Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Books I Chose Not to Finish - Part I

Funny how close to shameful this feels. I've made it a point of pride for some time that I focus on one book at a time, poring over the pages endlessly until I've finished. I have so many friends who try to read multiple books at once and I've never been a fan of splitting my attention like that. In my experience, it leaves too many books unfinished and prevents one from fully falling into any individual one among the masses.

But, lo and behold, I've been unable to finish a book for what feels like at least two months. Why? I don't know. Yet I want to give each of these books their due. I hope that I will be inspired to go back to a few of them at some point, but there's no guarantee. For now, they'll each have to be content with a mini-review, as I try to assess where they each went wrong for me.

The Faded Sun Trilogy

Now this was an interesting find. Recommended by a friend, I read Faded Sun at around the same time I was writing my piece on how alien species are treated in different fictional pieces. Faded Sun was one of those that provided three-dimensional aliens with their own different complexities, personalities, and quirks, refusing to hold to a stereotype while still benefiting from the general guidelines behind one. In a style reminiscent of Dune (lots of sand, immense attention to species and setting detail, complex political machinations), I read the first book and then some of the trilogy before I lost steam.

The problem, for me, was twofold. First off, the pacing of the books was often glacial. The author attempts to achieve a tone that is contemplative, wistful, and slow. She succeeds in this in a way that is remarkable and thought-provoking, but unfortunately for me, she succeeded too well. I got to a point where I was anxious for the plot to move in some substantial way, for the ramifications of characters' actions to reach some crescendo, or for, really, somebody to do something that prevented the book from being an effective way for me to fall asleep. I got to the part where the human and the mri are traveling to a new world, and the author decides to undergo a slow process wherein the human is carefully introduced to small details of the mri culture. So, instead of allowing the reader to pass over the flight sequence in favor of advancing the plot, we are held captive, like the human, to a recurrent Mri Culture 101 class that seems unending.

This would have been more permissible if the alien culture were more interesting. Your mileage may vary on this (for those of you who have read it), but I found the mri culture to be more frustrating than fascinating. Here we have a warrior race that has inexplicably managed to survive despite cultural norms and taboos that seem counterproductive to getting along with other species must less existing at all. I gather that we, as the audience, are supposed to be curious by this fact, which encourages us to learn more about them. But, for me, this made me baffled that they could be so consistently foolish and backwards, lessening my tolerance for cultural lessons.

I plan to come back to this at some point since the aliens known as the regul and one of the other human characters were quite compelling (not to mention the writing style itself), but the incredibly restrained pacing made me want to try something else for some time.

Ghost Wars

Ghost Wars is a book that started incredibly strong but then got bogged down very fast. Intended to serve essentially as a detailed history of foreign influence in Afghanistan from 1978 onward, it began with incredible focus. As you read, you get quick back-and-forths between the decisions of the CIA, the off-and-on support of the Pakistanis, and the developments within Afghanistan proper as the Soviets invade in order to retain their influence in the region. There's a lot going on, but the author managed to somehow keep a tight and effective narrative by shining the story spotlight on one individual and event to another.

At least, for a while. Once he introduced the machinations and complexities of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Iraq, so on and so forth, the flow came to a halt. It has been a while since I've actually felt a need to take notes while I read, but I became convinced quite fast that I'd have to if I wanted to keep up. The reader is barraged with an endless cascade of names and is given no indication as to whether these people will be important in the long run of the history or not, leading to an increasingly difficult attempt to keep them all in one's memory banks that is ultimately doomed to failure. Why do I need to care about the particular ideology and nuances of this Saudi Arabian religious organization when the focus is supposed to be on Afghanistan?

I was hooked and then hit a brick wall of details and names that seemed divergent from the overall intention of the book, leading to a loss of interest. Will I return to it? Maybe. But only in hope that the author eventually returns to telling the history in the personal narrative form that was so effective in the beginning.

Go on to Part II

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