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Markus Zusak - The Book Thief

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5


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Siri Hustvedt - The Sorrows of an American

The Sorrows of an American: A Novel - Siri Hustvedt

What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details.Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5


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John Corey Whaley - Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back - John Corey Whaley

Someone decided to mix John Green and Chuck Palahniuk. He even decided to place his story in a dead end town that gave Local H their talent and their fear of failure. It’s a good thing I didn’t know all of this before I read the book. The disappointment would’ve hit harder.

Whaley borrows some stylistic choices from Palahniuk, but barely scrapes what made him worthwhile. He doesn’t borrow his shock antics, but that’s not much of a praise. Chuck’s choruses are here, only they’re not as inventive or informing as before. The purpose of this repetition is to inform us about the character. Victor uses the clinical “see also:” because he’s viewing the world in a detached way. Tender kept referring to cleaning because it was in his docile nature.

Cullen is an angry teenager, but this is where his personality ends. As an angry suburban teenager I recognize I was born to privilege, but it doesn’t automatically make for a happy life. You can give your parrot a safe environment and food, but ignore him and you might find that he discovered self-harm without Nine Inch Nails.

There is more to life than physical well-being. The psychological is just as important. Once we don’t have to fight for survival, we still need a reason to keep going. That’s one reason we get all these depressed teenagers. What do you expect when you put them in an isolated community where they spend most time studying and with little human interaction? Do you want to be the parrot who stares at people talking, joking and laughing while never noticing you exist for a second?

Other problems can strike suburban life, but this is a common one that’s easily brushed off as nothing by ignorant people (if they’re your parents, then the situation worsens). Cullen suffers none of that. He’s not a jock who gets all the girls, but he has a best friend with a girlfriend who feels comfortable kissing him. He has sex with two girls in this novel, one is slightly older than him and the other is the town’s main hottie (both of which make the advances). He also had a thing going on with another before the events in the book started.

Cullen’s life is kicking. Why he’s so angry is never made clear. He dislikes people, but no one is an outright asshole. Nothing about him makes him an outcast or a weirdo. He has no weird hobbies or habits. He can’t even get angry over being bored. If girls and driving around are available to you, then you have some joy in your life.

The whole disappearance thing is an external event that isn’t a part of Cullen’s personality. What’s important is not the tragic event but how it affects the character, and we don’t see it. Cullen stays angry without change. He doesn’t become more detached or more social. He manages his sexual opportunities like everything is fine. Sex is a positive force in his life. He’s neither encumbered by sexual frustration or relies on it too much like Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini.

The book is darker than John Green’s novels (excluding the cancer book). Whaley is more comfortable looking at the darkness and the story is less convenient. His characters are also more flawed than quirky. Whaley’s outcasts aren’t odd angels. Lucas has his Green-esque charms, but both he and Cullen are portrayed as stubborn kids who need to expand their horizons a little.

Whaley also questions Cullen’s hatred of everyone. Green tended to cast everyone out, put them on the bleachers so they’ll watch how cool the nerd is. Whaley has moments where we’re exposed to the others’ humanity and their flaws. A great moment like this is with John Barling. Cullen views him as a punching bag, but Barling’s scene shows he’s just another guy trying to find some value in his life. When the bully’s life gets wrecked, Whaley doesn’t celebrate.

In fact, the side characters are the best part here. Each has a little arc of its own, and a novel about them would be more interesting. Barling has a story about escaping failure and trying to do something big. If Quitman starred in his own novel, it could be a revealing one that gives us the bully’s point of view. How Cullen’s parents deal with grief is fascinating. Each deals in his/her own way and these means change with time. This is how Whaley brings a character to life:

“”Yeah, we used to fight over your cookies. And Dad would always come in and say, ‘Now, now, the only way to settle this is for me to eat the last one,’ and he’d snatch it before we could stop him.””

Such deeds can inform us about who these parents are. There are better moments here. If Whaley had so many, why aren’t they the stars of the novel.

It may be the brisk pacing. Every description of Cullen’s parents is insightful, but they’re not lingered on enough. Whaley moves quickly, as if afraid that lingering on characters will somehow boring. His story never resorts to lame action to make us feel something is happening. He knows better than that, but he doesn’t understand that a good enough moment is worth lingering on.

Unnecessary details still find their way in. Whaley gives a biography of a character whose only importance is its death. The specific details of his background, his time in Ethiopia have no effect on the story. Start from the death and drop a few mentions of his harsh family and you’ll have enough. At least Whaley’s antagonist doesn’t fit the role of evil asshole who ruins things for everyone. He couldn’t make the instigator’s madness understandable, though. Cabot felt more like a plot convenience. Again, Whaley should have slowed down and wrote more moments that define who this character is.

Whaley shows potential. His view of Young Adult is more mature. He wants to be up there with Catcher in the Rye (which is name-dropped, of course) and he wants to reach its depth, not just quirkiness. It’s halfway done. Whaley left enough annoying cliches, but the good stuff that remained are just seeds.

2.5 woodpeckers out of 5


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Margaret Atwood - Alias Grace

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood

Shitty authors often fill their books with useless details. It’s a sure sign the book is bad, but it’s understandable. If you have no idea what works, just throw everything in and hope something sticks. The problem with this shotgun approach in novels is that novels are whole pieces, and so it’s hard to isolate the good parts. Some good authors fill their books with details, and then chop off what doesn’t turn out to be a buried gun (see also: Chuck Palahniuk). Why do talented authors leave a lot of details is puzzling.

There’s no need to put a cover on Alias Grace. Buried in it is a brilliant mystery novel that uses it genre to create meaning, not just to create a puzzle. Atwood made a career of exploring the female experience, and the novel is almost the definitive one about our perception of women.

The phase ‘benevolent misogyny’ sounds crazy, and too bad the other term to describe it is ‘victim privilege’. These things exist, though. When people perceive you as lower than them, some of the ways they treat you differently will benefit you.

The perception of women was so narrow that it even excluded some terrible prejudices. Since women are viewed as pure until someone has sex with them, the idea they can be violent didn’t occur to people. The only reason Grace has a chance at redemption is because she’s a woman. No one thinks James may have been innocent, or cares what his reasons are. Boys will be boys, and James is just a boy who couldn’t control his violence.

The question of whether Grace is innocent or not isn’t answered, because the definitive answer isn’t the point. The point is what’s reader answer is and how much of it is based on Grace being female. The purpose of the puzzle is not the right answer but to examine our reactions.

Sexism is more complex than just making one group feel bad. Sexism goes both ways, with positive ideas about an oppressed group stemming from them being considered inferior. Atwood realizes that and this is why Atwood is one of the best authors on the subject.

Even in her comfort zone where she writes about discrimination, she’s still great in it. Her treatment of the subject is never black and white. There are sexist pigs. There are women who accept their position in society. There are men with savior’s complex. The contradicting sexism takes place in the same mind. Dr. Jordan seeks to help the outcasts and the insane. When you give him a woman desperate for love and an ugly servant, he’s regressing to the sexism he grew up with.

A common problem in Historical Fiction is that the authors give the historical characters a modern mindset. A third wave feminist in the 1800’s looks silly unless we get a reasonable explanation how she stumbled on these ideas. It’s like a person who talks about digital property before the internet was invented.

Atwood avoids this flaw. She knows that people who grew up in a sexist environment will think sexist thoughts, including women. I’ve seen plenty of women spit misogyny, such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming today. Of course Grace will buy into her role as a woman, and of course Dr. Jordan will treat ugly women in disgust if that’s all he knows. Thankfully, as time goes on and events pile up, events that challenge these perceptions take place. That’s Grace’s murder role. It’s there for people to question their ideas about the sexes, both the negative and positive.

These ideas are fully explored, so at least Atwood’s shower of details isn’t meant to cover up a lack. It doesn’t make it any less puzzling. It’s not a difference in prose style. Even at her most maximalist Atwood retains a gift for sentences that flow easily. She overcomes the challenge of writing in a less modern style, but unnecessary details remain unnecessary no matter how easy they are to read.

Everything little thing is described. These are not the purposeful descriptions of McEwan. Atwood has no modus operandi for choosing what to describe and what not to. The effect is similar to the shopping lists of Dragon Tattoo. They revealed nothing about the characters. Women had an obsession with appearances back in the day, but these aren’t descriptions that are focused on the beauty of things.

If Atwood wanted to express the characters’ obsession with things looking good, then she’d focus on the beauty of things. The shopping list is a static technique. It exists to give you a blueprint of how a room looks like, but it’s only important so you’ll understand the characters’ movements. Beyond that, telling us the color of the rag is unimportant unless the color or the rag has importance.

Less annoying are the words of wisdom that are dropped between paragraphs. There are many quotable moments, but they feel like they came out of an unpublished Words of Wisdom. I’d love to read a book like this by Atwood. Every novel I read by her paints an intelligent women, but it’s not believable when it comes out of Grace’s mind. She’s portrayed either as enigmatic or simple-minded. Intelligence isn’t a trait, so why do these pieces of wisdom tell us about the character?

The fairly-complex structure isn’t as harmful as these techniques, but it also feels like an unnecessary complexity. The exchange of letters is interesting, but they belong in a story more focused on Dr. Jordan. His main role here is to show a contradictionary sexist mind. He has an interesting psychological arc that gets drowned in too many descriptions and fear of exploring him. He never becomes the presence that the men had in Life Before Man. He exists to show us how Grace looks from the outside. There are too many passages on his life in general that are more than necessary to show he exists beyond the plot, and not enough to make him like a hero of his own story.

The news clippings in the beginning of chapters are better. In fact, Atwood should’ve used them more. She could have used a variety of clippings to show the subtle differences between sexist opinions. She has enough negative capabiliy to paint sexists as human beings while not justifying them. More clippings would allow her to experiment with the sexist mind.

The flaws in this novel prevent it from being great, but it’s still a success. Atwood is too good at prose, so even the filler writing is pleasant to read. The treatment of Atwood’s favorite subject is also the best she did so far, and it’s only over-writing that keeps this behind Cat’s Eye. Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist writer, but her literature is the ideal feminist. She doesn’t present a cliched narrative of bad men and angelic women (which is just another form of sexism anyway). She uses feminisn to question how think about sex and gender roles. There’s a lot to learn from her.

3.5 simple murders out of 5


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Siri Hustvedt - The Summer Without Men

The Summer Without Men - Siri Hustvedt

Chick Lit is a dirty word. Reading other reviews of this novel, many expressed fear that this would be Chick Lit and therefore a waste of time. While I didn’t have the fortune of reading Chick Lit, I heard it’s full of romance and character drama. Why is that considered so bad while Game of Thrones is praised for being ‘surprising’ is unclear. Maybe it’s just our society’s fear of femininty.


Femininity is a big issue in The Summer Without Men. The novel does live up to its title. There’s a moment where, instead of a teenage boy meeting the teenage girl it’s just her friends trapping her. Even the best female singers sing about wrecked relationships, while Marilyn Manson writes about metaphysical rebellions. We could definitely use a story to show us women can have a life outside relationships with men.


It happens in real life, too. I met many ‘tomboys’, women who’d rather be one of the boys and only get along with fellow tomboys. The subtle bullying of Cat’s Eye makes an appearance. The whole premise of the novel is, what do you when the opposite gender rejects you?


There are two possible conclusions here. One is not convincing enough and the other isn’t explored. Mia looks at her rubble and builds a house. That’s nice and all, but we’re just told that it happens instead of seeing it.


Siri employs a style similar to Paul Auster. It’s an introspective style with more telling than showing. It creates a maze of thoughts that you’re supposed to swim through and come up with something of your own. The key to making the style works is to make the narrator unreliable and deeply flawed.


Narrators of such stories tend to have an emotional affliction they can’t get over. It clouds their judgment and so we get two different versions of reality. One is presented in the details. The other is in the langauge and sentence structure. These are often obsessive characters, going over certain details over and over.


By presenting these characters as flawed and often the opposite of heroic, we’re invited to try to find the reality beyond the character’s perception. Mia lacks such an internal struggle. She has a psychotic episode, but we’re told that instead of being shown. In Catcher in the Rye, we’re not told that Caulfield has PTSD but we’re shown it by seeing him going over and over his brother’s death. A maze of thoughts tells us how reality is while showing us who the character is by his choice of langauge.


I never got an idea of who Mia is. What is her complex? What are her priorities? What is her worldview? She’s supposed to have had a psychotic episode, but the prose is clean and precise. It makes it easy to read, but I’d expect someone in an emotional turmoil to not be very coherent. The rambling style was necessary in those aforementioned novels because a character with emotional problems would be too busy venting them then making sure his words make sense.


The closest she come to doing that is breaking up the structure. She moves from topic to topic, rather than follow the typical “this happened and then this happened”. This works because the novel has a few different storylines that stand on their own, but that’s not a way to express Mia’s character. It’s just a way to make us take each individual story on its own, rather than try to make sense of the chronological order.


The stories themselves, while good, don’t rely enough on the rambling narrator tool. Stories with rambling narrators aren’t eventful. It’s less important what happens and more how it affects the characters. The action in this novel doesn’t, if it’s psychological, with Mia’s psychology.


There are two main arcs. One has a group of old ladies slowly dying out, and the other a group of young girls who are just entering the teenage wasteland. At this point, the novel is less about Mia and more about these characters. We get Mia’s opinion of them, but we also get some showing.


Siri needed to decide whether Mia gives us only her point of view, or whether she’s an observer who just reports what she says. We get something in the middle, which means it’s teasing without the orgasm. The arc with the old ladies is well-meaning, but is doomed from the start. One of the old ladies’ secret is that she makes quilts with hidden, profane images.


Siri was, what, 55 when she wrote the novel? There is the perception that old people are all prudes, but making them be into profanity doesn’t add any more life to them. The cliche of the Dirty Old Man or the old woman who seeks a sugar daddy are boring. If the only proof we have that this old lady still has life in her is her interest in profanity, then I don’t think she has much life in her left. Profanity is attention seeking. True rebels don’t care.


Profanity is impressive when you’re young, but by the time high school started it lost its charm. You occasionally get people who know how to use it, like what Bring Me the Horizon did in “Happy Song”. Most people, including the character in this novel, use it for pathetic shock value. When Abigail showed Mia that she put naked women in hidden in the quilt, I did not see an old lady with life still in her. I saw an old lady whose horizons are now so limited she can’t imagine anything more exciting other than profanity. By the way, this novel was published before Bring Me the Horizon’s album.


The almost-teenagers work better, but they deserve a whole novel to themselves. They are forced to write about the incident of bullying from the perspective of everyone else. This is a brilliant idea. How a character writes about another can tell us about both, and if an author is going to tackle this idea head-on we can get some serious character development.


Siri doesn’t do it. All we get is some snippets. They’re interesting enough, but again it’s all just teasing without even foreplay to compensate. There’s an attempt to understand the bully just like the bullied. It’s an interesting take that recognizes the cruelty of bullying, how these little thing produces social retards. It also tries to understand why bullies start in the first place. Many of them are sure they’re in the right and that the bullied just has a superiority complex. Siri touches that, but not enough.


There are off-topic digressions which don’t contribute much and reinforce the feeling this is just a collection of notes for an incomplete novel. Siri at least puts effort into writing her notes. Her prose flows smoothly and whenever she sinks deep into Mia’s psyche it gets better. The beginning is powerful, throwing us right in the middle of heartbreak and all the self-pity and anger that accompanies it. If Siri would let her loose a little and let Mia ramble, this could’ve been a great novel.


The Summer Without Men is too written-well to be bad. Even if everything in it is left unexplored, everything is interesting enough to make you want to do something with it yourself. The prose is pretty good and it’s short enough so it doesn’t drag. A good choice if you want a light read that’s not stupid, but that’s it.


3 summers out of 5


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Isaac Asimov - Foundation and Earth

Foundation and Earth - Isaac Asimov

If Foundation’s Edge sees Asimov diving into the Thriller genre, then Foundation and Earth is the complete opposite. Here, Asimov attempts something far more psychological and philosophical. These were things he avoided in previous installments. Considering how different Edge was in terms of ideas, the new approach isn’t surprising. Like a true intellectual, Asimov challenges himself and his thinking. Too bad this challenge was too much for him.


The first Foundation novels’ strengths was in knowing in their limits. Despite the huge scope, Asimov knew he’s not good at expressing ideas or psychology in fiction. So the whole series was just some cool puzzles and adventure stories. That’s also why none of them is truly brilliant. Edge only approaches that because it has a better understanding of the Thriller genre.


Foundation and Earth is supposed to be the series’ defining statement. It’s a slower, denser novel. It’s more concerned with the philosophical implication of Gaia than solving whatever puzzle Asimov came up with. Many are bothered by the trashing of the Seldon Plan, but that’s just Asimov replacing his old ideas with what he considers to be better one.


Asimov was never good at expressing ideas using fiction. He used them to make his stories look cooler, but there never was any deep exploration. He tries to do it here, and he always stumbles. The novel tries to tackle the community vs. individuality debate, and the only answer he can come up with is ‘let’s wait until we get to Earth’. The dialogues feel literally copy-pasted. The same phrases make an appearance, over and over. I don’t think people in real life say the same thing in the exact phrase.


We also get some cool set-pieces that feel like they belong in a different novella. An adventure consists of various stages, and each is supposed to both stand on its own and contribute to the whole. In general, they’re challenges for the characters to overcome and develop.


Since Asimov doesn’t develop characters, they all feel pointless. Killer moss could make for a fun short story. Solaria and their obsession with loneliness would be fantastic in the hands of a more philosophical writer, someone like Aldous Huxley. Here, all it gives is a plot coupon to redeem later.


Even the final conclusion is disappointing. For a novel so reliant on ideas, the conclusion should’ve been more than to reveal who was behind the scenes. We get no argument for Galaxia. All we get is that there was a person behind the velvet curtain and that we shouldn’t pay any attention to it. Such a conclusion would have worked in previous novels, but here Asimov doesn’t aim for a simple adventure.


There’s even rambling prose and lots of sex, which is new to Asimov. Maybe Asimov disocvered sexuality only at around age 65, which is great for him. I heard many men can’t get it up at that age, but it doesn’t make the sex any less out of place. At least Asimov is not as misogynistic as other authors. He writes like a person who doesn’t understand people in general, rather than just women. Even if we get a male character who has a lot of sex, at least the attitude towards it is positive.


The rambling prose is harder to forgive. Asimov’s strength was in how skeletal his prose was. There was nothing under the surface, but there was zero bullshit. Here, we get a lot of technobabble, including the precise distance between things (Did Asimov bother to calculate?) and meaningless descriptions of nothing. Rambling prose doesn’t make it seem like you got buried ideas. It makes it look like you’re trying to hide a lack of them.


The only idea that works is Asimov’s defamiliarization of Earth. It doesn’t get much deeper other than pointing out how unique Earth is, but there’s fun in it. His descriptions of musical instruments is especially entertaining. Asimov’s sense of fun and wonder at the universe also didn’t vanish. Despite the rambling prose, it’s still easy to follow and read. He doesn’t create a dense labyrnith where the content gets buried. It’s the same old Asimov, only with some extra unnecessary words.


It’s a fun adventure, but Foundation and Earth is an anticlimatic closer to the series. I appreciate Asimov’s effort to try out  new things, but none of it works. It’s still worth reading if you enjoyed the other Foundation novels. Asimov was a fascinating mind, and you can see his progress throughout the novels. It’s an average adventure that rambles a little too much, but I’ll give Asimov credit for how his ideas progressed. He didn’t call himself a rationalist for nothing.


2.5 galaxies out of 5


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Poul Anderson - For Love and Glory

For Love and Glory - Poul Anderson

Some think fun adventures and depth don’t go together. That’s a silly thing to think. Nothing in the adventure structure prevents it from showing us new ideas and make us look at the world in a different way. Adventures are, after all, tend to be an intense series of events that highly influence the character. This novel is a good enough example of such an adventure, but it’s the only good thing about it.


Anderson has some interesting ideas. His Created World feels like something that needs more novels written about. Inventions don’t exist just for convenience, but their effects are apparent. Life can be extended for almost eternity, yet a human can’t contain all these memories. It also doesn’t stop the gap in perspectives. Those who were born when the invention first kicked in got a different outlook and a different culture to draw on.


Anderson also takes the Multiple Alien Civilization to an interesting direction. He can’t come up with interesting organisms (They are basically Argonians and Khajits, from Elder Scrolls) but the behavior is. There’s a stab at racism here. Authors often use races to represent ideas. There is a race of strong, a race of stealthy, a race of intelligent and so on.


Anderson acknowledges that, unless a race has a hive mind the effect of intelligence will result in individuality. His approach is like the Elder Scrolls. A rule may apply generally, but there will be plenty who will deviate from the stereotype. He also creates a barrier between the races. Two species are too different in mindset to ever form a close relationship.


Such ideas and others rear their head, but they tend to go back down. For Love and Glory is a Foundation novel without Asimov’s spare prose and with a hefty dose of The Power of Love.


I wonder if Anderson also avoided sexuality in his early books, like Asimov. We get here the excitement of the discovery. Sex is fantastic, and it’s always around. Nothing can stop it. No adventure is too intense to be put on-hold for a romance.


Unlike Asimov, Anderson’s view of sexuality is closer to reality. The people who will fall in love and have crazy sex with be the beautiful and skilled. They will not be social outcasts and iconoclasts who are stuck on their hobbies. They will be low-fat adventurers and women of royal birth.


It never occurs to Anderson that the Beautiful People are just another elite. Money is great when you have it but it sucks when you don’t. The same goes for sex. It’s harder to imagine an alternative to sex, though. Currency is something human came up with, but sexuality was imposed on us. You can’t get away from sexuality.


That’s why I see no one questioning the promise that we will all get a hot women (or men) in the end. No one dares to acknowledge the existance of the unattractive. The only time we talk about them is as People We Will Never Have Sex With. In sex talks with guys, they talked about these girls like they’re low-quality products in a shop. They never thought that they are just like them, and that being in such a position isn’t fun.


Anderson halfway acknowledges the reality of the ugly people, but the result is insulting. Esker is what you’d expect from a social outcast. He fits nowhere. He’s ugly. He’s also very good at his field and that’s all he has. He’s pretty unpleasant, which is the result of being constantly spat out by society.


Despite all his rage he’s a rat in a cage, and Anderson is fine with that. He never stops to show some empathy for the poor thing. He appears once in a while and we’re invited to be disgusted by him, just like Lissa and Torben are. I couldn’t be disgusted. I saw in him what I am and what many people are. It’s the disgust that Anderson shows for Esker that makes him act that way in the first place. You can extract a meta novel out of this. Esker is mad at the God who created him and then scoffs at him. The result is a ‘metaphysical rebellion’ and, if we get a film adaptation a soundtrack full of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.


There’s also descriptive prose that tries to be unique but just ends up as gibberish. Exact descriptions of machinary are boring. Novels are not a visual medium and the writing shouldn’t try to do what film does better. Anderson understands that, but his descriptions are too abstract.


Authors should describe outer space with such wonder. There is no other way to talk about a ball of gas with beautiful rings surrounding it, just hanging there. The description often slip from expressing wonder to abstract word salad. It often hits scenes whose descriptions are supposed to be precise. There is a collision of ships in this novel, only the word ‘collision’ doesn’t appear. The purpose of langauge is not to obscure the event. If you’re not going to use the exact word, use words that imply and make us feel it. Anderson just skips the collision.


These problems are not a result of the novel’s background. It’s composed of fragments, some which were supposed to be a part of a Shared Universe project. The story is fragmented, but plenty of authors write fine fragmented stories. Good writing will take a fragmented structure and let the story come out of it. Anderson’s ambition for a literary adventure are appreciated, but the result is either incoherent or insulting. The few interesting ideas make me want to see what else he has, and hope this is just the product of an old man who’s past his prime.


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2 alien civilizations out of 5

Doris Lessing - The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing

I kept postponing writing this review because I had no idea where to start. I hoped reading other reviews and another book might have helped me. It didn’t. I’m falling back on the technique of telling that I had no idea how to start the review and feminism. I, too, wish I had a more original approach.


Lessing said she didn’t view this as a ‘feminist work’. Others have agreed with. They pointed to Anna Wulf’s character, who is overflowing with flaws. Her whole mind is in fragments and she can’t help but be attracted to guys who have no problem cheating on their wives. Then there is Africa and communism and a story-within-a-story. It’s like someone took that Tove Lo concept album, mixed it with a Rage Against the Machine and Drums of Death record and didn’t trim the weaker tracks.


My interpretation of feminism is different than others. Many think feminism is giving a female character a gun and letting her shoot everyone down. You can teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t mean you know him. Whether we’re putting women in the kitchen, factories or in the front lines doesn’t matter. We’re still putting them in roles.


What Lessing does here is what many a male author did – Salinger, Bellow, Heller. She dumps all her problems and the ugliness inside on the page with hope of making sense of it all. These type of novels can be cathartic, but they can also lead to a lot of rambling if there’s no idea to bind them together.


Lessing at least attempts that. The whole structure is an attempt to look at every problem on its own. It means every album gets the spotlight for a considerable page-count. It also means that it takes a long time before we return to it, which forces the reader to re-focus, recall a lot of previous details and push back what he just read.


The problem is that Lessing has a lot to say about everything. Paragraphs stretch for pages. If this was a small novel that gave a brief taste of everything and asked us to focus on the big picture, it’d be fine. The problem is that you’re always zooming in. When you spend hours staring at a fifth of a painting, it becomes the painting itself. It’s full of big pictures.


There’s a reason connected novels are published separately. That’s because each has to be readable and be read on its own. It has to be a big picture, too. Chapters should also stand on their own, of course. However, they can’t be a big picture on their own. Cut them from the novel and you lose something.


Lessing reminds me of George Martin (only with far more writing skill). She has so much information to convey, but much of it is too separate to allow you to focus on it. Each of the sections could stand on their own as a novel. Maybe making this a series where the line between novels isn’t chronology but the subject would make it easier to read. It’d be a pretty cool idea that many others will imitate, too.


It’s a shame, because Lessing is otherwise a great author. She rambles, of course. Her labyrnith of thoughts doesn’t flow as well as Auster and is too big. Still, her ideas are fascinating. The section about communism is one of the more mature treatment of the subject I’ve seen. We often encounter either pro or con. We’re told that either communism failed or that it just wasn’t really tested. Sometimes there are even rational arguments to back these up, but Lessing has empathy for all sides. She critiques isn’t pointed at who’s right, but at what causes the discussions to fall.


Her writings about The Female Experience are even better. This is where the whole feminism thing rears its head, and where I find Anna Wulf’s dysfunctional character as feminist. If men are allowed to have their labyrniths of thought, so do women.


Lessing doesn’t care about empowerment. Like Atwood, she just thinks a woman’s life deserves as much attention as a man’s. If men are allowed to psychanalyze themselves using literature, so do women. If there is any conclusion here, it’s that men and women are more similar than they are different.


It seems there is no actual difference between men and women. They all have the same wants and needs. The problems are when we take gender seriously. The two gay men aren’t very different, but the fact they’re attracted to men rather than women casts a shadow over them. It’s this little thing that disgusts Anna Wulf, although they are otherwise fine.


It’s also interesting how the romantic struggle isn’t with loneliness, but with Bad Guys. That seems to be a common theme in any female work of art that deals with heartbreak. Males are trapped in loneliness. There is suffocating loneliness in songs like “Forget Her”. Then you read this, Atwood and listen to Tove Lo’s album and it’s a world where nobody is lonely. There is always someone giving you attention and wanting you. They just don’t want you in the way you want them to want you.


Me and a friend discussed this often. What’s worse? The unwanted attention or the loneliness? We haven’t found an answer yet. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe asking questions like these are what set up the barriers between men and women. Even if Lessing’s character and Tove Lo will never know the loneliness of being invisible, we somehow all end up with hearbreak and frustrated with the ideal of romance.


I wish Lessing was more brief and focused with these themes. Her labyrniths of thoughts are so dense that you’re too busy figuring out where you are to stop and enjoy the ideas she scattered around. I don’t want a literature of answers. I don’t mind it an author throws me to a maze full of ideas that I will never understand 100%. When an author makes you feel too lost, you give up looking.


There are also a bunch of interior monologues. I keep thinking that intenral monologues are either your whole story, or you don’t put them at all. She’s a bit more stylish, but the whole method goes against what she’s doing. She’s bringing her characters to life using interactions and sitations. There are plenty of these that are amusing enough. A monologue only serves to stop the story to tell us what’s happening. Interior monlogues only work if the whole story is supposed to trap us in the character’s head, like the film Pi. In books like this or the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the action is the core of the story.


Her character also lives a relatively good life. She just lives off royalties from a book she published and rent money. She ‘struggles with ideas’, but it feels like the typical struggle of a privileged person who got it all sort out. Anna even have guys falling for her all the time. I’ve had those ‘philosophical struggles’ too, and I also come from a privileged background. Just sitting around and thinking doesn’t help. It’s self-defeating. You won’t get anything resembling an answer if your questions aren’t directed at the world. My whole life right now is a ‘philosophical struggle’, trying to make sense of everything. I won’t get anywhere lying around like Anna though. That’s why I read all these books and write all these reviews. Maybe if Anna did something other than talk to herself her ‘philosophical struggle’ would have been more engrossing. Talking to yourself often becomes a sick cycle of self-affirmation.


Although it’s a deeply flawed work, it’s also one that’s overflowing with ideas, interesting situations and good writing. The word ‘overflowing’ is truly the best description. There is enough here to make it worth reading, and it is something I want to return to later. It’s too much, however. It lacks the elegance of a truly brilliant work, one with a focus that can’t be swayed.


3 cheating husbands out of 5


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Veronica Roth - Divergent

Divergent - Veronica Roth

Hating the government is big business. Without a government we could hate, a lot of people will be out of job. I’m not just talking about scumbag officials. Imagine what Zack de la Rocha would do without hating the government. No one will listen to his pathetic attempts at rapping and lousy slogans. No one would buy his records. This is serious. Hating the government even mananges to pump some money into the publishing industry. Look at the Hunger Games.


Here we go. Here comes another review of Divergent that mentions The Hunger Games. I only do it because everyone else does, but that doesn’t make it right. The constant comparing of the two tells you more about how ignorant people are of the dystopia genre than about the books themselves. The Hunger Games was a heroic story about Defeating the Evil Government – no different than Star Wars. Divergent has little resemblance to it. It’s like a Young Adult version of Brave New World.


Roth wants to write about many things. She wants to examine ideas. She wants to write a love story. She wants to write an action-packed thriller. Sadly, she’s less successful than she deserves. There are plenty of moments where her approach to typical subjects are more unorthodox. Her love triangle, for example, is far more interesting and also tends to be more low key. Sometimes, she’s a carbon copy of contemporary YA. We’re talking about extended action sequences and love serving as deux ex machine.


There is potential in this premise. Roth wants to examine these ideologies. There is a satirical edge here, with how Erudite wear glasses to look smart or how the Dauntless try to look like metalheads. She manages to create distinct enough cultures that make us question and examine these ideas, rather than accept them as good or bad.


The Dauntless take the center stage, and this quality appears often there. The Dauntless are sometimes painted as unnecessarily cruel. At other times, the harshness and cruelty is reasonable. How can you become fearless without actually facing your fears? She doesn’t take the easy way out. She doesn’t separate the Dauntless to kindhearted people and to ruthless sadists, but presents that cruelty from two angles.


Divergent often reads like a critique of splitting into ideological camps. Anyone who talked with people who are proud of being left/rightwingers knows how damaging these camps are to good discourse. By choosing sides, you no longer have a mind of your own. You have to agree with everything that side says and disagree with everything the other side stands for. That’s why you get secular right-wingers who are hesitant to admit they’re all for gay marriage because they won’t want to come off as leftists.


It’s not a desire to destroy and rebuild. It’s a desire to improve what already is. Young people are often angry (which makes them appreciate rock music) and we want, to quote Fight Club, “to destroy something beautiful”. I appreciate this more mature outlook, but it doesn’t appear enough.


She tries to make ideologies clash, but her clash makes little sense. How does the desire for knowledge clashes with selflessness?


She paints the Erudite as hungry for power, but none of it comes naturally from their ideology. The pursuit of knowledge doesn’t automatically result in megalomania. Often, the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. You end up feeling smaller. People who pursue knowledge are often too busy researching and learning than exercising control. Learning is receiving. There are studies that prove suicide is more common among intelligent people.


The Abnegation or the Dauntless faction are more fit to slide to megalomania. The ideology of Abnegation includes the suppression of the invidiual. The only way to do it is to exercise some sort of control over him so he won’t try to act on his natural impulses. Roth is aware of that. This is where Marcus’ character comes in, but it’s a small moment.


The Dauntless are less fit, but are a good possibility. The slide from testing bravery to needless cruelty is addressed, but it’s used more to draw lines between Good Guy Four and Bad Guy Eric. Eric’s ideas can have some merit. He can be a bit of an Antichrist Superstar, a rejected person who works hard to escape from failure only to end up in ruins. His main role degenerates to be the Bad to Four’s Good. Maybe it’s fine if you’re a woman and the romance speaks to you more. As a male, I’m more interested in Eric’s attempt to make up for his failures.


This is a big hole that’s hard to ignore, because that’s what instigates the climax. She doesn’t go full retard and claims the pursuit of knowledge is bad, in and of itself. It’s just the desire to overpower that’s apperantly at fault, or something. She never makes it clear enough. She just attatches a bland desire for power to create an enemy.


What came before swings from interesting to bland. The initiatition arc gives us a pretty ordinary high school story with a Bullying Gang that exists only so we would hate it. It’s a jarring transition from a variety of viewpoints to people who are cruel because they’re cruel. I have faced real bullies, the kind that did it only because they could and Roth’s portrayal is lackluster.


Since this is a world where everyone is driven by the faction’s ideas, senseless cruelty is out of place. Even as an exploration of senseless cruelty, it fails. What is frightening about bullies is that they’re sure they are in the right. When a teacher asked one of my bullies, he said he did it because it was fun. Yet there is no sense of fun in Peter’s bullying that should remind us of how we love to shoot heads in Borderlands. He does it only to move the plot forward and so we’ll have someone to hate. It’s like the corrupt businessman who we hate because he has more money than us.


There are sometimes glimpses into character development. Al’s arc is good and lifts up the love triangle a bit. He’s he typical good, but unattractive guy. He’s kindhearted and nice, but he also has no spark of sexuality in him. It’s a moment where Tris is allowed to be a dumb teenageer, and we’re invited to understand even if we disagree. Al is also not portrayed as just a Love Interest but a human with a separate life. He’s allowed to make choices, to be vulnerable, to show affection and to take matters into his own hands even if it’s a tragic ending.


Tris is also a far more interesting protagonist than Katniss. Roth actually makes her go through tough choices and question her worldview. She doesn’t give her too many shortcuts. It’s not like how Collins allowed Katniss to never kill an ‘innocent’ person. Tris makes plenty of mistakes. That’s a small improvement, but not enough. She lacks a defining feature. There is something about being Divergent, but here it’s hinted that it’s biological, so perhaps it’s external. It’s not something she acts upon. She just gets up one day and people tell her, whoa, you’re Divergent!


The copy I read also came with the manifestos of each faction. That’s the best part. They’re each written in different style that suits the ideology (Amity all have anecdots. Erudite have lists). They each make a convincing case, but they’re also very absolute and strict. They’re ripe of finding holes in them. This can be a fun exercise. This is probably what Roth wanted, but it didn’t turn out too well. Maybe the next go round will be better.


2.5 factions out of 5


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Neil Gaiman - American Gods

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

It’s been a while since I read a terrible book, the kind where I have to stop reading because the author just wrote something so asinine. I can’t believe this is the same author of Stardust. Both books are trying something similar by playing on folklore, only Stardust gets it, and American Gods just does one stupid mistake after another. Stardust relates the myths to human experience,American Gods is concerned with a bunch of super-beings whose struggles bear little resemblance to human lives.


The story itself is not great. The actual events consist of running around and talking to people. This is because Gaiman has no real story and he wants to show off the research he has done. Everything is written like a cheap thriller without the energy. Cliched sentences are all over the place. Paragraphs are dedicated to what may or may not happen. Pseudo-omniscient third person narrative, switching points of view because everything has to be told. The main character is passive and does things in order for us to have eyes to look at things, and because Gaiman had no better way to move the story along. He later almost develops this passivity. There’s a moment where someone comments on that trait, and a crucial scene at the ending. All of this has very little bearing on the plot and doesn’t take it to a different direction. Main Character also suddenly changes his behavior because it’s good for the plot. There is no deep psychology for the main character. Gaiman pulls a reason out of an ass at the end, but it was easy to guess it because it’s the most immediate reason, the one that requires little thought. It’s also a reason out of the character’s control. It’s not exactly a psychological trait, and Shadow could have said “Hey, cool story, but I don’t care”. That revelation, in of itself, does not explain the sudden change.


There is one salvageable part in the extended ending (Which goes way after the books run out of steam) when a mystery that appeared halfway through is solved. The conclusion and the scenes are pretty interesting, and if Gaiman wrote a straightforward thriller set in a small American town he’d have more access. He could have been explored his subject better, and relate this God business to actual human lives. This is the only time he does that. Later, a non-existent story arc gets an unimportant closure, where Gaiman tells us a lot of details and personal history of a character that appears for five pages. The plot would’ve changed little if this was removed


I could forgive the non-existent story if the ideas here were worth it. American Gods doesn’t pretend to be a story-centric novel anyway, but the whole premise it relies on falls flat. The war is, supposedly, between polytheism and technology, but were they ever at war? By the time the Industrial Revolution came around, monotheism ruled the west. Somehow, nobody from Judaism, Christianity or Islam makes an appearance. A few people do mention Jesus, and there’s a scene with some Arabic guys, but it goes nowhere. Thinking of it now, I have no idea what that scene with the Arabic people meant within the context of the story. Does anyone know of a pantheon that was common in what is now Islamic territories?


The idea of a “God” is also very vague. His modern gods include Media, Computers, and some people called Mr. Town, Mr. Stone, Mr. Wood, and like that. What does believing in these mean? They all exist, but when does the simply using ends and the worshiping starts? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have gods representing ideas like right-wing, left-wing, capitalism, communism, veganism, feminism, and other such ideas, which are truly abstract? It could even add an interesting dynamic where, while all of these are very modern, they also don’t agree with each other on everything. Oh look, here’s a much cooler premise – follow a bunch of characters representing these ideologies, who have to survive together despite their disagreements. Doesn’t sound that original, but much better than having a passive guy running around with Odin to show off Gaiman’s research.


He says some things about how Americans (Oh! Look at all these fat and stupid people!) switch gods frequently. Let’s forget that the book can’t decides what a god is. What is wrong with the zeitgeist constantly changing? In fact, it’s a good thing. Progress is change. We haven’t reached a utopia yet, and we’ll probably never will, so why not try to change? Not every change is good, obviously, but changing is the only way to improve. The gods probably feel pretty bad about it, but they exist only in the context of the novel. There is no explanation about why “a land bad for gods” is bad for humanity. This brings up another thing: American Gods is one of those novels that are detached from the human experience, where fantasy is not used to mirror or say something about humanity but is used to curl up in it.


The worse is the random bits of shitty writing. Very early, Gaiman tells us Columbus didn’t really discover America. He might as well have said, “This is for ignorant people who barely read the paper”. A character kisses Shadow out of nowhere. The same character goes off before on a monologue which has brackets in it. Nobody speaks with brackets. Digressions are something else. Schrodinger’s Cat gets mentioned for the sole purpose of, “Look! Science can be so cool!” and “Cats! Cats!”


More offensive was the way the grieving of one character was treated. There’s a death early in the book which affects a few characters. One of them vanishes, only to reappear later in a very convenient way to move the plot from A to B. Said character’s action are framed as vile, and she gets called a ‘cunt’. I don’t want to spoil, but that tragic event isn’t going to make angels out of anyone, and if you’re considering her limited point of view, plus all her grief, her reaction is perfectly reasonable. It may harm our hero, but I can’t hate her. In her world, she’s the main character, not him.


No story, premise that makes little sense, attempts to comment on real life that mean nothing and some very bad writing. This doesn’t sound the guy who made Stardust. I had no idea what happened here. I remember choosing to read American Pastoral instead of this, to ‘get it out of the way’ because this seemed more fun. How wrong I was.


One pantheon out of five


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Philip Pullman - The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is just as uneven as the previous entries. It’s uneven in different ways than the previous books, but I’m not sure whether if is a testament to Pullman’s skills. It could show a lack of learning. His main strength in showing ideas and not strawmanning the bad guys remains. His mechanical plotting that relies on a barely mentioned prophecy remains, too. Imagine if God texted Jonah once in a while to remind him he’s a prophet.


It’s good it ended here. The Amber Spyglass almost spins out of control, with some characters dropping out and others coming out of nowhere. The Mulefa race is pretty cool, but it’s ad hoc. It pops out of nowhere and exists mostly for Mary’s character arc. He did create an interesting and unique enough culture, and its exploration lines up with Mary’s character. On its own, it’s not bad. It reads like snippets from an even better novel, but here it’s out of place. Pullman’s connection to the rest of the story isn’t very convincing. Dust’s erratic behavior didn’t need a whole new world. Pantalaimon also might as well not be there. There are few comments from him. He used to be Lyra’s foil, but now he tends to change shape and that’s it.


Pullman characterizations also fails. Lyra remains subjugated to Will, and Will remains fairly uninteresting. The relationship between him and Lyra gives him a little more to do, namely act on what he wants, for selfish purposes, instead of going out to save the world because the Author(ity) said so. Mrs. Coulter stops being the villain, which is great, but her character’s shift is too extreme to be believable. Her motivation is not just because she loves Lyra, but also her conflict with the Church. This is only told about in a few dialogue lines, instead of being shown. If Pullman followed her more closely, and gave her a more focused character arc, he wouldn’t have lost focus on what really matters. Her big moment felt hollow. There’s also a bumbling assassin and the passages that narrate his adventures sound like Dan Brown. I could tell he was albino without that being described.


At least the battle field remains interesting. The Church are the villain, but they’re not bad because they’re bad. A few scenes lets us inside the Church, and instead of bad guys laughing evilly because they’re evil, we’re seeing people who are just (too) certain they’re rights. The battle field in The Amber Spyglass is not one where the good kind men fights the evil child murderer, but of two different worldviews. Our main heroes are also not part of any of the factions. They choose Asriel less because they agree with him. They choose because it’s better than the other. Pullman avoids making this about beating the enemy to death. It’s another example how good it is with violence. Perhaps, if he studied its history and made it the novel’s main theme the results were better.
Somewhere near the end the battle is over and Pullman comes back to his philosophical ideas. The sections about the world of the dead are especially interesting, although the harpies’ role is a bit lost on me. I’m glad our heroes don’t defeat them using violence – most victories here aren’t won with that, thank God, but what is their connection to what Pullman is saying about death? His take on the afterlife is good. He views the afterlife as actually an undesirable thing, and looks at complete death, a person decomposing completely as something positive. It’s a more interesting discussion than whether life after death exist, but he didn’t connect the annoying harpies to this theme.


He also didn’t connect this whole prophecy thing. Prophecy is convenient, because it means that whatever our character thinks, feels, loves or drives he will do what must be done in the end. Prophecy doesn’t have to be like this. The reason a certain person is chosen can be meaningful and connect to the theme in the story. In Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, you are chosen because you’re an outlander. It’s not just chance. You being an outlander ties directly to the Dunmer’s xenophobia. Morrowind’s prophecy is also not obvious. There are a variety of different accounts, some false and some true. Morrowind uses the prophecy to explore what folklore means and the theme of xenophobia. Why were Lyra and Will chosen? There was nothing about them that made them special. Everyone kept insisting, but Pullman kept dragging Lyra down and lifting Will up slightly. Lyra briefly becomes interesting again by the end of the book. Will is also gone by then. That’s not a coincidence. She still wasn’t special enough to be chosen.


The the best display of the unevenness is how the big solution to the big problem sometimes made sense and sometimes didn’t. The it makes sense in the theme department, but not the plot department. It’s not clear how a small deed changes everything. Maybe it was the specialness, but see the above paragraph for that. The romance was also manipulative, but Pullman had little choice. The other way would have felt too convenient. Pullman wrote himself into a catch, and he barely got out.


Pullman stopped his car right before his crash. The Amber Spyglass can be hard to make sense of. Pullman gets his strengths and weaknesses mixed up, but the main focus was never lost. Even when it spins out of control, Pullman knows what are his themes and what is his purpose for writing. It didn’t prevent him from not exploring them enough, but it did help him keep his story exciting, fun and full of entertaining scenes even when their connection is not clear. It’s not a great ending, but it was worth the time.


3 wheels out of 5


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Philip Pullman - The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman

Opening a portal to our world was a pretty bad idea. It causes some bad stuff to happen to our characters, but that’s okay because they’re just characters in a novel. It’s bad because, somehow, more cliches came out and infected this series. They don’t overwhelm it – there’s a scene near the end which defines exactly what Pullman is good at, but it does its harm.


Will is the biggest problem, and for a character who takes the center stage is pretty lazily written. Will is a tortured anti-hero who, aside from feeling pretty shitty from time to time is doing pretty great. Unlike Lyra, who has personality flaws that hinder her progress from time to time and thus make her interesting, all Will has is a ‘troubled past’ which makes him feel bad. Pullman doesn’t completely drop the ball with him, and he does write scenes where Will is not doing so great, but mostly he just feels bad all the time. The only thing that holds him back in the book is a nasty wound, and that’s an external thing, not a personality flaw.


Lyra suffers from his presence, too. She’s still an interesting character, with charming qualities and flaws in her personality, but Pullman turns her into Will’s sidekick. Whenever she takes the stage, it’s great. There’s a scene where Lyra fucks it up pretty bad, but about halfway through she decides – or at least Pullman does for her – that all she will do is help Will. Lyra does have a case for idolization, like she did for Iorek, or the witches but it makes little sense here. Iorek is a huge, strong and alien creature. The witches are powerful and older than your used Volvo. Will is a child like her. A troubled past is nothing to idolize, and while he can fight, he doesn’t have the commending personality of Iorek or the wisdom of the witches. Yet, this rebellious girl now exists only to help him.


Like in the first book, Pullman is much better at ideas than plotting. His plot still feels like a C-RPG of sorts. The character go there, receive that item, use it to advance to the next level and so on. There are less scenes this time where characters interact and let Pullman explore various ideas, but the few there are here are actually better. One good example is a conversation between two doctors, one of which is aware of the novel’s plot and the other isn’t. The one who isn’t will clearly damage our heroes’ journey if he gets his way, but Pullman doesn’t paint him as a villain or a terrible person. He’s merely ignorant of the main plot, so it’s perfectly reasonable from his perspective not to care about all these big events and Plot Coupon collecting. There’s also a scene where he starts to agree with William Golding in the whole adults vs. children discussion (In fact, parts of this book can be isolated and be turned into a nice retelling of Golding’s classic)


He also didn’t fall in his treatment of violence. The Subtle Knife has more gore than its predecessor, with more battle scenes, chases, and character deaths. He still refuses to sensationalize it, and even if Main Characters have to hurt others to advance in the plot, it’s not viewed as totally justified. When the main characters end up hurting some people in order to get the knife, the moment is not very celebratory. Instead of celebrating our heroes’ success, Pullman shows us how it affected others. The best scene in the entire book is when a character has to fight off a lot of mooks. Even if they exist solely so the guy would have something to fight, he doesn’t remain indifferent to the violence. Mooks, in reality, don’t exist. They’re still human beings, and even if they appear for barely a paragraph, The Subtle Knife and its characters acknowledge it. Perhaps parents should stop demanding non-violent content, and instead ask for books like this, which don’t treat violence as just a tool to advance the plot.


Pullman’s strength and weaknesses remain the same, aside from weaker characterization. If he didn’t drop the ball with Will and Lyra, it would’ve been just as good as the first. This is still a very good book, because Pullman doesn’t succumb completely to the new tropes and lets the characters occasionally act beyond “Sad guy” and “Hero’s Sidekick”. The direction was wrong though. Let’s hope he fixes what was wrong in the climax.


3 Specters out of 5


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Philip Pullman - The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman

I was going to write how Pullman doesn’t fall to the bad tropes of Epic Fantasy. There are no pages dedicated solely to what food is being served. There are no hundred details that can only be useful in a crossword puzzle. Not everything is being described, only what is needed to set the mood. Saying something is not as bad as terrible crap though, is not much of a compliment.


Reading this again, there was a scene that nailed down what Pullman does best. Two side characters are having a debate, and Pullman makes both of them sound right. He managed to display two opposing views without degenerating one to a straw man, and they weren’t discussing just whether to bake the potatoes or make french fries. This extends to how, no matter how strange things get, nothing is portrayed as “That other, strange thing”.


It’s easy enough to see how the gyptians turn from these funny people into a culture as rich and interesting as the scholars of Oxford. While the bears do remain a bit undeveloped (He passes it off as ‘enigmatic’, but I’m not sure it cuts it), they are still displayed as serious sentient beings, not just slightly smarter animals. The best is when he portays his adult characters. Although they are seen as scary, alien and not having a single clue by Main Character, Pullman writes enough scenes to show us their point of view. The most telling one is at the end, where two important characters who are seen as pretty awful are given a scene to show them as more than two megalomaniacs. It’s a scene that tells us that just like children, they have their own ambitions, fears and passions. Mrs. Coulter is still the bad guy, but Pullman showed me it’s just a part of her character, not her whole.


His treatment of violence is also, by far, one of the more mature ones. Violence is not seen as sensational, and it’s ‘shocking’ not for how cool it is but how devastating it is. There are various descriptions of wounds and gore, and they always read like nasty stuff, even if the bad guy is wounded. There’s a very bloody character death that in any other book, we’d be encouraged to be happy about. The good guy won! The bad guy is getting dismembered! Only there is no joy in the ritual of plucking a heart and eating it. The frank and blunt description makes it sound ugly and sad, not glorious.


I wish this maturity also made it to the plot structure. Although it’s devoid of bullshit, the plot consists of Lyra moving from one place to another, with NPC’s telling her where to go to next, or offering her a ride to the next act. She’s given a little more to do than the protagonist in Diablo II, and she occasionally makes her own choices, but all she tends to do is keep moving.


It’s a shame because Pullman had a pretty good character in Lyra. Any criticism of her that she’s not a very unpleasant person misses the point. She’s supposed to be flawed. Children are flawed, and can be pricks. Her character shows, if anything, how well Pullman understands children. They get into stupid rivalries for the sake of it. They exaggerate already scary stories just to spook each other. Some things hold their curiousity and make them obsessed. Other things bore them to death. They view adults both as people to admire and people to fear, and they view some people as just ‘wicked’.


Most of the character moments though are in the beginning, where there’s less of getting to the Final Stage, and more of just exploring and doing side quests. There’s also a prophecy thing that doesn’t contribute anything whatsoever to the story. Lyra’s specialness of learning to read the aleithometer is good enough to make others take her seriously. It’s not like a skill Pullman landed on her, either. I kept forgetting about this prophecy thing, because Lyra kept making choices and doing things out of her own volition. Maybe it makes sense in the next books. In this one, though, it’s an attempt to give a motive to a character who already has one.


The Golden Compass avoids most of the cliches everyone hates about fantasy, and is more mature than not just children’s literature, but than a lot of adult literature. Children will enjoy its weird characters and busy journey, but there’s more to it, even if a good chunk is some unrealized potential due to a dull structure. I read this again becaue I put off reading the last one for too long, and it was even better the second time around.


3 Armored Bears out of 5


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Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

It’s silly to expect every book on the Classic List to be brilliant, but you can expect to react to it.Cucko’s Nest is an awful book, but it’s not one that just passes by. Catcher in the Rye either pisses people off or become their inspiration for becoming an author. Even if you give up onCatch-22 because of how confusing it is, it’s still a reaction. Sometimes, these classics end up being both terrible and great at the same time, like Roth’s American Pastoral. To Kill a Mockingbird, unlike the aforementioned novels, failed to cause paragraphs to write themselves in my head.


Perhaps it was radical when it was published, but now To Kill a Mockingbird is a very tame, easy book that goes down easily and teaches a few nice lessons that you probably already know. It’s not that you can’t still say interesting things about obvious ideas like racism is bad and trying to see things from the other’s point of view. The child perspective is also not a reason to see the world in duller colours. Children don’t see the world in a simpler way, just different. There’s none of that here. Only around the end of the novel the ideas are starting to get examined. Until then, they’re just told as if they’re true and that’s it.


As a feel good novel, it’s great. Scout and Jem are fun, the black servant is treated as a part of the family and the adults always strive to understand children. If they don’t, they’re assholes. Racism is bad, but we’re never invited to understand why people are racist, or its true emotional damage. The true racists are just white trash, and their reasons for it is because they’re ignorant and stupid. There’s no challenging of the concept. Harper Lee could have at least asked us why do believe race exists anyway. Instead, she points at the white trash and says, “Look at those ignorant meanies”.


All the praise for Atticus is for how great a human being he is, but good characters aren’t necessarily good human beings. Characters are not real, so the standards of what makes them good differ from people in real life. Max Cohen, from Pi, is an unpleasant, elitist douchebag. In real life, his only merit would be his brain. Since he’s fictional though, he becomes someone to explore. His douchebaggery and intelligence are equally important. In real life, Atticus would be great. In a novel, though, he doesn’t do much but good. He listens to his children, defends the negro and never surrenders. That’s awesome, but what are we exploring? Only near the end Atticus’ ideas are challenged. Until then, he’s nothing but a beacon of light, and not a good one, either.


Atticus’ compassion is painted as noble, but plenty of times it’s really surrendering. Understanding someone’s point of view doesn’t mean not telling them they’re wrong. We should understand why people are racist, why they kill, why they steal, but it doesn’t mean to excuse their behavior. Sometimes, it’s perfectly reasonable to fight back. Look at the Jews. They tried to assimilate for so many years, and their reward was this kraut guy who wrote a rambling book about his struggle.


Jem and Scout are also unstable characters. Scout narrates the novel with intelligence and empathy, but her character is aggressive and childish. It could be that you grow up from wanting to bash everyone’s head to wanting to help the elderly, but the progression isn’t believable. Scout matures, but remains fairly aggressive and confrontational throughout the novel. In modern times, Scout would have walked with Linkin Park and Sum 41 shirts. That’s not a bad thing, but Harper needed a major event to convince that Scout went from a proto-punk to an intelligent, soft-spoken woman. Jem’s character is just a mess. Sometimes he’s just as aggressive as Scout, other times he’s intelligent and mature. This would have been a great thing if Jem was presented as a contradicting mess, but he’s not. He’s supposed to be the mature child, but ‘mature’ children are generally messy and confused. Take Holden Caulfield or Piggy (Lord of the Flies). Both are fairly mature for their age in aspects, while in others they’re way behind. Jem is mature and childish whether it suits the scene or not.


There’s an interesting examination of gender roles. Both the male stereotype and the female stereotype come under scrutiny. Scout doesn’t want to be ladylike, and prefers to do boys’ stuff and wear overalls. She finds it unbearable to be in the company of ladies who live and die on refreshments. On the other hand, Atticus is not much of a typical macho guy. He doesn’t drink, gamble, shoot, or fight. It sounds great so far, but it’s another undeveloped idea. Atticus’ refusal to be a macho dude is held as a virtue, same with Scout’s tomboyishness. There isn’t a connection between these do incidents, though. They exist mostly to tell us how unique Scout or Atticus are.


Harper fails to navigate her themes, but she’s at least a competent storyteller. If you read this solely for the story and try to ignore any message she tries to deliver, there’s plenty of entertainment. Harper is an excellent writer. The style is not too unique, but there’s almost no misplaced words. Every sentence flows well. She also has a large cast of side characters who each have their unique quirk to make them memorable. Mockingbird lacks a central plot, but its various episodes are all interesting enough on their own. In fact, as far as worldbuilding goes (If you call a small town a world), To Kill a Mockingbird is a success. Its characters are odd and interesting enough that each could have its own novel. Harper Lee should have written more novels not because she had anything interesting to say, but she created an interesting enough setting that was worth developing more.


To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a decent tale of small town life. It’s a failure at exploring any of its themes, but it manages to carry itself by its storytelling. The reason for its popularity is obvious. If I thought that ‘feel-good’ was enough, it’d be one of my favorites. Good people like Atticus aren’t interesting, though, at least not unless their goodness is challenged is anyway. It’s a fun, cute novel that leaves a lot less to be discussed than the worst Classics.


3 Recluses out of 5


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Margaret Atwood - The Blind Asassin

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

Of all the Margaret Atwood novels, The Blind Assassin is the one that wants the hardest to be the best. It won’t be content with being better than its brothers. It aims for the Classic List. It wants to sit alongside Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath and various others you think are overrated. It succeded at making people think that way, and the novel was pretty convincing for the most part that it deserved it. The approach had more style over substance, but there were 600 pages to through. It could take its time revealing its depth.


Only when it had the chance to be truly as complex as its structure, it fell. It fell where you’d least expect Atwood to fail. She’s excellent at portraying the female experience, especially under the gaze and control of men. She treats the subject with the respect and depth it deserves, recognizing the bad guys are human, as bad as they are (Life Before Man) and that girls can be just as cruel to girls (Cat’s Eye). In The Blind Assassin, there are two patriarchs, one of which is excused because he is supposed to have some nice political ideas. The truth is, he’s excused because he’s far more sexually attractive. Atwood should be the last person to give ammunition to guys who go on and on about how women like jerks.


Alex Thomas could be a fantastic character. He’s full of good intentions, and it’s great that he’s willing to make sacrifices for what he believes it. It doesn’t change the fact that his behavior with Iris – a far more interesting character than the crazy Laura – reeks of future wifebeating. The first intimate scene between them reads like an account of near-rape experience. Iris narrates as if she avoided a car crash. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’d want go through again. There’s also a narrative device that details the relationship between the two, and Alex always comes off like a manipulator. He has mood swings, he’s idealist one second, and nihilist the next. His confusing behavior is what Pick-Up Artists recommend in order to get the emotions going in women and therefore, manipulate them.


This could have been a fantastic portaryal of a Dangerous Guy, and how sometimes it’s very hard to detect their manipulation. When the big moment arrived, though, it turned out the subtleness wasn’t a part of the theme. If Alex is not terrible for women, why are all these hints there? Maybe this is what Atwood likes in a man, but her control on the novel is too tight to let such things slip in. If Atwood hadn’t failed, it could have excused the rest of the failures.


The Blind Assassin is worse at portraying its antagonists than Life Before Man. This is weird, considering Life Before Man is the product of a younger author that can’t even try to hide its youth. The Blind Assassin, while more mature in every other aspect somehow ends up with antagonists that always border on caricature. Winifred suffers the most from this. Her character is the least believable thing here. She has no redeemable features, and there’s never a glimpse into her struggles. Richard, the main antagonist, fares better. Excluding the reveal at the end that drags his character down, he manages to be both a pretty awful person but also real. Richard also has no good traits, but he’s a living person with his own wants and needs, his own ambitions and objectives. Unlike Winifred, Richard could lead a novel, although not as long as this. 600 pages with a person like him is too much.


Maybe it’s a deliberate attempt at non-complex antagonists because fiction is the novel’s main theme. There are stories within stories, but anyone who read Auster is not going to be confused by its structure. The novel is not concerned with just written fiction but any kind of fiction. Stories are biographies, things we write for others, novels, the news and rumours. Atwood goes beyond the self-indulgent, “novelist’s relationship with his work” that authors succumb to after sitting in a dark room for too much time with too many books. Atwood examines the relationship between fiction and any kind of person, but what wants to say about it is unclear.


The most obvious guess is fiction is deceptive, but if you don’t elaborate this statement it’s too simplistic. In a way, everything is fiction. Human interaction is based on telling stories, even if it’s just “I found a way to discover fire”. If fiction, in general is deceptive, then there’s a huge hole in all of human interaction. You can’t talk about this without also involving the theme of how humans interact, and Atwood doesn’t touch on that. Like in the Alex Thomas case, we’re left with too many hints that the complex structure is not just there for complexity’s sake, but it never leads to something resembling a conclusion.


Beneath the messy themes, there’s a nice story. The complex structure may fail to bring any meaning, but it doesn’t drag the story down. All the stories in the novel are interesting enough. Atwood is still a fantastic writer, despite sometimes describing too much. There are various great sentences and quotables scattered all over the book, and tiny stories that touch on various themes. Maybe that’s what impressed so many people. The scope of The Blind Assassin means that it touches more themes than mentioned previously, too many to count here. This scope makes it entertaining, but it’s not enough to make it great, and therefore it falls below Cat’s Eye, Life Before Man and Oryx and Crake.

3 metastories out of 5


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John Green - An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines - John Green

If it wasn’t for the few emotional moments, An Abundance of Katherines would have read like a parody of John Green. All the familiar ingridients are there, but Green uses them to explore different themes and ideas. It’s not a problem of repetition so long as Green is still good at his expressing his ideas, and has new ones in each book. Unfortunately, the only time Katherinesis successful is when it stops to give us snippets from Green’s upcoming collection of essays.


Stopping a novel to deliver a teaser for an essay collection is bad writing. It shows the author couldn’t express his ideas using the story. In Katherines, these snippet highlight a different problem. Once you get over the fact you’re reading an essay, it’s pretty good. Green’s mediatations on being different and weird are well-written and interesting. He treats the subject with the seriousness it deserves. He sometimes slips into taking it too seriously, but most of the time he captures the confusion that weird kids feel and finds solutions that are not the way out. Once you get back to the novel, all of that depth is gone.


Calling An Abundance of Katherines a cartoon will compliment it. There are plenty of cartoons out there who will make their characters actually struggle. In Katherines, everything is solved nicely for the characters. There are worse things than getting dumped, but being a weird kid can’t be as great as Green makes it out to be. Blowing a problem out of porportion is just as bad as painting it much easier than it is.


Weird kids’ struggle with girls is a hilarious subject. These are people who are in this absurd catch-22 where there’s no way out, and the only solution is to give up on women. Weird kids are not special in the mysterious, sexually attractive way. Their quirks will just be overbearing, whether it’s an obsession with music or proving God doesn’t exist. They have slightly more content than your ‘popular dumb jock’, and it’s not enough to compensate for not being hot. Lack of social skills also means a lack of charisma and the ability to maintain a conversation. Add to that the fact males are generally expected to initiate, the ones who will ask out and the ones who will try to kiss first, and you’re left with people who have no hope of ever being in a relationship.


Colin doesn’t have to worry about that. Colin doesn’t have to agonize over how to approach a girl. Almost all of them ask him out, and there are 19 Katherines in this novel. For weird kids, actually getting rejected would be a step forward. It would mean they at least tried to approach. Getting dumped is Acheivement Unlocked. Even though Colin’s relationships tend to be as short as a pop song, he still had these moments. Girls still asked him out and kissed him out of their own initiative. From the point of view of the weird kids, this looks like a pretty nice life.


Green writes about weird people not to examine them, but to make himself feel better about being one. There is a reason why unpopular kids are unpopular, and the problem is not just the evil hot jocks. Colin and Hassan are both unpleasant creeps who act like they don’t really like each other and can’t relate to the world. They both think that by being quirky and weird, they’d somehow be able to get by and be loved. It’s a comforting message, but it’s a bad one.


There are moments in the novel where Green is aware of how terrible his main cast is, but the story disagrees with him. The characters undergo little change. They understand that perhaps they should try a little harder to relate to the world, but the message is still ‘be yourself’. Hassan and Colin don’t really confront their unplesant weirdness. Colin does some heroics and Hassan decides to be a little more active, but Colin wins the girl because of who he is, not how much he improved.


The worse comes when the jock reveals himself to be an exact stereotype. Green couldn’t try to look beyond his fantasy of getting the jock’s favorite girl. Lindsey’s boyfriend is actually nicknamed The Other Colin, and Green encourages us to view him as that. He’s the other, the different one who is not as cool like us, therefore he’s an asshole. Oh look, isn’t that how people describe nerds?


There are various other failings, but they’re expected when this is just a bad nerd empowerment fantasy. There’s a plot thread involving Lindsey’s mom that is dropped off after it’s hinted it might lead to the big climax. The quirks are much more forced, including Hassan and Colin inventing a code word for when they criticize each other too much (Dingleberries, if you can believe it). There are two characters who add nothing but their name to the word count. The romance is forced. Green should have kept this Theorem thingie for a humrous essay. The appendix at the end that explains it is actually pretty amusing. The punchline at the end is also great. It almost makes it worth it.


What made Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars good is that Green puts his young protagonists through a struggle and watched them cope with it. They weren’t wish-fulfillment fantasies (Well, Alaska is, bit). In Abundance of Katherines, the characters have no struggle and no serious conflict. They just win, like DJ Khaled. Everything is wrapped tight at the end as if the tragedy never occurred, while in the aforementioned novels the characters have to go on and live with it. The only explaination for the novel’s birth is that the publishers were impatient after the success of Alaska. This is a wish-fulfillment fantasy Green wrote for his own amusement spliced with teasers for his essay collection. There’s no way the former was meant to be published.

2 Katherines out of 5


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