These are reviews originally posted to Amazon as customer reviews. They're intended for entertainment and informational purposes only. (Apologies for any typos, bad grammar, or offensive language.) This isn't sponsored by Amazon or represent them in any way, although they do have a very nice site and I recommend checking it out for your next book purchase. Feel free to comment on the books if you've read them or tell me how much my reviews suck or whatever.
That is all.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
(5/5 stars)

It's just as well I didn't read this book when I bought it in December 2011 on sale.  I probably would have scoffed at the idea that a hard-line fascist patriarchy could take over what was once America.  Reading it in May 2012 now I'm not nearly as skeptical.  Hearing the hard-line stances of those like Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh infamously calling a woman a [rhymes with "glut"] for wanting birth control makes me think there is a portion of this country that would enact something just like Atwood describes.

What she describes in "The Handmaid's Tale" is a patriarchal society where most women are stripped of all rights.  There's a caste system of sorts enacted.  At the top are the "Wives" who are (obviously) the wives of high-ranking officials in the new regime.  There are also "Econowives" who are the wives of lesser officials.  The Wives have servants called "Marthas" who toil away in the kitchens and so forth.  And then since most Wives are older and infertile, there are the Handmaidens.  The Handmaidens are tasked with giving birth to a baby, which is then turned over to the Wife to raise.

Now since this is a hard-line religious establishment where doctors and scientists are killed or locked up, they can't use scientific means like artificial insemination.  Instead there's a whole bizarre ritual that takes place every few nights that involves the Commander (the male head of the household) getting it on with the Handmaiden while the wife is present.  There's nothing seductive or kinky about all of it; it's all pretty sterile, which might be why it's ineffective.

The person telling the tale is a Handmaiden known as Offred (as in she's Fred's property).  She describes life in her household and at other intervals talks about life before the new order took over.  In that life, Offred had a real name and a husband named Luke and also a daughter.  She had a feminist mother and a lesbian friend named Moira.

I think if you want to complain about anything it's that not a lot really HAPPENS in terms of plot.  So if you were looking for a taut thriller or anything like that, then you wouldn't enjoy this.  The obvious point of comparison would be "1984".  I would also say that was a better book in that Orwell has more of a story arc concerning Winston being seduced by the "rebellion" and then betraying the one he loves in order to save his own skin, thereby crushing his spirit.  (Oh sorry for the spoilers.)  While Atwood's book is riveting, the world she builds doesn't really go anywhere.  Offred isn't forced to make the same choices as Winston.  And I have to say I found the last 6% or so, the epilogue, to be a little corny.

Still, with the recent events I already mentioned, the hard-line anti-abortion laws being enacted in "red states" and so forth, I think this is an important book to read (or reread) at this point in history.  Especially if you're female you should read this to see the worst that can happen.

That is all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Am Legend

I Am Legend
by Richard Matheson
(5/5 stars)

This is one of those classic books I've been meaning to get around to.  When it was finally on sale for less than a buck on the Kindle, I decided to take the plunge and I was not disappointed.

I've only read one of Matheson's other books (his latest one at the time of this review) but I'm a big fan of his work on the original "Twilight Zone" and "I Am Legend" certainly has much of the same vibe as many TZ episodes.

Many "Twilight Zone" episodes (including the pilot) dealt with a lone or small group of survivors after the apocalypse.  Only in this case instead of nuclear war it's a plague that gradually turns everyone into "vampires."  It's important to note that in many ways Matheson's vampires are more akin to the zombies of "Night of the Living Dead" and such than the vampires in "Dracula" or especially "Twilight."  These vampires cannot go out in the light and they drink blood, but they aren't super strong or super fast and they can't change into other shapes.  The way they shamble around, seemingly unable to even open a door, definitely makes them closer to zombies than vampires.

Robert Neville is seemingly the last man on Earth, or at least the last man in his neck of the woods in California.  After about five months he's built his old house into an impenetrable fortress that's stocked with food and has a generator for electricity.  He even has a hothouse to grow garlic that helps keep the vampires at bay.  Every night the vampires gather around his house, hoping he'll come out.  One of his former neighbors yells at him constantly to come out while the undead women strike lurid poses in the hope of coaxing Neville from his fortress.

Most of the story then deals with Neville's survival.  In particular in how he has to deal with the crushing loneliness and isolation of being the only real human left.  To help combat that, Neville begins trying to understand the disease that wiped out humanity and possibly to find a cure for it.

Along the way we learn a little more about Neville's life before the plague, in particular what happened with his wife and daughter.  Though still by the end the details are a little skimpy, especially where the daughter is concerned.  One bit of confusion for me was that it took a while for Matheson to really establish whether Kathy was the wife or daughter and the same for Virginia.

Still, I found this a riveting, suspenseful read.  Modern readers who yearn for buckets of blood and gore aren't going to find that so much in here, but it is a fascinating tale of survival in the face of great horror and adversity.

Another note is that if you saw the Will Smith film from a few years ago you should disregard that as except for the title and basic premise they don't have much in common.

That is all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Sirens of Titan

A good analogy for this book is it's like one of those paintings that looks great at a distance but when you look at it up-close you can see all the brush strokes. In this case the more distant Vonnegut is from his characters the better because up close the characters come off more as cartoonish props than real people.

The story details the lives of three people who are moved by forces beyond their control. William Niles Rumsfoord set out into space with his dog and now through a strange phenomenon I won't try to spell he has become unstuck in time and space (take that Billy Pilgrim!) so that he appears on Earth at his house every 59 days. His wife Beatrice Rumsfoord wants little to do with him. Then one day Rumsfoord calls his cousin Malachi Constant for a visit. Constant is a billionaire playboy who inherited his money from his father and has done nothing with his life. Rumsfoord tells Constant that he will roam the Solar System, first to Mars, then Mercury, then back to Earth, and finally to Titan, where he will meet three beautiful women, the sirens of the title.

Well this does happen but none of it goes as Constant thought it might. Beatrice gets swept up in it as well. Meanwhile Rumsfoord seems to be pulling the strings of everyone in the Solar System but who's pulling his strings?

As I said at the start, Vonnegut is at his best in this novel when he deals with broader issues, like the history of Mars or the lives of tiny insects on Mercury. Those moments called to mind Douglas Adams and the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" books where too the broader issues were often better than the up-close ones. The characters of Rumsfoord, Beatrice, and Constant aren't all that interesting and as I said none of them seems all that REAL. Vonnegut I don't think was interested in making real, sympathetic characters so much as in making his points about religion, Fate, and so forth.

The last 15% or so almost makes up for the book's deficiencies. Whereas Douglas Adams seemed to back away from providing the answer of life, the universe, and everything, Vonnegut tackles it head-on. Though in both cases, Earth is little more than a pawn in someone else's game; or perhaps not even a pawn; Earth might be more like a bit of dust that gets blown around when someone else moves the pieces.

I don't think this is one of Vonnegut's best, but it wasn't a waste of time either.

As a special note, I noticed quite a few typographical errors in this edition. In part I think it might be from digitizing this to the Kindle. Or perhaps not. It was a little distracting at times.

That is all.