Book Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Note: I’d just like to announce that this marks my 101st book review on Goodreads! I don’t post all of them here, because many of them are dashed off pretty quickly. You’re still missing out, though.

This book is a fun survival story that masterfully scratches the collective itch that is our curiosity about humanity’s next step into the universe. It’s a refreshingly realistic look at what going to Mars actually means, and what it would mean if the endeavor went slightly wrong. It’s an adventure story that will translate well to the big screen. But i have some major qualms with the book as a whole.

I do appreciate the sense of humor that Weir imbued pretty much all of his characters with. It makes them likable and it’s one of Mark Watney’s most important tools for survival. But likable characters don’t make the most compelling stories. A lot of the jokes were used repeatedly and got old by the end of the book. And i would’ve liked to see some other aspect of Mark Watney. He was just too upbeat about everything all the time. There was no heart-wrenching “Wilson!” scene, nothing. I get that astronauts are chosen for their mental resilience, but still. He went through some serious shit.

The rest of the characters in the book are just tools, honestly. They’re not fleshed-out, they’re just there to do their jobs. And i have to say that i thought the female characters were treated pretty unfairly. Of the dozen or so scientists in the story, just three are women. This is the future, throw us a bone! Johansson is the victim of repeated sexual harassment and we’re supposed to think this is funny. And the one and only time we go into a person’s head in this entire book (about isolation and survival!) is to learn that minor character Mindy wishes she were pretty like minor character Anna. Why? In what way was that necessary? The really ironic thing about it is that Mindy is a scientist who has earned her master’s degree and resents the fact that she’s being made to spend her days deciphering photographs. So, NASA is shitting on her professionally, and the author is shitting on her psychologically, exposing her inner feelings for absolutely no reason.

But, the characters were not the point of the book. Man’s innovative mind and will to survive and unfailing willingness to spend billions of dollars rescuing a single white dude help his brother is the point of the book. The story is very, very detailed. We know precisely what goes wrong to strand Watney on Mars and exactly the measures he takes to survive, down to the many calculations he makes to repeatedly ration and stretch his oxygen, food, water, etc. All of these calculations and shufflings of things to and fro and repairs and modifications of complicated equipment were really cool at first, but wore on me by about the middle of the book. I’m sure they wore tremendously on Watney, too. We were both glad when the action picked up again toward the end of the book.

It’s a fun read, not a great work of literature. I do recommend it, despite the dearth of compelling characters.

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Book Review: Station Eleven

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just today on NPR i heard this book named on a list of finalists for the 2014 National Book Award. I’m not usually on the cutting edge of literature, but this book was so highly praised and sounded so interesting that i decided to jump on it. All i really knew was that it was set in a post-apocalyptic Earth. Say no more.

There are a lot of flashback-type scenes, so big chunks of the book do not actually take place in that post-apocalyptic world. In fact they describe pretty mundane lives, and that served as a contrast to the very unusual lives that the characters who survive the crisis live afterward. The book made me appreciate a lot of everyday things even more than i already did, and believe me i’ve always been a huge fan of my hot showers and readily-available food. It also shows that even in the absence of all the technologies and conveniences that we’ve built our lives around, the same interpersonal issues remain, and actually become even more important.

Not a whole lot actually happens in this book. It’s more about thoughts and feelings than action and dialog. I described it early on as The Walking Dead minus zombies, but it’s also that minus all the talking (my god, the talking) and the gore (mostly). It’s surprisingly creepy even without all those things, though. But mainly it’s a tale of a few people who went through a pandemic and how their lives were tightly connected even though they didn’t realize it. Contemporary literary fiction is very often about intertwined lives, i’m noticing. We affect each other’s lives both directly and indirectly.

I liked the writing style. The pretty little sentence fragments that illuminated meaningful things. I liked the rather unflattering portrayal of religion’s role in humanity as it hung by a thread (sorry). I enjoyed the details about how civilization just crumbled without its workforce to support it and how the characters dealt with that. I liked the characters even though they weren’t super-admirable all the time. And i liked that there was a lot of misery and suffering but also just a little bit of enjoyment and hope.

And, by the way, i’m proud of myself for reading this book while Ebola was rearing its head in America and not even freaking out about it. If anything, this book made me less scared of Ebola because it’s nothing compared to the fictional Georgia Flu, which seems to transmit through the air and kill almost everyone within days. Ebola is slow-moving; we’ve totally got this.

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Book Review: The Magician King

The Magician King (The Magicians, #2)The Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes. This was an Empire Strikes Back kind of sequel, i.e. the perfect kind. The characters go through these painful, disfiguring transitions, and begin to gain awesome powers and develop deep relationships with one another. They make big mistakes, but they do so knowingly. They want to be heroes even though they don’t really know yet what that means, and they jump into the void and come out the other side of the ensuing disaster by the skin of their teeth.

This is two stories, really. It’s the story of Julia, and it’s the story of Quentin. Julia’s story is heart-rending and yet full of hope. It’s truly a woman’s story, and i think Grossman did a great job of telling it. I think he’s sensitive to women’s issues, and although the first book made me raise an eyebrow as a feminist, i totally forgive him now. It was Quentin who was the dick in the first book, not Grossman.

Quentin has totally redeemed himself in this book, too. From the outset, he’s a much more mature person than he was in book 1. He is learning how to actually care about people. He’s somewhat reluctantly becoming a much better person. He’s still trying to figure himself and his place out, but he’s doing a lot better than he was before. He’s gone from spoiled, self-centered, worthless piece of teenage crap to flailing would-be hero young adult. He’s getting there. I really do care about him now, and i’m ready to root him on in book 3.

The other characters took a back seat in this book, which i was grateful for. Janet was hardly even in it, and she tends to bring out the worst in the other characters. Some fun new characters were introduced, and they were less into the debauchery than the Physical Kids were in book 1.

I love Grossman’s humor. He gets me completely. It’s crass and well-written like British humor and silly like a TV show and nerdy to the max. I giggled a lot while reading this book, right up to the end. It just amazes me how he can be funny and fantastic and realistic and smart and poetic all at once. What a good writer.

I’m so glad i came back to this series. I swore it off after the first book because i hated the characters, but two things brought me back. The first was an article called Would You Want To Be Friends With Humbert Humbert?, and the other was A Discovery of Witches, which put me over the edge of tolerating shitty characters. I can’t put my finger on it, but the characters in that book were just so inhuman. And that happens in a lot of fantasy books. They just don’t react like real people would to things, and it’s annoying as hell. Grossman knows how to write real people, and i love that. Even if they usually start out as dicks.

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Book Review: Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What in the hell did i just read?

I picked this book up because it was available from the digital library and i was in the mood for something fun. I was expecting something like Cast Away with a tiger. I’ve never seen Cast Away, mind you, but i know that it involves Tom Hanks having conversations with a volleyball, so in my mind it’s generally a lighthearted story. Life of Pi turned out to be considerably darker than what i had in mind—not in an oh-the-humanity way, but in a weirder way.

I began reading with the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book. Thinking that it was Yann Martel’s actual introduction to the book and seeing that it was rather long-winded and narcissistic, i skimmed it. It described the author suffering a poor book reception, searching for new inspiration, taking his bag of money to India to do some writing (à la Elizabeth Gilbert), and happening to speak to a local there who told him a great story, which became the basis of the book i was about to read. The main character, Pi Patel, was a living, breathing human whom the author visited and interviewed. Ah, so this is a true story?! I thought. Well. I was misled.

But before i get into that, i want to mention that i almost didn’t make it through Part One of the book. Part One takes up about a third of the book and comprises Pi’s backstory, from childhood up until he boards the ship that was meant to take his family and part of their zoo to Canada but winds up sinking. Pi becomes fascinated with religions at an early age and adopts not just one, but three of them. And of no discernible consequence to the rest of the story is his near-sighted derision of atheists and agnostics. These snide remarks bubbled up several times, to no effect except to dare me to put the book down. They weren’t really even followed up later in the book. I’m still not certain what their purpose was.

So the book is set up as being a story about faith. Fine. Except… If that’s truly the book’s aim, it did a pretty terrible job of making me believe in God or even making a case for faith. I’m a tough cookie when it comes to those matters, i know, but i truly made an effort to be open-minded in this case. It’s only fiction, after all. But i just don’t see that this book is really even about God.

About halfway through, i checked Wikipedia (carefully, trying to avoid spoilers,) to see if this was indeed a true story. It isn’t. It’s billed there as a fantasy, which served to confuse me further. How is this book a fantasy, i wondered. It’s far-fetched, but not fantastic. I read on.

Stories of survival are fascinating to me (as long as they aren’t too brutal. I’m never going to read the story of that guy who hacked his own arm off. Nope. I’ll stick to the untrue survival stories for now). I love it when characters devise clever ways of staying alive, and there was plenty of that in this book, which i enjoyed a lot.

Then, at about 80 percent of the way through the book, the story became a very different story. It went from being a far-fetched but plausible story to being something that Jules Verne might have written. It got dark, and then it got weird, and then it got darker and weirder. It turned into a sci-fi. And then in the last ten percent it concluded with one of those maddening endings that sci-fi writers love to write that leave you going “so… WTF actually happened?” I like those and hate them at the same time. And it’s not really clever anymore. Too many writers have done this already.

So i’m giving this book three stars despite its beginning and its end, because the middle was pretty entertaining. And i actually liked the weird stuff toward the end quite a lot. If Part Three had been something that tied things up nicely rather than just sort of unceremoniously pulling back the curtain, i think the book would’ve been a lot stronger.

Now i’m going to have to watch the movie, in spite of the CG tiger.

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Book Review: I Am Legend

I Am LegendI Am Legend by Richard Matheson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a great book. I found myself wishing i could still be reading it after i had finished. It’s very short, but other than that i would say it’s pretty much flawless.

I’m not even sure why i liked it; it’s a bleak story. The protagonist Robert Neville is presumably the last man on Earth after a disease infects everyone and begins to turn them into vampires. Yes, vampires, although they’re more like what we know as zombies. It isn’t a fantasy book; Neville slowly unravels the mystery of the disease and discovers that vampirism isn’t something mystical, but a set of symptoms that are attributable to the disease. I enjoyed that part a lot. Neville is a champion of skeptical, scientific inquiry. His struggles with self-discipline and motivation to tackle the problem at hand made a lot of sense to me, as did his relentless desire to discover the truth.

Something about survival stories is so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed that ever since i first read The Boxcar Children, i think. I shy away from anything that’s too brutal though, so i don’t read very many survival stories, but this one was just right for me. It’s riveting to hear about someone working diligently to take care of himself, and doing an admirable job of it. That’s the kind of work people were meant to do.

I don’t want to give the ending away, but it’s pretty amazing. Unless you’re much cleverer than i am, you don’t really understand the title of the book until the very last page. And then you get it, and it blows your mind.

And, by the way, they had no business using this title for the Will Smith movie. It doesn’t fit. They took many, many liberties with the story, but the main thing they changed was the ending. I don’t particularly care that they changed the things they did, but i just think it’s silly that they used this title for it.

So, probably you should read this book, whether you liked the movie or not. It’s a classic.

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Book Review: The Magicians

The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)The Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book gets three stars solely because it started out so strong. I was telling people that i loved it and i thought i would surely end up giving it five stars for the first third or so of the story. The writing was delightfully descriptive and the story was dense but not dull, which i think is perfect, and the system of magic was really interesting and intricate and challenging and fun. The Beast was such a creepy cool thing that happened early on. And i loved all the references both direct and indirect to the other huge fantasy stories: Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, Lord of the Rings, even Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars. It’s a fantasy book for fantasy nerds who have read it all, and bits of it are quite funny. But large chunks of it are not amusing at all.

This is certainly a different kind of fantasy story. It was billed to me as an adult Harry Potter with sex and alcohol and such, but it’s more like… The Chronicles of Narnia meets St. Elmo’s Fire. Or the kids in Traffic or Garden State, or some other drugged-up privileged modern white kid movie that i haven’t watched because who would want to watch that crap? It’s a bunch of worthless scumbag young american adults doing magic for no real reason and getting endlessly intoxicated. These are supposed to be the smartest of the smartest kids, and they just do a series of increasingly idiot things because they’re bored and have been given large sums of money that they’ll never have to actually earn. And the smartest of the smartest of the smartest, supposedly, is Quentin, the main character of the story, who is also the uncontested king of the douchebags.

(Warning: it gets mildly spoiler-y here.) I never felt any sympathy for Quentin, and by the middle of the book i flat-out hated him. He’s a worthless, cowardly, self-centered, powerless, utterly disappointing failure. He’s no magician; he never becomes the hero of the story. And the worst part is that he never really redeems himself for the dumb things he does along the way. He just moves beyond his starry-eyed self-pity into a defeated numbness. I’m not convinced that he ever even truly took responsibility for his own actions, or that he intends to atone for them in book two. At the very least, he could’ve had some existential epiphany and become a much better person. But, nope.

I think the point of this book is to be a philosophical exercise rather than a good story. Grossman could have written a good story, but that would’ve been too easy. He had to write something strange and uncomfortable instead. I was kind of baffled by the parts of it that actually resembled a plot, especially the main conflict at the end. I don’t understand why that had to happen at all. The whole message of the book seems to be this: chasing happiness is pointless because no matter where you go, you’ll never catch it—but anything is better than working a nine-to-five and leading a normal life. I expected that last bit to be proved wrong at some point, but it definitely wasn’t (so, fuck you, Grossman). But the most telling part of the book, to me, is what isn’t in it: none of the characters find happiness. They’re so sure they know where not to find it, but they don’t really have a clue how to attain it, even at the end.

There’s a lot here to ponder, so i think this book was worth reading. But, damn. I don’t think i’ll be reading the rest of the series, because i just can’t stand these characters.

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Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If i could, i think i’d give this 3.5 stars. I certainly didn’t hate it, but i don’t feel like i quite grasp what people love so much about it.

I probably waited too long to read it. I could see my younger self really loving Holden and the conversations he tries so hard to have with people. My younger self who didn’t even have an intimate knowledge of the life he feared so much just yet. I feel for the guy; i understand his frustration with all the phony people, and i was amused by all of his swearing and blundering. I get it. I think i’m still trying to finish growing up and learning to understand and forgive people for being so fake and figure out what’s really real, myself.

I do think there’s a lot of meaning within the story, but it would’ve been more impactful for me if it was also a really good story. It helped to picture Holden as young Jason Schwartzman and think of the whole thing as a quirky indie movie. But even then, it could’ve used a little more quirk and fun. A little more Wes Anderson. Maybe this is the precursor to that kind of film. Maybe the big deal about Salinger is that he was one of the first people be able to show this sparkling beauty in super-ordinary people & situations.

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