Sunday, January 12, 2014

Post-2013 Book Wrap Rap

Every year I make an understated private pledge (NOT A RESOLUTION) to (whenever possible) become a better person in at least one way.  Usually more, but I pare that down during the year.
Here’s how it typically goes inside my head:
  • Get in better shape - don't care how much I weigh, I just want to be in better shape.  Stronger, leaner, with cheeks that don't weigh twenty pounds each and make me sound like Alfred Hitchcock .
  • Become more compassionate and patient. Also: stop being so compassionate and patient with EVERYBODY, but mete out my compassion in moderation.  Be more moderate with my compassion?  F*** it, I'll settle for being moderately more compassionate, and if that's not good enough for you it's because you're a jerk.  NEXT!
  • Get out of my own head and experience somebody else's thought processes and worldview by reading more than I did the year prior.
  • Get my own thoughts out of my head and put them down on paper so someone else can experience my thought processes by reading things I write.  So: I have to actually write instead of just wishing I had more time to write..
This year I did a fair amount of writing about reading books and experiencing the author’s worldview.  I sure as hell hope that made me a better person, because reading and writing don't make my cheeks any lighter.
I read a lot of comic books in 2013, mostly with my dog on my lap.  I even became more compassionate, but mostly toward Spider-Man and Captain America.  And then, with the body of a middle-aged man with multiple malfunctioning body parts and the worldview of a super-hero, I continued to do stupid things with my body that injure it.  The worst part is that I don’t recover by the next month because I do not have a mutant healing factor.  You'd think my Spidey-sense would warn me before I do something stupid.
Comic books aside, I wanted to make a dent in the pile of books (both paper and ebooks - which don't really pile, per se) waiting for my attention.  I attacked and read voraciously, whenever I wasn't either at work or exhausted from work.
Counting the actual books I actually read, it turns out I read a whopping nine books in 2013. When I was a kid I could read nine books in a month.  I blame my all-consuming job.  I need to retire to a life of leisure.
Of these nine books, looks like I wrote about six of them.
Here are the last three:
The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, The Gate Thief by Orson Scott Card, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling:
As hundreds of disappointed reviewers will tell you, The Casual Vacancy is not a Harry Potter Book.  While disappointing in its lack of whimsical uses of magic in its non-magical setting, I found the book interesting for what it was: a chance to see what Jo Rowling chooses to do when writing for adults.  What she chose was to write characters who swear and have sex, and who like or dislike the other characters who swear and have sex.
When I write a plot synopsis of this book ("The death of one man in a small English village touches all residents in some way and set them to debating town policy as they live their lives which ARE NOT LIVED AT HOGWARTS"), my own words make me want to not read it.
Luckily, the actual book is a worthwhile read. Jo Rowling is a good writer, which is why we liked Harry Potter so much in the first place.  Like approximately 100% of books written by humans, this is not a perfect book; but because Rowling is inventive and plays with words so well, reading this imperfect book was a mostly-joyful use of my time.  
I can't decide whether to be irritated at Rowling's way of honing in on the most important facet of a character and telegraphing what kind of a person the character is instead of letting the reader decide for themselves. It strikes me as shortcut/melodrama/Young Adult genre-ish.  It’s the only thing that struck me as unpolished.  
Then again, it's not the reader's job to decide what kind of writer Rowling is going to be - we get to read along with the process of Rowling deciding for herself, and deciding what kind of books she's going to write.
If Casual Vacancy is any indication, the answer is "messy, fun, and mostly enjoyable".  Much like profanity, or married sex.
The Gate Thief by Orson Scott Card:
Scott Card writes about impossibly smart people in impossibly difficult and complex situations, and I find his books impossible to put down.  It makes me grouchy that I occasionally have to stop reading and go to work.  
The Gate Thief is the second in a series that began with The Lost Gate, and seems targeted toward the Young Adult audience, which includes me because I think I'm not ever going to get any older than Young Adult if I can help it.
If you've read an Orson Scott Card book, then you are already familiar with the experience of being much less intelligent than the characters in his stories.  This continues with The Gate Thief, in which our main character is Danny North, - one of a long line of Lokis (as that name is the name of a role rather than one particular person).  The underlying precept of the story is that the Gods humans worshipped (Greek, Norse, Incan, and all others) are real and have been living undercover.  These are massively dysfunctional families, just like in all the myths.  
As all the gods vie ruthlessly for power and influence over Danny, we get to see the (always with Card) hard choices the characters make, and the consequences that result.
As with his other books, Card has his entire world thought out so thoroughly and his characters feel their humanity so keenly that it's an absolute pleasure to be included in the ride.  Card's books are a guilty pleasure without the guilt (unless you feel guilt about wanting to read his stories but not wanting to contribute money to a man whose personal views are publicly ultra conservative).
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow:
I was SO excited by this book!  It's set in the near future, but it was published in April 2008 - the future depicted in the book is essentially RIGHT NOW.
It's scary, it's exciting, and it should be required reading for every American citizen, especially anybody who doesn't already care about our civil liberties.  For real.  It's hard to tell when I'm not being a smartass, so I'll clue you in that I am as serious as I ever get right now.
The Author’s synopsis - because he says it better than I do:
What's Little Brother about?
Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.
But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.
When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.
This book was mind-blowingly exciting to read.  Doctorow also uses it as a framework to teach the reader about existing tracking technology and encryption and other ways to keep our lives private from anyone we don't invite to see our secrets.  Little Brother is a corollary to the concept of 1984’s Big Brother.  
Yes, this is a book about The Little Guy standing up to The Man.  The most compelling thing about it is that it’s also the story of The Little Guy persuading all the other Little Guys to stand up to The Man.  Every action has a reaction (not necessarily equal or opposite in human behavior), and for every [human organization] overreach, there are well-meaning Regular Person collaborators simply striving to regain the ease of life we all assume we have. The huge events in Little Brother undermine the social and political landscape for the entire community.
READ THIS BOOK.  In fact, the author feels so strongly about people reading this book that if you don't want to purchase it, then you can download it for free from his website.
Please do.  If you don't love it as much as I did, I will personally refund any money you pay for the free download.
And also, I promise
I kind of promise
I intend to let’s see if I write more frequently in 2014.