book review: the bone clocks

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s new novel about a woman named Holly Sykes and the strange life she gets caught up in living. It does the excellent David Mitchelly thing of having multiple sections which are their own stories in their own specific times (though this one, unlike Cloud Atlas, does keep marching into the future).

I liked the story as it built from a literary-feeling mundane story into a pretty gonzo sci-fi spectacle. Holly Sykes is in every part and she’s great, but she’s not the narrator or even a main character in many of the sections, which is kind of what I really liked about the novel. It bounces around with a bunch of different perspectives (which are not as extremely different as the different styles in number9dream) that to me make it feel like it’s trying to capture the multiplicity of life. The book’s always about Holly even if we’re in the heads of her less than immaculate friends and lovers.

There are a couple of things that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but they were more on the loose ends side of things. The final section was longer than it probably needed to be but it was also the most affecting part of the whole experience. That might be because it was the furthest into the future and the most sfnal. I can see how you could call it preachy, but I think that fits the narrator at that point.

So yes, I liked it. It’s a bit weirder than The Thousand Autumns of Jacon de Zoet, but Mitchell knows how to write characters you’ll really care for (in the midst of weird scifiishness).

book review: the mirage

Matt Ruff’s alternate history novel The Mirage is about a world where the United Arabian States are the global superpower, America is a factionalized bunch of small countries with dysfunctional despots in charge (including LBJ in America and the Bush clan in Texas) and Israel is in Berlin, far from the Holy Land. The idea is that back on 11/9/2001 Rocky Mountain extremists flew planes into a couple of towers in Baghdad and the UAS launched a War on Terror. It’s an interesting world and a lot of the fun in reading the book comes from the exposition handled through pages from the Library of Alexandria, the user-driven encyclopedia.

Plot-wise we’re following a couple of Homeland Security cops from Baghdad who are investigating some Christian extremist attacks and come to think there’s another topsy-turvy world out there where America is the superpower. Senator Bin Laden wants something out of that other world, and is trying to use our hero cops to get it. The plot isn’t the point here except as a vehicle for the setting.

My main gripe with the book is that the characters seem a bit too willing to believe they’re in an unreal reality. Otherwise it’s a fun puzzle to read through as you see Lebanon as the UAS’ version of California, and Britain as the Iran-analogue. It feels different, less science fictional and more Tom Clancy/fantasy-ish than The Years of Rice and Salt, but they have a number of similarities. Good book and a light read.

there but for the grace of god goes me

I was just going to note this for my links feed over in the sidebar there, but it’s an interesting enough article to respond to a bit here. The Disadvantages of an Elite Education – By William Deresiewicz

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort.

Now, I don’t have an elite education by any stretch, but a lot of this article resonated me all up. I sometimes look at my time here at the library as underachieving. This is no surprise to you. I feel like I could have gone on to do more; I could have been a doctor of something or other. I feel like I chickened out of the hard work it would take to do all that stuff. And then I read about how important it is not to get sucked into that world, how being outside it signifies an independent spirit instead of lack of ability. And those are really gratifying things to read. It lets me go, “People want (this romanticized version of) my life” rightly or wrongly.

I’ve been told not to change, to be happy I’m in the position I’m in. To be able to go enjoy a baseball game on a Thursday afternoon. I’ve been reading Walden and it’s all about living in the woods by yourself and how that is the only measure of success we should be looking for. That’s what Thomas Merton did too (with the addition of being an actual monk). Those things don’t feel like huge stretches for me. I could do that. But I can’t help feeling that I’m missing something by skipping all the intermediate steps. I feel like I haven’t given up anything to arrive where I am.

You can read all this stuff out there about simplifying your life to find happiness and blah blah blah. I shelve at least a dozen of those books every week. When you’re already pared down pretty far though you hit some sort of diminishing return. Sometimes I feel like I should be ambitious in a professional sense, so that I could come back to this life and really appreciate it. Part of my qualms about going to Japan and teaching (which I’m not planning on doing in the immediate future) had to do with how I’d look back on this time at the library as such a wonderful relaxing peaceful time for me. What is that, some sort of latent conservatism? I don’t want to give up the good life I’ve got going for one which I’d like much less?

Last night on the Daily Show there was the top foreign correspondent for CBS talking about her work in Iraq and Afghanistan and how important it was. Sometimes I want to be her, to actually have a fight on my hands every day to do something important. And I feel bad for sitting here writing my little stories while the world goes to hell.

And sometimes I just really want an iPhone.