Monday, June 27, 2011

The Eyre Affair (Book)

Literary Detectives. ChronoGuard. Prose Portal. Jane Eyre. Pet Dodos. Will-speak Machines. The Crimean War.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is a fun romp. It is part detective story and part fantasy, with just a sprinkling of science fiction to add to the excitement. Although it is mostly humorous, Fforde throws in just a dash of seriousness to keep it grounded. The style of the book reminds me of the science fiction shows Warehouse 13 and Eureka.

The Eyre Affair takes place in an alternate 1985, where the Crimean War is still going on and people are obsessed with literature. Thursday Next, a literary detective, is called in when the original manuscript of Chuzzlewit by Dickens is stolen. A former instructor is suspected of the crime. The story eventually leads Thursday back to her hometown. Thanks to Uncle Mycroft’s latest invention, Thursday literally finds herself in the middle of Jane Eyre, searching for her suspect. Fforde includes wonderful supporting characters: Jack Schitt, the evil representative of Goliath Corporation; Thursday’s loveable but criminal, time-traveling dad; and, of course, an ex-boyfriend.

The Eyre Affair is the first novel in the Thursday Next Series, which just had another book added to it earlier this year. I find something comforting about reading series, and this one offers a nice counterpoint to some of the more serious novels I have been reading lately.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Among Others (Book)

I don’t think I am like other people. I mean on some deep fundamental level. It’s not just being half a twin and reading a lot and seeing fairies…I think there’s a way I stand aside and look backwards at things when they’re happening which isn’t normal. It’s a thing you need to do for doing magic.
I have gone through periods of my life when reading books has been the only force that has kept me from totally unraveling. Released earlier this year, Among Others by Jo Walton speaks to those of us who love science fiction books. The novel is part fantasy, part coming-of-age story, and part annotated reading list. It is introspective, gentle, and beautiful.

The novel, set in late 1979 and early 1980, is arranged as a series of diary entries. After running away from her mother’s house, fifteen year-old Mori is sent to live with her father, who abandoned her family when she was very young. He and his sisters immediately send her off to boarding school. Missing her recently dead sister, walking with a cane because of injuries, new to a school where the other girls have known one another for years, Mori is an outsider. She takes solace in her science fiction books and the fairies. As the story unfolds, she finds kindred spirits, her karass, and comes into her own as a young woman.

Among Others is a gem I found in the new book section of our library. The story is touching and in some ways reminds me of my younger self. I also had fun seeing books that I had read described in the story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Zoo City (Book)

A Sloth. Addicts. Sympathy Scams. Magic. Muti. Murder. A Mongoose. A Missing Person.

In Zoo City, Lauren Beukes puts a fresh spin on a familiar plot: the down on his/her luck character that becomes caught up in a mystery. This supernatural mystery—technically fantasy—won the 2011 Clarke Award and was nominated for the 2010 British Science Fiction Association Award. Although some of the content is dark, even disturbing, the novel is strangely enjoyable. Zinzi December, the main character and narrator, is a recovering drug addict with moxie. She is accompanied by a sloth, who is more like a faithful dog than a cute critter. As a reader, I cared about her, and I was quickly drawn into the plot.

Briefly, the story takes place in a fictionalized version of South Africa. Zinzi lives in Zoo City, a ghetto-like area primarily occupied by “the zooed,” people who have committed crimes and are now accompanied by an animal. Zinzi tries to make a more or less honest living using her magical ability to help people find lost objects. She also is involved with Internet scams in order to pay back her drug debt. Her boyfriend, whose zoo is a mongoose, purportedly lost his wife and children in the Congo genocide. After the murder of one of Zinzi’s lost object clients, Zinzi is approached by two strangers who want her to help them with a mysterious job, which turns out to be finding a missing teenage pop star. Since finding lost people is not one of Zinzi’s talents, she ends up drawing on some of the connections from her past. As the story draws to its conclusion, Zinzi and her sloth find something even darker than even they are used to.

What can I say other than that Zoo City is a “good read”? My guess is that readers who enjoy books like those in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Series or appreciate good, gritty mysteries will also enjoy Zoo City. I now want to read more by Beukes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (Self-help Book)

Being compassionate means that we recognize when someone is in pain, we abandon our fear of or resistance to it, and a natural feeling of love and kindness flows toward the suffering individual.
We start [being self-compassionate] by befriending who we are today, no matter how fumbling, incomplete, or clueless we are. Full acceptance of ourselves, moment to moment, makes it easier to adapt and change in the direction we’d like to go.

Compassion and self-compassion are topics that have gained popularity in recent years. In a society where depression and anxiety have become almost epidemic, self-compassion is a much needed skill. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher K. Germer is a helpful, well-written, and very user friendly book. It contains principles that the reader can immediately begin to put into practice, yet it so full of good content that many readers will want to come back to it again and again.

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion discusses three major tools: acceptance, mindfulness, and Metta. Acceptance involves befriending ourselves in the moment. Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment. Metta is a type of prayer/meditation that invokes loving-kindness.

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion contains good activities and plenty of examples. It also includes information — nicely set off from the main text—about research in the area of self-compassion. What I especially like about the book is that it recognizes that we are not all the same. Germer includes suggestions for different personalities. He also offers alternatives for different activities. For example, many meditation instructions use the breath as a way to anchor a person’s awareness. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work for me; I sometimes begin to hyperventilate. Germer includes additional anchors the user can try.

I have read The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion once, but feel that I have only scratched the surface on the information. What I found interesting is that I began to feel more compassionate toward other people after finishing the book. The skills involved in self-compassion also affect how we interact with the world.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Galileo’s Dream (Book)

God is a mathematician…He [Galileo] would bring his hands together as if in prayer, and take a deep breath and expel it tremendously. To read God like a book, to solve him like an equation—it was the best sort of prayer.
Galileo’s Dream reflects the author’s, Kim Stanley Robison’s, admiration and affection for Galileo Galilei, who many people consider the father of modern science. The novel was nominated for the 2010 Locus Science Fiction, Campbell, and Clarke awards. The novel is mostly historical fiction with some time travel and social commentary woven in. The novel is slow moving at time and not one that some types of science fiction reader—particularly those who like a lot of action or plot twists and turns—would enjoy. For those who appreciate good historical fiction like me, this is a fascinating novel to read.

Briefly, most of Galileo’s Dream is a story about Galileo’s life from shortly before he built his first telescope until after his death. Robinson attempts to give an honest portrayal of Galileo, his brilliance and his faults. We learn about his relationships with women and about his moods, particularly his anger. We also learn about his brilliant mind and his religious faith. Galileo’s Dream also has a time travel thread to it. Ganymede—and others from the future—try to manipulate Galileo in order to change the direction of future events. Galileo also travels to the Jovian moons in the 3020’s, during a crisis point in future human history. In some of these sections Robinson describes the nature of time and quantum physics.

Galileo’s Dream is also a book that can make the reader think in new ways. Interwoven in the story is the idea of science and power. Robinson shows this relationship in how Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because of his assertion that the earth revolved around the sun. Later, Robinson describes how the time-travelers are still trying to bring about a world where science is used for good rather than for gaining and keeping power. When I reflected on these ideas, I quickly thought about how current assertions about things like climate change and even what is carcinogenic have less to do with science and more to do with politics. How disillusioning!

For the most part, I enjoyed Galileo’s Dream and admire Robinson’s talent. There were a few times that I was impatient, especially with all the times Galileo was brought before the Office of the Inquisition. This reflects more on me than on the novel; historical novels and biographies have their slow moments. For the most part, the novel gave me a greater appreciation of Galileo and the gratitude we as a society owe him.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Quantum Thief (Book)

Prisons. Thieves. Exomemory. Watches. Quiets and Nobles. Resurrection Men. Co-memory. Combat Autism. Chocolate.

The Quantum Thief, the first published novel by Hannu Rajaniemi, was recently released in the United States and is nominated for the 2011 Campbell Award. I had a mixed reaction to the book. The quality that made it worth reading for me was the fascinating and original setting. Also, the book contained some scenes that I found beautiful and even touching. On the other hand, at times--especially near the climax of the plot--I was confused. I am not sure whether it was me, the book, or a combination. The story seemed like it had too many layers and tried to do too much in too little time.

Briefly, a thief is broken out of prison so that he can commit another robbery, but first he must find out who he is. Also, he doesn’t know what he is going to steal or who has really hired him. The universe is so unique that the reader doesn’t even know what can be stolen. Rajaniemi starts using unique terms right from the beginning of the book and then explains them later. Normally this would irritate me, but in some ways it added to the mystery of the book. Some of these terms refer to the transfer or blocking of information and memories from one person to another. One term, Quiet, refers to individuals whose conscious has been put into a non-human form for a time, almost as a type of national service.

I will be curious to see other people’s reaction to The Quantum Thief and whether it will be nominated for additional awards in 2012. The book does have some fascinating images in it, so I would not be surprised if it is at least considered for a movie.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reputation vs. Honor (Quotes)

Lois McMaster Bujold talks a great deal about honor in her Vorkosigan Saga series. This is not a concept I hear a lot of people talking about, so her references to it have piqued my interest. In A Civil Campaign, Miles Vorkosigan is slandered. He and his mother Cordelia talk about the difference between reputation and honor:

Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.

There is no more hollow feeling than to stand with your honor shattered at your feet while soaring public reputation wraps you in rewards. That’s soul destroying. The other way around is merely very, very irritating.

Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

All Clear (Book)

No one person or thing won the war. People argue whether it was Ultra or the evacuation from Dunkirk or Churchill’s leadership or fooling Hitler into thinking we were invading at Calais that won the war, but it wasn’t any one of them. It was all of them and a thousand, a million, other things and people. And not just soldiers and pilots and Wrens, but air-raid wardens and planespotters and debutantes and mathematicians and weekend sailors and vicars….Canteen workers and ambulance drivers and ENSA chorus girls.
All Clear—and Blackout—speak to that part of us that wants to know what our role is in the greater play of life. All Clear refers to the signal that was used during WWII to indicate that the danger was over and people could come out of their shelters. In All Clear Connie Willis concludes the story that she began in Blackout. The Blackout/All Clear* combination won the 2010 Nebula Award and is nominated for the 2011 Hugo and Locus Science Fiction awards. After finishing All Clear, I have to agree that that the combination is very good, enjoyable, and award-worthy.

Throughout Blackout/All Clear Willis refers to solving puzzles: Mike’s crossword puzzles, Agatha Christie mysteries, and the code breaking of Ultra. In some ways Blackout/All Clear is a 1000+ page puzzle to be solved. What is really going on? How do the individual pieces all fit together? The books are both composed of chapters —clearly titled, thank goodness— that take place at specific times and places in history and the future. But the chapters are not in chronological order. Compounding that are the paradoxes of time-travel. In addition, Willis does not always identify the characters in the chapter, and when the characters travel to different time periods, they often use different names. Much of the plot of Blackout revolves around the characters and the reader trying to solve the puzzle/mystery. Even what seem to be some irritating scenes in Blackout turn out to have a role in the bigger picture. By the end of All Clear, Willis tells us the fate of Polly, Eileen, Mike, Mr. Dunworthy, Colin, and even Alf and Binnie Hobdin. Blackout is a faster paced book than All Clear.

The day after finishing All Clear/Blackout, I am still thinking about the story in terms of how the pieces fit together and of the greater themes. Blackout/All Clear is not only a story about WWII; it is also a story about our humanity. We look for meaning in our lives. We wonder whether we have a purpose. We wonder whether being good or kind matters. We feel abandoned and alone. We suffer and we triumph. The combination of Blackout/All Clear is a wonderful story.

*Note: Blackout and All Clear are two parts of one total story or novel. They are not even remotely independent from one another. All Clear will not make any sense to a reader who has not read Blackout. In addition, I highly recommend that anyone read them immediately after one another, so that the plot will be fresh.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Self-Compassion (Self-help Book)

Compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.
Compassion is a term that is both familiar and foreign to me. While I find myself using it more and more, I am not totally confident that I know what it really means. I associate it with Mindfulness and Buddhist practices, which have gained in popularity in recent years. Trying to apply this concept to myself feels even more awkward. Self-Compassion, the recently released self-help book by Kristin Neff, PhD, has been a nice introduction for me.

Neff defines self-compassion in terms of three major factors: self-kindness, a common humanity, and mindfulness. She describes the role of self-criticism in people’s lives. In addition, she goes out of her way to differentiate self-compassion from self-esteem. The book draws on research as well as Neff’s experiences.--One of the most interesting ideas for me is that a person can help regulate the level of oxytocin, the love hormone, in their body.--The book also includes exercises for the reader to try.

This book has a lot of great ideas to ponder. It also includes good references to other books on compassion and happiness. While the book works well as an overview, I personally would have liked more focus on applying the ideas to my own life. Those of us whose family motto was “There is no excuse for not doing things right the first time” need more repetition, more stories, and more practice. The author also went off on some tangents, which I am not sure were helpful. It is still a very worthwhile book.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Blackout (Book)

Note: I made some minor revisions to this entry on 6/26/11
Thus it is with this war,” he said. “We find ourselves stranded in an alien land of bombs and battles and blackouts, of Anderson shelters and gas masks and rationing. And that other world we once knew—of peace and lights and church bells chiming out over the land, of loved ones reunited and no tears, no partings—seems not only impossibly distant, but unreal, and we cannot quite imagine ourselves ever getting back there. We mark time here, waiting…”
Connie Willis’ stories help me get in touch with my humanity and my compassion. Blackout helped me feel connected to those who lived during World War II in England, particularly London; the war is no longer a list of cold, boring facts. Blackout refers to how everything—homes, business, streets, even flashlights and matches—had to be kept dark at night so the Germans couldn’t see landmarks when they bombed England. Blackout is the first 43% of a two-book novel, which ends with the book All Clear. Blackout/All Clear won the 2010 Nebula and 2011 Locus Science Fiction awards and is nominated for the 2011 Hugo award.

Like many of Willis’ earlier novels, Blackout is a time-travel story in which historians—particularly advanced history students—travel to the past to observe actual events. At the beginning of the story, the 2060 Oxford time-travel department is in chaos with so many people time-traveling. A number of drops have been rescheduled. There is also a brief discussion among a few of the characters that the assumptions that have been made about time-travel might be wrong. The current belief is that travelers cannot change the past, that the system has safeguards and is self-correcting. The majority of the book describes the experiences of three time-travelers. Merope, going under the name Eileen, is observing the children evacuated into the country to avoid the bombings in cities. Polly is observing the Blitz while working as a shop-girl in London. Mike is supposed to observe heroes at Dover. Of course things go wrong, as they always do in stories. Perhaps the most critical problems are that all three have stayed beyond the time of their own assignments, at least two of the drop points —where the time-travelers go home—are not opening, and it appears that no one has come to rescue them. The book ends with an unknown person coming through a drop into WWII London.

I have read some negative critiques of Blackout and All Clear on the Internet. After reading both books, I would like to share some context. Be aware that Blackout is only part of a novel, different than a book which is a complete novel with some outstanding threads. All Clear picks up where Blackout left off, no catch-up introduction/summary, just the next chapter in the story. At times I was annoyed that there was a lot of what I would call fretting in the plot: “Oh, how will I ever make it to the drop?” “Oh, have I accidentally changed history?”  The significance of this will become more apparent later on in All Clear. The plot of Blackout has a slower pace than All Clear.

Please, do not let these criticisms discourage you from an interesting, worthwhile story. Among the many things that I liked about Blackout, I enjoyed how the historians go from semi-omniscient visitors, knowing the times of the bombings because they have memory implants, to being just as vulnerable as the contemporaries they are observing. I enjoyed the descriptions of all the tiny kindnesses shown by people during a very frightening time. I also enjoyed how Willis uses The Light of the World at St. Paul’s Cathedral as one of the thematic threads in the novel. The combined Blackout/All Clear novel is one of the most touching stories that I have ever read.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Dervish House (Book)

Nanotechnology. Djinn. Terrorist Attacks. Long QT Syndrome. Gas Scam. Think Tank. Mellified Man. Family. Lampooning. Bit Bot Monkey. Microjustice. Gossiping Old Men. Programmable Nucleic-Bio-Informatics. Unrequited Love. Public Suicides. Corporate Fraud. Leaps of Logic. Religious Belief.

I’m in love with Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House: interesting and complex characters, fascinating technology, and a fast moving plot. I can easily understand why the book won the 2010 British Science Fiction Association and 2011 Campbell awards, and is nominated for the 2011 Hugo, Clarke, and Locus Science Fiction awards. The story is set in the near future in Istanbul. The title refers to an old Dervish house that has been converted into apartments and shops. The main characters are associated with the house in some way. The story takes place over five day and has six main characters. [The book’s dust jacket has a list, and I recommend writing down the actual names of the characters to help you remember.] I am still not sure how McDonald managed to put so much into one book

The story opens with an atypical suicide bombing on a tram not far from the Dervish house. Necdet, a troubled young man who was also riding the tram, begins to see djinn afterwards. Leyla, who has just graduated from college with a degree in marketing, misses her job interview and so is available to take a job with a distant relative involved with a startup nanotechnology company. Can, a nine year-old boy with a heart condition, decides to become a “boy detective” to find out more about the bombing. Georgios, a retired Economics professor, gets pulled into the excitement through Can and later through a think tank. On the same day, Ayse, an art dealer, is approached by a man who wants to find a legendary treasure, and her husband Adnan, a trader, begins to put the final touches on a gas scan. The various plots intertwine.

Every time I think of the book, something new comes to mind. I like the coverage McDonald gives to nanotechnology. He shows examples of the good, the bad, and the revolutionary—Human 2.0. I like the way that the characters grow and change throughout the story. I also enjoyed learning a little about Istanbul and its history.