Monday, February 23, 2009

decision-making

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I tend not to like books about people who seem incapable of making good decisions. And one of the characters in this book is definitely like that. She just never seems able (or willing) to take any responsible action. Realistic this may be, but it's also annoying.

Another main character, on the other hand, tends to make good decisions. Decisions that are responsible financially, good for his family, and on the right side of the law. And yet, things don't turn out well for him either.

If this is a book the purpose of which is to show how quickly things can spiral out of control, then it succeeds. Good decisions or bad, no-one wins here. Too many of us, who manage to have lives that are more or less in control, this is a valuable thing to learn about. But this is an awfully depressing education.

Friday, February 20, 2009

sudden evolution

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Review: There is a lot of hard-core science in this book, far more than was probably necessary. I got the basic idea, but a lot of the exposition bogged me down. Still, the explanations for the biology seemed good, and were realistically included, usually in the context of a scientist explaining something to a politician. But since there were a lot of politicians involved, there was a lot of explaining that needed to be done. So, in addition to trying to figure out all the science, one also has to keep track all of the politicians. Between the two, this book was a little overloaded.

The premise is a really interesting one, though. What if evolution isn't as gradual as we think? What if it can happen in great leaps. What are the consequences? How do we react as a civilization? What is the role of the government? What is the role of scientists? Greg Bear tackles all these questions ably while telling a compelling story.

Monday, February 16, 2009

the life of the mind

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I can't quite explain why I liked this book. Most of it takes place in the minds of the main characters. One has a very non-ironic journal of profound thoughts to keep her (and us) in tune with her philosophical musings. Both characters, one a teenage girl and one a middle-aged concierge are eager to keep their intellectualism to themselves, while silently smirking at the people around them who aren't to know what goes on in the secret provinces of their thoughts. And yet, all of this is done with little evidence of conceit or pretension, which I found very refreshing.

The interior life of the mind is interrupted for both characters when a new tenant takes up residence in the building. He is able to discern the intellectualism lurking in both characters and begins to draw them both out. All of this is fine, but I was left asking myself how he was able to do this so effortlessly, and why he cared so much in the first place. Some of his story would not have been misplaced.

Other than this one slight misstep, I really enjoyed this book. The two characters are both delightful in their own way, and it was a pleasure to get a glimpse into their thoughts.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

the American family

Digging to America by Anne Tyler
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: The title of this book comes from this question: if children in the U.S. dig a hole to China, are children in China digging to America? This seems to be a metaphor for the question of whether perhaps we're all, even the most American-seeming American, digging to America, or trying to figure out what it means to be American.

When the Donaldson (American through-and-through) and the Yazdans (Iranian-American) adopt baby girls from Korea on the same day, the families become the best of friends. It is no surprise, perhaps, that the Donaldsons opt to keep their baby's Korean name and put lots of emphasis on her Korean heritage, whereas the Yazdans Americanize their daughter's name, and generally raise her as an American.

Unpredictably, it seems that the Donaldsons look as much to the Yazdans for clues about raising their daughter as the other way around. Which is what this book is really about, I think. It's not about being American. it's about creating a family.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

bumble bumble bumble

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is the longest 300-page book I have ever read. I found it ridiculously pretentious in ways I can't even describe, and overly conceited. If Sam Pulsifer said "I could have said" or "I should have said" I was going to jump into the book and put him in jail myself just for being an idiot. This is an entire book based on the idea that the main character is, in his own words, a "bumbler," and certainly one of the most unsympathetic characters I've come across.