Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre

Title: The Honourable Schoolboy
Author: John Le Carre
Rating: OK

For the first three quarters or so I thought this was probably the best Le Carre I've read so far. Then some things happened that I didn't believe, and all bets were off.

Overall the story was good - following the middle part of the end of George Smiley's career - but I've noted something about the writing in these books now that bugs me: the point of view wanders. Sometimes it's omniscient, sometimes it's from the perspective of a single character, sometimes it's from the perspective of some review or report written after the fact, and so on. The changes aren't clearly delineated, and (in fact) I think I saw changes of these sorts mid chapter.

I'm not sure what to make of Le Carre's take on his characters either. No one is presented in a great light, but perhaps that has to do with the nature of the spy business.

In any case the Karla trilogy was very popular and makes for interesting reading, even if there are some issues with the writing.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself, Alan Alda

Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself
Alan Alda

This is the most recent book by Alan Alda, published in 2007. It extracts portions of various speeches he's given over the years and includes commentary written later tying them together and adding perspective acquired since they were originally given.

Alda himself interests me. He's not religious, loves science, and knows his own limits and interests. In short, he looks like someone who's found a reasonable path through the chaos of life. But reading this book you discover that he's always been trying to find meaning in the world, and hasn't always been successful.

At the very end he has some words that sum up what he thinks the meaning of life is and isn't. They are deceptively simple, and close to my own take on things at this point. That doesn't mean they are something you can act upon, though, and how one reacts to them is inevitably a personal thing. Many would in fact disagree with him.

Beyond that bit at the end, though, this isn't a book I found thrilling. It wasn't bad, but I see no need to reread it in the future. Alda's an interesting person with an outlook on life somewhat similar to my own, but he would be the first to admit that he's no expert on much of anything beyond acting, directing, and writing entertainment, and maybe not even on all of those.

Reading this book to learn a bit about someone else's POV is a good thing, while reading it to find "The Answer" would be a mistake. I guess this is mildly recommended as a result.

Lilith's Brood, Octavia Butler

Lilith's Brood
Octavia Butler
Review Date:
Oct 03, 2009

Lilith's Brood is a collection of three separate novels in one volume:
  • Dawn
  • Adulthood Rites
  • Imago
Butler died back in 2006, and she was something special and unusual: a female, black, science fiction writer. It was an replay of an interview I heard on NPR with her shortly after her death that lead me to get some of her work.

These three books discuss what happens to humanity and earth after a nuclear war between the superpowers. (The actual combatants aren't named but it's a fair bet the US and the USSR were among those tossing bombs around.) In the aftermath of the war a very different space faring race arrives and starts picking up the pieces, but their purposes and intentions are less than clear to the few survivors they find.

The aliens - and these really are alien - are radically different from humans, but are DNA based and are driven to find life of all kinds, learn from it, and "trade" for it. The use of the word "trade" there is one of the ways these aliens are so different from us, and I'm not entirely sure I understand how (or if) anything described in these novels can be a trade in any sense I understand.

The first novel - Dawn - sees humanity being restored so they can return to an earth that has been repaired and changed. But the aliens clearly want things from us, and we have no real way to chose to accept or reject their offer. Lilith - the human chosen to lead those who will go back to earth - isn't thrilled about the role forced upon her, nor about what is being done to humanity in the process. In fact, the book ends rather cryptically overall, and left me wondering what Butler's intent was. Was this supposed to be a happy ending, or tragic? In truth I don't think it's that simple, but that possibility wasn't made as clear as it could have been.

The second book - Adulthood Rites - takes place some time later and follows some of the same characters (they live a long time now) on earth itself as a new generation of human/alien constructs is growing up. In this case the story is a bit more directed and the intent is a bit clearer. I think Butler had a specific thing she was driving at in this case and it comes through in the writing. For me this was the strongest of the three books, probably as a direct result.

Imago - the last in the series - was the most disappointing. It started out reasonably well, but snowballed to a conclusion I didn't believe. We have another iteration of humanity appearing in this book, and initially things look pretty tough for them. Then, too quickly, things get easy. The last 75 pages or so seem a rushed ending to just wrap things up and get it over with. I think the characters get a free pass as a result, and I found it frustrating.

Overall, the concepts presented here - having to do with race and sexuality - are interesting and challenging. I suspect, though, that this isn't Butler's greatest work.

Still, it's different from a lot of science fiction in that it is mostly character based, rather than being driven by technology or environment. There is a fair bit of biology that drives the narrative, but it also drives the characters themselves, so it feels mostly right.

Recommended with some reservations.

The Lord God Made Them All, James Herriot

The Lord God Made Them All
James Herriot

Another James Herriot... light but fun reading. This one was mostly new to me, and I enjoyed it. I find these books uplifting and warm without being too sweet. Others, I know, feel differently, but I like them.

This one includes a few stories from trips Herriot took after the war. These glimpses of life beyond the Yorkshire dales were just as interesting to me as the animal stories for which he was justly famous.

If you haven't read this series and are in the mood for something pleasant without being challenging, they are recommended.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Tom Stoppard

Somehow I found the movie a while ago and I love it. The extras on the DVD told me it was a play first, so I dug up a copy of that. It's quite good.

For me, though, reading a play - any play - is tough. There's less context than in a novel, so (of course) more depends on the dialog. For me to really understand a play requires reading it many times, preferably aloud, and with different people on different parts if that can be arranged.

In this case I never got that far. I did read the play twice, and though I really enjoyed it and can clearly see at least some of the evolution from play to movie, I still don't get a couple of things. More re-reads - particularly good ones as described above - would help.

If you haven't seen the play or the movie, you're in for a treat when you do. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the story of two characters from Hamlet, entirely from their point of view. They are minor characters - almost bit parts - in Shakespeare's masterpiece, so we have very little to go on for background and their actions when they are off stage in Hamlet itself.

What we get is an existential romp, almost a farce. No one - not even Rosencrantz & Guildenstern themselves - can remember which is which, for example. They have no history, and the world is strangely out of kilter for them. There are interesting discussions of death and musings on just how predetermined things are. Of course, since we know what happens in Hamlet, their futures are ordained to end in a particular way, but the play is a discussion of our own futures too, and to what degree we are stuck playing parts.

The dialog is quick and witty, and the ideas presented are interesting and challenging.

I think everyone should become familiar with this one. See it in a theater, read it, or watch the movie. Whatever it takes. It's both funny and deep. Highly recommended.