Solaris

SolarisSolaris by Stanislaw Lem is strange to say the least. The premise is intriguing and I must admit I greatly enjoyed the first half of the book. The second half stalls a bit and gets a little abstract, but overall I think the book is interesting enough to recommend.

Written in 1961, it is a science fiction novel that takes place on a distant planet called Solaris, where the ocean covering nearly the entire surface is discovered to be a sentient life form. We follow a psychiatrist, Kris Kelvin, who travels to the station hovering in the planetary atmosphere. The story takes place in a distant future where humanity has thoroughly mastered space travel and the planet of Solaris is a still unknown entity. A rare, inexplicable puzzle still yet to be solved.

The book itself is an interesting thought experiment that imagines a planet-sized life-form while also delving into what it means to be human; physically and mentally. As I said, the first half really drew me in and made me want to discover how and why the events were taking place. Of course, I had to then finish the novel and the second half was good, don’t get me wrong, but it left me wanting a bit more.

This book has been adapted into film three times (1968, 1972, 2002) with the most recent staring George Clooney. I have not seen any of the adaptations, but I may check them out eventually. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a new adaptation especially since there are many elements that remind me of movies such as Sphere, Alien, or Sunshine. The premise is great enough that I don’t think Hollywood will leave it alone.

The book is approximately 200 pages so it is a fairly quick read. I first heard of this book from a student who was reading it for a class. I then saw it again mentioned in a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin who discussed a few other of Lem’s books which I do want to read. I think Lem has a good writing style and, from what I have read, he has interesting ideas that encompass psychological or philosophical ideas. This alone makes me interested in reading more of his work. It helps that he is able to frame the ideas around an interesting narrative.

Happy Reading.

All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot SeeAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was published in 2014 and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This was one of those books I had seen on bookshelves the year it came out and a few subsequent years where the title caught my interest but I never picked it up. Since it had caught my interest, once a colleague recommended it to me stating it was “the best book he had read last year,” I picked it. I finished it yesterday.

This book is beautifully written. Hands down, it is one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long time. The use of language alone is enough to recommend it, but the story is also compelling. Two young lives impacted by the eruption of war. A young girl, blind and led by her father as they flee their familiar home in Paris. A young boy, orphaned in a mining town and left to fend for his younger sister until his curiosity and aptitude with radio leads him into the German forces as the war progresses. Their lives are connected by invisible waves dancing in the air as their lives careen into the unknown. Despite the interesting characters, I found I was kept at arms length from really getting to know them. I think it was the formatting of the book that led to this. The book is over 500 pages long, but broken into chapters averaging three pages in length. The changes in perspective and the story spanning a decade made it seem more like watching a play than getting into the heads of the characters and experiencing their story alongside them. We are bystanders. Perhaps this is best considering the situations they are in, but I almost felt like I wanted more of a connection with them. The main characters at least.

Doerr definitely did his research. History, locations, technology, and even biological studies of specimens, everything is brought together to bring a rich experience. I think one thing that captured my attention was the descriptions of the radio. We all likely use radios every day, or phones, without knowing a single thing about how they actually work. We take it for granted and because of this I think Doerr is able to bring a magic to it within this novel. Of course, this was before television and the rapid growth of technology that we all have known nearly our entire lives.

Though this is a work of fiction, I think it does a great job of showing how the war changed the lives of the citizens of Europe. Outside of losing loved ones and friends, and living in uncertainty not knowing if they would eat each day, the story is a glimpse inside what it would have been like for both sides during the occupation of France and beyond. It also briefly shows how those changes influenced their lives after the war.

The story feeds off of, and in turn contributes to, the nostalgic time before the technology we know so well. Even though the conflicts of the second world war were horrendous and attribute to some of the worst things in the history of humanity, there is still a sense of simplicity during the first half of the recent century. This could easily be the distance of time between now and then. Daily hardships are also hardly mentioned in history lessons and it is impossible to know how life really was before our own experience.

Yes, the war is a topic many people don’t find interesting because of the terrible things that happen, but this book focuses on our two young characters. I can’t name either a protagonist or antagonist because this is not a story with plain right or wrong (despite us knowing much about the war itself and having our own sense of good and bad). This is a story about life, the wonders it contains, the difficulty of existence, and the choices we make. It is about survival and how to live after the danger passes. It demonstrates the fickleness of life and how unfortunate things happen to good people, and how good people can combat the ill-intentions of others.

I spoke with the colleague who recommended this book to me last week and told him I was about halfway through. He carefully told me that he thought the ending was “appropriate,” and now that I have finished the book I must agree with him. The ending is appropriate. I will leave you to take that as you will.

Happy Reading.

Who I Am

I haven’t posted in a while and it was bugging me so I decided to write something. I had a hard time deciding what to write about and then I finally had an idea. I decided to write about something I never really talk about: myself. I haven’t really talked about myself much on my own blog. Outside of my About Me page, I have maybe written about myself two times in the past three years. I have a few topics that hopefully give you an insight into who I am.

First, a quick update on my reading. I mainly post book recommendations and the next one will be about the book I’m currently reading, which is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m about half-way through at the moment and I plan to have it up soon.

Next, I have joined that most dreaded of arena’s: the gym. I say most dreaded because I think most people don’t like going to the gym, especially people who’s work and hobbies consist of mainly sedentary activities. I enjoy reading, writing, and playing videogames outside of work and my work puts me in front of a computer a majority of the time. I played sports growing up and throughout high school, but since then I haven’t been terribly active except for a few years during college. I had gained about 20 lbs my first semester in college and proceeded to drop 40 lbs the following six months by running and eating healthier. Over the past six years, since meeting my now wife and being in a comfortable and loving relationship, I have gained a steady amount of weight to place me at the heaviest I have ever been. So now I am doing something about it and my reasons are plenty.

The first reason is for physical health (obviously), but this reason connects to several others. Being physically healthy and in-shape has many other benefits. It gives me more energy in my daily life which is greatly beneficial since I have so many goals and interests. It also positively impacts my mental health in a big way. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life. I am susceptible to heavy, dark topics and the pain of others, which is why I am always looking to help others so they don’t have to experience what I have. Luckily, over the years, I’ve been able to recognize the signs and prevent myself from falling too far into the darkness. Since I first met my wife, I’ve not had a bad episode so being in a great relationship helps, but maintaining my physical health also is a big benefit in this arena. Physical and mental health are not separate. There is only health.

Related to my mental health is my social life. I’m going to focus on the social media aspect here though. I have cut my time spent on Facebook by about 80% in the past several weeks and I must say that this has helped with my overall happiness. I never used Facebook much to begin with, but cutting my usage down (possibly down to zero one day) has been beneficial. Now my only social media use is on Twitter. I like this platform because it is easy to craft to your own use and it does have a great community for writers and authors. Even so, I don’t post much on Twitter. I’ll interact every now and then with some cool things, but I really use it to keep up-to-date with things going on. Unfortunately, that does involve news and politics, which really makes it difficult to keep the spirits up. But it is better to be informed than blissfully unaware until something terrible happens. Again though, there are many great people I interact with and follow who are uplifting positive forces. Certain authors like Gareth L. Powell and communities like #TwitterofTime are a few examples. As for why I don’t post much on social media, well, I don’t really feel like I have much to say. I only post my genuine thoughts and try to contribute to a positive atmosphere. That being said, I will try to post more often so those who are kind enough to follow me get a better sense of who I am and are hopefully intrigued or entertained by what I put out there.

The last few topics I wanted to talk about are related to the reason I started this blog: my writing. I’ve had a fun time maintaining this site and posting stories and talking about books. I’ve met new people like fellow bloggers other book enthusiasts. Overall, I’m happy I started and look forward to continuing. My initial reason for starting was for my writing. For my dream to become a published author. I have published one story (so far) but my plan is to publish books. I’ve had a lot to think about recently about this aspiration. Ironically enough, I believe it started several weeks ago when I read an article that was circulating Twitter that discussed what it is like to be an author in the 21st century. It covered how many things that used to be handled by publishing companies have become the author’s responsibilities. From promotions to book tours, many aspects that previously were handled by others have become a normal expectation of the authors themselves. It also discussed how many authors don’t make enough from advances or sales to make a living or even sustain their writing lifestyles. Needless to say, the article was greatly disruptive to my enthusiasm to reach my goals. In fact, I’ve begun doubting if my dream is attainable at all and I’ve delved into thoughts about giving up on that dream entirely.

The thought of giving up on my writing dream led me to imagine what my life would be without that desire. What would my life be without my dreams? Well, I would certainly have less self-doubt, but I know that I would not be happy. Even if I gave up wanting to be a published author, I would still need to write. I would still write books and stories regardless of attempting to find an agent and publishers or trying to get my stories out to the public to read. This realization has only confirmed that writing is a core part of who I am. My doubt and thoughts of quitting has only confirmed my need to continue this craft. It isn’t just a hobby. It’s me.

My doubts were not completely abolished by this realization of course. I don’t think they ever will be. I am going to my first ever writing conference next week and I hope that it will ignite my ambitions and inspire me toward my goal. I also hope to meet many new writing friends. Reviewing the events and preparing for the conference has already encouraged my writing dream and I’m excited to go.

And now for my final topic. My current work/life/dream balance. I greatly enjoy my job and I work with a phenomenal team, but I it’s also not exactly where I want to be. It does not necessarily allow me much room to work on my craft. It is in the field I want to work in but I’m not in the role I wish to make my career. I guess I really don’t need to be so ambiguous. I want to be a creative writing and/or literature teacher at a university. My current role has me in an academic support role for both students and faculty. I greatly enjoy it, but I’m conflicted because I continue to feel the pull to be in the classroom.

When I get home from work, I often don’t want to sit in front of a computer and work on my writing. I’ll either read or watch a show or do something that doesn’t take much thought. Outside of work, I hang out with friends and family. I find it hard to find time to write but I know I need to sit down and carve out the time and just do it. I was fairly productive this January but the past several weeks have been unproductive. Partly because of those creeping doubts. I am happy to say that those doubts had nothing to do with the quality of my work now that I think about it. I guess that is the silver lining to all of the overthinking I’ve been doing. I have many difficult decisions to make in the future but ultimately I need to ensure that I don’t give up or let the years go by where I dream of what might have been. I need to take steps toward where I want to be. I need take action to make my dreams a reality. It’s time for something to change and I’m sure I’ll find out the path I need to take with just a little more time.

So there I am. Or a glimpse into who I am. An overthinking kid with a million interests who wants to learn all the things but ultimately wants to create a life that can be sustained by writing books. Crafting stories that inspire and entertain others. Some day. One day. Let’s aim for a three year timeline for the first novel. It’s no longer a time to just dream. It’s the time to act, and I’m going to reach my first goal of finishing my first draft by my next birthday. Wish me luck and thank you for reading.

We

WeWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a strange, wild ride that I can only describe as a mixture of Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s 1984. Though We was published long before either of these books were even beginning to be written. It likely influenced Rand and Orwell when writing their own novels. We was written and published exactly 100 years ago and has an interesting history of its own. It was first translated and published in English in 1924, but it almost didn’t get published or survive the political changes happening in Russia after the first World War.

There are strong elements of Russian communism within the novel but the novel as a whole offers a critique of the political system, which created tension between Zamyatin and his own country. In fact, the international publication of We became the reason the Russian government began repressing writers in 1929. Zamyatin elected a self-imposed exile after this book was attacked and removed from Soviet libraries and he was forbidden to publish any future work. He and his wife moved to Paris (with permission from Stalin) in 1931. He later died in 1937 never returning to the country he considered home.

The novel was written at the beginning of what we now know as the communist period of Russian history. We was an examination into a future where such a political system was made perfect, at least in reference to the citizens becoming merely parts of a whole known as The One State. The citizen’s live within a walled city and their days are mapped by the hour and the schedule is strictly followed. Their apartment-style living quarters are made of a futuristic glass material allowing absolutely no privacy. They are all furnished minimally and in exactly the same way. However, there are blinds, but they can only be drawn when an approved “pink ticket” is inserted. This provides privacy for one hour and the tickets are approved only for sexual activity.

Our lead character, D-503, gradually faces changes to his own conditioned way of thinking. The number designation, instead of a name, is echoed in Rand’s Anthem which also presents a society focused on a collective instead of the individual but with different results. I noticed a handful of similarities in plot with Orwell’s 1984However, and again, We preceded both of these novels, but I must admit I liked the latter novels more. We does present its own, intriguing dystopian vision which is important in its own way.

The book did get fairly abstract at times, especially since it is written in journal form through the perspective of D-503 and often uses mathematics to make analogies. They are easily understood but several entries are not fully formed or lack description. I cannot say whether or not the translation from Russian into English accounts for the lack of clarity or if it was written that way with purpose. I’ll let you be the judge.

If you are a fan of dystopian novels, which I must admit that I am, you will likely enjoy this book. Dystopian novels are unique because they offer a vision into an imagined future based on events from our own history. They are a commentary of the time they were written but set in worlds where practices of that time, often injustices, are allowed to persist and become normal behaviors within futuristic societies. They are written almost as warnings of what may come to pass. The same applies here but perhaps with more historical contexts.

But it is up to you if you decide to read it. I am merely providing some information that may help you make that decision. Perhaps this is the first time you have heard of this book. I know I only discovered it recently and likely never would have heard of it if I hadn’t read a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin. Should you take the plunge into this strange world, I hope you enjoy it or at least take something of value from its pages.

Happy Reading.

How Do You Rate a Book? – A Commentary on the Goodness of Goodreads

A few weeks ago I noticed a small trend/discussion on Twitter from several authors commenting about their distaste for Goodreads and it got me thinking. Some of their points were extremely valid while others came across as simply complaining. What really sparked my thoughts was how exactly do we “rate” a book?

Before I go into my thoughts about how we rate books, I want to give some context as to what these authors were grumbling about. They claimed not to like Goodreads because people could “rate” their work without having actually read it. I remember now what sparked the conversation. Certain people or bots were creating accounts on Goodreads and rating books with one star. Some of these accounts were mimicking several authors who were and were not active on Goodreads, and crazily enough, they were giving some books one star whereas the real author had given the book five stars. Goodreads apparently had not acted or responded to several requests that these fake accounts be deleted.

Since technology can easily be used to manipulate markets and flood our screens with targeted information, are such systems meant for social interaction and shared interests safe places that provide us with relevant information? Or is that information being changed on a whim by computer algorithms?

A loaded question, I know. I agree with many of the authors concerns. I don’t necessarily think it is fair that even authentic accounts can go in and provide a rating for a book they have not read or did not finish (DNF). The rating system so ingrained in our culture has pros and cons but is definitely at risk of manipulation. Think about how ratings impact your decisions. Do you ever decide not to buy something, say on Amazon, because the average rating is low or you found a similar product with a higher rating? Do you peruse what the reviews say about the product or check to see how many people were included in the average rating? Are you someone who uses reviews to make decisions but never leaves reviews of the products you buy?

We use the information and opinions of thousands of strangers as a basis for finding good products. But how does that work with books? How can one rating system be suitable for a medium that spans hundreds of years and millions of interests? To me, Goodreads (or similar programs) is a tool I use mainly for personal use. I don’t have too many “friends” on Goodreads and I don’t really use the social aspect of the program. Though I do think it is great that you can find people who love books and see what your friends are reading and what they like since a friend’s recommendation holds much more weight than a mass of strangers. I personally only take recommendations in person when it comes to books. I also write book recommendations on this blog as my own way of giving actual feedback about the books I read.

I use the rating system simply for myself, but lately I’ve been questioning my own method of rating books. If I DNF a book, I will not rate it because I don’t believe you should rate a book you did not read. That would be like saying something tastes good before actually taking a bite. You don’t have the full experience. Sure it looks good, but it could taste terrible and vice-versa. I hardly ever give two stars or lower. If I don’t care much for a book, I usually don’t care to comment on it. I give three stars if I like the book, four if I really like it, and five stars if I absolutely love it and have already recommended it to all my friends (which is really the highest “rating” you can give a book). These ratings are my opinion. I think they allow any stranger that looks at my profile to see what I like and give them an idea of what I like to read. I love it when two people can rave about the same book. Books have the ability to form friendships and encourage passionate discussions. This is one reason I love them and want to write books of my own (it will be interesting when my own books show up and get rated on Goodreads, which will likely provide a different perspective for me).

But again, how do you rate a book? How can you rate books in the same system when they have nothing in common? I like to branch out and read new things. I’ve recently been reading much more nonfiction. So how do I rate a nonfiction book seemingly in comparison to a book of fiction? If I give them both three stars, does that mean I liked them equally despite having totally different experiences? Usually not. It is just in the moment after finishing the book when I consider if I liked it and how much. I then give the rating. I don’t compare the book to others I have read (with a few exceptions like if the book is better than other in the same series). I don’t think about how that rating may impact the overall rating for that book, which in turn may influence a complete strangers decision to read the book or not. I hope no one (or not many people) actually makes a decision to read a book based on a rating. Books are not kitchen appliances. But ratings do influence opinions and sales.

As with any rating system or criticisms, there are plenty of books people rate highly that I thought were just alright and there are books I love which others didn’t seem to enjoy. Some people love to gripe about anything. I worked in customer service for years and 90% of the interactions where a customer needed my attention as a manager was when they were dissatisfied. Rarely did anyone come up and praise anything or say how much they enjoyed their experience. I don’t think the same necessarily applies to rating books, but we use the same scales for businesses and the internet emboldens those grumpy customers to post one-star ratings on Yelp or Google or whatever they use. Sometimes they will use several so their nasty opinion can do the most damage. Some people just suck.

I use Goodreads and its rating system. But it is strictly for my own purposes. I refuse to be nasty about anything because I don’t need to add to that pile of poison already rotting the internet. I also use Goodreads to keep lists of books I want to read. I could not rate books and still use Goodreads simply to keep lists. Perhaps I may make that change. The program is a tool after all and can be used however you like. Just like any tool, it can be misused by the wielder. I do think Goodreads should authenticate accounts and remove any bots that try to alter ratings with false input. However, I also choose to read books based on my own interests and will not let a simple rating deter me from potentially discovering an amazing book. I will decide for myself if I like it. I am my own person. As are you.