Archive for January, 2011

Review: How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe is the sort of interesting exercise that makes writers happy to create and a certain kind of reader happy to see done.  Generally I am one of those kinds of reader; I like to see an interesting idea executed well.  Here Yu takes science fiction tropes and uses them as the basis for a sort of magical realism.  It is an interesting idea, especially given how large these tropes loom in modern life.

He chooses challenging ideas and arranges them in intricate and illuminating ways.  He obliquely comments on escapism, regret, fixation on the past, and how modern technology and narcissism reinforce one another.  All this is clear without bludgeoning the reader very much.

The problem I had with the book is that it is relentlessly bleak.  While I can respect the work that goes into setting a powerful consistent tone, How To Live Safely felt like a dirge of a book to me, with brief moments of optimism coming only at the end.  To make it worse, those moments felt like a tacked-on Hollywood ending, unearned and unbelievable.

It is tough to critique an author for being too pure in their vision, but for me, this was too hopeless a world to enjoy visiting.  It is well built, though (despite the author’s repeated assertions to the contrary), so perhaps you fill find more there.

Review: Life

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

This is about Keith Richards’s book, Life, but there’s something awesome about the post title. Life is Richards’s autobiography. He’s the lead guitarist and a significant creative force behind the Rolling Stones – perhaps the rock and roll band – and has a life of debauchery and legend.

While I enjoy the Rolling Stones stuff I’ve heard – and I did go to school in the Midwest, where classic rock a required minor – I’m not a huge fan or student of the band.  I don’t keep track of all the personnel changes or who stole whose wife.  I do know that their music is consistently good rock and roll and that they’ve been doing it longer than I’ve been alive.  I’m sure scholars of the Stones will be fact checking this thing to death for the motivations for this or that decision or further insight into the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards in-fighting that’s been going on.  That’s not the perspective you will get from me.  I’m just listening to the narrative.

The narrative carries a unique voice.  It’s roughly chronological, but doesn’t pretend that the reader hasn’t heard of the Rolling Stones and know the outline of the story.  Most band members aren’t so much introduced as mentioned.  And if Richards remembers a good story, he just tells it.  The result is an engagingly rambling trip through the history of the band.  One suspects that this is a result of Richards sitting down to a series of interviews with contributor James Fox who turned the thing from interviews into a book that the two of them polished up for publication.  Whatever the process – for all I know Richards composed the whole thing and Fox fact-checked it – the resulting stumble through Richards’s life is engrossing and entertaining.

In much the way that William Shatner’s Up Till Now is the sort of autobiography I imagine Shatner writing, Life is the autobiography that my impression of Keith Richards would write.  Its a tale of mayhem and music told by an unapologetic and somewhat addled protagonist.  He’s clearly aware that his shenanigans are far outside the pale, but somehow finds ways to neither make excuses nor apologies for them.  It’s strangely endearing to hear Richards comment on his son’s recollection of a Richards-driven car crash with “I’m a good driver.  I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?”

It’s also endearing that he doesn’t remember significant events clearly – often admitting he was badly impaired for them and bringing in other eyewitness accounts.  I imagine that Stones scholars find this infuriating, but who could argue with it?  Richards’s reputation for indulging in intoxicants is a given.  It is similarly whimsical to hear the number of times he goes cold turkey or swears off one of his vices, only to have it reappear a few pages later.  These things aren’t a big deal for him, and it’s clear that he doesn’t think that they should be a big deal for the reader, either.

That style has a tendency to downplay his most outrageous actions or to gloss over bad behavior, but for me it didn’t really have that effect.  One gets the impression that when Richards talks to people he would downplay it, but that he is aware of his short temper and casual approach to child rearing.  While he talks with  admiration and respect about the capable women he knows, he also addresses women in general in some unflattering terms. He doesn’t hide much, but he does describe everything in his charming, roguish way.  It seems like he would be perfectly happy with the reader forming their own conclusions from that.

Overall its a diverting life story told in a unique voice.


Review: Sleepwalk with Me

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

I always enjoy hearing Mike Birbiglia tell a story.  They’re keenly observed with an eye to the absurd, paced perfectly to keep your interest, and often about more than they seem at the start.  Best of all, they’re funny.

Sleepwalk with Me is a collection of some of his stories in convenient book form.  The written versions share all the strong aspects of his storytelling.  His voice comes off the page very nicely and engages the reader well.  The stories are funny, poignant, and tie together well across the whole of the book.

All that said, I prefer listening to him. I came away with the feeling I’d heard a good album by a great live band.  The production values were great and the essence of the band came through, but I’d still tell my friends that the band is much better live.