Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book review:1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Where do I even begin to describe a book like 1Q84? This was my first Murakami novel, and though I felt, at times, that certain minutiae for which he is apparently infamous (food preparation, repetitive dialogue and re-iteration of expository detail) contributed unnecessary padding to the 1157 pages, overall I found myself quite swept away in the lyricism of the writing and the surreal but precise detail in observing the world of 1Q84.
The central characters are Tengo, a cram school (assuming this is an analog to American community college?) math teacher and aspiring novelist, and Aomame, a fitness instructor and occasional silent assassin of abusive men. Though their entry points are different, they are both drawn into 1Q84, a world that is nearly identical to that present in the year 1984 — when the novel takes place — but that is also governed by fantastical elements that are invisible to the majority of people still living in 1984. Throughout the considerable length of the novel, they are eventually drawn together, and though I hesitate to consider theirs a traditional love story in any sense, it’s undeniable that the Invisible Hand of 1Q84 pushes them together due to cosmic compatibility and shared human experiences.
No novel, and certainly not this one, is immune to criticism. But I find it very hard to even approach something like it with this book because I had an experience reading it much like the one I felt while watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Much as Murakami describes a distinctly different existence in the year 1Q84, I felt somewhat removed from the real world as I read the novel. Time bent; one hundred pages disappeared over the course of one bus commute home. I won’t be so pretentious as to suggest I was looking for glitches in the matrix everywhere as a result of finishing1Q84, but while I was reading I was certainly wholly enveloped in the book rather than in my own body.
Your mileage may vary. Some — many — have likened this book to an interminable wank. Meta-commentary from a book editor character regarding what makes a quality novel can either seem self-congratulatory or tongue-in-cheek, depending on your reading; I read it more as the latter, since throughout Murakami breaks the editor’s “rules” several times. I wouldn’t unreservedly recommend this to just anyone considering that it is a substantial time commitment. It is, though, a book that is sticking with me quite stubbornly since I’ve finished it in a really enjoyable way. I appreciated it immensely and rank it highly among anything I’ve read lately.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book review: Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

FROM THE AUTHOR: This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative – like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it – but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:
* Pictures
* Words
* Stories about things that happened to me
* Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
* Eight billion dollars*
* Stories about dogs
* The secret to eternal happiness*
*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!
How do I review Hyperbole and a Half? The last time I reviewed a book-that-used-to-be-a-blog, it was Jenny Lawson’s, and I was not a regular reader of her blog, so I was able to treat the book like a standalone. In this case, I’ve been a loyal “Hyperbole” reader ever since I first read about the Alot in 2010 (spoiler alert: the Alot isn’t in this book, and it really should be, but on the other hand it’s accessible on the original blog always for my viewing pleasure, so there is a really simple solution to the problem) so I already knew I would love this book. I relate hugely to Allie Brosh’s sense of humor and find her rudimentary art to be rather succinct in its simplicity.
Classic favorites include both parts of Tales of Depression, Dogs Don’t Understand Simple Concepts Like Moving, This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, and The God of Cake. My favorite new chapters, in terms of achieving that transcendent balance of relate-ability and humor at which she seems so adept, are the chapters about identity. She examines whether she is a fundamentally good or shitty person by questioning her motives whenever she does good things, and she discusses how she does this thing where she gets to call herself a good person just by thinking about a good thing that she might do. To write that down, as I’ve done here, and indeed as she notes in the book, seems like a really awful admission, but I wager that basically everyone does that kind of rationalization all the time, but Allie Brosh picks that uncomfortable truth out of the morass of conflicting thoughts in our minds and identifies it so keenly, and so humorously.
In short form, everyone should read Allie’s fabulous blog and fabulous book.

Book review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

A man-made plague has swept the earth, but a small group survives, along with the green-eyed Crakers – a gentle species bio-engineered to replace humans. Toby, onetime member of the Gods Gardeners and expert in mushrooms and bees, is still in love with street-smart Zeb, who has an interesting past. The Crakers’ reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is hallucinating; Amanda is in shock from a Painballer attack; and Ivory Bill yearns for the provocative Swift Fox, who is flirting with Zeb. Meanwhile, giant Pigoons and malevolent Painballers threaten to attack.
The conclusion to Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy was actually, on the whole, more optimistic than I might have expected, given that the entire tale takes place after the expunging of most of humanity in a world that was already pretty desecrated. I’d even venture to say that there is a complete tonal shift over the course of the three: Oryx and Crake is, based on my memory, a somewhat bleak book. Jimmy, the protagonist, is stranded and alone after the “waterless flood,” unsure of how to survive after Crake’s engineered bioweapon obliterates humanity. Injured and filled with impotent rage, Jimmy condemns Crake for what he has done, and in particular, how he claimed ownership of Oryx’s life and death. Through Jimmy, the reader feels similar despair and anxiety over the new state of the world. The Year of the Flood is slightly more hopeful: it introduces new characters, which in the first place establishes that there are survivors other than Jimmy. They are a group of people known as God’s Gardeners, who portended the waterless flood and were therefore able to cultivate a sustainable lifestyle meant to last even after the collapse of the technology-based modern society. This organization and success in the face of certain chaos has interesting implications for the modern reader, though. On its face, the message is hopeful — humans have survived against all odds. The counterpoint, however, is that the people who do survive are, essentially, a radical religious eco-cult — hippie extremists — and they survive because they have eschewed anything that isn’t completely natural. The waterless flood, then, killed the majority of humans because they — we — embrace technology, particularly biotechnology. So while the conceit of dogged human survival that we so love imbues The Year of the Flood with hope, it still has an anti-biotech bent, a warning for our future.
MaddAddam continues the shift toward optimism in two ways. First, it has the surviving humans working together in (mostly) harmony. The group consists of some of the God’s Gardeners and some scientists who, though unaware of Crake’s complete plan, worked closely with him in creating some of the technology that eventually led to the waterless flood. Secondly, it introduces us more intimately to the Crakers, the genetically engineered humans created by Crake, who were intended to be the more perfect human descendants that would inherit the new world. The humans could, conceivably, have any number of reactions – resentment among them – to these child-like, defenseless people, but instead they basically fall right in line with Crake’s intended mission, which is to orient the Crakers to the world enough to allow them to navigate it, without corrupting them too much by introducing our own negative traits. The measured conversations between the human characters — primarily Toby — and the Crakers, who have a very rudimentary grasp of language and a disarming naïveté, resulted in a great deal of out-and-out humor that was not so much present in MaddAddam‘s predecessors. For instance, a running gag begins when the Crackers ask what is meant by the humans’ frequent exclamations of “Oh f*ck!” The confusion arises because the Crackers see “Oh” as a term of address, so they think that the humans are talking to someone unseen named “F*ck”. Toby, desperate to not explain the unpleasant interpretations of the word, invents a spirit that is friends with Crake (who the Crakers understandably see as a deity) and rushes to the aid of whoever uses the invocation “Oh F*ck!”
The laugh-out-loud humor itself considerably lightens the mood of the book, but what really works to change the tone is the acceptance of the Crakers. For all of the biting satire that criticized our over-reliance on technology and liberal incorporation of genetic engineering into our lives, the human characters’ deference to Crake’s wishes with regard to the education of the Crakers suggests that, maybe, Crake was right about these genetically engineered humans being the way of the future. Where the prior two books seemed to be thematically about humans struggling against the new world, this one markedly demonstrates the humans working with Crake’s vision.
Still, this isn’t an entirely happy book. There is anxiety, PTSD, sickness and death, much of it gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. Atwood balances these elements to create a conclusion to the story that is, as I said, hopeful, but also real and not saccharine. MaddAddam was probably my favorite book of the trilogy and the best example I can think of recently of a series that ended appropriately, without seeming rushed, and with an installment that was worthy of its predecessors.

Monday, January 6, 2014

My Top 10 Albums of 2013

So, new year, right? I didn't blog much other than my book reviews in 2013, but I have to say overall it was a fantastic year -- probably the best year I've had in a long time. I met a ton of new people, tried new things, and finally was able to lose some weight that was sticking on my body since about my senior year of college.

So that is my fast update about me. But I'm actually posting because I felt like since the only productive things I did on this blog in the past year were to post books and music, I should do some kind of top 10 wrap up of those things. I'm not a music critic or someone with any objectivity, so obviously my top 10 is just my favorites and not meant to be any kind of statement on, like, the state of music or what is objectively 'art' or anything.

10. Icona Pop - This Is... Icona Pop

9. Chvrches - The Bones of What We Believe

8. Classixx - Hanging Gardens

7. St. Lucia - When the Night

6. James Blake - Overgrown

5. Haim - Days Are Gone

4. London Grammar - If You Wait

3. Autre Ne Veut - Autre Ne Veut

2. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

1. Disclosure - Settle