September 17, 2008

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is a quiet sort of novel, not completely like Atwood's other novels, but still recognizably Atwood... and that's actually not a typo - Moral Disorder is a novel told in short stories. I didn't actually realize this when I picked up the collection. I just felt like reading some Margaret Atwood (like you do sometimes...) and Moral Disorder was on my sagging, overburdened "To Read" shelf, so I read it. Even if the novel-in-short-stories wasn't one of my favorite structures (it really is) and a lovely surprise, I still would have enjoyed the book, though not as much as some of Atwood's other work.

The stories make up a semi-chronological biography of a woman named Nell, some narrated by Nell in the first-person, others in the third. Most of the stories Nell narrates deal with her childhood and adolescence. In these, Atwood employs the lovely, hazy tone that distant memories have, mostly through language and observation. Nell's narration lopes along, peppered by the very specific, quirky details - the raisin stains on the layette she struggles to knit for her baby sister, the patronizing laughter of her mother's friends, how her sister adopts the paper-mache head Nell makes for Halloween because she feels bad for it (it's not Bob's fault that he doesn't have a body). The first-person narration ends with the last story of Nell's adolescence, "My Last Duchess", which ends with her walking into adulthood.

The adult Nell's stories are picked up by a third-person narrator. While the tone is more clipped and necessarily more distant, the switch works. For much of her early adutlhood, Nell is disconnected from her family and from herself. The narrative shift shows that. It also allows Atwood to play with a less halcyon tone and humor.

Overall, I enjoyed the stories in Moral Disorder. It's a quiet sort of account of a quiet sort of life, with none of the speculative, psychological or epic qualities much of Atwood's work tends to have. In fact, Moral Disorder feels more like a fable - an edifying look into someone else's life, from which you can take what you need. 

September 10, 2008

Sarah Palin

Sorry Folks! 
It turns out my vetting process has proven that the link I was going to post is false, so I won't be posting it :-) 

The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyers

Ok, yes I admit it. I read the Twilight series. Sigh. It wasn't even very good, although the first book, Twilight, showed a lot of promise. But the crack-like addictive-ness, faded over the course of the next two books, Eclipse and New Moon, until by the time I got to the last one, Meyer's new release, Breaking Dawn, I was skimming huge chunks just so I would know how it all ends (not with a bang, but a whimper). This is not to say that the books weren't fun - they were. It's just that they felt kind of like styrofoam boulders. At first they seemed substantial and even intriguing, but then you pick them up and they turn out to just be foam. Fun foam, with a bit of potential,  but foam all the same.

That said, I'm actually not going to give Breaking Dawn or the Twilight series a serious review because they aren't meant to be read that way. They are strictly entertainment, and for the most part, they succeed. And while I don't understand the crazy following Meyers has gathered because of them, I'm also not a sixteen year old girl. 

My only real problem with the series is that Meyers fails to grow as a writer over the course of it. She keeps using the same tricks and they get tired after awhile. And the books keep getting longer, really needlessly longer, which results in big fat patches you just want to skim. You hang in there for the climax, which you assume will be awesome, but when the climax finally comes, it feels like opening up a bottle of flat champagne. Kind of a bummer. A lot of it just feels self-indulgent on Meyer's part. A little bit of serious editing and the series could have been tight and suspenseful. As it is, the books gets progressively flatter and flabbier. In fact, by the time Breaking Dawn comes around, Meyers is writing more and saying less than pretty much any author I could name... except for maybe Thomas Pynchon, but that's a whole different post.

Huh. So much for not doing an actual review.

Anyway, the Twilight series is fun and entertaining and sort of compulsively readable in a weirdly impassive way. As far as brain candy goes, it's not too bad, it's just could have been a steak. I know that to fault it for what it could have been isn't really fair, but hey, what can you do? 

September 2, 2008

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

I finished Use of Weapons Saturday night, but didn't want to write the review for it until I had figured out how to talk about it without revealing too much. I still haven't done that, but I really want to say something, so I'm just going to go ahead with the warning that if what I'm saying seems circular or vague, it's because I'm trying to avoid spoilers.

Okay, first things first. This is the first book I've ever read that might be considered "hard" science fiction, or the sort of sci-fi that tends towards technological speculation. I've just never been terribly attracted to that sort of book. Use of Weapons also has a pretty prominent military component, which has never been my thing either. So, the only reason I picked up Use of Weapons in the first place is because someone I really respect *loves* this book and I figured, it must be worth reading, even if it isn't the sort of thing I'm into and....

I loved it. Like, really loved it. As in, Use of Weapons, in all of it's hard sci-fi glory, is now in my list of top 10 favorite books. Seriously, it's awesome. Really. 

Quick caveat. For reasons that I can't get into without totally wrecking it, there are people who find Use of Weapons to be "dark" or disturbing or genuinely upsetting. The book examines what might be considered uncomfortable territory from a moral point of view, and I can see why it strikes some readers as difficult. All I can say is that, for me, though affecting at times, I was too jazzed by what Banks was doing to be disturbed by it, "it" being something that I can't talk, so I'm going to stop referring to "it" and move on.

Very generally speaking, Use of Weapons is a sort of non-linear biography of Cheradinine Zakalwe, an operative for the Culture's Special Circumstances department. He makes, runs and strategizes wars and is a very bad man. He is also charming, fractured and funny - as is much of the book itself (discounting certain parts).

The biography is comprised of two separate narrative streams. One moves forward with the present operation, the other moves backward in Zakalwe's life, slowly revealing his past. The two streams alternate chapters and are book-ended by two very important prologues and an epilogue. This structure can be challenging at first, but once you find the rhythm, it becomes intuitive and fairly seamless. This structure was a bold choice on Banks' part - it asks a fair bit from the reader, but it works brilliantly as a reflection of Cheradidinine's psychological make-up.

And that's really at the heart of the book - Zakalwe's social and psychological make-up (which is probably why I enjoyed the book so much). Use of Weapons is a sort of onion-skin portrait of this character. As more and more gets revealed, the reader's understanding grows until the climax blows general expectation out of the water. Fantastic.

Though I can see why this isn't widely considered Banks' best book - it straddles literary fiction and genre with its structure and subject matter - it's a brilliant book and I wish it were more widely read. Regardless of where you categorize it, Use of Weapons is truly speculative, not just technologically, but socially and psychologically as well. I loved it. Even if I had found the "disturbing" portions difficult, I think I would have still found that the book as a whole very much worth the disturbance.