I’ve fallen further behind in my reviews than I ever have. So, I’ve decided to do what I did for The Dresden Files: combine my reviews into one giant post. Is that cheating? I feel like that’s cheating. The longer I drag this out, though, the more I’m likely to fall behind.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus (5 stars)
Firstly, I read this because it’s one of the most frequently cited great novels from French literature. In my quest to read more classic novels this year, I feel that I must also read harder, less entertaining books. What better target, then, than French existentialism?
My final judgement, then, is that I probably failed utterly in grasping the intricacies of Camus’ philosophical point of view. Philosophy isn’t really my thing. The Stranger was intended, I suppose, to be the exemplification of Camus’ absurdist philosophy – his belief that there is no ordered, rationally-based moral authority in life. But Camus also believed that this shouldn’t leave anyone to despair at the cold indifference of the world. He was, first and foremost a humanist who valued human dignity and justice.
Or, at least, that’s my understanding.
With that said, I read the protagonist, Meursaul, as a nihilist and dilettante without attachment to anything around him. His mother dies, and he has no meaningful response or observable grief. He treats romantic interest and the murder he ends up committing equally – without motivation or apparent emotional arousal. He just exists. He is a passive observer of the world around him. The conflict arises from society’s need to impose some kind of rational order to Meursaul’s actions. His trial is an act, by society, to manufacture some logical explanation for what is inherently inexplicable. Meursaul isn’t found guilty because he committed a heinous crime, he’s found guilty because society finds him to be a heinous person. His detachment is anathema to how we believe we should be, and this is an indictment of society, not Meursaul. His sentence and imprisonment elicits no greater response from him than his mother’s funeral. The only happiness he finds, in fact, follows his acceptance that he means no more the universe than the universe does to him; the inevitability of death and powerlessness in the face of infinity gives him the freedom to feel pleasure.
I can’t really explain why I found this book so powerful. I think my own worldview isn’t reflected at all within these pages. I didn’t identify with Meursaul, and don’t think I’ll ever describe myself as someone who cares about absurdist philosophy, but I find it terribly fascinating in how the post-WWII world tried to make sense of the terrible devastation that occurred. That Camus was a French resistance journalist during the war, I think, has much to do with the eventual development of his philosophy. Looked at through this lens, the idea that life is inherently meaningless and lacks rational order makes perfect sense.
The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin (4 stars)
(Somewhat minor spoilers follow.)
Someone (I unfortunately don’t remember who) proposed this for the sci-fi book club selection, and I found the premise fascinating. Well, to be honest, the idea of alien contact is almost always fascinating, to me. But that this was written from the Chinese perspective, for me, was the main selling point. I’ve always been a little overwhelmed by China. I have no reference point for the language, so names are always a little intimidating. The culture is so ancient and complex that it’s kind of hard to know how to start becoming familiar with it. China has never seemed as accessible to me as, say, Japan (which is ironic, given their respective dealings with western societies). But, given the increased connectivity of the US and China (and the apparent inevitability of the latter’s ascendancy on the global stage), it seems almost irresponsible to be as terribly ignorant as I am of Chinese culture.
Granted, this probably isn’t the greatest introduction. But it’s a start.
Science fiction, in many ways, is a new thing in China. Historically, it’s been dismissed by critics as juvenile literature. Chinese writers have been using the genre for a century or more, but it never captivated the public the way Jules Verne, HG Wells, Asimov and others have in the west. It was initially used to express anti-imperialist sentiments in pre-Communist China, before being used by the new government to promulgate pro-science propaganda. Liu Cixin isn’t solely responsible for shifting this perspective (the 1980s saw a kind of Chinese renaissance in science fiction writing), but he undoubtedly played a massive role with the publication of The Three Body Problem in 2008. This book has garnered not only a massive following in China that includes literary recognition, but a prestigious international acclamation that includes a Hugo Award for Best Novel.
(And, somewhere, a puppy wearing a swastika is crying over ethnic diversity.)
This book took me awhile to get into, if only because I felt like I was having to catch up. Not that a great deal of Chinese historical or cultural knowledge is required, but because the book never really seemed to set the scene for what was happening. If anyone has read Steven Erikson’s Malazon series, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I felt kind of plopped into the story and left to figure out the context as I went along. This isn’t a criticism, specifically, but more an expression of how I found the beginning of the book to be a curious experience.
It starts during the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s before moving to the present. Liu doesn’t shy away from using some fairly complex scientific and mathematical concepts (the eponymous three body problem, for instance) to push the plot along, so don’t be surprised if you might be a little lost by some of the details, here. The books unfolds into a story about a fifth column of eco-terrorists hellbent on global genocide for the benefit of an alien race. I can’t help but feel that this is a commentary on the Cultural Revolution itself, which saw a similarly intentional and deliberate decimation of academia for a vague and fairly unintelligible reason.
As much as I enjoyed this book (and a big part of that was just uncovering what the hell was even going on, here), I found the ubiquitous tendency towards self-destruction hard to accept. We have a group of, I don’t know, hundreds or thousands of individuals distraught by how we’ve treated the earth willing to sacrifice the entirety of humanity for the preservation of the planet for the benefit of an alien invader? It’s an interesting concept, but not an easy one to accept.
Whatever the case, there’s a lot here. It’s a fairly dense book, and I found it both enjoyable and thought provoking.
The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino (4.5 stars)
The fascinating thing, for me, about The Devotion of Suspect X is that we know precisely who commits the murder, and why, but there’s still a great deal of tension and suspense. This is entirely due to the masterful characterization and plotting by Higashino. I liked every single one of these characters, and empathized with all of them.
It shouldn’t be a controversial statement to say that I have a great deal of sympathy for victims of abuse. This book begins with a woman fleeing her obsessed and abusive ex-husband. She’s built a new life for herself and daughter, but is haunted by the man she’s fleeing. This is the setting for everything that follows, but what unfolds isn’t your typical mystery novel. I hesitate in saying too much – not for fear of revealing the murderer (again, we know who it is) but because the real mystery here is never really shown. You spend most of the novel wondering how it’s going to be resolved, wondering if the killers will be caught, wondering if the mastermind will be out-thought without ever realizing that the true mystery is probably just beyond your recognition.
The only reason this doesn’t get five stars from me is Manabu Yukawa. Not that I dislike the character, but I just found him a little too….genius-y. I mean, I get that this is a tradition of the genre. Sherlock Holmes has stamped an indelible trope that isn’t easily abandoned. But the intuitive leaps that allow Yukawa to just know things is a bit much, for me. This book of part of the Detective Galileo series, which is centered around Yukawa (he’s nicknamed “Detective Galileo” because he’s actually a physicist, not a detective). I liked Higashino’s writing enough to try the other books, but disliked the Sherlockian tendencies of Yukawa enough to be reticent.
Also, the women. While I don’t knock that last half-star off the review because of the women, I will warn everyone that they are very traditionally Japanese, here. While Yasuko is an abused woman and that may explain some of her meekness, I can’t help but feel that there are some cultural differences at work, here. Japan isn’t exactly known for it’s strong depictions of women, it can be a bit of a shock to see them play out before you. But I try to not judge a culture by my standards, so I’m giving some leeway, here.
Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill (3.5 stars)
Joe Hill has an obsession with suicide, and if suicide is a trigger for you, avoid this book.
Heart Shaped Box is an Edgar Allen Poe story wrapped in a Stephen King package. Which is both complimentary and fitting, given that, respectively, I love both of those writers and Joe Hill is King’s son. It’s the story of a cussed son of a bitch named Judas Coyne, a retired rocker in the vein of Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osborne. He’s cultivated a rich yet monochromatic tapestry of death, occultic memorabilia, and beautiful young goth girls. His past sins come back to haunt him in the form of a ghostly funeral suit bought over the internet.
This is a book that seems to dwell comfortably in the kind of world inhabited by Hill’s father: rock n’ roll, muscle cars, and the sleepless nights of the cursed. But Coyne isn’t a likable character, by any estimation. In this way, this book is markedly different from the work of Stephen King, who I think has built a long career of writing about identifiable every men in terrifying situations. It reminds me more of Edgar Allen Poe, who I think was less interested (or capable) of writing about characters anyone cared about. We are terrorized by his books because the situations are so horrible, not because we imagine ourselves in the place of his characters. I think that’s what Hill is going for, here. Having a ghost following you across the country because he wants you to kill yourself is, frankly, pretty damn terrifying. And miserable.
But so is the book. It’s a well described rain cloud.
So it works, but it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.
ETA: I should seriously proof-read before posting.