The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Tag Dave Eggers

Readings for June 2014

In which I reach the nadir of summer reading.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

I realized upon seeing this book that I had never read Dave Eggers' fiction. Yes to his autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And yes to his novel-biographies of What is the What and Zeitoun. But never pure fiction. A Hologram for the King therefore grabbed my attention, and I picked it up.

Eggers is definitely trying to capture zeitgeist in this novel. After all, the premise is that a hard-on-his-luck salesman goes to pitch technology to the Saudi King - a definite attempt to evoke the modern feeling in America. Yet I am grateful that there is more to the storytelling than an appeal to the current spirit. Timelessness is of course a requirement for any good fiction. Being timely only helps with sales.

I enjoyed the read, but not immensely. Eggers tells a good story, and makes you love the protagonist in a Willy Loman sort of way. So yes, by all means, read and enjoy the story.

Periodicals

  • Harper's July 2014

  • Harper's February 2014 - Playing catch-up with some missed back issues. For some reason it bugs me to miss Harper's issues.

Readings for June 2012

If May was the month of periodicals, June is the month of novels.

Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne collins

After being thrilled with The Hunger Games, I was excited to finally complete the trilogy. Kimberly had gotten both books on reserve from the library, so I read them after her. I was not disappointed. Catching Fire and Mockingjay continue what is great about The Hunger Games - a compelling and readable story combined with a thought-provoking message.

I feel that these books have already become an important part of the canon of youth literature, and that is a good thing. It seems incredible that young people are getting exposed to books which question "the myth of redemptive violence," and moreover that such stories are being made into blockbuster films. I am not sure what young people are thinking about these stories - whether or not they realize the profound critique they offer of our society - but I know that in a powerful story that message can be internalized, and that is good for everyone. Highly recommended.

What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the WhatWhat is the What is characterized as a novel, but it is paradoxically also the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. As a result the book carries the rather inane Library of Congress designation "Autobiography - Fiction." (Apparently between relying on Valentino's distant memories and Eggers' treatment of the subject, the publishers felt compelled to call it a novel). But don't let the taxonomic confusion deter you, it is a good read.

Eggers is a fantastic writer. I have read both Zeitoun and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and loved them both. His telling of Valentino's story is quite compelling and readable. The book doubled as a good primer for me on the history and nature of the conflicts in Sudan over the past several decades. It was interesting to read about the possibility of a new nation - South Sudan, which has of course now come to pass.  Recommended.

At Home by Bill Bryson

This book is subtitled "a short history of private life." Bryson guides the reader on a tour of his English country parsonage to give an explanation of the rise of the various furniture, contrivances, garments, and the rooms themselves in the typical home. If you have read Bryson before, you'll appreciate his charming style and readable yet detailed research.

I enjoyed the book as a whole, but my primary critique is that Bryson's structure is a bit contrived. In a few places the connection between the room and the topic is tenuous at best. For example, the "Study" chapter is dedicated not to a space dedicated to intellectual pursuits, but to household pests. The tenuous connection is that Bryson says the study is where his mousetraps are most often sprung.

Much of our standards for homely comfort are derived from Victorian England, so much of the history in this work is centered there. An unintended consequence of this focus has been me coming to regard that society as terribly depraved. I feel quite lucky to have not lived through it. At Home is recommended, but first-time Bryson readers really ought to check out A Walk in the Woods as well.

Too Far To Go by John Updike

In next month's reviews I'll cover the current issue of Tin House, which has an article on the so-called "Merritt Parkway" novels. These are novels of marital strife in the midst of suburban discontent, the most prominent of which is Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I saw the film adaptation and positively hated it.

When I discovered that Too Far To Go (which I had acquired second hand) was a collection of short stories centered on the breakup of a marriage, I was worried that I would be terribly disappointed. But Updike did well with the topic. Rather than despising the main characters as I did in Revolutionary Road, I find myself empathizing with them somewhat. Yet I was still on the whole baffled by their behavior and outlook (and I am proud of that). I recommend anyone read Updike (Terrorist is a good start), but this collection is probably not his best work.

Periodicals

The July 2012 issue of Harper's includes "Reason for living" by Christopher Beha, which is a rather striking review of three books an atheistic ethics. I was particularly pleased by the skewering of Sam Harris' attempt at objective morality.

Readings for June 2011

I would like to share a bit about what I have been reading lately. This may or may not develop into a regular feature of The Library Basement.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson (May 31)

There is something quite pleasing in discovering a new author whom you love reading and who already has an extensive (and growing) corpus. Thus I was pleased to meet Brandon Sanderson. He writes great literature in the fantasy genre. He was chosen to complete Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. He was Jeopardy  champion Ken Jenning's college roommate.

My reader can infer from this last detail that Sanderson is a Mormon. It seems that being a part of the LDS church has empowered some really great science fiction and fantasy. Do not forget that Orson Scott Card is a Mormon as well. Both Card and Sanderson conjure universes where in men have been elevated with godlike powers. I see a parallel between these stories and the LDS theology of the Celestial kingdom, wherein the faithful attain godhood. My analysis may be overblown, but I sure appreciate reading good stories by imaginative Mormons.

As for Warbreaker itself, I really enjoyed it. It is a mystery which studiously avoids too many twists. The fantasy elements engage the imagination and have an original feel. Sanderson has good pacing, and the 600+ pages in paperback did not feel overlong. Recommended.

Periodicals

I fell a bit behind in my magazine reading heading into this month. I was able to finish Harper's June, Harper's July, and Scientific American June. That leaves me with two back issues of Biblical Archaeology Review and one more SciAm (with another round of monthlies on the way, of course).

Of note this month was a good essay in Harper's June about a trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Steve Featherstone tells one anecdote to highlight the paranoia of deadly radiation - imagine finding a burrowed tick after a day out in the hot zone. Yikes! I continue to find the puzzles in Harper's to be bewildering, though I do not expend any real effort on them. Maybe next month.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (June 23)

My family was kind enough to give me another Brandon Sanderson novel to enjoy after seeing how much I liked the first one I read. Elantris is Sanderson's first novel, yet it is not too rough around the edges. I did notice some striking similarities with Warbreaker: a princess from a foreign land is sent by her father the king to fulfill a political marriage; people with extraordinary abilities are worshipped as gods; a few others. Yet there were sufficient differences that I found the similar premises to be quirky rather than repetitive. Recommended.

I found myself advancing through it at a good clip, reading over 100 pages in an evening to finish it out. Two great novels from Sanderson, so I'll plan on reading his Mistborn trilogy.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (June 29)

[][]Zeitoun is a fantastic book. It is the true story of a man's quest through the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Eggers' account is by turns heart-warming and outrageous. If you feel the need to read something to bolster your questioning of state power, this is your book. It is a quick and addicting read. I completed it in two days, including a final sitting of about 130 pages.

What's great about this story is that it is an intensely personal account in the midst of the regional tragedy and national shame of Katrina. We all know the story as a whole - it is larger than life. But here the reader gets to hear a real account of what it was like on the inside, and sees some of what the news never found. You'll come to really care for the protagonist as he paddles through the flooded city in his second-hand canoe. More importantly, Zeitoun causes us to consider how society can be so fragile and confront how those who are tasked with creating order can instead foster chaos. Recommended.

The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein (Abandoned)

The premise of the Number of the Beast is one of science fiction's best: traversing multiple universes. Yet Heinlein takes such a golden opportunity and muddles it. In a book which is marketed as an exploration epic, half is spent in only one alternate universe, and the narrative is mostly comprised of contentious bickering among the protagonists.

Moreover the characters are so smart, so skilled, so prepared, and so well-equipped that there is not any imaginable danger to them. This lends itself somewhat to a farce, but all the bitter arguing the reader is forced to suffer through nullifies any comedic value. I have about 100 pages left, and I'll probably finish it at some point, but I have laid it down in favor of better books for now.

I could go on and on, but someone else already has. Do yourself a favor and skip The Number of the Beast. Do read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, which represent Heinlein at his best. Not recommended.

[]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zeitoun.jpg

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