Review: “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton

andromedaThis review is my second review for the Guardian 1000 Books You Must Read challenge. It does not count toward any of the requirements other than the 10 books, since it is also in the Crime section. You can also see all the reviews for this challenge.

In The Andromeda Strain, after a spacecraft crashes to Earth a “biological crisis” ensues and certain Top Secret government protocols are initiated. Can the most brilliant scientists in America prevent disaster?

This book is very short and very easy to read. It only took me three days to blow through it. This is in stark contrast to most of Crichton’s other work that I’ve come into contact with (like, say, Jurassic Park). I think this was mainly an artifact of the abrupt ending; the book could have probably been twice as long as it was, it just sort of ends with a twist instead and leaves you to sort out the pieces.

I was also surprised to find it in the “Crime” section on the list: I would have thought it more science fiction, although I suppose the bulk of the book is CSI-style investigation using fairly realistic science. The only unrealistic science (at least, it seems that way to me) is when Crichton extrapolates the technology he feels the government must have in its secret labs based on what technology was available publicly at the time.

Ths book rubbed me a little bit the wrong way on some things, mainly due to my libertarian sensibilities. Crichton appears to put great confidence in the ability of the government and top scientists in the private community to both make and keep secret scientific discoveries for long periods of time. One such example is a pill that causes all bacteria in your body to die that apparently “cures cancer” though with negative side effects. Another example is the existence of the lab featured in the story itself. I don’t feel the government is competent enough to conceal this kind of information.

Overall this is a book definitely good enough and short enough for everyone to enjoy. The Guardian made a good choice here.


Review: “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

postmortemThis review is my first review for the Guardian 1000 Books You Must Read challenge. It counts as the book I had never heard of and as the book from the Crime section. If I want to finish the challenge, I’d better hurry up!

Postmortem, a mystery by Patricia Cornwell, is a dated but still exciting mystery story set in Richmond Virginia. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of the state of Virginia, as she attempts to assist in solving the case of a serial murderer. Other characters include her precocious niece, a grizzled police officer and several politicians doing their normal political maneuverings.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was its inherent feminism. Though it is not incredibly blatant, many of the main characters are strong-willed and competent women. There are Dr. Scarpetta herself, her niece who is a computer whiz, her sister who writes successful children’s novels, the database tech where she works, an intrepid reporter and the first murdered character who is also a doctor. While I don’t think it would be notable today to have women in all these strong roles, they seemed somewhat anachronistic to me because the novel is set in the late 80’s or early 90’s (as far as I could tell).

Additionally, many of the men in the story (including both initially sympathetic characters and fundamentally evil ones such as the murderer) treat women very badly; as either objects of desire to be manipulated and discarded or lesser beings to be ignored and dismissed. This plays into the stereotype of all men as fundamentally rooted in the patriarchy, another aspect of some branches of feminism.

Another thing that felt anachronistic to me was all the smoking in the book; The main character and most of the people she interacts with smoke and do so in their offices and even in the morgue where she works. This brought me out of the story, although it is of course perfectly expected in the time period in which the book is set (especially in Virginia). It also repelled me from some scenes; it not only brought me out of the story but also made me want to leave the room that the characters were in; even to imagine watching the scene in the smoke-filled room was repellent. This is interesting to me because I don’t have any problem watching movies where people are smoking.

The role that the medical examiner plays in the political system and the fact that Dr. Scarpetta’s office appeared to do multiple autopsies a day reminded me of the recent flap among Libertarian circles about Dr. Stephen Hayne, who performed thousands of autopsies a year in Mississippi and Louisiana and served as an expert witness for the prosecution who was willing to back up whatever claims they wanted him to, which resulted in many false convictions. The book helped accentuate the political power and the responsibility that a medical examiner faces; their mistakes or a lack of ethics can cause great tragedy (such as false imprisonment or even execution of the falsely accused).

Overall, ignoring those anachronisms, it was a well-structured and paced mystery story. While I am somewhat unfamiliar with the genre, certainly seems like it could stand as an archetype. This may be why the Guardian selected it for their list of 1000 Books You Must Read. I am reminded of a post I recently read about the fact that the business model for mystery books could be changed in a technologically advanced world: the first 90% of the book could be free, with a charge necessary only to see the final 10%. I think this book would do well with this business model.

10 Books in 11 Months

booksLast month, I signed up for The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Challenge, which is to read 10 books off of this list before February 1, 2010 and then blog reviews of the books.

I was supposed to start doing this last month, but I have been catching up on some reading that had been lent to me. I’m hoping to be able to start very soon. I know that many of my 5 readers are book people, so I was going to let you all in on the secret too. I’ve already gotten one friend participating. Maybe I can borrow a book or two from one of you (she offered me “Lolita.”)

Anyway, you should check out the list. I compiled a list of the ones that I have read so far; I tweeted about them already but I thought I would share the list with you. If there’s something on the list that you think I absolutely have to read that isn’t listed here, give me a shout! If you’re my Mom, tell me which of the ones on the list you have and I can borrow!

The ones I’ve read:

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Family and Self
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
My Antonia by Willa Cather
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Shining by Stephen King
The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
The Time Machine by HG Wells

State of the Nation
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Animal Farm by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovtich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

War and Travel
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I guess we see where my loyalties lie!

I better get reading.