Saturday, August 29, 2015

Being a Lousy Book Blogger

Most Book Bloggers, like any good aficionados of a particular entertainment industry, thrive on the cutting edge, the new releases, the newest and hottest craze, and the year's award winners.  I am not that Book Blogger.  I am behind the times; I lack insight and interest into the newest releases or the most promising new authors.  To be frank, my method of finding and reading books doesn't lend itself well to Book Blogging at all. 

A few years ago I went to Books-A-Million to pick up a copy of Divergent.  The film was coming out, and I was looking to increase traffic to my Blog.  I figured reading and reviewing Divergent could help drive a few more views.  (In reality it did just that; my review of Divergent is one of my more widely read posts).  I found Veronica Roth's book, put it under my arm, and began to casually peruse the rest of the store.  At that point I began to debate with myself.  Should I spend 10+ dollars on a young adult fiction book I don't really care about or pick up a book I feel would be more substantial and far more interesting?  I tried to remember why I was there.  Read and review a currently popular book to increase views on my Blog!  Simple mission.  Simple task.  I ended up walking out of the bookstore with Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  (As previously mentioned, I did eventually buy a copy of Divergent and gave it a scathing review; sometimes my first impressions are correct). 

Herein lies my problem.  I don't care that much about what is popular, what is "fresh."  I just want to find and read amazing books.  Often times that criterion doesn't align all that well with new and popular books.  I also don't care when the book was published.  I am prone to get just as excited about reading a book published twenty years ago as I am with a book published twenty days ago.  While attending Church several months ago, I came across a large box full of books that someone was giving away.  I searched through the books ravenously.  I picked out two books—From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman, published in 1989, and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, published in 1927.  I was as excited to get those books as I would have been if I had pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee and Amazon delivered it the day of its release.  This is exactly why I pay no attention to published date when I select my Best Books of the Year.  I don't care when they were published.  What matters to me is when I read them. 

In addition to a lack of concern for what's current or new, I also find myself gravitating to some books which may not have the largest audience or market penetration.  This is mostly done accidentally and not deliberately.  In other words, I don't go out of my way to be a contrarian.  My interests sometimes don't align with many others.  As many are reading the latest James Patterson book, I'm wading through Two Treatises on Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke.  I can't even keep my reading habits narrow enough to be a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book Blogger.  I like both genres, but I don't read either exclusively or even the majority of the time.  Just this last year, I went from reading The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien to reading The Lord's Way by Dallin H. Oaks.  Considering my goal of reading 1,000 books in my lifetime, it would be much easier to read mystery novel after mystery novel and admire my quickly rising Books I Have Read list total.  Yet, I have no interest in that.  I love variety—science fiction to American history, fantasy to social commentary, southern literature to biography.  All of this is great as an intellectual exercise, but it's not great for Book Blogging.

And so I read on and blog on.  I'm not a terribly great Blogger, but I can read with the best of them.  Although the books I'm interested in may not find happy homes on many bookshelves, I certainly know I have found some extraordinary books which may not have found an extraordinarily large audience.  And when it comes to my readers, I guarantee that at least a few times I'll be able to point you in the right direction.  The books may not be current, may not be the most widely read, but they'll absolutely be worth reading. 

Other Topics of Interest:
President's Message: Shake it Up
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reflections: Beyond the Strandline

Beyond the Strandline is the pop culture version of Alas, Babylon.  Set in Florida, after the collapse of civilization as we know it, it's a story of normal people trying to survive in an extraordinary situation (at least from our current, modern perspective).  The book can be bleak at times but is never oppressive to read (I'm looking at you The Road!).  The young adult genre guides the book's narrative and characters into somewhat familiar and derivative territory, but it never feels cheap (I'm looking at you Divergent!).  This is a unique story with three-dimensional characters that live and breathe and it's a story worth experiencing. 

The book's setting is dangerous turf for authors who become too infatuated with their own fictional world.  Other books in this type of genre can become overly concerned with describing grid collapse and entertaining preppers and not telling a meaningful story or providing an emotional experience.  Beyond the Strandline begins, ends, and revolves around characters.  It certainly takes advantage of its setting by casually mentioning arcane facts about surviving the end of modern civilization, something all preppers could appreciate, but it never becomes the focus.  Once again, similar to the author's previous work, the exceptional Mooncalf, Florida, where the book is set, nearly becomes a character in itself.  Florida will forever be a magical place to set a story and Linda L. Zern takes full advantage of it here.  Anyone familiar with the geography and somewhat bizarre weather patterns of Florida will immediately and throughout the book recognize these unique characteristics.
Beyond the Strandline truly shines when the author slows down the narrative and lets her characters breath.  Whereas in so many other books in which motivations are taken for granted and characters are merely tools by which the author moves along the dictatorial plot (I'm looking at you One Second After!), Strandline insists on the reader feeling something for the people in its pages.  In some ways the characters in Strandline are its most derivative aspect; we have the elusive and battle-hardened alpha male—Richmond Parrish—and the audacious, somewhat erratic, but indomitable female protagonist—Tessla (Tess) Lane.  Yet, both of these characters have a back-story and depth other young adult fiction falters in providing to the reader.  Their inevitable romance, a seemingly indispensable attribute of young adult fiction, will no doubt bring grins and giggles to all of the female readers of the book.  The author appears to be just as comfortable and confident writing about electrical romantic sensations up and down legs and arms as she is about the more gruesome aspects of a post-civilization world.  The romance, in a very purposeful way, is one aspect of the book that keeps it from becoming too dire to enjoy. 

In fear of sounding trite, the book is certainly a page-turner.  Strandline opens with a truly compelling scene and more or else doesn't let up until the conclusion.  Admittedly, this is where the book falters some as more and more complications start to crop up—natural, human, and otherwise.  No doubt living in such a world would more than likely be one complication after another, but I felt a little whiplash as characters went from place to place to manage one crisis after another.  In the end, as aforementioned, the book's greatest strength is when it reminds you why you're reading—the characters.  That's the real reason why you want to get to the next page to see how they all fare in a dark and unforgiving world.

Beyond the Strandline, in the end, is good fun.  It's not so depressive or heavy-handed it's difficult to get through.  On the other hand, it doesn't shy away from what would be very real possibilities in a post-civilization world.  Perhaps what is most admirable about this book is that it fits as comfortably within the young adult fiction genre as Mooncalf did with its literary cousins.  It's a testament to Linda L. Zern's writing talent.  As would be expected, Beyond the Strandline ends with certain questions unanswered and with the reader hanging onto certain cliffs. I hope Strandline finds the audience it needs to compel the author to show us where all of her memorable characters end up.

*The Thousand Club received an advanced reading copy from the author.

Other Topics of Interest:
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah - Young Adult Fiction
Reflections: One Second After
Mooncalf: Book Trailer

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reflections: The Forever War

It is not often that I struggle to find something to say about a book.  If it's great, I can give a list of reasons why.  If it's terrible, I can say why.  Even if a book is mediocre, I can share why I think that is the case.  The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, however, is so unmemorable and placid I'm really struggling to say much about it at all. 

The one element of the book I do want to make mention of is that the book's use of time and space travel was a unique way to emphasize the idea of a forever war.  As soldiers rocket across the universe they age more slowly than those on Earth; this leads to some interesting dynamics as soldiers try to re-acclimate to Earth-life, which is especially difficult because it might be 50-100 years after their initial departure instead of only a few years.  As a commentary on the Vietnam War, the book works fine.  Although, I would much sooner recommend The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien than I would The Forever War.  In addition to being a commentary on the Vietnam War, it also is a commentary on the army and military life.  But yet again, I would point to the ultimate commentary on the military, Catch-22, instead of The Forever War as the book which really has something to contribute.

As a work of science fiction, the book is fairly unremarkable in my opinion.  The writing, the world-building, it's all so consistently sterile and flat nothing left a lasting impression.  I don't dispute the creativity of the book or the considerable thought that must have gone into it; I just didn't find it interesting or meaningful enough to make a difference to the overall story-arc.  In a way the book is its own activity of attrition as you push yourself to finish the book while losing motivation after each page.

I didn't care for The Forever War, obviously.  It wasn't necessarily a bad book; it simply made no impression.  When reading books and experiencing stories, there is not much else I could say as a harsher criticism.  I didn't care; therefore, I won't remember. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Things They Carried
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reflections: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Many years ago, while attending Valencia Community College (now Valencia College), I wrote a research paper titled "Little Israel."  At the time it was a culmination of years of fascination and study for one of the most intriguing and captivating events in modern history.  Since then my study and focus on Israel has waned, but I've never lost what seems to be an innate interest in the country, its people, and its circumstances.  Thomas L. Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem was a reminder of why that region of the world is so bewitching.  Friedman's detailed and excellent personal account of his time in Lebanon and Israel feels like an indispensable part of my personal education on those important places and the Middle East overall.

The most striking thing about Friedman's book is that it was published in 1989.  The reason that is so striking is because the book feels like current history.  It's a testament to how entrenched conflicts are in the Middle East, how far back and how deep they go.  The Middle East, as From Beirut to Jerusalem showcases, is a world apart from common-place Western ethics, morals, and politics.  Friedman's accounts and experiences are extraordinary when read from a Western arm-chair but all too familiar when read from a Middle-Eastern one.  On so many levels, we just don't truly understand how things operate over there.  It is a world of constant moves and counter-moves, of ageless rivalries, tribal conflicts, and Bedouin conflict management, which mostly means if you have a bigger stick and swing it harder than your foe, then you successfully manage the conflict to your personal or tribe's advantage.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is akin to a book like Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville in a way.  For example, Tocqueville was an outsider, a French political thinker and early sociologist, who came to America, observed people, circumstances, and conditions, wrote it all down, and shared it with the world.  Friedman feels the same to me.  Although he is an American Jew, Friedman, as a journalist, fits the definition of an outsider who goes to a foreign, a truly foreign place, makes observations, writes it all down, and has shared it with us all.  Friedman's commentaries are interesting, reasonable, and, at times, quite profound.  There is plenty to aggravate both Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters in this book.  What From Beirut to Jerusalem does very well is to show a level of nuance to the conflict and peoples that is rarely, if ever, highlighted in normal newscasts or newspaper articles.  My feelings toward the ongoing conflict have largely stayed the same since reading the book, but my understanding of those who disagree with me has been greatly enhanced.

The Middle East and its peoples, especially Israel, is a small hinge upon which a large door of world politics and American interests swings.  It is no mistake that so much conflict revolves around such a small area.  There is a history, secular and religious, wrapped up in little Israel and its neighbors that touches the hearts and souls, to say nothing of national interests, of literally billions of people.  From Beirut to Jerusalem may only focus on a particular decade, in this case the 1980s, but its insight and value extend far, far beyond that limited time-frame.  This is ancient and modern history so tightly knit together it's sometimes hard to tell them apart.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Bosom Buddy Books: Exodus and The Haj

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Anyone familiar with the Science Fiction genre of books knows about Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It's a well-known, well-regarded work that inspired, albeit loosely, one of the greatest science fiction films (so says a lot of media outlets) of all time, Blade RunnerDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? feels almost as esoteric as it sounds with its opaque examination of life, consciousness, and empathy.  It's an interesting book, even entertaining at times, but in the end it left me a little abandoned in its own musings.

The single most fascinating and entertaining story element of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is its purposeful misdirections regarding who is an android and who is not.  In this world, one can be an android and not know it.  Memories can be fabricated.  Perception can be faked.  There are a series of reversals during the middle of the book that left me questioning my own understanding of who was an android and who wasn't and what that would mean for the story overall.  It was a great sequence.  (A film, although not a great one, that does something similar with great effect is Where Eagles Dare; there are probably half a dozen twists within the span of one ten-minute scene).  Yet, as entertaining as this segment was, it doesn't last long. The book quickly re-focuses on its core philosophical and metaphysical elements.  That's not a slight, however.  I'm pretty open to all things philosophical and metaphysical, but this book provides more enjoyment in the discussing of it than in the reading of it.
The stranger elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, such as Mercerism, are balanced out with a very thought-provoking view of the future.  With essentially all animal life obliterated by a Nuclear War (World War Terminus; what a great and imposing name!), humanity is emigrating en masse away from Earth.  Those of us left behind struggle with what it means to be human and the proper way to value life.  Animals, and by extension life itself, have become a rare commodity indeed, and much of humanity long so badly for an animal that they pay large sums of money to own them or buy ersatz animals to fulfill the need.  Rick Deckard, the book's main protagonist, begins the book with an electric sheep but works at eliminating several androids to collect the bounty and buy a live animal; it seems that's all he really wants.  This unique set of problems and motivations certainly gives the book a special flavor; thus far, I haven't read another science fiction book quite like it.  Although I think the book veers a little too far into obtuse commentary, it does leave some tantalizing questions unanswered which would certainly drive the most literal among us a little crazy.

Philip K. Dick and his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will forever be regarded as one of the finest works of science fiction we have.  That is, after all, how I came across it again, and again, and again.  It appeared on just about every best of science fiction list I reviewed.  For my part, it was a book I liked but didn't love.  I'd enjoy discussing it with others but don't have much reason to soak in its material more on my own.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Hyperion
Reflections: A Princess of Mars
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress