Thursday, July 16, 2009


by Dan Simmons

As we saw in the film, "Amadeus," the artistic life can be difficult enough even without having a friendship with one of the most popular creative geniuses in history. In Drood, we meet Wilkie Collins, a successful novelist and friend of Charles Dickens, writing, for us in the 21st century, a chronicle of the bizarre events of the last few years of his and Dickens's lives. Collins is an unreliable narrator if there ever was one; he's addicted to ever-higher doses of laudanum (made by combining opium with ethanol), which he tells himself helps to cure his painful gout. The result is that he's had recurring hallucinations throughout much of his life. These are unpleasant enough when they're clearly only in Collins's head, but we really start to worry when they begin affecting the real world -- does this mean they weren't actually hallucinations to begin with?

The story begins with Dickens relating to Collins a terrible railway accident he's been through: Dickens was sitting with his mistress and her mother when the viaduct the train was going over collapsed, and several rail cars fell to the bottom of the ravine below. Dickens and company were unharmed. Dickens then went to assist any still-living passengers in the wreckage, and on his way down the slope, a very unusual man introduced himself. Drood was his name, he had no nose or eyelids, hissed as he spoke, and his goal among the survivors seemed to be the exact opposite of Dickens's.

All in all, the book felt a little long, and probably could have been edited down a bit. But for those looking for a big, creepy Victorian-era novel, Drood does the trick. Dan Simmons's research is frighteningly thorough, and all the dark details make the book stick in one's mind long after reading.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

by Dan Ariely
It's been pretty well established that human beings are not the calm, rational creatures we'd like to think of ourselves as. What Ariely brings to the discussion is the idea that our irrational decision-making follows predictable (and scientifically testable) patterns. Ariely, a Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, gives an illuminating tour of his experiments in this field. Do people who are sexually aroused make different choices than they do in a "cooler" state? Why do people cheat less when asked to sign an imaginary "honor code"? Why do people act differently when money is involved? Why does an expensive pain reliever work better than the same drug at a lower price? Just seeing how the testing was done is fascinating, and the results made me look differently at my own decision-making.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Bright of the Sky

by Kay Kenyon
For those of you interested in genre, Bright of the Sky feels somewhere in-between SF and Fantasy. Titus Quinn, the main character, comes from a recognizable futuristic Earth, and there's plenty of scientific grounding for the plot. But much of the story takes place in a completely different universe, called the Entire, with its own rules and technology so far removed from ours that they seem like magic. The sentient creatures of the Entire have always been able to see our universe (which they call the Rose) and have based much of their culture upon our own.

When we first meet Titus, he is living a solitary life after losing his wife and child. The three of them somehow broke the bounds of our universe and ended up in the Entire, and Titus, who lost all memory of that time, is the only one who came back to Earth. Now a possible way to bridge the two universes has been discovered, and the Minerva corporation wants to send Titus across to pave the way. Titus, of course, is much more interested in finding his wife and daughter, if they survived, and bringing them home.

Kenyon's world-building is exquisite; her vision of the Entire is rich and multilayered. The Entire is a truly frightening and beautiful place, and Titus's journey is spellbinding. As Titus becomes, once again, familiar with the world of the Entire, his memories start to come back, and he doesn't necessarily like what he remembers about his life there. I found a lot of parallels, emotionally and narratively, with Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I also highly recommend. Bright of the Sky is the first book in a series, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.


by Herman Melville
Unlike a lot of high schools, mine, in 1980s central Illinois, didn't cover a lot of "classics." And in some ways, that may have been a blessing, because I have never been more resistant to reading (especially reading assigned books (shudder)) than I was in high school. So, instead of my opinion of these musty old 19th century books being formed then, I get to discover them now, at a time in my life when no longer feel required to reject them as old and boring nor to praise them just because they're part of the canon - I can just read them, as books.

Moby-Dick has a reputation, and rightly so, for being a slog, and it was only after hearing an enthusiastic recommendation from an old friend that I even considered picking it up. I was pleased to find, as Jack Murnighan pointed out in a recent NPR piece, that much of the book is actually very funny, especially the first third, and I found myself laughing out loud at times while listening to the audiobook. The narrator is a likable guy, but a bit out of his element, and his job interview on the deck of the Pequod was one of the book's highlights for me.

Of course, soon, much to the dismay of many readers, the narrator is no longer out of his element, but is instead explaining every detail of the whaling industry. At times it's as if you've stumbled into a 19th-Century Wikipedia and are helplessly clicking on every link around the topics of Whales and Whaling. While I didn't skip any pages, there are certain times I feel okay about letting a chapter or two "wash over me," and this was definitely one of those times. The audiobook was especially good during these times, because I could tune my attention in or out, depending on my interest.

Honestly, though, I didn't find the technical parts all that dull. After a while I started to think of the novel as taking place in an alternate reality, one in which humans were endangered and animals were not, where there was still the possibility that there were real monsters out there. Read this way, Moby-Dick becomes a riveting feat of world-building fantasy.

That said, it's interesting to note that our narrator struggles with the idea that whales could, like the buffalo before them, be hunted nearly to extinction. And, unlike Captain Ahab, most of the whalemen have a difficult time believing that any whale could act with malicious intent.

It should also be said that, though Moby Dick was ahead of its time in many ways, as evidenced by the capable, racially-diverse crew of the Pequod, there are nevertheless times when the prejudices of the times reassert themselves, and the reader has to grimace a bit. And there are other sections when the beautiful language of the book sometimes gets into weird areas, for instance a section in which the whalemen rhapsodize about the wonderful feeling of sperm in their hands - meaning, of course, the oil harvested from a sperm whale. Though Melville has a wonderful sense of humor, I'm not sure this bit was meant to be funny.