The Book That Started It All: The Time Machine

200px-The_Time_Machine_Classics_Illustrated_133 (1)Okay, well not really. There are numerous precursors to science fiction that predate H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. However, I think this is one of the classic pre-science fiction science fiction books. It is a short novella about a man who manages to invent a time machine and then goes on an eye-opening trip far into the future. It extrapolates on Darwin’s theory of evolution and late Victorian ideas about cultural evolution while adding enough adventure and suspense to make it a quick and enjoyable read.

I suppose I had preconceived notions of the Time Traveler going back in time, but he does not do this. Instead, he goes forward to a technologically-regressed state of humanity (or should I say states of humanity). There are now  two species of humanity: the Eloi, cute, short, and generally vapid beings that live on the surface, and the Morlocks, ape-like, nocturnal underground beings, who are at first elusive then ominously ever-present as the narrative continues. Wells skillfully keeps readers guessing at the mystery of who has taken the Traveler’s time machine once he arrives in the far future by slowly introducing the Morlocks along with the Traveler’s theories about how humans evolved into two species. He throws in enough mysterious symbols (sphinxes, Phoenician symbols, great but decayed buildings) to build up an aura of mystery and intrigue even if it reads as a little date in the early 21st century. He uses a frame narrative of the Traveler explaining his exploits to his fellow Victorian gentlemen, but this does not intrude or interrupt the narrative so much as add some minor depth to the story.

What I found most interesting was the way the story was not so much about adventure (except on the surface level), but more about a philosophical imagining of how humanity might regress from its current state into a more primitive one. Wells is quite critical of the myth of human progress in this book and explores in this book how the class system might actually hinder humanity. There are interesting tidbits on evolution as the Traveler hypothesizes that the eventual lack of war, ambition, conflict, or tension brought about by the eventual triumph of the capitalist system causes the evolution of humanity into two different states. The bulk of the narrative deals with this interesting setup but the Traveler does go even farther into the future and witnesses the final decline of Earth itself. In this moment, Wells becomes existential as the Traveler wonders both implicitly and explicitly what the whole of human history can mean given the vast scope of geological time and the eventual collapse of all life itself as stars die out.

Wells’s novella deserves the fame it has achieved and stands up as an excellent piece of writing. I am glad I took the time to read it as it is one of those classics that most people “know” but have not actually read it. I would highly recommend reading it. It is short, punchy and not too idea heavy or contextually specific to be inaccessible  I read a Broadview edition which included very helpful annotations for the more arcane bits of Victorian lore/culture.

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. 1895. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

Huge and Epic: Freedom

Jonathan-franzen-freedomJonathan Franzen’s Freedom was one of the novels I was dreading reading. It clocks in at a massive 561 pages and the type/line spacing does  not offer any reprieve. When Franzen drops War and Peace into the novel’s action, I felt like I was reading a modern homage to Tolstoy’s own tome. I don’t mean this as a sleight to either novel (even if reading War and Peace felt like an onerous task for a lot of its length). Freedom takes the time to fully delineate and develop numerous characters. This is the strength of a novel as opposed to a short story where you can only show a moment or two without stretching beyond into something else.

Freedom centres on the Berglund family, Walter a 3-M employee who commutes by bike all year in Minnesota, and Patty, his former college basketball star home maker wife. Richard Katz, a punk guitarist turned indie hero in later life, comes in and out of both of their lives. Someone once told me that love triangles make the greatest material and are the most potent relationship to explore. Freedom certainly gives credence to this theory as all three characters vie for each other’s affection and love in unhealthy and harmful ways. The novel also takes up Joey, Walter and Patty’s son, who moves in with their Republican neighbours (much to his parents’ chagrin) and eventually becomes a successful venture capitalist. One thing I did not understand, and this will seem ironic given my earlier comments, is why Jessica, their daughter, is not given the full narrative spotlight like her brother or even some of Patty’s sisters and Walter’s brothers. She is a rather thin character that seems out of place given Franzen’s development of literally everyone else in the book. Why not take the time to draw her out even if it adds 50 more pages? The difference between 560 and 610 pages is not really that much (or is it?).

This novel is an epic in every sense of the word. There are journeys, self-revelations, twists, epiphanies, and developments to the hilt. I’m still somewhat flabbergasted at how much Franzen packed into the novel. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that it reads like a crash-course primer in American politics and history from say 1995 until the Obama era. A curse in the sense that this novel suffers, at times, from information overload. The numerous plot lines, characters, and histories that readers have to juggle can be overwhelming. Yet I admire Franzen’s ambition to write the “great novel.” He aims high and achieves this goal for the most part. Of course, it partly assumes an interest in American politics, environmentalism, and American culture. If you aren’t interested, then staying away is probably a good course of action. This is a novel to spend time with as Franzen has some rich material and some great writing. However, the novel’s breadth and size is also a challenge. Yet this points, to me anyways, to how complex the world we live in actually is. It’s not just a matter of doing one thing differently in order to save the whales/polar bears/ penguins. It’s a matter of total systemic change while also realizing that the likelihood of this happening is pretty small. Walter struggles with how to effect real change in the world and has an existential crisis over his uneasy collaboration with the coal mining and military industries in order to create a single Warbler preserve in perpetuity. This is productive material for any environmentalist to encounter.

I would highly recommend this book to fellow ecocritics and other readers interested in issues of environment. But be warned it is long, so long ….

Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.

PS – There’s a great dig at Conor Oberst and indie music in general buried in the middle of the book.

Post Modern Tricks Or Something More?: A Visit From the Goon Squad

goonI am having a hard time classifying Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Visit From the Goon Squad. On the one hand, it reads like a novel with a set cast of characters and carefully intertwined themes. Yet, it is also 13 chapters that read like short stories, change narrative perspectives, and could be read individually without losing too much. In fact, as I noticed in the acknowledgements, many of the chapters were published as short stories in various magazines and journals. The Pulitzer has been awarded to both novels and collections of short fiction, so that provides no hint of how to treat this book either. I’m going to go out on a limb here and review this book as a novel. My reasons are that taken together the stories offer a more interesting narrative arc that centers largely on Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker turned record executive, and  Sasha, his personal assistant for many years. There are many other characters but these two seem to be the threads that tie everything together from Bennie’s early punk band days to his later experiments in orchestrating a social media concert with Bosco, a talent he discovered long ago.

The chapters move more or less forward chronologically with the novel ending in a near future. The second last chapter is narrated entirely in powerpoint slides, an amazing feat that I doubted at first as some kind of gimmick. The last chapter concerns a near future where interconnection via personal devices is heightened to an absolute extreme. Bosco, however, has lived outside of this world of social media for so long that the concert Bennie and Alex organize connects the people in an interesting and tangible way. When I finished this chapter, I felt like I had just been to a great concert myself. One of the strengths of the book is how Egan is able to evoke the passions, tensions, and feelings involved with music and youth. I used to listen to punk-rock and I connected with many of these characters.

This book is similar to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that each chapter takes on its own narrative voice with distinct storytelling features. For instance, one chapter is a report written by Julius Jones on his interaction with Kitty Jackson, a child star, that includes footnotes with his celebrity theorizations and an explanation for why Julius ended up attacking Jackson. This story connects to a previous one where a PR magnate is hired by a military dictator to soften his public image and manages to do this by having him take photos with Kitty. The chapter is both funny and deeply disturbing as Egan points out how social media can imperceptibly twist our perceptions of people. In this sense, Egan is somewhat like Douglas Coupland in exploring how current technology makes and remakes our social structures. This book is just waiting for a wheelbarrow load of grad student papers that take it apart (maybe I’ll put one together myself …).

This is a great novel that is funny and deeply engaging. I highly recommend it.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Wait, Is This Book Actually for Kids?: The True Meaning of Smekday

caseAdam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday is a strange beast. On the one hand, it is a young adult, maybe late children’s, novel (okay, I made that second term up). The writing is fairly simple, not too much symbolism, the dialogue is straightforward, no irony, etc. (the plot structure is quite interesting and well-done though). However, there is a weird post-colonial critique that runs through this thing. Like, I’m talking an ironic/parodic critique of European colonization. I am not sure most younger folks would pick up on this though. Then again, I might be underestimating their cleverness (and probably overestimating my own).

The True Meaning of Smekday runs like this: Earth is invaded by aliens called the Boov (one of the worst names for aliens I have come across, even if it does sound rather comical), a young black girl, Gratuity, is separated from her mother and sets out across American in a car to find her. She is accompanied by a rogue Boov named J.Lo and her cat, Pig, in a modified automobile that is now a hovercar. Wait, a minute, I said this was straightforward but now I’m sensing Rex playing with American lit’s fascination with road novels (Kerouac’s On the Road is the classic example, but others include Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent). Of course, this is a post-apocalyptic/alien invasion riff on the cross-continent road trip. The Boov look like frogs with multiple octopus legs while travelling in large dome ships. They simply arrive on Earth and take it over, forcing the humans to move to parts they do not want. So the Americans are shipped first to Florida and then to Arizona.

Wait, this sounds a little like the colonization of North America doesn’t it? And this is where Rex’s book gets really interested. He is very critical of colonization and there are numerous pointed jokes about how the Boov are acting in a hypocritical fashion (J.Lo believes that they had been very kind to the humans). There is even a “mad” Indian who yells at white people and ends up becoming a key part of how Gratuity saves the world. A second set of aliens, named the Gorg (seriously? ), shows up and are intent on enslaving the humans after beating the Boov. Unlike what actually happened in North America, in this novel, the “native” Americans are able to stop the alien invaders. I am intrigued by Rex’s subtext as it flows beneath the surface and suggests to me a deep understanding of American history that has been cleverly disguised in this children’s novel published by Disney’s Hyperion Books (the grad student in me has alarm bells going off at this, there’s an article to be written here!).

This is a clever and funny book that manages to offer up lessons on American history, racial politics, and human geography. I really enjoyed it and finished it very quickly (another one that I stayed up at night to read). This book is worthy of the title young adult fiction and gets me excited for some of the other titles on my list.

I highly recommend this book for readers! It is worth the time and would make a great summer read. Also, there are comics and illustrations in this novel. Does it get any better?

Rex, Adam. The True Meaning of Smekday. New York: Hyperion Books, 2007. Print.

It Took So Long: The Bone People

460635This book took me a long time to read. Granted three weeks might not seem that long to some readers, but for the purposes of 10-10-12, it is. I am still not entirely sure what made this book such a slow read but I have some hypotheses. One, the book is quite long at 440 or so pages. Keri Hulme certainly did not cut down in size for this one. The type is also quite small meaning that the word count for this book has got to be sizably bigger than most of the books on my list. Two, the issue of narration. I would best describe this as a form of free indirect speech. There are three central characters in the novel: Kerewin, an artist; Joe, an alcoholic factory worker; and Sim, his adopted son who does not speak. The novel is variously narrated by any of these three characters and the transitions are not marked and often occur multiple times in a single page. I felt, at times, like I was reading a bad Virginia Woolf rip-off. Stream of consciousness narratives are not really my thing and this book re-affirmed that for me. Three, the novel moves at a very slow pace, almost glacially (this is only the case for the first 2/3rds of the novel). I suppose this is a reflection of North America’s lack of attention span, so this novel’s pace left me wanting more. Three and a half, the frequent use of Maori words, actions and concepts. I’m not against the use of other languages in “English” literature, but it does take me more time to get through something when I’m constantly trying to remember what those words or phrases mean.

All of this being said, I did enjoy The Bone People. A part of me thinks I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t under the gun of time constraints. By the novel’s end I was amazed at feeling emotionally relieved when certain events happened. For a long time, I was not connecting with the characters on any level but by the end I was. This is an epic novel, and if given the time it is rewarding.

Part of what makes it epic is the violence and trauma that rests at the heart of the three character’s relationships. This violence is left mysterious until the very last pages of the book so that I was constantly wondering what it could possibly be. This novel is a detailed study of the human psyche and how it can survive (or wilt) under incredible duress. Simon has clearly been abused, Joe has anger and grief issues, while Kerewin has her own mysterious falling out with her family and a loss of artistic talent. Hulme managed to keep me interested throughout the novel despite its length. A part of me wonders if I am missing some key level of New Zealand context which made this novel harder to read. I had similar feelings about Carpentaria (there are similarities between the novels), and it makes me wonder if this book won a Booker for its ability to speak subtly to the country’s context. I am not at all familiar with the Maori or the European colonization of the islands, but that tangled relationship clearly is important in the novel. I would not say it is necessary to enjoy the book, but it might be helpful in seeing the finer shadings of Hulme’s work.

I would recommend this book to people interested in New Zealand’s literature. And to people with time on their hands.

Hulme, Keri. The Bone People. 1983. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

I Can Smell the Sweat: Eating Dirt

dirtCharlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt is an excellent read. I spent several consecutive nights in bed polishing this book off while my wife slept. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that demanded I steal hours from the night to read it. So, thanks Charlotte. Eating Dirt is creative non-fiction at its best. Ostensibly it’s about Gill’s own experience tree-planting for a year (she has done it for many years), yet this does not do it justice either as it is also a reflection on our relationship to trees more generally. It follows her as she starts out on the northern coast of Vancouver Island, across the strait to the Sunshine Coast, and then eventually back down to the Vancouver region. Throughout, she goes off on short meditations on natural history, logging history, and her own first summer tree planting. It never gets dull, and I found it immensely rewarding.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, non-fiction can sometimes drag its feet and I struggle to get through it. However, this book was very well written and well paced. Anytime I felt like my momentum was flagging she returned to her personal narrative of tree-planting. This should come as no surprise as Gill’s previous book, Ladykiller, was a collection of short fiction that was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. She has an eye for narrative, pacing, and character that works really well. Although the cast of tree-planters changes a fair bit, I still finished feeling like I knew a handful of “real” tree-planters who made their living doing incredibly exhausting work. At one point over the past few days, I even suggested to my wife that we go tree-planting. She kindly reminded me that I’m getting my second knee reconstruction in a week and that I separated my should two years ago, hardly an ideal physique for this kind of work.

Perhaps what really piqued my interest was the fact that tree-planting is becoming a rite-of-passage among university aged students. Many of them leave their final winter exam and head north as fast as possible to make as much money as they can for a few months. There is something primal about this work that fascinates me. It’s outdoor work, cut down to a bare form of living, but it also can be extremely lucrative. A part of me is tempted to go tree-planting just to experience it. As Gill reflects late in the book, this job may not last forever as it is still unclear just how effective tree-planting is. It takes centuries for a forest to reach its climax stage, and we have not been planting trees on an industrial scale for long enough to see how, or even whether, it works.

This is a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining read.

Gill, Charlotte. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe. Toronto: Greystone Books, 2011. Print.

Rich Like Good Soil: The Great Lakes

great lakesI have been plugging away at this book for a number of weeks now. There is something about reading non-fiction that keeps me from building up a head of steam. Perhaps it is the lack of narrative momentum, or it might be a case of information overload when I’m seeking to escape from work. Anyways, Wayne Grady’s The Great Lakes: The Natural History of a Changing Region is a magnificent book. It is a coffee table book with great photography of the Great Lakes throughout. However, unlike some coffee table books, I found the text quite meaningful. In it, Grady lays out the natural history of the five Great Lakes in an accessible yet informative manner. This is no easy task as learning about geology can be as dry as eating a handful of dust. Grady makes it work here, and I would highly recommend his work in general as he manages to keep his work interesting while not cutting on the science.

I had picked up this volume as part of my research on urban nature in Ontario. I was hoping that this book would give me a better handle on the ecosystems and natural history of the area and it certainly has. It also reminded me how much I love this landscape. I’ve spent most of my life in the Great Lakes region (the other portion out in Alberta), so the photos and stories were compelling. I will be moving to Saskatchewan come August this year and Grady’s book is making me miss the region before I’ve left it. One of the things that Grady does really well is lay out all the challenges facing the reason without sinking into a litany of misery as some environmental writers do. There are a lot of problems in this area, largely because of human activity, and Grady does great work introducing them. If you did not know it, this region is changing greatly and the scientific community is unsure what is going to happen in it over the next 20 – 30 years.

The Great Lakes also reminded me how I lack the skills to properly review non-fiction. Give me a narrative or poetry, even film, and I’m fine. With facts and stats, not so much. This might be because most of my training is in the humanities, so I lack the expertise to engage with the science Grady uses. But it could also be the difficulty of reading non-fiction generally. If it does not interest a reader, it is not going to be read. I can get myself through a a less than stellar novel if it does things I have not encountered before or engages with me on an intellectual level. With non-fiction books, particularly science writing, I find myself unable to drag my way through most of them. Maybe there are readers who live for science writing and non-fiction and I just have not met them yet. It could be the content, a lot of Grady’s book is quite dense and takes time to digest, it could be the writing style, I don’t know. However, I am glad that I did put some books like The Great Lakes on my list because they are rewarding reads even if they do take longer.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone in or from the Great Lakes region. It also looks good on the coffee table.

Grady, Wayne. The Great Lakes: The Natural History of a Changing Region. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2007. Print.