I have done a bad job writing about the books that I have read. In order to make up for that, here is the books that I have read over this spring semester.
I must confess that I saw the movie (starring Elijah Wood) adaptation of this book before I read it. After I returned from living two years in Russia, I went back and rewatched it and decided that I might give the book a shot. Overall, the book is better than the movie. Everything is Illuminated is a touching, quirky and interesting book. I especially loved the depiction of Eastern Europe. Although told in broad, caricature-like strokes, Foer’s depiction of the oddities of Eastern European life and the bafflement of Americans when facing it reminded me of a few encounters I had in Russia. Foer’s description of Ukraine is evocative and touching, but the book really shines in the human elements. I was especially drawn to the stories of the historic Jews living in Ukraine and was touched by Foer’s emotion filled description of their hardships. Overall, the pure emotional weight of the book was its greatest part. The story itself was a little contrived and Foer is a little too clever for his own good, but he sure knows how to make readers feel something and for that I thoroughly enjoyed Everything Is Illuminated.
Babel-17/Empire Star- Samuel R. Delany
As mentioned when I talked about Finnegans Wake, I get easily provoked into reading books
described as difficult or unreadable. Because of that Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren has sat on my Amazon wishlist for about a year now. Eventually I will read it. But I have other things to do first. I decided that before I conquered Dhalgren I would
look into Delany’s other books, most notably Babel-17. This is the story of a linguist tasked with deciphering an alien language used to attack Earth. I thought that Delany’s vision of the future was interesting, especially the idea of people receiving copious plastic surgeries and enhancements. The best part of Babel-17 was the discussion of language, and I found Delany’s ideas of future alien interactions interesting. In Babel-17 humans do not really interact with other alien civilizations, because the differences in language makes their cultures so different that they can not really interact. Humans and aliens are allies, but their cultures can not mix. I thought that that was a really interesting and practical look at the future, and underscored the ideas of the book. Unfortunately, Babel-17 was not that interesting in terms of style and writing. It was one of those books that they ideas present in it are more interesting than the ideas themselves. Looking back on Babel-17, I can say that I really enjoyed the ideas of language and culture, but I did not have a lot of fun reading the book itself. My copy of Babel-17 came printed with the novella Empire Star which was an incredibly interesting story about the cyclical nature of time. Empire Star was more enjoyable to read than Babel-17 and completely mind blowing. Purchasing Babel-17 was worth it just to read Empire Star.
Hegemony or Survival– Noam Chomsky
I am a late comer to the writings of Noam Chomsky. I had read some of his essays and decided to get into his books, starting with Hegemony or Survival. This books is a response to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Chomsky specifically is interested in how the double standard of American foreign policy has sowed discontent, terrorism and destruction in third world countries while we condemn the same actions of other countries. Hegemony or Survival was written in 2003, so the lessons that we learned from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars were not really clear yet, and the book seems a little dated now. However, Chomsky’s historical analysis of American foreign policy is still relevant and was an eye opening experience. Chomsky is obviously an incredibly intelligent person, and this book often feels like an info dump, which requires a lot from the readers. There is so much information in this book that sometimes it is hard to keep track of all the facts and figures. The overall impression that the book gives is strong, and Chomsky gave me specific examples of things that I had already believed about American foreign policy. My biggest problem with this book is that Chomsky does not really pose any solutions to the problem. He does a great job reporting all of the problems, but in the end I was left wondering what we could do about the current foreign policy situation. Unfortunately, Chomsky has no solutions to give us, and this was a little disappointing.
Cryptonomicon- Neil Stephenson
I use this chart at chartgeek.com to find a lot of my recommendations for science
fiction novels. This time around I decided to get into cyber punk with Neil Stephenson’s monstrous novel Cryptonomicon. This novel is huge and packed. There is so much information in it and so many plot elements that sometimes it is hard to wrap your mind around. But, like other dense writers like Thomas Pynchon, the shear amount of information never feels overindulgent or difficult to wade through. Rather, Cryptonomicon draws you in and rewards a patient reading of the story. Although technically classified as science fiction, Cryptonomicon does not rely on too many of the standard trappings of science fiction. Instead the story involves World War II code breakers and modern day information technology gurus working to use the science of cryptology to complete their respective tasks 60 years apart. The two stories intermix in exciting and interesting ways. Cryptonomicon is a heady and complex book, but in the best way possible. I think that I would compare it to a more slick and less confusing version of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Both of these books are complex and breathtaking in scope. If you have the drive and the time, Cryptonomicon is a great read.
This is the only book that I have read this spring that was actually a little disappointing. I think that my biggest problem is that I was expecting something else from The Sheltering Sky. After hearing it advertised as an existential novel, I was expecting the book to feel like a travelogue version of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Instead, I felt that The Sheltering Sky was a little less philosophical and written more as a travel book. That is fine, because Paul Bowles does a great job describing and explaining the life of the people in North Africa. He also does a great job showing how Americans easily destroy the cultures that they come in contact with through their negligence and ignorance. To me, The Sheltering Sky is a cautionary tale against a sort of ignorance that causes Americans and Europeans to look at the rest of the world as something that can be conquered or just experienced. This sort of ignorance ignores the complexities of the cultures that we come in contact with. Ultimately, this mentality will not just destroy other cultures but also ourselves. That is what I took from the novel, but I felt like The Sheltering Sky is a novel that is more interesting to think about than to actually read. Bowles written is interesting at times, but usually tended to be forced into a travel book mold that did not really give his ideas full room to flourish. I would say that The Sheltering Sky is an interesting book, but it never connected with me as much as I wanted.
From Eternity to Here- Sean Carroll
Popular science books as always hit or miss. You get quality books that describe modern physics in a way that actually helps you understand what science is discovering. On the other hand, you get cheap pop books that are more focused with shiny theories and predictions that are at the peripheral of the science community. Fortunately, From Eternity to Here falls into the first group. Sean Carroll sets off to discuss the current theories of why time only flows in one direction. That is pretty heady stuff and can get really complex. Carroll does a good job explaining some of the science in an understandable way, but he does not cut corners when he does not need to. Because of that, From Eternity to Here has pretty lengthy discussions of the law of entropy and general relativity. These discussions do not rely so much on the flashy predictions that seems to populate a lot of science books, but rather involve the nuts and bolts of these theories, even going so far as to get into the mathematics. I enjoyed this approach, because I felt that Carroll was focusing on the actually science and not just trying to write what would appeal to mass audiences. Carroll’s approach made this book interesting, especially to somebody like me who is studying physics in college. I would highly recommend From Eternity to Here to people who have some background in physics.