What I’ve Been Reading, August 2016

Whew. It’s been awhile since I did one of these, but here goes.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon is a book about Lagos, Nigeria, and what happens when aliens arrive there. It’s a sprawling portrait of the city, its people, its landmarks, and the ecosystem it was built around. It focuses most on three individuals—a marine biologist, a soldier, and a rap star, who all find themselves wandering out to the beach shortly after the aliens arrive, and being sucked into the lagoon.

The book has an enormous ensemble of characters, and still manages to have all of them distinct enough that you can keep track. It also does an excellent job of describing the city, which becomes even more important as the book goes on, and parts of the city literally come alive. The story twists and turns without a clear direction, but it’s a lot of fun following those twists, and the book is constantly introducing new and interesting characters and ideas. A testament to how well characterized everything in his story is—it’s been over three months since I listened to it, and I can still remember multiple characters and events that are only mentioned in a single chapter.

Also I listened to the audiobook of it, over the course of the long drive from Iowa City back to Tallahassee, and the narrators (a male and a female) are fantastic.

Seriously though, as I write this description, I keep remembering characters and details from the book, like the guys running 409 scams, and the rapper from Atlanta, and the fantastically entertaining and dislikable preacher. That’s because it’s awesome. Nnedi Okorafor is awesome. Check this book out.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – This book is about a WWII veteran, Billy Pilgrim, who is abducted by aliens who experience the world in four dimensions. After he returns to Earth, Billy begins to hop back and forth in time—which is a great device to tell a non-linear story.

Billy Pilgrim isn’t a terrifically interesting protagonist. His main trait is that he just lets things happen to him—and lots of the things happening around him are interesting, but I often wished the book would’ve been about one of those other, more interesting characters. But Billy is just a vehicle to look at those interesting things, and when people get excited about this book I don’t think it’s Billy they’re excited about.

The selling point is Vonnegut’s voice, and the quick, choppy style. There’s a page break for almost every page. Don’t like the scene? Wait two paragraphs. It makes the book, which is already pretty short, a quick read. And Vonnegut’s writing is a great mix of gritty and humorous. He describes ordinary things in a discomforting way, and discomforting things (like death, and more death) in an ordinary way. So it goes.

The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand – Concurrent to reading Slaughterhouse 5, I was reading this—a nonfiction book following Bernie and Kurt Vonnegut, from the end of WWII in Europe to the beginning of Kurt’s success as a novelist. This book is about a lot of things, but mostly it manages to tie all of those together, and feel like a whole unified story. The two strongest throughlines are Bernie experimenting with weathermaking, and Kurt becoming a professional writer—which ties back into the weathermaking, as many of Kurt’s stories concern the dangers of weaponizing science, and took direct inspiration from his time working at GE. So let me take another crack at describing this.

The book is about a period of change in US history—the development of corporate culture and the company man, the new role of science in the military, and the growing military-industrial complex—seen through two brothers, one a science fiction writer, and the other a scientist at General Electric, studying cloud seeding.

The book really does a great job of exploring all of this while tying everything back to the two main characters. For the first couple chapters, Bernie’s story is all over the place, and often not about Bernie, so it’s difficult to follow, but it pretty quickly becomes clear what his part of the story is going to be about. The two characters are like guide rails, always giving the reader something to grab onto as they pass through the scenery of  history. The book is paced well, alternating between the two, and doling out big picture stuff alongside personal details. After reading it, I felt like I’d gained insight into so many different worlds without even realizing it, and without the book having to totally devoting itself to any single topic.

I highly recommend this book. It’s entertaining and informative, and does a great job conveying the change from how things are at the start of the book to how things are at the end.

Stuff Happens by David Hare – A history play, about the lead-up to the Iraq War, mainly centering on the Bush administration and their attempts to form an international coalition.

First, I will review this play as if all the characters and events in the play were made up, and had no relation to the real world.

The exploration of politics and diplomacy is well done, showing how the internal workings of a country affect its outward relations. It’s also interesting to see the struggle of a country to go to war—not to fight the war itself, but to get international and domestic approval for invading a country—and that struggle is a strong narrative throughline for the play. The characters are lacking—while many of them have distinct goals, they don’t have much personality beyond that, especially among the americans, whose only distinction is how much they curse. That’s an accurate portrayal of politicians, of course, but it makes a lot of the characters forgettable.

Okay, now my real review.

First of all, all of the above is true, but I didn’t mind the characters being kind of bland. They’re chess pieces—if each chess piece had a mind of it’s own—and they don’t need to have much personality. I know what all of them look like, I know what most of them sound like, and I don’t think this is an unrealistic portrayal of them. In fact, the play would probably be worse if they were all theatrical caricatures.

The great thing about this being a history is the weight of inevitability throughout it. There is no doubt that Iraq is going to be invaded, and this steady push toward that goal in the face of international opposition really helps characterize the supporters of the invasion—who were supporting an invasion of Iraq for over a decade until their chance finally came.

The play wasn’t entirely familiar to me though. I’ve seen and read a lot about the Bush cabinet and their push for invasion, but less so about the international role. The play is by British playwright David Hare, and while it’s still mostly centered on the Americans, there’s a sizable portion devoted to Tony Blair and to various diplomats. I think Americans mostly see Iraq as America’s mess, and forget that Britain stepped in the stuff happening too.

And the play has aged well. It was written in 2004, but it could have been written this year. The portrayal of the actors and their motivations all makes sense, and the attitude about the reasons for the invasion and the fabrication of reports to justify it are all very modern. That said, the play isn’t some big condescending morality lesson. There are a few monologues throughout from unnamed characters, supporting and opposing the war, and the whole thing is more about explaining why and how everything happened than it is about making a judgment on that.

I also read some other stuff that was pretty good but I won’t go into detail on. The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan is an informative, broad look at the food industry in america, from farms to restaurants to grocery stores. I also just listened to the audiobook of Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett, and it’s great, because it’s Terry Pratchett. That’s what I’ve been reading, then. And listening to.

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