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My Year in Books: 2011, Part 2

January 10, 2012

UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW — Dawkins responds to critics of The Selfish Gene, who accused him of taking all the wonder and mystery out of the world by insisting on reducing things to their scientific explanations, or who despaired that a world without magical explanations was a world without wonder. The title refers to a similar accusation by the poet Keats, that too much understanding of the nature of reality removes it of its poetry, that to “unweave the rainbow” was to destroy its beauty.

By way of response, Dawkins spends a good chunk of the book literally discussing the scientific unweaving of the rainbow — i.e. the study of the electromagnetic spectrum — and making the case that by doing so, by insisting on understanding, we’ve not only advanced human civilization but found more that is wondrous and beautiful about it than when we cowered and thought it magic. Other chapters not directly referencing the “rainbow” are also on the theme of satisfying our craving for wonder while also satisfying our curiosity, finding poetry in discovery rather than manufacturing mystery. Like Selfish Gene, well worth reading for anyone, and probably slightly more accessible. [Kindle Edition]

THE NASTY LITTLE WRITING BOOK — A satire of writing advice books, its one gag — it tells you to do exactly the opposite of everything you actually should do — wears thin quickly, and the Kindle edition[1] is so poorly formatted that it really becomes tiresome to read all around. I’m sure it was cathartic for the author — a literary agent — to get all the biting sarcasms she wants to say to would-be clients out of her system, but it really is a little too nasty for my taste, and has little that I recall in the way of original or eye-opening advice once you’ve run it through the “everything is opposite” decoder ring.

WRITING A NOVEL WITH SCRIVENER — I reviewed Scrivener once, years ago. Since then, it’s come out with a 2.0 version, a Windows version that just moved from beta to release, and (finally) has an iPad version in development. It has remained my tool of choice for any writing project — be it a script, short story, or even blog post — from inception to completed first draft, and sometimes beyond, and if you are a writer or fancy you would like to be one it is the best $45 you will ever, ever spend.

It’s also a tremendously robust program, which can make it daunting. David Hewson to the rescue. I haven’t yet read any of his novels, but just having someone highlight the functions he commonly uses, and functions he doesn’t use but can see how they’d be useful, helped open my eyes to a better way to work with the program. Even after several years of constant work with it, the program had wells of power I had left untapped — just getting my head around Scrivener’s ability to work in scenes was, if you’ll pardon the unbelievably overused cliche, a game-changer for me.

So let me revise my previous statement: if you’re a writer or fancy you would like to be one, a Scrivener license and a copy of Hewson’s (Kindle-only) book are the best $50.99 you’ll ever spend pursuing it.

THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT: STORY AND STYLE IN MODERN MOVIES — I read this book expecting to get another perspective on the usual Hollywood storytelling formula, a la Syd Field, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder, et al. It was a welcome surprise, then, to find that it was actually an academic discourse on the evolution and execution of visual storytelling in American cinema. I found it to be a really great resource and worth reading and mulling over for anyone interested in filmmaking (which I expect is most of the people who would be reading this). [Kindle Edition]

THE ROAD — I think the most perplexing part of this book is that someone decided to make a big-budget, wide-release movie out of it (which I have not yet seen). I guess it could be as simple as Cormac McCarthy’s name on the cover. “The last one we did won Best Picture! Greenlight!”

It’s not a bad book, mind. It’s actually quite a good one on the prose side, especially if Hemingway is your thing. And I guess if Hemingway is your thing you also probably don’t mind that things just kind of happen and it’s harsh and upsetting until finally the book stops telling you about them. But overall I just found it frustrating and depressing. Then again a lot of “great” contemporary literature has left me that way. [Kindle Edition]

THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY — Taking the conceit that The Odyssey was assembled in the same way as the Christian Bible — from many sources and traditions, some of them very different or even openly contradictory, which eventually solidified into the modern “canon” — this book claims to bring to light for the first time some of the “apocrypha” that did not become part of The Odyssey as we know it today. I say claims, but it’s not as though the author actually intends to get this accepted at an academic level. It’s a metafiction, allowing him to play some literary jazz, riffing off The Odyssey, experimenting with alternate themes, characterizations, motivations, plotlines. Many of them clearly expect, even require, a familiarity with the “canon” Odyssey in order to appreciate the deviation, but they’re all fun to read and consider. Just the reinterpretation of Odysseus as a coward would make this one worthwhile for any fan of classical mythology. [Kindle Edition]

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST — As I mentioned in my blurb on Played with Fire, this book is much more entertaining and satisfying as a whole, wrapping up the loose ends introduced in the previous books with some clever twists and turns along the way. Having read the full trilogy I still couldn’t really say what made these books such an apparent phenomenon, but they’re entertaining enough. Certainly more of a commitment than the Hunger Games books, but they also tie up better in the end.

As a side note, this may have been just as prevalent in the prior two books, but I only noticed it in this one: Larsson mentions his characters drinking coffee a lot. Like, pathologically a lot. Any time characters meet, part, or walk from one room to another he mentions them offering each other coffee, purchasing coffee, pouring coffee, sipping coffee. I asked The Swedish Person I Know if coffee is as fetishized in Swedish culture as its omnipresence in the novel would imply, if maybe you’ve committed some serious social taboo by not offering a guest coffee or whatever, and he told me not really, no. So I guess Larsson was just obsessed. [Kindle Edition]

THE FOREVER WAR — Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine was one of the first books I read on Kindle, but not because I knew who he was. It was just one of the books that happened to be temporarily free when I got my Kindle. Only later did I find out that he had written a novel which was considered one of the major works of late-twentieth century science fiction, called The Forever War. For a while it was out of print and unavailable on Kindle (both since rectified), so it wasn’t until I signed up with Audible that I remembered it and decided to read it.[2]

The premise seemed rife with potential: mankind is embroiled in a war with an alien race, but the battles are fought across such distances that warships and troops must travel at relativistic speeds, meaning a “retaliatory” strike might occur hundreds or even thousands of years after the event for which it is retaliating. I thought it might be an interesting exploration of the foolishness of generational grudges and retaliation, with the singleminded military commanding forces perhaps serving only to repeatedly start new wars after centuries of peace. Such a novel might have taken on new impact post-9/11, and post-Iraq War II, considering the madness and broad-brushed ignorant hatred that possessed and continues to possess people on both sides.

But Haldeman is less interested in contemporary commentary than in thought experiment. Like Accidental Time Machine, his narrator takes progressively larger forward leaps in time and in each case is left to confront a world and a culture that has evolved in his absence. It doesn’t really get at anything other than, I suppose, perhaps being a metaphor for the culture shock all young men and women no doubt experience when they’ve been away at war for a long time and discover the “home” they’ve been fighting for no longer exists. That life went on without them. But the storytelling, by and large, is dry, more a series of events than a story developing and building to something. Maybe that’s also a comment on the meaninglessness of war. Or maybe it just wasn’t my thing. [Kindle Edition]

THE HOBBIT — I read this book more times than I could count growing up. Nonetheless, the last time I read it would have been over ten years ago, just before the first LORD OF THE RINGS movie came out in theatres. And, going back to read it this year, I discovered I remembered almost nothing. I remembered Gollum and the riddles in the dark, I remembered Smaug on his mountain of treasure, and that his bit of the story came to an end rather anticlimactically (which hopefully the upcoming film will change) — and that was really pretty much it. So getting to read this again was a real treat, because it was like reading it for the first time.

The Hobbit still feels like a fresh and contemporary piece of fantasy literature, needing no handicap for “well, you have to think of it in terms of what else was around at the time” to explain its popularity, then and now. The scope of imagination is stunning — even in a novel which Tolkien himself apparently considered disposable, never intending to tie it into Arda mythopoeia which he was already developing — and the story is as brisk and exciting as I ever found it as a child. [Kindle Edition]


1. Which, strangely, no longer seems to exist.

2. That’s right. If the audiobook is unabridged, I consider listening to said audiobook to be the same as “reading” the book and refer to it as such. Come at me bro.

From → reading, reviews

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