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Richard-Thm

Review By:  Richard Gylgayton

Housseini-KiteRunner

R E V I E W – Fiction

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Grove Press, Reissue edition (originally published in 1987)
ISBN 0802130208
 

Twenty years ago my reading diet consisted mostly of fiction of one sort or another, and a lot of poetry. These days there are still poems in my reading pile, but the rest of the stack consists of philosophy, politics, history, religion, and the physical sciences. I pick up a novel now and then, more often in the summer, but in most cases my novel reading is now driven by that ubiquitous phenomenon: the Reading Group.

A few years back I was asked to join my current reading group because they wanted to explore James Joyce and needed some guidance. They’re a smart and witty bunch of folks, most of them 20 years older than me, and they have been meeting for years. Most of the time the reading list is eclectic, but every once in a what purports to be a serious novel pops up. These “literature-lite” books are everywhere these days. Here in the Bay Area there are always two or three of them on the local best seller lists and you can’t help knowing about them even if you don't belong to a reading group. Drop into any Border’s and you’ll see them piled in point of purchase displays as you walk in. You can recognize them from the blurbs on the front cover: “One of those unforgettable stories that stays with you for years,” or a variation of the same opinion.

That is the actual blurb from the front cover of The Kite Runner, a first novel from the hand of Khaled Hosseini. This book is currently number one on the Bay Area fiction paperback list, which is likely why it snuck in the back door of my reading group like an uninvited guest. The novel, written in the first person, is the story of a boy who is the son of a well-off merchant in Kabul, Afghanistan. The story begins in the stable period before the Russian invasion in the late seventies. Amir, the narrator, lives with his father, Baba, and their servants, Ali and his son Hassan. The narrator’s mother died while giving birth to him, and the father (surprise!) holds that against his son, or so the son thinks. Hassan and Amir are inseparable buddies. And then Something Bad happens. Amir and Hassan are no longer friends. And then the Russians invade and Amir and Baba come to America. Amir falls in love, gets married and Baba dies of cancer. And then a fateful phone call comes from Pakistan and Amir returns to Taliban-ridden Afghanistan. And the Something Bad gets worse and then is resolved.

Despite all the platitudes for this novel (those aforementioned blurbs and the ever-present exhortations of genius in the Amazon Customer Reviews), this bird couldn’t fly without being tossed into the air first. Then, unlike a kite, it falls to earth with a heavy thud because there is no air to support it.

The characters are wooden, especially the Bad Villain who Has No Human Heart. The plot is implausible at best and sentimental at worst, a melodrama written in terse, undecorative prose. And it commits the worst sin that any novel can be guilty of, in my opinion: the main character is a sad, cowardly little man who whines about how bad he feels about betraying his best pal. There’s nothing shoddier than a worthless protagonist in a piece of fiction. (Satire is an exception of course. Ignatius J. Reilly, the main character in A Confederacy of Dunces, is probably the worst example of a human protagonist in any novel, but he is at least drop-dead funny, and the butt of all the jokes.)

There’s no excuse for a whiner in mainstream fiction; you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, as far as I am concerned.

What this book supposedly has going for it is it’s depiction of Afghanistan, but I found the descriptive prose of the creative-writing-class variety, good enough to fool the type of reader who can’t distinguish the difference between facile writing that uses subtlety to captivate a reader and average storytelling dressed up in an exotic exterior.

The Kite Runner is manipulative fiction. The writer is aware of how to push all the right buttons to wrench his reader into feeling specific emotions. Some of the action is quite violent and upsetting, just this side of toxic, though not totally over the top. It’s not egregious, just grating. I have little patience with manipulation. I can detect it immediately and it always irritates me. (I hate exploitation being used for the sake of driving a reader’s emotion). The whole thing has “soon to be made into a major motion picture” all over it.

This is an example of where fiction seems to have wandered in the last couple of decades, into a land of cultural narcissism that provides an escape with the promise of teaching something valuable about the world. (Another Amazon blurb: “I learned so much from this book!”) There is little in this novel that reaches towards an honest transformation of the main character. As such, why should I care about what happens to him? The fact is, I don’t.

Years ago I used to think that if I started a book I should be committed to finishing it. I read more than half of this novel until it became so painful that I started skimming. I’m getting to the age where I don’t have a lot of time to waste, especially with so many other books to read. (My book pile is looking very inviting at this moment.)

Oh and by the way, there are a lot of kites in this book. Did I mention that?

Review By:  Richard Gylgayton

 


JS-Thm

Review by: John Schettler

Wolfe-ManInFull

R E V I E W – Fiction

A Man In Full – By Thomas Wolfe
Perennial Classics – HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 0-374-27032-5

Once in a while a book comes along that changes your whole view of the way a novel is supposed to work. I was down in San Diego a few months back with a few editor friends and we stopped by the main library to browse their book sale. One of my friends cavalierly picked up a copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full with a hearty recommendation, and at the shameful price of only $5 for a beautiful hardback edition, I took his advice and bought it. But the bargain basement price was the least of my windfalls that day.

From the first minute I met Cap’m Charlie Croker thrusting out his mighty chest while sitting astride his favorite Tennessee walking horse, I was hooked.  At first draw, Wolfe’s characters seem to be caricatures, sketched with bold lines and with an almost satiric comedy in the labor. But the longer you sit with them, the more they flesh out to be real people, struggling with all too real problems. Set in the burgeoning city of Atlanta, Charlie’s vast business empire has gone the way of Rome, and the barbarians are at the gates. While he entertains both his guests and his inflated ego on his 29,000 acre quail shooting plantation, the bankers and lenders who have bankrolled his developments are planning a “workout session.” After presenting us with a character that is endeared to his own masculine power as the root of all his accomplishment, we soon reach one of those chapters that Wolfe has since become famous for—“The Saddlebags.”

Far from being anything connected with his bridle stables, or the thoroughbred horses he parades for the Atlanta high society, we soon come to realize that these saddlebags are a sly metaphor dreamt up by Charlie’s interrogators at the bank. The workout session begins, and the bankers slowly turn up the pressure on Charlie, who has now become “just another shithead” in their eyes, a miserable debtor who can no longer make good on the investments they have funded.  As the session proceeds, with the bankers yammering after one asset or another, the sweat breaking out from Cap’m Charlie’s armpits eventually swells across his back to meet at the middle in a wet stain of anxiety ridden shame—saddlebags.  When Charlie limps away on his gimpy knee, his masculinity deflated, you are already half-way in love with the guy, and you know you are going to wince and squirm, even as he does, when the bankers try to make good on their collateral claims.

With one character after another, Wolfe shows his masterful eye for the simple details of life that make people real and present their emotions as completely understandable to the reader. From CEO Carlie Croker’s fate at the top of the company we are soon introduced to the common man at the bottom, poor Conrad Hensley, who works in the cold storage warehouse in one of Charlie’s far flung business holdings. Here the simple hopes of the “little people” are all to easy to identify with. We dream with Conrad of a better day, scrimping and saving for a new house…and we suffer with him as he soon endures the consequences of Charlie Croker’s fate, and gets laid off. In one scene, Conrad has his car towed while job hunting, and has to finagle a way to get it back before the clock runs out and he is charged for another day’s storage at the towing lot. Wolfe builds the frustration and stress in the scene as poor Conrad battles his own saddlebags, waiting in line, watching the second hand sweep away toward the deadline, fingering the few dollars left in his pocket as he hopes he can get to the counter on time.  This ability to make us feel what the character feels is fully engaging in Wolfe’s prose. By the end of the scene, even though Conrad ends up talking drastic measures to retrieve his car, you cannot help by rage, as Conrad does, “This is not RIGHT!”

Everyone loves an underdog, no matter where they are kenneled on the strata of life’s fortunes. We blush with embarrassment as Charlie lands his executive company jet and finds the wolves of PlannerBanc waiting to confiscate it as collateral. When he suits up in maintenance overalls and tosses a wrench into the engine to prevent the bankers from flying off, we feel a sense of righteous outrage, and a little satisfaction that Charlie still has some fight in him, even if the vandals are inside the gates.

A “modern novel” in every respect, the story is almost entirely character based, with a thin plot behind all these richly detailed scenes that serves merely to string one priceless character snapshot to another. Wolfe proves that the real stories in life are the people who live them, and the inner turmoil and struggle of their emotions. Along the way you will learn everything you could possibly want to know about the workings of a major city like Atlanta. You  will see how the money moves, raising up the skyscrapers and rolling out in dollar green lawns in the rich hilltop districts that overlook the city. And you will also ride with “Rodger Too White” as he tries to work his way up Piedmont Avenue during Freaknik Friday Nite when the black residents of the city come out to the streets to strut their stuff. The breadth and depth of the story, the city, the people, make this novel a sharply focused look at American society, in all its latitudes. The research that went into this, simply going there, living there, and hanging out with the people that populate the tale, or others like them, are the hallmark of Wolfe’s writing method. Perhaps one of his very best novels, A Man In Full  is a real treat, and highly recommended.

Review by: John Schettler
 


Richard-Thm

Review By:  Richard Gylgayton

Hamilton-Dysfunction

R E V I E W – Fiction

The Reality Dysfunction, by Peter F. Hamilton
ISBN: 0446605158 Format: Mass Market Paperback, 592pp Pub. Date: May 1997 Publisher: Warner Books, Incorporated
 

Every serious reader has a guilty pleasure. In the midst of absorbing books concerning history, science, philosophy or any other of the subjects from which one can garner hard knowledge, sometimes you just need to take a break and read something thoroughly frivolous.

For me that guilty pleasure is space opera, a classic sub-genre within the genre of science-fiction. In a well crafted space opera you’ll find mammoth interstellar battles between large fleets of powerful starships, imaginative scientific speculation, deeply detailed cultures and clashes between cultures, beautiful women, handsome men, and bizarre aliens all acting across an enormous landscape of planets, solar systems and galaxies. All of these elements are in play while the reader turns pages frantically to discover what happens next, usually in multiple plot lines. There is little hard science fiction that obeys the rules of Einstein in these conjured universes. Almost anything dreamed up by the writer is valid as long as it’s based in some kind of reasonable and current  research (the types of things that are published in New Scientist for example) and does not push the limits of willing suspension of disbelief to an extreme. And space operas are epic in scale, meaning they take many pages to tell (and perhaps a few forests to produce the printed material).

The sub-genre was first tackled by E.E. Smith in the Lensman Series back in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Asimov continued the tradition with the Foundation books (which have been extended by contemporary authors in the last few years). David Brin in his Uplift novels and Dan Simmons with his Hyperion Universe (including the dreaded Shrike!) have carried forward the genre into the post-modern digital era.

Peter F. Hamilton has continued that latter tradition with three novels: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God, which certainly will satisfy the taste of anyone who embraces the guilty pleasure of space opera. This review specifically addresses the first of these three massive tomes, as your reviewer is currently roaming through the second book in the series.

The three volumes are one large story over 3000 pages in length. Yes, I said 3000 pages. The canvas for this journey is immense. Science-fiction, which developed initially using the short story and novella, generally occupies the space of epic these days, most likely due to the development of productive word processing software. Hamilton’s story is one of the rare cases where the length is justified, despite the lack of cutting. (This story is nothing like the endless fat of Neal Stephenson, who never met a sentence he didn’t love.)

I am slightly at a loss to properly describe what this book is about and not only because the story is so huge that describing it in a paragraph or two is a impractical task. The fact is that I don't want to spoil any of the major twists, spins and astonishing concepts that the reader discovers with almost every turn of the page. Besides it’s a space opera, so it builds on the same subject that all space operas use for suspense: the end of the universe as the characters know it and the battle between good and evil. While this series is not quite as Manichean as the Lensman series (it’s far subtler and more complex than a battle between telepaths and space pirates controlled by aliens), it still dramatically rides upon that same tradition. Hamilton prose is a deft combination of science-fiction, suspense, and horror. He is more than adequate to the task at hand and respects his reader’s perception and intelligence.

Yes, I said horror. This book is constructed on what has come before it, but not just the extended concepts of previous science fiction authors (in Hamilton’s universe we get space elevators, enormous kilometers-long cylindrical habitats, warped space, telepathic affinity, ancient alien artifacts, and human minds enhanced with nanonic digital technology, just to mention a few) but one of the main plots involves dead souls possessing the bodies and minds of the living.. And believe me when I say this, it works. It is very believable. The whole story is a effective combination between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a little taste of The Terminator and The Exorcist to round out the edges.  

The cultural background involves two different groups of humanity: The Edenists and the Adamists. In the late 21st century two genetic technologies are developed. The first is bitek, which is the development of biological materials and sentience into a hybrid technology. The second is the insertion into the human DNA (specifically the Edenists), of the Affinity gene, which enables telepathic communications between human beings and bitek hybrid technologies. The most complex example of these advancements are biological starships, called voidhawks, which are intelligent and have affinity communication with their captains. (This is a tribute to The Ship Who Sang stories by Anne McCaffrey, though that tech involved brains surgically transplanted from bodies to spaceships). Voidhawks can warp or “swallow” space through innate ability. The Edenists live in bitek habitats that orbit gas giants (a reference to Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama) and have evolved a relatively Buddhist consciousness in which all sentient beings are honored.

The Adamists are those humans whose religious beliefs opposed the development of the affinity gene and chose not to add it to their DNA. They use non-biological technologies to travel faster than light and have no telepathic abilities. While there are major theological disagreements between these two human groups, especially from the Christian churches to which most Adamists belong, the two cultural groups are tolerant of one another and are part of the same political body (the Confederation) that provides the overall economic and military infrastructure of thousands of occupied worlds.

The events of the novel take place in the 26th century and run through two basic plotlines, the aforementioned rise of the undead (The Reality Dysfunction) and a doomsday weapon capable of wreaking havoc in solar systems (The Neutronium Alchemist). More than that I will not say, as I have issues with reviews that contain spoilers. I’ll provide more details in the second part of this review.

There are dozens of characters, many well-crafted, and others that seem to only occupy scenes for plot development requirements. One of the weaknesses of the story is that most of the character’s names are forgettable. It is easy for the reader to become lost in the midst of this vast group of actors that sounds as if they they came right out of the telephone book. A cast of characters list appears in the second book but does not contain all the characters introduced in the first novel. (There is a more complete list available on Hamilton’s web site.) In any case, only about a dozen of these characters are major, the rest appear and disappear depending upon the plot at any given time, and vast hordes of them are like the “red shirts” in the first Star Trek TV series: they exist to get killed off, sometimes in extremely graphic and gruesome ways. (This is not a story for the faint of heart.)

The three novels are published in six paperback books, each one of them almost 600 pages. The individual novels are thus divided into two parts each. We should be thankful for this as some readers could have required additional visits to their chiropractors if they needed to pack 1200 page novels with them while commuting to work.

Since the story is so long it takes Hamilton about 450 pages to get the base background of the plot events started, but after that it kicks into high gear. Some of that 450 pages is occupied with many scenes of nanonic enhanced sex, which get tiresome, and introductions of characters (many who end up dying), but once the plot gets past the initial inertia the major characters are too busy managing the numerous crises that take place and manage to keep their hands off one another. After all there is a universe to be saved!

Suffice to say, I’m hooked and can’t get enough.

Review by: Richard Gylgayton

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