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Books read in 2013

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11/22/63 (2011)

by Stephen King

King takes on the legends surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the context of his first time-travel story. In typical King fashion, time travel is made much more difficult than in other stories. Paradox is dispensed with by assigning malevolent intent to capital-T Time itself. Time has an agenda of its own—maintaining the one true time-line.

A young teacher befriends the owner of a diner, who has been diving into the past to get inexpensive and delicious meat for years. This seems to be a very mundane use of a time machine and King obviously dresses it up much more than that—he’s very good at what he does—but that’s how it starts. The diner owner gets cancer and wants to pass on the gift of the utterly unexplained time-tunnel. Along with it, he wants also to pass on his obsession with traveling back in time to (A) prove that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one who killed JFK and (B) stop him from doing so.

The time machine works very…slowly. It only goes back to a single point of time. So you can’t affect anything in the past before that point and, in order to affect anything after that point, you have to wait. That is, you live in the past and make your changes as the opportunity arises in real-time. You have the advantage of knowing what’s going to happen but the disadvantage that history is working against you to maintain the integrity of what has already been.

You can’t look at this device too closely or it all falls apart logically, but that actually doesn’t matter. King makes time itself into the monster of the story. That, along with the frailty, pettiness and utter banality of man, the complete unpredictability of things and the utter hopelessness of trying to outsmart coincidence.

Overall, I liked both the story and King’s very restrictive take on time travel. Recommended.

Billionaires and Bandits (2012)

by Greg Palast
This is a very important book by one of America’s best journalists. He’s worked for the BBC for over a decade because he can’t find a steady job in the American media. The book is about U.S. presidential elections, from 2000–2012. It has an introduction by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who’s worked with Palast for years on election fraud. As an added bonus, the book includes a bunch of cartoons by Ted Rall. To catch Palast’s latest missives, he’s recently become an (ir)regular correspondent for the This is Hell! radio show on WNUR. Palast’s style is ordinarily quite bombastic—in the classic, muckraker style—but his facts, research and journalism are quite solid. In this book, I felt he was even more reserved and serious than usual, lending gravitas to his treatment of this very serious subject. U.S. elections are soaked in money and fraud and the U.S. is really only a democracy in name, with voter purges and vote-blocking the norm for the “wrong” kind of people. Highly recommended.

Uniqueness and Reference Immutability for Safe Parallelism (Extended Version) (2012)

by Colin S. Gordon, Matthew J. Parkinson, Jared Parsons, Aleks Bromfield, Joe Duffy

See A provably safe parallel language extension for C# (earthli.com) for a detailed write-up.

Talk to the Hand (2005)

by Lynne Truss

Sub-titled as “The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life (or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door)”, this book is in almost no way related to her first book Eats, shoots and leaves. The book is well-written, moderately funny and addresses most of the typical aspects of modern rudeness (e.g. cell phones, insularity, privacy in public, etc.) with a certain degree of nuance if not always a tremendous amount of originality. A fun, short read that will have some swinging their triumphant fists in the air as Ms. Truss lays waste to all the rudeness of modern life.

The Half-made World (2010)

by Felix Gilman
The authors of the site Crooked Timber recommended this book unequivocally. It’s a fantasy/western novel set in a half-made world, which means that the further west one goes, the less-made the world is. The laws of physics apply less, events are less predictable and the war between the Guns and the Line blurs. The Guns are soldiers in possession of haunted/possessed unerring guns whose owners live in inter-dimensional lodges and provide their hosts with healing powers. They represent chaos, they hardly ever hold territory but still they fight for control over the lands of the line.

The agents of the Line are sullen little homunculi who are both pale and dark at the same time. They overwhelm with numbers and technology, the gigantic train engines that are their evil masters providing them with power and smoke- and noise-belching engines of destruction and conquering. The eastern lands are more civilized and resemble olden Europe. It is from this part of the world that Lysvet starts her journey and eventually meets up with Gun John Creedmore, a wonderful character.

It’s definitely unique for a fantasy novel, possessing almost none of the standard fantasy elements (swords, wizards, etc.) I liked it very much, enough to read the follow-up novel (see below).

Die Stadt am Ende der Zeit (2008) (de)

by Greg Bear

Though there are hard science-fiction elements as in so many of Greg Bear’s books, the scope and breadth of this one is over such an extensive sweep of history—hundreds of billions of years—that the technology becomes indistinguishable from magic. It has just as many fantasy and horror elements as SF ones. Though there is some theorizing—he binds in quantum theory, the idea of the observer, number theory and information theory—the story is much more a horror/fantasy novel in the vein of Clive Barker, or perhaps Stephen King.

Instead of a universe that expands to heat death, he posits one where the intelligent races manage to extend the universe’s life beyond its initially prophesied death, a period of near-stasis called the trillenium (because it lasts hundreds of billions of years). As you can expect with such extents of time, humans become all-but-immortal, some of them transforming themselves into virtual matter or, for all practical purposes, pure thought. This novel heads in the same direction as the novels of Greg Egan, like Schild’s Ladder or Diaspora. With so much history—and so much time—the memory of it all can’t be stored, it can’t be remembered.

Much is forgotten, much is learned, and then the age-old forces of the universe come into play. There are names for them, abstractions taken from ancient mythical pantheons—mainly Greek and Indian. Brahma, responsible for creation, is sleeping during the trillenium; Mnemosyne, responsible for weaving the past to the present, is despondent and neglects her duties. Her alter-ego, the Chalk Princess, consumes souls for her master, the Typhon, master of the Chaos.

At the end of billions of years, the Chaos takes over, burning away the universe that mankind has known, building gigantic slag heaps of civilizations, with chunks of time and space thrown together into mind-bending patterns. The men of the future—Polybiblios, the Librarian, in particular—hatch a plan to save the universe, or at least to control how the universe will be born and how the intelligence and knowledge of the previous one can make its way to the next.

Glaucous and Whitlow are hunters of the possessors of the stones, summing machines that can control world lines and steer the universe onto the right path. There are four stones and three shepherds of them—Daniel, Ginny and Jack—who use their special powers to jump between worldlines and seek out the one with the best chance of succeeding. In the end, there are two lines left.

Ginny and Jack are somehow bound to their counterparts, Tiadba and Jebrassy, respectively, who are fabricated beings of the “old kind” who live in the Kalpa—the city at the end of time. They were created to journey into the Chaos to try to reach a long-sundered city, Nataraja, where they will find Sangmer and Ishanaxade.

As the universe comes to a close, the Chaos eats up pieces of the past, making it as it had never happened. The remaining world-lines and histories collapse together, filling the space. At the end, the city at the end of time collides with 21st-century Seattle, bringing Ginny, Jack, Daniel and Glaucous to the Chaos that surrounds the Kalba—and closer to Jebrassy (who is accompanied by an Epitome/copy of (parts of) the Librarian as well as his teacher Ghentun) and Tiadba (who is the leader of a group of other marchers, seekers of the lost city).

The earthlings make their way, under the protection of their summing stones, to the center of the Chaos—insofar as distance and time have any meaning at all. As the end nears, as the decision-point comes closer, the Typhon, in his desperation, shrinks the Chaos further, funneling all the participants to Nataraja. As the universe is crushed/falls apart, memory and the past disappear—remembering becomes a way of fighting the Chaos (as books, which are stored memories, patterns, non-irrational data, do).

And then there is Bidewell, and Ellen and her book-club members. And the books and the libraries and the information and number theory. How to distinguish between describable and indescribable? Between possible and impossible? How to remember so much history, so many interactions of particles? Does everything come only from a single Big Bang? Or is matter and energy created constantly, feeding a hungry universe aching to live beyond a few billions of years?

And then there are the cats, navigating the Chaos. All of these elements seem to be myths that Bear has invented or integrated in order to put a familiar face on what are the extraordinary and ineffable forces that drive the universe, all the more so at its beginning or end. The birth and rebirth of universes, the interplay of forces at play under ephemeral rules—such as those of the picoseconds after the Big Bang—are represented as people and Gods and love and other more prosaic incarnations more easily understood and described than particles and energies.

This ebb and flow over trillenia is represented as Sangmer being cast out from Mnemosyne/Ishanaxade and, while she weaves the history and memory of the universe, he makes his pilgrim’s journey, alone, to return to her at the end, where they can be together for a few, comparably short, moments, until the whole cycle begins again. The cats killing the king of Chaos Typhon is also clearly a metaphor of some kind, for some otherwise-incomprehensible process of early creation or dissolution. In many ways, this story reminded me of other creation stories, like Tolkien’s story of the four Ages, where Typhon is Melkor, the silent ones are the orcs, twisted caricatures of the true creations of Brahma/Ilúvatar.

As you can probably tell, it’s a difficult book to describe. The scope is sweeping, the language is evocative (e.g. the Watchers from the Valley of the Dead Gods witness the end of creation) and the execution is mostly pretty captivating, though it got a bit repetitive at times. This is natural in a story that explores so much new territory and tries to describe time and space when it’s all twisted up by unimaginable powers, by humans who have evolved to nearly unimaginable places.

Marvel Universe vs. The Avengers/Wolverine/The Punisher (2012)

These are basically zombie storylines, in which everyone and everything—except for a select few—turns into a zombie and thirsts for blood. The Hulk, in particular, is a formidable zombie, if you can imagine such a thing. Much fun is had by all and the storytelling is a bit uneven. Spoiler alert: the Punisher wins in the end, because he’s awesome.

Old Man Logan (2008–2009)

This is a set of comic books set 50 years in the future, at a time when all super-villains had banded together to eliminate super-heroes. Obviously, Wolverine stars as “Old Man Logan” and he reluctantly gets dragged back into business of being a super-hero after the Hulk clan wipes out his family. The story wasn’t all too inspiring, but it had its moments.

Civil War (2006–2007)

In which Tony Stark proves once again that there is nothing so self-righteous and self-assured as a dry drunk. The most annoying thing is the immensely prominent role played in this series by Tony Stark/Iron Man and the degree to which technology solves absolutely everything. Comics these days rely on technology as a deus ex machina whenever they need it. And I don’t know if I just never noticed, but holy crap are comic books chatty these days. They explain everything in some of the books. Some are still ok, showing rather than telling, but some are utterly pedantic in the amount of reading they (try to) make you do.

The business angle, with Richards and Stark benefiting massively from the war is nicely done, though. Also cool is how Captain America is happy to use The Punisher until Castle kills some super-villains that Cap wanted to use, after which Cap acts all surprised and kicks him to the curb. The end was kind of disappointing, with a whimper rather than a bang, with Reed Richards appearing as orders of magnitude smarter than anyone else in the world. It got me thinking a bit that it would be impossible for someone of lesser intelligence or experience to be able to properly determine whether he’s actually right or whether he’s just deluded and hoodwinked.

And that, maybe, that’s the situation in which the strongly religious find themselves in. They ask for proof, it is provided, but it doesn’t fit their logic—it isn’t rational according to them—so they reject it. Are they right or wrong to do so? Are we in the same position when a much more intelligent being tells us that psychohistory has foretold that the horrific, fascist and unjust way he is proposing is the best? When we answer that it is impossible to predict such a thing with any degree of accuracy, he shakes his head because he knows that it is possible. But is he deluded? Fooled as so many have been before him? Or are we ignorant, not believing the voice of science and reason because it is beyond our comprehension? To what degree are we obligated to follow reason that we don’t understand? Is there any way out of the trap of the Philosopher Kings?

Comics, at least those from Marvel, are too technocratic for my tastes, nor do they put much effort into consistency or moderation. There are all too many characters with omnipotence or omniscience although they still fight like boxers. The books extol the glories of the super-rich, super-intelligent, super-strong, super-handsome—yuck. It’s fun for a bit, but too much, too cloying, too easy. Technology surrounds the world in a warm cocoon, obviating any need to understand society or humanity. It’s the American dream, I guess. Oh, yeah, and America’s pretty much in charge of everything in these books, so that was pretty imaginative.

The Alchemist (1992) (en/original in Portuguese in 1988)

by Paulo Coelho

Touted as an international bestseller, I’d never heard of it or him, but it’s pretty short and I didn’t read far enough into the blurb on the back to learn that it is supposedly “a transforming novel about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, leaning to read the omens strewn along life’s path and above all following our dreams.” My mistake.

That’s a bit optimistic, I would say. Granted, the book is about all of those things—literally and constantly, as I’ll show with some citations below—but you don’t really learn them, as such. Here are some samples from a conversation between the eponymist and the wandering boy, Santiago, from pages 135–136

Boy: My heart is a traitor, it doesn’t want me to go on.
Alchemist: That makes sense. Naturally, it’s afraid that, in pursuing your dream, you might lose everything you’ve won.
Boy: Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?
Alchemist: Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you, repeating to you what you’re thinking about life and about the world.
Boy: You mean I should listen, even if it’s treasonous?
Alchemist: […] You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say.

The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. […]

Boy: Even though I complain sometimes, it’s because I’m the heart of a person, and people’s hearts are that way.

That’s from one page. Sweet Christ, it reads like the first 50 pages of Dianetics that I managed to slog through before I decided that life was just too damned short.

We’re not finished. There’s more. From pages 138–139 (yeah, that’s right, just two pages later):

Boy: Why don’t people’s hearts tell them to continue to follow their dreams?
Alchemist: Because that’s what makes a heart suffer most, and hearts don’t like to suffer.

From then on, the boy understood his heart. He asked it, please, never to stop speaking to him. […] That night, he told all of this to the alchemist. And the alchemist understood that the boy’s heart had returned to the Soul of the World.

[…]

Boy: Is that the one thing I still needed to know?
Alchemist: No. What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way […]

Heavy-handed and saccharine doesn’t even begin to cover it. I have no idea where the metaphor ends and the literalism begins. I’m not even going to bother checking how many months this thing spent on Oprah’s best-seller list. Avoid this book.

The Great Gatsby (1926)

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read this story for the second time and it really is very well-written—in a way that you rarely find these days anymore. Since most people have probably seen the movie by now (I didn’t, so I have no idea whether it followed the book or not). I collected a few quotes that appealed to me.

I like this one because the book was written almost 100 years ago and the American passion for superficial freedom while rejoicing in shackles was already well-established by then.

Page 86
“There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour. A brewer had built it early in the ‘period’ craze, a decade before, and there was a story that he’d agreed to pay five years’ taxes on all the neighbouring cottages if the owners would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heat out of his plan to Found a Family – he went into immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while willing, even eager, to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry. (Emphasis added.)”

This next one expresses the idea of the subjectivity of reality very nicely and the effort and energy we put in to maintaining our illusions.

Page 100–101
“Or perhaps I had merely grown used to it, grown to accept West Egg as a world complete in itself, with its own standards and its own great figures, second to nothing because it had no consciousness of being so, and now I was looking at it again, through Daisy’s eyes. It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”

This is a very nice exchange between two people who are only partially of Daisy’s world. This book is about class, as so many books are, and it’s about class that would come crashing down just four years later. It is, 90 years later about a class that has always existed in America and that has grown more and more powerful, so powerful that even a crash couldn’t topple them this time. Like a hurricane, they just absorbed the power of the 2008 crash and became more powerful.

“[Daisy]’s got an indiscreet voice,‘ I remarked. ‘It’s full of –‘ I hesitated.

“‘Her voice is full of money,’ [Gatsby] said suddenly.

“That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…”

This is a nicely painted scene of a person gaining reassurance from the presence of another person. Just beautifully written, it stands alone, even separated from the original text. I like the last line even better than the very famous final sentence of the book.

Page 129

“Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat’s shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.

So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight. (Emphasis added.)”

Another beautiful comment on the masters of the world with which we are still saddled. The story evokes the same careless disgust with the old, moneyed classes, the nobility, as Anna Karenina. Gatsby is Vronsky and Daisy Anna.

Page 170

“I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…

“I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”

The book is at once a paean to American exceptionalism and an indictment of the rapacity and unnatural hard-heartedness of the American way of life.

Page 171
“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Just lovely. An eminently readable American classic.

The Next 100 Years (2009)

by George Friedman

See The Next 100 Years (2009) by George Friedman (earthli.com) for a detailed write-up.

Common Sense (1776)

by Thomas Paine

This is one of the foundational documents of the American revolution and at least the first several of its 55 pages are extremely well-written and express a savage wit.

Imagine my delight when this book started off with the following paragraph, a sentiment that has stood the test of time, for it succinctly describes the human condition.

Page 1
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

A little while later there he eloquently expresses why we must have a government, even though we’d rather do without one.

Page 2
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. […] For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.

And in the following quote lies the rub, for freedom and security have easy and thus facile definitions but are, in truth, almost infinitely malleable.

Page 5
“Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security.”

If Thomas Paine were alive today, he would probably hate the strict constructionists (e.g. Scalia) who love him so very much. Here is is his take on the English constitution; he would likely feel the same way about the now-ancient American one.

Page 6
“[…] I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England. That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected, is granted. When the world was overrun with tyranny the least remove therefrom was a glorious rescue. But that it is imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise, is easily demonstrated.”

Here are more specifics about the English constitution, comments that apply equally well to the American government today.

Page 6
“Absolute governments (tho’ the disgrace of human nature) have this advantage with them, that they are simple; if the people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs, know likewise the remedy, and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures. But the constitution of England is so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies; some will say in one and some in another, and every political physician will advise a different medicine.”

This two-hundred-year old summary of monarchy cannot be improved on. It applies equally well to non-monarchies, to elected representatives of a republic, for example.

Page 7
“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; […]”

Things get a bit thinner after this, with only a few more items of interest. Unlike his modern-day proponents, he didn’t care about the debt.

“The debt we may contract doth not deserve our regard, if the work be but accomplished. No nation ought to be without a debt. A national debt is a national bond; and when it bears no interest, is in no case a grievance.”

Here’s the self-sufficiency argument, when it was still true. However, this kind of resource-independence equals no trade and no sympathy, which echoes the policies of today.

“No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce. We need go abroad for nothing.”

And here, we have an argument for hard cash and building a navy. I wonder if modern-day throwbacks like George Friedman (author of The Next Hundred Years) are fans of Thomas Paine?

“Let us build; if we want them not, we can sell; and by that means replace our paper currency with ready gold and silver.

“[…]

“The Terrible privateer, Captain Death, stood the hottest engagement of any ship last war, yet had not twenty sailors on board, though her complement of men was upwards of two hundred. A few able and social sailors will soon instruct a sufficient number of active landmen in the common work of a ship.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

by Shirley Jackson

A strange little story about two girls ostracized by their village for being members of a strange family. Once their parents die, they get even stranger but life continues. Jackson is a superlative author—she’s most famous for having written The Lottery—and has a very eerie sensibility I find mesmerizing.
 

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013)

by David Sedaris

Another collection of witty tales by the closest thing America has to a wit like Mark Twain. Sedaris doesn’t have deal with matters quite as weighty as those dealt with by Twain, but his stories are still lots of fun. I read a bunch of this book out loud to Kath.

The Rise of Ransom City (2013)

by Felix Gilman

This sequel to the The Half-made World continues the story of the West through the autobiography of inventor Harry Ransom. John Creedmore and Liv make an appearance, but don’t star in this one. It’s still quite entertaining reading a story in the lush and interesting world of the Guns and the Line.

The article Stories Behind Stories by Henry (Crooked Timber) had some interesting ideas on the book.

“It’s a wonderful deflationary moment – and is the moment at which the reader realizes that there’s another story, around which the imaginary world could be pivoted like an axis, to reveal an entirely different understanding of what has been going on over the course of the two books.”

And isn’t that how all of life is? With each ego picturing itself as the center of a story, when far greater things are afoot? From the smaller context, it appears much differently, and which is more important or more correct is a matter of perspective, in all but the most provable of matters.

“I contend that this shouldn’t be read as a statement that the Folk are alien in some deep sense, but rather, a statement of epistemological and cultural modesty. That all that a white British emigre can plausibly claim to represent or truly understand, are those bits of the culture closely related to the one that he himself grew up in. To talk on behalf of the other is to take liberties that he isn’t entitled to take – so all he can do is to acknowledge that they are genuinely different, that they have their own story, and that it is not only a valid one, but plausibly a better and more important one than the stories that he can tell.”
Flood (2008)

by Stephen Baxter

This is a hard science-fiction novel about the effects of massive flooding of the Earth’s surface, up to hundreds, if not thousands of meters. Baxter is in his element in a well-researched and utterly plausible novel about flooding, inundation, refugees and the precipitous shrinking of landmass and condensation of mankind to the high ground. Do not read this novel for any subtle philosophical treatise on the necessity of going on or any such deeper insight, as the book is entirely bereft of such topics.

Also, do not expect any subtlety in characterizations or dialogue, as that is also not Baxter’s strong suit. His characters are not subtle and it was impossible for me to find a hero anywhere in the book, littered as it was with military types and libertarians. As usual, Baxter also focuses inordinately on the survival of his cadre of characters, dragging them ever onward as his narrators with one deus ex machina after another. As mentioned earlier, the utterly shallow philosophies of all involved prevent any of the real soul-searching that would likely follow such a cataclysmic event. Instead, characters are focused laser-like on saving utterly useless and sponging family members and wasting resources, while pretending that nothing has changed.

In fact, it’s like so many other books in the escapist genre, in that it essentially follows the lives of ersatz royalty, around whom the world inexplicably revolves. Where things fall apart is when these people aren’t even especially admirable or interesting in any way and we are expected to root for them, well, because the author clearly would like us to. The end-goal of the main plotline in the book is help one young lady survive, but she’s utterly unremarkable in every way, almost devoid of personality. Why should we care? Because the scheming now-old ladies in the book—royalty themselves—have chosen this as their goal, morally abhorrent as it is to prefer the survival of one over the well-being of many?

Once you realize that these are his devices, you can settle back and enjoy the splendor of his world in ruin, which he really does depict well. He’s quite gifted as far as that goes. If you’re a fan of disaster novels and hard sci-fi, then this one is still highly recommended, despite the at times aggravating plot & characters.

Main Street (1920)

by Sinclair Lewis

A well-told tale of late 19th-/early 20th-century, small-town, American life as seen through the eyes of the narrator, a well-educated young woman with her own job, her own life and most decidedly her own views. While the people of the town of Gopher Prairie unquestioningly accept and further promulgate the tenets that underpinned American society at that time, Carol rebels and tries to change the town she deems ugly. Though her distaste for the town begins with its appearance, it is quickly transferred metaphorically to many of its inhabitants.

I found myself wondering to what degree Carol’s stranger-in-a-strange-land story would resonate with people of other generations. This is an older book, but the writing and themes seemed, at times, quite modern, almost timeless.

Doctor Sleep (2013)

by Stephen King

King returns to the world of The Shining with this novel about Daniel Torrance, the gifted young boy who emerged from the ashes of the Overlook Hotel with a shattered mother, an incinerated father and a closet full of ghosts and psychic trauma. We return to his life thread to find him as an itinerant alcoholic who has just hit bottom. King’s powers of description and mastery of the language are on full display here. Though the story is not 100% unique—he’s written over 50 books about the evil that lurks at the thin places between this world and the chaos that lies just beyond—but the characters are at once surprisingly fresh and comfortingly familiar.

As a long-time King reader, I got the impression that I was watching a concert by a favorite rock band or perhaps a conductor of an orchestra who’s still at the top of his game and is—seemingly without effort—capable of delivering exactly the experience I was seeking. I felt like I was reading the best Stephen King book I’d read in years; it was that deeply satisfying. I have no idea whether this is objectively true or whether my opinion will change over time, but that is the experience I had both while and shortly after reading Doctor Sleep.

If I have any complaints, it’s that perhaps a bit too much of King’s basic niceness shines through (if you’ll pardon the expression) in his heroes. Dan seems to accept all sorts of abuse with a zen-like calm. Whereas this imparts a certain wisdom to his character, it also made him seem, at times, a bit too much of a goody-goody pushover. There were times when he could have put others in their place without losing much in return.

The story follows Dan as he pieces together a life in New Hampshire, where he gets to know a young girl who shares his gift. In a separate story line, we also learn of a traveling band of ancient … creatures who also have an interest in people like Dan and his new friend. These story lines careen toward one another inexorably until they meet in a spectacular finale, which also satisfyingly ties up a few other loose ends. Highly recommended.