sun, 01-jul-2007, 15:10

black swan green

black swan green, david mitchell

Books Acquired

Books Read

I think this is the last time I post one of these long monthly summaries of what I’ve read. I should be considering the books when I’ve finished them, not a month later, as is the case with Galatea 2.2. I remember what it’s about and that I liked it, but the details of the story and exactly why I liked it is already fading from memory. Plus, if I comment on each book, there'll be more posts!

As for the best of this month, it's a toss up between The Raw Shark Texts, which is a great “summer read”, and Black Swan Green, which is a more serious coming-of-age story. Read both!

Galatea 2.2

As I mentioned, I liked this book a lot and am really looking forward to reading more of Powers’s work. The book appears to be somewhat biographical since the main character’s name is Richard Powers and the number of books he’s written and his back story match what the Wikipedia has to say about him. But it’s unlikely that Powers really participated in the creation of a neural net genuine enough to make it’s creator consider whether it had a right to life. Which is what happens here.

As to why I liked it, I’m afraid I can’t really remember exactly. It was very smartly written, had some excellent science in it about the nature of language and consciousness, but didn’t get too hung up on the science that it felt like you were being educated.

Never Let Me Go

I’ve never read Ishiguro before, and I didn’t want to start with Remains of the Day, so I chose Never Let Me Go. The book is a sort of argument about how far we would be willing to go to extend and improve our lives. In this case, by producing humans whose purpose is to provide replacement organs for the rest of us. When they’re not donating organs, they’re taking care of those that are. The book is told from the perspective of one of the organ donors, mostly in the form of flashbacks to her growing up. I found that technique to get a little old after awhile, because I got tired of the first person voice and wasn’t as interested in learning every detail of her childhood. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the final section of the book had a strong emotional effect.

Page 263:

…when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most…How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.

The Raw Shark Texts

I read this book in two days, and once I hit the half-way point I couldn’t put it down. It’s a smart, funny thriller that’s also a love story. The main character wakes up on the floor of his apartment with no memory of his past, and soon discovers that this has happened to him multiple times in the past. Notes he sent to himself from the past start to clarify the situation, and once he figures out what’s going on, the adventure begins.

Some of the dialog didn’t ring true for me, but the sections from his past life were great. Page 123:

“Hey” “What?” “While we’ve been sitting here, have you been thinking my girlfriend has no knickers on? ” “No, course not,” I said, then, after a second: “Well, it depends. What’s the right answer?” Clio tucked her hands deeper under her knees and looked away so I couldn’t read her expression. “No clues,” she said.

The book isn’t perfect: the last fifty pages bear a striking similarity (intentionally, I’m sure) to a famous movie about a shark, and I kept thinking to myself, “this will make for a great movie.” None of these issues is damning, though, and in fact, The Raw Shark Texts is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Plus, how can you go wrong with a book that’s got a flip-book section in it?

Black Swan Green

David Mitchell’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor (presumably not this Jason Taylor), growing up in a small English town in the 80s. I found a lot to like about this book, since I was also a teenager in the 80s (in a small town in the U.S.A.) and faced many of the same problems fitting in with my peers. Thankfully, I didn’t have a stammer, but it’s a good stand-in for whatever it is that makes a person not part of the in-crowd. The book is rich with the details of the community, Jason’s family, and the trials he faces among his peers.

What was most impressive, though, was how much Jason changed and grew through the year that the book covers. Not only does Mitchell convince you to care about Jason, but you feel like you’ve lived his growing up along with him.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver and her family move to a small farm in rural Virginia to see what it would be like, for a full year, to grow as much of their food as possible on their farmstead. The book is another view of the same issues that Michel Pollan considers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read last month. The main narrative describes the yearly cycle of food on their farm, from the asparagus of April to the squash, frozen meat and banked root vegetables they eat over the winter months. Along the way Kingsolver’s daughter includes commentary and recipes from the perspective of a 19-year old, and more political or scientific sidebars from Steven Hopp.

It’s an effective way to consider the subject of the worldwide industrialization of food production, but suffers because most of us can’t just pack up and move to a farm. I’d love to be able to raise chickens and turkeys and grow all my own food, but land covenants in my neighborhood forbid raising “livestock”, and Alaska is a tough place to grow your own food (although we’re doing what we can in our small garden. Still, this, and Pollan’s book have caused me to think more carefully about the food choices I’m making and what options I have available for making better ones.

Falling Man

This is DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, and man, is it a flat, emotionless book. I guess that must be the point, though.

From page 75:

“Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? You know what I mean. The everyday friction. The every-word every-breath schedule we were on before we split. Is it possible this is over? We don’t need this anymore. We can live without it. Am I right?” “We’re ready to sink into our little lives,” he said.
Working Alone

I’ve done quite a bit of work around our house, most of it by myself. Hanging fourteen foot-long pieces of siding while standing on a swinging platform hung from the roof is not easy, and neither is raising, squaring and plumbing walls. Carroll considers solo building from the ground up starting with the foundation, moving up through the structure to the roof, and even has a chapter on building a deck. This book, and Moving Heavy Things, will go a long way toward allowing you to work on your house by yourself without getting hurt.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Genuinely funny, honest and open, and yes, heartbreaking.

tags: books  review 
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