Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerThere’s a good reason why, in Canada, we have a genre called “wilderness Gothic”. These are the early novels about Canada, exemplified by works such as Wacousta, where the outside environment, the wilderness, is a character, an evil presence, something to be kept well away.

Contrary to the American attitude towards wilderness, which is one of control and conquest, colonists to Canada (at least in the 18th and 19th centuries) saw the large, unending forests as frightful, unknowable areas inhabited by “wild men” (Indians, of course, always represented as borderline barbaric, half-animals, half-humans) who knew but did not divulge their secrets.

In a way, Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, is a reinterpretation of the wilderness gothic genre for a science-fiction audience. It’s about a wild space, called Area X, that has been cut off from the rest of the world for 30 years. Nobody really knows why it happened or what Area X wants or does, especially not the secret organization responsible for its management and study, called the Southern Reach.

In this first book, we follow the biologist of the twelfth expedition (there have been many previous expeditions, with different levels of success or unsuccess) as she experiences Area X and uncovers its mysteries and secrets. The very beginning of the novel expresses something akin to the fear of being engulfed by the wilderness that was such a common topic in early Canadian fiction:

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

It’s difficult to pin down Annihilation on its own. I’ve read reviews that decry the scientific voice of the narrator, but I thought it was perfectly in character: the biologist was asked to observe and record her reactions, and she does so from the point of view of, well, a biologist. Her character is more interested in ecosystems than she is in people. She may not be easily relatable, but her attempt at a detached voice makes her struggle all the more heart-wrenching.

The novel is part scientific account, part wilderness gothic, part environmental criticism, part descent into madness narrative. As the story advances, more and more questions are raised–and none are really answered.

This book is one of the most interesting, terrifying, weird and original works of fiction I’ve read in quite a while. It doesn’t have the page turner quality of The Martian, but at 200 pages is a quick read. I even put off watching House of Cards to finish this damn book, to give you an idea.

Annihilation flirts with the uncanny in a way I have never experienced. Reading it was like looking at the world through a broken kaleidoscope: experiences are stretched and refracted, ideas and objects never quite stable, always on the edge between reality and imagination. Is what you’re seeing, hearing, touching real? Is your capacity to understand, to react, to decide being manipulated by some outside force?

And what is it with all the animals with strangely human eyes?

Spam Is A Numbers Game: Brian Krebs on Unsolicited Email

Spam Nation by Brian Krebs

Spam: once a gross meat-like substance sold in tins that could probably survive a nuclear apocalypse.

Now, it’s the stuff that clogs your inbox: penis pills and health insurance and lottery winnings and nursing degrees and whatever else spammers think they can convince at least a small percentage of people to spend money on.

I’m not sure if these are scams, but according to Brian Kreb’s Spam Nation, at least in the heyday of the pharmaceutical spam era, most people actually got what they paid for.

Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door covers the relationships between two rival Russian spammers and their crews, the gaggle of hackers and programmers that orbit them, and the consequences of their war on the world, through the Internet.

The book definitely presents a relevant, topical subject. Spam is the bane of the Information Age because it never ends, because it clogs up our inboxes, and because, despite the growing sophistication of anti-spam filters, some still make it through.

Indeed, spam email has become the primary impetus for the development of malicious software… These botnets are virtual parasites that require care and constant feeding to stay one step ahead of antivirus tools and security firms that work to dismantle the networks. To keep their bot colonies thriving, spammers … must work constant to spread and mutate the digital disorders that support them… Botnet operators need to continuously attack and seize control over additional computers and create new ways to infiltrate previously infected ones.

Spam is supported by millions of computers around the world–any one of the many computers you have used in your lifetime may have been part of it. And if you have been used as a carrier for spam, you may have been infected by a bot whose patron was one of two Russian master cybercriminals: Igor Gusev or Pavel Vrublevski.

Krebs presents compelling stories about these two figures: an early collaboration, a falling out, and a devastating rivalry that unravelled the spamming underworld. Unfortunately, the stories weren’t always easy to follow.

Some of the chapters seemed out of place, or out of time. Although I was interested to learn about those who order and consume pills from spammy pharmacies, I felt it wasn’t really what the book was about. It distracted me from the main story and just got in the way of actually understanding the bigger narrative.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an excellent piece of investigative journalism. But being good at writing short-form pieces doesn’t automatically a good book make. I feel like the structure could have been revised, the narrative clarified. The “who’s who” list at the beginning definitely helps, but I felt lost more often than I wanted to be.

There is definitely plenty to learn from Spam Nation. I was fascinated by the political, social and criminal surroundings that enable such large operations to operate with impunity for so long. But the book too often swerved away from the meat of the story for my taste. A shorter book with a tighter narrative would have been just as satisfying, and just as effective.

It’s a good read though, if you can just remember to stay focused on the main story. It’s accessible too, without too much technical jargon to bog the writing down. If the origin and nature of all the emails you get but never read interests you, this is a good way to spend a few hours.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere.

Short Reviews Of A Bunch Of Books, March Edition

All right, I haven’t been very faithful to my readers. I’ve been publishing some reviews, both here and on The Cryptosphere, but I definitely haven’t reviewed every book I’ve read in the last two months.

So although I won’t be doing an in-depth review for each of them, here are a few thoughts about the books that I have unfortunately skipped in the last weeks.

The 7 habits of highly effective people reviewThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey

This book needs no introduction, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a long. Although a bit dated (over 25 years old), many of its principles and ideas still hold true today.

Although my academic mind did have definite doubts about claims such as “there are universal principles that apply to all humans everywhere at all times”, you can take just what you need out of the book and leave the rest. For me, it was the chapter on empathic listening. It really redefined the way I viewed my relationships and led my conversations. It took me out of my egocentric worldview and enabled me to start imagining what the world looks like from another person’s point of view.

Verdict: you take the good with the dubious, but there’s still some good, useful stuff in there.

18656044The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

It seems hard to imagine a book that would redefine, or at least reimagine, the zombie genre. I’m not a particularly fervent zombie fan, but the recommendations for this book made me pause.

And I certainly don’t regret reading it. The main character, Melanie, is a 10-year-old girl with a genius intellect, but she’s kept in a cell and is taken to class tied to a wheelchair. After an attack from hordes of “hungries”, she escapes along with her teacher, a scientist and two soldiers. A fateful trek to London will forever change their lives, and the human race too.

I really enjoyed this novel. It didn’t revel in the grossness of zombie gore and had lots of psychological depth. The ending was especially satisfying, if not happy.

Verdict: entertaining read, whether or not you’re a fan of the zombie genre.

18651980Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

I’m not quite sure how I managed to read through the entire thing. The pace was a bit slow for my tastes, and some of the characters difficult to relate to. But this depiction of poor, rural Montana in the early 80s is filled with questions about freedom, the American identity and the meaning of family.

The story follows Pete Snow, a social worker assigned the territory in the wilds of Montana. One day, he meets Benjamin Pearl, a boy who appears half-feral and malnourished. As he tries to develop a relationship with Benjamin and his father, a paranoid survivalist named Jeremiah, he comes head to head with the FBI, his own assumptions about his life and his responsibilities towards his family.

At almost 500 pages, this is a long read for today’s standards, but it is ultimately rewarding. Not everyone will have the patience to witness the development of Pete and the Pearl’s relationship, but if you do, you’ll especially appreciate Henderson’s rendering of the wild, often threatening Montana wilderness.

Verdict: a good read if the themes interest you; prepare to invest some time.

1850579610% Happier by Dan Harris

A book about meditation that’s not mystical and actually a bit funny? Sure, I’ll give it a read.

I’m actually glad I did read it. Not that I needed to be convinced of the benefits of meditation, but at least it gives me a good argument to share with those who are skeptical about meditation.

The book is short and entertaining. It presents meditation in the context of our fast-paced, competitive lives and doesn’t go into “woo-woo” stuff. More than anything, it’s plenty accessible through its engaging writing.

Verdict: a good read for newbie and experienced meditators alike, or if you’re interested in the topic.

22662956Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This book was a little apocalyptic pleasure to read. A devastating flu kills 99% of the planet’s population, and twenty years later the survivors and their descendants live in small, parsed settlements along old highways–mostly around rest stops and motels. Among this devastated human landscape, a troupe of artists–musicians and actors–circuits around the Great Lakes, a little bit like medieval theatre troupes did.

This is a more literary approach to the dystopian style that’s flooding our reading lists lately. The focus is more on the characters and their relationships than about the fall of civilization. It’s slow and thoughtful rather than action-packed, but you still get a decent glimpse of what life would be like without electricity, and gas, and all the modern technology. Basically, what life would be like if we lived in the medieval era.

Verdict: a good read, deserves the attention it received by critics and bloggers.

22663053The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

All right, I’m late to the Hilary Mantel party, and this is actually my first book by her.

This collection of short stories (not too many, actually) is a nice quick read if you need a Mantel fix waiting for her next novel. Her stories are mostly about middle-class women with secrets: secret lovers, secret hiding places, secret ambitions, secret harbouring of would-be Thatcher assassins.

My favourite story was “Terminus”, which was more about language than plot. I loved its atmosphere and the gorgeous writing. Mantel handles prose like a chef handles a knife: expertly, with intent and with delicious results.

Verdict: a nice read if you want some short-form Mantel or if you like contemporary short stories.

What next?

I’ve got 1 review coming up on The Cryptosphere next week for Spam Nation, and 2 reviews of fiction for here: Annihilation and The Wellmaster: The Weeping Wall.

Stay tuned!

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers, image via Salon
The Circle by Dave Eggers, image via Salon

 

Does the amount of things that Google knows about you scare you? In my last review, I discussed Angwin’s Dragnet Nation. This week, I’m reviewing a fictional representation of this idea pushed to its extreme: a network so all encompassing and so pervasive that, for all intents and purposes, it ends up replacing the government–The Circle.

Mae, a young university graduate, gets a job at The Circle, a company that’s a mashup of Google, Facebook, Paypal and Twitter. In fact, in the world of the book, The Circle replaces all of these and buys all their archives.

At first, Mae takes this job as a job. She has a life outside of the Circle and doesn’t participate much in its social (both online and real life) aspects. But soon enough, the expectation of her participation in social media and social events force her, more or less, to become a full-time Circler.

Mae quickly becomes enthralled with the instant gratification of smiles, zings and messages, of signing online petitions and receiving comments on photos and videos. As her world becomes increasingly more knowable through real-time data and her ever-growing social networks, she gets embroiled deeper and deeper into the Circles plans for worldwide transparency and information control.

The novel is more a book of ideas than an enthralling story with interesting characters. I found Mae to be rather naive and barely self-aware. She is obviously flawed, but her lack of self-questioning and the quick way she gets taken in by the cult-like Circle culture is just too easily used as a rhetorical device to make an intellectual point.

The plot could also have used some tightening. I felt the novel took its good old time to get to the interesting part, and I can easily think of at least a dozen scenes that were unnecessary. I couldn’t care much about the central conflict–if there was even one–and ended up feeling, well, not much at all for Mae.

So, as I said earlier, this novel is more of a vehicle for making an argument about the dangers of too much transparency, of the disappearance of privacy even in our own homes, our bedrooms, our past, even our minds. It hints at a sort of techno-dystopian future without quite getting there. The interesting thing that the novel does raise, though, is how most of us are readily willing to enter the surveillance system. Are slaves still slaves if they don’t know they’re enslaved? Is surveillance acceptable if the majority of the population subscribes, welcomes, and even asks for it?

And in such a world, is access to privacy still a right, or does it become another inaccessible utopia?

As an intellectual exercise, this was an interesting book to read. As fiction, however, it is only mildly successful. In the language of the novel, The Circle gets a “meh”.

Review previously published on The Cryptosphere.

Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin

Review of Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin

If you’re a newcomer to issues of privacy and security on the web, Julia Angwin’s 2014 Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance is a good place to start. In accessible language and a relatable context, Angwin delves into the “dragnet nation”, or how multiple entities are grabbing your data indiscriminately to be sold, used and analyzed.

I wasn’t very surprised by anything that Angwin brings up in the book. From your Google search archive to your mobile location data, every bit of activity you do on the web or with your cell phone is likely recorded, stored in a database and may be used for commercial, governmental or covert operations.

To say this is scary would be an understatement. The sheer amount of things that Google knows about you is astounding, and if you want to know what data brokers and companies can discover about you, this is the place to begin. From your favourite takeout restaurant to your clothing size, from your health issues to your political leanings, it’s easy to make quite an accurate profile of anyone through their Google data. Angwin demonstrates this by going through her own data and realizing how revealing it is.

Most of the book is dedicated to Angwin’s quest for privacy in the dragnet nation. She looks for a private email client, a way to hide her location through mobile, and more. She describes the process of getting an alias (a famous early 20th-century journalist) for online shopping. She even gets a credit card in her alias’ name!

As you can imagine, Angwin struggles with living a normal modern life and living privately. From sluggish private browsers (Tor) to unpractical Faraday pouches that cut all signals to and from your phone, it’s difficult to answer to the demands of today’s digital world and protect your privacy. The expectations of availability and the constant surveillance makes it very difficult to live “off the dragnet grid.”

As you can imagine, Angwin is only partly successful at increasing her privacy online. She often finds that the cost of security is too high: it gets in the way of her life or in the way of her work, or somehow overcomplicates a task so much that it doesn’t seem worth it to her.

The most interesting–and alarming–conclusion you can make from reading this book is that the convenience of modern technology comes at the cost of your privacy. There is hardly any way to avoid the dragnet, if only by making a purchase with a credit card or by placing a call with your cell phone. Tasks as ubiquitous as reading your favourite news outlet online, doing a Google search or walking into a store with your cell phone are now all part of the dragnet.

The dangers of the dragnet are also obviously scary: that your information can be retroactively used against you. Proponents of the dragnet argue that it has protected us against terrorism, but as Angwin argues, maybe it doesn’t do it so well. What the dragnet does do well is build a profile of you for advertising purposes. What it is for is not so much protection against criminals (who would be careful to use privacy tools anyway, if they were smart) but for selling you stuff.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of any kind of big organization that knows too much about me, whether it is the government or corporations. I agree that the government should know enough about its citizen to build good policies, but should it be aware of everyone’s every single movement, phone call, Google search? Should it know where you do your groceries, your favourite type of legal pornography or the latest pair of boots you bought online?

As I said earlier, convenience comes at a price. To increase privacy is to forego convenience. But is it too late to turn back? Are we now all so addicted to our phones, laptops, city-wide wi-fi and Google that we’ve all just thrown our hands up and given up?

Is everything that makes our life easier necessarily a good thing, or should we begin questioning the consequences of blindly accepting and integrating ever more invasive technology in our lives?

Dragnet Nation, although admittedly basic for those who are already aware of these issues, is a good place to start your inquiry.

This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere

Review: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison reviewHow to describe how amazing and perfect this book is? The art of the essay–of observing our nature and that of others, of finding universal truths in deeply personal experiences–is alive and well, thanks to Leslie Jamison and The Empathy Exams.

The essays in this book all discuss, directly or indirectly, the topic of, you guessed it, empathy. From training doctors to empathize with their patients to visiting some of the poorest and most dangerous places on the planet, Jamison dissects how we feel and how, ultimately, we get to feel for and with others in different situations.

The book is thoughtful and smart. These are not commonplace platitudes: Jamison truly digs deep with personal experiences (an abortion, being punched in the face, getting heart surgery) and pulls out little diamonds of insights about the human capacity to share emotions.

Although all essays are pretty much amazing, I especially enjoyed “In Defence of Saccharine”. Maybe it’s because it’s among the most academic of the book (but still accessible), but maybe it’s because I can easily be overtaken by the kinds of emotions that Hollywood movies and “sentimental” literature can provoke. I admit to having cried at the end of A League of Their Own as a teenager at least the first 3 times. I also cried when I finished Daniel Deronda (don’t ask).

The last essay, about female pain, definitely tickled my feminist side. (I rephrase: tickled ME. I’m a WHOLE feminist, not just part of one. Anyway.)

The insight that female pain is dismissed more readily than male pain is not new. But she breaks it down in different kinds of pain, and uses plenty of academic, philosophical and pop culture references to make her point. Here’s a bit from this particular essay:

I knew better–we all, it seems, knew better–than to become one of *those* women who plays victim, lurks around the sickbed, hands her pain out like a business card. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think this was just me. An entire generation, the next wave, grew up doing everything we could to avoid this identify: we take refuge in self-awareness, self-deprecation, jadedness, sarcasm. The Girl Who Cried Pain: she doesn’t need meds; she needs a sedative.

And now we find ourselves torn. We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime–a kind of shameful masturbation–that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show.

Jamison has insight that cuts through all the bullshit and goes right to the heart of the matter. Why can’t women admit to their pain? Why do we enjoy poverty tourism? Why do some people run marathons that even ultra-marathoners think are crazy? How do you know if your doctor really empathizes with you–and does it matter if he or she does? Should we embrace or reject the easy emotionality of Hollywood romances?

These are all interesting questions–and there are no easy answers, either. Although Jamison takes her own stand on things, she never shuts the door to the other side. Human emotions are complex, and so are her investigations of them.

To be honest, I’m a little jealous. I wish I had written these. Finishing this book actually made me question a bunch of things about my life, like “have I lived too much of a privileged, middle-class life?” “Can I be a good writer if I don’t have extraordinary experiences?” “WHY THE FUCK AM I NOT WRITING THIS SHIT RIGHT NOW?” And also the less comforting: “where has my sharp mind gone?”

Personal fears and confessions aside, if you want to read amazing non-fiction, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll come out a richer, better person on the other side.

5 AWESOME stars.

I’m Going To Finish A Damn Story

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I recently wrote a post for my other blog (go have a look, and subscribe if you like it!), thinking about how I somehow wiggle out of everything that is remotely challenging or life-changing, writing-wise.

Those who know me know that I’m not scared of a challenge… but with stuff like writing fiction or relationships, I’m pretty chickenshit. Every time I chat with someone about writing fiction, here’s what I invariably answer with:

“Yeah, but…”

Doesn’t matter what I say after that. It’s always an excuse. Stupid excuses to avoid what scares. Silly excuses to somehow rationalize why I’m not doing what I’ve dreamed of doing since childhood, pretty much. (I was writing “novels” in 4th grade.)

Why do I use “yeah but”? Because I’m ridiculously conditioned to think that writing fiction is not worth my time, that I’m not good enough, that lots of people are much better than me, that I’ll never make it.

And today I say:

FUCK THAT.

I’m going to write a story. I’m going to finish it. No “yeah buts”. No excuses. 500 words a day. Finished by Sunday.

Then on Monday I’ll start another one. 500 words a day. Then finish it by Sunday.

And over and over again until I’ve written 52 damn stories TO THE END.

I don’t care how good they are. I don’t care whether they’re publishable or not. I care about finishing. I care about doing the damn thing I want to be doing until I die.

I’m going to write stories, and I’m going to finish them.

This is a promise, a commitment that I’m making in public, because I’m tired of hiding behind excuses and rationalizations. I’m tired of setting my true desires aside for other stuff that isn’t nearly as important.

I’M GOING TO FINISH A DAMN STORY. AND THEN ANOTHER ONE. AND THEN ANOTHER ONE.

Until this fear is gone, or at least tamed enough that it lives in a tight cage in the back of the deepest recess of my mind, where it can’t do anything to stop me anymore.

Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom, Lucky Us reviewSometimes, a little unassuming book grips you in the best way possible. The writing is beautiful and moves you. The characters span all across the types, but are mostly, simply, just human. The story highlights these characters; the characters aren’t slaves to the plot. Because, a little bit like life, there’s no plot: just people trying to do their best in crazy situations.

This is the happy surprise of Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us. Two teenage sisters leave their Ohio home for Hollywood in the early 1940s. The eldest, Iris, wants to be a star; the youngest, Eva, our protagonist, follows around reading books and cooking dinner. After a scandal that robs Iris of all chances of finding work in Hollywood, the sisters, along with their suddenly reappearing father and a friend, travel across America to New York to work as live-in staff for a newly-wealthy Italian family. Iris has a definite purpose: being an actress. However, we mostly follow Eva through her apparent uselessness (she is mostly an observer of things, which lets her be the best narrator of the book) through to finally finding her own purpose during a serendipitous accident.

Most of the book happens during the Second World War: a background shadow, something that happens somewhere else but still has an effect on their lives, albeit distant.

This gorgeous little novel (barely 300 pages) is all about family: the family we have, the family we want, and the family we finally make for ourselves. Throughout their life in Hollywood and New York, Iris and Eva gather around them a family of choice. Sometimes they are cruel, but they are always redeemable. Even the most “villainous” of characters in the novel, the girls’ father, is not so much a villain as a victim of circumstances, of choices he has made in the past and appearances he has tried to keep in the future.

The novel also deeply believes in essential human kindness. Sure, there are a few cruel actions, but most cruelty is eventually redeemed and forgiven. The girls’ lucky breaks often originate from a kind gesture from friends or strangers.

Because the story happens during wartime, maybe people were more inclined to kindness them. With all the ugliness happening in Europe, why be ugly to each other here? In a sense, this protects the girls from far worse situations, like prostitution and/or complete destitution.

One of the characters, Gus, is falsely accused of spying for the Germans and is eventually sent to Germany in a prisoner exchange. He ends up in a camp after the town he stays in is bombed, and eventually makes it back to the US:

All of us, the DPs, the soldiers who liberated the camps, even the survivors who came here–we tried to keep it from you. We protected America from what happened, like a man takes care of his wife. The man doesn’t mind when she closes her eyes at the scary part of the ride, of the movie. He loves her for that sweet, willful ignorance. She gives him something to protect, a nice world in which bad things don’t happen. It’s a pleasure, and a relief, to keep that ignorance intact, even as it comes between them.

There is something of that sweet, protected innocence in Eva, but some of the cruelty of the world still seeps through the cracks of her narration. Not enough to make us feel like all is lost, but enough to show us that the world around them is no utopian fairytale. They still live in a world where people can be mean and cruel; they just happen to be surrounded by kind, helpful people most of the time.

Some people were put off by the somewhat fractured narration; Eva tells in first person, while other characters write letters or get third-person narration. This didn’t put me off so much because it establishes Eva as the primary observer, with a few extra points of view to help us along the way.

The prose is lyrical, stylish. There’s an abundance of beautiful images, of moving metaphors. To me, the words danced like water in a creek: bopping and murmuring and smooth, fluid; you can stretch your hand, collect a little in your palm and taste its pure clarity.

If you feel for something beautiful and hopeful without being saccharine or artificially light-hearted, this is a book you can go through in a stormy winter afternoon with plenty of tea and classical music in the background.

It’ll warm your heart more than the fire in the fireplace.

4 stars.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir reviewYou’re on a mission to Mars, and all your crewmates have left the planet, leaving you behind, because they think you’re dead.

This is the premise of The Martian, probably one of the best science-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.

The plot is as simple as can be: a dude is left behind on Mars and must survive until others can come rescue him. It’s Robinson Crusoe for the space age. It’s a story that’s been explored in many different settings and times, but it’s always the surviving character itself who makes or breaks the story.

In this case, Mark Watney is our survivor, and he’s one hell of a dude to watch. He’s ingenious, stubborn and hilarious. Most of the book is made up of his log, in the first person, with some sections in the third person for the people at NASA and his crewmates on the ship Hermes.

It’s Watney’s voice that carries the story. Despite absolutely insurmountable odds (how do you grow food on Mars when your supplies disappear? How do you communicate with Earth when your communications are down? How do you drive for a month without going insane?), he manages to solider on, and do so with optimism and humour. Because, I guess, if you fall to fatalism and cynicism, you wouldn’t last very long, alone, for a year and a half on Mars…

Not being a scientist of any kind, I can’t talk about the scientific accuracy of the book. It’s all very believable though, with just a touch of future technology that’s not so unimaginable today. There’s never any mention of the year, but it could be next year, or it could be in 20. It makes the book approachable that way, and any science is filtered through the lens of an actual human being applying it, so we get a lot more information about results than about math. Which I appreciated.

The author made Mark really adept at jerry-rigging anything. Mechanical engineers (my brother is one) are really good at thinking out of the box to solve mechanical problems. So you’ll often exclaim, “ah! if this was on Earth, he’d totally do the same thing.” And often, that involves duct tape.

Of course, duct tape is as useful for holding things together on Mars as it is on Earth:

I unravelled Martinez’s bed and took the string outside, then taped it to the trailer hull along the path I planned to cut. Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.

Here’s just a little bit of the humour that colours every entry in Mark’s log. It’s hard to imagine those snide remarks, blogging-like comments and other funny bits and pieces not being there, because otherwise, the book would just be an oppressive mess of loneliness.

This novel is an amazing tale of the human spirit for exploration, knowledge and survival. It shows the lengths to which we’re willing to go to survive, and how thousands, millions of people can come together to care about something other than them. The book believes in the nobility of the human spirit: the spirit that pushes us to risk our lives for others, to take chances just to learn something new and extraordinary, and to put our blind faith in the people we love.

I’ll give you the same warning I’ve read everywhere: make sure you have plenty of time aside to read this book. This is not the kind of book you’ll be happy to just read bits of on the bus. You will want to read it until you finish it or fall asleep. I read it in 2 sittings. The pace is extraordinary and you just. can’t. stop.

Five stars.

Review: One More Thing: Stories And Other Stories by B.J. Novak

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. NovakNext on my list of best readings from 2014 comes this collection of short stories from actor, writer and director B.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.

I’m trying to read a more diverse array of genres, including more short stories. I don’t always have the time or the mental stamina to get involved in novels, so I’m starting to find short stories quite refreshing and interesting. I also want to start writing short stories, so the more I read them, the better I’ll be able to write them, eventually.

So, this collection of stories made it to many “Best of 2014″ lists. It’s a collection of clever, mostly humorous short stories that deal with things like love, friendship, dating, sex, art. In short, pretty much the kind of stuff that an intelligent, educated 30-something will find interesting.

Under their often silly themes (a date with a warlord, a sex robot, a revenge race between the hare and the tortoise, a trip to the planetarium, etc…), these stories hide deeper insights into our present and our future.

The lessons in these stories come from simple, every day realizations that open up a whole new level of thought a reflexion. A man who chooses to quit being an ambulance driver to become a singer-songwriter. A comic who only has one bit, but who does it well. A young boy who finds his real father and makes a choice.

Many stories are actually quite short; some as short as 3 lines. Others are longer, but none too long to lose your interest. Some are somehow connected, through words or places or characters that appeared in other stories. But it’s not really a series of connected stories. They just seem to be part of a loosely related world, a bit like all of us living our lives and meeting randomly.

My favourite story is probably the one about meeting grandma in heaven. It’s sad and hopeful and joyous and heartbreaking at the same time.

Novak has an easy control of the language. It flows really well through all the stories and doesn’t bring attention to itself, leaving the situations and characters to brighten up the page.

“If only the earth could hold up a mirror to itself…”

Say no more, thought the impatient billionaire in the audience at the TED conference, who found the speaker’s voice as whiny and irritating as his ideas were inspiring and consciousness-shifting. He already knew the part of the speech that was going to stay with him: a mirror up to Earth–amazing, unbelievable. Tricky but doable. He got it. Let’s make it.

All in all, it’s a good collection of stories for the younger readers. I’m not saying that older readers wouldn’t enjoy it, but a lot of the concerns and ideas speak a lot more to the 20 and 30 something readers–and to their attention spans, too.

4 stars.