I was going to title this post “Quarantine Reads” because I thought it sounded more evocative, but then I realized that might give the impression that it was a list of books dealing with the common theme of a viral pandemic. The 2012 simulation game Plague Inc. experienced what can only be described as a “sales bonanza” in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, and I have to admit even I was getting involved. Something about it piqued my morbid curiosity. And even though the timing of Doom Eternal and The Last of Us Part 2 in conjunction with a real-world pandemic was mere coincidence (unless certain conspiracy theories are to be believed), the Coronavirus no doubt exacerbated my appetite for apocalyptic narratives.
My reading choices, however, went in the opposite direction. If anything I wanted escapism, to be transported far away from the monotony of furloughed life. Hence why I decided to call this post “Lockdown Reading” instead.
I’m challenging myself to become more succinct in my writing, so I’m going to try and keep each of the following reviews under 200 words each. Let’s do this.
Author: Poul Anderson
Genre: Science Fiction – Hard SF
First Sentence: “Look – there – rising over the Hand of God. Is it?”
Review: My reading of this novel was a classic case of loving the concept but hating the execution. I loved the idea of a broken ship traveling exponentially faster through the cosmos so that time outside the vessel passes in eons, and how this affects the psychology of those on board, but ultimately I found this book a real slog. It seemed more like a thought experiment than a story, as though I were reading the author’s theories on relativity and time dilation while the plot remained an afterthought. I don’t think hard sci-fi is for me. I don’t like dense jargon- scientific or otherwise. The scientific passages were hard to push through, but the ones that focused on the interpersonal relationships of the crew were much better. I thought the character of Reymont- and his stoic, dogged will to survive- was interesting. And the description of the passengers struggling more deeply with the unending voyage than the crew operating the ship felt like a parallel to the psychological toll of lockdown during COVID-19. Similarly, those people I know still in work seem to be benefiting from having a focus and a structure, as opposed to nothing but time.
The Stars My Destination
Author: Alfred Bester
Genre: Science Fiction – Space Opera
First Sentence: “This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…but nobody thought so.”
Review: This was a vastly different brand of sci-fi than Tau Zero. The Stars My Destination is more of an action-packed adventure novel, and it’s probably for this reason that I read it much quicker. I was drawn to this because I heard it was a Space Opera reimagining of The Count of Monte Christo; I wanted a literary narrative in a sci-fi setting. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, because this is a very interesting book, but it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. It’s a very strange world. It’s about a guy seeking revenge on a company whose space ship refused to rescue him when he was stranded adrift in space. The world is like a proto-cyberpunk dystopia where corporations function as hybrids of aristocratic dynasties and organized religions. The tone is very much like a pulpy, swashbuckling Edgar Rice Burroughs style adventure, but there is also some complex philosophical subtext going on too. While the novel definitely wasn’t boring, I didn’t find myself too interested in the characters, and the surreal imagery just wasn’t to my taste.
Where the Red Fern Grows
Author: Wilson Rawls
Genre: Children’s Literature
First Sentence: “When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.”
Review: I picked up this novel a few years ago after my friend Elizabeth recommended it to me. She told me it was a staple of American children’s literature that she and many other Americans had read in school. I’m guessing it’s usually assigned in middle school, because even though it’s thematically very wholesome, the language is more advanced than something like A Series of Unfortunate Events– which I was assigned at the age of eleven. Elizabeth sold it to me on the idea that it interwove the American rural idyll with a sense of darkness. And that’s sorta true. There is darkness alongside the overly-saccharine moralistic passages. I loved the descriptions of the coonhounds, but my favorite scenes were the ones when Billy interacts with other kids, be it the town bullies or the rival farm kids. That gave me Faulkner vibes. What I didn’t like was the amount of Christianity in the book. Any book that portrays prayer as something that works is deeply offensive to me; it turns me off the same way a book giving credence to anti-vaxxers or white supremacists would. Other than that, it’s a well-written and atmospheric American folktale.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Author: Horace McCoy
Genre: Literary Fiction/Existentialist Literature/Tragedy
First Sentence: “The prisoner will stand…”
Review: This is my favorite book on this list. It’s only a hundred pages or so but I feel like its drenched in some very clever symbolism. I’ve never seen such a ruthless gutting of the American Dream. This book is bleak. Really bleak. The two main characters are desperate to break into Hollywood. After getting rejected as extras, they enter into a “Marathon Dance” competition for couples where they are given free food and shelter for a month. The dance is this grotesque spectacle where they have to stay moving pretty much all day. They also can’t leave the building, but they’re all motivated by the idea that movie producers in the audience might notice them. I interpreted it as a critique of capitalism in America, where the contestants are willing to debase themselves just for a chance at getting a shot. In some ways it was painful to read- I could feel their sheer exhaustion intensifying with every page. The dialogue in this book is very punchy in a way that reminds me of James M. Cain, but thematically it’s more like something from Albert Camus.
Author: S.E. Hinton
Genre: YA Fiction/Coming-of-Age
First Sentence: “I ran into Steve a couple of days ago.”
Review: I absolutely loved this short novel. It’s everything I could want from a coming-of-age story; it combines a distinct sense of time and place with themes and conflicts that feel immortal and universal. What I liked best about the novel was the way it had a depth and ambition more strongly associated with literary fiction and filtered this through a writing style that was straightforward and accessible. This isn’t a vapid, teeny drama. It’s a Greek Tragedy. It’s about a mean kid desperately trying to be something he’s not- his older brother. I liked the way Hinton framed the lives of these blue-collar middle schoolers in mythological terms, because that’s how I’ve always treated my own adolescence- certain people and events felt larger than life to me. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of presenting seemingly mundane people and places in poetic terms. Rusty-James isn’t relatable on the surface, but the way he pedestalizes The Motorcycle Boy and romanticizes the bygone days of gang violence speaks to a universal fragility we all share- the need to be part of something bigger. He mourns something that never existed in the first place, and isn’t that nostalgia in a nutshell?
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea
Author: Yukio Mishima
Genre: Philosophical Fiction
First Sentence: “Sleep well, dear.”
Review: Is it possible to admire or enjoy a book that espouses something you not only disagree with, but find downright disturbing? That’s the question I asked myself upon finishing this novel. Normally I like to consume a work of art without considering the author’s personal life. But you can’t separate art from the artist all the time, and a knowledge of Mishima’s ultra-nationalist views makes this a very uncomfortable read. I’m in awe of how layered and imaginative this novel is; in particular its raw metaphorical power. There’s no doubt that Mishima was a fiercely intelligent writer. There are some beautiful passages in this book, particularly its descriptions of the harbor. I hated the themes, but I admired the way they were conveyed. The book feels like an extremely verbose insight into the right-wing sickness that took hold of Mishima’s mind; his fragile obsession with masculinity and how this was tied to his view of post-war Japan as being “emasculated”. I hated how misogynistic this book’s message was and the suggestion that we’re not meant to admonish Noboru’s actions, but sympathize with them. In short, this was the best book I’ve loathed.
Prisoners of Geography
Author: Tim Marshall
Published: 2015, 2019 (updated version)
First Sentence: “Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Review: This might be the first non-fiction book I’ve ever read from start to finish. I own a lot of history books but I tend to dip in and out of them. What I loved so much about this book was how it took a step back and focused on the fundamentals- outlining how the structures we’ve come to accept took hold, and why they do what they do. Why is Russia so big? Why did Europe industrialize quickly and why did Africa not? Why did China feel like they had no choice but to annex Tibet? That kinda thing. The book illustrates how world problems, such as the conflicts that abound in the Middle East, can only be truly understood insofar as you understand the way geography has shaped the history of the region. I remember that when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why countries did what they did. But Marshall argues that the national interests of a state are determined by their geography- circumstances from which they cannot escape. And that each government, no matter how ideologically different they may be from the last, has to face the same circumstances.
Manifest Destiny volume 1 – Flora & Fauna
Author(s): Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Sentence: “23, May 1804. Set out early.”
Review: This graphic novel was a Christmas present from my friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. When I was living in Houston a few years ago I went through a real comic phase, and one day while we were hitting up Bedrock City Comics in Webster, I became quite taken with an issue of Manifest Destiny. I liked the idea of intersecting American history with fantasy. The American West has always been one of my favorite settings, so I loved the idea of it being reimagined through the lens of dark fantasy. However the issue I found was fairly recent, and I couldn’t locate the first one. Aaron remembered this, and that’s why he and his wife ordered for me the first three volumes in the series. Visually this series is a real treat. Lewis and Clark meet everything from buffalo-centaurs to plant-zombies in the first volume, and it only gets crazier from there. I wanted to keep reading just to see what the next threat looked like. Which is not to say that the story is bad, but there’s so much action that it takes a while for the character development to get going.