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Monthly Archives: August 2012

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

How’s this for a book review:  Go and read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu and then come back and read this book review.

I’m sort of serious.  This may seem paradoxical, but it is nothing compared to the paradoxes presented in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.   This book may not be for everyone, especially those people who thoroughly enjoy the time they spend in front of a TV, being entertained by something completely external to themselves.  If you fall into that crowd, move along.  Nothing to read here.  But, if you are a person who, from time to time (or incessantly) enjoys trying to decipher the internal babbling “monologue of doom” that hums along between your ears, then this may be the perfect book for you.  And if you absolutely thrive on that activity, well, welcome to your new favorite author.

In How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe Yu has managed to inhabit the consciousness of his protagonist (also, coincidentally, named Charles Yu) so thoroughly, that it is a bit hard to tell them apart, especially if you ignore that part where Charles Yu (the protagonist) lives in Minor Universe 31, which was “slightly damaged during its construction”.  Charles Yu (the protagonist) fixes time machines.  He has been living in one the size of a cardboard box for a while, traveling around in time, fixing other time machines.  In his machine the ‘Tense Operator’ is set to ‘Present-Indefinite’.  (If, like me, you are not sure what the present-indefinite tense is, you could look it up and find that it is the one which we use when an action is happening right now, or when it happens regularly (or unceasingly)).  Yu (the writer) crafts the entire story from this strange ‘present-indefinite’ tense, weaving in flashbacks and ‘flashforwards’ as if they are happening in the present (although it becomes increasing difficult, and in the end somewhat arbitrary, to determine what ‘present’ means).  Yu (the writer) lets his protagonist get himself stuck in a time loop where, while he is always in the present moment, he is traveling back and forth in time, searching for his father.   With all the ‘events’ of the story either having already happened or, paradoxically, not having happened yet, we, as readers, spend the entire book inside the very strange head-space of Charles Yu (the author and the protagonist).

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe begs to be read by your right and left brains simultaneously.  While Yu wows us with his grasp of science, science fiction, and writing ability (specifically his ability to manipulate tenses), he also asks some very existential questions like these: How can you (and Yu) move on with your life and let go of the past?  Especially when your past is full of regrets and unresolved emotions and things that you really, really wish you could change?  Who wouldn’t be tempted to spend time reliving the parts of your life that you wish you could do over?  And don’t we all, on some level, do that anyway?  Isn’t that what that inner ‘monologue of doom’ is all about?

Do you understand the book any better for having read this review?  Probably not.  Don’t let that stop you from reading the book, though.  I read all the short blurbs on the back cover when I picked it up, and none of them made a whole lot of sense to me until after I finished the book, my favorite being this one by Colson Whitehead:  “This book is cool as hell.  If I could go back in time and read it earlier, I would.”

So, like I said, read the book, and then come back and read this review.  Hopefully it will make more sense in the past tense.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2012 in Fiction

 

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Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer

Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer

I am a fast reader the way other people are fast eaters:  if it’s good, I read it as fast as possible.  Thankfully,  I found myself slowing down and savoring Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer.  I not only didn’t want to finish it, I wanted to hold it in my mouth for as long as I could – every word, every sentence.  And when I was finished, I felt full.  Satisfied.

Shine Shine Shine is the story of a husband and wife, Maxon and Sunny, who are both notably ‘different’; Sunny because she is (and always has been) completely hairless, and Maxon because he likely has some form of Asperger’s.  They have modified themselves as best they can for each other and the world at large in order to fit in.  The story explores what happens after Maxon leaves on a rocket to colonize the moon with robots that he has invented (which are easier for him to identify with then people), while Sunny remains on earth with their four-year-old son and another baby on the way.  On one level the book buzzes along, propelled by Sunny’s busy, humming need to keep moving, keep being who she is pretending to be.  On another level the book is strange and stark.  We explore the situation through Maxon’s perspective which is, appropriately, as distant as the moon, both emotionally and physically.  From both of these perspectives Netzer is able to put together a deep and whole picture of the struggles we all face in conforming to society’s image of ‘normal’.

This is Lydia Netzer’s first novel, and she totally commits to it.  She nails the tone, the characters, the pace, and the story.  She doesn’t shy away from the awkward or unusual.  Besides space exploration and baldness, the book is littered with unexpected moments that are as bizarre as life itself.  What might seem like a manipulated plot twist in the hands of a less gifted author just becomes another oddity in the small, odd world she has created in Shine Shine Shine.   The story is toldin a series of reveals, each one a little jewel set in a beautifully written box.  I especially loved the moments when the book seemed to veer off in a completely new direction, forcing me to let go of any sort of cause-and-effect expectations and just let the story happen.  Reading Shine Shine Shine is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the top of the box to guide you.  It takes a lot of trust in an author to go along with this type of writing, but Netzer never falters, and the portrait of Maxon and Sunny that is revealed by the end of the work is exquisite.  By then, Netzer’s characters are no longer flawed and different; they are intensely and perfectly human.  Netzer manages to show us how exactly how like us these characters are.  Be warned:  you may find that, while you were busy falling in love with Maxon and Sunny, you might have also inadvertently fallen in love with your own inner geek.

So pull up a seat at Netzer’s table and savor this fine novel.  You won’t go away hungry.  Bon appetite!

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2012 in Fiction

 

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The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

Have you ever seen ‘Warhorse’, the acclaimed, Oscar nominated movie? The one that follows a single horse through World War II, telling the story of the war through the people that the horse touches? Despite the fact that it is a beautiful, epic story, with gorgeous scenery, compelling stories, and powerful acting, I found it to be strangely empty. Predictable. I found myself thinking, “Okay, the next shot will be a sunset,” or “Cue dramatic music!” because that’s what epic, blockbuster Hollywood movies would do, and therefore that’s what Warhorse should do. And it did. And therefore I was never enthralled in the story enough to be swept away by it.
The Dovekeepers is like that movie for me. It is an epic tale that is set in ancient Jerusalem, Egypt, and Moab and is told, in turn, through the memories and experiences of four different women. There are layers of, emotion, language, religion, culture, and history piled upon what seems, to me, to be a rather thin and predictable plot. I personally started to feel suffocated midway through the book. The narrative is told in four parts, one for each woman, and each part begins with that woman’s childhood and continues up to the ‘present’ plot moment. Perhaps it was this very chunky structure that broke any momentum the story gained during its more lyrical passages. I kept waiting, with great anticipation (because I really wanted to love this book), for my heart to leave my own chest and reside, for even a short while, in the fictional chests of one of these four women, to feel what it might have been like to be strong, determined female in a time in history when strong, determined females where labeled as witches or harlots, and shunned or murdered for even looking men in the eye. Unfortunately, like the movie ‘Warhorse’, this book has all the right ingredients, but never rose above the formula it was following.
Critics have acclaimed this book, much like ‘Warhorse’, and it deserves that praise for Hoffman’s beautiful writing. However, I feel the best books are those lift a reader out of their daily life and transport them elsewhere on the wings of a well told story. The Dovekeepers is too heavy to fly.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Fiction

 

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