Monday, June 25, 2007

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Title: The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Rating: Lousy

The Kite Runner was a much hyped book in the recent past. It seemed for a while that I couldn't go anywhere without reading or hearing something about how wonderful and important it was. But despite that, it didn't seem all that interesting to me from the descriptions I heard.

Then my wife wanted to read it, so I got a copy via and eventually she cracked it open.

And she put it down again almost immediately, saying she hated the main character.

Oh my. Now what to think? Well, perhaps I won't be as bothered by him as she is, and it really has a ton of gushing reviews behind it. It can't be all that bad.

Oh yes it can. It absolutely can be that bad.

I read 104 of 371 pages. That was all I could stand, so I don't get credit for reading the whole thing. But I'd rather have needles stuck in my eyes than have to read the rest of it.

The prose is serviceable at best, and certainly not "poetic" as so many reviews claim. The main character is simply awful. There is no hint in anything I read of any kind of redemption coming, though the reviews all say it happens. If so, the author gave me no hint that this creep is worth knowing. He's repulsive in the extreme.

I'm a busy person, and I want to read things I enjoy when I read fiction. Non-fiction is different; I generally read it to learn something specific, and that implies that the characters are real, so I am reading about someone's actual deeds. That's fine with me. Reality means something, and I can deal with it.

On the fiction front (where this book resides) I often read works featuring anti-heroes and/or people that do awful things, but somehow there's something different about The Kite Runner that makes it simply bad, instead of interesting or relevant. I can't envision it as a study in character development, for example, because I didn't find the history or motivations of the main character consistent and believable. They appeared entirely fabricated by the author to unsettle the reader. If so, he achieved his intent, but I doubt that's what he really meant to do. I suspect he wanted us to feel for this character somehow, and that only made things worse for me. The clunking story line and unbelievable actions wouldn't let me do that, so I just wound up hating every page.

My advice on this one is to skip it, but I know I am way out of step with the rest of the planet on this issue.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Disgrace To The Profession, Charles Newton and Gretchen Kauffman

Title: A Disgrace To The Profession
Authors: Charles Newton and Gretchen Kauffman
Rating: OK

Summer starts today, so I finally get around to writing the review for a book about school teachers. Go figure.

Doug reviewed A Disgrace To The Profession some time back, and as a result of his review I added it to my list. Eventually came up with a copy, and I've now read it. Doug's review is pretty much spot on. The story and characters are interesting, but the writing is amateurish. I found it a bit distracting, as I suspect Doug did.

The one thing I might say that Doug didn't is that the book suffers a bit from being a propaganda piece instead of just a story. The authors cram in all kinds of diatribe about various teaching issues that don't directly affect the plot. Yes, I know these issues are real, and yes I understand that the purpose of the book is to make the reader aware of just how bad teachers have it, but it did muck up the story a bit.

I am unlikely ever to teach children. Teaching adults (where "adult" is defined as junior college and older) is a possibility in various ways, but not teaching kids. But even so, this book was interesting, and it makes me wonder if there are any good fixes out there for the problems our kids, schools and teachers face. A Disgrace To The Profession isn't exactly full of suggested solutions for the myriad problems it points out.

Perhaps those solutions were deliberately left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Title: Jailbird
Author: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Rating: Good

Vonnegut's books are hit or miss for me. I know some people love every word he writes while others can't stand him, but I seem to waffle about, each book I've read being different in significant ways from the others. Prior to Jailbird I've read the following by "Uncle Kurt", and I rate them as listed:
  • Cat's Cradle, Great
  • Timequake, Good
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, OK
  • Breakfast of Champions, Poor
With that as background, you can see that I'm never quite sure what I am going to wander into when I start another if his offerings. As a result, I can say that Jailbird was a mildly pleasant surprise.

There is some plot to Jailbird, though not much, really, and we learn about it in strange ways - flashbacks, references to future events, and other oddities. We're following, in a very roundabout fashion, the life of Walter F. Starbuck. He's a very, very minor figure from the Watergate mess, and he's just getting out of jail when we meet him.

For my taste, there are a few too many coincidences in Walter's life, particularly right as he gets out of prison, but that's a minor quibble here. The characters are interesting, and there is at least something of a story to follow.

The best part of the book, though, has to be the introduction. Vonnegut spent 40 pages writing introductory remarks about things, mostly related to the contents of the novel in some way. Those pages were interesting reading for me, and may help explain why I found the rest of the novel better than something like Breakfast of Champions.

If you're a hard-core Vonnegut fan, you'll already have read this one. If you're a hard-core wanna-be, you'll need to read it, and you should. For the rest of us, it's reasonable, but Cat's Cradle is a much better story by the same author. I'd put it above Jailbird by a fairly wide margin.

Oh, by the way, Kilgore Trout's name makes an appearance in here, for those tracking him. Oddly, I cannot reconcile it with other KT appearances that I've read. I guess it isn't necessary that Vonnegut be consistent in how he treats those characters that cross novels, but it was a bit distracting to me.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Treasury Of Great Science Fiction, Vol 2, Anthony Boucher

Title: A Treasury Of Great Science Fiction, Vol 2
Editor: Anthony Boucher
Rating: Neutral

Well, I didn't actually expect to get to this right away, but they way things fell out, it happened. As with volume one, this is a collection of SF from the 1940s and 1950s. It was only slightly better than the first volume, sadly. Read on for the details about the specific contents:
  • Brain Wave by Poul Anderson. A short novel about an odd change in the way people think - actually in the physics of the world causing people to think more clearly and rapidly. I found this rather painful reading. Predictable as well.

  • Bullard Reflects by Malcom Jameson. A short story that left me entirely cold. I suspect it was supposed to be humorous but it was just pathetic.

  • The Lost Years by Oscar Lewis. This isn't SF, it's alternate history, though I suspect that category didn't exist when this collection was assembled. It's a short story describing what might have happened had Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination. I found it interesting reading.

  • Dead Center by Judith Merril. A hard SF short story about early rocket flight and moon exploration. Sadly it just doesn't hold up to reality in hindsight.

  • Lost Art by George O. Smith. A hard SF story full of improbable jargon about human engineers attempting to understand and reverse-engineer a Martian electrical device. Implausible in the extreme, sadly.

  • The Other Side Of The Sky by Arthur C. Clark. A short story presenting the memories and tales of someone working on an early space station. Clark writes hard SF here, and much of what he writes is close enough to reality to give it a pass even now, but he can't tell a story about people well at all. A shame, really.

  • The Man Who Sold The Moon by Robert A. Heinlein. A bad novella by a supposed master - one I can rarely read. This one describes early moon exploration assuming that it was driven by companies rather than governments. Among the vast number of irritating things about this story was the implicit claim that one person could design an entire moon transport vehicle. I don't know why I finished this one... I certainly kept hoping it would end.

  • Magic City by Nelson S. Bond. A post apocalyptic tale in which the survivors start down the path to regaining some of the lost knowledge of their forbears. Predictable and pedantic.

  • The Morning Of The Day They Did It by E. B. White. An end-of-civilization short story of no merit at all. It was supposed to be hard SF at the time, but in reality it got things so wrong - even then - that I can't imagine why it was reprinted here.

  • Piggy Bank by Henry Kuttner. Another short story that would have been better left un-reprinted. This one documents the downfall of a wealthy man as a result of his own greed. The entire thing can only be described as silly.

  • Letters From Laura by Mildred Clingerman. A bad short story about time travel. Pointless.

  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. A novel, bridging the SF/fantasy gap in my mind. I'm of mixed opinions about this one. Early on I hated it, and hoped it would end, but it grew on me for some reason. It's frankly not believable, and the main character goes through too much change to be realistic, but somehow the story kept it together. I haven't read anything else by Bester, so I don't know what else he's written, but this one at least wound up interesting in the end.
As with the first volume, many of the giants of SF are represented here, and nearly all fail to produce what I would call good work.

I have no other comments except this: in both of these volumes I kept running into characters who smoke. The action of smoking appears in probably 80% of the items included in both volumes. Why? I know smoking was cool in the 50's, but was it really that entwined with our culture? I shudder to think about it.