Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

There are some books that I’d rather burn than read, if only to get rid of some of the pages that serve as filler.  The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler is a long, winding stack of paper that divulges the story of several generations of a prominent family.  It is a semi-autobiographical work and represents various aspects of the writer’s life as he lived it through Victorian England.

If you ever choose to read this book, begin halfway into the spine.  The first half of the book is important in that it gives you background of how the main character, Earnest Pontifex, came into being, but it lacks importance because the reader is reminded of that same backstory whenever Earnest makes a decision or reacts to something.  Quite literally, it is written as a family history to acquaint the reader with the Grand Ol’ Pontifexes and to bash Victorianism when convenient.

When Butler is finished eulogizing his family history, the story starts to get juicy because bad things happen to the main character.  Spooky, I know.  He spent 300 pages in preparation for a plot twist.  M. Night Shyamalan and George R. R. Martin couldn’t even be bothered to do that.  When that twist happens, the pace quickens, though the prose does not.  The same muddy words and rambling paragraphs are used to heighten the story and finish out the plot.  The final passage of the book is a knockout, and once I finished, I felt sad for having done so.

The reason why I read this book is because I am insane.  I am determined to read every book on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list for no other reason than to give myself poor eyesight at a young age.  The Way of All Flesh is number twelve on the list and is notable for its scathing commentary on Victorian lifestyle and its hypocrisy.  By ‘scathing commentary,’ I mean ‘prodding suggestion,’ because it’s difficult to be scathing when you’re writing a book about how much you hate Victorians in the age of Victorians.  However, Butler was so rattled by the message in his book that it was published post-mortem.

Here’s a good reason to read this book: it’s proof that the giant gulf between the rich and the poor existed prior to (insert American president)’s presidency.  Once the gulf is established, Butler paints an outrageous picture of the attitude that rich people have towards poor people.  ‘Outrageous’ is how I felt when I read some of the encounters that Earnest had (reference: Earnest’s encounter with Townley on the side of the road), but I later found it to be realistic.  I think it’s important to note that most of us (the common reader) would have a view of the world from the ground up; that is to say that most of us are not extremely rich.  Butler shows the reader the attitude of the rich towards the poor without embellishment, remorse, or explanation; it’s left to the reflection of the reader and the main character, Earnest.

The Way of All Flesh was published in 1903, 20 years after it was written.  3.5/4.0.  Listed as #12 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

Starship Troopers was one of my favorite movies as a child, so it’s only natural that I should read the book at some point in my life.  Robert Heinlein is revered as being a visionary speculative and science fiction author, and I was excited to finally dive into a piece of his work.  Stranger in a Strange Land was available from the library first.

The number of subjects Heinlein tried to tackle in his book is almost offensive.  He put his fictionalized ideals up against everything in the thinker’s club: philosophy, religion, economics, sociology, ethics, relationships, mores.  Anything that could represent a difficult subject in a college survey course was fair game for Heinlein, who used his characters to pitch his worn ideas of utopia through discussion and debate.  There are many chapters throughout the book that read as if you’re sitting in a lecture hall, being held to a moral standard that you don’t yet understand but are personally responsible for.  There are whole characters in the book whose sole purpose is to ask questions and receive answers on the reader’s behalf.  Heinlein was trying very hard to convert people to his new-age, back-brain philosophy.

The plot is simple (no spoilers): a man from Mars is brought to Earth.  He learns Earth’s customs, its ways of life, and discovers all the various things that are wrong with us in short order.  He develops a cult following that quickly evolves to large-scale religion.  It is clear that the story was written as a parallel to the biblical account of Christ’s life and death.  Christ was a radical thinker and espoused ideals that were not popular with or were in direct opposition to the thought of the day; the Man from Mars followed a similar path.

The book is 400 pages long and about half of it is preachy.  Here is what’s wrong with the system and why, followed by witty banter to back it up.  I will admit that there are a number of valid points in the arguments presented in the book – yeah, getting rid of all human suffering does sound like a good idea – but like many of the ideas in Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, they can’t exist outside of a sheet of paper.  This is the real world, thank you very much, and the box is only so big to think in.

Upton Sinclair wrote a book titled They Call Me Carpenter, which was his imagining of what the second coming of Christ would be like.  When I first read it, I thought he wrote it in jest, as if it was supposed to be dark humor.  I did a little bit of research after I read it and found that Sinclair was deadly serious when he wrote it – he was a devout Christian, and he sincerely believed that his book described the results of a possible Second Coming.  Heinlein was very much writing about what he believed in Stranger in a Strange Land, which may be why some of the lecturing is hard to swallow.  For example, through his characters and the actions they do, he argues for the dissolution of the institution of marriage and the adoption of free love.  Let me know how that chat goes with your wife, if you are still alive afterwards.

The parts that aren’t preaching are interesting and the story is a good one to follow.  Stripped of its religious parallels, it’s about an entity that observes a foreign way of life for the first time, and we get to see his thoughts and feelings develop towards the various things we do every day and don’t ever think deeply about.  Writing those observations must have been very difficult – just finding the objectivity needed to think about life as we know it – or very easy, if Heinlein was already disgruntled in the first place.  The beginning of the book was great, and was one of the more engaging starts in recent reading memory – it was full of suspense and set the pace for the first several chapters of the novel.

Read this book if you don’t mind long drags of philosophy, being lectured at, or speculative fiction.  The story is well thought and driven if you can get around the lectures.  Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. 4.0/5.  Listed as #16 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels Reader’s List; named by the Library of Congress as one of the “Books That Shaped America.”  This review was based on the unabridged text.

Remember that time, a few weeks or months ago, when you had an obscure pop culture reference battle with a bunch of your friends, and it ended when someone whipped out a reference to the Nazis?  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a book about that epic battle.

But it’s far more than that!  Right?  This is a book, and books have plots.  Ready Player One is about a future where the world is crumbling to pieces, and to escape the dreariness of everyday life, people log on to Second Life the OASIS and be the change they want to see in the Internet.  Once logged in, they can do anything they desire.  It just so happens that they desire to worship the pop culture of the 1980’s, and the only true heroes are ordinary people who have mastered every text-based role-playing game ever released for the TRS-80.  I later learned that text-based role-playing games are referred to as “interactive fiction.”

I wish I could give you an example of the excessive parade of 80’s worship without giving away the story, but the obscure references are integral to driving the plot, and just mentioning them in context would give too much away.  Music, television, and film references stretch back into the 60’s, and the video game references reach all the way back into the 50’s by namedropping one of the first video games ever created, Tennis for Two.  It was played on an oscilloscope.

The book revolves around a man named James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS (Oh, Acronym Significant In Story… but the acronym was chosen first, so OASIS it is).  He dies and leaves his $240B fortune up for grabs.  To call it yours, you have to find what’s known as Halliday’s Egg, an Easter Egg that he placed somewhere in the OASIS simulation, which spans thousands of planets and dozens of sectors.  Thousands of other people are after it too, including your standard brigades of baddies and evil masterminds and such.  There’s an online love interest (surely, match.com is the present day predecessor to the OASIS), multiple Dungeons and Dragons references, a little bit of Treknobabble, and really, something for every technophile, nerd, geek, and hax0r 1337 out there.

That said – Ready Player One seemed like it was written as a justification for nerds everywhere to play DnD, RPGs, video games, etc., because one day you will save the real world with the knowledge attained by playing in a fake one.  Sorry, try again.  It would take a lot to convince me that the puzzles of Myst (a game not mentioned in the book) will someday be crucial to the continued existence of man as we know it.  That’s what this book is when boiled down to its bolts – it’s a story about man vs. evil.  In this case, evil is represented by an unscrupulous multinational company that wants to take control of the OASIS, and the only way to do so would be to capture Halliday’s Egg first (with some weak legalese explaining why they can’t just buy it with a truckload of cash).  While this story is a work of science fiction, its roots are too far grounded in the real world of today, and there isn’t enough substance to break it free by the end of the book.  It’s a story about the glory and bragging rights that you attained when you smoked everyone in Unreal Tournament that one time in college.

Read this book for its science fiction value, it’s sheer abundance of cultural references, and its interesting story design.  Do not think too critically about the fluffy action and the weave between the real world and its reality counterpart.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  3.5/5.