mini-reviews: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

reading recap: september 2017

This year, I swear. I can’t believe it’s October already. In September I read 10 books. (Bear with me while I figure out a new collage system for these posts, the program I was using doesn’t work for me anymore!)

  • ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano, read by Paul Michael
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne, read by Stephen Hogan
  • The Butcher (audio) … Philip Carlo, read by Dick Hill
  • Pandemic (audio) … Sonia Shah, read by author
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows … Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Kill ‘Em and Leave (audio) … James McBride, read by Dominic Hoffman
  • The Bell Jar (audio) … Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting, read by Suzanne Elise Freeman
  • The Child Finder (audio) … Rene Denfield, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
  • What Happened … Hillary Rodham Clinton

Still almost everything on audio… I would like to change that starting this month. I was pleased though to read five books published in 2017, plus one classic, plus a couple related to music and the mafia (it’s been a long time!). I’m happy to be in a good routine again with posting short reviews here. I still have a long way to go to catch up but I think if I can keep up this pace and on a schedule I’ll be back on track by the new year.

My favorite non-fiction books I read in September were What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir about the election, and ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano’s 2013 sophomore book exposing the global cocaine trafficking industry. My favorite fictions were The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my first Boyne, and Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, which was my 75th book read of the year, meeting my Goodreads goal and marking a personal record. Reviews on those coming soon!

I also finished two drawings and got ridiculously excited for football season and my Green Bay Packers during September. All in all though, it was a pretty mellow month. I’m glad it’s October even though I don’t get “fall” here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Theater in concert next week and watching a ton of scary movies all month!

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the argonauts

After a year-long hiatus from regularly posting, I’m picking up where I left off on my little book reviews, starting with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson! From Goodreads:

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.

The Argonauts was my introduction to queer theory and identity politics. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, and I don’t think I can say those sections of the book are easily accessible for everyone. She relentlessly delves into the topics of sexuality, gender, individuality, parenthood, and partnership. I appreciated this depth and how Nelson relates the words of famous theorists to her own personal story. I listened on audio, read by the author, and I think I liked it much better this way than I would have reading on paper. The book has a stream-of-consciousness feel, with no clear chapter breaks nor chronological order. However, what really stood out to me was Nelson’s relationship with Dodge and her experience with pregnancy and motherhood. The way she drew parallels between the birth of her child with Dodge’s mother’s death was heartrending, as well as comparing Dodge’s top surgery to a woman recovering from a mastectomy due to breast cancer.

I admit, writing this 13 months after reading it, my memory is fuzzy on many details, especially her commentary on theory. But this book was fundamentally a love story, and an “unconventional” one, so to speak, and this relationship at the center in all its complicated rawness and vulnerability makes The Argonauts memorable and worthy of discussion.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.

modern romance

On our anniversary road trip to Denver a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I (ironically) listened to Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated? In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world.

Modern Romance wasn’t quite what I expected… I guess I was thinking more along the lines of humorous personal anecdotes and silly “dos and don’ts” to dating. Turns out this book is more scientific, but not overly in-depth—Aziz does inject his brand of funny commentary throughout making it accessible. A lot of the book talks about how advancing technology has changed options and communication in dating, compared to how seemingly simple it was to find a mate just a few short decades ago.

I met my husband in grad school, neither of us had smartphones (we did text), and we did flirt a bit on Facebook, but our relationship was in-person right from the start. I never experienced dating in the modern technology age, really. I don’t think I’d even know where to begin with all the avenues Aziz and his writing partner Eric Klinenberg go over in Modern Romance. They focus on online dating sites and mobile apps, statistically successful profiles and awkward texting (and sexting), timing and mind games, and more.

Aziz does explain right at the start that Modern Romance covers mostly middle class heterosexuals, saying that delving into the romantic processes for homosexuals and other economic classes would be enough material for several other books in and of themselves. I liked the sections on the dating scenes of Japan, Brazil, and France, and also the interviews with people on their dating techniques and options in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I was pretty shocked (mostly at myself) at how “old fashioned” I guess I am—I can’t imagine being dumped via text, while apparently that has become an acceptable norm for people just a few years younger than me.

The audio was great; Aziz’s narration is hilarious as expected, but you do miss out on images and graphs. It was fun to listen to this one with my husband, several really good discussion starters in here for us!

Listened to audiobook from October 15 to 18, 2015.

our souls at night

Over Labor Day weekend, I decided to have a mini-readathon with the three short books that all happened to come through at the library for me at the same time. First up was Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. From Goodreads:

In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with.

A lot of other reviews use the words “bittersweet” and “sad” to describe this book, and I definitely agree. Haruf does an amazing job of bringing out the feelings of loneliness, and our innate need for intimacy and companionship. The prose is spare and simple, but beautifully constructed. It was a perfect little book (only about 170 pages) for a readathon, and a touching story about not giving up on your future and really living, no matter your age. Their conversations were heartbreaking sometimes, but their bravery in starting a new chapter at their age was inspiring.

I think though, I had trouble with how quickly Addie and Louis’s relationship moved—just didn’t find it all that believable. I also struggled with the behaviors and attitudes of their adult children… if you read it you’ll see what I mean.

Our Souls at Night was worth reading for me, though, but probably because it was so short. This was my first and only Haruf read, and I’m not sure it affected me so much to want to read more of his books. Maybe you need to be an established fan to appreciate this one more than I did. I also think I’m riding a non-fiction wave right now and fiction just isn’t doing it for me in general at the moment.

Read from September 4 to 5, 2015.

dept. of speculation

Onward with my reading challenges! My latest pick for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks program was Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. From Goodreads:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophesa colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art..

Well, hmm. Perhaps I’m in a slump. I’ve heard almost nothing but awesome things about Dept. of Speculation and it just didn’t grab me the way I expected. I enjoyed it overall, but I think the subject matter is deep and complicated, but being such a short novel (only about 170 pages) I feel like some of the situations and feelings “the wife” had were glossed over. The free-flowing thought prose jumped around and I had trouble staying focused on the when/where/what. She obsessed over microscopic details in her life and marriage—can’t see the forest for the trees? I just never felt invested in the characters, or had any empathy for them. However, I did find the writing style fresh and interesting, with some very lovely, compelling phrasing, almost on a poetic level. I have had a trying few weeks here, so maybe it’s me and I’m in a slump. I think if I had been able to really concentrate and focus on this novella in one or two sittings, Dept. would have had more of an impact for me. I would definitely give it a re-read at some point.

Dept. of Speculation is my third book of five for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks Adult Winter Reading Program.

Read from February 18 to 28, 2015.