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review 2014-06-24 15:22
Review: A Door Into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski
A Door Into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski

I feel like I've been reading this book over and over lately. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, when it was called Dreamfall. Or earlier this year, under the title Woman on the Edge of Time. A couple of years ago, when it was The Word for World is Forest. All feature these futuristic or alien, usually matriarchal societies, who love nature and new age spirituality, where conflicts are solved through sharing instead of violence, and war is unheard of where empathy reigns. Then vicious capitalist humans show up wanting their resources, and hunt the hippies to near extinction, destroying their way of life and their childlike innocence in the process. But at least one human defects and goes native, standing up to the.... *snooooooooore*

Oh, sorry about that, I bored myself to sleep there for a sec. It's just, I've seen this show before.

And I'm really not a fan of this plotline, especially the way it tends to transpire in feminist science fiction. It's not just trite and overused, it's all tied up in that lame, gender-essentialist "if women ran the world, there'd be no war!" stuff. Look, I don't know if men are naturally more greedy and violent than women or not, but I have been educated and have worked in female-dominated environments, and the idea that they are tranquil dominions governed by nurturing and harmonious conflict resolution is ludicrous.

Still, a lot of good writers have used this trope, so I keep finding myself reading the same story, again and again, no matter how much it annoys me.

Slonczewski's version is about as predictable and formulaic as they come. There's an intergalactic empire (called the Patriarchy - no subtlety here!) which rules many planets and wants to take control of Shora, a landless ocean world populated by a race of parthenogenetic female humanoids called Sharers. The Patriarchy wants control of Shora's resources and the Sharers' superior gene-shaping technology, but it quickly becomes clear that belligerence will get them nowhere against a planetful of Gandhis. Blah blah blah, you can guess where this is heading.

But apart from the paint-by-number plotline, I liked pretty much everything else about the book. The worldbuilding is fantastic, Dune-like in its depth and scope. Slonczewski has a doctorate in biology, and it shows in all the fascinating details she includes about Shora's flora and fauna. The characters, too, are complex and interesting - at least, the Sharers and their human allies are. (Their human enemies are all disappointingly one-dimensional, caring only about conquest while completely lacking empathy, intuition, or any other "feminine" instinct.)

And the book's feminist themes, while familiar and not exactly my cup of ideological tea, did at times feel fresh and thought-provoking. So even though, in the end, the book's message boiled down to "war - what is it good for? absolutely nothin", it made that point in a way that had me really asking myself, "War - what is it good for?" as though that thought had never yet occurred to me.

That takes talent, for a writer, and Slonczewski's got it. I just wish she had used her powers for good - say, a storyline I haven't already read 7,000 times - and shucked the idea that a society ruled by women would be some kind of collaborative paradise.


(December 15, 2011)

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review 2014-06-23 14:48
Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s only novel. He was an Air Force engineer who was involved in the WWII bombing of an Italian monastery. Later, he converted to Catholicism, wrote this book, and eventually committed suicide.

Given the context of Miller's life, it's difficult to believe he could have written any other story. Canticle is a millennium-spanning, quietly epic novel that addresses mankind's constant cycle of self-destruction, barbarism, renaissance, and more self-destruction. It takes place in a Catholic monastery in what was once Utah, several centuries after the world was demolished by nuclear war. There, the monks worship one Saint Leibowitz, a somewhat mythical figure from "the time of the Flame Deluge" who attempted to salvage humanity's collected knowledge during the postwar book-burning backlash. The novel is divided into three sections separated by centuries and so different from each other that they're almost separate books in their own right.

The first, "Fiat Homo", takes place in the dark age that still exists several centuries after the war; the continent is populated with warring nomad tribes and feudal city-states, and the monks busy themselves copying and preserving their library for future generations, firmly believing that someday mankind will once again desire and benefit from the old knowledge.

In "Fiat Lux", that belief comes to fruition; the world is abuzz with a new renaissance of culture and science. A prominent scholar visits the abbey and is astonished at the wealth of scientific knowledge housed there. But outside the monastery, a war is waged between burgeoning empires, with the church caught in the middle.

Finally, in "Fiat Voluntas Tua", mankind has reached technological maturity, once again able to create rockets, robots, and nuclear bombs (the book was written in 1959, and these three artifacts seem to be the hallmarks of The Future in spec-fic of that era). America is once again an empire; so is Asia, and miscommunication and overreaction between the two don't bode well for the future of humanity.

Overall, the book is meditative, dark, and epic, but also at times very funny. There are major themes of faith vs. politics (and similarly, church vs. state), humanity's persistent short-sightedness, and the meaning of suffering. In these elements, the story is saturated with Miller's Catholic viewpoint. But there are also some very bleak, unCatholic threads to the story. Essentially, it's about a group of monks who work for a millennium to salvage, restore, protect, and share the collected knowledge of mankind, only to have the world use that knowledge to yet again destroy itself. The monastery itself acts as Eden's tree of knowledge. Not to mention the irony of this particular group of monks worshipping a Jewish man who likely converted only because he saw the monastery's potential as a bastion of learning in the midst of a world bent on ignorance.

This book isn't for everyone; it's slow-moving, somewhat dated, heavily religious, and contains a great deal of untranslated Latin. But it is deservedly one of the classics of Cold War-era apocalyptic fiction: dark, pessimistic, thought-provoking, and sadly believable.


February 3, 2008

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review 2014-02-25 05:35
Review: England, England, by Julian Barnes
England, England - Julian Barnes

An old one - brought to mind by Ceridwen's excellent review of Dark Witch.




The hardest books for me to review are the ones that I objectively think are quite good, but that, for whatever reason, I didn't actually like very much. This is one of those.

On the one hand, I want to tell people: don't bother with this one, it left me feeling very meh. On the other, I think back on it and it was all very well put-together, filled with fleshed-out characters and unique ideas, and with some parts that bordered on magnificent. Maybe if I'd been in a different mood, maybe if I'd paid it more attention, maybe if I were a little smarter, I would have absolutely loved it. Who knows? In any case, I can't think of anything empirical to complain about.

The big maybe if in this case, is Maybe if I were English, or knew a bit more about England, I would have liked this book better. I've never been to the UK, never been much of an Anglophile. What I know about England has been gleaned from tabloids, fiction, a childhood spent watching Red Dwarf and Mr. Bean, and whatever I picked up in high school history class about King So-and-So and what a jerk he was. So the nuanced satire in this book, which is largely about foreign imbeciles such as myself and our ignorance and apathy about authentic British culture, whooshed right over my head. The one thing I can say for myself is that at least I knew there was a whoosh, that I had missed something. But I still didn't love the book.

The story follows Martha, a woman who is too smart and too cynical for her own good, at three points during her life. Part I is about her childhood, and the aftermath of her parents' divorce. This section, which stands alone very well as a short story, was the highlight of my experience with the book. It's sharp and painful, and it gives the reader a rounded understanding of the character's foundation. Everything that Martha does later on as an adult and as an old woman, makes sense because we've seen her undergo this childhood trauma.

In Part II, the longest and meatiest part of the story, we see Martha in her late 30's, as she begins working for Sir Jack Pitman, a ludicrously pompous business mogul, who has a dream. He knows that tourists come to England to see historical and cultural landmarks, but it's all so inconvenient. Everything's so far apart; you can't see it all in one day. Transportation and money can be confusing; historical sites are often dingy or falling apart; the English people can be so unwelcoming. Tourists want to be dazzled, but reality is just so underwhelming.

Pitman's solution is nothing less than to create a whole new England. He buys the Isle of Wight, a small island in the English Channel, and transforms it into a perfect miniature of everything that England symbolizes - except better.

At first, his employees and the public assume he's building some kind of patriotic theme park, but that's not it at all. Pitman's vision is nothing so artificial. Although the island is filled with half-size reproductions of everything from Stonehenge to Buckingham Palace, and its residents are all hired on as actors (to portray everyone from Robin Hood to "friendly pub patrons"), Pitman sees it as the real deal. Why would anyone want to go to "Old England" - so unfriendly, so unwieldy - when they could go someplace smaller and more accessible, that has everything England ever had and more - but distilled and with the bad bits filtered out?

Sure enough, the tourists flock to the island (which Pitman dubs England, England). And it's not just tourists - celebrities relocate there; landmarks are dismantled and rebuilt there, even the royal family is enticed (bribed, blackmailed, whatever) to make the island's half-sized Buckingham Palace their new home. Pitman is shrewd enough to name himself the island's Governor and then to declare independence from Old England, citing a centuries-old technicality as justification. Within a few years, Old England is rendered totally irrelevant culturally and economically. It's a slum. When people say "England", they now mean England, England.

Martha, originally hired on as a "professional cynic" (whose job functions mainly included shitting all over everyone else's ideas), quickly rises within the company, and ends up overseeing the entire England, England project. But then, things start to go tremendously, hilariously awry, and Martha is left with the blame.

So Barnes's main theme is the question of authenticity. If England, England is a fake - and Pitman pontificates eloquently throughout the book on why it isn't, really - why does that matter? In all apparent ways, it's better than the original. Why mourn the fate of Old England, other than for nostalgia's sake? And if you are feeling nostalgic for Old England, why not go to England, England? It's exactly the same, except better!

In Part III, Martha, now an old woman, finally returns to Old England, which, having spent the last half-century in poverty, isolation and global irrelevancy, has been transformed into a shell of its old self, something totally unfamiliar - but at the same time, something completely, innately English. It has undergone a different distillation, but like England, England, has become a condensed manifestation of an ineffable Englishness. Or maybe not; maybe that's the difference between the two. Old England has reached an ineffable Englishness, while England, England is all too effable.

To Martha, anyway, it's somehow just as fake as the island ever was. Which is Barnes's entire point, and which is depressing as all fuck, if only because it rang so true to me.

This is one of the most unique dystopian novels I have ever read. I wish Barnes had spent more time delving into this faux-divide between "real" and "fake", rather than spending pages and pages on the corrupt exploits of the (fictional) royals or Pitman's, um, very nontraditional sexual proclivities. And I wish I had a better grasp of the general English Weltanschauung - I kept trying to translate it into American, imagining an island full of miniature Statues of Liberty and Mt. Rushmores and flag-waving Uncle Sams, but it's just not analogous for so many reasons - the ineffable "America" is not anything like the ineffable "England".

Having typed up this review, I realize I do think more highly of this book than I'd thought. I didn't love the experience of actually reading it, but looking back - it really was a good book. Which is almost too perfect. The distilled, essentially fake "England, England" in my memory, which is the one I'm really discussing in this review, is better than the real "England, England" that I actually bought and spent many frustrating hours reading. How very meta.


October 18, 2010

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text 2013-11-20 00:04
Updated: Did you authorize goodreads to share your reviews on kindle?

Update: Emily (goodreads staff) confirmed that your reviews on goodreads will show on kindle.  Even if the share with third parties box is unchecked In your profile settings.  Even if your profile is set to private (profile will still remain private but reviews will not be).


In response to a question by another poster she says that there are "no plans" to share your goodreads reviews on the amazon.com site itself.


Another poster was thinking the share option was new.  It's not, it was there when I signed up for goodreads a couple of years back.  It used to be you had to check it to opt-in.  But, apparently that has changed so if still on goodreads, you may want to edit profile and look at settings tab to make sure your choice is selected.  Checked or not, any reviews on goodreads will show on kindle and anywhere in amazon-dom they may choose to display them in future.


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Source: www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1576752-question-on-sharing-reviews-with-partner-sites#comment_87043396
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text 2013-11-19 01:07
Wow! Yes, Virginia, it does exist … the mythical goodreads sitewide announcement!



I was just closing browser tabs and not even planning on seeing goodreads when this caught my eye.  I am deeply, seriously insulted  feel bitch-slapped that goodreads can make a sitewide announcement advertising the new kindle fire.


But still can't announce a September change in shelf naming policies that could cause your carefully constructed book catalogs to be vandalized.  


*snarl* as soon as one last group team challenge is over, I'm boycotting goodreads except to delete content and until after the holidays.

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