The Selfish Gene

In the beginning was simplicity.

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The Selfish Gene made me feel funny feelings about being alive. It’s nice to think of yourself as a vehicle for a million-year old replicator gene to drive around in and I find the theory that we’ve arisen from such humble beginnings to such unthinkable complexity to be weirdly self-affirming.

We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators..

George Saunders once wrote that stories are black boxes where the reader enters in one state of mind and exits in another, and that rings true to me for The Selfish Gene. I didn’t think I would finish reading it, let alone learn so much out of it and enjoy that feeling that you’ve become a slightly different version of yourself after the fact. It’s very cool.

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are all born selfish.

This is all because of Richard Dawkins, of course. What a marvellous story-teller – he is wonderfully attuned to the voice and shape of his theories, and those of others which he built his gene-centric theory from. He writes with such cadence and uses accessible metaphors to teach laymen what we need to know, what we want to know and he makes each chapter truly a world in itself. I loved this book and can’t wait to read more non-fiction books that are as good as this.

p.s.

I’ve had this in my Drafts for about two years. I read this book in 2013.

The Lovable Strangeness of Perdido Street Station

If you know me IRL, follow me on twitter, or on tumblr, you’d know how I have fallen madly in love with China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. I’ve talked about it so incessantly that a few people have asked for copies which I was happy to give, but made me anxious in retrospect. See, Perdido Street Station is NOT an easy read. It’s not the kind of book that would make you swoon right off the bat. It can be a backbreaker but Miéville turns the tables on the whole story about halfway through and anyone who wouldn’t persist that far would miss out on several of the greatest fantasy monsters.

The novel is an astonishment, the work of a brilliant world-maker with a stunning and inexhaustible imagination. In Perdido, we are in a degenerating cesspool of a city called New Crobuzon, where humans, xenomorphs, urban poor, altered criminals and cyborgs jostle and thieve and whore under the eye of a vicious, all-seeing militia.  China really takes the “show-don’t-tell” adage to heart and plunges you headfirst into a politically-charged world without any priming. You get to know the place as you read, and the world becomes another character.

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A garuda and a khepri in New Crobuzon. By Marc Simonetti.

Perdido Street Station shows us the limitless and awesomeness of story-telling. China’s words are powerful, strange, and poetic, all at the same time. His voice is so unique, and his ideas so wonderfully weird. I bet you a dollar that you can’t find another living writer that could wield wit, oddity, and command of the language as powerfully as he could.

pss

Perdido Street Station is a great book but it is not perfect. People will ramble on about weak characters, verbosity, and so on, which may or may not be merited, but on the whole people have their own ideas about how all novels should conform to a certain standard, so I take all literary criticisms with a grain of salt.

For example: People have complained about the weak plot but I particularly liked the ambiguity of the plot lines and the lack of clear resolution.  It was go-back-to-bed-depressing on some levels but I feel that all too often, fantasy and science fiction stories tend to be a bit sophomoric in plot and rely on a model right out of common fantasy tropes. Real life rarely gives us conflict resolution wrapped up with a ribbon and a bow, so why should fiction?

And this love is not blind to its faults – I know this can be a difficult book. Things can get tedious, some portions can get confusing. The fantastical science and even more fantastical math takes so much out of you but it was a sacrifice you give for a rewarding reading experience. Easily one of the best books I have ever read in my entire reading life – and this isn’t even Miéville’s best work yet – a revelation that makes this all-too exciting for me. It feels like an entire universe has unfolded before me, and I now have new planes to discover, new surreal reading experiences to be explored.

It’s been ages since I have felt this intense unraveling over a book. I am glad, and a bit surprised, that I still have this in me – a sordid and frightfully expensive nerdiness over a novel, a living author, and an unfamiliar genre. I love you, Mr. Miéville. Thank you for this book.

Just a Couple of Days

Yes, I perched the book up in a shrub.
Yes, I perched the book up in a shrub.

Darden gave me this book to read last month and I am forever grateful for this gift. That girl is a well of cult favorites, which Just a Couple of Days by Tony Vigorito is. It is a wonderful book, but not without its own flaws as you will soon be reading in review snippets that I wrote down as I was reading it. I am glad to have a copy of this book not just because I wouldn’t have found out about this on my own, but also because the prose is lyrical and quirky and I know I will enjoy going back to some of the most inventive phrases I’ve read in a long while.

Blip Korterly kicks off a game of graffiti tag on a local overpass by painting a simple phrase: “Uh-oh.” An anonymous interlocutor writes back: “When?” Blip slyly answers: “Just a couple of days.” But what happens in just a couple of days? Blip is arrested; his friend, Dr. Flake Fountain—a molecular biologist—is drafted into a shadow-government research project conducting experiments on humans. The virus being tested—cleverly called “the Pied Piper”—renders its victims incapable of symbolic capacity; that is, incapable of communication. Is this biological weaponry? What would happen if it were let loose on the world? Does a babbling populace pose a threat or provide an opportunity for social evolution?

March 10, 2013

Vigorito loves words. He loves the sound of them, their tumble and play, and he is definitely not afraid to use them. Ten pages in and I marveled at how cute and cheery the book was – very reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s works, but not as fascinating nor as good. KJV’s writing has always been memorable in its bouyancy as much as in its conciseness, while Vigorito invests on lengthiness and a wide vocabulary to make a point. Vonnegut’s works are crisp, while Vigorito’s are full and fluffy.

March 13, 2013

I wish Vigorito showed some restraint in his writing. He has the  knack for clever turns of phrase, but when your sentences last forever, and your playful language spirals down into tediousness and redundancy, it distracts the reader from what you are trying to say. Vigorito’s disproportionate creativity is getting in the way of telling an entertaining story. I get it, you have so many ways to prove a point, but please, please just get to it.

Goodreads reading graph
Goodreads reading graph

March 16, 2013

I’m finally done with Just a Couple of Days after trying to squeeze it in between work, family and trivia nights (lol). My final thoughts?

I enjoyed the book – it is legitimately hilarious and the plot is familiar yet offbeat. It is also very engaging in parts where the story actually moves along, and not just glide by. I did not feel anything for any of the characters, even if Agent Orange reminded me of Agent 355 (Y: The Last Man), which is sad since there could have been many ways to glorify all the other characters in the novel. The characters Flake hated, I hated all the more because they were all one-dimensional. Even Blip and Sophie were a bit one-dimensional and I couldn’t quite stitch how the unanswered questions, and the billboard graffiti all fit together. They were so thoroughly discussed in earlier parts of the book so reaching the end of the novel left me wondering if there was something I was missing. Was it gaping plotholes or is the story too layered for my busy brain? I guess I’ve become spoiled in the story-telling cohesion that other quirky writers (e.g. Douglas Adams) are masters of.

I laughed out loud in many parts of the book. As I mentioned in an earlier review snippet, Tony V. is clever, but I have been rolling my eyes to the back side of my head over paragraph upon paragraph of funny, artfully fashioned but very, very, very repetitive prose. It would have been a far greater book if it did not suffer from an amateur habit of making the same point over and over again.  I wish Tony matures enough to tell a great story with wisdom and discipline that comes with…I dunno. Writing workshops? Reading classic works of art? Age? Whatever it takes, I know that he has the talent for weaving a great story and I’m excited to pick up another Vigorito maybe 10, 15 or 20 years down the road.

Related recommendations:

If you like Tony V.’s Just a Couple of Days, you have to check out Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (then move on to his other works because he is my favorite author in the whole world), and then maybe some Christopher Moore (whom I belatedly noticed has a recommendation on the book’s cover). Their stories are as witty and humorous but with an admirable frugality of words that Tony Vigorito lacks.

P.S.

This book is so meta. I wonder if Tony reads David Foster Wallace, because long run-on sentences are so DFW, too.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 It does not happen very often, but there are books whose ideas surpass its prose. One case in point is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  There are many things I thoroughly enjoyed out of this SF classic, but it’s an imperfect novel and if it wasn’t for the strength of the concepts behind Fahrenheit 451, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book as much.  As much as I liked what he was trying to say, I couldn’t stand a big chunk of Bradbury’s writing (I’m sorry).

Fahrenheit 451 is the flashpoint of paper – the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns.  In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires, and he enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames … never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.

Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s first novel which he wrote after publishing a series of short stories of the same “story”, and it shows. The prose was choppy and awkward at its worst, and overly poetic at its best. There were parts that come out of nowhere and are dismissed just as quickly.  The world, while very interesting, was not well fleshed out. I usually am not very critical when I read books but I wonder if Fahrenheit 451 suffers from being old (i.e. 60 years old), or if Bradbury’s strength lies not in his novels but in his short stories. Is the language archaic? Has the novel been stretched too thin? Or does this book just feels rushed to me?

Its prose isn’t the loveliest, but Fahrenheit 451 was an engaging read and I enjoyed the world and the emotional and cultural underpinnings of a society that sought to drown thoughts and thinking with distractions. Montag’s world bears uncanny (and alarming!) resemblances to our own and this is not a good thing.  We need not be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered?

Ray Bradbury is well-known for being nostalgic for a simpler, old-fashioned life, and Fahrenheit 451 brings to the surface a new level of mindfulness of the dangers of having fun too much and of having too much. The book is a reminder to hack out the inessentials and to exercise moderation in everything, including moderation.

Even with my complaints, I did enjoy Fahrenheit 451 in broad strokes and I’m glad I read it. You should too.

fahrenheit-451-2011

Featured image source

Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This is my first book from the Foundation series by the prolific Asimov. I’m reading the entire collection chronologically in terms of future history and not of publication date which a lot of Asimov fanboys might frown upon (whatevs). I know I’m missing the excitement by not reading the entire trilogy first but I think I already missed it by default for being born decades after the publication date of Foundation (1951).

Reading this book first also means I’ve skipped the entire Robot series (gasp) apart from the short stories collection, I, Robot, which served as my introduction to this world. I don’t think this hampered my reading though as I was still thrilled when the Three Laws of Robotics were mentioned and I still very much enjoyed not knowing anything about Trantor and of the Galaxy and its history prior to Prelude.

I’m not a very good critic of books apart from saying this one’s awesome and that one’s not, but I’d like to sincerely share how impressive Asimov’s world-building skillz are. Mycogen and Dahl are very memorable sectors and would probably translate well into film. The fight scenes in Prelude, though sparse, were also entertaining (knife fights!) and it’s always a delight to be pleasantly surprised with twists and unexpected revelations. All in all, this one’s a great introduction to a massive series and I can’t wait to read more.

Below are some of my favorite texts which I highlighted off my Kindle copy and not from the actual book. I don’t do that. 😛

Notes and Highlights:

“I would love to, Hummin, but the desire to do so doesn’t automatically manufacture the ability to do so.” – Hari Seldon

“Can’t you try? However useless the effort may seem to you to be, have you anything better to do with your life? Have you some worthier goal? Have you a purpose that will justify you in your own eyes to some greater extent?” – Chetter Hummin

“How harmful overspecialization is. It cuts knowledge at a million points and leaves it bleeding.” – Dors Venabili

“Anything you make forbidden gains sexual attractiveness. Would you be particularly interested in women’s breasts if you lived in a society in which they were displayed at all times?” – Dors Venabili

Why, he wondered, did so many people spend their lives not trying to find answers to questions – not even thinking of questions to begin with? Was there anything more exciting in life than seeking answers?”

The recording said, “This is a view, recently constructed, of the establishment of the famous Wendome estate of the third century. The robot you see near the center was, according to tradition, named Bendar and served twenty-two years, according to the ancient records, before being replaced. – Ugh sorry. But a robot named Bendar? I CANNOT HELP MYSELF.

Amaryl said, “Saying something is ‘too bad’ is easy. You say you disapprove, which makes you a nice person, and then you can go about your own business and not be interested anymore. It’s a lot worse than ‘too bad’. It’s against everything decent and natural. We’re all of us the same, yellow-hairs and black-hairs, tall and short, Easterners, Westerners, Southerners, and Outworlders. We’re all of us, you and I and even the Emperor, descended from the people of Earth, aren’t we?” – Yugo Amaryl

“If we are always to draw back from change with the thought that the change may be for the worse, then there is no hope at all of ever escaping injustice.” – Davan

“Emotions, my dear Seldon, are a powerful engine of human action, far more powerful than human beings themselves realize, and you cannot know how much can be done with the merest touch and how reluctant I am to do it.” – Chetter Hummin

Favorite cover:

This one’s simple and beautiful. I own the book with a more classic-looking cover which is still cool but Trantor looks glorious in that one above.

Do not judge a book by its genre.

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I’m currently reading Batman: Knightfall, a novelization written by Dennis O’Neil about the Knightfall/Knightquest/Knightsend arcs of the comic books. I was looking for scans of the actual comic but the novel was more accessible. I expected myself to trudge along with it but surprisingly, I’m done with the Knightfall arc and if that wasn’t mind-blowing, then I don’t know what is.

There is little that is so much more heartbreaking than seeing a hero incapacitated by a madman who kills to “silence a grating voice. To darken the light in eyes that dared to look at him.” Oh wow, Bane. Batman is a hero, and breaking him both physically and emotionally is bound to break hearts.
It’s odd “reviewing” a book long before finishing it, which is basically what I’m doing right now. So many things are  going on in my mind right now for me to do anything else, so I might just get this all out and get it over with. This novel is really good. I am pretty surprised to find a novelization of a comic book to be well-written considering Star Trek novels are mostly rubbish. But yeah,don’t judge a book by its genre, or by other books that it was patterned after. Dennis O’Neil knows his shit.
If you care about goodness in the world, you’d love superheroes and you’d love Batman and you’d love this book. PM me if you want a copy lol.

Have you read anything amazing this year?

In response to Jac’s question posted in her book blog, yes, I’ve read something amazing this year. (Shame to me if I haven’t!). Mostly blogs and articles and short stories that make their way through my RSS reader but if answers to this question are limited to books, I’d say it’d be A Clockwork Orange.


A Clockwork Orange gained notoriety through its movie. Well, at least that’s how it gained notoriety for me. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation is a cult favorite and I’ve seen it several times many and many years ago but I wasn’t particularly into it. Not that it was bad; quite the contrary even. It was fancy and detailed and ridiculously creative and fresh but meh. It just wasn’t my type. The book on the other hand…

I read the Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for Read Hard!, an online book club I’ve been following over at Tumblr. The theme chosen for that month was dystopian fiction and A Clockwork Orange bested other classics such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World and a couple more books I can’t remember right now.

Starting the book was slow and staggering. If you must already know, Anthony Burgess employs an experiment in language for the book. A “teenage slang of the not-too-distant future” called Nadsat which to me, is a singular English bastardization of the Russian language. It was annoying at first but once you get used to it, you’ll find that it makes everything more interesting. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to refer to Nadsat as a futuristic local color (any literature majors here?), but that’s how I’d like to see because that’s how I felt it to be while reading the book. Nadsat transports you to a whole new frikkin’ world that is unfamiliar and quite frankly, a bit scary too.

Reading the book didn’t make me feel like I just discovered a gem I’d go crazy for for the rest of my life. It wasn’t like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, or Douglas Adams’ HGTTG. It wasn’t even like Planetary or Y: The Last Man. It was just…. a book, a good one, but still just a book nonetheless. I felt like nothing has changed, and I went on to finish another book, the same way I’ve been doing for the most part of my life. The only milestone I felt was finally reading that classic.

But then, a most curious thing happened. I still quote “Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh” all the freaking time. I use Nadsat, love moloko on my coffee, still fancy letting my glazzies viddy real horrorshow novels of vicious bitvas, ultra-violence, a parade of keeshkas and a flood of kroovy among many other veshches.

After reading the book and re-watching the movie, I started listening to classical music and learned to appreciate the rise and fall of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The book’s most beautifully crafted lines were of the anti-hero’s description of music. I’ve rediscovered interests that I’ve been so quick to dismiss before. I also realized that while I will forever hate fearsomely strange and disgusting people, I should give them time to grow up. If you don’t get why that’s so, read the book and stick with it.

Looking back, everything about the book changed me in a major way, without me even knowing. It’s a subtle kind of mindfuck really, kind of like an alien parasite that is gnawing at your brain without you feeling it, until BOOM! You realize how deep it’s been in you and you in it. I think this is what’s referred to (scientifically) as the Sleeper Effect. Regardless of what it’s called though, I have it for A Clockwork Orange, and I don’t mind.