary, in some cases many decades on. Imagine how a sixty-something would look back on an article written in his youth entitled "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink". Should you read it? Absolutely.

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee -- One of the smartest people I know once told me, "Cancer is what kills you when you survive everything else." That's a terrific way of looking at cancer, which is not like a normal disease, it is inherent in the nature of our biology. Even if you avoid high doses of known carcinogens, you are all rolling the dice against cancer every minute of every day. Live long enough and it'll get you. Mukherjee comes to approximately the same conclusion over the course of this highly dramatic, but not dramatized (I think), account of the history of cancer and cancer treatments. Written as catharsis to help him come to terms with the emotional upheaval of facing his own cancer patients. He gets a little overwrought when discussing his patients which is understandable and even admirable.

His canvas is large, perhaps overwhelming, following the researchers and charity organizations and so forth, but his prose is unfailingly clear. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Should you read it? Most likely. We'll all be touched by cancer in some way. This will give you a good base of understanding.

Mapping the Deep (also called The Restless Sea), by Robert Kundzig -- A lively and vivid history of oceanography, from the first tentative drag lines to the multi-mile deep submersibles. A feast for the curious, you can really get a sense of the horrendous difficulties of deep sea exploration and what an astoundingly bizarre world it is. The most fascinating being the alien life forms and eco-systems the spring up around the superheated, sulfur-infused water pouring out deep sea vents. For some reason they changed the title from The Restless Sea to Mapping the Deep and also added pictures and illustrations. I highly recommend the buying the later version, Mapping the Deep. I have the earlier one and it would definitely benefit from pictures. It also suffers in spots from PBS-style environmental handwringing, but it's not overwhelming and you can see it coming and skip over it.

I admit to having an interest in the deep sea ever since that killer episode of Blue Planet came out a few years ago, so I didn't really need any special reason to read this. Should you read it? If you are curious about the topic or the state of scientific knowledge in general or just appreciate good pop science books, then yes. But it won't have the broad appeal of Emperor of All Maladies for a scientific history.

The Half Made World, by Felix Gilman -- One of those fantasy novels where the setting is historical, but there is a strange twist to things. Here we find ourselves in the Old West, but a Steampunk Old West. The major power is The Line - a strange amagalm of totalitarian egalitarians and massive sentient machines, like nightmarishly huge steam engines, who crush all before them and destroy the land as they go. Years ago they effectively squashed the increasingly mythical Old Republic, and are now only opposed by a shadowy quasi-anarchic group called The Gun, who wreak havoc and chaos through the use of magical guns to which their owners have a symbiotic relationship. The story follows characters through various hyper-violent conflicts in pursuit of the last survivor of the Old Republic who may harbor a secret that could bring peace.

Whew. That's heavy. The Half Made World breaks no new ground and is rather predictable in points, but benefits greatly from the pacing and the vivid description of the Half Made World itself. Should you read it? If you love the whole steampunk aesthetic or are a maven of alternative historical fantasy, don't miss. Otherwise, if it sounds interesting to you, it probably will be. It's a good escapist adventure.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke -- This book is a wonder. Another historical fantasy, this set in England around the time of Napoleon, but with magicians. Except magic has disappeared from England, it is really only studied as a point of historic interest. Enter two magicians, an arrogant older man trying to horde knowledge, and an arrogant younger man trying to change the world. Their paths intertwine as both allies and enemies and eventually like-minded souls. Along the way there is intrigue and betrayal and good humor, battles and lives and loves are found and lost. It is as full a story as you can imagine.

Clarke writes in a pastiche of classic English styles from Austen-ish gentility, to Victoria propriety, to dry Edwardian irony. She hugs the line of cuteness by using intentional misspellings, but overall the effect is similar to that of Patrick O'Brien; it lends a sense of authenticity. She uses footnotes to tell tangential stories that give the book the meta feel which, again is risky but she makes it work partly because she is simply such a good story teller.

But the big gift here is the characters and their development. So often when fantasy gets injected into a story, the focus turns to defining the mythology. The characters are afterthoughts, cliches to be puppeteer around to show off the coolness of the world. But not here. Instead you will find complex, fully formed and dramatically intricate characters, all following comprehensive arcs, including many of the smaller role players. Just wonderfully done -- astonishingly good. Should you read it? Unless you have a fervent hatred of the fantastic, then yes you should. Be warned, it is long and involved, but very rewarding.