Oct 12

[Review] Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

There’s a phrase that is used quite often to promote television movies or special episodes of “Law and Order.” The phrase is “ripped from the headlines.”

This phrase could almost apply to the book I just read. It’s a book about a world ravaged by a deadly disease. The disease spreads so quickly because the world is essentially smaller than it used to be. With air travel and car travel, the ability of a disease to spread around the world is made much easier.

The survivors of this world must ban together and make due with what they have. They must figure out a way to survive and live off what’s left. They must deal with the loss of electricity and running water, as well as cars that don’t function and streets that are blocked by falling trees and decaying infrastructure.

With the Swine Flu in the news and various apocalyptic scenarios being discussed because of the financial markets, this novel is very appropriate to the times. However,  I said the phrase “ripped from the headlines” could “almost” apply to the book I just read.

The reason it could not be applied to this book, is because it was written in 1949.

The Blurb from the back

The planet has been overwhelmed. A new and unknown disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of civlization, overrunning all attempts to quarantine, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he, who will ultimately become the last America, will discover will be far more — and far more astonishing — than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.

Not Just Science Fiction

The thing that struck me most about Earth Abides is the fact that, while most people will pigeonhole into the science fiction genre, it’s really just a good story about people. Yes, it’s kind of fantastic in it’s scope, and we really hope this kind of thing never happens, but it’s genuine and realistic in its portrayal of how this kind of event might play out. While there are some people who are a little “off” after the end of the world, there aren’t any strange mutant creatures created by the aftermath of the atomic weapons — just people who really can’t deal with the fact that everyone they know is dead. Kind of an understandable reaction, really.

In fact, even the event that causes the world to come crashing down is down to earth and not too unexpected. The main character of the story is saved, not by anything too mysterious — just a fortunately timed rattlesnake bite. (Before you get too worried about a spoiler, there, this is explained early on in the story.)

Character Abounds

What drives this epic story is the main character, Isherwood Williams. Now, having been reading Moby Dick, I don’t think I could deny that shortening his name to Ish and allowing us to think of Ishmael was by no means a mistake. Ishmael of Moby Dick was, for a large part, a spectator. Isherwood Williams is also that spectator, and gives us the ring side seat to this strange event and the events that follow it.

However, while Ishmael of Moby Dick really does just spectate, Isherwood Williams takes a direct part in most everything, creating his tribe and attempting to rebuild society. It’s the way he goes about this, with a strange kind of arrogance brought about by his education, that is very entertaining to the reader. In some ways, Isherwood is a genius, but in other ways, he doesn’t seem to have a clue. He takes great care of his library (book smarts), but has a very hard time dealing with people and their disagreements (street smarts).

Isherwood also develops a great sense of guilt and personal responsibility for the survival of the human race. It’s these feelings that really drive the story forward and create the major conflict.

Don’t Call Me Old

While this book was written in 1949, I was struck by the fact that never, during the whole time I read it, did it feel dated. References to items such as automobiles and appliances were vague enough that it could have been cars and appliances of modern day as easily as it could have been those of the 40s and 50s. One thing I notice now that I look back, is the absence of computers. Since electricity was gone pretty early on, though, they wouldn’t have been very helpful, anyway.

Overall, I was very impressed by Earth Abides. What starts as an almost cliche end-of-the-world story, turns very quickly into an impressive commentary on the human condition. Highly recommended, even if the only copy you can find is one with browned, dog-eared pages.


Grade: A
Who would like this book: People who enjoy a good character-driven story
Who would not like this book: People who are a bit squeamish and don’t want to think of a world that’s missing most of it’s people

Oct 05

[Review] Trust Me by Peter Leonard

There’s a wise warning I’ve heard before: “If someone asks you to trust them — don’t.” It’s one of those expressions that sits in the back of my head, and hopefully makes me a bit more savvy in dealing with others.

It appears that most of the characters in Peter Leonard’s Trust Me never heard of this expression. The two words “Trust me” are used multiple times throughout the book, and each time they are, we (as the all-knowing reader) get to chuckle a bit at the naive people who go along with it.

That’s one of the funnest parts of reading this book. Every time the words “trust me” appear on the page, we know that no one should, but we also know they will, and it’s that irony that creates the environment for a fast shuffle-game of money that is an enjoyable, albeit shallow, read. Continue reading

Jul 26

[Review] Get Off Your “But”

I must admit that I’m intrigued by the whole “Self Help” book genre. I can’t say that I’ve read a huge number of them, but I’ve sampled some. I’ve always been a firm believer that you can learn just about anything from a book, and it’s definitely the first place I go when I’m trying to become familiar with a new concept.

There’s something about self help books, though, that have always given me the feeling that I was somehow cheating.  The real big “lessons of life” need to be figured out on your own. They’re like mistakes — someone else can’t make them for you.

Having said that, I was intrigued by the title of Sean Stephenson’s book, Get Off Your “But.” It had a good sound to it, and I’ve always been a proponent of getting up and doing something when you want to solve a problem.

While Get Off Your “But” was a good title, the book itself lacked real meat, and I didn’t feel that it added much original content to the subjects that it presented.

Continue reading

Jun 01

[Review] Predictably Irrational

I’ve talked a couple of times on this site about how I go about picking the next book I’m going to read. The book in this review came to me through a somewhat different route.

I listen to a podcast about technology called This Week In Tech (or TWIT for short). It allows me to keep up on all things tech and is quite entertaining. If you’re like me, and are interested in technology, it’s certainly worth checking out. Not to mention, quite often they talk about books.

In this case, the book was Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and I’m guessing I would not have picked this book up if not for the discussion on the TWIT podcast. However, I’m very glad I did.

Continue reading

Mar 31

Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes

drhouse

Courtesy of Fox

 

 

I know there are bunch of book readers out there who think that television is the root of all evil and the thing that is damning our entire civilization. I’m not one of those people. I enjoy television.

I really enjoy it when I can take a character on television and see his or here roots in literature. Dr. Gregory House from Fox’s “House” is one such character. I believe that he was based on one of the most well known literary detectives of all time — Sherlock Holmes.

Here are some reasons why I think this.

  • They are both socially awkward. Both Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes disregard social norms when dealing with others. Dr. House does so in a much more intentional way, while Sherlock Holmes just really doesn’t care about social norms. For both of them, the standard things that people do to get along are boring and cumbersome.
  • They are both addicted to drugs. Gregory House is addicted to pain killers to keep his mind from noticing the pain in his leg. Sherlock Holmes was addicted to cocaine in order to activate his mind when nothing interesting was challenging him.
  • They both have a friend who helps them in the world. For Sherlock Holmes, of course, this was Dr. Watson. For Gregory House, this is the somewhat similarly named Dr. Wilson. Both of these people help the main character deal with society. Dr. Watson is much more hands on — he’s generally the guy who brings the gun or gets into the fight with the killer when it’s necessary. Dr. Wilson does things in a more subtle way, either bringing Dr. House back to reality or picking up after the mess that he leaves. Both Dr. Wilson and Dr. Watson were also roommates of the main characters at some time during the stories, and both help them interact with “normal” people.
  • They both live for the challenge. Both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. House come alive when confronted with a challenging mystery. Dr. House, for all his disregard of people, loves the challenge of figuring out what’s wrong with them. He only cares about those cases, and gets bored with the others. Sherlock Holmes was much the same way. He was only excited about life when the “chase was afoot” and he was working on a challenging case. When Watson tried to keep him from going back to cocaine, it was by making sure he had a challenging mystery to solve. When he didn’t, he would go into a slump.

I’m not saying Dr. House is going to start smoking a pipe or wearing a dearhunter cap anytime soon, just that the similarities are there. What other characters in television do you see based on characters from literature? Let us know in the comments.

Mar 23

[Review] The Silent Man by Alex Berenson

My friends and I enjoy going to movies quite a bit. I’ve always been a big fan of them, and always made friends with people who like movies. We see them, we talk about them, we quote them incessantly to the annoyance of our girlfriends and wives.

One of the terms that we use, and I’m sure it’s not unique to us, is the term “Popcorn Movie.” A Popcorn Movie is a movie that isn’t going to change your life or have you walking out of the theater a different person. A Popcorn Movie is an enjoyable action movie. It’s high on special effects, but it’s got enough plot and dialogue that you don’t feel like you’re watching a series of explosions tied together with nothing. Popcorn Movies are good movies, and ones that are worth seeing at the theater so you take advantage of all the sound and spectacle that they carry with them.

Alex Berenson’s The Silent Man is the book equivalent of a Popcorn Movie. It’s not going to redefine a genre or change the way you think about the world, but it will take you on an enjoyable, fast-paced ride through international intrigue.

Continue reading

Feb 10

[Review] The Tale of Desperaux


I may have said it before in earlier articles, but one of the challenges of reading to a child frequently is finding books that are entertaining to you as well was your child. It’s similar to what makes the Pixar movies so popular; movies like Cars or Toy Story. On one level, they are fantastic for kids and are great adventure stories, but on another level they are great for the parents, too.

The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo is one such book. It had me encouraging my daughter to pick it for the read of the night, just so I could find out what happened next.

The Story

As the subtitle of the book states: “Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread.” The Tale of Desperaux is a story of a mouse and princess. As with any great love story, they meet at the beginning of the book, are separated, and must find one another once again. Along the way our brave mouse faces dangers, including rats, dungeons and a cook. To find out the rest, you’ll have to read it yourself.

Continue reading

Jan 20

Moby Dick – The “Tell, Don’t Show” Section

Whenever I’ve taken creative writing courses, the rule that always comes out is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the number one rule to remember when writing fiction. You don’t tell the audience that a character is ruthless, you set up scenes that demonstrate the character’s ruthlessness. You don’t tell the audience that it is a dark and stormy night, you create the feeling with direct facts of trees blowing around and references to the darkness itself.

I’m now on chapter fifty-two of Moby Dick, and the section I just finished violates the “Show, don’t tell” rule throughout. I’m guessing that when people try and read this book, it’s this section that makes them quit.

What started as a good adventure story has taken a little pause in order to fill in the reader on all kinds of factual things about whaling. While I understand the potential importance of this, entire chapters have read more like a text book than a work of fiction. Chapter thirty-two for example is a complete description of all the different varieties of whale and how one goes about classifying the different types. Not the kind of thing that keeps you riveted to the book.

It’s also interesting to note that during this very chapter, the author mentions “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught.” There are quite a few places during this section that feel like they were added after the story was created, and just thrown in willy-nilly, without much thought as to how it might affect the pacing. The chapters that push the story forward feel like they aren’t aware of these long chapters of exposition.

Other Characters

During this stage, a few characters have been introduced to us, and we’ve been given glimpses of Ahab and his own character. It’s interesting that I made the last note as pre-ahab, because the introduction of Ahab himself was done with quite a bit of buildup and suspense. He lived down in his cabin until the ship was out to sea, and when he finally really came alive and talked to the crew, it was to get them to commit their souls to hunting down the white whale.

We’ve also had small glimpses into the officers of the ship and the other harpooners (other than Queequeg). We haven’t learned much about their characters yet, other than Starbuck looks to be the most level headed of the group, and the one who will most likely challenge Ahab directly.

I hope that the next section of the book builds more on these characters and moves away from the textbook style of the last section. Then maybe I’ll get the next posting about this one up a bit quicker (it’s been a challenge to force myself through this last section).

New Questions

A couple new questions. With the textbook chapters, only so much of the story has progressed, so I don’t have too many new ones.

  • How will the oath that the sailors took play into the story? How much of the influence of putting ones soul on the line will impact people’s actions?
  • Ahab is intent on the White Whale, but will we get to see the crew in action taking on other whales as well? We’ve seen the start of one so far, but they got turned back by weather. I’m still curious about what the crew does when it actually catches a whale.
  • The introduction of the stowaways that man Ahab’s boat was interesting and somewhat unexpected. How will these new characters influence the story and the crew? They were not part of the crew’s oath to Ahab, will that play into things?