Science Fiction

Ender’s Game

by: Orson Scott Card

I actually listened to the 20th anniversary edition of this book rather than officially rereading it.   The novel is in 3rd person limited and every character has a different narrator.  With the exception of Valentine’s part, the readers were rather excellent and the voices all pleasant to listen to.  The woman voicing Valentine was a good reader, but she had a very breathy, sensual voice and the way she emoted and stressed words made nearly everything Valentine thought seem either romantic or overly sexual.  It is a bit disturbing to hear a 11 yr old’s thoughts about her older brother being narrated as “Peter had…penetrated her mind” in breathy, excited tones a la Marilyn Monroe.  Also, ew.  The end result, ignoring any incestual implications, was that Valentine sounded like a hysterical 25 yr old woman in a romantic drama rather an an unsure 11 yr old girl in a science fiction adventure for the majority of the novel.  (And one more time, ew. Ew. Ew. Ew.)

If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, it’s the story of Ender Wiggin, born in a future, where mankind has been discovered and attacked by an alien race known as the buggers.  Having already survived two wars against them, Earth fear that it will not survive a third.  In preparation, they select 6 yr old children with the greatest potential and send them off to battle school to become the greatest army the world has ever known; training them to become soldiers and commanders using brutal military tactics.

These children are extraordinarily bright and gifted, so much so that it is easy to forget that they are children.  It is not the areas they excel in that show their age; it is the things they are blind to that truly reveal the tragedy of the situation.They can see and use others’ strengths and weaknesses, certainly, and Valentine and Peter (Ender’s siblings) are masters of manipulating the public in general.  However, with the possible exception of Peter, the – to quote Jeeves – “psychology of the individual” quite escapes them.  They know what to do to manipulate others, but they don’t seem to understand why it works.  With the exception of Peter, they lack both foresight and the ability to think through the implications and nuances of the decisions they make.

As for the characters themselves, Ender is a young boy, destined by birth and training for greatness who is as sympathetic as any football story underdog. Peter, his older brother, is a psychopath, also brilliant, who eludes the understanding of all around him, too cruel for military command (yes, that is actually a thing in real life, too.)  Valentine, his sister, is the exact opposite, brilliant, yet too tenderhearted and empathetic to lead wars.

This book is sexist as hell, if you couldn’t tell from the difference between Peter and Valentine. Its depictions of women are heavily driven by stereotypes.  There are only two female characters and both of them are the wink link, either easily and frequently emotionally manipulated by others or breaking under the strain (emotionally, of course) before anyone else.  Ender’s father’s opinions are an important indicator of current political thought and yet his mother isn’t given a voice on the subject, despite the fact that she was picked to have children that are intellectually superior to the majority of the human race.  What is that nonsense? All the authoritative figures are males, even though it is made clear the women are accepted into military school and trained exactly like the men. Sexism is a huge problem in the science fiction genre as a whole, of course, but it’s especially saddening when it’s so prominent in one of the few scifi books I like.

Ender’s Game is great for complex moral questions.  I can’t explain all of them without spoiling the book, but the questions raised are horrific.  Yet it is easy enough to find a train of thought or belief system that justifies the decisions made.  Would you do what they did, knowing what they know? Would you believe it was the right thing to do?  If not right, was it necessary? I don’t know, myself.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

While I’ve tried to keep the post spoiler-free, I’m not going to do so in the comments for the sake of discussion.  I’d really love to hear others’ thoughts about Ender’s Game, no restriction.  What do you think?


Poll Results! And Neil Gaiman’s tour brings sadness

My completely unbiased, totally randomized, 100% scientific poll results! (And one fourth of that statement – the poll results fourth – is completely true.)

As a child, did you read…

Answer Votes Percent
Animorphs – epic wars and morphing teenagers rock! 20 43%
Both! 16 34%
Goosebumps – things that go bump in the night are where it’s at! 8 17%
Neither – I had better things to do 3 6%

It looks like the majority of people read Animorphs (yay!) or Animorphs and Goosebumps.  I’m going to leave the poll open, and I’ll revisit it if I get significantly more results.

In sad, other news, Neil Gaiman is coming to the United States for a book signing but (edited because new information came along) ALREADY CAME TO DALLAS AND NOBODY TOLD ME.

Wow.  I’m crushed.

I guess the only option is to go to the UK next time he puts a book out.  That’ll make up for this!



Animorphs vs. Goosebumps?

I recently talked with a friend on childhood series we read; namely Goosebumps (her) and Animorphs (me).  She posited that there are those who read Goosebumps and those who read Animorphs and ne’er the two shall combine. My preliminary data – asking two friends – seems to support this view, but I’m curious as to what you, dear readers, think.  Which means it’s poll time! Drop a note into the comments if you’ve got strong feelings either way, or if you read both!

Contemporary Literature


by: Kurt Vonnegut

This is the first book off my 2013 to-read list – and it’s only June.  I’ve been meaning to read Vonnegut for a while, as all my college friends seem to love him.

Bluebeard is the fiction memoirs of Rabo Karabekian, an explosive failure in the Abstract Expressionist movement.  It flows seamlessly between Rabo’s present-day life, as 71 yr old wealthy, retired artist, and his past, as the first-born child of Armenian immigrants with hopes of becoming a great artist. Rabo served in World War II, was in New York during the explosion of the American artistic movement, and served somewhat as a Gertrude Stein to the budding artists, ending up completely accidentally with the greatest collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the world.

I actually didn’t like this book as much as I expected, though I liked it for reasons I didn’t expect.  For some reason, I thought that Vonnegut would be difficult to read, full of complicated metaphors or abstract notions, but it’s not.  Instead, he’s neither simple, nor complicated, an easy to follow writer who masterfully handles the transitions between time periods.  The writing is easy and entertaining, with Vonnegut using a wry touch to deal with themes like loss, war, and failure.  (This whole book is mostly about failure, now that I think about it. Well, failure and war.)

But the book itself was rather overdone.  The wry comments and cynical observations are too heavy-handed for my taste.  It just all needed to be toned down a few notches.  At the beginning there were lots of italics.  And tons of exclamation points!  They petered out as the book went on, so maybe Vonnegut was using them to showcase development in writing ability?  Nonetheless, they didn’t go with the sophisticated voice of the narrator and annoyed me greatly.  (Not enough to make me put down the book, though.)  There were also many blanket statements meant to demonstrate Rabo’s cynicism and disdain, especially towards the younger generation.  (As a member of the younger generation, though not the younger generation Rabo refers to, I often find these statements less than amusing anyways.)

Overall, the book suffers from a lack of subtlety.  The topics Vonnegut does use a lighter touch with, such as World War II, he does wonderfully.  I would classify this as a war story, though one of the more off-beat ones.  Though Kabo treats his time serving rather cavalierly, and though he never really saw combat, much of the resolution of the novel is him dealing with his wartime experiences.

As for Kabo himself, he’s an odd character.  He has no contact with his family, he is fabulously rich with money, property, and his art collection; he is once-divorced and once-widowed; and he owns 1/4th of a football team.  Everything except the art collection is due to his second wife.  He was once famous as a painter but that failed spectacularly; he married and had two sons but failed there as well; he was wounded in the war before he was able to act; and most of his friends are dead. Kabo’s life is one of failure, for the most part, but he is reasonably content as an old man.  Though Kabo talks frequently about those he’s in relationships with, the reader never really gets a sense of any other character beyond a defining characteristic or two.  One feels as if they are fully fleshed people; we are just presented with Kabo’s rather one-dimensional view of them.  The one other major character in the novel, the widow Circe Berman, I rather disliked.  She was pushy and bossy and demanding of others while not really dealing with her own life, or at least seemed that way to me.  She is the one who pushes Kabo into writing his autobiography and acts as a catalyst for the story.

The ending is probably the best part of the book.  It, almost without meaning to, ties the entire book together.  It gives  meaning depth to both the story and Kabo that aren’t easily apparent in the rest of the story.  Rereading this book would be quite a different experience than the first read.  (Also, don’t Wikipedia the plot line.  There aren’t any big twists, but the book is better letting it develop as you read.)

In short, if you like modern American literature with an easy to read style or fictional autobiographies, you should give this a try. I’m going to go ahead and say if you like war stories, you should read this – just trust me and make it all the way through to the end.  If you’re a big fan of subtlety and drawn out metaphors or you like upstanding, active protagonists, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.



A Farewell to Arms

by: Ernest Hemmingway

Af you read my last post, you knew this one was coming.  Hemmingway is, of course, a classic American author and I am just now starting to truly appreciate him.  A Farewell to Arms is the third novel of his I’ve read, after For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.  

I think I liked this one better than the last two.  I think.  I just finished reading it about an hour ago and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.  (As with all reviews of classics, this is probably going to include spoilers.)

This is Hemmingway’s great romance novel, of course, featuring the young and – impulsive, perhaps? – Lieutenant Henry and his beautiful lover, nurse Catherine.  They meet during Lt. Henry’s service in the Italian army during World War I.  He’s American, but he was in Italy when the war broke out and joined the service – for the hell of it? Because war is a rite of passage? I’m not really sure; he seems to know but it’s never clearly explained in the novel. Catherine is a UK citizen and I never picked up on the reason why she’s in Italy.

One of the interesting things about the relationship is that it almost seems borderline abusive.  Not that it’s physically abusive or even turbulent.  It’s on quite an even keel, honestly.  But Catherine wants to subsume herself into Henry, and in her quest to do so, starts demonstrating several of the warning signs of an abuser.  She dislikes all of his friends and pressures (asks?) him to spend less time with them; she takes steps to isolate him and plays into an “us against the world” mentality; she, at the end, exerts considerable pressure on him, comparatively, to change his appearance.  I can’t bring myself to describe her as abusive – I’m not sure that it qualifies – but I was surprised to see how quickly the warning signs built up as a I read along.  Catherine did seem a little bit emotionally manipulative to me, though I’m open to other interpretations of her behavior.

Anyway, most of my reading of the novel was fairly heavily colored by that observation.  I’m still not sure what to make of it and how it fits into my interpretation of the novel, though.  They are so consumed with each other and the relationship. I think that culturally, I would expect such a relationship to be full of ups and downs, a constant cycle of fights and make-up sex but that’s not it at all.   Set against the backdrop of warfare and horrific fighting, it is placid, calm, and constant.  They never disagree and Catherine wants only for Henry to be happy.  I can’t argue that such a relationship is healthy; I could, however, argue that it is understandable given the circumstances.

Catherine at first seemed rather ordinary – a little insecure, a little torn up by life, but pleasant and intelligent enough.  But she becomes more and more interesting as the novel goes on and by the end I didn’t know what to make of her.  Is she an unfortunate, loving woman who is only abnormal because of the time period in which she was born? Or is she someone quite different from whom Lt. Henry sees her to be?  Relatively little information is given about her; Henry is in love with her present self and shares little about her past.  Their future exists only in terms of the war; no thoughts are shared on how to live life together beyond the most pressing needs.  I can’t tell if Henry loves her or an idea of her that she buys into in order to keep his love.  Certainly, she thinks he loves her because of how she presents to him rather  than who she actually is.  But I can’t determine enough about her to say if that’s true or not.

Henry is a whole ‘nother story.  He is almost a prototypical member of the Lost Generation, I think: running off to Europe, joining an army, and becoming disillusioned with war and life in general. He has moments of clarity and is honest with himself about who he is; at least, for those parts of himself that he chooses to self-examine.  He is exceptionally likable as a narrator.  There’s no pretension in him and his sharp observation of characters, easily conveyed in few words, is quite enjoyable. (Though I suppose that’s more Hemmingway than Henry.)  His love for Catherine springs from a vulnerable moment, now that I think about it – another trait common to abusive relationships.  He’s sympathetic but nothing he does is ever particularly brave or particularly cowardly.  It’s quite understandable.  In fact, much of who he is becomes defined by his relationship.  Hmm.

Well, 800 words later and I’m still not sure what I think of this novel.  I think anyone interested in Hemmingway, WWI, or the Lost Generation should definitely give it a chance! You might want to give it a pass if you like flowery styles, even in the smallest amounts, happy endings, or a focus on the emotional process, though.

Comments are especially encouraged here, guys!  I’d really love to hear how others read this novel!

Fairy Tales · Romance

Once Upon a Tower

Once Upon A Tower

by: Eloisa James

This book is part of James’ fairy tale series – it’s (very)loosely based upon the story of Rapunzel.

Our heroine is Edie, a lady who plays the cello rather brilliantly.  It is only her gender that keeps her from becoming a famous cellist, but Edie, only daughter of a wealthy earl is happy with her lot in life nonetheless.   Attending a ball despite her illness one night, she makes the acquaintance of Gowan Stoughton, a Scottish duke (and yes, that first name does make some of the more erotic scenes just a wee bit confusing.  Or, at least, it did for me.)  He falls in love at first sight, proposes, and the rest, is well…

Quite complicated, actually.  I really like James and I thought that this book shone in ways that some of her latest works haven’t.   First of all, Edie’s parents (father and significantly younger stepmother) are the product of a fairy tale romance and they find themselves struggling after the happily ever after.  Layla is unable to conceive a child, there’s a complete lack of communication, and there’s absolutely no understanding from either party of the importance of communication.  (They just don’t work like that, you understand!)  Layla and Edie are good friends, and depictions of female friendships are truly sets James apart from other romance authors.   Though her parents’ relationship is a very secondary part of the story, it dramatically affects Edie’s love story.

Layla is also young and flighty and, though a good friend to Edie, not always the best source of wisdom, which does help create the major plot point.  The juxtaposition of a couple just finding their happily ever after with a couple answering the age-old question of what comes after the HEA is rather brilliantly drawn.  It also gives a sense of richness to the ending; that even though our hero and heroine may (do) find themselves back in wedded bliss, there are other obstacles that must be overcome.  Takes away a bit of the tint from the rose-colored glasses, if you will.

The other absolutely amazing part of this book – truly wonderful, I loved it so much – is that the sex isn’t great.

In fact, it’s terrible.  The physical attraction is there, mind you, but neither party really knows what they’re doing.  And it’s a huge point in the book; it is the pivotal issue around which several major issues rest.  James handles it beautifully – Edie’s feelings upon being unable to orgasm, when her husband so desperately wants to please her, and the choices she makes in response are realistic and, I think, felt by modern women still.  Gowan’s reactions and emotions are equally well-depicted and I imagine very relevant, though I am less familiar with the social pressures men feel than with the ones women feel. (James has used bad sex before but neither so well nor so prominently.) And the solution to the bad sex is not, as it is in so many romance novels, more sex.  Edie is thrust into the throes of passion by his magic manhood, nor does her magic womanhood suddenly endow him with the skills of a Casanova.  This despite the fact that they’re both so very attracted to each other! In fact, sex only worsens the problem exponentially.

The solution, the reader begins to believe, is what Dan Savage himself would preach – communication.  Do they begin to communicate? Does Edie ever orgasm?  Does she come down from the tower?

I’ll quickly note that I did not much care for the epilogue – one could very well not read it and still be satisfied with the ending.  In contrast to what I wrote earlier, it is a little too pat and happily ever after for my tastes; epilogues often are.

If you, dear reader, love romance, novel love romance, or are looking for an honest depiction of a common problem that is ignored in most of literature, you should read this book – even if you don’t like romance novels, you should give this one a shot. If you read romances for the torrid sex scenes or if you like stories featuring Casanovas, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.  Although it is excellent and everyone who wants to be in a relationship should read it.  Just sayin’.