Anthem by Ayn Rand

Anthem by Ayn Rand

“Pronouns can get confusing, but it has a solid message”

Overview: Anthem tells the story of Equality 7-2521, a man living in a time in which the words "I," "my," and "mine" do not exist and each person is assigned a life of toil in a designated vocation at the age of 15.

The book is around 100 pages and a quick read and is impressive in that as a short story it masterfully weaves together the concepts of invention, freedom, conscious thought, and the power of the individual. 

The story at times becomes preachy and heavy-handed, but it doesn't detract from the story. For as controversial as Rand can be, Anthem does a very good job of illustrating a core concept of her ideology with a great deal of brevity. She manages to make a compelling point about the nature of the philosophical debate between individualism and collectivism without overreaching or attempting to explain more than the work is capable of. 

Although the story is dark, it is compelling, and it forces the reader to consider how easily our own society could fall victim to conformity. Whatever you may think of her reasons, Rand could write, and this story has many vivid images you'll remember.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

“Guns, a dog, and a Cessna — post-apocalyptic survival pack”

Overview: Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.

This story, for lots of reasons, reminded me of my father. The hunting, the solitariness, the chewing tobacco, the main character’s relationship with his dog, his sense of connection with nature; and I shared many of those experiences with my father, so this book really touched me.

I also liked it because it was a dystopian novel, but subtle. There wasn’t a lot of exposition or background on the nature of the “disease” that eradicated most humans - just sort of tossed you right into the middle of what was happening.

It’s hard for me to describe the power of this book, and through it all, I’d rate this post-apocalyptic story as "hopeful." But, in its odd, idiosyncratic and special way, I think it is. Even though the journey to that point of hope is a real doozy.

The Plague by Albert Camus

The Plague by Albert Camus

“Rats die, plague comes, existential crisis sets in, plague vanishes”

Overview: The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, all help to show the effects the plague has on a populace.

I liked and simultaneously disliked this book. Super cool concept and interesting how things played out, but I didn’t like the way it was written. Camus, at least in this novel, uses very colorful language and while there are some good lines, like “Plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure,” a lot of the writing is very philosophical and sometimes I had to go back and reread things to make sure I was understanding. I found myself thinking "huh? what did the narrator just say? What did he mean?"

In general, this book is about human resilience in the face of horror/sickness/plague and it definitely took me a few weeks to get through it. Yes, it was a novel, with a plot and central characters, but it also felt like a a social, political, philosophical commentary.

One thing to note, the vocabulary used in this novel was extensive. Here are some of my favorites:

Slake - Turgid - Excoriate - Irascible - Imperturbable - Pique - Deprecate - Desultory

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

“A story of aliens, space, and adventure, featuring no aliens”

Overview: Rendezvous with Rama is a science fiction novel by British writer Arthur C. Clarke first published in 1973. Set in the 2130s, the story is about a 50-by-20-kilometer cylindrical alien starship that enters the Solar System and the team of explorers who are sent to explore it. 

Clarke does a great job with the scientific tone and meticulous details that slowly build the reader's anticipation that something very big is going to happen when humans land on and make their way into the craft. Gripping is the best way to describe it. 

I fucking loved this book. This is a bit more sci-fi than I tend to read, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. It’s one of those books that you can just visualize in your head without even realizing that you’re reading. 

Rama is very well written and although the characters are not the most complex I have ever encountered, they make very logical decisions and do not stray from their character. The real beauty in the story is the gradual unraveling of the secrets hidden within Rama as well as its strong grounding in real-world scientific principles as well as what might realistically be possible with sufficiently advanced engineering.

Overall, Rama is straightforward, clean, technical without being too much so, well written and a good story with an intriguing premise.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

“If you have it, does it matter if it’s real?”

Overview: San Francisco lies under a cloud of radioactive dust. The World War has killed millions, driving entire species to extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can't afford one, companies build incredibly realistic fakes: horses, birds, cats, sheep...even humans. Rick Deckard is an officially sanctioned bounty hunter tasked to find six rogue androids. They're machines, but look, sound, and think like humans

So yes, I’ve finally read “The novel that inspired Bladerunner” and although BOTH movies are great, the book was far superior. This was my 2nd Philip K. Dick book after A Scanner Darkly and this man’s imagination is astounding. This kind of novel defies understanding. 

One of the biggest themes in the story is empathy, something that distinguishes humans from androids. The novel asks us what deserves our empathy, and twists that in surprising ways. Once we start to see the androids as something akin to human, the book goes a completely different direction.

One of the more interesting aspects of this book was how real animals became pricey commodities and a symbol of status. Decker, the main character, desires a living animal, and he obsesses over it to an almost comical degree. This is where the title comes in, he owns an electric sheep and wonders if the androids have their own humanlike desires. I’d highly recommend this book to any SF fan, even if you’ve already seen the movie. 

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“He has a habit of repeating himself. So it goes”

Overview: Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

This book is oddly engaging, unpredictable and just plain weird. This type of work can not be copied because it so utterly original.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, I had never read Vonnegut before and didn't know what this book would be like. Vonnegut does an excellent job mixing history with war criticism and science fiction. It seemed to me an unlikely combination, which is probably why this book is so peculiar.

The premise is simple: we follow the non-linear narrative as told by Billy Pilgrim, sandwiched between the author-narrator’s opening and closing chapters – so from that perspective, it makes for an unexpectedly different read if you’re used to going from A to Z.

The circumstances surrounding the bombing of Dresden during World War II are central to the story, not only the author-narrator’s fascination with it, but also the role it plays in Billy’s life. What I liked about Billy’s narrative is that we’re never sure whether his alien abduction and apparent time-traveling has any basis in reality, and I’m quite a fan of this sort of ambiguity. 

Vonnegut also put himself, along with his characters, into the story, which is weird since Martin Amis did the same thing in his book Money, which I just finished.

Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

“Fucking, fighting, drinking, smoking, swearing - all in a day’s work”

Overview: Money is the hilarious story of John Self, one of London's top commercial directors, who is given the opportunity to make his first feature film. He is also living money, talking money, and spending money in his relentless pursuit of pleasure and success. As he attempts to navigate his hedonistic world of drinking, sex, drugs, and excessive quantities of fast food, Self is sucked into a wretched spiral of degeneracy that is increasingly difficult to surface from.

Money has a wild style, moment to moment ravings and feels super realistic. It is outrageous, nerve-racking and makes you think twice about drinking so often. The story is exciting, as the hero is a reprobate, using alcohol, drugs and sex to hide realities from himself. The writing was terrific. Amis described the life in Los Angeles, New York and London very well. If you need a linear story with an upright hero, you won't like this book. 

The lead character is loathsome, the plot contains some really twisted moments, and the language is a bit more flowery than I normally prefer. Throughout the book, John Self (the hero/anti-hero of the novel) really started to grow on me. While this was my first Amis novel, I doubt it will be my last.

Here’s a quote that seems to capture the “flowery” style of writing:

"Each life is a game of chess that went to hell on the seventh move, and now the flukey play is cramped and slow, a dream of constraint and cross-purpose, with each move forced, all pieces pinned and skewered and zugzwanged… But here and there we see these figures who appear to run on the true lines, and they are terrible examples. They're rich, usually."

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

“Japanese love on a fishing island never seemed so interesting”

Let me start by saying that reading so many stories about Japanese teenagers in love wasn’t planned, it just sort of happened. Also, this was the book I picked up after I had to put down “The Coup” by Updike after 80 pages. 

So, let’s jump right into it. Mishima was crazy. He formed an unarmed civilian militia for the avowed purpose of defending the Japanese emperor in the event of a revolution by Japanese communists. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his militia entered a military base in central Tokyo, took the commandant hostage, and tried to persuade the soldiers at the base to join them in supporting the emperor and overturning Japan's pacifist Constitution. When this was unsuccessful, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku at the age of 45.

Overview: Set in a remote fishing village in Japan, The Sound of Waves is a timeless story of first love. A young fisherman is entranced at the sight of the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in the village. They fall in love, but must then endure the calumny and gossip of the villagers.

The Sound of Waves was published in 1954 and is a coming-of-age story about Shinji and his romance with Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy ship owner Terukichi. The story has been adapted for film five times.

I really enjoyed the story, probably because the writing was characterized by its luxurious vocabulary and decadent metaphors, its fusion of traditional Japanese and modern Western literary styles, and its obsessive assertions of the unity of beauty, eroticism and death. The ending was strong, and for lack of a better word, fulfilling, much like the way Mishima described the setting of the beautiful island on which the majority of the story takes place.

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

“Even native English speakers might struggle to read this book”

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis is a crime thriller set in 1930s London that deals with working-class themes in a Social realism style. 

Written in 1936 - and containing a cast of criminals, dossers, prostitutes and down-and-outs - this is an incredibly vivid and authentic evocation of a side of London seldom depicted in fiction during this era. 

This was a really interesting book and I was forewarned by my English friend that there would be a lot of English slang and he was not wrong. 

Among the many 1930 British slangs include these gems:

  • “Irish janes were good to fellows on the bum and to the boys on the gagging lark.”

  • “And the worst of kips was better than being properly on the ribs”

  • “You berk. You gone and dropped the bloody glim.”

The book did a good job of painting the scenery and the emotions that the main character felt when committing a crime or facing the judge in court. It was almost like you were right there with him. Also, you don't need to be fascinated about London in the 1930s to get something from this book. The ending was nice, almost coming full circle but not quite, which now doesn’t make sense, but after you finish it, I’m sure you’ll be inclined to agree. 

Something that stood out in the book was the way in which the author highlighted the food and drink of the time. The main character is often in pubs, ordering food, and drinking dark, thick, foamy ale. 

For a debut novel, Curtis killed it and I look forward to reading more of his other works, especially now that I’ve brushed up on my British slang. 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“It’s the small things that get you through the day”

The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and describes a single day in the life of ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

This was a super easy to read novel where I felt like I was imagining exactly what the author was describing. It wasn’t as dark or depressing as I expected it to be, especially since it’s about the day of a man in a Soviet work camp. However, I still have a hard time understanding how so many people continued to live and not let their living conditions break their spirit.

My friend gave me this book and I finish it in just a few days. Solzhenitsyn has some other novels that I think I’ll likely check out due to the style and flow of this one. It’s not that the book was simple, but it was easy to understand and it really brought me into the perspective of the main character. Sure, he only got 6 ounces of extra bread rations, but even I was celebrating that victory with him.

Overall, this offered really interesting insight into the conditions of a Soviet work camp that I don’t think many people know even existed.

Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

“Sequels are hard if the first one sets the bar”

After I finished the original “Dune”, a coworker picked this up at a flea market and I thought, why not? The problem with these books is that while reading them, there are many awkward and convoluted sentences that I often won’t understand a scene until after it’s over. At which point I’m fascinated by Herbert’s ability to do that, but also wish I felt more immersed in each individual scene.

Dune Messiah is the 2nd book in the Dune Chronicles, was half the length of the first one and less exciting. I still enjoyed it, and it was fun to read, but I didn’t feel like it was on as grand a scale as the original. I’m now stuck at a weird point where I don’t know if I want to read the other 4+ books in the series or move onto something else.

Overall, I’m impressed that Herbert was able to write Dune in the first place, and then to bang out several other books, all in the same writing style that combines epic scenes with philosophy - it’s clear why these books have sold millions of copies. I think for now, I’m going to read some other stuff and then inevitably make my way back to the Dune Chronicles. Each one ends on such a cliffhanger, it’s almost like it was intentional…

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.jpg

“There is never a right time to fall in love”

The novel is a nostalgic story of loss and burgeoning sexuality. It is told from the first-person perspective of Toru Watanabe, who looks back on his days as a college student living in Tokyo.

This was the second Murakami book I read this year and similar to the first one, there’s an ease with his style of writing that puts you right in the middle of every scene he’s describing.

The story is about the life of a Japanese university student in the late 60s and his relationships with different women as a student. At some points, I thought, “Why am I so invested in the characters of an angsty romance novel?” But having thought about it, Norwegian Wood is so much more than that. It’s about life, loss, love, and everything in between. The ending caught me off guard, but I felt complete with it - sort of thinking to myself, “well of course that’s how it had to end.”

Reading Murakami, as an aspiring writer, is challenging. Part of me loves his works, and the other part of me thinks, “Well, this Japanese author is as good as it gets, there’s no topping it.” Despite the internal jealousy and unrelenting fascination with how he uses his words, I look forward to reading more Murakami in the future.

The Outsider by Albert Camus

The Outside by Albert Camus

“If you can’t handle heat, don’t go to the beach”

The story is about a man who kills an Arab in French Algiers during a conflict with a friend. He is tried and sentenced to death. The story is divided into two parts, presenting the main character’s first-person narrative view before and after the murder.

This was a Christmas gift, so although I don’t like first person novels, I powered through this 116 page classic in a day or two. Overall, it was interesting, but I wouldn’t read it again. At one point in the story, I wondered if the main character was mentally handicapped or a psychopath, someone born without empathy towards people or animals. In the end, I just realized he was pragmatic, and that instead of feeling guilty for the murder, I can understand why he states he simply feels annoyed by the legal proceedings.

The book had some good lines mixed in with the plain descriptions of his surroundings. One quote that stuck out to me was, “According to the priest, human justice was nothing and divine justice was everything. I pointed out that it was the former which had condemned me.”

I also don’t know if I agree with the quote on the cover, because I’m not sure how much this book marked my life, and certainly not ‘indelibly’.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert

“Less a novel and more like a whole new world”

Set in the distant future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which various noble houses control planetary fiefs, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose family accepts the stewardship of the planet Arrakis.

If you want to talk about building new worlds, Frank Herbert absolutely kills it with Dune. There's a good reason why this novel is being made into a film. It's epic, and at around 500 pages, although a little slow in places, the story is just getting started.

Dune has love, hand to hand combat, futuristic technology, planetary battles, weird voice magic, and sandworms - what more could you ask for in a sci-fi novel?

The book takes some time to get used to, because Herbert uses so many adjectives to describe things and those are mixed in with odd names, new planets, made up weapons, and titles that don’t exist in the English language. Once you get accustomed to all of that (or refer to the included appendix) the book is a well-written adventure that kept me engaged from start to finish. Although I highly recommend Dune, I don’t know if I have it in me to finish the five other books in the Dune Chronicles. With that said, I’m looking forward to the movie and hope, as do most other people, that they don’t mess it up too badly.

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami

“Hope, regret, what if, and probably - is love really ‘real’?”

The novel tells the story of Hajime, starting from his childhood in a small town in Japan until the age of 36. Hajime now the father of two children and owner of two successful jazz bars in Tokyo must choose between his wife and family or attempting to recapture the magic of the past.

This was the first book that I’d say I really identified with. It’s about a Japanese guy and his relationships throughout his life and how they shape who he is and the way he sees the world. In the book, a lot of the bad things that happen are due to the main character’s choices, which I liked rather than something happening to him. The end of the book is weird. You feel like you’re going down one path, and understanding what’s happening, and then all of the sudden you start to question if one of the biggest parts of the book is even real. Someone said Murakami likes to drift in and out of reality and the spirit world, which I would say was an accurate description for this book. That said, I really liked it and I connected with the main character on an emotional level, having thought a lot about my relationships and the person I want to become as I grow older.

Empire of Dragons - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Empire of Dragons - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

“A rugged Roman Gladiator road-trip with a Chinese twist”

The story follows Roman Emperor Licinius Valerianus and his twelve guards who are dragged away to work as prisoners in a solitary Persian turquoise mine. They escape and thus begins the adventures of the Romans as they journey to China. There they will discover that they aren't the first of their kind to arrive in China: they were preceded centuries before by the survivors of the 'lost legion'. 

I read this on planes, trains, taxis, and busses while traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. This book was epic, and reminded me a lot of “The Physician” by Noah Gordon. I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it was full of action, forbidden love, and both a physical and personal journey. Books like this are just a fun read and easy to get lost in. So if you’ve been reading a bit too much dystopian stuff, this was a nice change of pace.

The Chrysalids - John Wyndham

The Chrysalids - John Wyndham

“Learning to accept yourself is easier when ‘thought’ than said”

The novel takes place in a dystopian society set in the future after a nuclear holocaust. The inhabitants of the society subscribe to a fundamentalist religion focused on keeping all living things in their “pure” form, denouncing genetic mutations. 

Typically, I shy away from first person books but since my friend Carlos gave this to me for Christmas, I decided to give it ago. Five pages in, I realize the main character is a child and I’m dealing with his thoughts in first person and I almost noped right out of there. However, I stuck with it and was surprised with how well first person worked for this book, especially once the twist is revealed. The ending was cool, and one of those scenes that flows so well you can imagine it in your head.

Fatherland - Robert Harris

Fatherland - Robert Harris

“A riveting, alternative history with an über amount of German”

Set in a universe where Nazi Germany won World War II, the story's lead protagonist is an officer in Kripo, the criminal police, investigating the murder of a Nazi government official who was one of the participants at the Wannsee Conference. In so doing, he discovers a plot to eliminate all attendees of the conference in order to help Germany establish better political relations with the United States.

I almost stopped after a few chapters because there was so much German I questioned whether the book was in English or not. The titles of all the offers in the book were so long that it was difficult to keep track of who was speaking or who characters were referring to. Once I got over that, this was a really interesting concept that played out nicely. I’m looking forward to reading more Robert Harris because the structure and flow of “Fatherland” was easy and fun to read.