The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr

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This is one of those nonfiction books that is kind of depressing because it describes so well something that’s huge and scary and seemingly out of our control. Carr crafts a convincing argument about the effect that the internet is having on our modes of thinking. He goes deep into the science of neuroplasticity to establish his claim that our brains can change. Then he retells the history of written language, especially the printing press, focusing on the way human habits, education, and thought patterns adapted to new technology. The reason Carr has to go through all that is because he’s arguing that though the internet and the printing press both changed us, the particular changes wrought by the WWW are detrimental to individuals and to human culture and society. Heavy stuff. He talks a lot about the philosophy of efficiency behind Google and why efficiency isn’t necessarily a benign goal in thinking because the process is what matters. As a teacher, I think I can agree with that.

The most frustrating thing about this book was the lack of a concrete solution to the problem that Carr describes so meticulously. He seems to suggest unplugging periodically, and slowing down the pace of web surfing, checking email less frequently. After I read the passionate argument about the evil of Google and the importance of analog modes of thought, these small steps seemed too little, too late, too individual and piecemeal.

Personally, I know I should make some changes in this regard. I am not sure that the way I read online is good for me or my brain or my time management. I know that I don’t really need to follow every single link that my facebook friends post, but I do anyway, for precisely the reasons Carr explains: because the internet is like crack and I’m an addict. Moderating some of these habits would be a good idea and would save me a ton of time.

The way I read offline is probably influenced by the brain training I’ve received in front of my computer, and is also not optimal. I have noticed that it’s harder for me to immerse myself in a long narrative than it was 15 years ago. Part of it is the way that I’ve become used to constant amusement, to rarely having a moment when I’m not reading something or listening to an audiobook, whether I’m driving, shopping, or doing chores. I’ll plug in my earbuds if I have to walk to the other end of my 1200-square-foot house. It’s kind of ridiculous. Because of this habit, I read in a very fragmented way, switching between several books at once. This is mostly from necessity, because I read on at least 4 formats (print, kindle, audio CD, handheld audio) and not all books are available in all formats. I can only listen to CDs in my car, and not all books have audio CDs, and not all audiobooks are available on my kindle, etc. If I could stick with one book across all these platforms without losing my place, I would, but it’s not feasible (not yet anyway). This way of reading is not good, and I’m probably not comprehending to the best of my ability because of all of these interruptions (many of which I cause myself).

Besides lower comprehension, there’s another, perhaps greater issue as well. The price of never being bored is that I don’t ever have a moment alone in my own head. My head seems like a boring place, but that’s probably because I don’t give anything interesting the time it would need to grow there. Carr talks a lot about the habit of being reflective; this is something I value highly as well, but something I’m not good at and don’t enjoy. Or, maybe more accurately, for me writing facilitates reflection, and I find reflection without writing difficult and rarely have the patience for it. If I try to reflect without a pen in my hand or fingers on a keyboard, either I get bored instantly or I get twitchy because I come up with something I want to write down. As an aspiring writer, I’m not sure if this is a real problem or not. Anyway, Carr got me thinking about the internet’s effect on my brain and that’s probably a good thing, because the last thing I want my brain to be is shallow.

Dearly, Departed

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel

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This is a YA paranormal romance in the Twilight vein, complete with hot undead guy, overdramatic heroine, a precipitously fast fall into love, angsty declarations, and dangers that seem formulated mostly for the sake of testing the couple’s bravery and selflessness. The characters often seemed caricatured, the humor often coming from exaggerating the surface-level traits that are supposed to them feel like people but instead make them feel like paper dolls in a fan fic. This take on the zombie is fairly interesting–not all zombies lose their minds and humanity, and some of them become soldiers in the army who fight other zombies. The descriptions of the science behind this new(ish) kind of zombification was about as believable as these things can be. Also, the action sequences, which comprised a large part of the book, were fairly well done.

The setting might be the element that I had the most trouble with. It’s a couple centuries into the future, after environmental catastrophes have driven people towards tropical areas. During this migration, Victorian fashions, etiquette, and social norms came back into vogue.

Honestly, I can’t understand how that could ever happen. I know it’s silly to talk about realism in a book about zombies, but just seems so politically naïve to imagine that any group of people would ever voluntarily adopt the lifestyles of the Victorian era after 3 centuries of enjoying more liberal customs. The expense and physical constraint of the women’s clothes are enough reason for this regression to be impossible. If the purpose is to combine Victorian aesthetics with modern medicine and tech, an alternative history, like those in Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk YA novels, would have been a much more believable background story. Maybe this thought makes me cynical, but the only way I can imagine a large group of people living like Victorians in the future is if elites force them to, because no one but rich, titled, first-born, land-owning white men benefitted under that system. It would have to be a conspiracy to take rights and power away from women and the poor on a massive scale. On the other hand, I understand that Victorian dress is super cool, and Victorian etiquette and social conventions create lots of fun narrative possibilities. So it seems there are two possibilities here. Either the book has romanticized the Victorian era for entirely superficial reasons–the cool clothes and the marriage market plot–or the series will eventually prove that the New Victorian society is a purposely engineered dystopia as the allegiance of the characters switches to the Punks. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll stick around to see if that happens though. The contrived cliffhanger ending didn’t sell me on the sequel.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a well-written Austen fan fic novel will receive many readers and a BBC miniseries. I picked up Death Comes to Pemberley because I heard about the Masterpiece show and I always try to read the book before I see the screen adaptation. This book was really fun to read for several reasons:

1. James imitates Austen’s style remarkably well, down to that pronouncing opening line.

2. Original characters, like the servants of Pemberley and Darcy’s fellow magistrates, are described with the playfulness and sass of Austen.

3. Mentions of other Austen characters, particularly those from Persuasion and Emma, in the form of friends of friends about whom the Darcys gossip.

4. Tying up narrative loose strings and unresolved issues from Pride and Prejudice like Elizabeth’s relationship with Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas), Miss Darcy’s marriage, marriages for the other Bennett girls, and further character development from Darcy.

5. Watching Wickham finally learn his lesson.

The story is a mystery, but none of the characters really play detective. Instead of investigating, they kind of let the mystery unfold around them. On the eve of the annual ball at Pemberley, a body is discovered in the woods, and the infamous Wickham is the prime suspect. There’s a busybody magistrate, a country inquest, and a trial in London with a dramatic surprise ending. Looking forward to the adaptation. Masterpiece always does it right.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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This short novel reminded me of parables and morality tales by Hawthorne, especially in the way that its “lesson” was both heavy-handed and inscrutable. My interpretation was that it showed how wrong it is to consider beauty/youth/aesthetics as their own morality. The action of the story demonstrated that though we want to see physical beauty as reflecting moral goodness, these things don’t necessarily go together, and in fact excessive preoccupation with these surfaces can corrupt. It was frustrating that Dorian kept getting away with his crimes again and again; every time it seemed like his misdeeds were going to catch up with him, nothing happened. Even more frustrating was realizing that there would be no consequence at all for Sir Henry, even though he sort of acted like the tempter, sparking and encouraging Dorian’s long decline. I found it interesting that a book was the form of temptation he used.

The language was the thing I admired most about the book. The descriptions of Dorian’s aesthetic obsessions and collections were sumptuous and sensual, showing just how tempting that world can be. The dialogs are full of the witty, pithy aphorisms and paradoxical wisecracks that Wilde is known for. I disagreed strongly with the substance of many of these, especially the ones about women and marriage, but I think for the most part that I was meant to, that they were supposed to show the arrogance and folly of Sir Henry, who was spouting most of them.

Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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In this fantasy novel, dragons can take human form. The protagonist is Seraphina, assistant to the court composer and a half-dragon hybrid. She learns about her dead mother’s identity as a dragon and begins recalling her mother’ memories in overwhelming visions. To control her visions, she creates a mind palace full of “grotesques,” and has to stroll through this garden every once in a while to keep order there. That was the part of the book I liked the least; it seemed silly and overly interior. But I enjoyed the court intrigue, politics, mystery, and romance of the rest of the story. The country of Goredd has been at peace with the dragons for years, but a plot threatens that peace. Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, royal bastard, are attracted to each other and have a few adventures investigating the death of his uncle the prince, but she can’t be honest with him about her heritage or her feelings. The ending, which I liked much more than I thought I would, necessitates a sequel, but it’s not coming out until next year.

Let’s Take the Long Road Home

Let’s Take the Long Road Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

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This memoir tells about Caldwell’s friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp. They met late in life and formed a friendship of the kind of intensity you usually see with much younger women. The aspect of their friendship that I found most beautiful is the way that though they were very competitive people by nature, they didn’t compete with each other. They specialized in different things, and each recognized that the other was so good at certain things that she could never surpass her friend. Instead, the pressure was off and they could each just enjoy doing those things together. Much of the story was concerned with Knapp’s battle with cancer. There’s a chapter about Caldwell’s alcoholism and recovery, and a lot about her dog. It’s a pretty short, sad book: Caroline dies and so does Caldwell’s dog. I didn’t cry, but a lot of people might. Caldwell describes grief’s ravages thoroughly, examining the many layers of her wound, and eventually arrives at something like faith.

Assassin’s Apprentice

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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Assassin’s Apprentice is first in the Farseer trilogy. It begins with a boy dropped off at a palace, the bastard son of a prince. He grows up there, cared for by the prince’s stableman, and eventually trains with the king’s assassin and his Skillmaster. The Skill is a mental power that allows those who have it to communicate telepathically over long distances, and even to control others’ actions. Most of the drama of the story comes from the mysteries, plotting, and court intrigue as Fitz’s two uncles jockey for power and influence. Fitz endures abuse by the Skillmaster, manipulations by the assassin and king, and hard personal losses. The climax comes when Fitz accompanies one uncle to arrange a marriage for the other, under orders to murder the bride’s brother. The real villains are the Red-Ship Raiders, a group of pirates pillaging the coast with some truly terrifying methods. They provide ongoing tension, but Fitz barely comes into contact with them in this book. I’m sure they’ll be more central in the later novels. The narrator is Fitz as an old man looking back on his life, telling his story with melodrama and style. It’s an enjoyable book for anyone who likes fantasy

Burn

Burn by Julianna Baggott

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Burn is the last of the post-apocalyptic Pure trilogy, in which the Detonations split people into two groups: the pures, safe in the Dome, and those left outside to suffer the effects of radiation. Partridge is taking his father’s place as leader of the Dome, but he’s being manipulated by his father’s old lieutenants. Pressia, Bradwell, and El Capitan have obtained a weapon to take down the Dome for good. Each of the two couples, Partridge and Lyda, Pressia and Bradwell, have relationship crises they must weather.

One of the most interesting things about this series is the way it examines the concept of privilege. In this novel, Partridge gives a speech about how everyone in the Dome is complicit in the mass murder of the Detonations, sparking a suicide crisis. People can’t take the ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Despite looking healthier, the pures in the Dome are actually less hardy than the fused “wretches,” and if they are exposed to the environment outside, will die in large numbers.

As always, I admired Baggott’s prose, some of the best you can find in YA. I loved how she set up complicated moral questions and showed readers every angle of them using the various point of view characters. I’m still thinking about the ending, because it was kind of open and enigmatic. It seemed like a tragedy, really. I was kind of disappointed that the ending wasn’t happier, but I can see why it had to end the way it did.

A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

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This series just blows my mind constantly. Martin is always surprising readers. I feel like every time I finish a chapter I have to put the book down and think for a bit, imagining where the plot might go after these new revelations–and never, not once, have I been correct. And I’m a person who can predict the hell out of a lot of books. I heard once that it takes like 40 miles of ocean for an aircraft carrier to change its course. This length, depth, and breadth of this series make it like an aircraft carrier in size, but it has the turning radius of a sportscar. The entire epic narrative can change with just a few lines, with a single word. And not only are the plot turns here unexpected, they’re shocking in the creativity of their violence. Martin will murder beloved characters in the most senseless, brutal manner possible. He’ll dispatch minor point of view characters just to get them out of the way. He’ll kill a character, and then 80 pages later, bring her back. He’ll come back to a character after 200 pages on the other side of the world, and he’s got a new name. He’ll psych you out by introducing a character who was supposed to be dead throughout the entire series, but isn’t. He’ll connect two plot lines by bringing random characters together in the most unbelievable coincidences, and keep the ones who are searching earnestly for each other apart for thousands of pages.

In this book Daenerys deals with war and rebellion and multiple suitors, Jon Snow handles an immigration/refugee crisis at the Wall, Tyrion travels through the Free Cities, outsmarting slavers and sellswords, while cracking wise and bitter, and snow falls and tension builds in the North between Bolton, Manderly, Stannis, the Free Folk, and the Watch. There are only the shortest, most teasing mentions of Jaime, Brienne, Bran, and Arya, which frustrated me. I think Jon’s story arc was one of my favorites, as he grew into his power and managed the politics of his new position as Lord Commander.

I’m not the biggest fan of the structure of the most recent two books. Martin said that he meant for these most recent two books to be one book, but the narrative got too long and unwieldy, so he split the various plot lines in half, and put some in the last book and the rest in this one. I don’t like losing track of characters for that long, although there are some plotlines I like more than others, of course.  It does make some sense because the stories are spread out so far geographically, but still. The main reason the story got so long seemed to be the addition of new characters. Anyway, I’m amazed at Martin’s ability to juggle so many characters, each with his or her own story arc that rises and falls not just within each novel but across all of them.

The questions I’m left with are maddening: Where is Sansa? What is Varys’s plan? What depraved atrocity will the bastard of Bolton commit next? How will Tyrion make Daenerys his ally? And the conflicts that this novel sets up for the next installment are incredible. There will be two queens on trial for their lives, Targaryns on the battlefield, and, finally, DRAGONS! The wait for the next book will be almost as bad as Ramsay Bolton’s dungeon. Ok, not that bad. I’m not begging Martin to cut off my fingers. I’m just begging him to write faster!

War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

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This book is an education in itself, and sadly, I felt I didn’t know enough to truly appreciate it. I had a similar reaction to gigantic classic novels Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. My lack of background knowledge on the Napoleonic wars and Russian society in the early 1800s made it hard for me to follow a lot of the events, but I did my best and looked up a few things when I felt unbearably clueless. Every edition of this book should have maps and diagrams to help readers understand the battles and the movements of the various armies; the descriptions are very meticulous and hard to picture without a visual aid. Tolstoy interweaves history and philosophy lessons with a story about the love affairs of the young people of three noble families, concluding with an extended meditation on the discipline of history and free will. I wondered whether Tolstoy’s presentation of Napoleon and the Russian leaders is considered a fair one nowadays. Again, I was left with the urge to learn more about this exciting period in history.

The female characters were all problematic for me in various ways. It seemed like they were all defined by their possession or lack of the three things that give a woman value as a wife: beauty, virtue, and wealth. Pierre’s first wife Helene is probably the worst; she has beauty and wealth, but no virtue. Natasha has only beauty. I found Natasha annoying for the entire first half of the book, if not the entire book. Her preening and singing were repeatedly described as enchanting, but just seemed obnoxious to me. She becomes more virtuous after repenting a stupid affair and caring for her dying ex-lover. And then after her marriage, she immediately turns into a nagging matron. Sonya has beauty and virtue, but no wealth. Her entire existence seemed to be an apology for her poverty and the fact that her relatives had to take her in. She does nothing but help and support others, and her reward for it is living with the man she loves and his wife. Princess Mary has virtue and wealth, but no beauty. She’s so virtuous and dutiful, she allows her father to abuse her. In the end, she practically has to beg Nicolas to marry her so that she can solve all of his family’s money problems.