Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Siresns of Titan

The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

Malachi Constant, whose name means faithful messenger, has a rather strange encounter with a man he presumes is giving him an all-important message. That man is Winston Niles Rumfoord, who is chrono-synclastically infundibulated, meaning he exists continuously on the path of a spiral, instead of punctually as the people of Earth do. Rumfoord has the privilege of knowing that everything that ever was, always will be, and similarly that everything that will be, always has been. He can also see what happens in the future, read minds, and do other nifty tricks. He tells Constant that they will meet again on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Constant, who is the richest, most depraved man on Earth who has the money and influence to fulfill his every whim, doesn’t know what to make of that. Then, Rumfoord tells him that he also visits Mars, Mercury, and briefly returns to Earth before getting to Titan. Although unable to imagine how it might happen, it all does, and the Constant who ends up on Titan has a lot, and a little, to think about and account for.

There was a lot I loved about “The Sirens of Titan.” I loved that it was more in line with what I normally think of as “science fiction” because it included space travel, unbelievable technology, and a wildly unforeseen and unpredictable future. Vonnegut brings out the usual wordplay dealing with time travel (particularly about existing “punctually”), which is always fun for a little mind-bending contemplation. Overall, though, I felt it was just OK. This novel was heavily steeped in religious commentary, and that’s not a topic I generally like to discuss. I also couldn’t quite follow his arguments – religion means nothing, but humans need a sense of higher purpose, so even when religion means nothing, we still need something to believe in and exist for. Or something like that.

It was a fun read though. The adventures on Mars and Mercury were particularly entertaining. One of my favorite things about science fiction is what solutions it invents for the limits of technology and the laws of physics. For example, there is no need for space suits because the society on Mars uses “goofballs” for breathing – pills that provide x amount of hours of oxygen to be absorbed through the small intestine rather than the lungs. But if you’re in a vacuum, you still need to tape your mouth, nose, and ears shut because otherwise you will die from hemorrhaging. Fun things like that. At times it was light and funny enough to remind me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I think is my gold star standard for science fiction), so it was fun to read, but probably not essential if you’re only going to read a few Vonnegut books.

The College Girl

College Girls – Lynn Peril

The college girl has endured many labels and multiple manifestations since women began attending institutions of higher education in the mid-19th century. Advances in science and medical understanding of human functions, and social mores about what women can and cannot do lead to grudgingly wider acceptance of women in universities. At first, women could only attend finishing schools, designed to make them better housewives. Slowly they were accepted at universities, though with curriculums specially tailored to their “delicate constitutions.” Eventually, women were able to pursue any degree they wanted, though some were more difficult than others, play sports, and live in dorms without the supervision of house mothers standing in for their real parents. Despite all the generational differences and advances in technology, the main argument about women in college remained the same, although dressed in different disguises. Ultimately, it is bad for women to go to college because men don’t want to marry a woman who is smarter, more well-rounded, or in any way better than they are. This reasoning has been amazingly persistent over the years.

“The College Girl” is a thoroughly researched history of women in college starting with the earliest recorded schools, the finishing schools, designed specifically for educating girls. Although the writing is dense at times, the topics discussed are quite interesting. She breaks her chapters into sections on what kind of education women received, what to wear, how sports came into the picture, rules and rule-breaking, and the importance (or not) of husband hunting. She also includes many, many pictures from past yearbooks, magazines, and countless advertisements about what was most important to the college experience. The different experiences shown over the course of generations makes for an illuminating read about what the world used to be like.

Although I found parts of this book interesting, it was also rather heavy reading. This would normally be assigned reading for one of my classes, and though I generally enjoy assigned reading, it’s still assigned reading. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits from this book, though. For example, pushing and shoving used to be part of the hazing routine in fraternities. Groups of boys would gather on staircases or other small, enclosed spaces, and push and shove until it was the last man standing or someone decided it was over. Overall, though, it’s quite academic. Interesting, but only to a limited audience.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Another book I’m not entirely sure how to review, so I’ll just give you an overview. This is a collection of essays from Ray Bradbury about writing. What inspires writing, what good writing feels like as you’re writing it, and what to do with the result (mostly re-write and re-write and re-write again). I was amazed as I was reading it. I’m a fan of Fahrenheit 451, but haven’t read much of his other works, and his writing is amazing. Not only is his writing amazing, but the voice and tone are so different between his essays and his stories that I never would have guessed he wrote both of them. In fact, halfway through the first essay, I went back and scrutinized the table of contents because I thought he had compiled the essays instead of writing every one of them himself. The essays in this book are equal parts entertaining, inspiring, and enjoyable. He has a playful tone and approaches his work from a position of love and fun, and it shows in his writing how much he enjoys doing it. Moreover, he achieves his goals. By writing about how to write well, he made me want to write well. I wasn’t even looking for inspiration to write, I just thought it would be a good read! It was all of that and more. I would recommend taking it an essay at a time so you have space to digest the ideas in each essay – not the best for reading between classes at school, but still great.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Songs in Ordinary Time

Songs in Ordinary Time – Mary McGarry Morris

Life in the 70s in little town Atkinson, Vermont is basically a snapshot of life in Smalltown, America. Although the Fermoyle family is at the center of the story, everyone is connected to everyone else in a small town, so we meet them all. We have Marie Fermoyle, who is defiantly raising three children on her own after divorcing her alcoholic husband 10 years ago. Her three children all struggle through adolescence, fight for independence, and all seek their own version of the “status quo” through different pursuits. The various uncles, sisters-in-law, neighbors, friends, and local clergymen all come into the story, adding their own secrets, new perspectives, and fresh problems. Out of nowhere comes Omar Duvall, a travelling salesman who has plenty of stories about what the future might hold, but is oddly reticent about his past. Stories add to stories, add to stories, until reality becomes so obscured by half-truths that everyone ignores it until the consequences are too big to avoid. But whether it’s pain, anger, deceit, or love, it’s always the same old story.

I would not call “Songs in Ordinary Time” a heartbreaking novel. It’s more like a slow pain that steadily builds throughout the book. Morris crafts a believable town with realistic, relatable characters. They are relatable because they all try their best – to make ends meet, to make others happy, to present the world with a happy, successful, “together” family – but something always goes wrong. The characters are hindered both by their own shortcomings and their misunderstanding of others’ behavior. By staying within their own perceptions and assumptions, they miss somebody else’s reality, which usually results in self-blame or confrontation. The two main motivations for actions in the book seem to be “I did it for you” or “I did it for me,” but somehow neither one actually achieves the desired outcome. It’s a painfully real novel about balancing personal desires with real-world demands while trying to come up with what you think everyone else wants. But when you focus too much on this, that, or the other, the stories take over reality and all you have left is that hollow feeling that nothing is just right.

I really enjoyed “Songs in Ordinary Time.” The theme of “maybe next time I’ll get it right” hits that spot in my heart that really wants to see everyone successful and happy all the time. The continual failure is distressing, but the continual effort to keep on with business as usual is admirable. Life doesn’t stop just because it isn’t going the way we wanted it to. I find myself wanting to give advice to the characters in the book, or at least to comfort them. The hardest part about reading this book, though, was all the characters. The complete cast includes more people than I can count on my fingers and toes, and although eventually I remembered most of them, it was really confusing at the beginning. This book has lots of layers, which makes for excellent reading, but getting through those first 100 pages is the biggest struggle. Stick with it, it’s worth it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Choice Effect

The Choice Effect – Amalia McGibbon, Lara Vogel, and Claire A.Williams

Each generation is slightly different from that of its parents, hopefully in a different-better way rather than a different-awful way. Throughout the 20th century, each generation grew up with more and more choices, opportunities and freedoms until we ended up with us, generation Y. Generation Y, having been told in their informative years that they are capable of anything and can do and have it all if they just put their mind to it, is now paralyzed by choice. Our choices cover everything from what do to for a living, where to live, how to live, and who to live with, and moreover, we want it all to mean something. If we’re not entirely happy, what’s the point? Find the next choice that might bring you something better. The biggest impact this life of whims has is on significant and long-term relationships. Everything gets pushed back and taken less seriously because “choisters” (as the authors refer to generation Y) make the ultimate sacrifice in closing off their choices by picking one thing. However, after some research, some less-than-concrete polling, and several conversations full of anecdotes, it seems that the choisters, despite wanting everything in a slightly different way than their parents, still end up in the same old story line – steady job, spouse, kids, property, etc. They just don’t get there til later in life.

“The Choice Effect” is a pop psychology/sociology book looking why a specific population segment (women in their 20s and 30s) acts the way it does. Although they do discuss everything from job options to living arrangements (not only type of housing but also the international location) to nail polish colors, everything always comes back to the significant other, which is a fair point considering something like 96% of Americans end up married, so it is heavily impacted by the “choister” lifestyle, but I still felt rather sheepish taking this book off the shelf with the subtitle “Love and Commitment in the Age of Too Many Options”. I was surprised by how well I related to the book overall (do you think you’re special? Do you want it all? Do you have trouble setting priorities because everything is equally important?), and was constantly thinking of my mom telling me to “stop looking for the best peanut in the bag!” Fair point. But I was a little disappointed that they didn’t give me some magical solution for all my indecisiveness. Glad to hear it should settle down by the time I’m 40, but what to do in the mean time? Have another adventure, I guess.

I felt that “The Choice Effect” was a little heavy on the pop and not so much on the psychology. The entire book read like a slightly polished journal entry (something that could be printed for guilty pleasure in “Cosmo” or some magazine like that), and I was expecting a little bit more academic writing from a researched book. They made so many pop culture references (it was printed in 2010) that I didn’t recognize everything (although Ross and Rachel are timeless), and the tone was so conversational that I think it would have been easier as an audio book rather than reading it. Still, I really enjoyed reading it – I love that they sympathize about how hard my life is because I have so many options! Not many other people will take pity on me for that 