Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book review: A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

I’m really doubting I’m going to add anything new to the decade-long conversation about A Song of Ice and Fire, so I’m just going to offer a casual collection of thoughts for the sake of demonstrating that I did actually read it.

The first thing that pleasantly surprised me as I dug into A Game of Thrones was that GRRM’s writing was more straightforward than I expected. I had heard from detractors that his writing style is rambling and convoluted, but when I brought this up to a friend incredulously asking why I hadn’t read ASOIAF yet, he responded that if I wasn’t put off by Tolkien, I could certainly handle Martin. That turned out to be true. The length is a bit imposing, and it took me some time to get through (particularly since I have an awful habit of reading several books at a time), but I didn’t especially feel that this installment suffered for want of editing (that may change further down the line.)

As a fan of the HBO series, I’ll definitely be wanting to go back and rewatch the first season with the book fresh in my mind. Upon my first watch, I recall feeling overwhelmed by how many characters there were, and particularly by characters that were mentioned in passing by name but who never appeared onscreen (or who did only fleetingly.) There were also several scenes that I had completely forgotten about until I read A Game of Thrones, and I’d like to go back and see how the scene played out on screen. For instance, I had totally forgotten all about the Hand’s Tournament and how Loras Tyrell actually appears sooner than season 3.

Anyway, it’s going to be something of a comfort to have the series to read while I wait for the next season of the show. And maybe I’ll get to have something shocking to be smug about that occurs during episode 9.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Goodreads: “Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”
TFIOS is a touching, funny, sad, poignant, and somewhat dreamlike story that is well-loved and has been reviewed to death. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel on this one, so I’ll just quickly share some of my general thoughts. Overall, I found this to be a wonderful novel, but for some reason I can’t put a finger on it didn’t become an instant favorite of mine.

John Green’s teens are, across all of his novels, generally wise beyond their years, and so it is the case here: Hazel and Augustus at times come across more like idealized versions of themselves than actual living people. Even their faults are perfectly expressed in metaphor, their emotions precisely defined. It was that precision, though, and that heightened realism that helped ground the “cancer story” and prevented TFIOS from becoming too maudlin. Where other tragedy-porn authors steer into verbose, florid language and hyperbole to create the verbal equivalent of that token string swell, Green’s incredible ability to put a point on the exact situational qualities that define a moment draws out more honest empathy from the reader. In other words: this may still have been emotional manipulation, but when the tears came, I felt more like they came from actual understanding than from a heavy mallet to the back of the head.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Goodreads summary: “Miles “Pudge” Halter’s whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the “Great Perhaps” (Fran├žois Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.”
Looking for Alaska predates Paper Towns, which I read first. I mention this because in my review of Paper Towns, I suggested that John Green had successfully navigated the familiar waters of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope by at first buying into it, then subverting it. He tried something very similar here, but I don’t think he was as successful. The two books are very, very similar, but Paper Towns seems to be a slightly more mature version of Looking for Alaska; both feature self-proclaimed ‘average guy’ protagonists whose worlds are upended by an extraordinary girl, but while by the end of her book Alaska Young remains more of an iconoclastic symbol than a real person, Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns explicitly rejects the idealized version of herself the protagonist believes she is.

This was, still, a book I enjoyed, and even though all of the characters sound in one way or another like they have a healthy measure of John Green in them (by which I mean, it’s like in movies where an actor might be doing a really great job, but s/he is so famous that you never quite forget it’s that actor. That’s kind of what a lot of John Green’s characters are like), they were all still people I wouldn’t have minded having as friends in high school. His prose is very lyrical and he has the ability to describe feelings in a very acute, descriptive, and yet poetic way. More than once I stopped and thought to myself, regarding something I would have previously thought indescribable, “Yes, that is exactly what that feels like.” That ability is probably his greatest asset as an author, especially given the specific realm that he chooses to inhabit in his novels, which I would title “teenage romance and self discovery in peculiar circumstances.” Anyway, you probably don’t strictly need to read this if you’ve already read Paper Towns, but this is an enjoyable few hours.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Crimes against myself

I used to make myself some absolutely absurd "snacks" after school. Even worse than eating them myself was trying to convince my friends that what I was making was real, edible food. (A few of them bought into my lies, poor things...)

The first offender in a long line of gourmet detritus was something that I very creatively titled "Bread, Butter, Sugar," because that's what it was and who needs conjunctions? The only way the name of this food item could have gotten more literal was if I called it "Bread, Margarine, Sugar." Anyway, the important thing to note about this snack is that the goal was to put as much not-butter and sugar on top of the bread as possible. Like, if you were to take a cross-section of this thing, the butter and sugar would hopefully stand at least an inch tall on the bread. Because if you're going to eat something like that, you may as well fully commit to your self-loathing.

From there I ramped up the ridiculousness with a currently untitled piece that was also bread-based. This one involved dumping approximately two liters of maple syrup onto a piece of bread and then covering the whole slice with whipped cream. This one I continued to make well into high school, and unlike B.B.S., I actually ate it in front of my parents, as if it weren't totally shameful.

If I had a DSLR, I'd love to take a photo of the whipped cream thing like it was some classy "secret shame" snack and tag it #foodporn and see how many notes it would get on Tumblr or Pinterest.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Goodreads’ incredibly short synopsis says: “In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.”

I really enjoyed Snow Crash. There is a lot about it that is kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi, including a basically made-up version of neurolinguistics and quite a bit of would-be futuristic jargon. It’s a tough line to toe, when you’re writing near-future sci-fi, that you run the risk of dating yourself when you invent new terminology and describe specifics about plausible but not currently existing technologies. How much of what you describe actually comes to pass or still ring true? Tech and gadgetry are so ubiquitous that nearly every reader of a book like this will have some kind of experience with it; compare that to other popular sci-fi themes like bioengineering or space travel, where there are a lot fewer ‘experts’ that can critique the realism of the book. All of that is to say that one of the cyberpunk genre’s main themes focuses on common technologies and what possibilities can be extrapolated from that tech in the future, and because so many of us are familiar with that technology, it makes it very easy to nitpick areas where books like Snow Crash diverge from either current or probable reality.

If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact, then those types of incongruities will matter very little. For its part, I think Snow Crash constructed a pretty believable virtual reality in the Metaverse, but I found the tie-ins with Sumerian myth to be a little fantastical and ambitious, particularly given the somewhat haphazard explanation of neurolinguistics that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual academic field. That aside, I really enjoyed the scope and execution of the story. The pacing was a little frenetic, but I wasn’t too bothered by it as it heightened the tension and served to underline the hectic nature of life and society itself in the world of the book. The protagonists were not much more developed than avatars in a video game, but particularly given the emphasis on virtual reality, it almost seems appropriate that the reader does experience the book in that video game sense. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but as an overall fan of sci-fi (with piqued interest in cyberpunk as of late) I liked it a lot.