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Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

July 22, 2015 2 comments

cover_peytonplaceSummary:
Peyton Place appears to be a picturesque small town in New Hampshire. But over the course of the novel, the secret passions, lies, and cruelties of its various inhabitants are revealed.  From a single mother lying both about her daughter’s age and being a widow to the school janitor who drinks to dull the ache of his wife’s cheating to what exactly is buried in the sheep pen in the Cross’s yard.  Small town life is anything but simple and picturesque.

Review:
This book was first recommended to me on either LibraryThing or GoodReads for being similar to The Group (review), another book written in the mid 1900s featuring an ensemble cast.  I wound up ultimately picking it up because I read that it was quite scandalous when it first came out and it was the inspiration behind the first successful nighttime American soap opera of the same name (source).  Additionally, I grew up in Vermont but spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, since I grew up on the Vermont border with New Hampshire.  I even went to high school in New Hampshire (public school, my town in Vermont was too small for a high school so bussed us out to other ones nearby).  I was curious to see if any element of the book would successfully evoke New Hampshire to me.  I often find that books set in New Hampshire just don’t ring true with the New Hampshire I know.  What I found was a book that almost gave me chills at how well it depicted a typical New Hampshire small town, but also was nowhere near what I would in my modern mind describe as scandalous, although I can see why it was at the time.

The story explores the intersecting lives of many town folk in the 1940s and 1950s, but primarily focuses on Constance MacKenzie, her daughter Allison, and her daughter’s friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Selena Cross.  Constance is a frigid woman who has tamped down her sexuality in an attempt to raise her daughter who she conceived out of wedlock while having an affair with a married man in the right way.  She has gone so far as to lie about her daughter’s age and to lie about being a widow to help her daughter seem “acceptable.”  Allison grows up over the course of the novel, first having typical teenage angst, then moving away to NYC to become a writer.  Selena Cross suffers from a good-for-nothing stepfather, living in a shack, and living with a mother who is not all mentally there.  Through their eyes and lives we see snippets of the lives of many others in the town.

Here are the things that were considered scandalous when the book was first published: rape of a stepdaughter by a stepfather (you can probably guess who), abortion (which was illegal at the time), men locking themselves in a basement to go on a bender for weeks at a time.  Things that were probably also considered scandalous but to less of a degree: teenage sex, out of wedlock sex, middle school aged boy spying on a couple having sex, murder in self-defense.  I had to sit here and think for a bit to remember what was possibly deemed scandalous.  It mostly just seemed like a very eventful book to me, and honestly I was just a bit surprised that nothing more scandalous happened.  (Apparently, Metalious originally wrote the book with having a father rape a daughter, but the publisher made her change it because America wasn’t ready yet. Oh my how times have changed. Source).  The only part of the book that really bothered me at all in the way that perhaps people were once scandalized was the depicted of Constance’s relationship with her new boyfriend.  Basically she is frigid and he has to get her to open up and accept her sexuality in order to be her true self.  That’s a fine plot, but the way it’s done often verges on the border of “she said no but ignore it because she really means yes.”  I understand in the 1950s when this was written that it was progressive to have a woman character learning to open up and embrace her sexuality, so I shouldn’t be too harsh with modern critiques.  Certainly the character herself deems what occurred between her and her boyfriend as lovemaking.  But I definitely don’t think this portion aged well, and it soured my enjoyment of that particular chapter, and Constance’s plot as a whole.

I found the two abortion plots to be particularly poignant and important.  Even though abortion is now legal, a lot of the arguments for and against it in the book are still heard today.  I found the two abortions in the book to be an important reminder of why it’s important for abortion to be legal and also why it’s important to educate about safe sex at the same time.

What really made me enjoy the book though was its depiction of small town New Hampshire life.  It just rang as so very true to me, right own to the scandals.  I think too often people get this idealistic picture of small town life, and that is just not the reality for people who actually live there.  People in small towns are just as human as people in cities.  The real difference is that it’s hard to change your reputation in a small town.  Similarly, small towns are more able to be a law in and of themselves.  If the people agree on something, no outsiders can make them change their tune.  That can both be a blessing and a curse.  If you are interested in New Hampshire, this book certainly presents it in an unvarnished way.  From the scenery to the proximity of Vermont to the mills and the problems with the mills to the way the small towns block out those who aren’t from here.  If what the reader is looking for is a real representation of small town New Hampshire, they should certainly look no further.

One side-note: I find the story of the author’s life and how her book was received to be quite fascinating.  For instance, how it was mostly received as chick lit, in spite of the fact that if the same story had been written by a man it would have been considered serious literature.  I also find how the author found the information to inspire the story, as well as how she reacted to fame to be fascinating.  If you want to read more about the former, I recommend picking up this edition of the book, as it has a great foreword talking about the history of the book from a women’s studies perspective.  If you’re interested in the latter, I recommend reading this article from Vanity Fair about her life.

Overall, it is easy to see how this book was scandalous in its time, although it mostly holds no shock value today.  Readers interested in small town New Hampshire life with a side of multiple overlapping juicy plots will not be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

May 13, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley RobinsonSummary:
Imagine a world where the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out the majority of the European population, rather than one-third of it.  This is the world Robinson imagines, one where Buddhism and Islam rise as the two major religions of the world (with no religion a close third).  See the history of the world through the eyes of two souls who keep reincarnating in different cultures, struggling to better both themselves and their world that could easily have been ours.

Review:
I originally picked this book up because I have long held a fascination with the various religions of the world (I was actually a Religious Studies minor in undergrad).  The “what if” at the center of the book seemed like a great starting place to me.  Indeed, what if most of the followers of currently largest faith (Christianity, source) had died off?  What things would change and what would have stayed the same?  Robinson chooses to tell this tale through reincarnating souls, which sometimes gives us a lot of access to these changes but other times leaves the reader feeling like they got just a passing breath of a culture and a century.

I didn’t realize going into this that Robinson had chosen to tell this story through the eyes of the same souls reincarnating over and over again.  It’s an interesting choice that I am uncertain about as it lends a sort of “this much we know” to the spiritual side of the story.  We, the readers, know that the souls of people in this world definitely exist, they go to the bardo to await judgment and reincarnation.  The bardo they go to appears to reflect whatever faith they had (Muslims have their own, Buddhists have their own, etc…)  The idea is also put out there that each of the faiths is a different path to the same end (enlightenment).  Much as I may personally believe this idea, I’m not sure how I feel about this particular story being so mythology heavy.  The History BA in me very much wanted to see a more analytical power-structure play-out, which we do get some of, but not as much as we get of the how to better our souls question.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that, although I was anticipating a book that was scholarly with a dash of spiritual, what I got instead was the reverse.  That’s not a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do wonder how the story may have played out differently if Robinson wasn’t so tied to the same souls over and over again.

One aspect of the same souls reincarnating that niggled at me a bit was that throughout history, no matter where they were born (or what gender or species), their names always started with the same letters.  So a character whose first name in the first incarnation started with the letter K always had a name that started with the letter K.  It got so I could predict who was who and, to a certain extent, how they would act in each incarnation.  On the one hand, it was a cool idea, although highly unlikely someone’s name would start with the same letter throughout time and cultures and languages.  On the other hand, it distracted me from the more interesting story of the different world developing with the rise of different cultures than actually appeared in our own history.

Similarly, I think there is far too much story and richness in this idea and timeline to limit it to one book.  There were multiple incarnations that I really wanted to know more of.  I wanted to know the whole story of these lives and this place.  Instead, the reader gets a quick glimpse into one time in their lives, and then we are left jumping ahead to the bardo to find out how they died and oh here comes the next incarnation.  Perhaps the point was to make the reader feel as if each life is only a blink, but the scholar in me was left wanting to know so much more about every area and life the book briefly visited.  It was like getting only a small morsel of each chocolate in a box of delicious chocolates, instead of getting to savor them all over a long period of time.

All of this said, let me now discuss the parts of the book I really enjoyed (and would have liked to have seen more of).  My favorite is how Robinson reimagined the Americas.  The same essential problem of real history still exists for the Native Americans even with the change of the Christians mostly dying off.  Mainly, they lacked easily sourced heavy metals to make higher-tech weapons and they were susceptible to all of the germs European explorers brought with them.  (I learned about this in my classes in US History for my BA, but my professors told me this whole idea is also presented in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, written at a level for those who are not history scholars, if you are interested in the topic).  Robinson figures out a creative way for select tribes in North America to avoid entirely succumbing to this fate, thus allowing them to band together and become the nation Hodenosaunee.  This means that one matriarchal, communal culture survives into the 20th and 21st centuries.  (Also of note, the West Coast is colonized successfully by the Chinese, so it is also vastly different in this imagining).  I was so intrigued by the idea of a Native culture surviving and holding on to their land against invaders.  But, on the other hand, I do feel that the author cherry-picked those tribes whose values most closely aligned with his own to “save” in this imagining.  (For instance, all human sacrificing tribes still die out/are enslaved, the Plains tribes are all presented as extremely violent and thus not eligible for inclusion in this forward-thinking group).  To a certain extent, the Hodenosaunee save the rest of the world with their communal and matriarchal ideas, and that verges a bit close to the stereotype/idea that select Native American tribes were/are just simply more spiritual than the rest of us, and we could all be saved if we would just listen.  (Think of the old commercial about littering and the Native man in traditional dress crying over our hurting “Mother Earth.”)  This stereotype removes humanity from Native Americans.  Native Americans consist of diverse nations with pluses and minuses, just like every nation in the world.  If Native Americans hadn’t been decimated by invasion, persecution, and disease, their existence as a power in the world would have been much more nuanced than presented in this book simply because Native Americans are humans, and humans are flawed. Just as no culture is all bad, no culture is all good.

Robinson does a much better job painting Islam and Buddhism with a nuanced brush.  Since their cultures dominate the book, this means most of the book is much more gray area, rather than presenting everything as black and white.  One element that demonstrates this, is how Robinson handles Islam and women.  All sides of the arguments about Islam and women are presented here.  There are incarnations of the souls that are Muslim women who argue strongly that the men are misinterpreting the Quran, what Mohammed said, etc… There are of course other incarnations that say no, the extreme fundamentalism is the right interpretation.  Through showing Islam through many different lenses in a world that is different from our own, Robinson demonstrates how religion is so incredibly open to interpretation, and good and bad people can shape it to their own agendas.  One passage that I think demonstrates how well Robinson walks this line is a conversation some characters have about the women wearing the veil or not:

The veil has a kind of power, in certain situations.  All such signs stand for other things; they are sentences spoken in matter.  The hijab can say to strangers, ‘I am Islamic and in solidarity with my men, against you and all the world.’ To Islamic men it can say, ‘I will play this foolish game, this fantasy of yours, but only if in return you do everything I tell you to.’ For some men this trade, this capitulation to love, is a kind of release from the craziness of being a man.  So the veil can be like putting on a magician queen’s cape…. Or it can be like putting on a slave’s collar, certainly. (page 592)

If this passage appeals to you in how it presents the various nuances and gray areas of religion and culture, then a lot of this book will appeal to you.

One final issue with the book I will note that may turn off some readers is that out of all the many incarnations, only two are in Native American bodies (and then, they are both Native Americans in North America.  South America is completely left out for incarnations, although incarnations visit there).  Similarly, there are no incarnations to Australia, New Zealand, Central America, or any island nation anywhere (Caribbean, Pacific Islands, United Kingdom, Iceland).  There is only one incarnation where one of the souls is in an African, and that African is a slave on a Chinese slave ship who then goes to China (we thus spend very little time in Africa, just at the beginning on the slave ship).  One character in an incarnation mentions that in the past she went to Africa but the reader does not see her time there.  I definitely think that it’s a weakness that so many areas of the world are left out.  For instance, I have zero idea what happened in Australia now that it clearly was never a penal colony of the UK (since the UK never existed).  Similarly, it seems Africa would be very different with all the changes in global power, and yet the only passing mention we get of modern Africa in the later incarnations is that one of the characters visits there to fight against Female Genital Mutliation (FGM).  If so much else changed, why not in Africa?

I know it may seem like I listed out a lot of issues, but it is a very long book that tackles a huge task.  My review is almost as if I was reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop.  Each individual part had issues, as did some of the overarching ideas, but I mostly really did enjoy reading it.  It’s a fascinating thought experiment that wasn’t as well executed as it could have been, but parts of it were brilliant.  I also enjoyed the feminist themes throughout.  Men and women are both just souls, reincarnating into a woman is not a punishment.  In fact, neither gender nor race is a punishment for previous incarnations, just species.  Similarly, the more a society advances the more equal their genders and races are.  There is a lot of thought given to what it means to be a woman in various areas of the world, which could easily have been passed over or not handled well.

Overall, this is a book that tackles a huge philosophical question in a fantastical way.  It is a large task that probably would have been better suited to a series to fully flesh-out the world, the lives, and the nuances in both.  Readers interested in spiritual questions with a tendency to view all religions as different paths to the same enlightenment and a curiosity about how the world might be different with different religions in the lead will be most suited to the book.  Readers interested in a more thorough exploration of an alternate history will most likely be disappointed by the reincarnation aspect and the brief time spent in each time period and culture.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge
and
Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

May 30, 2014 4 comments

A bowl of fruit on a black background. A purple stripe across the bottom contains the book's title written in white.Summary:
It’s the 1960s in Canada, and Marian McAlpin is working writing and analyzing surveys for a marketing research firm.  She has a feminist roommate she doesn’t quite understand, and hangs out with the three office virgins for lunch.  Her boyfriend is comfortable and familiar. When he proposes to her, the office virgins think she’s hit the jackpot, her roommate questions why she’s following the norm, and her married and very pregnant friend seems hesitant about her fiancee.  None of this really bothers Marian, though.  What does bother her is that, ever since her engagement, there are more and more things she simply can’t eat.  First meat then eggs then even vegetables! She thinks of herself causing them suffering, and she just can’t stomach them.  What will happen to her if there’s eventually nothing left for her to eat?

Review:
I’m a fan of a few Margaret Atwood books, and the concept of this book intrigued me.  Since I run the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, I was also wondering if this might actually be a new take on anorexia.  Unfortunately, Marian is not really anorexic, it’s more of an elaborate, overdone metaphor.  Perhaps the plot is simply dated, but the interesting concept, when fleshed-out, comes out rather ho-hum.

The novel is divided into three parts, with Marian using first-person narration for the first and third parts, with third person narration taking over for the second.  This is meant to demonstrate how Marian is losing herself and not feeling her own identity.  It’s an interesting writing device, and one of the things I enjoyed more in the book.  It certainly is jarring to suddenly go from first to third person when talking about the main character, and it sets the tone quite well.

It’s impossible to read this book and not feel the 1960s in it.  Marian is in a culture where women work but only until marriage, where women attending college is still seen as a waste by some, and where there is a small counter-cultural movement that seems odd to the mainstream characters and feels a bit like a caricature to the modern reader.  However, the fact that Marian feels so trapped in her engagement, which could certainly still be the case in the 1960s, doesn’t ring as true, given the people surrounding Marian.  Her roommate is counter-cultural, her three office friends claim to want a man but clearly aren’t afraid of aging alone and won’t settle.  Her married friend shares household and child rearing with her husband, at least 50/50.  It’s hard to empathize with Marian, when it seems that her trap is all of her own making in her own mind.  She kind of careens around like aimless, violent, driftwood, refusing to take any agency for herself, her situation, or how she lets her fiancee treat her.  It’s all puzzling and difficult to relate to.

The Marian-cannot-eat-plot is definitely not developed as anorexia.  Marian at first stops eating certain meats because she empathizes with the animals the meat came from.  As a vegetarian, I had trouble seeing this as a real problem and fully understood where Marian was coming from.  Eventually, she starts to perceive herself as causing pain when eating a dead plant, bread, etc… The book presents both empathizing with animals and plants as equally pathologic, which is certainly not true.  Marian’s affliction actually reminded me a bit of orthorexia nervosa (becoming unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating, source) but the book itself presents eliminating any food from your diet as pathologic.  Either Marian eats like everyone else or she is going off the deep-end.  There is no moderate in-between.

What the Marian-cannot-eat-plot is actually used for is as a metaphor for how Marian’s fiancee (or her relationship with him) is supposedly consuming her.  The more entwined with her fiancee she becomes in society’s eyes, the closer the wedding comes, the less Marian is able to consume, because she herself is being consumed.  This would be quite eloquent if Marian’s fiancee or her relationship with him was actually harmful or consuming, but it certainly does not come across that way in what we see of it in the book.

Marian presents herself to her boyfriend then fiancee as a mainstream person, and he treats her that way.  He does one thing that’s kind of off-the-rocker (crashes his car into a hedge) but so does she on the same night (runs away in the middle of dinner, across people’s backyards, for no apparent reason and hides under a bed while having drinks with three other people at a friend’s house).  The only thing that he does that could possibly be read as a bit cruel is when she dresses up for a party he states that he wishes she would dress that way more often.  It’s not a partner’s place to tell the other how they should dress, but it’s also ok to express when you like something your partner is wearing.  Personally I thought the fiancee really meant the latter but just struggled with appropriately expressing it, and Marian herself never expresses any wants or desires directly to him on how they interact, what they wear, what they eat, how they decorate, etc…, so how could he possibly know?  In addition to never expressing herself to her fiancee, Marian also cheats on him, so how exactly the fiancee ends up the one being demonized in the conclusion of the book is a bit beyond me.  He’s bad because he wanted to marry her? Okay…… The whole thing reads as a bit heavy-handed second-wave feminism to me, honestly.  Marriage seems to be presented in the book as something that consumes women, no matter if they choose it or are forced into it by society.  It is not presented as a valid choice if a woman is able, within her society and culture, to make her own choices.

In spite of these plot and character issues, the book is still an engaging read with an interesting writing style.  I was caught up in the story, even if I didn’t really like the ideas within it.

Overall, this is a well-written book with some interesting narrative voice choices that did not age well.  It is definitely a work of the 1960s with some second-wave feminism ideas that might not sit well with modern readers.  Recommended to those interested in in a literary take on second-wave feminism’s perception of marriage.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

May 8, 2014 2 comments

Blue cover with four diplomas on it.  The cover contains the title and author's name in purple.Summary:
Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College.  Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic.  Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand.  Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor.  Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for.  Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.

Review:
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college.  It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues.  Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.

What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation.  Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college.  This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future.  After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year.  The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace.  It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood.  It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read.  However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.

First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse.  They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person.  Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea.  Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now.  Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.

The book has a real GLBTQ problem.  One of the characters has two relationships.  One is with a man and one with a woman.  She is happy in both and attracted to both.  She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well.  Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book.  The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her.  She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian.  The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend.  It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual.  This is why she is uncomfortable with the label.  But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia.  The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is.  It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.

The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss.  It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic.  Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship.  Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.

Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read.  However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar.  Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book.  The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers.  Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending.  For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

June 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?

Review:
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves.  So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain.  In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist.  It’s a fascinating topic.  In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses.  The narration is in third person.  It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred.  We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero.  But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator.  Who is s/he?  How does s/he know so much about this project?  A project which clearly would be classified as top secret?  What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator.  If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book.  Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it.  But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoilers*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence.  The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars.  They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated.  Seriously. This is mind-blowing.  Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane.  In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.”  I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary.  The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision.  AI did.  This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does.  It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well?  I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot.  What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal.  It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story.  Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value.  It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoilers*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished.  Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot.  It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome.  It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional.  At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable.  Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person.  I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned.  The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution.  This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in.  This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it.  I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also  be able to critique this.  Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them.  This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch.  It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Friday Fun! (Cool People I Follow!)

March 2, 2012 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  I don’t have too terribly much to update you on today since I managed to get bronchitis “with a touch of strep” and have been down for the count all week.  I am on antibiotics now.  They are a beautiful beautiful thing.  Anyway, so since my life this week has mostly consisted of laying around with a fever watching Big Bang Theory and Battlestar Galactica on repeat, I thought I’d do something different today and let you guys know about a few unique folks I follow in my GoogleReader that you might want to check out.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog is a book blog I just recently discovered that focuses in on the literature of Australia and New Zealand.  The instant I saw the title of the blog I went, “Wow, duh, what a gap in my reading!”  She has a great page featuring a listing of must read ANZ lit titles.

Joe’s Blog is one of the few author blogs I follow (as opposed to authors who happen to have book blogs.  I follow a few of those).  Joseph Robert Lewis is an indie author whose books are available as ebooks, and he is a smart dude.  Not only does he write scifi/fantasy/steampunk with a feminist slant out of a desire to write the types of books he wants to be available for his daughters to read, he’s also a really giving guy.  He has a great section of advice for fellow writers looking to self-publish and maintains a great relationship with his readers (um, including me).  His blog itself is an awesome mix of posts on what inspires his scifi/fantasy/steampunk worlds, his own life, and musings on writing.  Oh, also, he came up with this awesome idea for a series co-written by a bunch of authors who have never met before all set in the same universe, and he’s actually pulling it off.  The dude is creative and productive.  Check him out, even if his books aren’t your genre.

Native Appropriations is run by fellow Boston gal, Adrienne, who is a member of the Cherokee tribe and currently studying for her PhD.  Her posts discuss representation and appropriation of Native American culture in American pop culture and media.  Her posts are thought-provoking and eloquent.  Seriously, get rid of your People Magazine and Cosmo subscriptions and read what this smart lady has to say instead.

No Meat Athlete is run by a male vegan who also is, you guessed it, an athlete.  He primarily runs marathons, but his posts feature great information for any type of athlete or fitness fan who is plant-based.  I particularly found his post 7 Secrets of Post Work-out Recovery super useful for this plant-based weight-lifting lady.  He’s also going to be doing the Boston Marathon. Yeahhhhh!

Finally, for everything vegan from vegans in the news to animal rights to product reviews, definitely follow Vegansaurus.  They are my go-to site for sane animal rights coverage (unlike PETA *cough*).  They also feature real life help this one situation here this one time if you can shout-outs that help me feel connected to the animal rights community.  (Like one time we all got together to help a gal get her pup needed surgery, because, you know, who actually has insurance for their pets?)  Between that, the cookbook reviews, the recipes, the products, and the news bits, it’s one of my favorite news sources.

I hope you all found some new reading material.  Happy weekends!

Friday Fun! (On Health and Entitlement of Women’s Bodies)

February 10, 2012 16 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Sorry for the relatively smaller amount of reviews this week.  I’ve finished a few books, but didn’t have the time to write up the reviews yet.  This just means next week will be full. :-)

I have a relatively serious topic I want to talk about today.  You guys know that I take health and the obesity epidemic seriously.  One argument that I’ve heard a lot of unhealthy women make is that they put on a ton of weight to avoid men.  They weren’t comfortable with the attention, etc…  I remember thinking, when I, at the time, was overweight myself, “How bad could it really be?”  Turns out…..pretty bad.

Over the last year, I’ve gone from a size 16 to a size 10.  Over the last month, I’ve had more encounters with men who feel entitled to my body than I had over the entire two years I was overweight.  I know correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but in some cases it does.

I’m a single lady.  I date.  I go places where single people hang out to try to meet new people.  I do what single people in cities do.  I dress attractively, because I WANT to, but also because I’ve worked damn HARD for this body, and I’m proud of my work.  I’m not saying I’m Miss America, and I wouldn’t want to be, but I definitely look happy and healthy when I go out.  Much more so than when I was overweight.  I get hit on. I get asked on dates.  This also happened when I was overweight.  The difference, though, is that now when I dare to say the word no a much higher percentage of them get downright angry at me.

He’ll say something like, “Do you want to go on a date?” I say, “No, thank you.”  He says, “WHY?! Think you’re too good for me?!” or “Well you shouldn’t dress that way if you don’t want attention” or “Please, you obviously need a good fucking.”  (I am not exaggerating.  These all have been spoken or texted or what have you to me).

Worse, though, is I’ll go on a first date. Usually dinner or drinks.  I have a nice enough time, but I can tell we wouldn’t work long-term, and I want a relationship at this point in my life.  He leans in for a kiss, and I turn my cheek or he asks me for a second date and I say no I don’t think it’ll work out.  The reaction generally is, “You owe me, I bought you dinner!” or “How can you possibly know after only one date?!” or “Well, I thought you were ugly anyway.”  (That last one, btw, makes zero sense since he ASKED ME OUT TO START WITH).

What really aggravates me about these interactions isn’t their disappointment that I said no.  Obviously, that is flattering.  What is bothersome is the evident sense of entitlement over MY BODY that they have.  I’m pretty and single.  They’re available and have a penis, ergo, I must want them or I’m a horrible woman.  Since when did my body become the possession of every straight man in the greater Boston area?

Oh yeah, since I started glowing with health.

It’s draining. It’s enough to make me not want to go out some nights.  It’s enough to make me want to stick my earbuds in in public and ignore everyone.  Of course, I’m me, so I’m not going to do these things.  I’m going to keep being my awesome self and feminist hulksmashing the douchebags (verbal smack-down, folks, not a physical one), but.  If I didn’t have such a strong personality or had personal issues or WHATEVER I could totally see this being a thing that would make me stop working out, stop eating healthy, stop it all and just hide to protect myself.

Do you see where I’m going here?  This misogynistic entitlement to women’s bodies is a poison to our whole society.  A POISON.  Every time you police a woman’s body or act entitled to her or watch it happen to a woman and not stand up for her, you are essentially watching the cook poison the food and then serve it to the dinner party without saying anything or trying to stop him.  It hurts everyone, and it is not ok!  It is just as bad as those cultures (that I know Americans judge) that say, “Women need to cover up because they tempt men.”  Our cultural impetus is the opposite.  “This woman is young and healthy and available ergo I deserve her body.”

No. You. Don’t.

I vow to say something any time I hear this attitude happening, and not just to me.  I vow to encourage all women to remember that our bodies are ours and our health is about US and not about THEM.  I hope you all will do the same.

 

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