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Book Review: Who? by Algis Budrys

January 22, 2014 3 comments

A man with a metal arm and head smokes a cigarette while sitting pensievely at a desk.Summary:
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

Review:
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal.  Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.

Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read.  First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid.  Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else.  However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre.  The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies.  It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test.  Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario.  The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.

Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned.  Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences.  People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science.  I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade.  It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.

All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely.  Budrys evokes setting and tensity well.  I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film.  Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent.  He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations.  The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended.  There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.

Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)

Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: For a Dancer: The Memoir by Emma J. Stephens

December 19, 2011 4 comments

Two blond childrenSummary:
Emma recounts her childhood growing up with an outgoing older sister, a permissive father, and an addict stepfather in rural America.  She then relates attending college as a single mother, her failed marriage, and studying abroad in Paris.

Review:
Imagine the most whiny, entitled, immature person you know.  Now imagine that person perceives herself as simultaneously awesome, intelligent, and put-upon.  Now imagine that person wrote a memoir and couldn’t even maintain the same tense throughout.  That’s Stephens’ memoir. To a T.

Yes, a few things in Emma’s childhood weren’t perfect, but most people don’t have life handed to them on a silver platter.  Her sister overshadowed her a bit.  Her stepfather was an addict who had to go to rehab.  Interestingly, though, Emma and her sister were unaware of his addiction until her mother and stepfather sat them down to explain why he was going into rehab.  It seemed to me that they actually handled the situation quite well.  When Emma’s stepfather returns from rehab, he and her sister clash a bit in the typical teenage angst style, but since the girls also have a father, Emma’s sister moves in with him and their stepmother.  It is at this point that Emma starts making the series of dumb decisions that really mess up her life for….well for forever.

Emma ditches her mother and stepfather who had just made over her room for her and goes to live with her absentee father and stepmother who really aren’t behaving like parents at all.  Emma proceeds to whine about this situation, when she did it to herself.  She whines about everything about living there, when all she had to do was go back to the healthy household with her mom and stepfather.  Why didn’t she?  Dare I to suggest that she actually liked the freedom, no responsibilities, slacking off in school, getting drunk, having sex, etc…?  Why, yes I do.  She then proceeds to run away from home multiple times, scaring the crap out of her mother, who appears to be the only one who goes looking for her.  It’s the typical what do we do with this horrible out of control teenager story only told from the teenager’s perspective.  Aka, it’s terrible.  It’s horrible to read about.  There is no remorse, no chagrin.  Everyone else is always at fault but Emma.

Perhaps teenage angst can be forgivable, but what occurs later was simply horrifying to read about, partially because at first it seems that Emma is straightening her life out.  She gets pregnant, keeps the baby, and still completes her pre-med courses and graduates with her BS.  This is admirable.  I’m sure it was difficult, and she seems to be focused on providing a good life for her son.  That all quickly ceases though when she gives up on becoming a doctor, gets married, moves to LA, gets a boob job, and then starts shopping herself and her son around for movie roles.  You claim you want to give your son a better life, so you throw him to the wolves in Hollywood? Really?

Naturally, the marriage doesn’t work out, and we then see a series of men coming into and out of her son, Gabriel’s, life.  He is routinely left with friends or family so Emma can gallyvant around with these various men, oh, not to mention go do a semester abroad in France without her son when he’s only 11 years old.  All she can seem to think about or focus on is money.  Not creating satisfying relationships. Not broadening her horizons.  Not anything but money.  Think I’m exaggerating?  She ends up ditching her son for weekends so she can fly across the country to be a high-class hooker.  Meanwhile, her mother has settled in the mountains and become an addiction specialist.  If you’ve ever needed proof goodness isn’t genetic, there it is.  In fact, I’d love to read her mother’s memoir.  I bet she has a lot more valuable things to say.

Perhaps all of that could be bearable if she simply wrote well, but she doesn’t.  She talks in circles and constantly changes tenses to the point where following the story is incredibly difficult.

Overall, this is a badly written memoir by a person who is a bad daughter and irresponsible mother who has seemingly learned nothing from her mistakes.  I cannot in good faith recommend it to anyone.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Print copy via LibraryThing’s EarlyReviewers

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Book Review: Wolf Hunt: The Burning Ages by Sebastian P. Breit (series, #1)

Wolf standing in front of Nazi flag.Summary:
It’s the future, and the world is in another semi-cold war between NATO and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).  A NATO group of British, American, and German naval ships is being sent to Brazil on a mission, but part-way there they are all zapped back in time to 1940.  With the chance to change history for the better, what will they decide to do?

Review:
I first want to point out that Breit is German and wrote this in English himself; it is not a translation.  I have to say that I wonder why he made that choice as the plot certainly seems to have more of a European than an American appeal, but I am impressed at his effort to write in his second language.

The summary of the book makes the plot sound fast-paced, but in fact it is actually distressingly slow-moving.  It takes about 1/3 of the book for the all-important time-traveling event to happen.  I spent the whole first part of the book just waiting and wondering when it was going to happen, because once the basic politics of the world and character traits were set up, it’s just a waiting game.  The naval mumbo-jumbo filling up the rest of the space just wasn’t necessary.  This issue carries on throughout the book with half of the sailors spending a solid amount of their time stranded on an island, for instance.  Since this is marketed as a fast-paced historical thriller, perhaps somewhat like the style of The Da Vinci Code it quite simply needs to move along faster.  Intense naval specifics and codes are not necessary.  Fast-moving plot is.

Breit also needs to invest in a British and American editor each, as the British and American characters say and do things that are just flat-out wrong in British and American English respectively.  One that really slapped me across the face is that one of the characters is from Boston, but everyone refers to him as a “Bostoner.”  People from Boston are called “Bostonians.”  I have never once in my life heard anyone say “Bostoner,” and I live in Boston.  Another example is at one point one of the Americans reads another American’s birthdate from off an id and says it the European way “11 September 2001,” instead of the American way “September 11th, 2001.”  This is one of those instances where the author needs to have his facts straight in order for the story to be believable.  Nothing makes me not believe a character is American quite like having him get a bunch of American English wrong.

Additionally, as a woman and an author, the way the female characters are handled is distressing to me.  Just one example is that a bunch of the stranded female sailors are attacked on the island by some of the locals in an attempt at rape.  These women who had the exact same training as their male counter-parts are apparently completely incapable of saving themselves, but instead have to be rescued by their male comrades.  But it gets worse.  Later when the captain of the ship is relating the event to another man, he asks if the women were alright.  The captain responds by saying that the doctor said they were fine.  The doctor.  Apparently nobody bothered to ask these women if they were raped (HINT: I’m pretty sure women can tell if they’ve been raped or not).  Plus no one seems to care that these women are clearly not going to be emotionally ok after almost getting raped, and not once do any of the female characters who were attacked say anything about it with their own voices. This is just completely inexcusable.  It’s a removal of women’s voices from ourselves, and it’s insulting to a female reader.

There’s the issue of European bias expressed through the American characters.  For instance, one American character expresses shame at how Americans only speak one language.  First of all, the rate of bilingualism in the US is actually rising, so following the arc of the future, there should be more bilingual Americans, not less.  Second, I’ve never once heard an American express woe in an all-encompassing way like that by saying something like “It’s so sad Americans aren’t bilingual.”  People say, “I wish I was fluent in another language,” or “I wish I was fluent in Japanese,” but they just don’t put it that way.  That whole paragraph sounded like a European using an American character as a puppet to say what Europeans think of Americans.  Yeesh.

I also have problems with the German characters though.  A bunch of them express the desire to stop the Holocaust not to save lives but to save the German people from harboring the shame and guilt for generations to come.  Um, what?  That’s your concern oh time-traveling Germans?  Having been to Germany myself on a student exchange and visited Dachau, etc… I can say that I have a hard time imagining any of the kids my age at the time (15ish in the early 2000’s) focusing in on that as opposed to stopping a bad thing from happening because it’s evil and wrong.  I can only imagine that generations even further along would be even more focused in on stopping a genocide as opposed to saving some broad idea of German honor.  It’d be like having a time-traveling modern American decide to stop the Trail of Tears to save us from shame as opposed to doing it to save innocent Cherokees.  The whole thought just makes my brain hurt.

To sum up, Breit shows ability as a writer that needs to be worked on and honed.  I’d recommend either getting a good editor who can handle both British and American English or switching to writing in German.  He also needs to work on tightening up his plot.  Normally I’d say, nice first effort keep trying, but due to the opinions and biases and presentation of women present in this first attempt, I’m afraid I can’t say that.  It’s readable, but why would you want to read it anyway?

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Ebook from author in exchange for my honest review

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Friday Fun! (The Gym and Mount Auburn Cemetery)

July 15, 2011 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  I hope your weeks went well and that you are enjoying this summer weather.  You all now know that a significant portion of my time nowadays is being taken up with my newly budding writing career, and of course I’m loving it!  It’s so nice to be out of school and doing what I enjoy.

Of course, being me, I’m not just reading and writing in my spare time.  I’m still consistently going to the gym.  My new trainer and I (my old one no longer works at that gym) are starting to understand each other and tailor a routine to fit my needs.  It’s interesting to see the differences between her and my old one, and I like that she’s focused on my cardiovascular health and core strength.  We did my measurements this week, and I’m proud to report that since the beginning of June I’ve lost another 2 inches around my waist.  Yay!  See, I don’t just yak about Americans and our health, I am trying my best to improve my own as well. 😉

Last weekend I visited the historic Mount Auburn cemetery for the first time.  Can I just say, it is freaking huge and very inspirational for horror stories.  It basically is a nice, hilly hike right smack in the middle of urban development.  I absolutely loved it.  There’s no way I saw anywhere near everything there is to see there.  I mean, we’re talking there were randomly hidden ponds and bridges and monuments and……I could go on and on about it.  It’s a truly amazing free gem right in the middle of the city.

Tonight I’ll be going to a bonfire at a friend’s house.  I’m excited for that! I love fire.  The rest of my weekend will consist of going to see some improv, working out, and a meeting of progressives in my neighborhood.  I hope you all have lovely weekends!  Any good plans?

Diet Terminology

September 29, 2009 7 comments

It’s not easy to live in America and not follow the traditional American diet.  As a vegetarian I am highly aware of this.  Therefore I tend to try to send nothing but happy thoughts to my fellow non-traditional foodies, be they gluten-free, vegan, kosher, etc….  However I kind of have a beef (pun intended) with one group of them right now.  I’m looking at you pescetarians.

It is absolutely cool that you choose to abstain from all meat but fish.  I don’t agree with it, but I respect it.  What really pisses me the fuck off though is those of you who are running around claiming to be vegetarians.  You are not vegetarians!!

From Merriam-Webster: vegetarian: one whose diet consists wholly of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and sometimes eggs or dairy products

Do you see fish listed in there? Are fish vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, eggs, or dairy products? No? Then you are not a vegetarian! You are a pescetarian.

Here’s Merriam-Webster to help you out again: pescetarian: one whose diet includes fish but no meat

I know. You’re sitting there going Why does this woman have such a problem with what I call myself, right?

How you label yourself directly impacts me.  It’s hard enough to be a vegetarian and have to explain to people things like it’s not appropriate to give your vegetarian niece marinara sauce cooked with meatballs in it, even though you’re not giving her meatballs there is still meat juice all up in that.  I know you face things like that yourself when you explain that you don’t eat chicken.  Pescetarians running around calling themselves vegetarians means I now repeatedly have this conversation:

Me: “I’m sorry. I can’t eat that.  It has fish in it, and I’m a vegetarian.”
Person: “Vegetarians eat fish.”
Me: “Um, no they don’t.”
Person: “But I know someone who’s vegetarian, and she totally eats fish!”

You are making things more difficult for us vegetarians.  It’d be like if I ran around calling myself vegan and gnawing down cheese.  Vegans already are a bit confusing to the public, how much more would that confuse them then? You are just wrong.   You are using the wrong word for your diet.  Even freaking Merriam-Webster says so.  I know pescetarian is a funky-sounding word and you will probably have to explain it a bit more to the public since it is not as well-known as vegetarian.  Do it anyway.  It’s what you are. If you really want to call yourself a vegetarian stop eating damn fish!