Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

This deceptively simple science fiction tale was one of our Summer Reading book clubs, and while our group for the discussion was small, the book was well-received and sparked a lively conversation.  Ender Wiggins is a boy born in a future society that has been shaped by an external threat of invasion by "buggers."  To ready itself against a new attempt by these technologically superior beings to colonize our planet, the countries of Earth have united and begun training young children in combat and leadership, both through genetic manipulation and the use of sophisticated battle games.  Ender proves himself a gifted player during his time at Battle School, and he is rigorously shaped throughout the book into Earth's finest battle commander.  In the midst of all the strategy games and sometimes brutal training, though, the underlying concerns of the story become clearer.  Ender is a genius child, clearly, but in spite of his formidable skills and because of his training, he approaches battle as a game.  Card wants the reader to consider the costs of this approach, both to Ender and his superiors.

The psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the book have considerable depth along the lines I've noted, and I recommend it for that reason.  The story contains some prescient notions of the use of the internet and other technology, too, which may make you smile as they did me.  Parts of the book have not aged well, however, such as the mid-80's preoccupation with Russia and the lack of compelling female characters aside from Ender's older sister Valentine and a fellow recruit named Petra.  The battle game sequences, while fascinating as prototypical video game scenarios, some of our participants found repetitious.  Still, the play of ideas and the central character make it worth the read.  The book has spawned an entire 'verse of sequels and related series as well. -BR

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Catastrophe 1914 : Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings

This is an excellent introduction to World War I, especially for people who don't know anything about why it started, or where, or how. Hastings is very even-handed in his treatment of all sides. He gives more insight into the Eastern Front (Russia-Germany-Austria-Hungary) than most western writers, who all seem to concentrate on the Western Front (Belgium-France).  His book covers 1914, starting with the preliminaries that took Archduke Franz-Ferdinand to Sarajevo, and the consequences of the Archduke's assassination.

Hastings' writing is engaging; I had to stop reading at times because I was so angry at the generals he was writing about - a sign that he brought them to life. He writes about more than generals - a lot of his quotes are from the diaries of private soldiers (and sergeants, and junior officers) from all the different armies involved. It's a very good look at how the first 5 months of the shooting war, from August 4th to December 31st, 1914, set the scene for the years to follow, and the horrible conditions of the first modern war. -LP

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Redshirts by John Scalzi

This entertaining sort-of-alternate-universe for sort-of-Star Trek - Original Series is written from the point of view of one of the junior characters. In STOS (that's Star Trek, the Original Series), the people on the away team who wore red shirts (except Scotty) almost always got killed, or badly wounded. They were, essentially, throwaways. In the book, a junior member of the crew of the starship Intrepid of the Universal Union notices the extremely high casualty rate among away team members who accompany either the captain, executive office, chief engineer, or ship's surgeon on missions. This ensign tries to figure out why all his friends are being horribly killed, and the resulting adventures are very entertaining.

I enjoyed this book - the focus on a junior member of the crew, instead of the captain, makes for a nice change. There's some fairly existential philosophizing going on, because - what if we are all characters in a novel? Or TV show? How would we cope? The ensign tries not just to cope, but to fix the problem - get out of the Narrative. This involves going back in time and changing the future. It's a fun twist. -LP

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Think Like a Freak is the latest work by Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner, offering unorthodox ways to look at problem solving.

According to the authors, thinking like a freak involves challenging one’s assumptions and guarding against drawing seemingly obvious conclusions that may be completely wrong.  Since “big problems are usually a dense mass of intertwined small problems,” freaks often must unravel small obstacles one at a time, casting off biases and re-framing problems in order to ask the right questions.  They also must think more like curious children than adults with pre-conceived ideas.  Further, they need to be unafraid to admit what they don’t know, and be aware of tendencies toward herd mentality.

Informative and entertaining, the book details several examples of real-life sociological, business, and political problems, and how creative thinkers found solutions to them.  Thinking like a freak shows us that conventional wisdom may not be wisdom at all, and reminds us that things are not always what they seem.

Add this one to your summer reading list.  -MS 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“Let me know if you find yourself shorthanded.  I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains and sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand.  While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.  Don’t you agree?”
Such rational logic is standard procedure when coming from any person with any kind of authority in Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite some time now, and I’m very glad that I finally did.  At its heart, Catch-22 is a darkly humorous black satire of war, America, psychiatry, and pretty much everything else.  The main character, John Yossarian, is for the most part the most rational person around.  We get to follow Yossarian as he attempts to navigate existence in the wake of the absurd and hypocritical nature of war.  Along the way we get to meet a motley cast of surrounding characters that fill in a wide spectrum of personalities, from the vacuously moral Aarfy to the militant capitalism of Milo Minderbinder (the mess officer).  Milo’s chapters were actually some of my favorites.
It took me a little while to get into the book.  Heller writes with lots of repetition, both of words and phrases.  The repetition is meant to be mind-numbing and appear paradoxical, and it was unclear to me at first if there was any real point to it outside of sounding funny.  I’ve always felt that satire is something that is easy to do (it’s easy to make fun of something) but hard to do well (it’s hard to make fun of something while also having something relevant to say).  The more I read, however, it was clear to me that Catch-22 falls into the latter category.  The difficult parts just make those moments of clarity all the more striking, and Heller oscillates between the two to great effect.
There is good reason why Catch-22 is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century.  It’s funny, moving, and poignant, and Heller handles the omniscient, 3rd-person writing in a way that completes sub-plots in hilarious ways.  But really, it’s so good because it’s a war story told about the individuals who fight the war and who must come to grips with what war really is.  Yossarian is a coward to some and a hero to others, but at his core he is just a man.  And really, when you get right down to it, Catch-22 is all about humanity.  -CA

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Turtle Recall: the Discworld Companion...so Far: Fully updated and Up to Snuff by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs

This hilarious compendium is the index and encyclopedia to Pratchett's long series of Discworld books. It gives a description of every major character, location, and event, and quite a few minor ones, with annotations for which books the item came from. Any fan of the Discworld will enjoy this. If you've ever read the Annotated Pratchett files online, this is an addition.

After the final encyclopedic listing ("Zweiblumen, Jack") is a reprint of an interview Sir Terry gave with the first edition of the companion, comments of his about fan mail, and the rules for the card game "Cripple Mr. Onion" as played by many characters in the various books. If you like complicated card games, this is for you.

I really enjoyed this book. I giggled all the way through, starting with the two puns in the title: Total Recall (also a Schwarzenegger movie), and "up to snuff/Snuff", which is the latest title in the Discworld series at the time the Companion was published.  -LP

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Saturday, July 5, 2014

“Glamourist Histories” series by Mary Robinette Kowal

In her “Glamourist Histories” series, Kowal has reimagined the Regency period to include the existence of magic, known as glamour. Each novel follows Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time. What she lacks in beauty, she makes up for in wit, and her ability to produce glamour more successfully than any woman she has ever known. Glamour is used in part to create visual illusions. The rich will hire glamourists to create beautiful tableaus that appear real to the naked eye. But glamour can also be used for more practical purposes, such as creating cold or heat. In her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane meets an aloof fellow glamourist named Vincent. Together, they are able to work glamour like never before, and Jane soon becomes Vincent’s Muse. Subsequent novels follow Jane and Vincent on their many adventures.


I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen, and have read many re-tellings of her novels, as well as other novels set in the Regency period. This series is definitely unique with the magical element. Jane is an extremely likable and realistic character. While some of the situations she finds herself in border on the ridiculous, they are still fun to read. I always look forward to the next book in the series, and snatch it up as soon as it comes in. –LT


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