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Book Reviews


This was a slow, casual re-read in the form of an audiobook. The narrator sounded like an AI and had the most stilted voice, but I tried not to let that mar the experience too much.

I initially read this 6 years ago and still agree with most of my qualms from back then. Here are my original scores for the individual stories though:

City - 3
Huddling Place - 4.5
Census - 3.5
Desertion - 4
Paradise - 3.5
Hobbies - 2.5
Aesop - 1
The Simple Way - 2.5
Epilog - 2

(I think these have changed a bit, but not by much. It's not fresh in my mind, so I'll leave them be.)

City has a great premise, but you do have to suspend your disbelief. It is a collection of stories that can stand alone but essentially function as a novel, having an overarching narrative/themes/characters that occur throughout. It progresses chronologically over a span of many generations, and I would liken it to something like Asimov's Foundation - although this is certainly not hard sci-fi and much more whimsical. The premise is simultaniously epic and quaint, Simak often being credited as the father of "pastoral" science fiction. It's small-town, soft and fluffy sci-fi, but taken to a grand scale. It's the fall of man, with the rise of dogs, ants, and remnants of robots left behind to aid the former.

All the stories are connected to each other and are divided by "notes on the text", where we have canine philosophers speculating on the story's origins and whether or not "man" as a species is more than a myth.

There are two main narrative problems I have with City: So much hinges on something called "The Juwain Philosophy", this moral plan that is supposed to carry mankind to the next age. I won't go into detail, as I'm keeping this relatively spoiler free (or at least vague), but the stakes of this fall apart both due to aspects that are dated, as well as by what can only be regarded as either incredible character incompetence or the author's own negligence. There is also a certain character who is practically made out to be the hero of the novel, and yet could easily be traced back as being single-handedly responsible for the destruction of mankind. Again, I put this down to an oversight of the author's.

My other issue is that, while the first half of the book is pretty solid, things meander a lot toward the back end, eventually becoming overly pensive and indulgent. Characters wandering around, speculating on life, the universe, everything... it's very tiresome and more than a little pretentious since the execution is verbose and repetitive. It's not often I say these things of a man like Simak, who I believe was a humble and modest man, and generally wrote some very short, tight stories that touched on profundities quite naturally. But there you have it. This, easily his most acclaimed work alongside Way Station, is not his best in my book.

However, I do think City has its moments and is worth reading. At the very least, I would recommend "Huddling Place" as a standalone short story.

This is a book that was recommended to me many years ago but I’m just now getting around to it. I wish I hadn’t put it off. The title is a clear reference to Doestevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. I read that book way back in high school (and I’m 50 now), so I’m sure I missed some parallels. But the main themes are obvious. Particularly those about religion and god. Doestevsky’s story-within-a-story “The Grand Inquisitor” remains a favorite of mine and is something I reread from time to time.

The title also alludes to baseball (for those not aware a K is how a strikeout is scored on the scorer’s sheet). This book is also heavily about baseball, at least in the first half. That may be a turnoff for some but as a baseball loving American it was welcome for me. Baseball is a romantic sport in America and this book does it justice.

Finally, this is a story about family. Namely a family at specific time in American history: the 60s (defined here incongruously as 1963-1973). The family itself represents parts of America at the time (the counterculture, the eastern-religious philosopher, the all-American who goes to war, the traditional America that was opposed to war and questioning religion, the traditional America that supported the war and religion, and the seeming bystander that just wanted everything to work out for the best for those they care about). But it’s not that simple at all. These are rich characters and the story is not simply a metaphor.

The one thing not represented very well is women. Sure there are female characters who play important roles in the story but they are more foils for our male characters. It is called The Brothers K after all so I guess I was warned. Still the lack of development for several key female characters is disappointing at the least and severely detrimental to the themes in at least one case.

Also, lest you believe this is simply an anti-religion, anti-war story that elevates and romanticizes the brothers who opt for eastern enlightenment or hippy radicalism, this book gives equal rebuke to all. I loved the portrayal of hippy Everett getting out debated by his older professor or eastern philosopher Peter enduring a rude awakening in India. This book doesn’t posit easy answers. It mirrors the 60s in that half a century later we’re still trying to figure it all out.

One of my favorite books and authors is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. That book I read in college. This is a book much more suited to my current station in life as a father of two eight year olds. If I can get them to sit for it, I’m hoping to read this book aloud with them when they reach their teen years.

I laughed; I cried. Cliche but true. And every word grabbed me. It’s a book I’ll revisit and think about for a long while. And it was immensely entertaining.

Given the reminders of John Irving, I wanted to revisit that author next. I’ve read most of his work, but there’s one glaring omission: Garp. I never read it because I had seen the movie. Every other Irving novel I’ve read before the theatrical adaptation. So it’s been about 30 years since I’ve seen the movie and the time seems right to finally read The World According to Garp.

Despite being a fan of Irving I have never read what is perhaps his most well known novel. The reason is I had seen the movie prior to becoming a fan of the author. Unfortunately, despite many decades since seeing the movie, many crucial plot points were spoiled for me and I felt a diminished enjoyment while reading knowing what was coming in several key sections.

That said, it is remarkable that this book, written by a man in the 1970s, is still so relevant today. That is, in fact, a sad truth the author himself ruminates on in his 40th anniversary afterword. The brilliance of the novel is in its ability to create real characters that are, in many ways, quite unbelievable. These characters are also messy, morally grey themselves. There really aren’t simple good guys in this book. The book is Garp’s though it could certainly be argued that his mother, Jenny, is soul of the book. Jenny’s unconventional life choices make her an icon of the women’s movement. But some of her choices themselves are morally questionable at best such as Garp’s conception.

One of the best characters and certainly most prescient is Roberta Muldoon, the former Philadelphia Eagles tight end. It’s hard to believe this character was written by a straight man in the 70s. Roberta, in many ways, is an anchoring presence for the story’s gender issues. Much like those (like myself) born with much privilege that aren’t forced to confront being white, being straight, being male, Roberta is the character that is forced to examine her gender and seems to have the most grounded sense of gender. This former NFL trans woman is the voice of reason on gender. Bravo! But male, female, straight, gay, trans, these characters have flaws. I can only evaluate the novel as who I am, however, and it felt real for me and, most importantly, fair.

But the success of the Roberta character (and many of the characters) belies an issue I had with the novel. The characters aren’t psychologically deep. They often seem to exist as symbols and almost comic. But nonetheless they still felt alive to me so a minor quibble.

One aspect of the book I was not expecting was the focus on parenthood. Without getting into spoiler territory, the book definitely hit me harder than it probably would have if I’d read it before having children of my own. So while I would first and foremost call it a book about gender, it is also a book about being a parent and, specifically, the anxiety therein.

Finally it’s a book about the creative process. Garp, himself, is a writer and excerpts of several of the character’s novels are included. These excerpts reflect the larger novel.

It is enormously funny and enormously tragic. It is easy to see why this was Irving’s breakout novel. But, it is not among my favorite Irving novels. But it is still a wonderful novel.
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I had some trepidation about starting this series. I’ve watched the TV adaptation and I’m never keen on reading something that I’ve already seen the adaptation. Also, I’m concerned that the negative reception to the adaptation’s conclusion (plotted by Martin) is preventing him from finishing the series. I don’t like unfinished series. But I decided to give it a go. It took me a while to get into it and I’m sure that is due to knowing the plot. Eventually I did get into it and I was surprised at how much tension I felt reading the late middle section of the book despite knowing full well what was going to happen. It is very well written. It was surprising to me how faithfully the show adapted the book. There was very close to nothing in the book that felt new. I didn’t like the decision to limit the POV to a few characters. Wheel of Time is also told (mostly) through changing character POV, but it’s told by whatever character can provide the most insight. Here, the lack of certain points of view hamstrings some character development and this is an area I feel the show was actually better. I’m going to press on to the next novel in the series.

This book was pretty lackluster compared to the previous book. It’s longer and a lot less happens. The show, I felt, was much more an adaption this season and actually outperformed the book in many ways. The exception being Tyrion who is the standout character. But his development is much more satisfying in the book. Many of the crucial scenes of the story are told as second hand events due to the character perspective of the chapter where they are revealed. As a result, events that have dramatic weight in the TV show fall flat in the book. This seems so backwards to me but it’s true. Maybe Martin intended for these scenes/events to not carry as much weight, but there’s no question they are more glossed over in the book than the show.

Conversely, the plots and schemes—which are the second book’s and season’s best quality—are much more interesting in the book.

I admit I never cared for the White Walker plot lines while watching the show. I don’t like zombie stories. They are one-sided and uninteresting to me. The “winter is coming”/White walker plot serves merely a clock-is-ticking purpose in this story and I find the events in this book that occur beyond the wall to be pretty uninteresting. Again, this may be largely because any mystery of the White Walkers is spoiled to me.

A big difference between the book and the show is that Theon is given some agency. He’s never more than a sniveling wannabe in the show. His schemes in the book are given to others in the show so he’s portrayed as much more of a pawn.

Finally you just don’t have many characters to root for or care about. And with the book feeling as slow as it does, there’s scant little relief from the oppressive dreariness and brutality. Couldn’t we have at least one character that provides some levity!? It’s a solid follow-up but a distinct step down for me.
The Big Book of Noir by Ed Gorman

Very illuminating collection of essays and interviews about and with the makers of film noir and crime fiction.

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet. I contribute writemypaperbro.com
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What Towles has done here is to create a wonderfully unique view of early 20th century Russian history through the eyes of a man somewhat frozen in time. The central character Count Rostov is under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin. We see Russia change, not through the lens of major political events (events as momentous as WW2 barely get a mention), but through the eyes of a former aristocrat bound to a hotel. While the hotel itself doesn’t change much (though the instances where it does—such as with the wine cellar—are fascinating looks into the Russian mindset of this time), the world around it does change and that juxtaposition is the heart of the novel. The Count and the hotel are simultaneously apart from the changes in Russia and a microcosm of it. Yes, many of the vignettes are somewhat cliche. The young, mischievous girl who shows him the hidden corners of the hotel he assumed he knew like the back of his hand; the gradual growth of friendships between the aristocratic Count and the hotel’s employees; the fish-out-of-water of the Count suddenly having to serve a paternal role; etc. But the prose is so wonderful, simultaneously seeming carefully constructed yet also effortless, that these cliches are still an enjoyable read. And by the time the ending arrives and everything clicks into place you picture Towles’ satisfied grin as you would a master safecracker as the last tumbler falls in place. I’ll definitely read more Towles.
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This is a quick read, but I found it hard to get into. The first half didn’t really grab me. But man, the second half is just terrific. It is not the sort of spy story I was expecting. The slow first half is necessary, I suppose. But it does prevent me from enthusiastically recommending the book. But good luck putting this book down during the last quarter of the book.

I would call this light sci-fi. It’s a fun, humorous novel that plays with some light philosophy and human dynamics. We are in a post-apocalyptic future where humans are colonizing distance planets. The protagonist is an “expendable,” a grunt who does the dangerous work on the colony. His consciousness is uploaded regularly and when (not if, but when) he dies, his body is regenerated and his consciousness downloaded into the new version. As the title implies we meet our protagonist as he is the seventh iteration of himself. This leads to the light philosophy, the Ship of Theseus and all that. But it doesn’t really go very deep. It will remind you of Moon, but it also reminded me of Avatar. It’s a brisk, easy read. It was already being developed for a movie by Bong Joon-ho starring Robert Pattinson before the book was even released. Honestly I’m struggling to see what they saw in this to want to make a movie. It’s a decent enough read, but nothing spectacular.
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I suspect what you most love about Contact (and probably the same for a lot of people) is to be found in the original book by Carl Sagan. The film itself I've always thought was a mass-market, watered-down swing at Sagan's ideas. In baseball terms, I don't know that I'd call that swing a Strike or a Foul, but it's not better than a Ball.

I finally picked up the book Contact based on this recommendation. I actually like the movie, though it suffers from all the Zimeckis-isms I despise. Having now read the book I don’t think it’s a bad adaptation. Of course I’d love to see a movie that leans more heavily into the ideas, but obviously a movie of that scope isn’t likely going to go that route. The book actually mirrors the movie for me in terms of what I enjoyed. It’s not about who the extraterrestrials are or where the Machine will take humanity. As with most good science fiction, that’s all just an excuse to ruminate on ideas. That’s why the middle part of this three part novel is heads and shoulders above the rest of the book. If you’re reading just to see where the Machine will go, you’ll likely be disappointed. It’s not an action story; it’s an ideas story. And I loved it that.
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^I believe it was @TM2YC who articulated in a review of the film why it's problematic as an "ideas movie". The film kind of sells short the scientist's debate on how to integrate faith with science. There are good points raised, but I think how they're articulated probably comes off better in the book.
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^I believe it was @TM2YC who articulated in a review of the film why it's problematic as an "ideas movie". The film kind of sells short the scientist's debate on how to integrate faith with science. There are good points raised, but I think how they're articulated probably comes off better in the book.
Very true. Obviously both the book and the movie touch on ideas of the coexistence of science and religion—and the book clearly has much more depth there—but the book also tackles a lot of sociological themes as well. Central is a woman’s place in male dominated professions such as science and politics. But one passage struck me for a book from 1985. It was the discussion of the potential passengers for the Machine.

“A black Nobel laureate—said occasionally to be the smartest person on Earth—proved too much for some who had masked their racism as a concession to the new social amenities. When Eda visited Tyrone Free in prison four yeas earlier, there was a marked upsurge in pride among black Americans and a new role model for the young. Eda brought out the worst in racists and the best in everyone else.”

That sounds so much like what happened with Obama in the US, I had to bookmark and highlight it.

[Note to mods, I don’t think if this as political, but I know for some the mere mention of Obama’s name is deemed too political. I hope this doesn’t fall outside the rules.]
just started reading the hobbit. but in 2022 i read:

Chess Story 5/5
gone with the wind 5/5
wuthering heights 4/5
rationality 3/5
the turn of the screw 3/5
human compatible 3/5
fall of hyperion 4/5
thank you jeeves 5/5
money ball 4/5
all systems red 5/5
the murder of roger akryod 5/5
the three musketeers 5/5
from the land of fear 2/5
the three body problem 5/5
the end of back pain 4/5
stray dogs (graphic novel) 5/5
tales from the crypt (graphic novel ) 5/5

This has the feel the of old school hard sci-fi, but is unmistakably modern. It’s a multi-millennium story that relates humanity’s fight against extinction with that of the evolution of an alien species. It’s vividly told and the world-building is expert. Like good hard sci-fi, it deals mostly in ideas and it gives lots to ponder for each chapter. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of much plot. Sure, there’s a story, but mostly it feels like an entertaining history, especially for the alien evolution. And both the humans and aliens lack much character development. Sci-fi tropes abound, but they are used in fresh ways that feel in genuine service of the story. I doubt I’ll jump directly into the sequel, but I do think I’ll check it out at some point.
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I probably shouldn’t have jumped directly into this after reading Messiah and re-reading the original Dune. I think I was a bit Duned out as my attention kept drifting off. I never felt as engaged as I did with the previous books. If I decide to continue with the series at some point I’ll likely re-read this first. The Dune series isn’t really science fiction to me. Other than the setting of the distant future and other planets, it doesn’t really have any of the hallmarks of sci fi. It’s really more of a fantasy series. And if Dune is LotR I think this is more comparable to something like ASoIaF than any sci fi. The characters are many and the allegiances and plots complex. That said, I struggled to find any of the characters relatable here. Even with our ability to read their inner monologues they don’t seem to behave with any emotion. The characters feel more like pieces on a chess board. But this is a criticism I have for all Dune books (the movie marginally improved here). While it doesn’t rise to the levels of the Paul-centric stories, it does do an admirable job of moving the series beyond that character, something many other series fail to do (e.g. Star Wars).
Getting Duned-out is a problem. I first tried reading Messiah right after the first Dune when I was in middle school and got bored with it almost immediately. Then in high school I re-read Dune, and made it all the way through Messiah, and about 10 pages into Children before I got bored. Then in college I picked up Messiah and Children and enjoyed them both, and went on to read House Atreides and about a quarter of House Harkonnen. I was still enjoying that one too, but I left it on a bus and never bought a replacement.

Is it indulgent, messy, difficult, maddening, and pretentious? Hell yeah! It also has taken me roughly 20 years to finally get through it. The first couple of times I only made it about 100 pages in; the next I made it to about page 300 through a combination of reading and a solo cross country drive listening to the audio book. This time I made a point to push through. And it wasn’t easy! To say this is a beefy book would be a huge understatement. And it’s not just its 1000+ densely packed pages. Nor is it simply the additional 100 pages of endnotes (some of which have their own footnotes!). It’s also the nonlinear narrative that David Foster Wallace himself said was like a fractal , specifically a mathematical object called a Sierpinski Gasket. Ooookkkaaaayyyy. Honestly, one of the reasons this took me so long to finish is that it took sheer willpower to get through the first ~500 pages. Stated briefly (ha!), it requires dedicated attentive reading.

The book, contrary to popular belief, does a have a plot. But that plot really isn’t the point. Reading this book is about the experience of reading it. The plot, such that it is, is doled out in two major settings: an elite tennis academy and the drug and alcohol halfway house next door. But as I said, the plot isn’t given to you in any semblance of a normal three act structure. Instead you start to form a picture of what is going on through various vignettes of many many characters that reside mostly in these two settings. For me, often, character is king. And David Foster Wallace brings these characters to life; they get under your skin. I’d even go so far as to say it makes you live in their skin and it’s definitely sympathetic to them, no matter how dysfunctional. The characters are tragic across the board, often having experienced their own tragedies that are almost always totally absurd, horrifying, and yet sympathetic.

I should note that I have, fortunately, never suffered from serious clinical depression nor suicidal ideation nor substance abuse. This book deals heavily with these subjects and, as a result, the book, for those that have, could be triggering or , alternatively, more affecting… or both.

One of the more infamous aspects of the novel is the lengthy endnotes section. The endnotes themselves vary in importance. Some, such as the make and model of a bucket kept on the tennis courts for the vomiting of overworked tennis students, are seemingly inconsequential. Others, such as the lengthy answers to interview questions (questions which are omitted and the reader must suss out from the answers in the endnotes) or indeed full chapters, are more crucial. I’ve heard it mentioned that this makes the reading somewhat like following a tennis match. It didn’t have that effect for me, though it does add to the rather unique overall experience of reading the novel.

One of my favorite authors is John Irving. This novel definitely has some Irving in it. I’ve always said Wes Anderson makes movies that remind me of Irving’s novels. If there’s a film analog for this book, it’s a combination of Magnolia and The Royal Tenenbaums if written by Charlie Kaufman. This is not a book that is interested in linear plot or narrative. While obviously written in the 90s, I’d say it’s way more relevant now. It’s downright—and regrettably—prescient. “Make ONAN Great Again!” Or “Cartridge and Chill!”

One criticism of the book is that women are not handled very well. In a novel where almost no one is without a mountain of flaws, it could seem forgiven. But the women of the novel are just not given the same depth as the men and boys and often feel like little more than objects. One character even refers to the women of his sexual conquests as “Subjects” with a capital S. I do think it is important to note that while I was aware of Wallace’s suicide and that he was a troubled individual, I purposefully avoided learning much about him. Having now finished the novel, I’m glad I didn’t know too much about him.

I honestly don’t know if I could call this book good, great, or a complete mess. But it’s crazy and unique and frustrating and it somehow works for me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But its reputation—for good or ill—looms large as you read. I have a few different hobbies. And often these hobbies have their white whales. Whether it’s the hard-to-get, best-beer-in-the-world Westvleteren XII in the craft beer world or the Klon Centaur overdrive pedal in the guitar world, when you finally get a chance to experience these white whales you’re predisposed to either love it or hate it. And I think Infinite Jest has kind of fallen into that territory. It’s such an investment and such a white whale, that you can’t help but have your experience colored by that. So I’ve tried to keep that in mind and remain impartial. But I do realize that there’s baggage.
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This has the feel the of old school hard sci-fi, but is unmistakably modern. It’s a multi-millennium story that relates humanity’s fight against extension with that of the evolution of an alien species. It’s vividly told and the world-building is expert. Like good hard sci-fi, it deals mostly in ideas and it gives lots to ponder for each chapter. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of much plot. Sure, there’s a story, but mostly it feels like an entertaining history, especially for the alien evolution. And both the humans and aliens lack much character development. Sci-fi tropes abound, but they are used in fresh ways that feel in genuine service of the story. I doubt I’ll jump directly into the sequel, but I do think I’ll check it out at some point.
I just finished the sequel, Children of Ruin, and ironically I liked it a bit less despite it being stronger in plot. In other words, where I felt the first book lacked, this one clearly tried to provide more. But I thought it ended up to its detriment, feeling a bit more space opera-y. It’s still a solid read, however. And I’ll definitely read the third book.

Wonderful little novella. I read it easily in two days, but wished I had done it in a single sitting. The prose is just captivating without ever being too flowery. The story itself is surreal, both beautiful and horrible. It made me think of a cross between Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. Main character Robert Granier is a tragic figure in prohibition-era U.S. pacific NW. An orphan with no past and a widower with no future. There are moments that will haunt me for a while. “God needs the hermit in the woods as much as He needs the man in the pulpit.” Definitely recommend spending an hour or two with this book.
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I went ahead and read Jesus’ Son. I’m glad I read Train Dreams first. Johnson’s prose is brilliant, but the disjointed recollections of a junkie feels almost cliché at this point. It was only as I Googled for a cover image just now did I remember that there’s actually a movie. I may check it out out of curiosity. But it’s the text that makes Johnson’s work—at least what I’ve read so far—so I’m not sure even why a movie was made.
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