The Mansion of Happiness, Shades of Grey, The Dispossessed, Present Shock, Old Man’s War.
Jill Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness is billed as “A History of Life and Death”, which was a bit of an overstatement. It might have been more accurately categorized as a “Selection of New Yorker pieces about Life and Death.” The chapters each take on a topic related to life, birth or death - from breastfeeding to children’s literature to the history of the board game Life. Lepore has expanded and edited many of the pieces since they were originally published, and sometimes there are ties between them, but the book still reads like a collection of New Yorker pieces and not like a book. Overall, I enjoyed the topics covered, but felt that this kind of compilation is not a strong format - it would have been much better to actually weave the themes together in a cohesive way.
Shades of Grey, not to be confused with 50 Shades of Grey, is a dystopian novel by Jasper Fforde. Its set in a world where the there is a strict social hierarchy determined by the percentage of a given color you can see. Of course, all that is based on a pseudoreligious text with a specific set of slightly capricious rules. Like much of Fforde’s other work, the reader is sort of thrown into the deep end of the world without a ton of explanation about why things work the way they do - for example, spoons are super valuable and important, because of some relationship with postal codes that was not entirely clear to me. As long as you can roll with those punches, this book, like Fforde’s Thursday Next series, is an entertaining piece of social criticism, with the added advantage of a solid central mystery.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a piece of classic scifi, complete with alien worlds and incomprehensible physics. The main character is a physicist who is born and raised in a communitarian world and travels to one where things are more capitalistic. The book focuses pretty heavily on theories of government and human nature - and the struggle between the character’s desires and the political structures of the world he is on. There’s a great twist in this book that comes near the end that I don’t want to spoil, but it played heavily on expectations surrounding works like this.
Present Shock was one of my least favorite books I’ve read so far. It’s buzzword heavy, as Rushkoff makes up words like fractalnoia (which he defines somewhere, but is still utterly incomprehensible to me). Moreover, it is occasionally utterly incoherent in its pairings of examples and theoretical assumptions, thin on evidence and heavy on anecdote. In short, I might agree with some of his conclusions, but find the way he gets there odd in the extreme.
Old Man’s War, which I’ve been mentioning in blog posts for weeks, is a genuinely well thought out version of the “Space Marines” idea. The old men in this case are actual old men and women - the army of space marines is made up of the transplanted consciousnesses of senior citizens from earth. Slight spoiler there, but that’s only the beginning. A great new take on an old format, one that makes sense and adds some much needed backstory.