BOOK REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you like suspenseful science-fiction, humor, and are fascinated by science, you must read this book. I’m not kidding.

The premise is a simple cast-away story, except that it takes place on Mars—an environment in which a human can’t last for seconds without a lot of properly functioning technology. Astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead when a severe storm blows in, impaling him with a piece of metal, knocking out his vital statistics monitor, and blowing him into a drift. Having lost visual contact with Watney, showing no vital statistics, and facing the toppling of the crew’s escape vehicle by high winds, the mission commander decides that she can’t risk the lives of the entire crew to cart Watney’s body back home. The thing is; Watney isn’t dead.

The book is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows associated with events that nearly kill Watney—either in an instant or by making his long-term survival impossible. The botanist / engineer must figure out how to survive for four years (until the next Mars mission is due—if it doesn’t get cancelled) with less than six months of supplies. (The mission was supposed to be one month but was aborted in the first week, but there were five other crew members whose rations were left behind.) If you think Tom Hanks had it bad in Cast Away, imagine having to produce food on Mars.

This book taps into the visceral feeling that works so well in the movie Gravity (but Weir does more homework on the science.) For tension, it’s hard to beat being adrift in space, utterly isolated from one’s species—or any species for that matter–and knowing you will die when your resources run out.

The main character, who is the only character for the first six chapters or so, is intensely likable. Mark Watney is funny, intelligent, self-deprecatingly humble, and can confidently problem solve in the midst of any crisis. If there’s a critique of the realism of this story (as sci-fi goes it is extremely realistic), it’s that Watney is preternaturally skilled at adapting to complete solitude. However, I don’t deduct for this, because if it showed him at the depths of despair that someone in his circumstance would inevitably go through, it wouldn’t be nearly as pleasing a book to read. If you’ve read a lot about sensory deprivation and / or what happens to prisoners over long stints in solitary confinement, I’d suspend the disbelief that might come from that knowledge and just accept that Watney is exceedingly good at saying, “Pity-party over. It’s time to make this work.” In short, humorous Watney is just a lot more fun to read than would be a despondent astronaut.

I think I’ve been clear that this is an outstanding book, and everyone should read it. I guess if you absolutely hate science (of any kind–because there’s botany, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. all rolled up into this book), you may find that it’s hard to stick with the glut of scientific / engineering discussions coming at you. Still, you shouldn’t hate science that much—what the hell is the matter with you. Weir writes in a readable style and the reader doesn’t get awash in minutiae. (For example, Watney even names the unit kilowatt-hour/sol [sol=a Mar’s day] the “Pirate-ninja” to make it more palatable and humorous.)

Read it. You’ll like it. Also, don’t wait because the movie is supposed to come out in the Fall.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Coroner’s Lunch uses a popular and intriguing technique of setting a crime novel in an unconventional landscape. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels (most famously Gorky Park), James Church’s Inspector O novels (e.g. A Corpse in the Koryo), or Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichirō samurai detective novels, Cotterill’s book places a protagonist staunchly devoted to the truth into a sea of ideologues who value appearances more than facts and who will do anything to maintain their precarious grasp on power.

This approach appeals for a couple of reasons. First, it maintains a line of tension in terms of the world against the protagonist on top of whatever other plot conflicts may exist (criminal against investigator.) It also allows us to recognize the virtues that we find appealing amid a people that we think are a world apart.

While crime fiction is plot driven, this particular variant requires strong character development. We must have a lead character that stands out against the bleak landscape of the authoritarian regime that employs him. However, at the same time, the character mustn’t stand out by being bold and defiant in the manner we might expect of a crime novel set in New York City. Such a character is unbelievable amid totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, North Korea, feudal Japan, or—in Cotterill’s case—Laos, circa 1975. We can’t believe such a character wouldn’t be killed by leaders who have people summarily executed on a regular basis. So the character must be clever, adroit at manipulating the system, and a quiet anti-ideologue.

Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun largely fits the mold, but is a little more irreverent than usual. The old doctor is drafted into being Laos’ national coroner because most of the educated class has fled the country–this despite the fact that Paiboun’s medical expertise is not in forensics. The ultimate source of his bold demeanor is that he is an old man, and he figures that there’s not much that they can do to him. If he were to be executed he wouldn’t lose much longevity over his natural lifespan, and if they sent him to camp, it wouldn’t be as foreboding as the places he has once been. Additionally, he has a highly placed friend, and—beyond that–they can’t replace him in short order. Making Paiboun disappear as Communist regimes were known to do is not an option. Still Siri is clever and does know how to ride the line without tipping across it.

The plot revolves around two crimes. The first is the death of the wife of a high-ranking Party official. The second is the discovery of three Vietnamese government agents in a lake in rural Laos. Both of these cases are high-profile and create incentives to keep truth from coming out.

One element of Cotterill’s novel that is outside the mold for this type of book involves supernatural activities. It seems that–like The Sixth Sense’s Macualay Culkin—Dr. Paiboun sees dead people. Perhaps this device was added to set the novel apart from others in the aforementioned class. For me, this approach seemed superfluous and disadvantageous. Siri’s “gift” kind of detracts from his strength of character because it’s not so much his brilliant mind that is solving murders as the victims giving him hints.

I will say that this supernatural element is introduced in a great way and that it could have been used throughout the novel to a much better effect. When the dead people first visit him, it’s in the form of a dream. At first we don’t know whether his subconscious worked out the solution or whether there is something supernatural going on. However, the author adds a manipulation of the material world so that we know this is supposed to have really happened and later this becomes abundantly clear. I think it would have been better to maintain the ambiguity. People reach solutions to difficult problems through sleep all the time, but we don’t live in a world in which the physical is manipulated supernaturally. Not that there is anything wrong with supernatural fiction (I read a lot of it.) However, crime fiction works best in a realistic world, as does historical fiction. This novel straddles those two genres, and throwing in supernatural events muddles the setting a bit.

Overall, I thought the book was well-written and the main character was humorous and intriguing. If you liked the kind of books I mentioned in the first paragraph, I believe you’ll like adding this to the mix.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

The Naive and the Sentimental NovelistThe Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist is Orhan Pamuk’s theory of the novel, and is based on a series of lectures given by the Turkish Nobel Laureate in 2009. It’s a brief work, consisting of less than 200 pages written across six chapters plus an epilogue. Pamuk explores just a handful of concepts, but he elaborates on each with examples from literature. Having said that, Pamuk has the novelist’s gift for strategic ambiguity, and there are some ideas–such as the “secret center of the novel”–for which the author leaves much for the reader to interpret.

In the first chapter, Pamuk explores what occurs in the mind of a reader as they consume a novel. He proposes nine mental activities that one engages in over the course of reading a novel. These activities range from the essence of reading, such as observing scene and narrative arc, to less essential acts such as self-congratulatory narcissism. A central theme is the novel as a visual medium in that the mind converts words into images and those images are what are experienced in reading. The final action is search for the novel’s “secret center,” an important element of Pamuk’s theory and the topic of the book’s final chapter.

The title subjects are also introduced in the first chapter, i.e. naïve and sentimental novelists. Pamuk borrows this concept from Schiller, who used it to describe poets. The naïve novelist writes spontaneously and with confidence that he or she is capturing reality in the work. The sentimental novelist is much more uneasy about the degree that his work will convey something true. While an oversimplification, this idea corresponds somewhat to the much more commonly known division of writers into outliners and non-outliners, i.e. some writers can’t get started until they’ve done extensive research and outlining, but others begin with—at most—a vague outline in their heads and let the words stream from deep within.

The second chapter discusses the reader’s inability to accept that the novel is complete fiction—and, conversely, what truths a novelist reveals in the process of writing a purely fictitious work. (It should be noted that while Pamuk refers throughout to the “novel,” he’s really referring to the “literary novel.” Much of what he has to say isn’t relevant for either commercial or genre fiction.) Pamuk points out that it’s not just gullible yokels who believe that what he’s writing is autobiographical. Sophisticated readers who work in the publishing industry have been known to think he is living the life of one of his characters. On the other hand, when an avid reader suggested that they knew Pamuk so well because they had read all his books, he found himself being embarrassed. This embarrassment wasn’t because he felt they had learned any details of his life, but that they had developed a psychological insight.

The next chapter is on character, plot, and time. As one would expect, character is the most important and substantially addressed topic. I say that not because it’s listed first, but because we are talking about literary fiction—a medium in which character is of the utmost importance and plotting is loose to optional. However, the portion of the chapter that I found most interesting was the question of time in novel. Time stretches, compresses, and can bounce non-linearly in a novel. The protagonist’s time is on display in the novel, and that can be done artfully or not.

The fourth chapter is the one that most deeply delves into the topic of novel as a visual media, one which is more closely related to painting that to the media to which the novel is more frequently compared. Here he divides novelists not into the naïve and the sentimental, but into visual versus verbal writers. Pamuk suggests that the novel is a series of frozen moments as opposed to a continuous running of time—and thus its connection to paintings. Of course, Pamuk was a painter before being a novelist, and thus may be more prone to see that connection than most

The penultimate chapter is a comparison of novels to museums. No two things might seem farther apart at first blush, but a museum is a themed collection of artifacts that hopefully serve to tell a story—story here being used not as fiction but as a narrative that could contain fact, fiction, or mythology. This discussion really continues on the theme of the visual aspect of the novel. It suggests that those artifacts that are seen or manipulated in a novel convey a great deal of what the author wants to get across and help to create a more real fictional world. Pamuk elaborates on the connection by using three points to connect museums and novels that are all related by pride.

The final chapter elucidates the “center” of the novel. This is a concept that Pamuk has written around since the beginning of the book without providing a clear conceptualization. The first line of the last chapter defines the center as: “…a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” The idea of a center, we are told, separates literary fiction from genre / commercial fiction. Readers and authors of genre fiction may find themselves becoming miffed with Pamuk for saying that such works either don’t have a center or have one that’s painfully easily found. He does make explicit exceptions for works by Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem, and one would expect that works of speculative fiction by the likes of Vonnegut, Murakami, and LeGuin would meet his approval as well. However, the presence of a tight story arc—one of the factors that makes work salable—is part of the reason genre fiction tends to have a readily discovered center. For Pamuk, the name of the game is writing a work that has a center that isn’t easily discovered, but neither is so deeply hidden as to remain forever beyond the grasp of most readers. He suggests the novel should be a puzzle, which is solved to reveal the center.

The epilogue includes some autobiographical insight and elaboration on what Pamuk was attempting to convey in this work.

I’d recommend this book for writers as well as serious readers of novels. Obviously, it’s well-written, but beyond that it offers insights that make the reader do some of the work—just what Pamuk proposes a novelist should do.

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BOOK REVIEW: Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Veronika Decides to DieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Veronika Decides to Die is about a young Slovenian woman, Veronika, who attempts suicide, fails, is institutionalized, and is informed that her attempted suicide damaged her heart and she has only five days to live. In the hospital she has to come to grips with what it means to be dying, but also what it means to be insane.

The book deals with the effect of Veronika’s death sentence diagnosis on her as well as on other patients with whom she interacts. The first patient Veronika comes in contact with is a depressive named Zedka who offers Veronika advice and insight. Then there is Maria, a woman who withdrew from her professional and family life to be institutionalized because she was having inexplicable panic attacks. Finally, there is Eduardo, a schizophrenic who is virtually non-functional when he meets Veronika, but who ends up in a relationship with the young woman nonetheless. These patients come to realize that they are hiding out at the hospital. They stay in the hospital because they are free to defy norms without judgment. When Veronika decides she doesn’t want to die hiding out, it has a profound impact on the others.

The book borrows heavily upon Coelho’s personal experience. He was institutionalized as a young man by parents who were disturbed when he went artsy and began hanging out with undesirables. Interestingly, Coelho has a cameo role in the book as himself. In the book he writes an article that playfully asks the question, “Where is Slovenia?” When Veronika is waiting to die from her overdose, she reads the article and decides to write a letter to the editor claiming that she killed herself because of the depressing effect of Coelho’s suggestion that nobody who’s anybody knows or cares where Slovenia is located.

In the end Veronika finds that she is truly free. Veronika seems to have everything at the beginning of the story: a job, boyfriends, and popularity. However, it’s those things that she comes to feel enslave her, and that’s what leads to the attempted suicide. In a way, Veronika is doubly freed. She is free because she is dying, and what can one do to a dying person. Second, she has been labeled crazy, and, having such a label, people expect her to act oddly. She has the freedom to do those things she has been too frightened to do all her life.

I’d recommend this book. It’s short, readable, and offers clear food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Ender’s Game is the story of a boy, Ender Wiggin, whose intelligence and capacity for ruthlessness lead the military establishment to believe that he’s the last hope for mankind. The book is set in a future after the Earth has been invaded twice by an alien species called the buggers, and now the Earth is planning its own “preemptive” invasion to end the bugger threat once and for all.

The novel follows Ender’s life from his short home life as a “third”—a rare third child for which special permission must be granted—through his post-war life. (This entire timeline transpires before adulthood.) The bulk of the novel takes place in Battle School, where Ender receives his training in military tactics and strategy and spends much of his time in zero gravity war games. He rises up through the ranks quickly, as expected, but not without stirring some animus in the process. He learns strategy both through war games and through the mind-field of real world animosity by others who are jealous or feel insulted by his brilliance.

As Commander material, Ender is considered to be in the Goldilocks zone. His older brother, Peter, is too cruel; his sister, Valentine, is just too kind. (All three Wiggin children are geniuses.) Ender has the right mix to fight the buggers. His problem is that the world forces him to be ruthless and his compassionate side makes it hard to cope.
While Ender leaves home young and early in the novel, there is a subplot involving the older Wiggin children that is revealed over the course of the book—showing the reader more of the tormenting brother and the loving sister who shaped his worldview. Ender does interact with Valentine in person on a couple of occasions, but his only interaction with Peter is a brief mention of correspondence at the end of the book.

Ender is an intriguing character. He is always the outsider, by birth as a third and then through isolation in Battle School that is facilitated by the conflicted head of the Battle School, Col. Graff.

I won’t get into the ending except to say that there is a twist at the novel’s climax. I will say that the reveal of this twist felt a little anti-climactic to me. However, as the real story isn’t about fighting the buggers, but Ender’s internal struggle, this isn’t as dismaying as it might otherwise be.

One can tell that this is a series book because it climaxes and resolves relatively early, leaving a fair amount of space to set up the next book. This actually helps the twist offer some surprise because the reader sees that there are so many pages left for the novel to resolve itself.

Card does an interesting thing in making the central character stronger than everyone around him–at least until he’s introduced to his new guru, Mazer Rackham–the Commander who won the key battle of the second bugger invasion and who is alive by virtue of a relativistic trip. Ender’s superiority seems like a recipe for boredom, but it works because what we don’t know is whether Ender is stronger than everyone else pitted against him combined, and, moreover, we don’t know whether he is strong enough inside to withstand all the horridness to which he is subjected. A lot of the tension of the novel is really internal to Ender. Unlike Peter, who would revel in ruthlessness, Ender is tormented by all of the violence he must perpetrate.

I’d recommend this novel. It has its flaws, but it is quite readable and Ender’s character is intriguing from start to finish.

The movie version is coming out tomorrow. I haven’t seen it, but here is the trailer.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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American Gods is the story of a hapless and gentle brute who goes by the nickname “Shadow.” We meet Shadow as he is being released from prison a few days early because the wife that he loved dearly has passed away. While the description of Shadow’s imposing size and criminal activity might lead us to believe he’s an unsavory character, we find him sympathetic from the outset–though we don’t learn that it was virtue more than vice that landed him in prison until late in the book.

Given that the name of the book is American Gods others who’ve read it may wonder why I say it’s about Shadow instead of being about a war between America’s old gods and its new ones (e.g. technology and mass media.)The latter statement is more likely what one will read on the dust jacket. However, for me it was the character of Shadow that kept me reading. As with any great novel’s main character, Shadow is put in predicament after predicament, and one must see how he’ll handle them. Eventually, we suspect that enough will be enough and he will have to choose to act in his own best interest rather than in the moral manner.

The importance of character in this novel doesn’t mean that it’s lacking a plot. Early on we are given a great hook when Shadow is introduced to the character of “Wednesday.” The hook is that Wednesday seems to know things about Shadow that no one could, and he makes a proposal to Shadow. The reader is thus drawn in and wants to know how Wednesday knows the impossible and whether Shadow will agree to the vague offer. While we don’t know what agreeing will mean for Shadow, we suspect that it’s tailor-made to land him back in hot water.

While Shadow seems to be always ending up with the short end of the stick, what makes things interesting is that he’s not dumb. He doesn’t stumble into these traps unwittingly. Rather, Shadow defies convention and, by some measures, is really quite a sharp man. Often, he sees the folly of his decisions but is compelled by virtue to act in ways that put him at risk.

Shadow is on a journey of self-discovery throughout the book, and what he ultimately discovers about himself is spectacular.

In a way American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s commentary on America, and Shadow represents America at its most virtuous. We see plenty of America’s faults and failings in the process, its vainglory and hunger for power. But in Shadow we see a character who is honor bound to do what he thinks is the right thing–even when it comes at great personal cost and even when he knows he is being manipulated.

I found this novel to be highly readable and would recommend it. It has Gaiman’s characteristic humor, darkness, and dark humor.

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BOOK REVIEW: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Wise BloodWise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Wise Blood is a character-driven novel about a young veteran, Hazel Motes, who becomes a devout atheist. If that sounds like an oxymoron, let me explain. After becoming enamored with a preacher (and having the blood of a preacher man in his veins), Motes begins to preach the tenets of his newly formed Church Without Christ. In essence, Motes believes in religion without believing in God (the opposite condition of that which some of us find ourselves.)

This was Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, and it’s the first of her novels that I’ve read. I have, however, read some of her stories, and Wise Blood displays a dark humor similar to that found in O’Connor’s best know story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Throughout the book, Motes struggles to convey the depths of his disbelief. He attacks false prophets. He follows through on an act of self-mutilation that he had earlier discovered the preacher, Asa Hawks, could not. Thus proving his lack of faith to be stronger than the preacher’s faith. Motes is wooed by both by the nymphomanical daughter of Hawks, Sabbath Lily, and later by his landlady, Ms. Flood. While Motes doesn’t necessarily remain chaste, he does maintain a kind of priestly detachment from the pleasures of the flesh.

An interesting part of the story details Motes’s interaction with a con-man named Hoover Shoats who co-opts Motes’ preaching sessions and starts his own Holy Church of Christ Without Christ–which passers-by find to be a source of amusement–as a bastardization of Motes’ message. Motes rejects Hoover, but sees his mission being usurped anyway. Motes shows deadly seriousness in his desire to be taken seriously in the word that he preaches.

This novel was apparently built from a series of stories, and a little bit of discontinuity can be sensed early on. However, that’s just part of the charm of a book that is sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes humorous, and sometimes both.

I would recommend book for anybody, excepting those hard-core pious who grow red-faced with rage in the face of atheism or other beliefs.

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BOOK REVIEW: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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World War Z, as the subtitle suggests, is written as a series of interviews of key (or in some cases typical) people involved in the Zombie War. The viewpoints addressed include various political leaders, military service members of various branches and nations, strategic planners, doctors, and even civilians caught up in the diaspora that resulted from the plague.

The approach of the novel is unusual. To the degree there is a lead character, it’s the UN employee who conducts all the interviews. However, we don’t experience the interviewer’s story arc and are left with very little insight into this individual. Rather, the story is a global arc of mankind’s experience of zombies from “patient zero” through the clean up in the years following the war. And, it is a global tale. The stories of these individuals take one to places like Chongquing, Meteora, the Amazon, Barbados, Johannesburg, the Alang ship breaking yard (an excellent choice for a post-apocalyptic setting, I must say), Denver, and even onto a ballistic-missile-toting submarine sitting on the ocean floor.

Where Brooks’s book excels is in making one think, and in that regard it does an excellent job. This isn’t about edge-of-the-seat adrenaline injections to which most Zombie book authors aspire. I don’t deny that there are emotional parts to the book, but the tension is reduced by virtue of being a collection of survivors’ tales. That is, we know the story-tellers survived more-or-less intact. Also, because of the intrusions of the interviewer and the authenticity of responses (some are more skilled and open story tellers than others), we never lose sight of the fact that this is a couple of people talking war stories.

That being said, we take a cook’s tour of gut-wrenching food for thought over the course of the novel. Consider a government that abandons its citizenry, and even uses some as bait to help save others. Brooks tugs at the readers’ heartstrings through an interview with a K-9 soldier who describes the role of man’s best friend. Brooks portrays the best and worst that mankind has to offer–as one would surely expect to experience them in such a world gone wrong.

I must admit, some of the topics may be more interesting to me as a social scientist than they will be to others. One interviewee discusses the mismatch between job skills needed and job skills available in a rapidly evolving post-apocalyptic landscape. This speaks to present-day society as much as it does to a dystopian future. The author devotes an interview to questioning the man responsible for reestablishing trust in the dollar in an economy that has by necessity reverted to barter. There is also discussion of revolutions in governance that find their catalyst in the Zombie War. There are intriguing turns of events such as the makeshift flotillas of U.S. citizens converging on Cuba because Fidel’s authoritarian regime was uniquely prepared to close itself off during the earliest days of the outbreak.

With the movie coming out this Friday (June 21), I will say that I can’t see much in common between the book and the trailers for the movie that I’ve seen to date. However, I can imagine the movie being an extension or outgrowth of one of the many vignettes expressed in the book. This is not to say that the movie will be bad (or that it won’t be), but if one sees the movie one will still be left with impetus to read the book.

I enjoyed World War Z because it makes one think–a feat that isn’t the strong suit of Zombie literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Detective Story by Imre Kertész

Detective StoryDetective Story by Imre Kertész

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hungarians have won their fair share of Nobel Prizes–more than most for a country of Hungary’s size. However, these awards are overwhelmingly in the hard sciences, and so you’ll be forgiven for not being familiar with the country’s sole Nobel Prize winner in Literature to date. If you’ve read Imre Kertész, you probably read Fateless (Sorstalanság.) Fateless (aka Fatelessness) is his semi-autobiographical novel about a boy in Auschwitz.

Detective Story is a short novel (some might call it a novella) whose protagonist is a rookie torturer for the secret police of an unnamed Latin American dictatorship. As the novel begins, we find that the protagonist, Antonio Martens, is on death row. The novel is written as his death row journal of how he came to be in this predicament. It tells how Martens came to have his despicable job, but mostly it describes the one case that was his undoing. That case involved the arrest of the son(Enrique Salinas)of a powerful, wealthy, and well-connected merchant, and the subsequent arrest of the merchant himself (Federigo Salinas.)

Being a Holocaust survivor, Kertész is intimately acquainted with the mixed bag that resides within all of us. It’s hard to imagine a more detestable person than one who would torture confessions out of people who are either political dissenters or who are altogether innocent. Kertész subverts our expectations by showing us a perfectly ordinary and likable chap who has a distaste for his work, but thinks that he is defending his country. As they say, Hitler was probably a likable enough fellow in his own mind. So we see Martens’ rationalizations that allow him to do what he does. We also see how he is trapped by the system. He wants to be reasonable, but, once inside, the system won’t let him be.

This theme of being trapped is not applied to the main character alone. The idea that underlies the entire story-line is that an authoritarian regime’s secret police has one shot to get it right, and that’s before the arrest is made. Once they made the arrest, the men involved (the protagonist’s boss and his boss’s boss)felt compelled to move in one direction, even once they realized that they were wrong and that each additional step was only digging their grave deeper. At one point Martens’ boss’s boss, the Colonel, asks what they should do, and the rookie interrogator unwisely suggests that they should let both the father and son go–even given their tortured appearance. However, a dictatorship is built on a fiction of infallibility, and to admit being mistaken is to become vulnerable.It’s like Machiavelli’s advice to the prince that while it would be nice to be both loved and feared, if one has to make a choice, it’s safer to be feared.

There is another character into which we gain insight, and that is Enrique Salinas. Most of this insight comes from excerpts of Enrique’s journal that Martens presents us. We see that Enrique is badly depressed and is questioning whether there is even a point to living. We find out from the interrogation of Federigo that Enrique’s “suspicious activities” are really just wild-goose chases designed to satiate Enrique’s need for adventure and purpose in a safe manner. We also find out that Enrique longs for the authorities to put him to death–suicide by authoritarian regime, if you will. So the idea that the secret police will be punishing the young heir by putting him to death is just another way in which expectations are turned on their head in this novel.

If you only read one book by Imre Kertész, perhaps it should be Fateless, but I’ll contend you have room for this short work as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Solaris is the  best known work of the Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem. It’s the story of the planet Solaris’s super-intelligent ocean and the humans that are observing it from an orbiting space station. Scientists discover that the ocean is intelligent because the planet orbits two stars, and the ocean must redistribute itself as ballast to keep Solaris from flying off out of its star systems.

Having had no luck in learning about this ocean, the scientists begin more invasive operations–bombarding the ocean with electromagnetic radiation. The ocean then begins to project human beings into the space station, using blueprints in the minds of the scientists. Each of the scientists begins to see, and eventually interact with, someone from his past. Each “guest” is physically indistinguishable from the person in the respective scientist’s past, but the simulacra are “off.”  These simulacra stir up bad memories.

The most extensive interaction we see between a crew member and one of these manifestations is that of the protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, and his ex-wife. Dr. Kelvin is a psychologist and is the most recent crew edition. (The novel actually starts with him as a new arrival, we learn of the earlier incidents as he does.) His “visitor” is the spitting image of his wife, a woman who committed suicide after the couple broke up.

The novel plays with an intriguing question. What if a person you loved and lost came back from the dead, but you would only be able to experience them as they existed in your mind? In some sense, they’d be more real to you than the actual person. But you’d know they were just a fabrication, and you could never learn anything new about them. At first Kelvin rejects, even banishes, his wife’s doppelgänger, but when she inexplicably returns he finds it hard to maintain his distance.

I enjoyed this book. The translation seemed skilled to me (though I don’t read Polish, and hence didn’t read the original.) I’d recommend it.

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There have been three film adaptations of this novel. I haven’t seen any of the movies, but this is the trailer for the most recent one. The trailer emphasizes the love relationship more and the sentient ocean less than the novel (though the interaction of the protagonist with his imagined wife is central to the work.)