You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Home Fires

Home Fires is the latest science fiction novel by Gene Wolfe. It is the story of Skip and Chelle, a couple who have been separated while Chelle was deployed to a distant war. The months that Chelle as been away has been years for Skip, so he is an middle aged man while she is still a young woman. He has been working hard to build a law practice; she has been fighting and comes back changed, though it isn't apparent at first how changed she is.

Skip decides to take Chelle on a cruise to celebrate her return, but he also brings her a different present. He contracts through a company to provide a replica of Chelle's mother, Vanessa, who had passed away while Chelle was deployed. Vanessa's personality was saved before she died, and her memories have been implanted in another woman who volunteered her body. This introduces the theme of identity and the question of who owns a life, the mind or the body.

The cruise goes badly when hijackers take over the ship. Skip, Chelle, and Vanessa return from a late excursion to find the hijackers in control, and through Chelle's battle skills manage to fight some of them off. The ensuing chapters are their attempts to outmaneuver or negotiate with the hijackers. The back and forth of the control of the ship plays into the ideas of two different minds in control of a body. Which is the true owner? Skip helps the captain and crew regain control of the ship, and we learn more about Chelle and her past.

The story is told alternating between third person chapters and reflections by Skip. Much of the action unfolds indirectly as Skip and others try to solve the puzzles of Virginia and Chelle. In a way it is reminiscent of Wolfe's epistolary novel The Sorcerer's House. There is even a helper character in the handless beggar Achille who barely speaks English, a correlate to some of Wolfe's non-human helper characters. Yet the mystery feels far away and vague, and barely coalesces into something the reader can identify with. The direct action of the hijacking never feels as interesting as the background stories of Chelle and Virginia, however the other stories never come to the foreground. While this novel is not as exciting as some of Wolfe's others, it still has an interesting concept that is executed well. B

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is a romance set in a dystopian near future. Lenny Abramov is a nearly forty year old salesman for life extension services, which promises immortality to to High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI's). Yet he has little luck in Italy, except that he meets Eunice Park, a second generation Korean American in her mid twenties. She finds him endearing, despite calling him "nerdface", and he is completely smitten by her. When they return to New York, he pursues her and they become a couple, albeit an awkward couple. He keeps pushing to meet her parents, and she finally relents but introduces him as her roommate. He enthusiastically shows her off to his own parents, retired Russin immigrants.

The romance of Lenny and Eunice takes place against the backdrop of a strange sort of America, where credit poles line the street announcing the credit rating of passers-by, and the Chinese central banker is the most powerful person in the country. The nation is run by the Bipartisan Party, and controlled by a strong American Restoration Authority. American society has become Orwellian, with the eye of Big Brother in the form of a cartoon otter that asks about one's friends and acquaintances, and signs that warn is it a crime to awknowledge their very existence. There is a war in Columbia that no one is sure the cause of, and the soldiers have not gotten their bonuses. Authoritarianism and double-speak have taken over the public discourse, and citizens are trapped in a cycle of borrowing and spending which distracts them from the danger of their own government.

Lenny and Eunice's relationship is fragile. She is shallow and finds his books quaint. He can't quite understand her friends or her lack of ambition. He is eager to please her and do whatever it takes to keep her. Lenny introduces her to his supervisor Joshie, who becomes obsessed with Eunice and her youth. Joshie is in his seventies but determined to stay young through his company's treatments, which he believes will help him achieve immortality. Joshie insinuates himself into Eunice's life and tries to seduce her behind Lenny's back. In many ways he is more suited to her, since they are both shallow and youth-obsessed.

Yet the "super sad" and "true" parts of the story are not so much the romance between the three individuals as the American society that is falling apart around them. Civil liberties are being sold to the corporations, yet Lenny's parents are watching Fox Liberty Prime and worried about gays getting married. People like Lenny are more worried about their bank accounts and becoming LNWI's (Low Net Worth Individuals) like the citizens assembling at the park to protest their treatment. Joshie talks casually about "relocating" the undesirables so that America's new investors could enjoy Manhattan as a HNWI spender's paradise. Lenny seems lost in this rapidly changing world, and is genuinely astonished when his building is taken over by a corporation to be torn down, supposedly because it is in a flood plain.

This novel is a bit different than I expected but I still enjoyed it. The romance between Lenny and Eunice is pretty simple and straightforward, but it speaks volumes about generational differences and how American culture is becoming fragmented and shallow. The two of them have barely anything in common, and their relationship is an analogy for the relationship between generations. Lenny is earnest and sweet; his narrative is told via his diary. Eunice's side of the story is told in her messages to her family and friends, so it is closer to how her generation communicates. The sad, negative vision of America is the main part of the story. We see the country transforming and falling apart, and Lenny's romance with Eunice is a small part of it. A-

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