Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Book Report: The Martian

This is a science textbook disguised as a sci-fi space travel adventure. Weir switches up narrative devices in the manner of Bram Stoker's Dracula, alternating from journal entries to TV reports and mission logs to paint a thrilling and often funny story of survival.

The movie was excellent, and the book is every bit as good. Enraptured with its own exuberant nerdiness, it's a novel that manages to make thermodynamics, calculus and planetary physics fun. I probably understood about 2/3 of the concepts, and found myself looking things up when I was away. It's based on rock-solid science that's probably prophetic of a future in which regular manned Mars missions are commonplace. Upbeat while pragmatic, the book is based on a belief in human ingenuity and fascination for discovery.

There should be college courses based on The Martian. I'd like to sign up.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Report: Go Set a Watchman

There's almost zero chance that Harper Lee wrote any of this, but that doesn't matter much because a lot of people don't think she wrote all that much of To Kill a Mockingbird either. What matters is that the ghostwriter is in spiritual sync with the rhythms and gentle eye for Southern-fried detail as was -- rumor has it --Truman Capote in the original.

The classic novel was a tenderhearted and intensely realized rumination on childhood set against the backdrop of a revisionist fable about the struggle of social justice against amid a ravenously racist society. The new book is pretty much the same thing, only with childhood replaced with quarterlife.

Tomboy Scout has grown into into budding New York artist Jean Louise, who retreats to Maycomb, Alabama for two weeks every year to slip back into the flipside of her double life, complete with her doting father, the legendary Atticus, and extremely patient beau, Hank. A condescending liberal amid a nest of down-home conservatives, Jean Louise plays the role of Ugly Yankee, mocking social customs and bristling at bitter prejudices that are rooted in the fabric of the Maycomb time warp.

The writing is breathless and beautiful throughout, conjuring much of the same magic of To Kill a Mockingbird. Nostalgia-dripping asides flash back to the To Kill a Mockingbird era and years that have since passed, in passages that could easily pass as lost chapters of the original.

When things get intense, and Jean Louise bares her claws to dig in to a pseudo white supremacist cell that has spring up in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, it becomes something more than the sum of its already strong parts. The writer decides to shift into psychosocial deconstructionist mode in the form of a pair of lectures delivered by Atticus and his eccentric brother. Never have I heard a more rational and convincing defense of ingrained Southern defiance to social change. The climactic metaphor argues that the North and South always complemented each other, in the manner of the aeronautical concept of lift and drag, conjuring a balance that leads to soaring American greatness.

Is it all a little too neat and convenient? Sure, but so was the original. I would not mind a third book in the series that catches up with Jean Louise in middle age.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Book Report: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Unburdened by the seven-book Game of Thrones saga that tumbled down on him and made him feel trapped as a writer, George R.R. Martin cuts loose by shifting the setting and telling a fun, breezy story loosely connected to the main series that could almost be a children's book.

His skill for transporting you into his characters' minds and relating their emotional states with brisk economy is at its peak. This is truly great writing that is easy to savor and enjoy.

The subtle nods and references to the lore ups the intrigue for superfans who have plowed through all the Game of Thrones books, but in many ways this book is a perfect intro to the series rather than a light dessert. The epilogue makes it clear that the stories of Dunk and Egg are far from over, and there is a sense that Martin is as giddy to tell them as he is to continue his death march through Westerosian winter.